It was a misty, pre-dawn morning on Dock One in Astoria, Oregon. Soft yellow lights illuminate patches of weathered, well-worn decking and 30 or so boats gently press up against their buoys. Skeletal masts of sailboats reach up towards the low-hanging marine layer and short skiffs bob in between, set with seats in neat rows. In the middle of it all floats the 37’ Liberty Gun.
Together with his wife Lacy, Kevin Newell owns the Liberty Gun and Total Fisherman Guide Service and has for over 20 years. He quietly chats with us as his deckhand, Ben, strides down the dock pushing a wheelbarrow stacked gingerly with a dozen fishing rods. “Ah. Yeah. I was hoping we’d get out into tuna waters today,” he says. “But it’s just too rough out there.” So instead the rods Ben walks down the dock are for sturgeon and salmon. “Most of the people you’ll see headed out today are fishing for salmon anyways. This is the best salmon fishery on the west coast. But,” he explains to us, “there are rockfish and lingcod around here this time of year, too. The deeper you go, the bigger you go.”
This is the fourth season Kevin has fished with the impressively large and immaculately clean Liberty Gun (all day we see Ben wiping up single fish scales and tossing small bits of kelp overboard when there are a few moments in between baiting). We see the way he lights up when we show him what Field Strip Gen II can do—purge the Bona Fide™ of every bit of fish slime without tools, right on the boat.
Never Skunked on Sturgeon
“You spend enough time doing anything and you should have a spidey sense,” Kevin says as he cuts the three massive motors and the Liberty Gun drifts to stillness in the middle of the Columbia River. Minutes after he and Ben bait and cast all six of the sturgeon rods, suddenly, one of them bends.
The average sturgeon Kevin says he and his clients pull in is over 8 feet long. 800 pounds. And I believe him as my body strains against the powerful tug of the river monster we have yet to lay eyes on. The reel whirrs as the fish pulls out away from the boat and the bend of the rod is impossibly arced. Ben casually leans over and ups the drag on the reel.
“He’s a heavy six and a half,” Kevin calmly observes almost ten full minutes later when the battle finally starts to wind down and the sturgeon’s whiskery snout breaks above the water. “You know, a lot of times the water’s too hot and the fish aren't up here,” he says as he deftly manipulates the sturgeon to get us a good picture. “But we’re getting such a cooling effect with these big tides coming off the cold ocean that last year we didn’t have.” And it strikes me—even as I reach out to grab the massive river beast by the lower lip for a photo op—that it must be a powerful thing to know a river and fish patterns so well that you can detect even the slightest shifts from one year to the next.
“Well guys, we’re going to let mister whiskers off the hook so he can go on and live a happy sturgeon life,” Kevin says as the fish quietly swims off. A few more massive sturgeon later, and we make our way out closer to the confluence to drop off the crab pots.
Always Overbait the Crab Pots
“This is what we used to do when I was a kid,” Kevin says as he pulls a baggie stuffed full of shad out of a small cooler. “Come out, drop the crab pots, catch our salmon, go sturgeon fishing, pull the crab pots. Call it the trifecta. So that’s what we’re doing today. Just a little out of order. Doing a trifecta throwback trip. Like what I used to do in my high school days.”
There are an endless number of ways to make a crab pot. All it takes is two hoops, chicken wire (or something of the sort), rope, and a buoy. When a crab pot rests on the sandy bottom, full of bait, the crabs squeeze their way in or latch on so tight to their feast that when the crab-hungry fishermen come back later and pull the pot up, the crabs are unable to find their way back up or unwilling to let go. Simple and delicious.
As Kevin watches Ben tie shad onto the wire, he sternly teaches, “always overbait the crab pots.”
I ask, “how much do you notice these waters and this landscape change year after year?” He gazes out over the edge of the boat and pauses as Ben drops the baited pot, “I’ve spent years, literally years of time just looking for salmon and sturgeon right here.” Looking back at me he says, “I watch the sandbars shift over long periods of time. It really makes me realize the importance of being a steward of the resources and the places that I know so well. Being a steward, to me, means that when no one is watching, you still do the right thing. Even if you could have gotten away with something.”
He turns away for a moment to help Ben tie the next silvery shad to the last crab pot and glances back, “My dad always used to say that the number one job of a leader is to create other leaders. And I really try to be that guy.”
Can’t Count on Blue Skies on the Oregon Coast
Later, after shouldering in next to countless salmon fishing skiffs, Kevin and Ben bait and cast the rods, dropping each line down to a different, tiered depth and dragging them slowly back and forth. After a few passes, we still haven’t had a bite.
“Every day I come to my job and it’s a puzzle to solve,” shrugs Kevin. “Rarely are two days the same. It’s challenging. Sometimes extremely. I enjoy that.”
As we decide to bail and go back to retrieve the crab pots, Kevin says “Even if the lines are empty, which they rarely are, the people that I take fishing are at their finest moments; having a great time. I’ve caught a lot of fish in my life—if it was just that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. For me, it’s all about watching people come to life.”
The Right Tool for the Right Job
Back on the dock, cleaned crab boiling in a massive pot, beers in hand, Kevin reflects, “I’ve been doing this almost 20 years now. One of the things I’ve seen and noticed is that you don’t realize how you’re getting older so quickly. When you fish so much, like we did today, 10 hours goes by in the blink of an eye. Well, doing it every day, 20 years goes by in the blink of an eye.” He laughs as he says, “One of my favorite clients—a guy that comes back year after year—said to me, ‘I didn’t mean to get this old. It just happened overnight.’ It makes you appreciate every single day on the water. That’s invaluable. I hope I never lose that.”
People in waders and oversized rain slickers walk by as we continue sipping beers and watching the crab boil. It seems like everyone knows and greets Kevin—poking fun for being the guy on a photoshoot, reporting that they saw Lacy pulling in a massive salmon earlier in a boat full of clients.
“My goal is to be at the top of my game every single day,” Kevin says with a sort of finality. “You can’t cut corners. You can’t take shortcuts. I’m fortunate enough to call some of the best fishermen in the world my friends; they’re my peers, but they’re also my competition. To compete at that level, you have to have the best equipment that’s not going to let you down.”
“I can guarantee you that if you’re running shoddy stuff, it’s going to fail on you when you need it the most. That’s why I refuse to use anything but the best reels, rods, motors, and,” as he glances down at the Bona Fide™ with Field Strip Gen II, “that includes the best knives.”
We appreciate Total Fisherman Guide Service for collaborating with us in our field research efforts.
All images by Mighty Creature Co.