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My Short, Happy Life as a Boat Person

by Steve Heinrich   |  August 15th, 2012 0

Illustration: Al Hassall

My short happy life as a boat person ended rather abruptly with the hooking of a forty-five-pound Chinook salmon last October while fishing at Tide Rock on the Chetco River in southern Oregon. For years, I had languished as a bank person on Tide Rock while dreaming of the day when I could join the ranks of the fly-fishing elite in their beautiful prams anchored above the holding water for incoming salmon.
As a longtime fly fisherman myself, I thought it would be simple to insinuate myself into the cadre of privileged boat people who lined the pools of the Chetco River, but I was afraid. Afraid to leave the comfort of my family, my brothers, and my father who had always been bank people, and who had dutifully gotten up at 4 A.M. each morning of salmon season to garner that choice spot on the rock.

It was the tradition in our family to be bank people, and so with a longing look at the small fleet of boats anchored in the river, I would climb down the slippery, treacherous path to Tide Rock where we would sit on the slimy and sometimes bloody rock in the rain and wait for salmon to hit our bait.

Using sand shrimp suspended beneath bobbers or dropper rigs, we would feel for the bump of a Chinook while trying to avoid getting hooked in the eye by the ten other guys trying to push us into the water and out of our spots.

Don’t get me wrong, we caught fish, and lots of them. But it was a hassle fighting fish from the rock, fighting other fishermen for the one net that hopefully some newbie had brought, and then fighting again to reclaim our spot once the fish was landed or lost.
In the unspoken rules set down on Tide Rock from time immemorial, you could claim your spot in only two ways: by getting to Tide Rock first or, having large ornery brothers who would spread out and then, looking mean, hold it for you. However, that was only good so long as your large ornery brothers were not fighting a fish, or cleaning a fish, or not paying attention. If any of these things happened while you were away, well then your spot was fair game for any other enterprising banker who had the courage to horn in.

Tide Rock is suspended thirty feet over the water with steep slippery surfaces and tiny ledges that are only big enough for about twenty people maximum and as usual, it was a mess. There were at least fifty guys throwing sharpened steel hooks loaded with a menagerie of baits over, under, and around our heads while doing a tap dance on spilled fish guts, WD-40, blood, Smelly Jelly, and salmon eggs.

Year after year, I had driven fourteen hours from my home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, down the length of Washington and Oregon to Brookings for a week of salmon fishing and each year after a few days of fighting it out on Tide Rock, I secretly wanted to be out in a boat. A boat where I could have at least three feet of clear space to breathe and concentrate on fly fishing, and of course to feel superior to my brothers who were stuck on the rock with the crowd.

Last year I finally resolved to build a boat, and since I am cheap and have an inflated estimation of my skill with tools, I decided not to buy a kit boat with parts that would actually fit. Instead, I decided to design and build my own boat from scratch. “How hard could it be?” I reasoned as I drew up the plans using Microsoft Paint, the acknowledged software of choice for discerning boat builders.

To ensure the boat would fit in my truck, I began the process by measuring the bed of my pickup. I learned that the best design would be forty-four inches wide by seventy-eight inches long with a front, a back, and sides. (Those are the boat building terms all naval architects use.)

Using the winter months to build, I had a reasonable facsimile of a bunch of plywood and epoxy ready for salmon season, and I tested it out on a local pond using an electric motor and the oars from my pontoon boat. It was glorious to behold, and other than the fact that the oarlocks were in the wrong position and almost unusable, I was satisfied with my efforts. I could only imagine the looks of admiration I would receive when I anchored my boat near Tide Rock in the fall.

Continued – click on page link below.

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