In every fishery, across all gear types and target species, there is a shared moment of truth. You’ve placed your bet – selected the spot, set your gear, waited – and now watch with anxious eyes as the line ascends. What will emerge? Experienced trollers can tell by the knock who’s at the door – the chinook’s heavy hammering so different from a coho’s feverish tap – yet still there remains the possibility of the unknown. Wire spools gently back onto the gurdy, spitting salty rainbow droplets. I rest a gloved hand against braided steel threads, as if to meet the salmon by Braille. Coiling each spread back into the boat, I’m tugging a link to another realm, an underworld I depend on yet will never visit. Studying the wide white eye painted onto a blue hoochie, I wonder what it saw.
The wire lunges beneath my hand. An invisible presence balks, dives hard. I snap from philosophical to focused, a Pavlovian response to the schnick of line slicing water. My muscles are taut yet fluid, each movement deliberate. Eyes narrow. Everything around me fades – the glaciers far in the east, the Aquila tacking by the port, Joel running his own line; they’re all gone. The world constricts to this moment, this fish, and me.
I stop the gurdy without taking my eyes off the shadow swimming just below the surface. “Swimming” doesn’t do her justice; I could spend the rest of my life searching for the right words to describe the kinesthetic concert that is a salmon moving through the sea. Unclipping the spread, I begin coaxing her toward the boat. Her tail flexes. I croon sweet nothings as she moseys along with us, as if she and the Nerka travel the same highway, cruising parallel lanes bound for the same destination. As if she isn’t being led by my deadly tether.
If Joel is the Nerka’s salmon charmer, I am a fish whisperer. All the chatter I don’t use in human conversation floods forth, an apologetic stream of consciousness prattle. “C’mon in, lovey, there you go. Oh, you are beautiful, sweetie. I’m so sorry.” Unlike Joel, who find such apologies disingenuous, I can’t bite back my regrets – even as I lean to grab my gaff.
The salmon rolls on her side. Silver scales become gems in morning light – rose quartz, black jasper, jade. I promise her this will be quick. With the line tight in my left hand and a precarious belly-to-rail pose, I raise the gaff in my right. Our eyes lock. Meeting her golden gaze, I think how few people will ever know how beautiful a salmon’s eyes are. Then I lower the gaff.
She shudders, scales rippling as if spilled from a jeweler’s velvet bag. Twirling the gaff like a baton, I am careful not to pierce the meat of her body, driving that wicked spike through her cheek, through tissue and cartilage and brain. I pluck her out of her universe, into ours.
She hits the deck with a kersplat. I can bonk, conk, kersplat my way through the season, knowing death by comic book sound effects. What troubles me most is this, the landing of a fish. Landing: the very verb hails her new world. Tens of thousands of times I’ve caused this conversion, and still I wonder how a creature who’s never known gravity, never known the touch of anything firmer than the whisper of kelp against her body, comprehends the unyielding deck.
There is only one kindness. Wrapping both hands around the gaff, all my weight goes into the final blow.
Fwhap! There’s a matching slap on the port side, as Joel lands his fish with a whoop. “Two! Oh man, that’s a relief, getting the skunk off the deck. There’s at least a couple here!
“Yeah, that’s good.” And it is good. Unlike Joel, with his uncomplicated delight, I have to remind myself that this is what it looks like, what it means, for people to eat wild fish. The unmistakable new penny scent of king salmon is heavy as I slide steel beneath gill plate, slicing feathery tissue so unlike my own lungs. We die the same, in crimson bursts from busted pipes. Blood pools around her body as I trace a finger down the amethyst lateral line, feeling regret for those who will know salmon only as plastic-wrapped portions. Already her color fades like a dream. My orange glove leaves a trail of flat aluminum.
“Thank you.” I say this knowing it doesn’t matter. Speaking gently to salmon in the water, thanking them in the boat: these are rituals ridiculous to many of my colleagues, and to me, too, sometimes. This fish is dead by my hand. Many more will follow. Yet I want to honor every one as other salmon worshippers, indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and Japan, have for centuries. Even as we make our living taking these lives, I want to always understand a salmon’s value is far greater than its price per pound. Salmon are more than a commodity; they are silver-robed ambassadors of home and hope, risk and return. They are ancestors shared across cultures, linking sea and land; the matchmaking elders who bring so many of us together. They are gods creating and sustaining us, one fish at a time.