March 25th, 2013
Fishing in Alaska

Before Stalin joined forces with the United States in World War II, the Russians had an understanding with Hitler and the Rising Sun. It didn’t take defense planners long to look at a map and see how vulnerable was this land, Alaska, that once belonged to the Russian Bear.

Here, in the 21st century, deep in the wilderness, in the muskeg far from the road, we were more concerned about the threats posed by an American bear, specifically, the brown bear and his ally, the mosquito.

Twenty-five-year-old Josiah Darr, a steelheader from Seattle, by way of Scappoose, Oregon, shaded his eyes toward the treetops and a hill two miles away that kind of resembled the hump on the back of a grizzly. Then he swatted a mosquito. And another.

This would have been a good day to fish the saltwater, a delight we had planned for the next day, but now, half a mile in, we paused to reflect on what we had learned.

Next time we wanted to find a lake in the tundra, in brown bear country, where there are no trails except the ones made by moose and the critters that eat them, the best thing to do would be:

  • Fly the area in a helicopter
  • Fly the area in a Piper Cub
  • Fly the area on Google Earth
  • Bring the guy from the Situk River Fly Shop who told us about the lake

We did none of those things.

Over my fishing vest, I wore my rain jacket and referred to the tiny instrument on the zipper pull. In the backcountry, without a guide, without a GPS, without my expensive compass, I was forced to employ a thimble-sized compass that served more as decoration than a tool on which to rely to get back to the only road within 20 square miles.

Our big Ford van was parked on said Alaskan gravel, 24 miles from Yakutat and our base at Glacier Bear Lodge. I reminded myself what I knew. The streams tilted south. There were trees to the east, meadows to the west and a notch in the mountains to the north.

We plunged on, into the willows and muskeg. In the tannin-stained creeks, we glimpsed little fish that streaked this way and that. Where there were little fish, big fish must be nearby.

We kept the trees on our right and watched for openings that might indicate the two-acre lake that was our goal.

From Bob at the fly shop, I’d borrowed a fly reel, a nice Ross Gunnison loaded with a six-weight sink-tip, because I’d forgotten mine. “You’d think a guy, if he was playing a joke on traveling fishermen, wouldn’t loan out a reel like this one,” I remarked to Josiah.

“I was thinking the same thing.”

At any moment, we could startle a bear in the willows. I hoped our DEET-free Natrapel would act as a deterrent rather than as flavor enhancer. Kind of like limburger when you were hoping for a mild cheddar.

Beneath our feet, the muskeg shuddered like a trampoline. We forded a hip deep bog and clambered up the opposite bank. “Here’s a trail,” I told Josiah, to bolster his spirits. I didn’t tell him the trail had been made by a brown bear. He figured that out when he saw the scat.

We examined it for traces of foods you don’t want to find in piles of bear excrement: fleece, Spandex, Fruit of the Loom labels, Natrapel, little bells. Encouraged, we forged ahead.

An hour and ten minutes after we had started, we turned around to slog, defeated, back toward the Ford, straight through a 25-acre patch of willows riddled with bear tunnels. JD had a bad knee. I could probably outrun him.

Getting the Skinny at Fat Grandma’s

On this, our first visit to Yakutat, we learned that there are always options. We could head to the river and try to intercept an early sockeye or try our luck in the salt sans boat.

Back in the Yak, we stopped at Fat Grandma’s, where they don’t have doughnuts, but you can buy a candy bar and a t-shirt and the proprietress won’t sell you a book, but you can take one. The advice was free too. Fat Grandma told us about the great fishing in the muskeg-bound pike lakes, but since we couldn’t find them, she gave us the skinny on her favorite spot.

Sawmill Bay was easy to find. The water was deep, calm and clear at slack tide. What to try first? I fingered through a box of spinners and took out a black metal-flake Vibrax and launched it as far as I could throw it.

First cast, halfway back, the rod began to wa-wa with the weight of a good fish. In the clear, deep blue-green water, it flashed. Slender, about 20 inches long, it sported lots of fins, large liver-colored spots and big eyes. Guided into the shallows, it gave up.

It took a few minutes to sort through the dark recesses of my brain, where I keep my files on saltwater fish, to identify this one skinny creature as a gray cod.

Josiah made his first cast with a hammered spoon and nailed our second.

When Josiah hooked the next one, a dozen others came with it, and I threw a fly in front of them. A couple of fish charged it, but nothing connected. From time to time, I picked up the fly rod, threw a long cast, let it sink and stripped a streamer back, but I think I didn’t bring it back fast enough. Faced with a similar situation, I suppose next time I’d put the rod between my knees and rip the line back with both hands.

