Fishingless Fishing Story + News

I was riding downtown on Willamette Avenue when I first spied her. She was the marine equivalent of the pumpkin orange 1969 F100 I spent three years wrenching on and pouring gas into. I knew better. She was a fiberglass encased heartbreak, but so shapely! Vernal pools thrived  in her fiberglass bottom. Grass sprouted from cracks in her leather seats. But she had these adorable red racing stripes. And rearview mirrors that made you feel prettier just looking into them.

A few weeks later, I showed Joseph. We agreed that it is dumb to buy an old fiberglass boat.

Especially when her motor doesn’t work and she has been sitting in the rain for 49 years.

Her name was Daphne. She didn’t run but she might be fixable. I was in the market for a practical aluminum clunker. A tin can with a good motor to get me out to the fish and back.

But she had the sweetest lines.

And so, when Joseph pulled up to my birthday party with Daphne in tow and handed me the title, I screamed like a winner on The Price is Right. I started picturing what outfits we’d wear to match our sweet little 1961 Dorsett.

Now last May, it looked like we were about to become fish barons. We were about to start delivering Alaskan sockeye salmon for our fisherman friend fresh from the airport to New Seasons Market. And Joseph’s son was planning on fishing in Alaska again this year. I had just met a really neat couple with a tuna boat who invited me to fish with them this summer. I got the okay from two magazines to write stories about tuna fishing in Oregon. A river of fish was about to swim through our house. I wondered if we should have bought a bigger chest freezer.

I posted an ad on Craigslist: “Will Trade Fish for Boat Repair”

A guy named Mel responded. He’s retired. Fixed motors for 40 years. Loves fish. Knee’s hurting, can’t catch his own right now.

I towed Daphne down to his place.

I liked Mel right away. And I could see that he is an excellent mechanic. His wife told me he once built a motor for Buddy Ebsen when he lived down in Newport. And he did a little boat work for John Wayne, as well. I liked the way Jordan felt instantly safe with him the first time she met him. And I liked his dog. Even though he is retired, he had about 30 boats sitting in his yard in various states of repair.

He declared Daphne’s motor DOA.

But it was too late. I already loved Daphne like a brain dead child and I knew Mel could save her.

“Do you think you could help me find and put a new motor on her? I could pay you in fish.”

Mel deferred like a man who has spent the last 40 years around dead and dying boats. But there was nothing he could do. He was my boat mechanic now. I unhitched Daphne next to a menagerie of other sick boats.

Originally, I just needed a kicker motor. Something to propel us around the Columbia where we could anchor and fish. But then I saw an ad about Daphne from a 1961 magazine. A happy driver in a captain’s hat pulls a delighted skier behind him. We would need a very strong motor to pull me around on skis. At least 40 horsepower.

Our fisherman friend decided not to ship fish to Portland after all. Last year’s freezer burnt fish started looking more valuable.

I found a motor that looked like it would work. It came with a leaky boat and part of a fish finder. Mel, Joseph and I drove down to Salem to meet the owner. Mel approved, I gave the guy $550 and we trailered my second boat to Mel’s place. I gave Mel a couple of last year’s precious fish to get him started.

I talked to Mel about once a week for the next eight weeks. Since he was newly retired, he was traveling and catching up on hobbies a lot of the time. And since I had paid him with freezer burnt fish, I couldn’t exactly hurry him along. By the end of July, Daphne had her new motor on. Mel had torn out the seats while he was at it. They were heavy, waterlogged and rotten. The seats from the other boat were better. I needed to find someone to put them in for me. Mel doesn’t work with fiberglass. He’s a mechanic. And he’s retired.

Unwilling to spend another dollar on Daphne, I decided to do the work myself. But then we went camping and worked on our house for the next four weekends. The kitchen, living room, guest room, bedroom, dining room, studio and garden look great. Daphne languished in the driveway with a motor and no seats.

This year’s albacore run turned out to be good, but hard to get to. The fish ran farther out than usual at first, and then the wind and waves came up every time I had a free day to go fishing.

My parents came to visit in mid-August. They offered to bless our new house with a little sweat equity. We had already taken care of most of the little things (painting, window trim, a vegetable garden) and weren’t ready to get started on a new bathroom, kitchen remodel or other big project. And so I asked my dad if he could put the seats into Daphne.

But I forgot. Retired Coast Guard captains don’t consider bailing wire and duct tape to be adequate boat repair equipment. And they don’t like it when their daughters go fishing in rotten boats. And so, Captain Audley went to the hardware store for a few days, and then thoroughly reviewed every inch of Daphne’s hull with the end of a screw driver, listening for rotten wood. Thump thump thump. It turned out the poor thing had Crohn’s Disease. He opened her up and started tearing her guts out. I couldn’t watch.

