Big Fish Stories

Big Fish Stories

From Lake Berryessa in California to Big Fish Lake in Minnesota – two big fish stories, 3 acts, 30 minutes.

Connect with Christopher on Twitter at @RealChrisJBeale, and support his work on Patreon with a monthly gift.

Big Fish Stories

by: Christopher Beale

It seems like there’s a lot of thinking to be done these days. I mean, what else are you going to do? As for me, I’m just trying to stay busy and motivated during a pandemic and wildfires and the urgent need for racial justice in America.

I find I do my best contemplating in the great outdoors. Camping and hiking have been my entire summer so far. They are after all relatively COVID safe activities. And that need to be outside, led me hook, line and sinker. If you’ll forgive the pun into the theme of this episode of Unpacked, Big Fish Stories.

ACT ONE – The First Attempt

C: It’s early. Five or six in the morning on the first Saturday of June, 2020.

The sun is just beginning to light up a narrow corner of Lake Berryessa, which is where I’m at with my friend, and at the time we recorded this coworker, his name is Tom Mailey. Tom is a radio personality at 105.1 KNCI in Sacramento and he has this cool fishing boat. And I know about it because almost every weekend he takes somebody out fishing.

I think the last time I went fishing was as a child with my dad. I have become more outdoorsy. Since moving to California, but fishing was one of those like kind of icky and gross things to me as a child, I have memories, maybe even some trauma associated with it, but I’m a grown up now I can handle this. And I thought fishing would be something really cool to try. So when Tom invited me, I said, yes, And then I got up at three o’clock in the morning to drive from Oakland to Lake Berryessa, to fish and swap stories with Tom.

C: How long have you been fishing?

Oh, man. All my life. I don’t even remember the first time I picked up a fishing pole.

C: Quite literally. There’s no first fishing memory.

T: Nope. No, my dad fished and my older brother is 13 years older. They both fished. And so I was just kind of ushered into the family business.

C: Tom invited me here to Lake Berryessa today to catch my first salmon. And not just any salmon, specifically, Kokanee.

T: Kokanee, they are a landlocked Sockeye salmon. Washington has some, but they’re mostly up in Alaska and these lakes and they get planted in here.

C: It took us about 10 minutes to slowly make our way out past the no wake sign. And then Tom laid on the. Throttle and we shot off toward the dam that created Lake Berryessa.

Once we got out near the damn, we dropped our lines out really deep on these things called downriggers. And then we put the boat at like the slowest speed possible and sat back and waited and waited.

And waited.

T: I’d love to like lose part of a finger, like not a whole finger, but like the tip, because what a great story later. And, you know, I’ve probably only got like 20 good years left anyway. So, you know, it’s not like I’m going to go through my whole life without have half a finger. Like the 20 years I could do that.

C: I mean, at least I learned a lot about salmon during the waiting. Yeah.

T: I know people who don’t even realize that salmon run up the Sacramento river and it’s the second largest run of salmon in the lower 48 States next to the Columbia river. They have no clue. No idea.

C: I mean, I just learned that right now.

T: Yeah. Salmon come in out of the Bay. And they run up the whole Sacramento watershed, the American river, the feather river, and they go all the way up to Redding and they’re just, they’re remarkable fish. And the other thing that people don’t realize is like, you go to a restaurant and go, Oh, I got wildlife caught salmon.

There’s a good chance. That salmon that was caught in Alaska was actually a Sacramento river fish or Klamath river fish or Columbia river fish because King salmon they’ll go up for two, three years and they’ll feed. And then somehow they find their way back. To the river that they were born in the watershed that they were born in.

No one knows quite how they do that, but they do it.

C: We both sat watching the fish finder intently. It’s this little thing that pings sound off the floor of the Lake and shows you if there’s anything moving. There had been a full moon the night before, and I guess that messes with the salmon’s feeding patterns or something.

And we were not even getting nibbles.

For someone that is not like me admittedly out here fishing for the first time in decades, a wire salmon important to me.

T: Well, first of all, they’re, uh, they’re a great indicator of how healthy a watershed is. If the salmon are gone, then what else in that watershed is dead? You know, they’re, they’re kind of a Canary in the coal mine. I just think they’re a Marvel.  Jesus. They’re under the water and they can swim all the way up to Alaska, seed for a couple of years. Somehow they’ve managed to avoid killer whales, sharks and fishing nets and sport fishermen, and they still managed to come back and make it to the river of their birth.

And if you’ve ever stood on the shore as the American River in the fall. And you see those, we should be having a welcome parade for them because they’ve been through a lot of crap and they made it back to their home waters. And it’s just, I think it’s just an absolute miracle.

C: by lunchtime. We hadn’t caught anything. And Tom was bouncing back and forth between frustrated and nostalgic.

