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Skagit River Journal

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Humpback salmon are spawning

By Frank Wilkeson, town of Hamilton
This article originally appeared in the New York Times on May 15, 1892
With his fishing-buddies Ike Morrell and Theo P. Ladue

(fishing net)
Does anyone have a photo of fishing or hunting in the old days here that we can use to illustrate these articles?
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When the humpback salmon were spawning
A long fight with a big bull trout
The hoodoo dog-Ike's theory that the fish bite by the eye and not by scent

      "Humpback salmon are spawning." Such was the body of a telegram that a young friend of mine who lives in the Skagit Valley sent me late in September last.
      That terse message was weighty with meaning. It caused me to buy hooks, carefully to test leaders and lines, and to buy an extra large creel. "Humpback salmon are spawning." That fact indicated that the Skagit River was full of those ungainly fish, that they were spawning on the gravel bars, and that they had entered every creek and slough in countless numbers, to spawn and to die by the thousand. In addition, the message told me that bull and silver and mountain and river trout were swarming after the salmon, possessed of the sweet intention to eat every egg they laid.
      During the time of salmon spawning, or running, the large trout that make their home in the cold water of the Skagit River will not rise to gaudy-colored or sober-hued flies, it matters not how skillfully they are cast. They prefer salmon eggs to any other food. The trout eat salmon eggs for breakfast, for luncheon, for dinner, for supper, and for between-meal snacks. These trout are large, powerful, active, and dead-game fish. They fulfill their mission on earth, or, more properly, in the water, by keeping the number of salmon within reasonable bounds.
      The deadliest bait that can be cast into a trout stream or lake, it matters not the water or variety of trout, is salmon eggs. The trout does not swim in Western Washington waters that can resist this bait. To illustrate the point I desire to bring out plainly, I instance a trout that I caught one day. I had thrown a hook that was baited with salmon eggs into an eddy and as close to the rapid current as possible. A powerful fish struck it. After a delightful fight of five minutes I landed a bull trout that was nineteen inches long. Catching him firmly in the gills with thumb and index finger of my left hand, I held him preparatory to extracting the hook. Projecting an inch beyond his sharp-toothed jaws was the tail of a trout that was four inches long. I drew the small trout out of the large fish. Its head and body were half digested. The large bull trout, though its stomach was filled to its utmost capacity, could not resist attempting to swallow salmon eggs.

Hamilton jumpoff point
      I arrived at a little village in the Skagit Valley in the evening following the day on which I received the telegram that is the initial sentence of this article. Theo, young in years, but old in casting trout lines, and good fellow, too, met me at the station [Hamilton railroad depot], and together we walked to his office. Arrived there, he said, as he opened a sixteen-pound creel, "I thought I would keep the large fish of my afternoon's catch to show you." He spread a newspaper on the counter and emptied the creel and arranged the fish side by side. There were nine trout of three varieties. The largest trout was twenty inches long, the smallest sixteen inches. They were hard, fat fish. Theo told of the catching and when he had finished talking descriptively, he added: "Now, you have but two days to spend here. To-morrow morning early we will get Ike-one of my neighbors when I am in the Skagit Valley, and a most expert fisherman, but prone to make uncalled-for, if not unwise, experiments in matters relating to bait-"to join us, and we three will kill two score of these ravenous river trout. We will fill that creel"-Theo pointed at a thirty-pound creel that I had bought especially for this trip-"with large trout, cleaned and headless trout, mind you, and you can take them to Fairhaven to show to the boys." By boys he meant a certain group of merchants and bankers and real-estate brokers. Boys, indeed! Not one of the group is under forty-five years. But so lightly and disrespectfully does Pacific Coast youth speak of rotund or arid or rusty-jointed age. [Ed. noteWe have researched and identified Frank's fishing buddies, Ike Morrell and Theo P. Ladue. Read about them in this Journal capsule-biography webpage about Hamilton pioneers. Like Frank, Theo was a town boomer; Ike was a farmer from Tennessee, and we cannot yet find anything about Dan.]
      That night when our pipes were glowing after a rubber of whist, Ike and Theo told of the fishing of the previous week, and recklessly prophesied of the morrow. Presently a most unpleasant discussion arose between them-unpleasant, because Ike is given to profanity when excited. Ike had asserted that the trout would take fresh beef as freely as they did salmon eggs if it was cut into the proper shape. Theo held that the trout could see but little in the milky, glacial water, and that they were guided to the eggs by scent, and that sight had nothing at all to do with the matter. The discussion waxed warm, as discussions between fishermen are apt to do. Finally, Ike said sharply: "If I use beef for bait to-morrow, and catch as many trout as you do, or as Frank does, will you acknowledge that Skagit River trout bite by eye and not by scent?" and he added, sneeringly, "Just as though a fish could smell." "Yes." answered Theo. "And fish can smell their food." "You are wrong, Ike," I said. "I am right, and I will prove it to-morrow," he said savagely, and he left us.

