Rain, mixed with occasional flakes of snow, fell steadily. A sea gull, with one gimpy
leg, plopped down on the water and cocked one quizzically eye in my direction, as if to say,
“Idiot. It’s too early for king salmon. Do you really expect to catch anything?” I tossed it
a piece of herring. The bird followed me for hours, flying, then landing, flying to catch up,
then landing to beg.
I had no way to steer from inside the cabin, so was forced to sit in the stern in the icy
rain. Even dressed in wool underwear, two layers of pants, rubber boots and oilskins, with
an oilskin hat, I began to shiver. To warm my fingers I’d reach around the engine and hold
them under the warm discharge water. Heavy, wet snow clung to the dark green forests
along the shores. Mountains on Gravina, Annette and Revilla Islands were white with snow
down almost to the water’s edge. Having been a logger and trapper, I was used to cold, wet
weather, but the maritime climate, and inactivity, chilled me to the bone. I stood up and
beat my arms against my body until the chill left.
Noon came. I’d finished lunch hours ago. I drank the last sip of tepid, bitter restaurant
coffee and ate some soggy pastry. The hours dragged on. The purring of the outboard
and roll of the boat had a lulling effect. Occasionally I’d drop off to sleep for a few minutes,
then jerk awake and discover my boat was going in circles. Two o’clock came. I was
tempted to head for town and catch a nap before dinner.
A large swell began rolling in from Clarence Straits. Slightly sick from the roll of the
boat, bored, sleepy and tired, I was thoroughly disgusted with salmon fishing and ready to
call it a day. A southwest squall blew wet snow flurries against my cheeks. Water crept slowly
down beneath my coat collar, into my woolen underwear and down between my shoulder
Desperate, I switched back to the spoon. I’d been trolling steadily for nine hours, was
pointed east, and had made up my mind when I drew abeam of Blank Island Light I’d quit.
Half a mile from the light something grabbed the spoon. The pole dipped until the tip was
nearly in the water. Snagged bottom, I thought. I backed up and began reeling in line. If
it was bottom, it was jerking. Probably a halibut. I backed off the star drag and line began
to disappear off the reel with a whir, whir, whir. The angle of the line indicated whatever
was on the other end was coming towards the surface. Hey! Halibut don’t surface, at least
the few I’d caught didn’t. Excitement began to build as the line angle flattened.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, something huge and silvery leaped twenty yards
behind the boat, then splashed back into the sea with a shower of spray and bubbles! It was
no halibut! The icy rain suddenly wasn’t cold any more. The pitching of the boat seemed
perfectly normal and the wind was only a breath of fresh air. I had finally hooked into a
salmon! A giant salmon.
Whooping and yelling, I anxiously watched line disappear from my reel at a lively clip.
The fish was full of fight. The tip of my heavy, fiberglass trolling rod bent and writhed like
a willow in a windstorm. First the line pointed straight down, then off to one side or the
other. The wire zipped through the water with a sound like bacon sizzling. At this rate I’d
soon be out of wire, so I squeezed down on the star drag of the Penn 149 reel as much as I
dared. Finally the almost bare spool convinced me I better do something. But what? I started
the motor and pursued the fish.
With the rod butt goring into my stomach and one hand on the tiller, I steered towards
where I thought the fish was. I began sweating—- instead of freezing. The fish made several
long dashes to the four winds, then dived again. I shifted the outboard into neutral and
watched helplessly as the remaining line tore through the guides with a discomforting,
whrrrr, whrrr. Then the line went slack!
I collapsed onto the seat. Exactly what had gone wrong? Dejected, I began to wind
in. Suddenly the salmon broke the surface only twenty feet from the boat. It shook its head,
then fell back with a splash. It leaped again, and made a long, spectacular rush along the
surface, shaking its head angrily, like a rat terrier shaking a snake. The spoon dangled from
the fish’s mouth.
Bright seawater and frothy foam flew. Although the fish was ten yards away, its glistening,
silver-bright sides and the rainbow hue along the upper back, characteristics of only
a king, left a lasting impression. Ignorant though I was about salmon, there was no doubt
this fish was huge. My heart thumped in my chest and my breath came in spurts and gasps
as I fought this magnificent creature. My whoops should have been heard eight miles away
Suddenly the anguish of going into debt and learning how to operate the new outboard
and scheming how to tie gear evaporated. Hooking into this first salmon seemed to justify
the outrageous expenses.
