In Seattle, Washington, alongside Puget Sound, a realm of sights and smells draws me back at least once a year as it would the most hapless tourist. I’m alive to the colorfully piled fruits of the land, but the chilled fruits of the sea most fascinate me.
Here at Pike Place Market—part market, part bazaar—I stare into the glass displays of the fishmongers. Here are halibut cheeks. Stacks of them. Think of it: these disks of meat weigh half a pound to three-quarters of a pound each, and each is taken from the head of a halibut. Think of the size of the entire fish. That is a bounty to wonder at.
I hungered to catch such a fish. Tired of angling from a pier, I persuaded my husband Ray that we should go on a serious fishing expedition. The brochure I sent for from British Columbia showed anglers proudly standing next to salmon of unbelievable size. And other fish awaited—lingcod and halibut.
Apparently the rich waters of Vancouver Island swarmed with trophy-size fish. Getting there involved flying up on a large plane before transferring to a small one and, of course, an outlay of some money, as I told Ray.But the results would be worth it. He agreed, mostly I think because instead of a mere jaunt around our own continent, I could have been proposing a safari on another one.
Upon our arrival at Vancouver Island’s west coast, a bus waited to take disembarking passengers to the village of Ucluelet. A murmur rippled through our group, for upon the tarmac were stacks of cold boxes filled with fish.They belonged to the outbound group of anglers. Waiting to board the plane that had just brought us here, these fishermen glanced at us and exchanged smirks. The smirks were unmistakable expressions of superiority, which we, the newcomers, could not dispute—yet.
Our accommodations in Ucluelet were to be aboard a ship permanently moored dockside. I didn’t mind its inertness; in fact, I hoped its keel was embedded in concrete. I’d spent a half-dozen forays at this new sport casting my line from piers, while fishermen elsewhere braved heaving seas in party boats. The very word, heaving,inspired a like motion in my stomach. I knew that keeping your gaze upon the horizon doesn’t work; that is the biggest lie ever foisted upon human beings who have gone to sea for the first time.
But I’d come prepared to go out in a fishing boat. I had this miraculous patch to stick behind my ear, guaranteed to avert seasickness. Ray said he wouldn’t wear any old patch—he had never been seasick in his life.
Down in our cabin, I read that one of the two restaurants somewhere above would serve breakfast at 4:30. That meant I had to get up at—what?—four? That also meant I had to be asleep by at least 9 p.m. Well, this expedition was my idea; I began to hope Ray wouldn’t remember that.
I could hear him breathing deeply, evenly, in his bunk. It was going to be a long night and a too-brief morning.
In the blackest night, someone rapped on our door and screamed, “Four o’clock! Up and at ‘em!” I crept out of my bunk, bumping my head only once, and shook Ray. He turned to the wall, mumbling that he didn’t want breakfast.
Above in the salon, dimly lit in apparent deference to bleary eyes, I had my tea and muffins. Outside, there was absolutely nothing to be seen, not even a single star. The only sounds were the hushed voices of other folks having their breakfasts.
I thought perhaps I should try to eat a more robust meal, but could not face the piles of bacon and eggs and home fries over on the steam table. I wondered—this being August at 50 degrees latitude—whether I would see sunrise here in the dining room or aboard the boat.
The last time I had experienced a sunrise was when I lunged to pull the shade down next to my airline seat on an overnight flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to New York.
I returned to the cabin in the unyielding darkness. Ray hadn’t moved. His fingers refused to curl around the muffin I placed in his hand, but they instinctively grasped the paper cup of coffee.
It was still dark when we assembled on the floating dock with 12 others assigned to Chinook Queen, a 43-foot deepsea charter. In ghostly huddles along the docks stood more groups like ours. Engines were firing up and a hot diesel exhaust began to replace the pure, cold pre-dawn air. An uneasy sensation clutched me. But we’d soon be at sea. The smoke would blow away behind us. Besides, behind my ear was that patch, its infallibility pledged by the manufacturer, my doctor, and a friend who couldn’t look at a picture of a rowboat without needing to lie down.