We prove to Ike about a fish's sense of smell
      Early next morning, after a breakfast of broiled trout and ruffed grouse, we three shouldered our creels, and, rod in hand, walked slowly through the sleeping village. In the town we met Dan, a carpenter who had much rather fish and hunt than to drive nails and saw tough fir boards. His eyes lighted with pleasure when he saw us. He abandoned his purpose to work. He put away his tools and joined us. Besides carrying a rod he had a gun, and his dog-a famous grouse dog-accompanied him. We four walked slowly along the riverbank trail toward an eddy, known as the Maple Log Eddy, so called because a maple log juts into it. When we were about half way to the eddy Theo called our attention to a small, misshapen black dog, with an exceedingly curly tail, that ran in the trail about a hundred yards ahead of us. None of us knew this dog. He had appeared mysteriously, as though he had sprung out of the earth. My heart grew heavy. "Hold on, boys," I said as I seated myself on a cedar log. "Hold on," I repeated, and I added solemnly as my comrades ceased to walk: "I know every dog that lives in this town, and I am up in all things that relate to hoodoos. That black dog does not belong here. He is not a dog at all. He is a hoodoo. If we cannot rid ourselves of him we may as well go home. We will catch no fish if he accompanies us. He is an evil-minded hoodoo."

Read about Patricia N. McAndrew's new book, The Old Soldier Goes Fishing — planned for publication in December 2005, a collection of his columns and a biography of Frank and his family.

      My three comrades looked earnestly at the dog-like animal through anger-lighted eyes, and almost instantly they agreed that it was imperative to drive the hoodoo away. We spent half an hour in separating him from Dan's honest dog, then stoned him and threw clubs at him, and derided him till he disappeared from the village. A hoodoo? Of course he was. In less than three minutes after we had rid ourselves of the uncanny animal Dan shot two ruffed grouse that his dog had treed.
      Arrived at the eddy, we began to fish, Ike and I seated on the maple log, Theo and Dan seated on the riverbank. My rod and line ready, I baited the hook with salmon eggs. Ike contemptuously refused to use my eggs. He drew a large piece of rough, raw beef from his pocket and baited his hook with a small portion of it. He laughed the laugh indicative of supreme scorn when I mildly suggested to him that he was exhibiting about as much intelligence as a fog possesses in attempting to catch trout with beef when salmon eggs were being used above and below him. I cast my bait close to the current of the rapidly flowing stream and allowed it to sink to the bottom. Almost instantly a trout struck, and struck heavily. A turn of my wrist drove the hook firmly into the fish's mouth. Rising to my feet, I began to play my trout. I instantly realized that I had hooked a fish that was going to make trouble. He was very strong. I could not raise him. Persistently he sought bottom, which method of fighting indicated that he was a bull trout. The light rod bent and swayed to and fro and throbbed strongly as the furious fish circled, unseen by us, in the milky water.
      "Give me room, Ike! Get your line out of the pool!" I exclaimed in a double-barreled sentence, as my trout swam faster and faster in a circle and fought desperately against coming to the surface. Suddenly the angry or frightened trout rose close to the surface and I saw him quite distinctly through the cloudy water. He was too large, I feared, for me successfully to handle him in a pool of so limited area. There were submerged logs and brush in various portions of the pool. To allow the trout to enter these encumbered areas would be to lose him. If I gave him line in answer to his imperative demand, and the fish entered the river, the strength of the current, added to his own, would aid him to break my tackle. I stood irresolute, with the throbbing, creaking rod bent as a half hoop in my hand.
      "Give him line, Frank. He will break your rod else. Let him enter the river. You may be able to sweep him to the bank," shouted Theo, who was watching the struggle through blazing eyes. I lifted my thumb from the reel when the fish next approached the current. The trout dashed into the rapidly flowing water. The reel sang shrilly. Fifty yards of line ran out and stretched diagonally from me down the river. I added my thumb to the restraining pressure of click and drag. Ten yards more line rolled off, then ten more, then seventy yards of fine silk line stretched from me to the fish that was in the most rapid portion of the current. Eighty yards of line out and my pole creaked warningly.
      "No use," I muttered, and set my thumb hard against the reel as I dropped the tip of the rod to the water. I meant to let the force of the current swing my trout to the riverbank. Snap! The tip of the rod flew up. The largest bull trout I ever saw had been lost. Looking behind me, I saw the small, misshapen, bow-legged black dog sitting on the bank above me-sitting with lolling red tongue and cocked head, and looking directly at me through evil eyes, as though to say, "I am after you, old boy." Ah, the cursed hoodoo!
      "Look on the bank!" I exclaimed to my comrades. They looked upward. Four rods were carefully laid down, and four men stoned the hoodoo yelping from the river and into final disappearance. I lost no more fish that day. But I had lost a new double leader and twenty yards of silk line, and the king of the bull trout.

