Our Outdoors: Down in Flames

By Nick Simonson

“When we get one on, it’s a Chinese fire drill,” my buddy John explained with a laugh as we motored out along Garrison Dam on the south end of Lake Sakakawea in search of the chinook salmon which are stocked annually in the reservoir and provide a unique, cold-water fishery that fires up in late summer as fish feed before their spawning instincts take over in fall.

Right out of the launch on my first expedition, in a learn-by-doing session, John explained how to rig up and clip the flashers and hoochie rigs – squid-shaped plastics threaded over snelled hooks – from the rods to the downrigger balls, before detailing the organized chaos of the process after a rod pops from the downrigger clip when a salmon strikes the plastic baits trolled through the depths between 85 and 60 feet below the boat.
“You want to reel down, thumb the line and whip the rod back,” he demonstrated, “that’ll either pop the hook out of the downrigger clip if it didn’t go, or it’ll set the hook,” he explained, before walking through the step-by-step process he’d undertake in reeling up the adjacent line, cranking in the downrigger ball, and readying to land the fish.

With the process in mind when the first jingling bell of the morning sounded with the snap of the rod tip, I approached the shaking combo in the downrigger’s rod holder with surprising calm, cranked the slack out of the line and thumbed the bail.  I whipped the rod tip into the air.  Nothing.  The rod pulsed and bent back down toward the water.  On John’s command, I ripped it upward again.  Nada.  I could feel shaking below as he came around and grabbed the other rod from the second holder, and in an effort to clear the line field behind the boat, ripped it upward and began cranking.

In that instant, my line broke free from the downrigger and it began shaking and winding out to the side of the boat.  As I gained on the fish below, multiple wraps of the adjacent rod’s line came up wrapped around mine, and John and I struggled to put logic as to what was going on.  Cranking on the baitcaster, I made gains on the fish below and it easily made its way up to the surface, despite the twisted mess of mono that coated the line which tethered me to the chinook salmon that had become visible in the clear water of the lake’s deep southern end.  We tried to figure out what exactly had happened and if the fish just a few feet off to the side of the boat could be landed.

As we did, or perhaps at some as-yet-unidentified part of the battle before our brief discussion about what to do next, the fish became wrapped around the last of the downrigger cable in the water and the blue-white monofilament of my rod clearly decorated the brown metal string like an aquatic barber pole. Twisted, tangled and with few options remaining, John’s wife Monica and I urged him to try to net the fish that listlessly kept up with the boat, its spotted back slowly undulating in parallel with the hum of the kicker motor.  This salmon’s swimming motion gave no hint to the energy that remained in its eight-to-ten-pound body, which admittedly during the battle I more than once thought of slow-cooking over the flames of the grill in pink slabs under butter and herbs wrapped in tinfoil.

Knowing better, and voicing his dissent to our urgings, John slowly lowered the net toward the fish, but the disruption of the surface sent the chinook sprinting and the line sliced clean on the metal downrigger cabling. The fish disappeared and we all shouted our disappointment in unison before we reeled everything up and the three of us re-set the rods for the rest of the trip, replaying what went wrong and how it all happened.

While the rod would go one more time during our day on the water, the salmon that got away would be the only positive hookset in our time on the water.  However, just seeing the fish – so close I could count its spots, and so near to hand I could almost taste it – was enough to hook me on the experience of salmon fishing in the middle of the upper Midwest. The trip and the fish lost had lit a flame in me that began to burn, unextinguished by our rendition of the fire drill.

As we docked, John suggested there’d be more opportunities to put it out and put a salmon on the board, but he warned that there was a greater likelihood that the more water I employed to accomplish such a goal would only serve to fan the flames…in our outdoors.


Featured Photo: Trolling rods bend to the weight of a downrigger ball on a Lake Sakakawea salmon trip. Simonson Photo. 

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