Salmon fishing trip generous…except for the one that got away |

Salmon fishing trip generous…except for the one that got away

“Fish on!”

It seemed the appropriate thing to say as I gave the pole a good yank and began reeling frantically.

But the jerky motion and chaotic tug-of-war with the soft-lipped kokanee netted me no more than a bare hook, devoid of the kernel of white corn I had dropped 75 feet down into the cold, dark waters of Lake Tahoe.

I don’t know who was at more of a disadvantage. I was out on my first sportfishing charter, trying to learn all there is to know about bait dunking in four hours. But we had all the high-tech equipment, the sonars, outriggers, downriggers and poles we could carry, plus a few seasoned fishermen on board. We were with guys who fish from sunup to sundown and never call it a day before there’s a fish in the holding tank. These are guys who lather on sunblock the way most people breathe or blink – with no thought or effort. I’d say that put the odds on my side. The bare hook said otherwise.

And so goes the story of the one that got away.

A short critique of the incident revealed my mistakes. Too heavy on the initial yank, for starters. Then there was the frenzied cranking motion.

“You don’t want to yank it back and reel a thousand miles per hour,” instructed Capt. John Shearer, owner of Tahoe Sportfishing. “Kokanee salmon have very soft flesh. If you do go a thousand miles per hour you’ll come up with nothing but fish lips, and those are no good. They fall through the barbecue and they’re real tough.”

Capt. John has a knack for adding humor to what is clearly a serious lesson in bringing ’em in. Tahoe Sportfishing boasts a 50 percent land ratio, meaning about half of the kokanee that get hooked make it onto the boat, but there are no guarantees that everyone will catch fish.

“We don’t even guarantee that we’ll make it back, but we haven’t lost a boat in over a week,” Capt. John says with a sly grin.

The captain explains that kokanee are more difficult to land than most fish because of their tender flesh.

The trip started on the dock at Ski Run Marina, where the Prophet, a 45-foot Delta was being loaded down with ice-cold bottled water, soft drinks and beer. The 10 of us were helped aboard by the deckhands, Blair Clark and Justin Knovlauch, and greeted by Capt. John, who immediately began a brief introduction.

“We’ll be heading out to West Shore, starting at Camp Rich and moving down to Rubicon. We’re likely to catch salmon, maybe big mac,” he said. The midday charter started at 11:30 a.m., close to lunchtime, so a Big Mac sounded like a good catch. I wondered about that for a minute and realized that mac meant mackinaw, or lake trout. I went for the tuna sandwich I had packed earlier that morning.

We cruised at about 25 mph toward the west side of the lake, feeling the spray of water curl up along the sides of the boat. I headed to the bow where the wind whipped my hair and made my eyes water. Back to the stern.

A 10-minute trip landed us just offshore from Camp Richardson Resort where the beach looked deserted despite the ideal conditions. We got another short round of instruction.

“The key is tension on the tip. The tip of the pole is the only shock absorber you have,” Capt. John said. “You’ll lose some, but that’s why they call it fishing.”

Meanwhile, Knovlauch and Clark baited hooks with white corn.

“Using white corn with lures is an old trick for kokanee salmon,” the captain said. “You can use maggots, too, but we’re all out.”

The lines were dropped.

It was only minutes before the rookie of rookies, 8-year-old Sammy from Napa, Calif., snagged the first fish of the day. Capt. John and the deckhands assisted, and it was a good thing because Sammy was having a hard time deciding whether he really wanted to drop his candy to manipulate the pole. He finally let go of the lollipop and pulled his first catch ever out of the fresh waters of Lake Tahoe. We all hollered and clapped, then watched as he lifted his fish up from under its gills and posed for a picture – a pro.

Back to fishing.

I checked my bait. It was gone. Deckhand Clark helped me rig up my line, noticed that the treble hook was slightly bent and fished out a new one.

“If the hook’s not perfect we throw it out. For the few cents it costs to replace a hook, we’re not going to lose a fish over it.”

By now, the beers were cracking open almost rhythmically, and the fish began leaping into the boat, or so it seemed. We had hit a school, and with 10 lines set at staggered depths, we clearly had the advantage.

Young Sammy caught the second fish of the day. His dad, Mike, told us he was taking Sammy to the casinos later that evening. “The kid’s lucky.”

We didn’t rub him for good luck. The luck seemed to rub off on us. In three hours we had pulled 11 salmon out of the lake. Deckhand Knovlauch noted that there had been 23 hits. We were right on track with the 50 percent kokanee land ratio. I’m told the early-morning cruise brings in an even more abundant stringer, and I can’t wait to sip coffee on the deck of the Prophet some frigid morning and test the theory. Despite the sun being well past its midday location, we were doing quite well.

Capt. John relaxed, pulled up a seat on the holding tank and told us that the largest fish caught from one of his boats weighed in at 26 pounds. But don’t ask him how sweet was the taste of that victory. He doesn’t eat fish.

“I’m a meat-and-potatoes boy,” he told us.

Capt. John started as a deckhand with Tahoe Sportfishing in 1989 working for the company’s founder, Dean Lockwood. He earned a captain’s license and took over the business in 1997. Fourteen years at the lake, Capt. John says he’s home.

“I’m from Arizona, I grew up in Michigan. I knew I didn’t want to live in the desert.”

So now he enjoys a life of boating and fishing. Does it get any better? Sure, if you like sleeping past 3 in the morning.

“We run seven days a week, every day of the year and we leave at 5 a.m.,” he says.

My line began bobbing. “Fish on!” I called, reaching for my pole.

“OK, bring it in slow and easy,” the captain said. He leaned over and quietly asked if I wanted to give this one to Mike to bring in.

Everyone gets a fair chance at pulling a fish out of the water. Mike from Hemet, Calif., was the last fisherman without a trophy. I had two in the tank and my husband had two more, so I gave it to Mike and Mike gave it back to the water.

Better luck next time.

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