After several more jumps the salmon made another dive towards the bottom. The extra
line accumulated on the reel disappeared at an alarming rate until only a few raps were left
on the spool. Heart racing, I waited, expecting the line to part. The line went slack and
I watched intently through eyes reddened by the cold wind. Snot hung from my cold
nose in long streamers. Not daring to take either hand off the rod and reel I blew it away as
best I could. I waited impatiently for any indication that the salmon was still on the hook.
The boat drifted away in the rising wind. I started up the motor and steered directly over
the line, reeling in all the while. The line grew taunt, but refused to give.
Had the fish shook the hook? Or dived to the bottom and fouled the hook or line on
a piece of rock or coral? As fishermen have done for countless centuries I tried to plumb the
depths. What was happening down in that mysterious world, forty fathoms below the surface?
I strained against the wire line, cursing my luck, turning the boat this way and that in
an effort to recover more line. Confident the line was hung up on bottom, I tightened the
star drag as tight as I could twist it, then tried to break the line.
Suddenly, the line went slack. I reeled in, expecting to find the bitter end of the wire.
But no, the battle was on again! Perhaps the salmon had dived to the bottom and had hung
the line up on a reef. Maybe moving the boat around had worked it loose. The fish made a
few surges, then began moving steadily out towards Dall Head and the open sea. Steering
into the swells, I followed. The farther down Nichols Passage I went, the higher the seas
became. One mile, two miles, the big salmon and I had been connected by this thin umbilical
cord of steel wire for what seemed like hours.
I began pondering exactly how big this salmon actually was. Around Ketchikan,
Salmon Capitol of the World in those days, a king salmon under 40 pounds was hardly
worth mentioning. To even place in the Ketchikan Salmon Derby you needed a fish weighing
over 35 pounds. The main event, Derby Days, was weeks away. There was also a weekly
and seasonal prize for the largest fish of the year.
After buying the motor, boat and gear I decided to postpone buying a Derby ticket.
It suddenly occurred to me that this fish might be large enough to win top place for the
week , if not the entire season. Silently I cursed my decision not to buy a ticket. The top
prize for the seasonal derby was a round trip for two to Hawaii, all expenses paid. To win,
I’d been told, you’d better bring in a king over 60 pounds! Seventy was safer.
Thoughts of a greenhorn like me winning a prize in a fishing derby was incomprehensible.
But here was this huge well-hooked salmon, practically towing my boat out to
sea. And no Derby ticket!
It would be great if I could land the fish and get to town before everything closed. I
especially wanted to tow it up the floats and across Stedman Street to Harbor Hardware and
watch those old-timers set up and take notice.
Then, unless someone stopped me, I’d drag it to the Ketchikan Daily News, only a few
doors from where I lived, and right into the office of Bud Charles, publisher. He and I had
spared over coffee at the Knickerbocker over an article in the paper about how easy it was
for anyone to catch a salmon. I’d asked him how long it had been since he’d caught a king
salmon. Bud only smiled and blew cigar smoke at me, refusing to answer. Bud was a member
of the Derby Committee and would be delighted to use me and my big salmon as an
example of why every fisherman should buy a Derby ticket.
I could visualize the headline: SEVENTY REASON S WHY YOU SHOULD BUY
A DERBY TICKET. Local angler bemoans not having a Derby Ticket as he tows a seventy
pound king into the offices of the Daily News.
Mentally I calculated the fish’s worth. Suppose the fish weighed 60 pounds dressed.
At thirty-two cents a pound the fish would be worth an astonishing twenty dollars! Almost
two day’s wages! Enough to buy both a derby ticket and a commercial license!
I scoffed at myself for threatening to quit salmon fishing. Oh, yea of little faith, I
decided. This fish was hooked solid. It would be soon be mine. Arms aching, stomach
churning, rod arched around the side of the cabin, I held the bow pointed towards Dall
Finally the fish began to tire and could no longer maintain its steady pace. Slowly I
pumped the salmon upwards until it broke the surface. Up close, its tremendous size took
my breath away. The beautiful creature turned on its gleaming, silvery side only feet from
the boat. It was so large I doubted if I could place my arms around it! The hook was still
firmly embedded in its upper jaw. I reeled in, grabbed the sinker, nine feet away from the
spoon, remember, with my left hand and reached for the net with my right. The net frightened
the fish. It dived a few feet, then returned to the surface.
