If you’re going to get up around 4:30 in the morning on a holiday, it should be for a good reason. The adventure of spending Labor Day on my first fishing charter seemed a pretty decent reason.
My friend Bobby Malo, who co-owns Sterling Cidery with his wife Amy, had reached out because his father (Bob) had booked a charter with White Cap Charters and there was room for me to join them if I was interested. It sounded exciting, so I replied in the affirmative. I didn’t ask about the whole we-need-to-get-up-way-before-dawn thing til later, but it’s not like I sleep in that much, holiday or other.
And so around 6 am, Bobby and Bob and I departed Bayside Marina with Mike, the captain who runs White Cap Charters, and John, his first mate who sets in all the gear. Having watched more than my share of “Deadliest Catch,” I realize there’s nothing particularly simple about fishing from boats of any level of sophistication. And while pursuing salmon from Lake Ontario on a beautiful (if somewhat hot) September day is not exactly hunting crabs in between winter storms on the Bering Sea, it’s no picnic either.
John set out the lines and downriggers and we had a rotation that Bob would take the first strike, then Bobby, then me. The fish seemed to take a couple hours to bite, but thien it was on like Donkey Kong. Bob’s first one managed to break free, and then Bobby brought in a really big king salmon. Then I waited and watched until the telltale pull on one of the lines meant it was my turn.
Folks, I’ve never charter fished before, let alone fished for anything bigger than a Nerf football, so this was quite a thing. Mike and John coached the noob through the basic rules of engagement: when the fish hits, let it run to tire itself out; once it stops running, first pull the pole up as much as you can; then start reeling and lower the rod quickly until the reel stops clicking; then raise the rod slowly as vertical as you can and repeat the process. That first fish felt like an eternity, but then I finally saw it on the surface and repeated the pulling and reeling until John had it in the net. It was all quite thrilling.
We ultimately made it around three times, with Bobby landing big fish on all three of his turns. Bob got one big and one smaller. On my next attempt, one hit and started running and we eventually lost it (certainly because it was about 300 pounds, or so goes my fish story). On our final attempt of the day, I got the reel on a cast that was more than 300 feet away and did a lot of pulling and reeling and repeating. It fought to the end, but eventually we pulled in one that was even bigger than my first.
While all seven salmon will be eaten at some point over the coming months, a part of me felt bad about the whole killing thing. But most of these are not very far from spawning and heading up river to die; they’re not exactly buying green bananas is what I’m saying. And it’s a large population and a thriving local industry, if the 20 or so other vessels also circling over the holes and chutes of Lake Ontario are any indication.
Mike said this is his final week of the season. The salmon are just one warm rain away from catching wind of the Oswego River and spawning upstream, there to be met by the throngs of fishermen in the lucrative fall salmon run. They are fresher and more sport at this point.
And when I say “sport,” the precision of the labors of Mike and John as well as the sheer effort we put into trying to land each one — my man vs. fish rounds felt about 10 to 15 minutes, although they were likely less — explains why charter fishing is so appealing and thrilling. To say nothing of the veritable feast that comes with it.
We finished the day with a late lunch at Turtle Cove, during which the skies opened up and scattered everybody else eating on the deck. But our group of three stayed out under the table umbrellas through the torrential downpours and steady rain that led us back to sunny skies. We’d just had an adventure on the high seas (or lake anyway), so enduring a bit more nature seemed only appropriate.