SKREEANT! SKREEANT! SKREEANT!
A series of horrific screeches pierce the silent evening. My heart rate’s suddenly gone from 0 to 100 mph in just under a nanosecond and I jolt upright, trying to figure out where the terrible sounds are coming from.
SKREEANT! SKREEANT! SKREEANT!
It takes me a bewildered moment or two before I realize that it’s my alarm clock. It’s hard to believe that this little white plastic contraption — no bigger than a Kleenex box — can produce such an atrocious noise. I pound on the snooze bar with a closed fist, hoping to smash it into oblivion and then I fall back to sleep.
My back-up alarm clock radio wakes me up to Bruce Springsting’s I’m on Fire.
It feels like somebody took a knife, baby, edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my skull…
How’d you know, Bruce?
I reluctantly crawl from my warm nest, somehow get dressed and then choke down some breakfast. It just doesn’t seem right to be eating breakfast at this hour…It doesn’t seem right to be doing anything at this hour that doesn’t involve a pillow and a Posturepedic.
I’m a zombie as I head to the garage to load the boat. The dusty fluorescent lights burn my eyes so I feel my way around blind. I’m currently going on 34 straight days of this and there’s a very real possibility I’ll fall asleep while standing. My brain’s running on reserve power and there’s also a pretty good chance I’ll forget something important…like the time I showed up to meet my clients without any rods in the boat or the time I totally forgot my plug box.
I’m driving the deserted streets of downtown with the boat in tow. Though I loathe getting up early, I do enjoy the lonely calm of the city when all but one of its inhabitants are soundly sleeping in their warm beds. On the way to the meeting place, a solid hour’s drive north of here, the darkness is broken only the porch lights of small farmhouses and the ghostly flicker of a jackrabbit momentarily bathed in headlights as it dashes across the highway. Occasionally, a vehicle passes by, heading the opposite direction, and I wonder where that person is going, and more importantly at this hour, why? Some unknown AM radio talk show host from Denver is keeping me awake by telling me all about the virtues of voting Libertarian.
In a dark and seedy convenience store parking lot in a dumpy little town, I feel like a drug dealer as I sit in my truck and wait for my clients to arrive. I probably don’t look as suspicious as I feel, however, considering I have a boat hitched to my truck, but if asked, it may be hard to explain the white powder I’m coated in after eating a pack of those little Hostess doughnuts in an attempt to stay awake. And then there’s than Zip-Loc of Borax under the seat in the boat…
After the 26-mile drive from the rendezvous to the launch, we pull off onto a long, washboard dirt road. We’re close to the river now and I get that first twinge of excitement. It’s the daily confirmation that I still love my job. The morning I don’t feel excited about the fishing portion of the day will be a sign that it’s time to move on to another occupation. Because, as any guide can attest, there are easier ways to make a living. If you don’t enjoy what you do in this game, you’re done.
We’re sitting in the boat and I’m wrapping Kwikfish with a flashlight in my mouth. A fierce squadron of mosquitoes is bombarding us and I try not to look down at my bare legs, for the sight of 50 of the vermin sucking away at once is just too much to handle. Soon, the dark, star-filled sky gives way to a pink dawn and a big, silvery king jumps along the far bank. Then another. And another. The first flock of southward-bound geese passes overhead and a formation of mergansers zips upstream. Every morning at this time, the fog in my brain lifts — the excitement and promise of another day on the water is like a double dose of intravenous espresso.
The lines are in the water and everybody’s watching the tips of their rods with great anticipation. A rod goes down but the guy sets the hook too quickly and the fish goes away. Moments later, we get another takedown and the fight is on.A great battle ensues but ends in frustration when the line pops. Later, I find out that he (in spite of my very clear pre-game instructions not to mess with the drag settings) cranked the drag down because “there was too much line coming off the reel.”
Okay, so it’s going to be one of those days…
One of the things you quickly learn to deal with in this job is being able to let go of frustration. It’s kinda the “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” type of deal. Through careful preparation, great bait, good boat control and experience, you can put clients onto fish but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a full box. Trust me, clients have lots of ways to cracker off a fish. Just when I feel like I want to slap somebody upside the head for losing yet another one, I remind myself that there is a reason they’re fishing with me and aren’t out here doing it themselves.
The thing that the clients don’t realize is that when they lose a fish, I suffer the most. I know there will be another one, but every time we lose one, I take it very personally. I guess it’s a pride thing. I just very much want my people to get their fish and have a great day.
