Estuary News

September 2020

Trolling for Salmon by Kayak

Whales scare us much more than sharks. They erupt from the ocean with a rush of displaced water and a poof of air. A collision could be disastrous.

“Whale – go-go-go!” I shout.

We pedal double-time to dodge the humpback, behind us and approaching from the left. A moment later it surfaces again, with another poof, now off to our right, moving away. We relax and slow back to our standard trolling speed of about 2.5 miles per hour, and we plod forward.

My brother Andrew and I are in a pedal-powered kayak two miles from shore off the Marin County coast, where anchovies so thick they darken the water have attracted birds, porpoises, sea lions, thresher sharks, humpback whales and — our target — Chinook salmon. The daily bag limit is two fish per angler. We have one fish aboard, a 14- or 15-pounder, and we hope to catch three more.

We probably won’t. Kayak fishing for salmon isn’t easy. The day before, we fished for six hours and caught nothing (while the boat fleet reported catching a fish per rod), and three days before that, we also came back to shore with no fish for our efforts. Indeed, this summer has been particularly tough.

Still, the hope that a fish will strike draws us back repeatedly, and every few days we’re at it again. We wake up between 3 and 4 in the morning and aim to be punching through the surf before sunrise. The boat we use is my brother’s, an 18-foot-long battleship of a kayak called the Hobie Tandem Island. It features pedal drives, a rudder, outriggers and, if we wish to use it, a sail. We fish using downriggers and rod-holders that Andrew has placed at strategic points around the boat. It’s barely a kayak at all, really, though without a motor, we still face many handicaps that a paddler does — most of all the inability to go anywhere fast.

Fishing from a powerboat would be easier, but I began kayak fishing 22 years ago, after learning to fish on motorboats, and I’m not going back. We still catch more than enough fish most summers, and even on the days when we catch nothing — getting “skunked,” as fishermen say we at least get a workout. I figure that a mile pedaled in a sluggish kayak equals two or three on a bicycle, and sometimes we log 15 or 20 miles by mid-afternoon. Each day begins with a thrilling blast through the breakers, and we end each trip by surfing a wave to the beach.

It’s almost impossible not to enjoy kayak fishing, and anglers are discovering this. In the late 1990s, fishing from plastic, motor-less boats was a freakish novelty. Powerboat fishers gawked at us in disbelief when we paddled into a salmon fleet, and if we saw another kayaker, we’d often fish together in the spirit of camaraderie. Things have changed. The activity exploded in popularity about a decade ago, and now there are scads of us. Parking areas clog up early, and on the water, we mostly ignore each other like morning commuters on Market Street. The scene gets visibly more congested each summer.

Social media has much to do with the boom. Many kayak anglers record each trip on GoPro cameras, and they post videos on YouTube and reports on Facebook. A few anglers stay tight-lipped when they discover a hot bite, but word always leaks onto the Internet. These days, crowds are almost as much a part of salmon fishing as water, wind, and whales.

The advent of pedal-powered kayaks has also spurred new interest in kayak fishing by making it easier than ever. Anglers can now pedal their boats and steer using a hand lever that controls a rudder at the stern. This allows us to keep our hands almost constantly free for various other tasks, especially handling rods and landing nets.

“I’m on!” Andrew shouts.

His rod, angled outward in its holder, throbs as line peels off his reel. Following our routine, Andrew cranks up his four-pound downrigger weight, which hangs off a spool of wire line and holds the bait at the desired depth while we fish but poses a tangling risk once a salmon is on. I leave my line down, hoping for a second hookup, while I steer us slightly to the right to keep Andrew constantly positioned to fight the fish. He cranks the reel and regains some line before the salmon dashes away on a 15-yard run. We do circles around the fish while it tires and draws closer to the boat. Finally, Andrew reels down to the leader and lifts, and the fish glides over the surface. I scoop it up in the net: a solid 10-pounder.

When the salmon is dead and bleeding, we each say, “Thanks fish” — our customary offering to every salmon we catch and kill. We used to say sorry until I pointed out one day a few years ago that we aren’t sorry at all when we land a salmon. We treasure these fish, after all. Salmon is my favorite food, and, like my brother, I treat every scrap like a pearl.

I salt the gills and guts in jars to make Roman-style fish sauce, or garum. The fillets go into the fridge and freezer, and the fatty belly meat — the best part — is eaten as an appetizer to dinner. We bake the heads and filleted carcasses and feast on the scrap meat. The bones I boil into a creamy broth, which I sometimes drink for breakfast with some salt and a dash of cayenne. The strained pulp goes into my garden beds.

When we get skunked, we try to joke it off as we wheel the boat up the beach. “At least we don’t have to clean any salmon.”

“Yuck – I hate cleaning salmon.”

“They’re the worst.”

Our most memorable days have involved great white sharks. In 2018, a 10- or 12-footer cruised alongside us off Daly City, inspecting us as we sought our fourth salmon of the morning. The next summer, off Point Reyes, a great white bumped the bottom of our kayak — a half-attack, you might call it. Twice, we have seen eight-footers leap completely from the water off Pacifica.

We finish the day with the two salmon. In the parking lot, a young man sees the fish and asks what they are. This has happened before, and I can hardly believe there are people who don’t know what a salmon looks like. On the other hand, these fish are no longer pillars of our society. Adult Chinook and Coho once outnumbered Californians ten to one. There were millions, and people subsisted on them.

Today, there are 40 million of us and perhaps a half-million spawning salmon in the best years, and their future is bleak. Global warming threatens the cold-water rivers where they spawn, and riverside development plus agricultural water diversions have already destroyed many watersheds. Habitat restoration projects have moved at glacial paces, and, sadly, we have hatcheries to thank for our fish. These facilities release tens of millions of young Chinook each spring into the Bay and ocean, keeping the runs on artificial life support. While the daily Facebook fish reports are happy stories of success, the greater story arc of California’s salmon is a tragedy.

But we don’t dwell on this when the alarm goes off at 3:30. We pile the gear into the car, cinch down the kayak straps, and, buzzing on excitement, head for the beach. Even the early birds are never guaranteed to catch salmon, but they’ll probably find parking.

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Top photo: Reporter Alastair Bland with kayak and catch. Last photo: Andrew Bland. All photos: Bland Brothers

About the author

A native to San Francisco, Alastair Bland is a freelance journalist who writes about water policy in California, rivers and salmon, marine conservation and climate change. His work has appeared at NPR.org, Smithsonian.com, Yale Environment 360 and News Deeply, among many other outlets. When he isn't writing, Alastair is likely riding his bicycle uphill as fast as he can.

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