As I pulled through the small town of Kooskia, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, I noticed a scarecrow-like fisherman dummy, hanging, with a noose around his neck. There was a sign taped to his front, that, could I have read the native language, may have deterred me from the fishing trip I was about to undertake.
It was the late 70’s or early 80’s, and steelhead fishing had just been opened back up on the Clearwater River on the Nez Perce Reservation. It had been closed for quite a while to sport fishermen, and relations were, to say the least, unsettled.
Nevertheless, on a crisp clear Friday afternoon in early March, my dog Jake and I were destined for a cheap motel that was thirty more miles up the road in Orofino, Idaho, just inside the northern border of the Reservation. My intent was to entertain Jake with a boat ride while chasing large B-run steelhead from sun up to sun down on Saturday and Sunday.
I was excited to fish for the B-run steelhead. The size of these ocean-going rainbow trout is phenomenal. They can weigh between 10 to 20 pounds and range in length from 26 to 42 inches. Returning to their breeding grounds after one to three years in the ocean, the deep red and shimmering silver spawning colors are absolutely brilliant, and they are thrilling to catch. I was looking forward to putting my fishing skills to the test.
After checking into the dingy motel in Orofino, I went to bed early – the hanging fisherman all but forgotten. Saturday morning I was up before dawn and headed to the river. With headlamp on, Jake and I loaded into my 14 foot aluminum boat and shoved off into the steely morning glow to the sound of the river waking.
Jake was my constant companion. He was a black Labrador Retriever, and I’d nicknamed him “Jake the Mistake.” He was cross eyed and full of character. He was one of those dogs that would smile when he was happy, but he wasn’t much of a barker unless something startled him. He was a fine fishing buddy, and we drift fished with sammies, as planned, all day long.
Sammies were the ticket back in the day. They had dual-hooks with a piece of balsa wood painted in two colors and a floss tail. Sometimes I painted my own and called them “clowns” because I painted them pink with a white stripe.
Using one of my home-made lures, I was able to pick up two nice fish in a good run at the head of the Black Rock hole above the Pink House hole. It was tough fishing back then, so landing two steelhead was cause for celebration and constituted an excellent day.
Since I’d had such good luck, I wanted to lay claim to the Black Rock hole again on Sunday at first light. I decided to camp on the sandy beach nearby, across the river from the highway, near some railroad tracks.
I pulled my weather-beaten boat onto shore. It screeched over the coarse sand, and clanked loudly when Jake finally decided to jump out. Exhausted and hungry, I set to the task of building a fire and ate some sandwiches I’d bought at the convenience store earlier in the day. No tent was necessary, as the weather was clear and cool. I tossed my mummy sleeping bag on the ground and commenced to drift off to sleep under a star-studded sky.
I was startled awake when I felt the tug of the drawstring on the hood of my sleeping bag zipped up, covering my whole face. Someone lifted my head, and another person picked up my feet. I heard no voices, just feet shuffling and the rippling sound of the river. The thought occurred to me that this was just a scare tactic, but I was panic stricken and fumbled around the inside of my bag trying to find the zipper. Before I could manage to do anything, I felt a synchronized swinging, like in a hammock, and I was pitched into the river.
My encased feet sank and began thumping on the river bottom, so at least I knew up from down. I figured out the flow of the river and tried to get my feet going downstream. I realized I could tick the bottom with my toes and bob my head above the water’s surface. I continued to do this while trying to get my shaking hands to work well enough to unhook the zipper which bound my face, as well as my arms and legs and the rest of my body.
The stars were out, but the river was dark and I had little idea of what lay ahead except for the sound of more rushing water.
Intermittently holding my breath, gasping for air, and tugging and pulling the zipper, I finally managed to get free. I abandoned the bag and made my way to the river’s edge and back onto the beach. There was Jake the Mistake, curious as all hell. He’d followed me down the river but had made no sound of warning or surprise whatsoever. Surely he was thrown a piece of meat to keep him quiet. Incredulous, I grabbed the scruff of his neck, partially leaning on him for support, and we made our way back to the camp fire. Nobody was around.
I loaded up the boat, and Jake and I went across the river in the dark through the Pink House hole. My adrenaline was rushing, and I seemed to be on auto-pilot. I suddenly remembered the warning of the hanging fisherman. As quickly as I could, I got the boat on the trailer, and we headed for home.
My steelhead fishing season was closed.
Editor’s Note: This is a story of Ron’s, as told to and edited by Tracy Watt.