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My Short Happy Life as a Boat Person

I may never become part of the fly-fishing elite, but I do have my pride.

My Short Happy Life as a Boat Person

(Al Hassal art)

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.

Thinking back now, I should have realized that the transition from banker to boat person would not be without challenges, not the least of which came from my own family, which has always harbored antipathy toward boat people of all sorts. Undaunted, I launched my boat into the darkness of the Chetco River and steered a course toward Tide Rock where I misjudged the depth, and immediately lost my anchor in fifty feet of water. Steaming, I repositioned my boat with the remaining anchor, thankful for the darkness, which shielded me from the derision of the bankers.


My Short Happy Life as a Boat Person
(Al Hassal art)

Turning on my headlamp, I arranged the net and other belongings, and sat in the splendid comfort of my boat, secure and mostly happy in my new role. When I heard the first banker casting, I checked my watch against the sunrise table to be sure that I was legal, then reached for my fly rod. It was gone.

Not only had I lost an anchor, the anchor rope had also taken with it an $800 Orvis fly rod and reel. The fishing gods were angry, and in the rising light I could see my brothers on the rock laughing at me. I was furious and humiliated. Had I driven nine hundred miles of bad road for this abuse? I wasn’t sure it was worth it.

Rowing to the bank, I trudged up to the house to get my bait-casting rod and dejectedly loaded up with banker gear. I was still going to use my boat, but my tools for becoming a fly fisher of salmon rested in fifty feet of dark cold water, far beyond my reach and perhaps my station in life.

After salving my pride with a Dutch Brothers Coffee Kicker from town, I rowed back to my spot and began to soak bait in a row of fly fishers. It was humiliating, but as I soon hooked a twenty-five-pound chrome hen, and saw my erstwhile companion fly fishers were not catching anything, my attitude began to change.

I tied the salmon to the seat post, suspended it in the water to keep it fresh, and went back to fishing, hoping to limit out before my brothers and be cleaning fish before nine.

Daydreaming a little, I was just dozing off when I felt the ping of a salmon picking up my dropper rig, and I reared back, setting the hook on what felt like a big fish.

As I set the hook, I felt the seat break off from the pedestal, and I was flung over backward. The sixty-pound deep-cycle battery slid over into the corner with me, and suddenly three hundred pounds of fisherman and gear were piled helplessly upside down in the back corner of my Microsoft Paint boat.

With my feet over my head and my neck jammed between the terminals of the battery, I could not pull myself up with one hand and still hold onto the fish.

As I struggled, the fish began a screaming run, adding to the stress on the unbalanced dinghy, which began to ship water over the transom and quickly swamp.

Suddenly I found myself swimming in forty-degree water, holding onto my fishing rod as the boat sank slowly out of sight, trailing my other fish, the net, the motor, the fish finder, and the battery. Fortunately, one of the fly fishers with a real boat rowed me to shore as I hung from the bow of his pram.

Climbing up the shore to the laughter and jeers of the rabble, I gamely fought the salmon while telling myself that at least I hadn’t lost the fish.

As it turned out, it was a big fish, a forty-five-pound male as bright as a new nickel, with sea lice that testified of its recent run from the sea. As I lugged the fish proudly toward the house, the jeers and laughter slowly changed to cheers as the bankers welcomed me back to my rightful place once again on the shore.

I may never become part of the fly-fishing elite with a pram that doesn’t sink, but I do have my pride. The next time I build a boat, I’m going to use Corel Draw for the design. Microsoft Paint just isn’t up to the job of real naval architecture.

Steve Heinrich is a physiotherapist and part-time boat builder from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

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