41 years on, Gausta remains king

POULSBO — Ask Chester “Chet” Gausta what the biggest accomplishments of his life are, and he’ll give you three answers: leaving Papa, New Guinea after serving there in World War II, marrying his wife Barbara, and “catching the whopper which didn’t get away.”

The lifetime Poulsbo resident has held onto the record for the largest Chinook salmon ever caught in the state — a 70-pound behemoth that has seen him the reigning king of kings for more than four decades.

Born in Little Norway in 1916, Gausta learned to fish during summers in his youth at a family house on Camano Island. He and his wife still head up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca — near the site of his record-breaking catch — at least twice a year.

He still remembers it like it was yesterday: a crystal clear and crisp morning with not a cloud in the sky, Sept. 6, 1964 was one of the last of the fall chinook season.

“It was fantastic,” Gausta said. “The water was flat out on the strait and there was just a little groundswell.”

Gausta, along with his younger brother Lloyd and his uncle, Carl Knutson, headed out off the coast of Sekiu, near Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, to enjoy a day of saltwater fishing on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Around noon, the threesome cruised Gausta’s new 15-foot Pacific Mariner out to Pillar Point.

“My two partners were dozing off sleeping and I had the rod across my lap,” Gausta said.

Just then, cruising along the kelp beds was the soon-to-be-storied salmon, which had decided to snack on Gausta’s herring bait.

“This wasn’t the run of the mill strike,” Gausta wrote in an article he penned about the experience. “It was a screeching, alarm wakening and reel singing strike which brought two dozing fisherman to spring into action.”

After Gausta set the hook, what ensued was the fishing fight of his life. It didn’t take long for his 12-pound line to almost completely disperse from his reel as the salmon was going anywhere but Gausta’s Mariner.

“It headed for Vancouver Island,” he recalled. “It must have taken us out to the middle of the strait, at least a mile from the shore.”

There, in the deep waters that separate the United States and Canada, the big one finally reared its head — if only for a moment — above the water.

“My brother exclaimed, ‘You don’t have a salmon, you have a porpoise!’” Gausta said.

After an hour, Gausta began making headway and the salmon meandered its way around the boat, exhausted. The threesome soon encountered its next dilemma — getting the enormous fish into the boat.

A net was all but ruled out.

“Too small,” Gausta explained.

Gausta’s Uncle Carl, a former commercial fisherman, used a gaff hook instead and the three men worked to pull the mammoth aboard.

Gausta, anxious to find out what their fresh catch weighed, pointed his 50 horsepower Mercury engine back to the shore and the boat cut through the strait’s saltwater as fast as the Mariner could go.

The verdict came in once they landed back at the Coho Resort where they had launched the boat — Gausta had landed a record 53-inches-long, 70.5 pounds. Salmon. It took the three fisherman four hours to leave the resort, as their newfound fame kept onlookers flashing pictures and quipping with questions about the champion chinook.

His storied fish yielded 90 half-pound cans of meat. He was also able to have the record breaking fish mounted and it currently hangs on the Gausta family room wall, surrounded by other fishing artifacts.

Gausta wonders just how long the record will last. But there was a time when the state nearly decided that his record didn’t hold water.

In 1983, the Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to throw out all old sports fishing records. But public outcry — including a Bremerton Sun story by sportswriter Chuck Stark that compared Gausta’s record to Babe Ruth’s home run record — saw the Chinook mark reinstated in 1987.

Gausta said that though he feels lucky to have caught the “big one,” others just as grand likely roam the waters of Washington. But he said that depleted fish populations in the year’s since his record breaking catch have not helped his competition.

“It will eventually be broken, I’m sure of that,” he said. “Hopefully fishing will again get up to where it was at one time.”

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