ALONG THE LITTLE SALMON RIVER, Idaho -- It's not just fishing that drives people to take part in the short season along the Little Salmon River. Fellowship, family tradition and fun are all part of the annual frenzy.
Each spring during the last decade a small city has formed along the Little Salmon River north of Riggins, Idaho, to meet the return of chinook salmon to the river that bears its name.
It's a conglomeration of tents, RVs and pickups packed alongside the river. They're squeezed into parking lots or wedged between the steep riverbank and the highway.
When word of a hot bite spreads, people skip work and drive through the night to spend hours casting shoulder-to-shoulder -- known as combat fishing -- for the chance to catch a fish that they could buy for about $4 a pound.
BIG FISH, BIG THRILLS
"It's just the thrill of having a fish that strong on the end of your line," said Rick Cloepfil of Boise, Idaho. "It's just hard to explain the thrill of having one on and landing it." Cloepfil, an aircraft mechanic, went home after a recent double shift that started at 3:30 a.m., packed and hit the road at 10:30 p.m.
He arrived at the Little Salmon at about 2 a.m., took a short nap, then rose at 3:30 a.m. and sat for two hours next to the river to secure a prime fishing spot.
"You never know when is early enough," he said.
By 7 a.m., he had landed his first chinook of the season.
"He's slept on the rocks before," his wife, Kathy Cloepfil, said.
The Cloepfils and their neighbors, Dan and Julie DeLong, make salmon fishing an annual event that usually ends with a baked salmon dinner.
Dan DeLong, a self-described seafood snob originally from the Puget Sound area in Washington, said spring chinook is among the best-tasting fish you can get.
LIKE A CLASS REUNION
Bob Mann recently caught a daily limit of salmon. But for him the harvest was secondary to the socializing that inevitably happens when he spends hours rubbing shoulders with other anglers, some of whom he sees only during salmon season.
"We visit and catch up on what's happened during the year," Mann said. "It's the same bunch every year. It's like a class reunion." When Mann hooked a chinook, people moved aside so he could move downstream to fight it. Another angler netted it for him, while others congratulated him for catching his limit.
COMBAT FISHING AND PURPLE HEARTS
The semi-organized mayhem on slick rocks and steep banks with hooks and lead weights flying through the air can lead to injuries.
Two years ago, Mann lost his footing on a slick rock and broke his leg. But did the 63-year-old retiree ever consider giving up salmon fishing? "Oh, hell no, it's so much fun," Mann said.
This year, one unlucky Treasure Valley angler was hauled away from the river in an ambulance after he yanked a snagged line and a 3-inch weight lodged between his eyeball and skull socket.
Several years ago, an angler slipped into the river and drowned.
PASSING ALONG A TRADITION
Upstream on Rapid River, where sport anglers are forbidden to fish, members of the Nez Perce Tribe use dip nets and gaff hooks to harvest salmon like the generations before them.
Samuel Enick, 48, has fished there since he was 14 and earns most of his annual income from commercial fishing.
He starts gill-netting on the Columbia River in early spring, moves to Rapid River when the salmon arrive there and finishes his season on the South Fork of the Salmon River.
"I can make $400 per day catching fish," he said.
Enick and other tribal members sell their salmon along U.S. 95 within a stone's throw of where they harvest the fish.
But not all the fish they catch are sold. Many are given to churches on the reservation for ceremonies.
"We give them to the elders and whoever else needs them," he said.
Talon Davis, 11, is learning to gaff salmon. His small frame is too light to muscle the long, heavy dip net that has twice dislocated Enick's shoulder.
Davis uses a 3-inch hook affixed to a long wood pole to sweep the bottom of Rapid River and snag chinook.
On his best day, Davis made $80 selling his catch.
Davis started helping other tribal fishermen when he was 6 by gutting fish and carrying them from the river to trucks and coolers.
Now he's taking his place among the older anglers, and once gaffed 20 chinook in a single day.
"A lot of youngsters catch on real fast," Enick said.
ALL WALKS OF LIFE
Rexanne Zimmerman owns the combination tackle shop and liquor store in Riggins, which is the unofficial headquarters for salmon anglers.
In the early 1990s, when salmon seasons were sporadic and short, salmon fishing mostly attracted local anglers or those from nearby communities. But 2010 marked the 10th straight year of salmon fishing, which is the longest streak since the early 1960s, and now attracts people from throughout the Northwest.
Zimmerman said she gets calls from Montana, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California. She started getting phone calls in January and February from people wanting to know about the coming salmon season, which typically opens in late April.
"They just call and say, 'When is the best time to plan our vacation?"' Zimmerman said.
RIGGINS GETS WHIPPED
Unlike the long steelhead season, which lasts from September through April, salmon fishing is "like a feeding frenzy because it's such a short season," Zimmerman said.
Prime fishing typically lasts from a month to six weeks, depending on the size of the run.
The influx of anglers brings millions of dollars to the small river community. Restaurants, motels, bars, gas stations and stores go full-tilt to accommodate the rush.
"We all get whipped, but we look forward to it," Zimmerman said.