Like Fish in a Barrel

Richard Chasm

Pete Small’s father was a hard working logger. They lived in Olalla, but one summer Mr. Small got a logging job up on Twelve Mile Creek the other side of Camas Valley. The loggers camped all week coming home Saturday and going back to work at dawn on Monday.

This area had been logged in the 1920’s and ‘30s but in those days the timber was fell by hand, yarded with steam donkeys and delivered to the mill by railroad. Times had changed, and now Twelve Mile Creek was sporting a new haul road for diesel log trucks and logs were pulled with a bulldozer. Pete’s father had a D-8 caterpillar, and they went to work.

Pete’s father hired us to go up to their camp Saturday afternoon and watch things until they got back on Monday. He offered us twenty dollars each to spend the weekend at their camp lest the tools, chainsaws and the camp in general run the risk of looters. I got the job because I was the proud owner of a 1952 Pontiac Chieftain and was able to drive Pete and I to this weekend of employment.

My father bought the Pontiac from a friend raised in Seattle. His father bought the car new, and it sat in a garage for a decade until the old man passed away. His son sold it to my father, who gave it to his son, me. It had a straight-eight, flat head motor and one of the first automatic transmissions that actually worked. It had rust cancers from the salt air of Seattle but otherwise was solid and built like a tank. The old car was a faded green with a big white steering wheel. The interior had wide leather seats that were in shades of green. The heater worked well but windshield wipers ran on a vacuum which meant they were slow. The radio was a fine tube model that had a great sound. It was a “sweet ride” not a “hot rod”, as we used to say.
Shortly after my dad gave it to me, Pete and I changed the oil and did a tune up. We changed the spark plugs, set the distributor and adjusted the carburetor. We agreed before taking off on a test drive that we should check the brakes when we had a chance but that had to be later because right now we were going for a spin.

We headed up Olalla Road to a BLM road that wound up into the hills. At the top of the ridge, there was a side road that went down and came out into the back of a big ranch. Just as we started down this side road, the carburetor linkage stuck open and Pete and I started careening down this old logging grade. I stomped on the brakes, but in a few seconds all we had was smoke coming out from under the car. The heavy car was gaining speed as we flew around a corner toward a big wash out. There was only a few feet of road and a huge gap where the road wasn’t.

There was no place to go except up on the side hill, around the washout and then through the ditch back to the road. We made it past the wash out only to get to the bottom where there was a tight turn on to the flats. As we slid around this corner the car went into a skid. I steered in same direction as the back was sliding so the tail of the car didn’t get ahead of the nose and we would stay on the road.

When we finally got to the bottom, I put the transmission into neutral and the car into the ditch. We tapped on the linkage to get it loose and then drove the old Pontiac out of the ditch. We then drove back to Pete’s house to oil the linkage and adjust the brakes.

This is when Pete’s father offered us the job and we leapt at the opportunity, although years later it occurred to me that Pete’s father might have figured this was a good way to keep us out of town over summer weekends now that we now had a car. As added incentive, the loggers would leave us a beer or two down in the cold water of Twelvemile Creek.

Fetching a brew, we noticed small trout in the pools of the stream. We came back the next weekend with light fishing gear to catch some food. We caught many of the fish but only kept the biggest two for dinner with a can of beans. We had tiny hooks just big enough for a single salmon egg and had a lot of fun catching and releasing these little fighters. The fish were hungry and the bait got snapped up by fish after fish.

We started working our way up the creek because we couldn’t take all the fish in a just a couple of the pools. The fishing was good and Pete commented several times how the water even in late summer was plentiful and cold. We found a sunny spot and rolled all the rocks into a pile downstream to make a modest swimming hole about two feet deep.

After we had been up there three or four weekends we had worked our way up the creek quite a ways when we came to a place where there was a dark tunnel of brush arching over the stream. We could see a big beaver dam on the other side of this dark tunnel that ran for about forty or fifty feet. Even though our eyes were adjusted for the bright summer sunlight, we plunged right in to the dim dark brushy grotto. The water was in shallow puddles on flat bed rock so we had easy footing as we splashed forward.

There was a weird hissing sound inside the tunnel of brush and as our eyes adjusted to the dark we started seeing snakes; lots of snakes; more and more snakes every second. There were thousands of small black snakes in a writhing mass. The snakes were about two feet long crawling over the rocks, in the water and banks of the stream. As our eyes adjusted we could see the brush over our heads was alive with these small snakes too. We had walked into a snake’s den with thousands of these little serpents. Although frightening, the good news was that they were scared of us too and shrank back several feet from us as we walked through their house. When we would advance, they would get out of our way closing up a few feet behind us.
By the time we realized what we had done, we were already half way through this dark arch alive with these wriggling and squirming black snakes. We stood in an oval of serenity surrounded by a sea of frightened reptiles. Pete and I discussed the situation and what to do next. We decided what the heck we are already half way through the snake’s den, the beaver dam is right there and the snakes were getting out of our way, let’s keep going. So the snakes got out of our way as we passed through their home and back into the bright sunlight to investigate the pool behind the dam the beavers had built.

