Mother Nature’s sweet symphony in this wild place is music to my ears and I’ve got a front-row seat.
The bubbling stream crawls down a jagged staircase of barnacle-encrusted boulders, drumming its way toward the salt water cove and creating subtle variations on a single monotonous note. In the distance, a pair of eagles cackle and screech from their unseen haunts atop an ancient growth of evergreens before catching a cool gust of wind and swooping by. And in the gentle breeze above my head, the pulsing loops of a fly line shimmy and sway, letting out a light wisp of percussion as the rod tip sends them near and far.
The predictable tidal swell had come and gone, exposing rocks that only minutes before had been completely submerged and providing a casting spot to let fly with a sleek salmon fry imitation. The green and silver pattern with beady eyes again floated back and forth in the breeze before plopping into the effervescent confluence of water, and counting down a short pause in my mind, I began to retrieve the slack.
The first fish that fell for the ruse evaded the barbed decoy’s bite for any number of reasons, probably because this angler’s technique was a tad rusty. But the next taker couldn’t avoid the inevitability — the off hand goes down and the rod hand goes up – resulting in a desired hook-set.
The scaly fellow didn’t hold out for long before coming in for a close-up, and after reaching down and plucking the Dolly Varden from boot level, I couldn’t help but revel. The flashy 16-inch fish would have been the catch of the weekend on one of those excursions to the high country of Colorado where quantity always trumped quality, but in this prodigious setting, the streamlined guy paled in comparison. The salmon fry he was pursuing someday would grow up to sprout shoulders and likely give another fly angler’s reel a singing workout.
However, that fact didn’t keep me from smiling as I unhooked the sprite and let him go in search of a fry devoid of pesky barbs.
Such is the case with fly fishing in our 49th state: Once you’ve tangled with the awesome power this rugged landscape has to offer and had some success, you’re ruined for almost anything else.
Alaska long has been one of the top fly-fishing destinations for a number of reasons, but until one sets foot in a shallow stream lousy with big salmon or spots scads of luminous shadows rolling in with a tide, there’s nothing to compare it to.
The greatest spectacle in nature are the runs of salmon that occur each year almost like clockwork as the fish navigate their way back to freshwater streams and rivers to spawn — and die in untimely fashion. After a salmon hatches in freshwater, it will travel downriver if possible and head out into salt water where it will spend most of its life feeding and packing on weight. When the fish reach maturity, most will return to the stream where they came from to complete the final cycle of their lives.
These runs of salmon — kings, silvers, chums, pinks and sockeyes — lay the framework for entire ecosystems in Alaska. From day one, a salmon is fighting for its life as it can provide a meal at every stage of its existence to some form of bird, mammal or fish in fresh and salt water. From eagles, whales and seals to bears, sharks and other salmon, something with teeth or claws — or both — is attempting to survive in a harsh setting that doesn’t recognize anything but finishing first.
Even in death, these fish provide nutrients to ecosystems that wouldn’t be provided in any other way and aid in the cycle of life continuing its never-ending loop.
It truly is amazing to soak up the ambiance of this primordial landscape and realize that this symbiotic relationship between its various inhabitants will continue long after our time has expired.
But it sure is handy to do it with fly rod and determination in tow.
A good day
As we approached fog-draped Admiralty Island, the brown bear and her two cubs slowly shrunk in the distance as they scampered toward the timber. The matriarch had spotted the skiff from her sandy vantage point on the sloping beach and lighted out in the other direction at a gallop with plump youngsters on either hip.
Admiralty has the highest density of brown bears in North America, but it also has a number of freshwater creeks and streams that meander into the salt and boast impressive runs of salmon. After fishing there that summer day a couple of years back with my father and some friends, I can give a definitive thumbs up on both accounts.
After getting suited up in comfy neoprene waders, which are spectacular when you actually need them, we slid into the chilly water and traipsed toward the slack tide. The saltwater waves had completed their dance out to their low point and slowly were beginning to glide back in as we plodded out as far as we felt comfortable.
I lost track of the number of fish we caught that day, but the undeniable detail I distinctly remember was the number of casts it took by each angler to hook the ice-breaker: one.
Each time the bright pink fly with weighted black eyes got loaded up and shot out on a whooshing stream of line, the result without fail was a carbon copy. The lure would plop in, slowly sink and after two strips WHAM! A 5-pound pink salmon would inhale the neon decoy and set the reel on fire.
Or maybe that was just our wrists and forearms.
The fish hadn’t yet undergone the metamorphosis that occurs when they migrate into freshwater and they were about as revved-up as a bonefish. Even with an eight-weight rod, you couldn’t do anything with them. The only way to get them close enough to unhook was to play them out in a lengthier struggle than I would have thought, and even then, they still had enough spunk to shower you with a quick flick of the tail.
The action continued for a number of hours until the tide reached its high point and inundated the stream that would be the beginning point for many pinks’ final journey. I don’t doubt we could have kept fishing and picked off an occasional pink for the rest of the day, but you’ve got to leave yourself a reason to come back.
For the next two months, the conditions are about perfect for fly fishing in the Last Frontier. Salmon across most of the state are willing to take a fly and the weather will be as good as it gets all year. And with other options to swing your line at, there’s sure to be something scaly that will tickle your fancy and peel drag.
There’s no doubt flinging a Clouser at a tailing redfish on the Texas coast or targeting riffles in Colorado or New Mexico in search of wary rainbows are closer excursions, but Alaska is worth the price of admission regardless of your depth with a fly rod.
Once you get there, it’s tough to think bad thoughts. And if you can’t get a nagging idea out of your head, there’s sure to be a fish not too far away that will serve as the perfect distraction.