‘I almost couldn’t breathe’

A retired Northwest guide remembers an epic battle with a mint-bright giant chinook, ‘a once in a lifetime fish’
By William Sisson ,

Veteran angler and retired guide Kris Olsen has seen his share of big trout and salmon in his many years of fishing storied waters from Washington to Alaska.

But there’s one fish a client hooked 20 years ago that left such an impression on him that he remembers the details of the great fight as if it happened yesterday. The action took place on the Humptulips River near Aberdeen, Washington, during the fall run of chinook salmon in the mid-1990s. The Humptulips was known as a big-fish river, and each year the good guides would get a half-dozen fish in the 40s and a 50-pounder or two. Fish in the 25- to 35-pound range were common.

Kris Olsen with a nice Chinook that did not get away.

On the day this story took place Olsen was guiding a couple who had fished with him for six or seven years. It was October, and the river was very low from lack of rain. Olsen and a few other guides were fishing several holes in the tidewater section of the river from anchored drift boats. The chinooks would push into these spots on the rising tide and fall back out on the ebb. To catch the flood, Olsen launched in predawn darkness. By first light, he and his clients were set up in a narrow spot not more than 30 feet wide. There were four boats anchored below him.

“I had to anchor between a kind of riprap rocky wall on the left of me and a fallen tree to the right of me,” recalls Olsen, 56 of Everett, Washington. “There really wasn’t much room. I told my clients, ‘Listen, these fish are going to push right into here, and whatever those guys don’t get down there, we’re going to get right here.’ ”

In short order, Debbie got the first fish, a chinook weighing about 30 pounds. Not long after that, her husband, Robert, got one weighing maybe 32 or 33 pounds. Both were ocean chrome, having just come in on the flood. They were using cured salmon eggs for bait.

Editor Nick Amato (left) with a 50-plus-pound chinook taken with Olsen.

Things slowed, and Debbie told Olsen that she was getting a little tried of working the pole. So the guide rigged up with a bait diver rig, which would allow her to fish the rod from a holder.

“I put this big — I mean almost a fist-size — wad of eggs on her hooks,” Olsen recalls. “And as she let it out, you could just see the milk oozing out. She put it in gear and then put the pole in the holder and sat down. And the diver was starting to take the line down. It had just got to its deepest depth and was probably there for all of 10 seconds when that rod just absolutely folded over. It got absolutely chomped. And this turned out to be the most unforgettable ride we ever took down there chinook fishing.”

As soon as she hooked this fish, Olsen could tell this was not an average king salmon. “It was really putting a hurt on her,” he says. “We tried to battle the fish for a long time without moving. I told Debbie just be patient. And the fish just stayed right under the boat for the longest time because it wasn’t a very big hole. The fight went on and on and on. For every two turns on the reel she got, she gave up two and a half. She was on this fish for almost an hour.”

The client was fishing a Loomis 981C rod and Abu Garcia 6500 Ambassadeur reel, 30-pound mono, 40-pound leader and a double 5/0 hook rig. “Real stout stuff,” Olsen recalls.

Olsen, client and a nice fat king.

But the fish wasn’t moving. And Olsen was having doubts about being able to land it in this spot. He was certain it was just a matter of time until it wrapped the line around a submerged tree branch and broke free.

The guide decided the best strategy was to pull the anchor and move downriver, pulling the fish over one riffle and into the next hole, where there was a large gravel bar that they could land the fish on.

“So we managed to do that successfully,” he says. “We got over the riffles. She still had the fish on. I beached the boat real quick. I jumped out with the net. I told her to stay right there in the boat.”

What Olsen didn’t realize was just how deep the water was right off the edge of the bar. “I really thought I was going to be able to wade out into the river to help scoop it up, and I couldn’t. I mean it just dropped right off,” he says.

The new water also gave the fish a second wind of sorts, and the angler and the fish had another give-and-take that lasted probably 15 minutes.

“She finally gets it up close enough to where I could start seeing silver,” says Olsen. “I knew it was big — I just didn’t know how big. When I saw it, I just almost sh*t myself. This thing was the biggest chinook we’d ever hooked down there. It was 60-plus if it was a pound. I’ve had enough 50s to know a Jumbotron. Something once in a lifetime. It was just mint-bright. And as it came up, I could see the sea lice all over the tail. I almost couldn’t breathe.”

After about an hour and 15 minutes, the fish was within about three feet of the outstretched net. “I mean it was right there. Just laying there,” says Olsen. “It was done. It was like, ‘Net me.’ ”

Olsen had a large Beckman net, but he couldn’t walk out into the river without disappearing. With the fish lying on its side, he also noticed that the line wasn’t going directly from the rod to its mouth. The mono was wrapped around the chinook’s belly and over its shoulder and then down to the hook in its maw.

A bright pair that Olsen took in the Humptulips River.

“I said, ‘Debbie, just stop for minute. Stop reeling,’ ” he recalls. “I was hoping the fish was just going to ease himself over to me, but it didn’t. He just started to float away. I told Debbie, ‘You’re going to have pull a little bit.’ And as she is pulling, the belly is starting to come up and it’s starting to roll. And now it’s about two feet from the net. And when it rolls over, it cut the leader with a tooth. It just cut the leader with a tooth. And her rod just snapped up.”

Olsen was stunned. “It just slowly drifted into the deep,” he says. “It didn’t even flop. It didn’t move its tail. It didn’t move a fin. It just floated into the depths and was gone. To this day, it’s a shock. You didn’t expect that kind of an ending.”

The angler was disappointed but philosophical. The loss hit Olsen harder. “She took it like a champ,” Olsen remembers. “I was devastated. If I could have taken two steps into the river I could have had it, but I would have been up to my neck.

“It’s been 20 years anyway. After talking about it, it feels like it happened just before lunch today. I remember every detail of it. That one will stay with me forever.”

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