SEEN ANY GOOD movies lately? I did. It’s a love story where boy meets girl and then boy goes fishing.
“The Memory of Fish” tells the story of Dick Goin. His family migrated to the Olympic Peninsula from their Iowa farm in the Dust Bowl years of the “dirty ’30s” or what was otherwise known as the Great Depression.
Back then, the Peninsula was known as “The Last Frontier” for its record-sized trees and monster fish. In July 1790, Spanish Capt. Manuel Quimper bought some hundred-pound salmon from the Native Americans off the mouth the Elwha. People have been coming to the Peninsula to catch giant salmon ever since.
Upon moving to Port Angeles, it did not take long for Goin to start fishing the Elwha.
That was back when fish were not just a toy for the rich to play with or a tool the biologists could use to pad their resumes. Fish were a source of protein-rich food in a hungry country for anyone who could go down to the river and catch them. Goin could catch them.
One day on the lower Elwha, Dick told a couple of us kids he had just caught nine steelhead that morning up at the head of the clay bank. At the time, I hadn’t caught that many steelhead in my life. We hurried up to the clay bank and didn’t catch a thing all day.
Later, fishing salmon at Freshwater Bay, the limit was two or three kings a day. Dick Goin was always the first guy back to the beach with his limit. Those were the good old days — too good to last.
Still, a man had to make a living, and back then, the jobs were mostly either killing fish or killing trees. Dick got a job in a pulp mill that did both.
In the film, Goin asks the question of what he was supposed to do; the kids had to eat. Just about every job on the Peninsula killed something.
Goin retired from the mill. The mill shut down, leaving a toxic waste dump that has not been cleaned up 20 years later. In retirement, Goin had more time to fish.
He kept a journal of what he caught. This information has since been used as a testament to the loss of our fisheries in the Elwha and other rivers that have never been dammed.
The Elwha’s hundred-pound salmon are extinct. The last one I heard of was a spawnout beneath the state Highway 112 bridge back in the 1970s. Since then, the Elwha has changed from one of the best salmon and steelhead rivers in the state of Washington to a stream where the fish are endangered, threatened or just plain gone.
Goin thought the two dams on the Elwha that were built during the early years of the past century without fish passage killed the river. He said the dams were “slaughterhouses” that were killing the fish. He began a tireless campaign to have the dams removed.
The Elwha Dam removal project became one of the most controversial issues on the Olympic Peninsula since the creation of Olympic National Park in the 1930s and the spotted owl fight in the 1990s.
In this battle, there were winners and losers and casualties on both sides. We lost two beautiful lakes behind the dams and two Park Service campgrounds. The U.S. Highway 101 bridge is washing out, and the Port Angeles water supply is threatened by sediment.
Will the salmon come back to the Elwha? “The Memory of Fish” helps us all agree that we sure hope so.
Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].