Dateline: July 10, 2016 – Wenatchee, Washington
While we’re on the topic of bitter, unexpected disappointment, I can tell you about my fishing trips with Martini this spring and summer. It is true that if you fish enough, you are going to get some things at the last minute – and I fish a lot. But I am as subject to the laws of probability and the whims of the Fish Gods as the next guy, and sometimes, like my beloved Detroit Tigers, I sit waiting for the ninth-inning rally that never comes. I expect this in a fishing trip sometimes, even with Martini involved, but I do NOT expect this in my Christmas specials.
And what brings this up? I’ll tell you what – The British have done something vicious to Christmas, leaving me with exactly the same sick feeling I get when a fishing trip goes badly.
I am no stranger to disappointment – after all, you’re talking to the guy whose first (15,000 mile round) trip to the Great Barrier Reef was blown out by a late-season storm. But disappointment, especially that gut-wrenching, didn’t-see-that-coming sort of heartache, should not be a part of Christmas TV specials. Marta and I are connoisseurs of Christmas TV. We own dozens and dozens of specials, and we watch almost all of them every year, usually leading off with the seminal Rankin-Bass “Rudolph.” Marta and I are understandably proud of our Christmas TV collection, and there is a definite theme that runs through all of these shows. THERE IS A HAPPY ENDING. Scrooge finds Christmas Spirit (three of them actually,) Rudolph gets Clarisse, Tiny Tim DOES NOT DIE, and Frosty gets resurrected. It’s a good system – we have enough misery the rest of the year. Some of you have mentioned that some of my blogs have similarly implausible happy endings. Who could forget the last-minute manna of “A Quappe for Steve” or the heartwarming “Miracle at Slavski Laz”? So imagine my surprise on a cozy Thursday evening last December. Marta and I had houseguests – Sam and Kate Clark, a young British couple that you may remember from “Two Records and a Wedding.”
Sam and Kate Clark. They’re British.
We had just finished introducing them to some marvelously cheerful American holiday fare, like “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” when they suggested we watch a British special. Figuring we were in for something good, as everything British is sophisticated, we signed up to watch an animated feature called “The Snowman” written by Raymond Briggs.
It begins well enough. A boy makes a snowman. It comes to life. They frolic around the back yard and the house. Then they take flight, soaring over the ocean, seeing whales and icebergs and then visiting Santa and the land of the snowmen at the north pole.
Somewhere in all this, there is a nice song. Then they fly back and the boy drifts off to sleep, cozy in his bed. He wakes up the next day and goes in the back yard to visit his friend … but the snowman has melted. Marta gasped in concern, but I have seen “Frosty” enough to know that Christmas snow is magical, and that this snowman couldn’t die, and a happy ending was coming any second now. So we waited. And waited. As we held on for that happy ending, the camera pulled back, the music drifted out, and we were left with the stark scene of an emotionally-shattered boy weeping over a pile of slush. The British snowman … dies. Fade to black, and a generation grows up pessimistic and bitter.
WTF, Britain? With Christmas shows like this, it’s a miracle you got into the EU in the first place.
So now we get back to Martini. Martini is a grad student in Seattle who is studying things that involve a lot of big words, and he takes it as seriously as you would expect, so there hasn’t been a lot of time for us to fish this year. I’ve gotten up there twice, and you can guess from the text above how things went. Our first round was at the end of March, and was specifically aimed at one small fish – the surf smelt – which only runs into the bays around this time of year. But we figured there had to be something else for us to catch with a weekend at our disposal. And we tried. Martini had done his usual exhaustive research and identified a few likely targets, so the weekend began with high hopes. But our day hunting odd surfperch in Westport got done in by tremendous waves, and our general pier fishing just didn’t pan out.
I’m sure there were fish in here, but we couldn’t find them.
At the diner where we ate breakfast – best Star Wars poster EVER.
Still, we got to hang out together, and with no Dairy Queen in sight, Martini felt it was safe to eat. We spent the next day chasing the elusive surf smelt, a smaller beast that comes into the bays in droves in the spring, reacts well to sabikis, and is somehow the only fish in all of Washington State’s ridiculously Byzantine regulations that can be caught without a license. We got to a tiny pier in a scenic bay north of Seattle, and after a liberal application of Martini’s special chum that seemed to contain everything from cat food to Fruit Loops, our target fish began to show up.
The chum. It was nasty.
It was cold.
It’s certainly a beautiful area.
The locals gave us quite a schooling, catching at least five to my one, but we got our fish and the weekend was worth it, even if it was for a single species. And I found a Dairy Queen on the way to the airport!
Martini prepares to do battle with the new Dairy Queen “Double Colon Buster.”
I then take you to July 7. Martini and I had set up a “can’t miss” trip for some suckers and other species in Washington and Idaho. He had been to some of the spots a month or two before and they were crowded with our target species, and we had every reason to expect a great result. It looked liked we would have a hot, beautiful weekend in the scenic northwest, and I expected this to be a good story just as I (used to) expect every Christmas special to end happily. Our first night, Martini got me at the airport and we headed east, through the semi-trackless wastes of Southern Washington. I say semi-trackless because this area is positively exciting compared to some other places I have driven, like the Kalahari Desert.
The scenery of eastern Washington.
