Jumping aboard an ocean salmon trolling boat seemed like a great idea, right up until I found out what time the skipper wanted to leave - three in the morning. I like fishing as much as anyone, but I prefer the genteel feel of a late afternoon hatch on a fly stream.
I normally go to sleep around 11 p.m. The night before our trip, I tried hitting the sack early, but tossed and turned until I got up at 12:30am to meet photographer Scott Williams at KGW for our drive to the coast.
It's just not natural to get on a boat while the stars are out. But at least there were stars. Fishermen like Bob Browning spend their lives heading out to sea a three and earlier, regardless of the weather. They often work alone on their boats, three or more miles off the coastline, hunting millions of dollars worth of salmon and crab.
Williams and I stepped aboard Browning's boat, the WB, at 3:15 in the morning. We were late. Dang it! Browning waited patiently for us to get settled.
His boat is a 38-foot-tall aluminum crab boat, modified for salmon trolling.
After a quick briefing that included how to put on a survival suit, we were off, motoring through the darkness on our way out of Garibaldi to the Pacific Ocean.
A troller is a working boat. The steering and compact cabin are squeezed up front while the middle and back of the boat for work.
The WB has a covered wheel house in front where the fisherman can steer and also monitor his computerized GPS navigation system - and grab a sip of coffee. A small windshield with several squares of glass allows Browning to see what's ahead. He flips a short, silver handled windshield wiper blade back and forth by hand. It clears off rain or spray from the waves. In front and below the windshield and steering wheel, Browning's boat has two bunks with sleeping bags.
There is no bathroom. It helps to be a guy on this boat.
On our way toward the bar, Browning stands outside, on a stair along the back wall of the wheel house. It raises his chin above the roof so he can see where he’s going. A second steering wheel and set of throttles allows him to drive inside or out. Two halogen lights on poles high above the deck point down and light the area.
For experienced fishermen like Browning, this is the easy part. He puts on an inflatable life jacket, then climbs on top of the cabin, works the ropes and lowers the tall spreaders that stick out to either side on a troller.
After a moment he's set and he pushes the throttles forward. It's strange cruising out of the bay and toward the Tillamook Bar, in nearly complete darkness.
This morning, we are lucky. The winds are calm, the sea is too. He tells us that, some days, the waves and spray are breaking over the top of the wheel house. But even calm water is tricky on the ocean. The WB pitches front and back and side to side as various waves roll under us again and again. Browning doesn't seem to notice and moves quickly about the boat preparing his lures and lowering lines. Scott and I shuffle from rail to rail, always trying to hold something to keep from falling over.
Soon, Browning has 40 lures in the water as we troll northward on auto pilot. He scans the horizon looking for birds on the water. In these days of high tech equipment, it is amazing to learn that fishermen use something so simple to find fish. If the birds are on the water feeding, goes the reasoning, there must be something pushing the feed to the surface.
That something is salmon.
Browning stands at the back of the boat with rubber boots, orange chest waders a sweatshirt and ball cap. His back is to the water and the fishing lines. Instead he's looking up at first the right, then the left spring at the top of the spreader.
The springs are attached to fishing cables that taken deep below the boat by a huge lead weight. Browning watches, getting to know the movement of the spring in the normal ocean swells. Now he can tell when the movement is not normal.
Suddenly he says: 'Oh, got a fish on that wire!'
He hits a lever on the down rigger and it slowly begins winding up the narrow fishing wire. As it comes out of the water, Browning stands hunched over the back of the boat watching for lures he attached to the wire on its way down.
Now he grabs the connector of a line without a fish, quickly clips the end to his plastic bait box on the back of the boat, then gathers in the line and lure. He repeats this a dozen times or more. Finally, the lure with the salmon appears. We can see the fish twenty or thirty feet behind the boat, fighting.
Browning has leather gloves on. He grabs the connector from the fishing cable, and pulls in the salmon, hand over hand until it's near the back of the boat. Then with one quick move he lifts and swings the fish over the back and onto the deck of the WB. After measuring to make sure its big enough, he cracks in on the head with a club, rips out a gill and tosses it in a holding tank.
The process is not meant to be cruel, but Browning wants the salmon to bleed as it dies, that preserves the meat and makes the fish more desirable at the market place.
Soon the water in the holding tank is dark red. Later he'll clean the fish, checking its stomach to see if it's full of food or empty. It's empty. That’s a good sign for fishermen. The salmon are not done eating, they're just beginning.
Browning winds the entire fishing wire up to make sure there are no other fish on the line. Then he reverses the process, clipping the lures back on as the line goes down.
Watching him, I am amazed at his speed, strength and balance. I'm also surprised by the apparent danger. Many days, Browning works by himself.
There are no safety harnesses, no kill switches for the engine should he lose his balance and fall over the back of the boat. He does have two floats roughly 20 yards behind the boat, which he says he would swim to in an emergency, then pull himself back into the boat hand over hand.
I pointed out that even my treadmill has a kill switch. He was not impressed.
I guess that's part of the mind set. If you're worried about falling off the boat, you probably shouldn't be out there.
These fishermen follow the salmon and crab through some of the nastiest weather in the world. It's dangerous. But for the few who do it right there is big money to be had over a short time. With the price at seven dollars a pound and an average salmon weighing ten pounds a fisherman who catches his four-day limit of 80 fish will earn $5,600.00
Browning warns that, out of that, fishermen must pay for fuel and insurance and boat payments and upkeep. But the numbers do look impressive.
The challenge is making it more than a few weeks in a row.
But Browning is hopeful that his industry and livelihood will continue on the sea.
Browning says: 'If we work together enough we can keep this going, forever. If we don't over fish it or over pollute it or kill 'em in the river before they get here.'
Weather and other challenges have kept Browning off the water all but one day since May 15th, when I fished with him. He caught nine salmon on that day.
The next day, with winds blowing 30 miles an hour, Browning and the most of the rest of the fleet stayed home.