By Henry Miller
If Henry Hughes could be allowed poetic license, he might say that he got to eat his words, and loved it.The English professor and poet who teaches at Western Oregon University is the editor of “The Art of Angling: Poems About Fishing.”
And in the melding of his two great loves, Hughes became the poetic piscatorial professor who hooked, fought and landed a 35-inch, 20-pound, 2-ounce lake trout while serving as a presenter during the Summer Fishtrap writing conference in mid-July at Wallowa Lake.
“It was my first time there,” he said about the jewel in the northeast corner of the state. “I was invited to do this workshop, and I was really happy because I heard this was an amazing lake.
“But I’m a novice to these kinds of waters.”
Hughes estimates that he caught and released about 50 rainbow trout — smaller planters and chunky holdovers — during down time at the conference.
But his goal was to tie into a kokanee at the legendary lake that during the past two years has produced state, national and a potential all-tackle world record for the landlocked variety of sockeye salmon.
“And I couldn’t catch one,” he said he said about his initial frustration. “I tried doing everything that I could.
“And finally a friend of mine picked up a couple jigging. And he said he was in about 20 feet of water.”
Hughes figured he’d give it a shot.
“So I just rented the rowboat, the $40-a-day rowboat,” he said about his July 14 foray on Wallowa Lake. “I had like no downriggers, no special tackle. I had my 6-pound-test little trout rod.
“I picked a couple of lures out of my box, and I’m trying this jigging in about 20 feet of water.”
What happened next was sheer poetry.
“It was a fisherman’s dream, because I knew when I hooked it, ‘oh my gosh, this is a fish,’ ” Hughes said. “And I knew it wasn’t a kokanee, because it was deep, deep, solid, almost like a Chinook run, you know.”
The ensuing battle of man in rowboat with puny pole and light line vs. unseen behemoth lasted, best estimate, about 45 to 50 minutes.
“I was glad I wasn’t anchored, because it really pulled me around … I just took my time, and it just ran and ran,” he said. “It almost spooled me the first run that it made.
“It stopped, fortunately, and I was able to inch back on it. And when I finally got it in the boat, I’m going ‘I can’t believe this fish.'”
The massive female laker, also known as a mackinaw, wasn’t finished.
“And then she explodes once at the boat, and I’m ‘oh, I’m never going to get this fish in,’ ” Hughes said.
He did, barely.
“I only had this little trout net. And it didn’t fit halfway in.”
Man and fish were quite a show, at Wallowa Lake Marina and back at the conference site.
“I rowed back, and the people at the dock were just flabbergasted,” he said. “They said ‘I can’t believe you caught that fish in a rowboat,’ because they rent all these high-level boats with downriggers and everything.”
How the massive mack ended up foraging in 20 feet of water became clear when he cleaned it.
“The answer is revealed when we do the autopsy,” Hughes said. “Because the fish is filled … it had these stocked trout in his stomach.
“The state is feeding all of our gamefish, which is probably a good idea.”
There was another surprise.
“And as I was cleaning it, a 10-inch rainbow trout popped out of it’s stomach in perfectly good shape. So I said ‘what the hell,’ and cleaned that one, too, hoping to find maybe another fish inside,” like Russian nesting dolls, Hughes said, then chuckled. “But all I found was a green smear of PowerBait, so that’s where it all ends.”
Hughes’ triumph was one of the highlights of the conference.
“It’s like something that every angler dreams about,” Hughes said. “I brought this thing into camp, it was just around dinnertime.
“There was about 200 people at this conference, and they’re good, country folks, so they were all like ‘whoa!’ and they all wanted to see the fish and touch the fish and pick it up. So the following lunch, the cook baked the whole thing, and we all had a small portion.
“I love that feeling, to keep a fish — I let a lot of fish go — but it was nice to catch, clean and eat this great fish. It made me very happy.”
At the 2012 edition of Summer Fishtrap, Hughes said there are plans for him to do a daylong session featuring fishing in the morning, teaching in the afternoon.
“I think I’ve even moved the whole theme of the conference to fishing,” he joked.
Which would be a perfect fit.
“Fishing is part of my literary life, too, poems about fishing,” Hughes said. “And I taught a course last year about the literature of fishing.