My mom and dad broke their visit in half with a few days of sailing in the San Juans and visiting with family in Canada. I couldn’t stand to see Daphne sitting there all exposed. And so I filled her excavated holes with wood filler, fiberglass and epoxy, screwed the seats into place.

My parents returned and were a little surprised to see all that progress. The next day, we went to dinner at the top of big pink, the tallest building in Portland, and the place where Joseph and I had our first date. Joseph showed up in a suit and I got all nervous. He got down on one knee and I said yes. We told my parents we were going to try having a baby together and we even look for a car sit for the car or the boat at the baby zoom site, not to mention all the suppllies for infants we started to buy. My Dad went to the boat store and bought life jackets, a whistle, a flashlight and a fire extinguisher.

Now that Daphne was ready, I registered her and took the mandatory six-hour online Oregon Boater Safety course. The cautionary videos were graphic and entertaining. The test was pretty hard for a poor test taker like me, but I got by with a little help from the internet.

Our maiden voyage was excellent, glorious and fun. The water was silky, the wind was calm and the sun came out to kiss our cheeks and noses. Even with three large people in her, Daphne popped right up on plane and handled beautifully. The houseboats of Sauvie Island were wonderful to spy on from the Multnomah Channel. The barges added excitement to our boating adventure. Everywhere, people were fishing for salmon. When we were refueling, my phone fell in the river and I lost everyone’s number, but it didn’t matter. Not only were we engaged, with maybe a baby in our future – we were afloat!

My dad and Joseph spent the next few days patching tiny holes, covering them with gel coat, and fussing over Daphne. My mom transformed the front garden. I caught up on work. We were all beside ourselves with excitement.

I was supposed to go tuna fishing a few days later. But the wind started blowing 20 knots and the trip was called off. It was sunny and calm and 82 in Portland. The Willamette was glassy. But Joseph was working and the truck was getting worked on, so me and Daphne were stuck on land.

I spent the day at Fisherman’s Marine Supply talking to the 20-year-old fishing specialists behind the counter about how to catch fall Chinook from a little boat in the Columbia. They told me the fish are big, angry and plentiful right now. They’re biting wobblers. Blue is this year’s hot color. I walked out with a river fishing rod with 25 lb. test line, a handful of 6 – 10 oz weights, little green beads, a few specially customized wobbler lures, a 300 foot rope attached to Daphne’s little anchor on one end and a big orange buoy ball with a special pulley system attached and annual fishing licenses for me and Joseph.

Joseph met me at a restaurant by a harbor. I wanted to be on the water. I bounced on my knees on the chair and excitedly regurgitated everything I had learned about how to kill fish around here.

I leapt out of bed early the next morning, fully dressed and ready for battle. We drove 20 minutes north to St. Helens, where the fishing specialists told me to go. Two old fishermen pulled their sturdy aluminum boat out of the water. They were dressed in hunting clothes. They had caught their limit – one Chinook apiece. I was so happy for them.

We put Daphne in, puttered away from the harbor and found out that it is called the Mighty Columbia for a reason. The sun was not in a kissing mood and the wind was up. We banged against the current and I worried about my patch job.

With no experienced captain and only an Oregon Boater Safety course, the advice of a pair of 20 year old boys and a few hours of Googling, ‘how to catch fall Chinook in the Columbia’, under our belts, we headed towards the nearest hog line – a crooked line of five boats fishing on a promising ridge in the river.

One boat had just moved out of the hog line and while one guy reeled, the other stood ready with a net. We watched as they scooped the fish. It was a big one! I cheered and gave them the victory sign across the water. Now it was our turn.

What we thought we would do was to drop our anchor 300 feet upriver from the place in the hog line where we wanted to end up, then reverse back into place, drop our line with a 10 oz lead and customized flashing wobbler lure to the bottom and wait for the tip of our line to hit the water. When that happened, we would set the fish, cast off the buoy and one of us would move the boat out of the hog line so that the struggling fish wouldn’t get all tangled up in surrounding fishing lines while the other one of us reeled in the fish.

What really happened was we pulled up about 300 feet in front of one of many hog lines and started bickering about how and when to drop the anchor. Meanwhile, with the anchor dangling in the water about ten feet below the boat, the mighty Columbia carried us past the first hog line and toward a second one. I cranked backwards on the throttle but the boat just wouldn’t go backwards fast enough and we soon lost the ability to adjust our speed at all. The motor quit, the anchor dangled precariously and waves smacked into the back of our boat, which began to fill with water over the top and through a hole in the transom.

Something I did not know then that I know now:
When behind the wheel of a 1961 Dorsett, if one wants to make the boat go backwards, one need not yank backwards on the throttle. Instead, one should press the reverse button, then gingerly push the throttle into a forward position. Yanking backwards on the throttle will break the throttle cable, rendering one incapable of decreasing speed or going into reverse at all.