I held the net ready. Obvious I had a serious problem. Since I couldn’t hang onto the
stiff wire leader very well, its length prevented me from getting the salmon close enough to
reach with the net. The net also appeared too small. I tried everything I could think of to
get the fish into the net without success. I accidentally touched its head with the hoop of
the net and the salmon took off, beating its tail against the side of the boat, then disappeared
around the bow.
To keep the cuddy cabin as large as possible, the builder neglected to provide for a toe
deck around the cabin. Why I never fell overboard getting back and forth to the bow during
the years I owned this boat is a mystery. Although the boat was rolling and pitching violently,
I had to get forward. Grasping the rod with one hand, clutched the hand rail on top
the cabin with the other, I slithered on my belly over the cabin onto the tiny bow deck. It
was too rough for me to stand, so I laid on my belly, legs hanging overboard, and peered
over the side. The wire was lodged behind the eye bolt where the bow line was fastened!
With legs spread eagled, I reached down and freed the wire. Then I had to scramble back
over the cabin again on my stomach. The boat was thrashing around in the swells. By the
time I reached the cockpit, the wire had hung up somewhere around the stern. I tilted the
motor out of the water and unwound the wire from the prop. Amazingly, after all this, the
salmon was still hooked. I pulled it towards the boat and it laid there on its side, tail finning,
awesome blue-green eyes staring at me! The prize was finally mine.
Instead of the net I reached for the gaff. No commercial fisherman would be caught
dead with such a wimpy gaff. I reached along the piano wire leader as far as possible with
my left hand, slowly inched the fish close, then leaned overboard and whacked it across the
head with the gaff as hard as I could swing. The sound made a satisfying “kerwhack!”
Any experienced salmon fisherman could guess the rest of the story. The gaff broke in
half with a loud crack. Instead of being stunned, as I expected, the fish exploded, sending
a splash of icy water into my face with its broad tail. Surprised and blinded for a
moment, I foolishly held onto the leader with my bare left hand as the fish sped off ploughing
a groove on the surface. Not until the swivel between the leader and monel line lodged,
and hung up, in a deep cut in my hand, did I let go the wire and grab for the rod.
The fish almost jerked me overboard. I couldn’t believe the power it displayed. The
drag was set too tight and the line parted with a twang. Still splashing about on the surface,
the salmon shook itself, dived and disappeared with the spoon! The entire catastrophe,
from the time I struck with the gaff, probably lasted less than four seconds.
How long I stood staring at the imaginary spot where I’d last seen the salmon I haven’t
the slightest idea. I learned a bitter lesson. For everything the sea gives, it will take something
away. Exhausted, near tears, I noticed the bilge water was red with blood . I looked
at my hand and nearly fainted. Blood was streaming from the cut. Why hadn’t I worn a
glove? There was no pain. My hand was too cold for that. Fortunately, it was my left. I
would still be able to paint with my right. I crouched down in the bottom and wept.
Finally I reeled in and examining the break. It had parted where the line had been
attached to that damn, long, wire leader. Wrapping my hand in the only rag I had, an old
dish towel used for wiping off herring slime, I got underway for town. I didn’t know how
to estimate a salmon’s weight then, but now, after having caught thousands, and personally
weighing hundreds, I’m certain this fish weighed at least eighty pounds! During forty years
salmon fishing the largest I ever landed after that was seventy pounds, and this fish was larger!
Item:Local druggist Bob Browning won the 1950 seasonal derby with a 63-1/2 pound
Steering the outboard with the right hand was awkward because it had been designed
to be used with the left. My hand began to ache and it dripped a steady stream of blood.
This was a fitting time to end this crazy business! This would be my last salmon fishing
attempt. Disappointment was complete. Salmon fishing simply wasn’t for me. I intended
to honor that promise.
