In the past 10 or 15 years years, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about my dad.
The old man was a meat fisherman to the bone. When I was a kid, his baitcasting rod was a True Temper, a 5-foot long, solid, square shaft of tempered steel. Dad dragged in a lot of poundage with that rod without breaking it, a testament to the rod’s hardiness and to the U.S. steel industry of the 1930s.
The old man’s baitcasting reel was also a product of the 1930s. It had no drag, and no hint of anything designed to prevent backlashes. One time when I was along, he hooked something that took a notion to run and keep going. Other than the occasional “dadburn it,” I’d never heard him use a swear word, but when he burned his thumb and rapped his knuckles trying to stop that fish, he came out with a good one. While it wouldn’t count for much by today’s standards, I duly entered it in my vocabulary for future use.
Monofilament nylon fishing line came into widespread use by anglers after World War II, but the old man loyally stuck with the twisted linen line called cuttyhunk. When braided Dacron came along, it was an upgrade. By the time he got around to trying nylon monofilament, we were well into the 1950s, but it was just as well that the old man waited. That early mono was stiff, it stretched like rubber, and it liked to remember that it had been coiled around a spool. When cast, it went out through the rod guides in little curls.
For saltwater work, mainly jigging for bottomfish in Puget Sound, the old man had a split Calcutta cane rod and a Pflueger “Taxie” reel. Strictly a meat-fishing tool, in a pinch this outfit could be used to pull stumps and winch trucks out of ditches. The reel’s “brake” was a thin tab of spring steel he jammed against the outside of the spool in the vain hope that it would stop a fish from running back to the bottom. More often, the golf-ball-size knobs on the spool, when applied to his knuckles, did most of the slowing. After a few years of hoisting big lingcod off the bottom, the rod took on a permanent set, as did the old man’s spine.
As for terminal gear, the old man kept it simple. His favorite weapons were jigs, home-made from scrap lead. When scraped with a knife, they shined. When lowered to the bottom and jigged up and down, they caught fish.
Dad was a master at boating fish. No nets for him, just a gaff hook and a bonker. Anything over about 20 pounds, he shot between the eyes with his .22 pistol, a semi-automatic Colt “Woodsman” loaded with hollow-points. There was no fish box in his homemade, wooden, 14-foot skiff. One minute a fish would be swimming innocently along, intent on finding something to devour, and the next minute it would find itself shot, gaffed and in a gunny sack, wondering what had gone wrong.
I was seldom able to go saltwater fishing with the old man, and for good reason. At Rosario Beach, where he usually launched his boat, big waves sometimes rolled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the ocean. He knew it was dangerous, launching a small boat in the surf and fishing in big swells. He sometimes had to navigate through thick fog with only the pocket compass that he had used since his Boy Scout days.
He also knew that if there was any sea running, I’d be hanging over the side of the boat, seasick.
The old man didn’t fish often, maybe a couple trips a year. He didn’t fish for “sport,” and one good trip out to his favorite reef could provide our family of five with enough fish to last us through the winter. I remember him coming home with two gunny sacks full of lingcod and various other bottomfish, and filleting and skinning them well into the night. Mom would pack the fillets in coffee cans, fill them with water, and take them to the cold-storage lockers down the street from where we lived.
The old man wasn’t always purely a meat fisherman. I remember him having a split-bamboo fly rod, and a tackle box with flies and small lures, such as those used for trout and other “sport” fish. I also recall that when I was in my early teens, just learning to fish, I lost most of that tackle, and the old man never got around to replacing it. As near as I can figure, he stopped fishing for sport at about the same time he married my mother, when he was 22, but the urge to fish for food and to be out of the salt lingered on.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.