It was the spinner and the spoon that produced the fish, one after another.

By the middle of the afternoon, we had landed 30 and released all but one that we handed off to another grandma who came down to watch the water, and two we kept for the freezer.

When the sun was low on the horizon and we were back safe in the bar at Glacier Bear Lodge, we raised our glasses to Fat Grandma and conferred with skipper Erik Knutsen about the morrow’s trip out past the jaws for halibut. We would meet at seven in the morning. There was a storm on the horizon, but we would stay out as long as we could.

Drop Down Dead Thing – Reel Up Live Thing

When we rounded Point Carrew out of Yakutat in the 28-foot North River, Aerofish, the big blue Pacific stretched out before us. There was naught but water betwixt us and Russia and us and Japan.

Back toward shore, a narrow strip of land protected the bay and the town. Above the beach we could see structures, squat and low with narrow slits in thick concrete walls.

“Pillboxes.” Our skipper, Erik Knutsen explained. “Can you imagine sitting there day after day, watching the horizon?”

It was the same at every protected bay up and down the West Coast, anywhere an enemy might gain a toehold on US soil.

We agreed it couldn’t have been the worst place to be posted when America was at war, with bears, deer and moose to hunt, steelhead in spring and salmon all summer and fall. And halibut year-round, a short boat ride away on a sunny day.

We didn’t have a sunny day for our halibut trip. Instead, we had 15-mph winds out of the southeast with 14-foot swells forecast for mid-afternoon.

Knutsen fine-tuned our location on his GPS unit and dropped anchor in 140 feet of water. From the ‘rocket launcher’ rod rack atop the boat, he pulled down a lightweight setup that would do double duty as a salmon rod or a halibut stick. With 25-pound test monofilament, a simple two-hook setup and a six-ounce weight, it was easy to hold, easy to finesse-feed a bite.

Our skipper selected a frozen herring from the bait bucket, trimmed off its tail and slashed its sides then double-hooked it for Josiah Darr, who put it in the water.

That fish must have had its mouth open because the moment the weight hit bottom, Darr cranked it back up with a quillback rockfish.

By the time Darr had his fish to the boat, our other lines were down. It wasn’t long before more rockfish were hoisted aboard. Darr claimed the first halibut too – his first ever – and then the halibut came fast for the four of us – Darr, and Monte Waite, his wife, Theresa and me. The fish ran 25 to 80 pounds, the best eatin’-size halibut.

In the waters off Yakutat, anglers are allowed two halibut per person. Darr was a quick learner. “Drop down dead thing, reel up live thing,” he said.

Then Monte’s rod slammed down. Far below us, a fish, with the rough dimensions of the hood of a Ford Fairlane, shook its head and shuddered. Waite gained a little at first, then lost it all when the beast ripped the line back off the reel. For ten minutes they went at it, man versus beast, but for every ten yards the fish gained, Waite gained eleven. The battle ended at the boat when our skipper administered the coup d’ grace with a .410 shotgun. Knutsen bent over and heaved 140 pounds of halibut aboard.

Riding the Storm Out

Out in the gray water, a black back breached and a tail broke through, silhouetted against the sky. The storm continued to build. We pulled anchor to ride it out in the lee of the storm, sheltered from the worst of the seas by that narrow strip of land.

We were based at Glacier Bear Lodge, a mile from the airport. One of the most visible landmarks in Yakutat is the World War II-era hangar at the airfield. It opened for business in August of 1941 with the idea that Yakutat could be turned into an advance bomber base if Japan started a fight.

They did, and late in the war, the airfield became a staging ground for materiel headed for Russia in Lend-Lease. The US Navy had a base at the harbor to escort ships up and down the coast.

Bob Miller, owner of the Situk River Fly Shop, plans to renovate the hangar and acquire the types of planes that once were based there to put on display and back in service for a warbird flight school.

We staged in shallow water, in the lee of the Point, eyes on the horizon, hats pulled tight against the weather. By early afternoon, besides our limit of halibut, we had boated a half-dozen rockfish, a ling cod and battled two skates we turned loose to fight another day.

Rain beat sideways and the sea came fast to heave the bow of the boat up while the stern fell in the trough then dropped us back again before the next wave.

A white clipper hove into view on the thin gray horizon. A few minutes later, a red skiff arced away from it. Closer now, it circled then eased alongside, with five Coast Guard crew.

Two officers spent ten minutes in the cabin. Three privates circled 30 yards off our starboard. On a training mission we guessed. And our boat was a great spot for the officers to get out of the rain for a few minutes. They lingered, keeping the coastline free and safe in our own uncertain times.

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