Sultan of Sellwood

It's five o'clock”, my brother yelled down the hall, just enough time to gulp down a bagel, swig some coffee, and get in the car and drive to the Sellwood bridge on the Willamette River, Portland,Oregon and hit the water at first light.We met Johnny at the boat dock. He was ready to go. Five bait casting rods were strung like fine guitars across the rod rack, drags adjusted, 3 oz weight and multiple hooks on separate lines off a three way swivel. All that was necessary was to double hook the 5” headless herring bait.

There were two others in our party that morning; Charlie, a retired Under Sheriff and long time Portland resident and J.O., from San Diego. I didn't see him as he sat down in the back of the boat but thought to myself that with a nick name like that he sure must have high self esteem! After introductions and a little chit-chat the S.S. Minnow set off in a misty rain with dawn breaking on the river.

The voyage didn't last more than a couple minutes as were were less than a 1/4 mile from the Sellwood bridge which spanned the river. We dropped in line with about 50 of my newest best friends; all in small boats with double engines idling in the current. While these guys may have been my newest friends they certainly were Johnny's oldest.The talk back and forth was like the chatter of a Flock of Sea Gulls." How many did you get yesterday", was called from each boat as we went by. " We got 5 ,we got 5 "! Johnny would exclaim as we went by. By the looks he got you could tell they were envious and in awe of his success.

Five rods in the boat, six hours of fishing, five fish landed translates to 1 fish for every 6 hours of fishing. That was the best day of the year? Up until now I was just along for the ride and hadn't given much thought as to what we were doing; the math made me realize I was in for a long slow day. The quarry was Spring Chinook salmon, fresh and bright from the ocean. Johnny assured us, many times, that this is the best eating fish that has ever existed, better than gold! The fish enter the river in the Spring and lay up until Summer when they move into small rivers and streams to spawn and die. Chinook, or King Salmon are the largest in the Salmon family averaging from 12-20 pounds with some exceptionally large ones running over 30 pounds. They are extremely strong and fight well tho the fisherman out on the river this morning didn't prize these characteristics. No catch and release guys out here, these were head-knockers out for a meal.

At a precise yet unmarked spot on the river Johnny gave the command to drop lines. This consisted of hitting the release button on the reel and while keeping your thumb on the line to control the speed and letting out the line until you felt the small cannon ball weight hit the bottom in approx. 16-25 feet of water. And, well, that was about it. After that you did nothing but wait. Johnny, with a skill perfected over 30 years of Spring Chinook fishing would move the boat at a mile an hour or so over shallow ledges beneath the river. The fish like to lay along or beneath these ledges, protected from the current of the river. The dilemma of all fresh water salmon fishing is that once the salmon come in from the salt water they pretty much quit eating which makes them difficult to catch. The enticement of something they no longer are interested in is of limited value. However, even within these parameters, in a large enough group of fish, their instinctive reflex to strike at "food", will still produce some strikes and that's what these anglers were counting on. Even one 20 pound fish goes a long way and isn't bad for a day's fishing.

I did forget to mention one crucial member of our coterie, Mack, Johnny's large rambunctious three year old male black lab, who as I was to find played a preeminent role in the days fishing adventure. The only remarkable event in the first hour or so of fishing was provided by one of the other oddball fisherman. Picture three lines of boats maybe 6 in a row separated into 25 foot lanes. There were roughly four of these groups stretched irregularly across the river. The boats moved at the same glacial pace, a slow motion synchronized ballet. Across these lanes comes old Fred, alone in his boat and keying in on Johnny."Pick up lines", Johnny called as Fred buzzed by making some unintelligible comment to which Johnny made his standard " Five fish in the boat " reply. After he went by we dropped lines until 5 minutes later he sidled by again making us pick up. The third time he did this I was pissed! Even tho this was not my tribe this had to be an egregious breach of etiquette. As I was just about to spout some fighting words, Johnny said to me, "Just ignore this guy, he's got social problems, he's been doing this for years and we all just put up with it. Notice he's the only one here with no one else in the boat" ? Good philosophy here, when you're all alone in your own metaphorical boat there is a reason for it. Well, that calmed me down a bit, and I marveled at his magnanimity. Johnny decided Mack needed a shore break so we moved off to the West bank and Johnny and Mack got out for a walk. Charlie was left in charge to run the boat and was given specific trolling instructions in a run called obviously enough" The West Bank".