Despite the throngs of bankies who’ve got just about every good hole korked off and the sizable flotilla of boats, we’ve got six kings in the hopper and have lost another three.As the morning drags on, the bites become more sporadic – this is when a good guide really earns his keep. It’s almost like you’re on stage: you have to entertain. With a mix of jokes, stories and tales of trips past, I keep team morale up between grabs. The secret to being good at this gig is what you do between bites.
All the while, I continue the never-ending process of baiting the crew up with fresh chunks of roe and slowly back down through the holes, looking for biters — those lovable salmon that, for some strange reason, feel the urge to swallow a bait though they’re technically programmed not to. We get a snag and break off an $8 bait diver rig. I pull over to shore and tie another one on. The next pass, we miss a good bite…another arrow through my heart. Though it’s nobody’s fault, it pains me to work so hard to finally get a willing fish to grab and then not get it into the boat.
With a noxious combination of roe sludge and fish slime coating my hands, I power down a rather fishy-tasting sandwich during a slow part of the day. The afternoon heat is starting to make me sweat and the sunscreen I applied to my forehead is now protecting my eyeballs from UV rays. I’m starting to get tired and it’s getting tougher and tougher to focus on fishing. Right now, I’d pay a million bucks for a shower and a nap in a cool, dark room.
We luck into a fresh pod of chromers just moving into the area and pick off two of them in short order to fill our limits. No quick sets, no messing with the drag – everything goes as it’s supposed to and we’re on our way back upriver, headed for the barn.
The boat’s pulled up on a sandbar and my group of customers is standing around drinking cold beers and happily watching me fillet their catch. As I slice up the fish, they recount each battle and I can already hear the stories starting to build. With the cleaned carcasses safely tossed into the river, nobody at home will be able to dispute the fact that the salmon were all 50 pounds.
All the fillets are bagged and on ice, the boat’s on the trailer. We say our good-byes and shake hands and I send my group of anglers on their way home.I hang around and remove the leaders from the rods, put everything away and get the boat ready for travel.
I’m somewhere about 35 miles north of home and my head’s bobbing. It’s amazing to me that the urge to sleep is so irresistible that it overwhelms the signals from the brain that are saying: to stay alive, you must stay awake. I pull over and promptly fall asleep in the drive-thru line of a fast food joint.
May I take your order…
Startled, I come back to life, order some grub and get back on the road. Fueled up with sodium, cholesterol and caffeine, I’m feeling a lot better. Now, my lonely stretch of pavement is busy with commuter traffic and big rigs. This dark corridor I passed through nearly 12 hours ago has dramatically changed in the light. Orchards and rice fields pass in a green and brown blur and, on the horizon, I spot the hazy shapes of a handful of tall buildings guiding me home. From a distance, the city seems so small, so insignificant. But soon I’m the one feeling small as I sit in a traffic jam, buildings towering overhead and a million people rushing around.
Finally home, I’m dog tired. Sometimes, I take a nap in the driveway without even getting out of the truck. This time, however, I still have enough energy to get out and start scrubbing the boat. The floor and insides are a mess, covered in a baked-on mix of the same roe and fish concoction that’s on me. I spend an hour and a half washing everything down and then park her in the garage for the night. At least somebody gets to go to bed now!
I’ve got bait to cure, leaders to tie and sardines to defrost. In addition, bait for tomorrow has to be cut, there’s a rod tip that needs fixing and two reels that require fresh line. When I wrap that up, I grease up my trailer bearings and procrastinate one more day on changing the oil in my kicker motor.
I finally come in for dinner and a shower. After hanging out with the family, I head for the office. Here’s where my other job begins – I’ve got 7 phone messages from clients and 13 emails to respond to. There are thank-you letters to be written and contracts to be sent to future clients. The fishing report on my webpage needs an update and I email a couple photos of clients to the local fishing rag.
A quick trip to the gas station to fill up for the morning run is next on the docket. I’m feeling like I could easily fall asleep standing up and the gas pump seems to be extraordinarily slow tonight. I barely make it home from the station and head for bed.
Oh, yes…bed! It’s the absolute best thing I’ve ever felt. I lie down and feel my body giving in to the urge that’s been nagging me for so long. Just as I approach the cusp of falling into a deep sleep, I start to recount the day’s events. Then, I plot my strategy for tomorrow.
Should I start upriver or immediately head down and work my way back up? Maybe I shouldn’t stick with the plugs as long tomorrow. Hope I get some guys who don’t mess with the drag…
Running on fumes for the past 8 hours, my brain is somehow kicking on all cylinders now and I’m wide freakin’awake. I’m in clock watching mode and every time the digital number on the right changes, I get more angry. Eventually, exhaustion takes over and I fall into a heavy, dead tree-like slumber.
SKREEANT! SKREEANT! SKREEANT!