Through thick fog, the gurgle of my boat’s motor joined the crowd launching from the east side of Garrison Dam, with one more search for summer salmon as its primary mission. As we cleared the first of phalanx of boats readying rods and dropping downrigger balls, I turned the wheel over to my brother-in-law, Adam, and set about to the same business. On the sonar, arcs appeared from 120 to 70 feet up over the deepest stretch of Lake Sakakawea, so I set the combos rigged with frozen herring at 105, and the plastic squids and tinsel behind the large flashers at 95, knowing that some pull would cause our offerings to ride up in the column and go directly through where the fish seemed to be appearing on the screen.
We puttered along on the outside edge of the boat traffic which generally followed the shoreline to the dam and made a hard right turn to follow the structure’s face. The last of the overnight south breeze faded to calm and I angled away toward the depths of the channel, cutting diagonally across the lake while explaining what I knew of salmon fishing – predominantly empty coolers, ever-changing color combinations, and depths that varied based on text messages, internet posts and whatever the sonar screen seemed to suggest. While I faced forward into the fog, wiping the moisture from the windshield glass with my sweatshirt arm for visibility, I detailed what a release would look like, with the whipping tip of a rod snapping back up from its bent position, hopefully followed by the shaking of a fish on the other end and told Adam he would have first crack at it.
Midway through the shortcut across the lake, the white disc of the sun struggled its way through the clouds and found a tiny break in the fog on the east shore and briefly illuminated a boat moving along in the small patch of sparkling water surrounded by the early day’s dreariness. Alongside our boat, the surface reflected the darkness and the 160 feet of water below us looked black. My gaze drifted back to the color read-out of the sonar and I scrolled around the navigation to check out previous waypoints – which I knew mattered little, due to the roving nature of salmon and the schools of smelt which they follow and feed on. Suddenly, with a shout, my normally stoic brother-in-law was on his feet, as the inside rod in the port down rigger slapped at the air, then thundered with a series of hard pulls.
Right behind him, I jerked the second rod out of its holder and began reeling it up, tapping the button on the electric retrieve of the downrigger, bringing the ball and releases up and out of the way as he began his fight with the fish. Bent under the weight of the salmon, he angled the rod around the downrigger as the fish approached the surface, while I grabbed the net from the bow and extended it out off the stern.
The large white and crystal blue flasher came up before the fish, like the light of the sun from a few minutes before, splitting the dark water with a spin of brightness as it wiggled and wobbled between the continuous retrieve ahead of it and the force of the fish behind it. The gap in the dark water caused by the white flash was quickly filled by the near-black body of the salmon in tow. It bowed and slashed, running toward the boat and then away as I readied the net and laid it in the water. With one last lift, my brother-in-law slid it over the mesh and I shouted in a combination of excitement, disbelief and victory as after five or six trips of varying levels of disappointment, a salmon had finally found its way into my boat. It took nearly 15 minutes for the rush of adrenaline to subside, as we photographed the fish and captured the feat, recapping how it had happened and committing the details to memory as best we could during the panic of the Chinese fire drill that was the reel-up process.
Resetting from the excitement, I pulled a frozen herring from the cooler — while sneaking another look at the fish and confirming for the last time that it indeed was real and on ice — and set about rebaiting the hook. I speared the front treble into the side just back of the dorsal fin, and let the single trailer hang freely behind it. I pulled the line through the plastic hood, so the tension bent the half-frozen body of the bait and checked it in the water, watching it spin and turn in an attractive fashion thanks to the curl in the body. It disappeared into the dark water as the downrigger ball descended to 105 on the counter readout.
We cruised our way to the far side of the lake, made a couple of wide loops and took turns watching the sonar, noting shifts in where the fish were located, rises in the bottom and where the balls of baitfish showed up. As we hopped back and forth between rod watch and wheel duties, I made the shift to the passenger seat, and checked what appeared to be a low angle on the inside starboard rod. Sure enough, something had popped the plastic offering loose from its release, and we had been dragging it near the surface for a while. I informed by brother-in-law of the situation and set about bringing the plastic bait back to the boat to be re-set. As he turned to watch me finish out the task, he shouted, “That rod is going!”
It was tough to miss the herring rod pounding as I turned and immediately dropped my almost-finished reel-up and snapped the combo from the downrigger. I cranked until the tension was noticeable and swept back with my thumb on the spool. It was a clean connection which sent the fish racing up and toward the boat and I struggled to regain the slack line which separated us while Adam raised the second rod in the unit and I bumped the retrieve button to clear the downrigger ball again. Unable to feel the fish after fifty or sixty feet of line, I voiced my concern that it was gone, but he encouraged me to keep cranking, until suddenly the flasher came up just behind the motor, and there, three feet behind it the silver slash of yet another salmon appeared. Wasting no time, Adam swept it into the net and in a bizarre and happy turn, we had two fish on board where there had previously been none. It was more than I could have asked for as we happily untangled lines, removed hooks from net mesh and got things ship-shape for the rest of the morning.
Shortly after the second salmon, the fog and clouds disappeared as if swept from the sky by God’s own hand and the black water of Sakakawea beamed blue with the brightness of the last unofficial day of summer. The damp, chilly temperatures in the mid-50s quickly soared into the 70s as we tripped around the area one last time, a lone goldeye striking one of the artificial baits to add some excitement.
Upon our return to the boat launch, I waited in the small bay, and Adam on the downhill pavement approach, as pontoons and jet skis made their way onto the water and the cadre of salmon anglers made their exit around me. I was proud to have properly joined their ranks with a landed fish, as I gave a number of them a nod and a silent wave while stowing the rods, unhooking the downriggers and readying the boat for the trailer, all the while thinking of the next trip to the big water with the hopes of even more salmon success…in our outdoors.