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Fishing around on Lake Chelan

Just as I was settling into a comfortable doze in the mate’s chair aboard the “S. Gayle,” a roomy 24′ Bayliner fishing boat, Anton’s cry pierced the air:

“Strike–we’ve got a fish on!”

Was I dreaming? No, this was the real thing–this was what we’d been waiting for. We realized as much when Anton, our middle-aged, compact dynamo of a fishing guide here on Lake Chelan – flew into action. He grabbed the rod from its holder, gave it an experienced yank to free the line from the downrigger clip, and nimbly passed it back to my friend and fellow dozer, Roger. Jonny (Roger’s son, age 20) had simplified that decision by declaring, “It’s your turn, Dad.” And he was right.

A few hours earlier, Jonny had landed the day’s first lake trout, a 3.8 lb. beauty which emerged from the depths at approximately 10am this calm and sunny April morning. Less than an hour later, I’d reeled in the second beauty, a 2.4 lb. juvenile which hung on the line like an inanimate dead weight. We’d all been surprised at how little these fish had struggled on their way to oblivion. Their distended bellies suggested an obvious explanation:  air bladders which had ruptured during the rapid ascent from depths of over 300 feet. Almost like scuba divers who had forgotten to exhale, they’d never had a chance.

After those first two catches, we’d hit a lull in the fishing. Drawing on his considerable experience, Anton cheered us with his repertoire of anecdotes and jokes. He reminded us that Lake Chelan, 55 miles long and 1486 feet deep, ranks as the third deepest lake in the United States–behind only Lake Tahoe, California (the second deepest at 1685 feet) and Crater Lake, Oregon (the deepest at 1943 feet). The name Chelan derives from a Salish Indian word which can mean either “lake” or “blue water.” The city of Chelan sits at the southeastern end of the lake, while the town of Stehekin–an Indian word meaning “the way through”–lies at the northwestern tip.

Eating our lunch of freshly-made peanut butter sandwiches, we basked in the warm sun–admiring the white-powdered mountains and the view up the narrows towards Stehekin. You can reach this remote, quaint, historic village–population less than 100, gateway to the majestic North Cascades National Park–only by trail, boat, or floatplane.

Even though the fish weren’t biting anymore, we knew that we were in good hands. Roger and I had first heard Anton give a fishing presentation at the Wenatchee Garden Show; he had impressed us both with his breadth of knowledge and attention to details. And those pictures of several giant 20-30 lb. lake trout, caught within the past month, didn’t hurt either. The largest lake trout ever caught in Lake Chelan–a Washington State record–had weighed in at just over 35 lb.

Now, on the boat, during lunch, Anton was telling us that when he’d first started out, many years ago, he had not been able to bring in any fish at all from Lake Chelan. But gradually, over the years, with the help of a few mentors–and, often, trial and error–he had learned the necessary details about catching lake trout. Details such as:  the specific geography of the lake, the depths at which to troll (often deeper than 300 feet for the really big fish), the speed at which to troll, the positioning and re-positioning of the downriggers so the lures would dance just 5-10 feet above the bottom, the best lures to use (a favorite was the purple-glow flatfish), and so on.

We had learned so much from our experienced, affable, generous guide, and we were quite content to wrap it up now and go in. But was Anton–with his high energy level and lust for big fish–agreeable to this? No. He insisted that we troll one last area, this time at depths of 150-200 feet.

“I want you to catch another fish,” he sang out with enthusiasm.

At first I was thrilled; an hour later, still no action, I was tired–climbing into the mate’s chair to take a rest. Anton announced that we were finished for the day, and that he would now take in the lines. Only a moment later he was shouting:

“Strike–we’ve got a fish on!”

Roger roused himself, took the rod, and stepped up to the transom. Immediately, we all knew this creature was vastly different from the first two:  the line started singing off the reel as he tried to escape.

“He’s taking line,” Roger said with excitement.

“It’s a big one,” Anton declared. “Don’t jerk the rod at all, just play him smoothly.”

He tried, but after 20 minutes both the fisherman and his nemesis were getting exhausted. Roger grimaced and held his lower back. The knot which attached the 30 lb. test braided line to the 30 lb. test leader came into view:  the behemoth was now only 40 feet away.

Straining from the effort, Roger hauled him in–close to the surface, close to the boat. Jonny quickly passed the net to Anton, who lowered it to the barely submerged prize. Suddenly the big fish dove straight down towards the bottom.

“Oh, no,” said Roger, beginning to wheeze. “I’m not gaining on him at all.”

He reeled in again, the fighting fish took out line once more, and he brought him up yet again. Finally, a pained expression on his face, Roger turned towards his son.

“Here, Jonny, can you finish him off?” There was a note of desperation in his voice.

Jonny shot back, “No, Dad, I can’t do that for you–it’s YOUR fish.”

Roger turned back around to face his destiny. He braced himself and strained with his final reserves of strength. Then, gasping, he reeled in hard until the giant fish, gasping also, swam just beneath the surface, alongside the boat. Anton leapt into action, expertly extended the net, and made the catch at 27 minutes from the time of the strike.

Hauling the great fish aboard, then hanging him from the scales, Anton exclaimed, “My God, what a fighter. I thought he’d be a monster, but he weighs in at just 16.0 lbs.”

Still breathing hard–but now with a big smile on his face–Roger said, “I’ll take it.”

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A.T. Allan is a freelance writer whose passions include travel, fishing, and gardening. He has published a variety of articles, as well as the satirical novel Tropical Fugue (1995:  Dan River Press). Recently, he moved from the island of Guam to East Wenatchee, Washington to pursue his passions.

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