Catch as catch can

Sunshine reflects off the river during a walleye fishing expedition.

Sunshine reflects off the river during a walleye fishing expedition. Owen Hegdal

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Dave Hedden, (background) of Hedden’s Northwest Sportfishing, gives instructions as a roughly six-pound female walleye is landed downstream from Columbia Point Marina.

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Walleye has earned a well deserved reputation as a top table fish. The taste and texture of the white fleshed fish is on par with halibut. This fish was made even more palatable by a friendly cooking competition between Luke’s father Steve, and wife Livia.

We had fished for eight hours, covering 20 miles of river from Columbia Point Marina south to the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers. We hadn’t caught a single walleye.

“Let’s try one more spot,” Dave Hedden, owner of Hedden Northwest Sportfishing said, clearly rattled.

I wasn’t in a much better mood. I had spent a year pestering my editor to let me write a story on walleye fishing, and two weeks ago, in a moment of weakness, he gave in.

I quickly scheduled a trip with Hedden. Dave was the only guide who returned my call. In his late 20s, or possibly very early 30s, Dave, despite his prodigious fishing knowledge, hadn’t had experience with reporters on his boat.

The day had started out well, though, and the sun had just started to cut through the early morning fog when I pulled up at the dock. I was happy, as only a man actually getting paid to go fishing can be.

Dave was in good spirits as well, since this was his day job. He had caught fish the day before, too, and the weather promised to hold.

“You scheduled this at just the right time,” Dave said as we shook hands. “It’s early in the season, and we’re catching big fish right now.”

According to Dave, the start of the walleye season, from late January to mid-February, is when the trophy fish are caught. The current Washington State record fish, caught in 2007, weighed 19 pounds, 3 ounces. It was caught from the same stretch of Columbia River we were fishing, Dave said.

According to Dave, he caught his own personal record two week ago in the same area. The fish weighed over 17 pounds, and was a quarter-inch longer than the state record fish.

As the season rolls into March, according to Dave, the big fish become harder to catch, but smaller, “table” walleye weighing 4 to 6 pounds start to bite.

“We have people coming out from the Midwest to fish here,” Dave said. “This is a world class fishery.”

Not that many people in the Northwest know about it. Walleye don’t have the hype or mystique of native fish like salmon, steelhead or trout. Walleye are a decidely blue-collar fish, unlike the jet-set salmon crowd with their vacation homes and flamboyant lifestyle. Walleye don’t symbolize the circle of life or have the same spiritual resonance for Pacific Northwesterners.

In fact, as a non-native, highly predatory fish, walleye are considered something of a nuisance by state government, according to Dave, who also said many guides don’t offer walleye trips.

Dave offers guided fishing trips for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and walleye, and has even scheduled a very few catfish and bass trips.

“Walleye is the most difficult to guide for,” Dave said, adding walleye trips are roughly 50 percent of his business.

By noon, I was starting to believe him. We had started fishing a few miles south of the marina, just downstream from an island that provided a backwater along a deep channel. Dave said walleye are ambush predators who like to surprise baitfish along current seams.

As we drifted over the eddy, Dave showed me how to jig a large nightcrawler right along the bottom, bumping the weight on every drop. It sounds simple, but took some practice.

“If you’re not on the bottom,” Dave said. “you’re not in the ballgame.”

After snagging a whitefish, which Dave was appalled I wanted to keep, we headed further down stream, hitting another “honey hole,” and then continuing our southward trek to a large flat where, Dave said, the state record was caught.

There we switched from jigging to trolling. Dave set up a “bottom walker,” that kept our nightcrawler rigs roughly 8 inches off the riverbed. We also passed several other boats, and Dave recognized several fishermen from walleye tournaments.

“It’s pretty competitive,” Dave said, pointing out a walleye tournament will have anywhere from 40 to 80 teams competing.

The tournaments are hard to win, because fish aren’t always predictable.

“(Walleye) are incredibly moody,” Dave said.

Apparently they were in a bad mood, because none of the other anglers reported catching any fish.

“Well, “ I said to Dave, “I would offer to pass the time by telling jokes, but I only know political jokes.”

“Don’t worry,” Dave said. “You won’t offend me. Unless you have bananas on board.”

I paused for a moment.

“Um,” I said. “What’s wrong with bananas?”

“Wait, you don’t have bananas do you?”

I could see Dave was serious.

“Well,” I started. “Um, yeah, I sort of brought three for lunch.”

Dave, who is a professional, was obviously struggling with some strong inner emotion. I decided to take preemptive action.

“I’ll just throw these overboard though,” I said. “I wasn’t very hungry anyway.”

Dave visibly relaxed. Apparently, bananas are bad luck for fishermen, and Dave recounted several stories of trips gone bad because of the fruit. Dave also said tournament anglers sometimes try to sabotage their competitors by slipping a banana onto their boat.

The origin of the banana curse is unclear. It is clear that fishermen all over the world, Dave included, believe it.

I tried to take Dave’s mind off Bananagate by asking him reporterly questions, and we continued to fish, trying to make up for lost ground.

At about 1 p.m., we snagged another trash fish, a large carp this time. Dave was again appalled that I threw it in the cooler. I tried to explain that, as a fisherman, I’m not really that good. In fact, I’m used to skunking out whenever I go, so any fish in the boat is a good one.

“It’s like I have some sort of bad fishing luck, or something,” I told Dave. “I’ve been known to kill the bite on an entire lake.”

This bit of news didn’t seem to help ease Dave’s mind for some reason.

By 3 p.m. I was little desperate though. Our time was up, and I knew my editor would never let me go fishing again if I couldn’t land at least one decent fish. That, and I felt bad for Dave, who had given up a baseball scholarship and a decent job to become a fishing guide.

The strain was wearing on Dave, too. He’d unknowingly taken on a bad-luck, banana-toting reporter who was going to chronicle the entire debacle for the reading public.

“One last spot,” Dave said as we neared the marina. This was bottom-of-the-ninth fishing: time to swing away.

Dave quickly rigged an ultra-shiny wedding-ring style rig with a gaudy spinner above the fattest nightcrawler he could find on both poles. Once again we began trolling an eddy with heavy, double-weighted bottom walkers.

I said a little fishing prayer as we inched upstream. Neither of us spoke. Our attention was on the end of the rods. I tried to remember all the advice Dave had given me throughout the day.

“A walleye strike will look like a snag,” Dave had said. “Give a little line, then set the hook.”

I watched. Every bump of the tip set me on edge. Dave, I saw in the corner of my eye, was piloting the boat by feel, and watching his rod tip with equal attention.

Then my rod bent. Down it went like I’d just snagged an underwater tree. I grabbed the pole just as Dave yelled, “Fish!”

I let the tip drop, giving line, then set the hook hard.

“Ease up, Ease up,” Dave yelled as he grabbed the net. “OK, bring it around back.”

I wasn’t sure that was possible, since I still wasn’t sure the thing on the other end of my pole was actually moving. Then it gave a little shake, and headed away from the boat. Definitely a fish.

A couple of minutes later I landed my first, and only, walleye. My adrenaline was running high, and it was hard to say if Dave or I was more excited (or relieved) that we’d just landed a fish, and saved two careers.

“It took a while for those bananas to wear off,” Dave said, vigorously shaking my hand.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326.

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