Once underway on Chinook Queen, Ray and I leaned against the rail and watched the tall blurry shapes of trees recede with the shoreline. Soon our speed picked up. The sky had lightened and we were out on the open ocean. Commercial fishing boats dotted the still-dark surface, their deck rigging tough and businesslike. Admiration filled me. These hardworking fishermen must have gotten up ours before I did—and they did it every day.
The Queen slowed and developed a rolling motion. The wind veered and began pouring diesel exhaust over everybody on deck. Automatically I searched for the horizon, but it remained imperceptible.
“This won’t last,” Ray said reassuringly. “Go up front. It might be better there.”
I went up front. One of the crew told me I couldn’t stay there and sent me back.
At last, the skipper cut the engines. The air, again cold and bracing, made riding the gentle swells tolerable. I didn’t mind the overcast morning; my receptors were unready for harsh sunshine. As I looked around and realized that the boat was but a paper shell of security between the masked ferocity of the ocean and our soft, disposable bodies, I remembered that I didn’t know how to swim.
Jimmy, our deckhand, gave us our fishing rods and instruction on their use. I fell in love immediately with the gold-and-green jigging lure, a huge improvement over squid or smelly, oozy anchovy.And I learned we were in high-tech fishing heaven: the boat’s sonar equipment would track schools of fish and tell us how deep to let down our lines. All we had to do was cry, “Fish on!” reel in, and Jimmy would take care of the messy details.
I was awestruck. Beneath my feet swarmed millions of fish. The odds were finally
in my favor.
“What a thrill!” I told Ray. “Imagine! We’re somewhere between Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands.”
He didn’t answer. He had rested his rod against the rail to gaze intently at the horizon, now visible. His complexion had turned the color of a shad’s belly. With a sudden gesture of helplessness, he leaned far over the rail. Afterward, he went into the cabin, sat down, and closed his eyes.
Barely under control myself, I knew that without the patch behind my ear, I’d have surrendered before we had left the harbor.A young woman sat behind me in a bench. She hadn’t moved for an hour-and-a-half, but sat scrunched to the chin in her jacket. An expression of one who had descended into the netherworld lined her face. Privately, I named her Persephone.
Her male companion busily jigged the lure as Jimmy had taught us to do. Near the stern, a trio of men were having a very good time. Hearty types, they were dressed in segments of army fatigues and joked about bets they had laid on which of them caught his limit of four salmon first.
Suddenly, Persephone’s friend gave a whoop. “Fish on!”
I reeled in my line as did one of the hearty men on his other side to avoid interference. I rather liked this. We were behaving liked disciplined, proper sportsmen.
Over the rail came a thrashing, silvery beauty. Jimmy deftly dispatched it, added a slash on its tail to identify the owner, and dropped it into the holding box.“Fifteen pounds,” he said. “Not bad.”
Persephone never opened her eyes for so much as a peek.
I dropped my lure back into the water and jigged, imagining it catching the eye of hordes of big salmon as it swooped and dived.
Persephone’s friend had another. I didn’t understand. We stood no more than three feet apart. Fifteen minutes later he caught another. Cries of “Fish on!” began to ring all around the boat and Jimmy became a very busy deckhand.
Two or three people jigged, like me, without result.
I could see Ray in the cabin. Eyes still shut, he remained oblivious to the action on deck, hearing and caring as little about the “upper world” as did Persephone.
Every half-hour or so, the skipper announced the school was on the move and proceeded to chase it. Whenever he did, hope became reborn. I might get one after all.
I passed on lunch, not wanting to test the patch behind my ear too much. But I felt sublime relief when the Chinook Queen headed home. On the dock a crowd gathered to watch us. The three betting men had all caught their limits. And, yes, one had gotten a big halibut. But its cheeks were indiscernible in its triangular head.
Among the losers, Persephone, Ray, and I trudged back to the mother ship—without salmon, halibut or their cheeks.
“Luck has no brains,” I told Ray. I could see that he didn’t care one way or the other.