Clouds break and the morning sun strikes the rippling surface of the lower Duwamish Waterway. Spanning a stretch of the river, at the southern tip of Harbor Island, runs the Spokane St. Fishing Bridge. And kneeling upon it, Lou Tran baits a hook with a dime-sized piece of shrimp. He stands and, leaning back slightly, flicks rod and reel forward, the spooling out of his line accompanied by a high-pitched phzzzz. The hook plops into the water. Tran's gaze follows, his eyes peering into the river's flow. He leans on the railing and waits.
"I come out here for the love it," says Tran, "for the challenge."
And to try to catch a few pink salmon before his business meeting in 30 minutes. Lured by similar motives, but perhaps under different time constraints, some 40 men, women, and children focus on the water coursing out to Elliott Bay. An ethnic mix of Southeast Asians and Latinos, descendents of Europe and Africa, and a smattering of Native Alaskans, they all keep eyes peeled, and hooks ready, for the flick of silver beneath the surface: the sign of a pink salmon heading upriver to spawn.
The gathering of fishers hoping to land pinks -- the shortened name for this species of salmon -- is, in a sense, a special event. For while the threatened Chinook that race to their spawning grounds up the Duwamish and into the Green River upstream of Auburn have been doing so for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the arrival of pinks is a relatively new and, so far, mysterious occurrence. Steve Foley, fishery biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), says that pinks made their first appearance in the waterway in 1999. With an internal clock that pushes them to spawn only every other year in the Lower Duwamish, 2007 represents only the fifth time in the city's history the fish have raced past the industrial dense region and under the fishing bridge. And, says Foley, "This is a new phenomenon."
Phenomenon or no, the pinks avoid Tran's line. That is, if there are any pinks to be had. Tran says that in the 30 minutes he's been out in the morning, no one's had any luck. The fishers to his left and right repeatedly bait hooks and -- phzzzz -- cast them out. Several men smoke cigarettes with their free hands. One man nurses a beer. Two boats filled with men bob downstream, industrial cranes hulking in the distance behind them. Limp lines hang in the water.
Minutes pass, with hardly anyone speaking. Then, in the water separating the bridge and the boaters, someone's line tightens. A pink salmon hurls itself above the surface, its head bent toward tailfin. With a splash, it drops back into the water. The men turn to see it. Their bodies stiffen. The lucky fisher grabs on to his rod and reel. But it's too late. The pink breaks free. The fisher's shoulders go as slack as his line. Foley says that for the 2007 pink fishing season, which opened Sept. 1, the WDFW predicted over a million would be up for grabs. (By comparison, the WDFW forecast only 30,000 threatened Chinook.) But the bulk of the current run, he says, has long passed under the bridge, en route to spawning grounds above Auburn. "Silvers are starting to enter and they're starting to pick up now," Foley says, "and they're more desired than the pinks."
But Doug, who hails from Kent, wouldn't mind a pink at all. Out on the bridge for four hours, he has yet to land one. Instead, his shrimp-baited hook attracts shiner perch, a small, silver-and-orange scaled fish that Doug -- who only wanted to use his first name -- pulls up one after the other. He tosses them right back, saying it's a bad idea to eat the fish that live in the Lower Duwamish. "If they're a resident fish," he says with a chuckle, "it's best to let them glow in the dark."
The health of the river's fish is no laughing matter. An informational placard at the bridge's southern end informs fishers to avoid consuming crustaceans and bottom-feeders caught in the area, due to the high concentrations of chemicals and pollutants contained in their bodies. A small yellow sign placed on the railing repeats the warning in eight different languages.
Foley says that pinks, which aren't resident, are safe for human consumption, given that the fish themselves have fattened up on algae and krill for two years in the ocean before returning to their natal riverbeds. "But they're not feeding now," says Foley. "They've got other things on their minds." This doesn't stop Doug from baiting hook after hook as soon as the shiner perch dine on the shrimp he provides. "It doesn't matter if you catch anything," he says, the fisher to his right screwing up his face in disagreement. The two stare at the water.
Out beyond their hooks, a line goes taut. It's the man two down from Doug. At the end of his line, a curl of silver jumps above the waves. He pulls on the rod and after a quick dance of give-and-take, he reels the struggling fish closer to the bridge. The man between Doug and the lucky fisher readies a net. The fish is directed inside. Up it comes. Tossed onto the butt-strewn bridge, it flops at the net-man's feet. "It's a male," he says.
Using the sawn-off handle of a hammer, he wallops the pink once on the crown of its head. And again. The fish seizes up. Then stops moving. With the quick twist of a knife, the net-man severs the blood vessels behind the pink's gills, on one side, then the other. He draws the knife down the fish's belly, from tail to head. Entrails spill out in coils. The net-man pulls them free, dropping them in a bucket of standing water. He washes the pink in the same bucket before icing the salmon down in a cooler. Blood, brick red and gleaming, pools on the bridge.
In less than five minutes, the lucky fisher lands another pink. Brought up by the net-man, the salmon flails for its life. "A female," he says, grasping the hammer handle. Thwack. Thwack. Stillness. The knife. Gills, gills, belly. Innards. Pushing them aside, he retrieves two egg sacks, full of roe the color of pumpkin.
By the time the female is clean and on ice, the lucky fisher has landed his third pink, a male developing its characteristic dorsal hump. Neighboring fishers crowd around his piece of bridge, hoping some of what he has may rub off.
Foley says that pinks in Puget Sound have historically been a staple salmon of canneries. But their recent arrival in the Lower Duwamish, in such massive numbers, represents a great opportunity for those who don't have access to boats to head out to open water. "It's a different clientele [on the fishing bridge]," he says, "and that's great."