In the Jaws
Posted on June 25th, 2012
“I will pee off the side of this boat if I have to. I’ve done it before.”
I thought this even while I thought about the multiple layers of pants and rubber and rain-soaked nylon that I was currently sporting. I’d make it work. I had one mark against me already by being dickless, so, I’d just have to metaphorically sack up and make the micturition happen, one way or another.
I was perched on the prow bench seat of a flat-bottomed fishing boat, somewhere off of the coast of Tillamook, OR. When your friend asks you if you want to go fishing with a wild-eyed, Columbia-educated strawberry farmer who tends bar at the sushi joint they both work at, and tells you that you will be the only girl, you do not say no. You say ‘yes’, and you show up.
We’d left Portland at three in the morning, in the wet darkness. (In Portland, there are only two kinds of darkness: wet, or about to be wet). I was working as a baker at the time, and you’d think that this would’ve prepared me for the punishing eye-squint of being dragged out of unconsciousness at that hour. It didn’t. The road out to the ocean is winding, narrow, and inexplicably packed with semis, especially during the reptilian confines of pre-dawn. The windshield was greasy. The rain, ever stronger, the closer we got to the ocean. We rode in silence, save for the occasional deep, drawn out ‘fuuuuuuuuuck thiiiiiiiis’, which is what you say when you start to wonder why anyone would choose wrestling with crab pots over that great dream that you’re always having right before the alarm goes off. But. We had chosen to be responsible for sandwiches, and the captain’s beer. If being a woman on a boat is already fraught with difficulty in the luck department, failing to show up with the booze is a guaranteed pair of snake eyes. Again, you just say yes. And you show up.
When we finally pulled into the parking lot, somewhere near Garibaldi, it was still dark enough that boats, water, buildings, trucks, and trailers blurred together in a general wash of rain and shadow. We hadn’t eaten. Eric decided to smoke a cigarette in the driving downpour, and make a call to see if we were early or late—there’d been no sign of life at the marina, and we couldn’t tell which side of the fence we’d landed on. I envied his ability to piss against the side of a building, and wished away the coffee I’d consumed. The car door opened in a burst of wind and salt. “They’re here already. Down at the dock. Let’s go.”
A vague smear of light had begun in the sky, bringing things into sharper relief as we approached the pier—the white-chased ocean, the scurrying shapes, securing lines, arranging gear. Introductions. And then, for the first of many times that day, “Are you sure you want to do this?”, from the skipper. I’m sure, I said. “Then put these on.” A pair of rubber waders, on over my canvas overalls, under the already-sopping raincoat I’d borrowed from the closet that morning. The waders had footed ends, my feet suddenly encased, condom-like, and difficult to shove back into the non-slip Crocs I’d grabbed in a three a.m. assessment of which of my shoes were a) not slippery and b) waterproof. I felt trussed like a ham. There were more instructions, I was handed down into the pitching flat-bottomed boat, and then, the wooden dock was fading away, and we were making for open water. “Is she having a good time, do you think?” I am not supposed to hear this. Oh, I am having a good time, I think, spray hitting my face sideways. I am goddamn spectacular.
And, it was. The wind was up, and the water was rough—we were heading out towards a part of the bay called The Jaws, riding the choppy swell with all the grace of an ocean tanker performing a ballet—first, the sharp tilt up at the crest of the wave. Then, the tooth-rattling, ass-bruising slap of the boat’s bottom on the back end of the slope. “IT’S LIKE BEING MADE LOVE TO BY R. KELLY” I scream to my friend, my words, and my sleep-deprived hysteria lost on the wind. The sky was growing light. We were at least ten kinds of wet, and it was not even five a.m. We were fishing.
Well, first, what we were doing, was placing crab pots. This was a multi-pronged expedition—should our lines fail, we were hoping for Dungeness at the end of the day to make up for it. The heavy cages were tossed overboard around a section of cove, the lines bright then gone in the green water, sinking down out of sight. Goodbye, hope, I thought. See you later.
Then, we turned our attention to the true reason we’d all arisen at the god-awful hour of ass-early, and assembled here in this water-logged vessel: salmon fishing. I’d cast about on piddling lakes and ponds. I’d stolen sunfish from the man-made pool on the local wealthy family’s property on an illicit babysitting raid of their fish stock. But I’d never fished on the open ocean. This was readily apparent, as I sat there, dumb-faced, thumb-stupid, listening to the skipper explain the basic principles of what we were doing. The method seemed to be this: get your poles ready. Allow one of the boat bros to bait the hook properly, with a small-bodied silver fish. Fend off the waiting seagulls. Cast your line into the water at the right moment while we drifted back through the channel we’d so recently battled our way to the front of. Don’t tangle it with anyone else’s. Wait. And then, when the tug comes—haul like hell.
And so it goes, on the rough sea, in the Jaws—the slow creep up to the mouth of the bay, where the water churns violently, forced through a smaller opening out into the Pacific, the boat slapping the whole way up. The subsequent drift down again, lines trailing, seagulls poaching bait accompanied by our cussing, the ten a.m. shots of Jager that appear from somewhere near the skipper’s feet. His sly, testing grin, measuring my reaction to everything—is the girl enjoying herself? How soon will she ask to go back in?
I don’t. I won’t. I don’t care how badly I have to pee.
Several hours in, the magical thing happens—I’m given the credit, but, I don’t feel I entirely deserve it, when I land that salmon. It is huge, silver, gasping in the net, and my arms are aching with the weight of it. It is easily the length of one of those aching arms, shoulder to pinky finger, and as sleekly fat as a seal. Forget sunnies. Forget trout. This is a Fish. All silvery pink scales, blood, and salt, and I am so transfixed by its arcing body in the net that at first I don’t hear what the boys are telling me. That it is the wrong kind. The kind we are not allowed to keep. It has to go back.
It has been hooked cruelly deep, and blood is running from its mouth, and I know it is a dead thing, and want to weep with the frustration of it, all of these hours in the cold and the soaking rain leading to this—some seagull poaching my first salmon before its body can even sink beneath the waves. Fuck you, I breathe to the first bird that takes a pass. Shoo. Fuck off.
But this is the way of it, for all of us, that day—fish after fish. Each one the wrong kind. The Jaws casting each muscled winking body into our waiting nets, and then taking them back, just as readily. The sea giveth. The sea makes you glad you brought sandwiches. The sea taketh away.
And there is something in the rhythm of it, that steals over me, in my rain-soaked stupor, this hauling in and letting go, that drives home the beauty of the sport all over again. It’s about the fish, sure—we want them. We want them badly. But, it is also about only having them for a short while, no matter which way it ends–in a pan, or in a net lowered once more to the water. They are here. They are silver. They are so bright. And then, they are gone.