T: We’re not going to get anything. If we catch anything, it’s going to be like a body.

C: We might solve a murder mystery while we’re out here. Yeah. It’s our way of giving back.

T: You fall in love with the fish fall in love with the, we call it the tug is the drug. I fall in love with the hit. It’s just, it’s like getting hit with a bolt of electricity, which I wish you could’ve experienced today, but shit.

I’m happy that you’re enjoying today. Cause it is, I get kind of jaded. I get focused on the fish and I sometimes forget that wow, Lake Berryessa is really beautiful.

There are no ugly places where there are fish.

C: What’s your favorite salmon to eat?

T: Kokanee.

C: The ones we’re trying to catch?

T: Oh yeah. They’re delicious.

C: Wait, so that’s the main reason. Yeah. You’re upset is because you’re hungry.

T: I’m hangry.

C: What is it that you get out of fishing that brings you back to it over and over, over and over again?

T: I just, I love being out on the water. I love for me. It’s a connection to my dad and my brother, who’s still around, and we still fish together occasionally. And all of those memories when you’re were a kid when everything is getting hard, wired into who you’re going to become, you know, road trips to go fishing for the weekend and staying in little dinky resorts and going out and catching salmon all day long and coming back in and smelling like fish and just the sunsets and the sunrises and the wind.

And like right now, I love having the wind in my face. I just, you know, there’s just, there’s a freedom out here that I don’t get anywhere else. And there’s also a connection that I don’t. Get many other places, you know, it just, it’s a family thing for me as much as anything else.

C: Is it a loss for you if you come out and you don’t catch anything or is it just…

I get a little bummed out, a lot of people say, you know, like it’s called fishing, not catching and it is nice to just be out, but…

C: There’s some wisdom to that statement.

T: I thought it was, yeah, there’s a lot of wisdom to it. Not catching fish. It goes with the territory. That’s just the way it is. But those times when you do get into them, Or you get that one. It’s like, if we got a fish right now, that was a nice fish

C: game changer, whole day changes

T: Best day ever!

So if I’m with like a buddy of his understands fishing really well, I don’t worry about it so much, but like with you, I feel really bad because I really, really, really wanted to get a fish for you. So I will go home and. And I’ll have some latent Catholic guilt over it.

C: Look, I just see it this way. Now you just owe me another fishing trip.

Like where there’s fish.

While, Tom and I regroup after our fruitless day on the Lake. Here’s part two of this Unpacked, a story of some fisherman who had way better luck than we did.

ACT TWO – Grandpa Hal

Grandpa Hal (Photo: Mark Kewman)

M: My name is Mark Kewman. I work for a TV station as an engineer and do radio on the side.

C: Think about the first person that took you fishing. I mean, you could probably name them right now. Mine was my dad and my uncle bill. Well, for Mark, his most prominent fishing memories are with his grandpa, grandpa Hal.

M: Grandpa Hal is one of those people who he doesn’t talk much, but when he does talk, everybody in the vicinity quiets down, And listens to him because he’s got something to say,

Grandpa Hal has a cabin on a Lake called Big Fish Lake.

Doesn’t always live up to its name.

He goes out fishing once a week on Fridays for Friday fishing with any of the relatives who are around. So like my aunts and uncles will come up on Friday and play hooky from work.

So we came out their  for his 90th birthday. And while we were there, my cousins were sort of saying, Hey. If you have the chance to go fishing with him one more time. This season, you may want to do that.

I didn’t think he was like on death’s door or anything, but Minnesota winters are very unkind to older people. And grandpa to his credit is an outdoor guy, he doesn’t like to be cooped up in the house all winter long. Being around the grandkids and the great grandkids and going fishing with his best friend is really his jam in the summer.

That’s when he’s the happiest.

C: Did you ever talk to grandpa howl about what he loved about fishing?

M: No. I don’t know why. I never asked him that. I really think, Hey, it’s to get away from the hustle and bustle and he’s Catholic, it’s his way of being closer to God, I think, but we never really talked about that.

We didn’t get to deep conversations. I wish we had some times, but that was, you know, he’s a man’s man. He doesn’t really talk too much about feelings or anything like that. But when you’re fishing, you feel safe to kind of have conversations about things like that.

Sometimes you just need one on one guy time and quiet.

There’s just you and the fishing.

So I fly back a few months later in September, I get into Minneapolis really early in the morning, get the rental car, drive up to the cabin and fall asleep on the couch, trying to get a couple hours of sleep before. Friday fishing starts.

It’s me, my grandfather, my uncle Jim, and my grandfather’s best friend Lon.

The son’s kind of rising over the lake, flat glass water. We’ve got loons on the Lake. But this is a Friday, so there’s maybe one or two fishermen out on the Lake and just us. Very quiet.