The dam was large and well established, almost four feet high and trailing off into the banks on both sides of the stream. We snuck up to one side to peek into the pool of water behind the dam. It was teeming with big fat trout, several steelhead and smaller fish that turned out to be juvenile Chinook salmon. The water had eroded the dirt away from tree roots in the bank that were now hanging down into the water. These roots were abundant with trout, gigantic compared to what we had been catching. We watched a bug alight on the surface of the water. Several fish darted out to nail it!

We had a couple of jars of salmon eggs, and Pete jiggled out a small handful and tossed them overhand onto the waters of the beaver pond. It was quiet for a few seconds and then twelve and fourteen inch trout dashed out and started hitting the floating eggs. There were no more quiet fish calmly swimming in the pond anymore, they were hungry and agitated.

We changed our hooks into something bigger, tightened the drag knobs on our reels and baited our hooks. As Pete tossed out another handful of the bright red salmon eggs on to the water, we cast our baited hooks into the pond. In a few seconds we both had fish on our lines. It was crazy as the two fish put up a fight jumping out of the water and zigzagging across the pool. We both realized that we should take turns and fish one at a time but right then it was too late. Pete landed his fish but my fish found a root to tangle the line and got away.
I broke off the line and tied on a new hook as Pete caught another big fat trout. His face was an excited grin and his eyes sparkled. He whispered in a muted roar, “It’s like catching fish in a barrel!”

I put a couple of salmon eggs on a hook and cast it into the water roiling with excited fish. From the back of the pond a big black shape screamed towards my bait as the trout scattered. This fish was much bigger than the others and hit my rigging full blast. As I set the hook, it jumped into the air! He crashed back into the beaver pond and headed back to where it came from. I pulled on my fishing pole but it was a light rod with four pound test so I couldn’t pull too hard or the line would break. Pete told me it was a steelhead, a sea-run trout that can put up a hell of a fight. The big fish ran right straight at me as I reeled frantically and then leaping out of the water it turned to go back the other way. The fish stripped the line off my reel as it zoomed back to the end of the pond.

After a few minutes he got the line tangled around a root and broke off my fishing line. At this moment my heart was filled with two emotions. One was Dang! He got away! The other was the awe of being bested by one of Mother Nature’s creatures and just being able to see such a thing.

We were both pretty excited, and while I was tying a new hook on the line, Pete cast in the pond again but the fish were no longer biting. We sat for awhile to let the pond calm down, and I cast out my line. After a few minutes I had a bite and landed a very nice ten inch trout, perfect for a frying pan.

As these fish were all stirred up we decided to see what was further upstream. Since we couldn’t splash through the beaver pond we circled around to the meadows on either side of Twelvemile Creek. The ground was not dry; it was a marsh saturated with water from the pond so we had to get clear up into the timber on the side hill to keep from sinking up to our ankles in the sopping wet meadow.

Further upstream and around a bend, there was another set of beaver dams like stair steps up the creek. They were as full of fish as the first pool. Pete and I each caught another fish but now we had five fish in our creel. Pete caught one last fish for our breakfast, and we headed back down stream.

We came again to the snake’s den and like old friends we slowly walked back through it. We gave the snakes plenty of time to get out of our way, and they seemed less agitated. We returned to camp and got out the frying pan for a meal of these delectable trout rolled in corn meal and fried in bacon grease. We had four in the cooler for breakfast and made plans for our return.

During the next week I got heavier line, bigger hooks as well as more bait. The following weekend we went right back through the snake’s den to the beaver dam and all of those starving trout. We would always throw a hand full of scarlet salmon eggs out on the water just to feed the fish.

That Sunday was one of the best days I ever had fishing. In perfect swimming weather, with lots of fish to be caught and a chance hook a steelhead, we each landed and released a dozen nice fish out of the three beaver ponds. We kept two each and when we had enough we decided to head back to camp through our buddies down at the snakes den; happy with fresh trout to eat.
Soon school started and we no longer went up to watch the camp as they were about done. In the debate about the restoration of the fish runs, I have often thought maybe the best thing for the fishing would be to bring back the beavers, but I admit I am prejudiced after fishing on Twelvemile Creek.