RIPARIAN ZONE ACCESS
Back in the late forties my parents began to take me with them when they went steelhead fishing on the Clatskanie River, a tributary of the Columbia, which flows through the town of Clatskanie located on Hwy 30 in Columbia County, Oregon. Clatskanie town is about twenty miles from where we lived. The Clatskanie river wasn’t quite big enough to support drift boats except perhaps at the very lower end, below town. It was a navigable river though, at least as far upriver as Clatskanie town, for the steam powered stern wheelers docked there before the railroad and highway killed shipping by boat as a viable commercial system.
So there were two styles of fishing… one, plunking, where the fisherman stayed put on the river bank at one big fishing hole, usually in tide water, where the river was deeper and the current slowed by action of the high tides backing water upriver on the Columbia. Fishermen rigged the fishing line with a heavy lead sinker to hold the bottom in the current and plunked the bait out in the stream and waited for a fish to find it.
The other style of fishing was referred to as “drifting”. Drifters used a light lead sinker and “drifted” their bait with the current. There was an ideal weight for the sinker… too light and the bait didn’t sink to the fish level… too heavy and the hooks hung up on the bottom of the stream. Drift fishermen ranged up and down the river fishing the pocket holes formed by obstacles in the faster flowing current found above tidewater. A great deal of wading is necessary to get to the proper place to fish the pockets. The water had to be just right… too low meant the fish wouldn’t move upstream out of the deep holes in tidewater… too high meant the fisherman couldn’t safely wade in the river. Casting required skill because tree limbs hanging out over the water often blocked casting room from the bank. During a day of drift fishing the drift fisherman might cover five miles of stream… it was a style meant for the weight, strength, and judgement of an adult…
Plunking was more suitable for youngsters my age. There was room to cast and someone around to help unknot the backlash I was sure to create before much time passed. Someone would build a bonfire to ward off the cold. If it wasn’t raining plunking was about as comfortable as winter fishing could get. Drift fishing was dangerous activity. Algae growing on river rock made them incredibly slippery. Swiftly flowing water about knee deep or a little higher could easily sweep a fisherman off their feet into deeper water. Sudden submersion in ice cold water could take their breath away. And it was difficult to swim dressed in fishing gear.
Bait was a smelly concoction of fish roe, usually salmon roe, preserved in a vile liquid whose composition was a secret zealously guarded by its inventor. When you baited up you got the stuff on your hands and usually your clothes. Fingers already numb from cold were reluctantly rinsed in frigid water. Pretty soon you smelled… no… stunk like dead fish… rotten dead fish.
You could buy fish roe commercially prepared but only rank amateurs did so. Real fishermen prepared their own bait. The texture of roe was critically important… the glob you wrapped around the fishhook had to have some staying power to survive the action of cast and retrieve and the effects of the river’s current… fishermen carried a bobbin of thread used to tie the egg mass to the hook… and the eggs had to “milk” out at just the right color and consistency. Successful fisherman obtained their supply of roe from the fish they caught – a mature hen would produce two skeins about a foot long – else you made a trip to the docks where you could buy skeins of fish roe from the commercial fisherman… Preservatives were added so that the skeins would hold together… when fishing you would cut off a chunk of roe and tie it to your hook as mentioned. Somehow roe became a delicacy – caviar – sought after by people from foreign shores – and the price went up. Fishermen gave up trying to compete with the high priced caviar market and turned to other, less expensive baits.
It was a natural progression from fish eggs to fluffs of yarn – perhaps the yarn was used initially to tie eggs to the hook and then some lazy fisherman slow to refresh his bait decided to try just the yarn… it worked… different colors were tried… fluorescent yellows and reds soon festooned the branches along the stream indicating that not all fisherman possessed great skill in casting. Bits of colored balsa wood lures began to appear… called bobbers… and eventually gave way to plastic creations that were molded to appear like a glob of eggs. These too, could be found in numbers in the branches at stream side. Personally I welcomed the change to artificial baits… no more stinky hands and clothes.
Clothing and Gear
The well dressed fisherman attempted to blend with the background. Clothes were universally a dull green camouflage… it was thought that fish could see brightly colored clothes. There was a bag used to carry fishing gear slung over the shoulder… Brush usually negated the use of a hoop shaped net to capture played out fish… a vicious looking J-shaped hook attached to a short shaft served as a gaff… when the fish was safely ashore the shaft served as a fish whacker… a good whack on the back of the head would dispatch the fish. Reels were important… level wind was a must… line was … later replaced with nylon monofilament, level wind reels disappeared in favor of spinning reels, fiber glass poles replaced the wood or steel fishing poles….