Bull trout and river trout
      After the wicked hoodoo disappeared the fishing was excellent. There were two varieties of trout that afforded rare sport. They were bull trout and river trout. The former were the most powerful, but they were deep-water fighters, and never broke water till they were well nigh exhausted. The latter were more active, equally large, but were not as strong as the bull trout, but they broke water the instant the hook pricked them, and they remained out of the water almost continuously, leaping high, and shaking their heads furiously the while until landed.
      When I had caught ten large trout and about twenty small ones that ranged from 8 to 14 inches long, I filled and lighted a pipe and laid my catch side by side on the cool grass that grew on the river's bank. Theo joined me, and together we looked at the trout through pleasure-lighted eyes.
      "How many kind of trout have you, Frank?" Theo asked.
      "Two," I replied.
      Theo placed two of the large river trout side by side. They were precisely similar in marking. Then he spread their tails widely and looked significantly at me and asked, "Are those two the same kind?"
      I looked attentively at them and saw that one had a squaretail and the tail of the other was forked, and I replied, "No," and added, "I do not know the name of these trout, do you?"
      "No," he replied; "they are precisely similar in marking and in shape, save their tails. They are dead game. We will call them river trout. And we did and do.
      Hours had passed. The sun was at its height, and Ike, the advocate of the absurd theory that trout bite by eye and not by scent, had not caught a fish. He had whittled scores of bait from his chunk of beef. He had dulled all the blades of his pocketknife in cunningly attempting to shape raw beef into resemblance of salmon eggs. During the first two hours of his whittling and alleged fishing his slight frame had been shaken at short intervals by furious gusts of passionate and denunciatory profanity, this whenever our lines began to circle and the rods to bow and large trout leaped high above the milky water. Ike's feelings presently became so intense that he could not express them vocally. He huddled into a silent lump. He seemed to grow smaller and smaller. His hair and whiskers hung limp. He cut beef-baits dejectedly, and cast the water-soaked and whitened baits into the pool with a motion of his hand that was indicative of supreme mental anguish. So sorrowful did he appear that we forbore to chaff him.
      Salmon crowded into the pool to rest from their struggle against the strong current. They ruined the trout fishing. They took bait and swam directly into current the instant the hook pricked them. There, aided by the strength of the water, they broke hooks or lines or leaders. They were so numerous in the eddy that if we missed a strike at a biting trout the hook frequently entered the side or belly of a resting salmon. When we hooked a trout and the line circled, we repeatedly felt it strike salmon. I lost three hooks in succession and then quit fishing. It was a little after noon.
      "Here, boys," I exclaimed, "this is not what we came out for. We are not rigged for salmon fishing. Let's go to the logjam and eat luncheon. There is no eddy there, no slack water, and these powerful salmon will not trouble us there."
      "It's a whizz," said Dan and Theo as one fisherman.
      "Hanged if I leave this eddy till I catch a trout with beef bait," said Ike, resolutely. And he visibly contracted before our sorrow-laden eyes. Sorrow-laden because we all loved Ike, the hot-tempered and explosive. We bade him a loving farewell, and attempted to cheer him with kindly remarks that caused a volcanic eruption of lurid profanity. We hastened away.
      At the logjam we had the best of fishing, we caught trout after trout. About one in four was over sixteen inches long. Theo caught a bull trout that was twenty-two inches long. That was the largest trout caught. After fishing at the logjam for two hours I ventured to return to Ike and the maple log. Seated by the side of the advocate of fresh-beef bait I quickly caught two small silver salmon, which caused my comrade to sigh heavily, and to whittle new baits.