We go over to the spot. It’s 200 yards away from the dock and we start fishing and we’re right away we’re catching fish, these beautiful Pumpkin seeds with beautiful colors. A fish is coming in the boat once every two minutes, then it’s like once every 90 seconds, then it’s like, somebody is catching a fish, taking it off the hook, and then as they’re taking off the hook, another person in the boat catches a fish.

At one point, my grandfather catches two fish at the same time on the same line, he’s got two hooks on his line and he’s caught two fish at once.

So we’re like, I’ve never seen this before. My uncle Jim’s like, I’ve never seen this before, Lon is like I’ve never seen this before and grandpa’s stay silent. With a big smile on his face.

I’m just thinking this is the greatest fishing trip I’ve ever been on.

C: How many fish would you estimate that you guys caught?

M: We hit limit before lunch. I believe it is like 20 fish per person. So this is like 80 fish.

We get back to the shore and normally in the Roske family, how it works is you catch you clean. Grandma came out to help clean as well. Cause grandma does that, she’s an angel.

And so we pull up this cooler up to shore off the dock and we bring it up there and grandma goes, “how many of you think?” and I open up the cooler and she goes, “Oh, you’re crazy. I’m not cleaning that.” It was so how many fish that she, it was just like, “ah, Nope. Not going to do this. I’m not cleaning all those fish.”

After we had eaten lunch and we cleaned the fish, we took a nap and the rest of the afternoon, we were just giving each other this look with the upraised eyebrows. Like, did that really happen? Did we really have that successful of a fishing trip where we cannot legally go out and fish the rest of the day?

What are we going to do with ourselves?

The cooler full of fish! (Photo: Mark Kewman)

Normally in a fishing story, you kind of exaggerate a little bit. There’s no exaggeration. I have a photo of the cooler and all you can see is fish. There’s no water to be seen in the cooler because it’s filled with sunfish. I think we had a fish fry based on all of that fish.

I went home Sunday night with probably 10 pounds of filets. And it’s still in our freezer. I haven’t, I haven’t cooked the fish partially because it was such a special once in a lifetime kind of fishing trip that I kind of don’t want to eat the fish. I kind of don’t want to throw the fish out. I want that still in my freezer because when I see that it reminds me of that fishing trip and…

You know. I never got to fish again with my grandfather.

This fishing trip I’m going to tell my kids, and grandkids about. And that fishing spot is going to be a spot that I look out on the Lake and I’m going to shed a tear every time.

It represents that bond between a grandfather and a grandson. That you can’t replicate. I’m not a religious guy, but there are times where I think that God or some sort of spirit or the earth knew that this was my last fishing trip with grandpa. And was just like, we’re going to give you one hell of a trip.

You’re never going to forget.

Grandpa Hal cleaning fish. (Photo: Mark Kewman)

My grandfather passed away this past winter. And we talked about that fishing trip a little bit before he passed away. And I said, “you know, grandpa, once you get, well again, we’re going to go out and fish.” And he says, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I can beat that last trip.”

I think it’s really important in this day and age with COVID and everything. That’s going on, that when all this is over and you can actually spend time with your family. Especially if they’re out of state or out of the country, that you go and do that, and you say, I don’t care how much it costs or I don’t care about my hours I have at work for paid time off or, or what have you, your family is way more important. The fishing is way more important. And it sounds a little ridiculous to say that fishing is more important than anything else, but in a way it is it’s those moments where you’re one with the earth and one with God, if you’re a religious person or one with your family, I’m so glad that I got that moment with my grandfather.

ACT THREE- Best Day Ever!

C: It’s been about a month since our failed fishing trip. And Tom and I are back out on Lake Berryessa, Fishing for salmon

We had a nibble about 20 minutes after we dropped our lines in the water. But since then nothing.

C: “You teach me cool shit, Tom.”

C: It’s been four hours

T: “It’s only cool. If we catch something otherwise it’s just bullshit.”

A fish hits our line. “You go fight it right there. You got it. Nice and easy. There you go. Hold that rod up like that. And don’t like pull down on it. Just keep it like right at that angle back. Okay. Right there. And just, just real nice and gradual.

C: Wow. Oh yeah. Yeah.

T: There you go. So flasher hasn’t come up yet. So just keep reeling. You got good angle on the rod. That’s good. See it flashing it now?

C: Not yet. Oh, there he is. Oh, wow. Beautiful.

T: Come on, baby.

C: Do I bring him all the way

T: back up to my side of the boat, my side of the boat, back up, back up, walk back, lift the rod up with rod. Tip up, up, up, up, up. There you go, dude. Beauty. There we go!

C: Beautiful. Wow.

T: That’s a frickin beautiful fish.

C: Wow.

C: At this point, Tom grabbed what turned out to be a water ski handle. It’s about six inches long and less thick than a paper towel roll. And he just bopped the fish on the heads directly above the eyes.