What would Jack say? Would he believe the size of that fish? The rest of the gear
would be easy to dispose of. I’d have to make amends to Jack, maybe present him with
those worthless plugs in payment for the spoon.
The rain turned to large flakes of wet snow as I rounded Pennock Point. For a few minutes
I couldn’t see where I was going. The squall passed, the wind dropped and a patch of
blue sky appeared over Deer Mountain. As I cruised up Tongass Narrows the setting sun
turned the snow-capped peak pink, then burgundy, then into a raw bloody welt, about the
same color as my hand. I would have enjoyed the beautiful mountain scene except for my
dark, angry, disappointed mood.
A terrible chill seeped through my damp clothes. My thoughts kept returning to that
beautiful king salmon. Would it live with the spoon in its mouth? I hoped so.
I tied my skiff in Thomas Basin, leaving the salmon gear lying in the boat. If someone
wanted to steal it, they were welcome. I climbed stiffly out of the boat, leaving a trail of
blood in the fresh snow.
Ruth Jackson was staring out the pilothouse window of the Sylth. She motioned me in.
As I entered the warm pilothouse she said, “Expect you’re about froze. Heard you leave
early this morning. What’s the matter with your hand?”
“Cut it a bit.”
“Well, don’t just stand there dripping blood all over the deck. Let’s have a look.”
She led me to the galley sink , gently unwrapped the filthy rag, grimaced, then threw
it in the garbage. “Is that the best bandage you could find? You’d better carry some first
aid equipment in that boat!. A bad cut can be serious if you’re a long ways from town.” My
hand was already swollen and caked with blood.
“Bill, bring the first aid kit, will you honey?” Handlogger was sitting at the table reading
the Ketchikan Daily News.
“Knife cut, huh?” Handlogger exclaimed, while Ruth gently washed my hand with
warm water and soap.
“Wire leader,” I said.
“Big halibut, huh?”
“No. A salmon. A big, big salmon.”
“Aw! That’s too bad.” He came and looked, then shook his head. “Nasty,” he said.
Blood didn’t faze Ruth. She poured antiseptic into the gash. I whooped and did a
dance. Ruth gently bound my hand with a clean dish towel, then reached into a cupboard,
drew out a bottle of rum, dabbed a little in a cup and poured in hot water from the teakettle.
She handed it to me with a wink.
“You hike your butt up to the hospital and get a doctor to sew this up. Right now!” she
demanded. I downed the hot rum and thanked her. Darkness had settled over town as
I walked up Stedman Street, cut through the alley to Bawden and went up the hill. As I
passed the corner of Dock and Bawden Streets and stared at the office of the Daily News I
chuckled. Editor Bud Charles would never find out about the big salmon.
Ketchikan General Hospital was located across the street from the apartment building
I’d recently worked on. In the emergency ward a plump Sister unwrapped the bandage from
my hand. Blood welled up from the cut. She took a look, grimaced, and rang for a doctor.
The doctor was at the Elks Club three blocks away. It took him a long time to get there. His
breath smelled of liquor. Fortunately, his hand was steady.
While the doctor sewed up my hand, he questioned me how the cut happened. I confessed
my tale of woe, starting by telling him how I’d only arrived in Alaska a short time
before, how I’d so badly wanted to catch a king salmon. Then after hooking this monster,
the humiliating experience of losing it. I ending by stating that I was positively through
with salmon fishing, forever.
The doctor looked me in the eye and laughed. He laughed so hard he had to stop
sewing. He began telling me about some of his salmon fishing experiences, while the nurse
stood frowning impatiently, a disgusted look on her face, holding another needle and
He ended telling about the big one that had got away during the final hours of last
year’s Derby Days at Clover Pass. He lost it after an hour-long struggle. Dozens of people
saw the salmon and estimated it at over 70 pounds, the doctor said.
“How did you lose it?” I inquired.
“Rotten landing net! That fish went right through the bottom,” he said, laughing
uproariously. “Imagine. Losing a fish worth thousands of dollars because of a rotten twodollar
That started me laughing. We both roared with laughter. I felt better but the nurse left
the room with a disgusted look on her plump face.
When the bandaging was finished the doctor said, “You’d better stay ashore for a while,
until that cut heals. Wouldn’t want to get fish poisoning.”