Time to go Fishing
In the fall we would look forward to the heavy rains that flooded the creeks and rivers and brought the migratory fish upstream. Beaver Creek , another tributary of the Columbia, was visible from the windows of our house but Beaver Creek was blocked near the Columbia by a substantial waterfall so the migratory fish weren’t able to continue upstream to where we lived. We could watch the water level though… and when the level and color got just right we would head for the Clatskanie. We watched for a particular rock that stuck out of the water – our “fishing rock” as we called it. As soon as the initial surge of water cleared of autumn’s fallen leaves, the water level dropped and when the fishing rock was exposed we would find time to go fishing. Not many people were willing to brave the winter weather to catch a fish or two… only the most avid fisherman would be out on the creek. Actually there were a lot of times when we didn’t catch anything except cold. I’ve been out there fishing when the water that came in with your line would freeze in the guides… that’s cold.
At times I would skip school to go fishing… It’s not that my folks didn’t believe in education. They knew that a person’s education begins with the spark of life and ends only with death. Perhaps my folks believed school wasn’t the best place to learn. Perhaps they believed a bad day fishing was better than the best day at school… and there was so much to observe out on the river in nature’s laboratory. Perhaps they believed you had to grasp the opportunity to learn when it was available.
On the river anyone with even a mild case of curiosity could be inspired to learn incredible things… There were the events related to nature… the cycle of life… the inter and intra dependency of species… along the river there was evidence of the salmon’s epic migration to their spawning ground… their rotten carcasses littered the gravel bars and flood rack area… there were the birds… the little water ouzel bobbing and dipping, diving underwater to feed… the spoor of deer and elk, and their predators, the cougar, bear, and coyote, so shy they were seldom seen… stream side trees bearing the tooth marks of beaver… mussel shell middens made by raccoons… There were the influences of humans… We walked along the river on an old railroad grade… evidence of the encroachment of man, logging and its effects on the riparian area… the effects of farming and livestock… Even the act of fishing itself gave many opportunities to form hypotheses and test guesses by trial and error methods.
Later in life I was to learn the value of fishing on stress reduction… A day on the river would relieve almost any kind of stress… the rush and roar of wild water… the rhythms of the cast and retrieve… the anticipation and thrill of the strike and the battle… accompanied by a whoop and the shout of “fish on,” …the battle more often lost than won… fishing occupied the mind and suppressed the cares and worries of life.
…When the fishing rock broke surface it was time to get in the car and head for the Clatskanie river. Arriving at the river we would park alongside the road, usually a wide spot barely big enough for a car, crawl through a livestock fence and follow a path through the brush to the creek. There wasn’t a lot of competition for fishing water but fishermen of those days were polite. If someone was fishing your favorite hole it was proper protocol to find somewhere else to fish until the interloper picked up his gear and moved on. If you were brazen enough to interfere with another fisherman the least you could expect was a verbal tongue lashing maybe followed by a dunking in the river.
Farmers who lived along the river had the good sense to build on high ground away from the flood plain of the river. They used the floodplain to grow crops or as pasture for their livestock. They didn’t seem to mind having a few fishermen wandering through their fields as long as they didn’t mangle the fences or leave gates open. But that freedom of access to the river was to change.
City folks moved to the country… residents who were commuters instead of farmers… they were looking for a beautiful location for their homes. They built homes close to the river to take advantage of the scenic attraction of the river… sometimes building a deck actually overhanging the water. Pastures slowly turned into housing subdivisions. Instead of wandering through pastures along the river fishermen were tromping in someone’s back yard. Perhaps that was a little too close and personal because before long there were confrontations about who “owned” the river. As housing density increased “no trespassing” signs began to proliferate.
Fishermen claim ancient law gave public access to “navigable” streams. The definition was and still is – some fifty years later – vehemently debated by both sides of the trespass issue. One side wants to float the “Titanic” and the other side a canoe. Judges and the state legislature show extreme reluctance to provide a more exact definition.
It seems such a simple problem to solve… Perhaps like Oregon’s beaches the streams and rivers belong to the people. The water belongs to no one… the fish in the water belong to no one… if you have a license to fish it makes sense to have access to the river… access to the river is a heritage. Now, perhaps, a legacy lost.
Along with the loss of public access to the streams the fish themselves are disappearing. There are many ideas as to the reason for the disappearance. It is easy to blame the dams for the reduction of numbers above the dams but fish in the Clatskanie face no such obstacles… the loss of fish at that level has to be caused by some other reason or variety of reasons – water pollution, drift nets at sea… natural cycles… ???…
Perhaps we will discover that to recover our fish runs… improve upon water quality… it will be necessary to stop abusing the riparian zone… perhaps it will be necessary to move homes off the flood plain… Perhaps it is time to prohibit building on the banks of streams and give the stream banks back to the people.