T: Yeah, that’s a beauty, nice job.

C: Alright, let’s get gross for a second, but this is important to know while I can’t interview a fish and ask them what their death feels like.

I’ll give you a minute with that.

The commonly accepted methodology for humanely killing a fish involves rendering the fish brain dead within seconds and bringing it on the boat. So the bop to the brain in theory does that now that our kokanee is brain dead.

The next step is to bleed and gut the fish, which we’ll do in a second. But first. Fish pics.

T: That’s a beauty. Nice job.

C: Thanks man.

T: Yeah. Right on. So that’s 16 inches.

C: Wow. 16 inches!?

T: Yeah. But fat. See how fat that is. That’s going to be good meat.

C: That’s going to be a tasty taste fish.

T: Now I feel a little less pressure,

C: Dude. We caught a fish! Sweet.

T: That first flash that’s a high, that’s my crack hit.

C: That was a rush man. My adrenaline is pumping. My legs are a little wobbly earlier.

Tom described catching a fish as getting struck with a bolt of electricity. And I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a feeling I won’t soon be able to shake. All right. Now to the really gross stuff.

T: So I’m going to clean the fish, wouldn’t get it on ice, but we’ll get the guts out of it and kind of bleed it so that the adrenaline is out of it, which can possibly taint the flavor of the fish. I’ve never really noticed it, but I just like to get it out of the way. So I’ll just do kind of a triaged cleaning here.

C: So, so you’ve cut the fish down, its belly, basically. It’s butthole to its gills.

T: Yes. Yeah. Yup. STEM to stern, straight to STEM. And this one’s a male you’re pulling, as you can see, is those are, those are sperm sacks .

C: Oh, wow, that’s cool. gross but cool. 

T: And if this were a Chinook or a trout, I would check the stomach contents. Let’s see what he’s eaten. It’s even to see anything I’m squeezing the stomach out and you can see, so it kind of looks like caviar. So he’s eating, whatever.

I don’t even know what that is. It’s just probably some kind of plankton that looks like some kind of plankton or maybe some kind of shrimp. So that’s what he said. I’m holding this on my hand and it does, it kind of looks like, kind of looks like salsa.

C: Like Salsa Verde meets fish eggs.

T: So now I’m going to rinse him out a little bit

C: so just right in the lake?

T: Yep. Wow. Look at that meat. That meat is just beautiful. Beautiful, nice orange color. That’s going to be so flavorful and it’s got good fat content in it. So it’s going to bubble up. It’s going to be real like moist and just you’re going to like that fish.

C: If someone. And like me is a, like a complete newbie novice to fishing and wants to give it a try. What do you recommend people do?

T: Go out with a guide to kind of learn the basics, talk to them, pick their brain. If you’re just going to be like starting off fishing from shore, go to a Sportsman’s warehouse or a Bass Pro Shop or something like that. And talk to him, tell him what you want to fish for, what you’d like to do while you really need to get started as a rod and reel and some basic instruction.

And then it’s just trial and error. You know, you got to go out there and kind of. Figure things out on your own, find the places that you like and places you don’t, what you like to fish for, what you don’t care to fish for. And then just pursue that.

C: I took that 16 inch Kokanee home gave thanks and cooked him up with butter lemon, seasoned with a little salt and pepper served next to some perfectly moist white rice.

And as my boyfriend and I sipped white wine and savored, every delicious bite of that fish, I felt. This sense of accomplishment. That’s hard for me to describe. I think Tom sums it up nicely.

T: This is like the one thing I try to keep pure. I’ve never bought a, a salmon in the store.

C: Would you say there’s something empowering about knowing and yet we live in an advanced democracy, but if the world fell apart tomorrow,

T: I can catch a fish.

C: You can catch A fish.

T: Well, not today though. Not today. I would have been ostracized from the tribe.

C: We only caught that one fish that day on Lake Berryessa. But you know the old saying, if you can’t beat them, join them. In this case, I’m quite literally talking about the salmon, the highlight of this 100 degree afternoon for us was jumping into the lake for a swim.

I’d like to thank Tom Maley for those two scorching hot days on Lake Berryessa and for being so generous with your time and friendship.

My buddy, Mark Kewman. Thank you so much for sharing Grandpa Hal with the rest of us, your story made me feel and in a time when we can’t even hug one another, that’s pretty cool.

I put some pictures from that fishing trip. We grandpa, how in the show notes of this podcast for both of our fishing trips, Tom and I launched from Mark Lee Cove Marina. On Lake Berryessa. And I got a text from Tom the other day, informing me that the Marina was a victim of the fires that are raging through Northern California.

Right now it’s no longer standing my heart breaks for the people that live and work near these fires. And I’ll never forget the memories I made there at Markley Cove.

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