“I’m through salmon fishing. I’m selling my gear. Want to buy some?”
He smiled and shook his head. “That’s what I said, after the big king went through
my net.” We walked to the window and peered down towards Creek Street through the
rain- smeared glass. The southeast wind had became a gale. Pellets of wind-driven rain,
mixed with sleet, beat a tattoo against the glass.
“That was last spring. I come up from Seattle for a month as a relief doctor ever year.
For Doctor Wilson, this time. Go salmon fishing every time I get a chance. I’d move here,
but if I did, my wife would divorce me. She doesn’t like Ketchikan.”
“Well, you can have salmon fishing.”
“All salmon fishermen go through discouraging periods,” he said, yawning. But you’ll
never be satisfied until you slide one of those big kings into your boat. Once you catch one,
you’ll want to catch another and another.”
“What makes you so sure?” I said, bristling.
“You love a challenge. I can tell by the way you talk. You said you’re a hunter and trapper.
You’re a fisherman also.” He stuffed out his cigarette and walked out.
I returned to the Knickerbocker, wondering how I would pay the doctor bill. Why
I’d ever decided I wanted to catch a salmon was the question. The idea had been to get a
boat, catch salmon during my spare time, then sell them to pay for the boat and fishing gear,
while having fun.
I blamed the merchants. If credit wasn’t so easy to get in Ketchikan I wouldn’t be in
such a fix. Did one have to put in years gaining enough experience to catch a few kings?
What was I, a boy from the mid-West doing here, trying to catch a salmon in Alaska anyway?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly during the past half century. Others
have often inquired, “How did you ever get started salmon fishing?”
I always admit that I really haven’t the slightest idea.
The next day Bud Charles came to the Knickerbocker for coffee. “Hey, Caldwell, I
hear you caught a derby winner and didn’t have a ticket. That right?” He had a big smile
on his face.
“How did you find that out?”
“Oh, we newspaper men have spies, you know.”
“Especially at the Elks Club, I suppose.”
Bud laughed and chewed his cigar. “What happened?”
“I hooked a really big one, but didn’t land it.”
“Well, let that be a lesson to you. Buy a derby ticket before you go again.”
“Not going again. I quit.”
“Ha ha. I’ve heard that before,” he said, getting up to leave and blowing cigar smoke.
“You quit? That’s funny.”
I failed to see anything humorous.
I went to the Renegade and made, what I thought, was my last payment. Was I in for
a surprise. Lowlife looked at me and shook his head when I asked for a slip of paper stating
the boat was paid for.
“You still owe one hundred and fifty dollars,” he demanded.
I was stunned. “We agreed to six hundred, and I’ve paid it!” He looked at his miser-
able excuse for a wife and shook his head. “The price was seven hundred and fifty dollars,
not six hundred! Wasn’t it honey?” Naturally the woman agreed.
I objected, strenuously. I was really mad.
“Okay. It’s our word again yours. If you don’t pay we’ll get the U.S. Customs people
to come down here and tie up the boat until you do.” Which was a lie, I found out later.
Had it been a documented vessel they could have, but it was only a numbered boat. Since
I had no paper to prove otherwise, it was my word against theirs. I retreated, threatening
thoughts filled my mind as I returned to the hotel.
I told Jean Gain what had happened. When she learned I had no proof, she let loose
with a few cuss words. “You damn fool. Why didn’t you get a receipt?”
I couldn’t think of an answer.
“Well, it’s two against one. You’re gonna have to pay. Get him to sign a Bill of Sale
first, before you pay more, or he’ll be bleeding you again. The crook!”
Over the next several weeks I managed to pay the money. They resisted giving me a
Bill of Sale. Finally I threatened to go to the police, the customs and the Coast Guard. If I
hadn’t insisted on one, they probably would have asked for more money. I spread the word
around that they were a couple of crooks, then learned that most of the fishing fleet and
marine stores already knew this. Del and Mary didn’t know but they promised they’d spread
the word. Leo didn’t know, was sorry it happened and said no credit would ever be extended
to the Renegade. The Renegade pulled out headed west right after I paid the final money.
Everyone considered it good riddance. I later found out they went to Wrangell for the rest
of the winter, then left without paying moorage.
Watch for Chapter Five!