Fish On

by jkatejohnston

10 November 2013

Dear Max,

Yesterday we went to the Nimbus dam to see the Chinook coming up the fish ladder. These were hatchery fish returning to the hatchery. But you can’t take the wild out of a salmon. Even though they’re pretty beat up by that time, at the end of their great migration, they still jump all the way out of the water, this flash of brilliant power.

The fish ladder was closed. The hatchery can only take so many at a time. And the big salmon were crowded at the lowered gate, hurling themselves into the air and against the metal bars. A few had gotten over it, though it must have been four or five feet high. And the rest were battering it. Some part of me wanted to call out to them—What’s the point? Don’t you know you’re just going to die up there? Why not swim around leisurely and enjoy life while you can? But that’s not the salmon way.

Downstream from the hatchery and the fish ladder, the river was all alive with fish. There’s a sort of artificial waterfall about four feet high, all across the width of the river, and the salmon were jumping it. Downstream from that, great schools of them crowded together. We followed a path down to the water’s edge. Water from a settling pond was flowing through gravel making a mostly-underground stream that flowed out onto the rocks for a few feet and into the river. A school of salmon was trying to swim against the current of that little stream—a dead end. A few of them swam almost right out onto the gravel and then slid back into the deeper water. A ranger passing by with a tour group remarked, they’re not exactly rocket scientists.

We found salmon eggs glistening on the rocks about two feet from the water. How did they get there?


This morning around six:

Enzo: “Kaate!”

Me: “It’s not time to get up. Ten minutes.”

Enzo: “Okay. I’m counting.” I stay on the couch in the living room trying to finish what I’m supposed to be writing. I hear him counting to sixty as fast as he can. After four rounds of this, as he gets to fifty-niiiiiine, sixty, I get him up. We’re going fishing today.

Enzo: “I’m going after salmon. And it’s personal.” He also said at one point “I will be relying on sonar to guide me—not on instinct—instinct is definitely the worst way.”

Teresa said that if he doesn’t catch one, we’re going to have to kill him.


Driving to the boat launch, out early so that everything familiar looks a little different. Enzo says he wants to race me to see, once and for all, who’s faster. I say that I would need to warm up and stretch first and wear a special outfit to be as fast as possible.

“There’s only one thing missing in your plan. Skinny jeans.”

Out on the water by eight o’clock. Another sweet fall day, but it’s still cold when we get in the boat. Jesse says we might as well eat the donuts right away before our hands get all sardine-y. Donuts, cold whole milk, smoked salmon that Jesse caught a couple of weekends ago, Pink Lady apples, my favorite. The sun’s well up now, shining in and through a stand of yellow cottonwoods on the bank.

Enzo: “What’s healthier, donuts or Doritos?”

I tell Jesse about seeing the salmon at the hatchery, how they hurled themselves against the gate when the fish ladder was closed, that incredible instinct, and all just so they can spawn and die.

“They don’t have a mind that doubts everything,” Jesse says.

Jesse hooks a couple of stripers and helps Enzo reel them in. We learn the expression, “Fish On!” Then we start trolling for salmon. We see some jump. We see fish on the sonar. Time passes in a different way. Up and back, trolling the area where Jesse caught the salmon before. Enzo gets out his tackle box and makes these cocktail-like combinations—a mouse-tail, some bright pink fish-smelling marshmallowy things, a glittery green plastic lure—all on a big sharp hook. “What fish could resist that?” Up and back, up and back. We try jigging. But we don’t catch a salmon this time.