Something Joseph did not know then that he knows now:
When dropping anchor it is a bad idea to let the anchor dangle just below the boat hull in the water while deciding on a final resting place for the anchor. Instead, it is best to let the anchor go completely once it is overboard. Partially dropped anchors have been known to snap fingers off of deckhands, bash holes into boat hulls and cause newly minted Oregon safe boater card holders to shout out safe anchoring tidbits with the hysterical repetition of an autistic person whose favorite toothpick has just been taken away.

It turns out I forgot the fishing weights anyway.

We roared back over the waves with opposite and equal control over the broken throttle. I had the wheel and could accelerate, but when things got too fast, only Joseph, back at the motor could cut the throttle. And so we lurched back to the harbor, working as a team at last, going scary fast, then not at all, then scary fast, then not at all. Once we were back on the trailer, I watched two fisherman hoist a humungous fish out of their boat and into a wheel barrow. I found their grunts of effort to be a bit show-offy. The fishtail hung over the back of the wheelbarrow. Now I felt only jealousy and hate.

Since I had lost my phone to the river a week earlier I didn’t have phone numbers of anyone who could give us emergency boat repair advice. I called my tuna fishing friends and left them a frantic message about maybe bringing their 50’ tuna boat down here to the Columbia and getting in a hog line with me because the fish were biting like and the wind wasn’t blowing that much. Then I called my cousin Becky, who had the number for Jim, one of the best fishermen I know.

I said something like, “Hi Becky, this is Kat. I need Jim’s number right now. I’m having a fishing emergency. I was supposed to go tuna fishing and I couldn’t and then I was supposed to go salmon fishing and then the boat broke and the fish are biting right now and there is a man standing next to me with a wheelbarrow sized salmon and my heart is full of hate so I need Jim’s phone number right away. Oh yeah, and I’m getting married. But I can’t talk about that right now. We only have two more hours until the tide turns.”

Becky, whose son has the fishing sickness worse than I do, understood and had the good sense to give me Jim’s phone number first and congratulate us second.

Jim was mushroom hunting in the hills when I called. But he said he’d be home soon, which was good because we were already on the way to his house.

Jim had a cookie sheet full of chanterelles sitting on his kitchen counter and was very nice about me showing up in a panic. He took a look at the boat and pointed out where the throttle was broken. It looked like an easy fix. Something I could do with wire and duct tape. He took a look at our buoy and anchor system and declared the anchor too small, the rope too long and the buoy/pulley system too complicated. He gave us a bigger anchor, cut our rope in half and tied a couple of old buoys onto it without any complicated pulley system. He loosened the drag on my line and walked me through the proper fishing technique in a way that made a lot of sense. Getting buoys and a drag adjustment from Jim felt like getting a blessing from Triton himself. Then he fed us beer and smoked salmon, showed us his lures and we left feeling ready to go fishing again the next day.

On the way home, a boat parts store was miraculously open at 6:00 on a holiday weekend and they miraculously had a throttle cable part for a 1961 Dorsett in the back. We fixed the boat in the parking lot. I barely slept that night and when I did, dreamt about fishing. And a little about falling into the Mighty Columbia.

Joseph and I talked a lot the night before about clearly defined roles and communication as a way to improve how we deal with emergencies as a couple. In that vein, this time, when we launched the boat, Joseph would drive and I’d hold onto the bowline once the boat was in the water so it wouldn’t get away. Then he would park, hop into the boat and we’d be off.

We backed down the ramp. I asked if I should get out now. He braked and I jumped out. Daphne slid off the trailer and landed on her prop, which snapped off with a crunch as the motor pushed through the rotten transom. We attached the winch strap to Daphne, pulled her back onto the boat and drove home.

Back at home, I researched transom repair techniques. And then I called a fiberglass repair guy on Craigslist, who bid the repair at three times what we paid for her. And then I went outside to Daphne, leaned against her and cried.

We fished the outgoing tide from the shore last night on Sauvie Island. We ate fried chicken, drank prosecco, waved off yellow jackets and watched our lines. Nothing bit, but it was a relief to finally get my customized wobbler into the water.

I might get to go tuna fishing this Thursday, weather, boat and crew permitting. Jim said he’d take me out on his boat this Friday and would keep his eye out for a good aluminum hull.

I’ll be down in California for Viking duty in Granlibakken on the 17th, then working and visiting with family and friends in the Bay Area and Mendocino for ten days after that.

And then, we’ve got a wedding to plan! We’re thinking it’ll be next March in Zihuatanejo. The fishing’s excellent! There’ll be a dead pig on a spit, accommodations to suit every comfort level and budget and me sobbing (happily) at the altar. It’s gonna be awesome. Details in October.

And oh yes, if we haven’t talked in the past week, I need your phone number. My phone number is 415-847-7295

Love Kat

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