Salmon fishing on the Klamath River in 1960

Guide Oscar Gensaw, Joan, and of course, Cheri and Steve, 1960

by cheri block

Thoreau said that one could choke on too much courtesy. In my daily world of rambunctious and hormonal high school students, people for whom the word courtesy had shifting connotation, this quotation provided an opportunity for discussion.

Can one be too polite? I asked, keeping my poker face as stoic as possible, forcing my eyebrows to remain seated.

As you can guess, the responses varied.

When all was said and done, after a stimulating hour of wrangling, elbowing, and shouting, most agreed that being polite was better than being rude.

What do you think, Mrs. Sabraw?

This was the inevitable question I answered after every discussion. Kids wanted to know what I thought.

Just because I might disagree with Thoreau does not mean he was wrong. I could be wrong, you know. You know? At that point, I set my eyebrows free and they went up in an arch and then came down in a very straight line. Everyone in my audience became serious and quiet as the early morning dawn.

Let me tell you a little story about fishing at the mouth of the Klamath River up in Northern California with my dad and my brother, Stevie. I was ten years old and he was eight. We’d get up very early at the Requa Inn, eat a hot meal of scrambled eggs and crisp bacon, wash it down with orange juice, all while hoping to hook the biggest fish of our short lives.

We’d meet our guide Oscar Gensaw, a member of the Yurok Indian tribe, who would row a green boat out to the mouth of the river. I remember the creak of the old wood of the boat, as Oscar rhythmically moved the oars forward and back, in customary Yurok silence and respect for what was about to happen. An old Thermos, filled with hot coffee, rested underneath Oscar’s worn boots.

The Fenwick fishing rods–big ones, able to bend into the tug of a 50 pound Chinook salmon–lay horizontal in the front of the rowboat.

We baited our hooks, that cold August morning there by the sand spit that guarded the mouth like a long tongue. Oscar kept rowing, being  careful not to crowd  another small green boat, filled with other anglers, off there in the foggy midst of a Northern California summer morning. All in all, there might have been ten boats out in the water.

Suddenly, without warning, a strike to my line. When a 50 pound fish strikes the line of a 75 pound  girl, about 25 pounds of uncertainty are up for grabs. And grab my body, my father did, quickly…before his number one child entered the cold water, gripping her rod and reel for dear life. She would not lose that fish.

Something amazing happened at that moment (students) and it has to do with courtesy.

Oscar yelled, “Fish on!” The other Yurok guides suggested appropriate fishing manners.

All other fishermen,women, and children reeled in their lines, so the biggest darn Chinook of the day could be battled by one small child with the help of her father.

Years later, when the mouth of the Klamath looked like downtown Manhattan at rush hour and Anglo guides rowed eagerly into Yurok fishing spots, the meaning of courtesy and respect for the fish and the ritual all came to me like the strike of the salmon I had successfully landed.

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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17 Responses to Salmon fishing on the Klamath River in 1960

  1. Cyberquill says:

    Killing a fish seems like a bit of an odd expression of respect for it, but that’s just the vegetarian in me talking.

    Of course one can choke on too much courtesy, but that doesn’t mean all courtesy is bad. For instance, while it is courteous and appropriate to hold open a door for someone who follows closely behind, it is rude and annoying to hold open a door for someone who follows quite a distance behind so that that person now feels he must accelerate as a courtesy to the person who holds open the door.

  2. Kayti Rasmussen says:

    What a good example of courtesy. I was not with you that day, but I have been in similar fishing spots for countless cold foggy mornings, and yes, fishermen DO stop and reel in. I felt myself part of the action. Good job Cheri. AK

  3. I totally agree with you and your supporting example is perfect, especially because it captures that added nuance of true courtesy–an underlying note of respect for the other person regardless of who they may be.

  4. steve says:

    The courtesy expressed by the other boats, was well beyond that single morning on the Klamath. It was the tip of the Yurok’s sword, the very essence and meaning of the way they treated each other and Mother Earth, and all the creatures therein for thousands of years.

    And yes, taking a Salmon, or a deer, can be a respectful venture especially in way of the Yuroks and their brothers. When one hunts, or fishes, and harvests the animal themselves, incuding cleaning it, and admiring it, and packing it, and letting the small ones continue on their 3 year spawning journey, one develops an appreciation and respect for the fish or animal that the average person buying filets or steaks in a market never experience.

    Indians, and many non-Indian hunters and fisherman, are the true environmentalist. They understand the challenges of the Salmon, Deer and Elk; they love the animals and fish and the Indians believed that when you ate a rabbit, or venison, or Salmon, that creatures soul (spirit) became part of your. Yes, I would say pretty damned courteous and respectful. No true hunter or fisherman “kills” a salmon or deer; they “take” or “harvest” them, which is meant to be, by Mother Earth herself.

    So out there at the mouth, though seemingly a moment in time, was really just a waypoint in the journey of many-the salmon, the Yuroks, and the latter day non-Indian fishermen. I know these things to be true, because after 58 years I still feel the hair go up on the back of my neck when I see live salmon, or a picture of the north coast, and especially when I see an image of an Indian living in and among a river basin like the Klamath. It’s magical and spiritual.

  5. zeusiswatching says:

    This is a beautiful story. Now I understand why you appreciate Mr. Hemingway too. This is like a California companion to “The Nick Adams Stories.” I like your story telling better, however.

    • Cheri says:

      Oh my, Zeus. Perhaps one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my writing. I will cherish that sentence.

      I have read all of the Nick Adams Stories which, in my view, represent the best of Hemingway.

      You motivate me to write.

      Also, how are you feeling after your surgery? I hope better.

  6. steve says:

    By the way, the photo with the Salmon draped over the bow of the boat was taken at Trinidad Bay near Camel Rock. I remember we had a devil of a time with seals stripping our double hooked anchovies off our line.

  7. wkkortas says:

    This is storytelling!

  8. Cheri says:

    Thanks my friend.
    (from NYC)

  9. Brighid says:

    Thanks to you for the tale, and double thanks to Steve for his beautiful words.
    We were raised to always, always say a small prayer of thanks to the creatures we harvested, be they salmon, trout, elk, deer, duck, or steer.

  10. Cheri says:

    Steve helped me to remember the details of this story,
    Brighid.
    You sound as if your family and ours were fishing out of the same boat.

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