Well past dark, we got to a backwater that Martini had somehow discovered contained the tadpole madtom, a small catfish species that was bizarrely transplanted here some years ago. (His source was well-regarded species hunter Bryan Jones, who writes a nice fishing blog of his own.) Despite a swarm of insects, a few of which did not bite, we both got our fish and the trip was off to a roaring start.
This was the best picture of us with the fish.
But we did notice it had started raining. Once we were back in the car, we became aware that thousands of insects had flown in and refused to leave. We tried shooing them out, driving with the windows down, and finally brushing them off. I was apparently a bit too aggressive in this process, as I noticed the next morning that the ceiling upholstery on my side was covered in hundreds of tiny smudges. Martini shook his head sadly and said “Every time you leave my car, there are more stains it.” I’m afraid he’s correct, but who knew the whole top was going to fall off that drumstick? Who knew that Cheetos dust is permanent?
The next day, we awoke to unexpected, driving rain. This did little to dim our optimism, as we were off to a spot where Martini had personally seen both largescale and bridgelip suckers earlier in the year. There were also peamouth and possibly even chiselmouth in the area – does it get any better than that? We were both foaming at the mouth with excitement, and looking up sizes needed for potential world records. We got there, jumped out of the car … and had our Snowman moment. There was almost no water – flows had dropped to a trickle. The fish were not there. This set off a mad scramble – the fish had to have gone either up or down stream, so we started looking. First we went up, navigating some 20 miles of iffy road and some people I am certain I saw in an X Files episode. Nothing. So we drove back, waded out and fished the main river, which was unbelievably cold – and Martini did this barefoot. Nothing. As it got into the evening, we headed back into Lewiston, got dinner – yes, at Dairy Queen – and went to another spot in town to fish the night shift. We got masses of northern pikeminnows, but nothing else would bite.
This is the look Martini gives when he can’t believe he is about to eat at Dairy Queen AGAIN.
Talk ranged to bizarre “audible” ideas, but the best of these required a 1000 mile detour. We decided to stick it out and try some other spots back to the west, where Martini had also gotten fish a month or so previously. We would not be defeated. Because just as we believe that Christmas snow is magical and Frosty lives forever, we just knew we were going to get our fish tomorrow.
Karen shouldn’t cry. Frosty is born again with each Christmas snow.
We spent much of the evening looking at options for where we might find the fish – up tributaries, down main channels, up to dams, in side basins. The following morning, we were up and at it again. Our first destination was the Dworshak dam. It was a beautiful place that offered an excellent aerial view of likely holes where we should have been able to see the fish – IF they were there. But we just couldn’t find them. Some other folks were catching beautiful summer salmon on jigs, but that’s the perversity of our brand of fishing – we passed this right up and kept looking for our obscure beasts. They weren’t there. There are times you just have to show up and take your chances, and thus far, we were standing in a pile of slush. While snacking on beef jerky and an assortment of exotic Cheetos, we decided to make a major move back into central Washington and try a spot on the Columbia where Martini had done well earlier in the year.
This meant four more hours of Monet-inspiring eastern Washington scenery.
The highlight of this part of the drive was a stop at a Snake River backwater, where Martini had been told that a population of banded killifish had somehow cropped up. (Bryan Jones again gave us this spot. If it weren’t for Bryan, this trip could have actually gotten worse.) We made quick work of these attractive micros and headed for Martini’s spot in Wenatchee.
The banded killifish, male and female.
Once we got to the floating dock where Martini had fished earlier in the year, I was just sure we were going to get a sucker or a peamouth. But we didn’t, and after some highly questionable diner food, we caught a few hours of sleep in a motel that failed to meet even my modest standards. If you’re a fan of mildew, let me know and I’ll give you the address.
The morning of the 10th – my 53rd birthday – broke miserable and raining. We gave it another few hours at the dock, and we even saw a largescale sucker. But all that would bite were the northern pikeminows, and after a few dozen of those, we decided to try something else, slightly desperate perhaps, but at least a change of scenery.
A northern pikeminnow. We caught a lot of these.
Wenatchee is also a beautiful place. Except that there were no suckers.
We battled our way through horrific I-90 traffic to Seattle, and set up on Lake Washington, where there are rumored to be peamouth. It would be a minor victory, but a nice birthday present, and at least we were trying new ideas. Lake Washington was a lovely place, and as soon as we set up, we caught masses of panfish. Each time the float dipped, I was certain it was going to be a peamouth. But each time, it wasn’t. I nearly wet myself when Martini caught a yellow perch, as these look a lot more like peamouth than bluegill do, especially to someone who had gotten as desperate as I was, but it was not a peamouth. We kept at it, stubbornly, conversation at a minimum, but it quickly turned to evening.
As darkness fell, I thought of the Snowman special. I stared at my bobber and mumbled to myself “Come on, Snowman. Don’t melt.” But the sun went down, there were no peamouth, and I felt like that kid staring at the slushpile. We drove back into Seattle, cleaned up, and had a nice steak dinner to celebrate my advanced age – always good to have a birthday with family, especially because you can stick them with the check. Our conversation was not about how things had gone wrong – we had already moved on from that. It was about how we would get it right the next time – and we will. The lessons here were simple – go after the fish when they are actually there, understand that not every fishing trip is going to live up to expectations, and never trust British people with the remote around Christmas time.