While idling away, waiting for a bite, there was plenty of time for talk. Charlie, until recently retiring, held a elevated position in law enforcement and had been involved in some interesting cases over the years. He solved an armed bank robbery case early in his career. Upon receiving a call to be on the look out for..... Charlie acting on hunch cruised a run down apartment complex and spotted the car used in the robbery. He called for backup but before help arrived the crook came out, Charlie drew on him and the guy immediately confessed and gave Charlie the money back. We further speculated on the smarts of the average criminal and agreed that in most cases it wasn't very high. He made an interesting tie in between criminals and fish saying it was the dumb ones that you catch. Hard to argue with that.

We were earlier warned about possible snags on this run and when JO announced he was hung up, no one was surprised. We had been cruising in about 16 feet of water when it happened. We all reeled in and Charlie started bringing the boat around to get in front of the snag. I looked back at his bent rod when all of a sudden it started shaking. Having "snagged" some large but somnolent brown trout I quickly realized what was occurring. About the same time JO realized what was happening also as the fish woke up and began peeling line. Charlie stopped the boat, the net was tugged, pulled and finally unsnarled from it s mooring as JO tried to bring the fish towards the boat. Between the tangled net, the salmon running all over the river seemingly dragging JO with it from side to side, front to back of the boat; Johnny running along the shore towards us, Mack after him barking his head off; we must have looked like an overturned anthill....The fish eluded the clumsy net about 10 times before he was finally brought to heel whacked over the head with a billy and deposited in the fish locker at the back of the boat.

We headed back to shore to pick up Johnny and my brother was dispatched to continue walking Mack who had't finished his business.Things had certainly gotten out of control without Johnny at the helm! Next, as I was to discover, started the "Catch the Fish Ritual". Johnny cell phoned his many fishing buddies on shore that we were off to a good start,"One in the boat"! After he ran out of fishing buddies I think he even called his broker to tell him the news. We got back in our original line and the Flock of Seagull thing started again as well as we passed boat after boat. We did a couple runs on The Point and then headed to the West Bank shore to get my brother. While we were there we did another trip down the West Bank when lightening struck again, Charlie was the lucky recipient this time.

He said, "Johnny, I think I'm getting something", as his rod pulsed three times. On the fourth Johnny said, "Set the hook !"And all hell broke loose as this fish jumped an then tail walked across the water, stripping line. The ant hill erupted again. The net was tangled , and Mack now played his crucial role barking like a madman and trying to get at the large fish as it came close to the boat, knocking the net guy aside with broad swoops of his muscular tail. Johnny yelling at Mack, JO yelling advice to Charlie and my brother and I sitting in disbelief....Somehow the fish was brought to net determined legal, thumped on the head, and brought to the boat locker. High fives all around, male bonding-camaraderie,et al... Phone calls, then crowing" We got two in the boat, 5 yesterday, forty nine for the season" to the rest of the Flock. Two fish is a good day a the mark of success and we were there by ten o'clock!

We went back to The Point after a couple more runs down the West Bank and things pretty much died for awhile after that. Not dismayed, Johnny announced we were going to try the seldom used Weasel run. A stroke of brilliance for sure, for within 5 minutes we were hooked up again, this time the Gods of Fortune had chosen Johnny. Things were a little different this time as the Brothers Tinsky seeing the lie of the land now took matters in hand. The first thing I did after Johnny hooked up was to pass my rod off to JO in the back of the boat and grab the damned dog. My brother who had previously stowed the net without snarls and tangles had it readily in hand. With Mack howling at the top of his lungs but dragged out of harms way, my brother was able to easily net the fish and get him stowed, a much neater operation. Congratulations all around the crew, phone calls, and further exultations to the Flock. We were all getting psyched up and I was beginning to hope I d catch one too.....