Spawning Humpback salmon
      At short intervals dead humpbacked salmon floated down the river. Weak, worn-out fish tried to ascend the river and were swept back, turning over and over the while. Many of the salmon were torn, and large holes had been worn through their skins and deep into their flesh. Many dead salmon lay along the water-washed edges of gravel bars. It was evident that the run of humpbacks was approaching its end. About 3 o'clock Ike broke the silence, saying: "Look across the river at the riffle. A salmon fresh from the sea is mounting it." I looked in the indicated direction and saw the water rise from the head of a salmon as water from the bow of a rapidly moving sailboat. As I gazed I saw the water at the foot of the riffle boil whitely. Steadily and rapidly the foamy line that extended clear across the riffle moved up the river. "The head of the run of Chinook or Tyee, or jack salmon has arrived. They are welcome. I am tired of seeing these loathsome humpbacks," said Ike. From 3 o'clock till we quit fishing at 5:30 there were never less than 100 salmon swimming up the riffle at the same time, and frequently the whole area of the riffle was spray-coated, and countless, ever-changing, and tiny rainbows formed above the migratory fish as they hurried to their spawning ground. The spectacle impressed me strongly.
      When the sun had sunk low toward the fir-clad divide that bounds the valley to the north a heavy pull on my line told me that I had struck a fish. I felt of him carefully. He broke water. It was a small silver salmon that weighed three and a half pounds. Then I caught a baby salmon that weighed a pound. My creel was packed full of dressed and headless fish. I reeled my line, unjointed my rod, and as I slipped it into its cover I said to Ike: "Let's call it a day and quit."
      Slowly Ike rose. Silently he unjointed his rod, then turning to me he said, earnestly: "Skunked for the first time in my life." He clambered up the riverbank, and slowly walked along the trail toward home.
      Theo and Dan joined me. Their creels were full. We emptied all the creels on the cool, damp grass. There were thirty-nine large trout and a peck of smaller fish, and in addition two long strings of trout. The thirty-nine large trout, headless and cleaned, filled a thirty-pound and a sixteen-pound creel. Take it all in all, it was the most enjoyable day's trout fishing I had had on the Pacific coast. Heavily laden and weary, we walked slowly home. Ike did not appear at the whist table that night. He was crushed.
      After supper, when our pipes were glowing brightly, we opened the back door of the office and drew our chairs close to it to listen to the mysterious sounds made by the river as the water boiled and swirled as it hurried to the sea. At short intervals we heard the loud splash, splash, made by jumping salmon as they fell into the water, above which they had sprung high in playful leaps. Lowly, as though fearful to frighten the fish, Theo said: "The river is crowded with the fresh run. They are active, powerful fish. To-morrow we will try our salmon rods, and we will explode the absurd theory that salmon will not rise to flies or take bait after they enter the rivers of the Pacific coast." And we did.

Journal links and background reading
      This story was transcribed from New York Times archival material and shared by Patricia McAndrew, a scholar and author in Pennsylvania.

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