Reporter tries his hand, luck at hooking pink salmon; Derby this Saturday

Kevin Lungren gets in a few more casts just before sundown Sunday at South Whidbey State Park. The longtime angler parted with a few trade secrets on a fighting venture with a South Whidbey Record reporter. Lungren, vice president of The Fishin’ Club, is helping at the biennual Freeland Ace Pink Salmon Derby, Aug. 24. See Sports page A8 for details. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Kevin Lungren gets in a few more casts just before sundown Sunday at South Whidbey State Park. The longtime angler parted with a few trade secrets on a fighting venture with a South Whidbey Record reporter. Lungren, vice president of The Fishin’ Club, is helping at the biennual Freeland Ace Pink Salmon Derby, Aug. 24. See Sports page A8 for details.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

I caught a fish.

Not a remarkable statement for many people. But it is a sentence I have not uttered since I was young, probably 12 years old.

It was a lingcod, way too small to keep at about eight inches, but it was a fish that bit the lure and I reeled it in.

Lots of people have fishing stories. I’m not an angler, and even I have a few, though they are all stories of fishing misfortune.

My history with fishing is tainted with bad tales, pun intended.

Fishing is popular on South Whidbey, giving birth to groups such as The Fishin’ Club, the Fishinistas, Puget Sound Anglers and the Holmes Harbor Rod & Gun Club. There’s also the history of fishing resorts on the South End.

An estimated 6.2 million pink salmon will come through Puget Sound. That has angling experts around Whidbey calling the every-odd-year experience a great chance for families to try their hands at salmon fishing.

So much so that Freeland Ace Hardware sponsors a well-attended pink salmon derby Aug. 24 that includes prizes for young anglers.

The derby’s ticket, raffle and food sales go toward The Fishin’ Club’s scholarship fund, and salmon may be donated to the Good Cheer Food Bank.

“It’s a simple, easy deal fishing off the beach to catch these fish from the public accesses,” said Mike Mayes, the fishing expert at Freeland Ace.

Sure, a child may be able to cast for and reel in a “humpy” — pinks’ nicknames because of pronounced humps they form upon entering fresh water — but I’m 26 years old and have not touched a rod and reel in easily 14 years.

As such, The Record had me try fishing first-hand and see if a true amateur, nay, a novice could land a salmon.

“They have to be willing to allow themselves to fail and not catch one,” said Kevin Lungren, vice president of The Fishin’ Club, of new fishers.

Bumpy start

The experiment began when I purchased the wrong license, a full season instead of a one day, that cost $30.05. It turned out to be for the best, but more on that later.

Lungren and his 16-year-old daughter, Emma, took me out Sunday. We started early like many anglers do, with a 5:30 a.m. meet in Freeland, early enough that my muscles felt weak and anemic.

At South Whidbey State Park — a $10 Discover Pass is required — just north of the fabled Bush Point beach fishing location, we threw in our lines.

Casting was the first mental hurdle I had to clear, a result of my earliest fishing memory. When I was 5, my father rounded up my two brothers and me for the opening of trout season. We stood on a crowded dock at Silver Lake in Everett. I got a bite on my kid’s pole, felt like I was going to be pulled in, let go and watched the rod and reel vanish into the depths.

Then I was put in “time out,” probably deserved.

The anxiety of being embarrassed in front of other anglers never left, and was made worse years later.

As a pre-teen, my older brother took me to Edmonds during a Chinook/king run. Standing shoulder to shoulder with dozens of seasoned anglers donning bucket hats, vests and fillet knives on their belts, I knew I was out of place. I worried I would tangle in their lines and did exactly that, leading to lots of angry anglers and eventually choosing to disassemble my pole.

Fourteen years later, I’m standing on an empty beach in the chilly, salty Whidbey air at South Whidbey State Park. Thankfully, there are only two other anglers within eyesight, and they came with me.

How it’s done

With practiced polish, Lungren cast his lure with a whip-like motion he said I should mimic. He reeled, the pole bent, he tugged, then it freed and came ashore without the lure.

“If you’re not losing lures, you’re not fishing,” he said.

My first cast, or maybe it was my first 30, were terrible. The pole had less of a whip motion and more of a jerky, uncoordinated two-step movement that propelled the lure about three feet from the beach.

Practicing on an uninhabited beach is one of Lungren’s first lessons he gives in summer classes at several outdoor markets on South Whidbey.

For first-time anglers, he said it’s important to build their casting confidence before sending them into a throng of pole waving, lure-whipping fishermen.

He’s a wise man. If there was a derby for catching wrack and seaweed, I’d surely win.

Yet, Lungren reassured me to keep casting. Experience is the best teacher and I would soon get the feel for the right moment to release the line and let the lure fly. About 100 casts later, he proved himself correct and I watched it sail straight out and make a reassuring “plop” on the glassy water’s surface.

Two hours later we spotted movement. About 100 yards off shore, we saw fish jumping and rolling near the surface.

That was maddening. I could see the fish, but no matter how far or how often I cast, they were out of reach and didn’t bite the lure.

For Lungren, however, success was not defined by catching a fish. It was to teach how to cast straight and far, to feel comfortable with rod and reel, and to discover the joy of angling.

Not about the fish

Lungren was right: the morning light hitting Puget Sound, the salty air, an occasional seal, all of it was fun. Not as exciting as hooking a salmon, fighting to haul it to shore and making a dent on my Washington Department Fish and Wildlife catch card, but satisfying all the same.

Not even 10 hours passed before I called Lungren to take me out again. We went that evening for one last try to land the big one, any one.

This time, as soon as I cast I had a nibble. A fish? Probably seaweed, I thought.

The line went slack. Then pulled again. Lungren said, “Reel,” and I did. But the result was no salmon. I stared at a black-spotted, brown fish.

It was the lingcod. But it was too small to keep and nothing else bit my line the rest of the night.

Lungren, of course, landed a coho “jack,” a hatchery salmon that returned a bit prematurely. As a seasoned angler, his success was no surprise, nor was his generosity. He was kind enough to clean the fish and let me take it home.

Though I had no fish of my own, I found myself raring to return to the shore. I have a new fishing story, one without losing a pole or tangling with other lines.

Good thing I bought that full season license, because I’m going to catch, and keep my first salmon this season.

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