Seattle Times staff reporter Mark Yuasa reminisces about his start in the mail room to sharing his passion for the outdoors with readers.
The sun slowly rose over the horizon along the south-side of Kruzof Island off Sitka, Alaska, back in late July of 2003 as I bobbed in the gentle ocean swells with my late grandfather George Yuasa and great-uncle Shun Yuasa along with two of my dad’s brothers.
Gray whales splashed nearby before disappearing into the briny deep, birds dived after huge schools of herring and waves of migrating summer salmon were cruising beneath us as we fished for them using an old-style technique called “mooching.”
It was one of those remarkable moments in my life that solidified a career as the fishing and outdoors reporter for The Seattle Times, which dates back to 1992. I was there on a boat, in southeast Alaska, to witness and write about my experience during a three-day salmon fishing adventure.
“You’re the luckiest person and have the greatest job in the world,” are what people have often told me. And they were right.
Rewind to 1984, when a soft-spoken lady named “Edie” at The Seattle Times human resources department and I had a heart-to-heart discussion after the mailroom clerk said I was unqualified for a job sorting mail.
“I like your very nice and neat handwriting, and I’m going to find you a job at the newspaper,” she said to me.
Little did I know as an 18-year-old student at the University of Washington that those words would eventually lead to an exciting 33 year career at the state’s largest newspaper.
It was March 6, 1984 when I walked into Fairview Fanny’s front door as a newly-hired employee.
Reminiscing, I still remember the hey-days of the old-school newspaper industry when writers and desk editors commonly smoked cigarettes and cigars at their desks with air purifiers humming near ashtrays.
There was the endless wire service teletype equipment spitting out news, the chatter of typewriters and telephones constantly ringing. Four-letter words flew around the newsroom from reporters and editors trying to meet a deadline.
And it reverberated to the layout room where stories were measured with a “pica pole” and sections were cut with X-Acto knives then pasted with glue onto poster-sized boards before being sent to the printing press downstairs.
My first day on the job led to one of the most unforgettable moments.
It involved a phone call from Bob Finnigan, a sports reporter, who seemed a little harried. He was late trying to catch a bus back to Seattle from Saskatchewan, and wanted to quickly dictate his Seattle Thunderbirds story to this office newbie.
I cordially agreed unknowing to him that I was writing his dictation long handed with a pencil and paper.
About halfway through the phone call, he asked rather bluntly if I was writing or typing.
“Typing, sir” I replied as he began spitting out sentences much faster than I could write. After we got off the phone, I was in a sheer panic that I’d lose my job on the first day. I went to sports editor Del Danielson and informed him of the situation. He bellowed out a loud laugh and told me “don’t worry that’s how Finny works.”
I felt so incredibly fortunate that I was able to work part-time at nights taking high school sport scores and results during my early years in college. It was a wonderful time at the paper where it felt like a second family as we gathered for holiday dinner parties and hosted spring and summer picnic and softball outings.
At the time I also became good friends with outdoors reporter Brad O’Connor. We both shared a common hobby, and that was saltwater salmon fishing.
Writing had always been a passion in my early days of middle and high school, but my plan was to get a business degree at the UW.
Boy was I ever wrong on my career planning.
In 1991, after mentoring under O’Connor for a few years, he announced his retirement. Soon after I was promoted as a freelance writer by sports editor Cathy Henkel to cover fishing and hunting for the newspaper.
My first sports section cover story was a feature on Linc Beppu, owner of Linc’s Tackle Shop in Seattle, which closed this past month. Ironically, this small family-owned tackle shop eventually became the book end of my writing career as I recently wrote about their closure after 67 years in operation.
My beat as the outdoors writer has taken me on hundreds of outdoor excursions across the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
I quickly gained knowledge about tribal and sport conflicts involving salmon fishing issues; dwindling Puget Sound salmon stocks; treks to crystal blue Cascade alpine lakes; bivalve versus triploid; spoon versus hootchie; and once waited alone for hours on a remote Alaskan island for a float plane to pick me up hoping a bear wouldn’t devour me for lunch.
The highlight of my job has been covering the salmon season setting meetings between state, tribal, sport and non-tribal contingents. Many meetings involved contentious battles over salmon sharing, and now dealing with a lack of wild fish stocks.
I also learned sport fishing is a vital piece of local culture dating back to the 1800s when Denny, Mercer, Terry, Yesler and Boren were family names not street signs in Seattle. And to this date it remains that way with more than 1.2-million licensed anglers spending around $1.2-billion annually while fishing in Washington.
My personal accomplishment was never missing one weekly Thursday fishing report during my writing career, even while I was on vacation. In all I had 7,539 by-lines, and of those 2,920 ran in the newspaper itself!
As reporters we often get caught up in the day-to-day grind at the newspaper without realizing how much of what we write affects so many. I was able to take readers on journeys to places afar, and share that piece of adventure so maybe one day they too could soak in what I thoughtfully crafted in words.
I’m often told people plan their vacations over what I write; decide whether or not to go fishing or skiing or any other outdoors activity; and raise their voice over an issue or impact happening in the outdoors.
How grateful am I to see my name among famous outdoor writers at The Seattle Times like Enos Bradner (1943-1969); and Brad O’Connor (1969-1991).
For this I am humbled and raise a glass in appreciation to my readers.
But after Friday (May 26), my tenure with The Seattle Times as the fishing and outdoors writer will come to a close at a time when the newspaper industry has gone through so many drastic changes.
Leaving isn’t easy. I’ve truly enjoyed my job and it has been a life-changing experience.
And before I sign off, I’d like to let the readers that I’ve connected with over the years, thank you.
To every angler, hunter, skier and outdoors enthusiast; fishing guide; tackle shop worker and owner; and state, tribal and federal official, thank you.
To my colleagues at The Seattle Times, thank you.
I’m not planning on saying goodbye forever to fishing and the outdoors as it remains a passion dear to me.
As I put my pen and notepad down for the last time at Fairview Fanny, I have one important shout out: Please support local journalism and most of all newspapers where communities of readers depend on their news.
Now it’s time for me to go fishing, and hopefully holler “fish on!”