For years now, influential Oregonians, hoping to preserve the beauty and environment of their state, have been trying hard to discourage Californians from migrating north. We'll take you for a while if we really have to, the feeling seems to be, and we'll certainly take your money while you're with us—but please, don't move here. This opposition to Californians—actually to migrants from anywhere—is organized, too. Souvenir shops sell "un-greeting cards" that picture a downcast man in a pouring rain over the caption OREGONIANS DON'T AGE, THEY RUST. My wife plays tennis in a well-preserved T shirt from the days of Governor Tom McCall (1967-1974), who some claim started all of this. Pictured on the front of the shirt is the inevitable man in a downpour, under which is lettered, "Tom Lawson McCall, Governor, on behalf of the citizens of Oregon, cordially invites you to..." And on the shirt's back the message is completed: "visit Washington or California or Idaho or Nevada or Afghanistan."
Unfortunately for Oregonians, the state's population continues to increase despite the emphasis its would-be saviors put on its rotten weather. And our weather can indeed be rotten, especially along the narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea. Storms sweep down from Alaska, bounce against the Coast Range and drench us.
So, though the Oregon coast is very beautiful, with its lush forests, steep cliffs and clean beaches, it's also awfully wet; and when it isn't wet, it's usually windy or foggy.
I thought of all of this before my last five-hour drive to the coast for some tide-pool fishing. Whenever an Oregonian plans a trip to the coast, for any reason, he thinks long and hard about the weather. How bad will it be?
December 15, 1980
This time I was in for a mild surprise. When I checked into a motel at Florence, the lady behind the desk looked me over carefully.
"You gonna fish?" she asked me.
Apparently she had seen the rod cases in the car. "Tomorrow morning," I said.
"Tide pools? It's gonna be cold."
"It's chilly all right."
"It's gonna freeze out there tonight."
"Not too usual around here, is it?"
"Usual? Naw. Rain is what's usual. Tonight it's gonna freeze. This'll be the coldest night in these parts in a long time. Good luck," she said. "Tide pools?"
I awoke at 5:45 a.m. Low tide had been at 3:54 a.m., and morning high would come at 10:10, so I would have to hurry. A glance out the window showed a perfect morning—for cross-country skiing. It was clear, calm and icy cold.
I dressed in nearly everything I'd brought along and headed for the car. The drive north was pleasant enough once the car had warmed up, and I had timed things right, because I hit the ocean just as there was enough light in the sky to make out the jagged rocks and sheltered coves of the coast below the road.
Within minutes I came upon an ideal spot, a small bay that could be reached in 10 minutes' walk from the road. A creek came out of a thick stand of timber and emptied into the middle of the bay, and it appeared to be a large enough stream to attract runs of salmon, steelhead or sea-run cutthroat trout. These fish aren't commonly taken in tide-pool fishing, but the time of year was right for them, and it was a nice possibility, if a remote one, to have at hand. North of the creek mouth, running parallel to the pebbly beach, were two long rock ledges with a pool the size of a tennis court between them. South of the creek was a series of good-looking smaller pools.
I parked, grabbed the fly rod out of the back and started down. I was so certain I'd catch some fish, and so excited at the prospect, that I barely noticed the cold. Not that I'm an expert at tide-pool fishing. To my knowledge, nobody is. It's a sport about which relatively little is known, and one with endless possibilities and certain obvious virtues.
Perhaps the primary virtue is that catching plenty offish is usually easy. Then there is the excitement arising from the fact that you never know what you will hook or how big it will be. As mentioned above, there is the rare salmon, steelhead or cutthroat trout to hope for, fish unmatched for sport when taken on a fly in salt water. There are almost always surf perch and dozens of species of rockfish, some 50 pounds or larger. It's rockfish in the one-to-five-pound range that you learn to expect, and catching them is cheap as well as easy—no guide, no boat, no expensive tackle required.
I decided to start out fishing the large pool north of the creek. Waves of three or four feet broke over the outer rock ledge of the pool, rolled and foamed across it, then lapped weakly over the ledge I was standing on. I worked out a short cast, the fly hitting the water between swells. I was using a weighted, size 2 streamer fly on a four-foot, 15-pound-test leader and a fast-sinking line—nothing awfully delicate. My rod was a 9½-foot, six-ounce fiber-glass steelhead model. I began the retrieve as the next wave poured over the outer ledge. There was a good strike, and I set hard, but the fish was gone. The wave rolled by me, over my ankles.
I cast again in the next lull. The strike came the same way in the same place, and this time I landed a perch of more than a pound. By the time I'd twisted the hook out of the small mouth and dropped the fish back into the water, the waves were rolling in above my knees. I had time to land two more perch before the incoming tide forced me off the ledge.
South of the creek looked better anyway, or at least so I convinced myself. I hurried down the beach, feet cold, hands numb, and crossed the clear-flowing creek, then climbed over the rocks and out among the pools. Glancing back to where I'd just been, I saw that the pool I'd taken the perch from was gone, both rock ledges totally submerged.
Tides rise in a hurry, so I hurried, too, searching for the best-looking pool among a lot of good ones. Eighty or 100 yards below the creek mouth I made my choice. I edged out as far into the pool as I could get, to be able to stand where the channel entered. From here I could cast across the pool and in toward shore, using the incoming swells to straighten the line and hold it out near the middle of the pool. The backwash would help sink the fly near the bottom. Then would be the time to begin the retrieve.
It worked well. Nearly every cast resulted in a strike, and most of them were well-hooked fish. Rockfish these were—a two-pounder, then a four-pounder, two more small ones, a five- or six-pounder, and back to two-pounders.
I cast again, looking for that big one we always hope for, and for a second or two I thought a miracle was actually going to happen. As the fly hit the water, something huge swirled beneath the surface behind it—something shiny, brownish-black. By instinct I set the hook. Thank God it didn't connect. The face of a sea lion popped out of the water, barely two rod lengths from where I stood. We looked at each other. He went back under. Then four of them showed. Then there were six. I simply stayed where I was and watched, amazed. These were Steller's sea lions, which reach a weight of 1,500 pounds. Never in my life had I been so close to wild creatures even half that size. They appeared to be a bull and his harem, and they must have been there for the same fish I'd been catching. They would roll lazily on the surface, then dive with remarkable ease, then surface again in 20 or 30 seconds, inquisitive black eyes shining, fur smooth as silk, drops of water glistening on their long mustaches. I stood stock-still, watching them until the tide forced me back, and they didn't seem to mind at all. When I started the drive to Florence the sea lions were still there, rolling and diving, fishing the tide, I was sure, with more efficiency than I had. Still, I had found the spot first. That was worth something.
They were also better dressed for the weather. On the Oregon coast you have to be willing to rust in rain or mildew in fog or be buffeted by gale-force winds or maybe even suffer frostbite. If none of that appeals, there's always Washington, California, Idaho or Nevada, not to mention Afghanistan.