We cruised The Weasel a couple more times when serendipity struck my rod. It made the now familiar pulses I had seen on other's rods as a fish was imminent.One Pulse, Two, Three, patience straining, Four and I struck! The fish was on and running as well. Jay got the dog under control and I was able to fight the fish unmolested. Even with the heavy rig it was no picnic bringing the fish in. I received good advice about keeping the rod tip in the water when the fish made a run under the boat. This wasn't my first rodeo with salmon and I thought I did a credible if unremarkable job about bringing him to net. By now I was beginning to truly understand the role of the dog. He was the Barker of this carnival, announcing to all the prowess of his master. Johnny was the Master, the Sultan, no other boat had near the success we did that day. I mean we now had FOUR IN THE BOAT !!!

We did a mock roll call after that as Johnny like to bust my brothers balls. All hands up who have caught fish; everyone but my brother raised them, and he got to raise his for the next call, those who haven't...... Jay further enlightened us that he had never even had so much as a bite while fishing with Johnny. We headed back to The Point for a few runs. The crowed had noticeably thinned as it was getting towards lunchtime. Charlie needed to go but Johnny didn't want to head in yet as there were still fish to catch, he was "persuaded" to stay another fifteen minutes which lasted an hour or so. When lightening struck again, thank God it hit my brother! I grabbed the dog, Johnny the net, and the now efficient crew brought in the largest fish of the day, a 20+ pounder, with speed and efficiency. We now had the Royal Flush of Spring Chinook Fishing; one fish for every rod in the boat, as rare as a sunny day in Oregon. Five Fish, Five Fish, Five Fish, Two Days in a row, the headlines roared. At one point I thought I heard a news helicopter hovering, the White House calling, what a Buzzzzz!

I was getting hungry, it was past noon. I bet Charlie's wife was getting angry about his not returning the car, Jo was flying out that afternoon. We were waist deep in the Big Muddy but the Captain pushed on. If we could tie his record then we could certainly break it as well. We did our slow troll, very few boats out now, the bite certainly ending. Even Mack was bushed, lying at the bottom of the boat on my feet. The Weasel, The West Bank and back to The Point when finally Charlie' s rod bent for the last time. The crew assumed battle stations as this last fish was run to ground, knocked over the head and tossed in the locker. Even Johnny knew this was the end and we motored the couple hundred yards back to the dock. Six, a new season record. As we got out of the boat I saw for the first time why JO had no problem carrying his nickname. The guy was huge! My jaw dropped as I asked him the inevitable question," How tall are you "?? He told me six foot seven inches. Turns out he was a former NBA player who was coaching now. A real nice guy, certainly a gentle giant; no one would be tugging on his cape anytime soon.

We divvied up the salmon, JO and Charlie hustled out of there and Jay and I were left with Johnny and Mack. He recommended we take our salmon to Otto's, the crown prince of salmon filleting and smoking. As I was taking mine back on the plane and Jay was saving his for a party a couple weeks later we opted for smoking. Johnny insisted I have a fresh filet and offered to give me one from a fish he caught yesterday; I gladly accepted and off to Otto's we all went.

I bet transplanted organs rarely get the care that Johnny gave to our salmon. He supervised the filleting, consulted on the smoking which proceeded under his watchful eye. I bought him lunch, which he left unattended until the salmon were properly cared for.We drove Johnny and Mack back to his riverside condo and I went in to get the filet. He told me as we were walking in that Mack means the world to him and got him thru some real hard times. On the living room wall was a large family portrait of of Mack as a puppy being held by Johnny's son, his wife, and their infant son. He then told me that his son and daughter in law had been killed 2 years ago by a drunk driver. He and his wife and the other grandparents share raising the little boy. Johnny kept Mack for himself. I was stunned. I then realized the depth and compassion of this man when dealing with guys like old Fred.

Still waters run deep, as do the waters under the bridge where Johnny,Sultan of Sellwood, holds court every morning January through May.

Post script:

Johnny was right: the fresh salmon filets were as good as gold, the best I've ever eaten. After we dropped him off he went right back to the boat and found another fellow to take out who caught one fish. Later in the evening he and his wife picked up two fish at the same time. 9 FISH IN THE BOAT!

Can it get any better than that?

MT 4/16/10