It is one of my most distinct childhood memories: I was around 8 years old, on my family's annual summer vacation at a California park. (It could've been Sequoia or Yosemite or Lake Arrowhead—honestly, they all sort of meld into one big blur of playing Bubble Bobble in a cabin with my cousins.) My dad took my siblings and me fishing at a nearby creek. As I stood there, my line limply steeped in the shallow water, attracting nary a nibble, I watched as my then-4-year-old sister morphed into the guy on the Gorton's box, emptying the river of seemingly every last trout. (In reality, she probably only caught two, but as I remember it, she was pulling in enough to stock a Long John Silver's.) My ensuing jealousy soured me on not just fishing, but outdoor activity in general. Years later, in high school, I wrote an essay decrying fishing as a sport for morons working really hard to outsmart the only creature dumber than they were.
As I've grown older, I have come to regret those comments. Now, at age 30, I am wading into the muck of Willamina Creek, rod in hand, as a gesture of atonement. In a way, this experience is about me letting go of the past, and moving toward a damper, muddier future.
Jeff Gottfried wants to help me get there. He is, along with being the father of a friend of mine, the founder of Educational Recreational Adventures, a Portland nonprofit designed to foster in children positive experiences with nature, to keep them from maturing into cynical urbanites like me. Short and bespectacled, with a salt-and-pepper beard and professorial demeanor, Gottfried is a walking natural-history encyclopedia and one of the only authorized teachers of tenkara in the state. It differs from the Western style of fly-fishing in its use of a light, retractable rod, which has no reel and a fixed line. As Gottfried explains it, he's got a pretty good record with first-timers. That just convinces me that I am destined to spoil his batting average.
When we arrive at around 10 am, the creek is roaring, and the overnight downpour has turned the usually clear water a murky brown. As we trudge down from the road in our waterproof boots and beige coveralls, accompanied by Athena, his steely-eyed Australian shepherd, Gottfried indicates that, given the conditions, perhaps I should be satisfied with merely learning how to cast. "It's called fishing, not catching," he reminds me. He instructs me to place the line in the water with two sharp flicks of the wrist, aiming for "zones of tranquility," then yank the line in imitation of the delicate movements of an insect. As I'm listening to him, my line gets stuck in a tree. Delicacy ain't exactly my thing.
After a few minutes of practice, though, I get into a rhythm. I catch a few snags, get a bit tangled ("A bit tangled? That's a fucking mess!" Gottfried laughs) and nearly lose the rod in the water at one point. But an hour in, Gottfried is complimenting my form and instincts. As it turns out, the constraints of tenkara agree with me. (When I try a regular rod and reel, I give the line too much slack, and the lure ends up hooked in my bootlace.) After a while, the repetition puts me in my own zone of tranquility. It's not exactly Zen. It's more like the prurient rush of repeatedly pulling the arm on a slot machine. Each cast is a new opportunity to cash in, and it's less about the result than the thrill of the attempt. It's a good thing, too: After about three hours, all I've caught is a lot of branches.
Then, it happens. There's a tug on the line, and this time, it's actually something living. I see a scaly blur flopping out of the shallows, and I freak out a little bit. I honestly wasn't prepared for this. I ask Gottfried what to do. I shuffle up the shore, tugging on the rod, until the creature wriggles close enough for Gottfried to snare it in a net: an 11-inch cutthroat trout. Part of me thinks it's a bit silly. It's illegal for me to eat this thing, and after three minutes of staring at it, we release it back to its miserable fish life. Is this all the payoff for four hours of effort?
But another, deeper part of me feels an immense sense of satisfaction. After all, that fish took longer than just four hours to catch. For me, it took 20-plus years. In that time, I've evolved from a Southern California shut-in into a transplanted Oregonian willing—and able—to get all up in nature's face. It's proof that, as I stumble into my 30s, I don't have to be the same person I was in my teens and 20s. I can change. I can grow. I can trick a fish into thinking I'm an insect. Then again, maybe I just feel like I finally one-upped my sister. Either way.
16323 SE McLoughlin Blvd., Milwaukie, 303-4721, portlandaquarium.net.
Confronting nature in the wild is frightening. Confronting nature from behind the safe, dry confines of inch-thick glass is not only fun, but also educational. It's like a screen saver come to life!
Flying Fish Company
2310 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 971-258-5212, flyingfishcompany.com.
As the saying goes: "Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Give him a tin shack stocked with fish that's already been caught and waiting to be eaten and, well, fuck it, let someone else do the work." Founded in Idaho in 1979, the Gildersleeve family's eco-conscious seafood market maintains a rotating selection of fresh Chinook salmon, Oregon Bay shrimp and Netarts oysters.
Crabbing at Nehalem Bay
Wheeler Marina, 278 Marine Drive, Wheeler, 368-5780, wheelermarina.net.
Fish outsmarting you? Looking to square off against a less wily creature? Located two hours west of Portland, Nehalem Bay is among the best spots for crabbing on the Oregon Coast. Just purchase a license (an annual permit is $7), drop a trap into the water, and those idiots crawl right in!
Reel M Inn
2430 SE Division St., 231-3880.
Let's be honest: If this nautical-themed bar's fried chicken could swim, many of us would have gotten acquainted with a rod and reel long ago.
Saturday, June 29, at Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St., 284-8686. 8 pm. $14 advance, $16 day of show. 21kknd.
I know what some of you are thinking: "Whoa, man, there's another kind of Phish? And it's spelled with an 'f'?" Sorry, didn't mean to confuse you. Don't worry, though, bro. No need to muddy up those birks when Portland's very own Phish tribute band is jamming on dry land. The real thing is playing the Gorge Amphitheater in central Washington in July, if your van is up for the four-hour drive.