A Leap of Faith

In December I first visited Dianne and her Juneau funny farm and wanted to move there to be with her as soon as possible. It would have been most prudent to work in the Bay Area's high tech boom with my small studio rent far below the boom-driven market and save money and vest stock options for another year, but that path would have delivered me to Alaska at the end of Autumn. We decided together that it made just as much sense to make the leap of faith and move up as soon as possible. I gave a three-month notice to extricate from my responsibilities and planned on hauling my stuff up in June. I have enough savings to last through summer, and confidence that I can find work. Love is worth reaching for, even if you have to stretch.

In the meantime my job is to make things easier by helping with chores around the house, paint watercolors for a local gallery and for material for etchings in the winter and to learn as much as I can about the local fishing, hopefully stocking the freezer in the process. Dianne and I were invited for wine at the Blueberry Lodge where her etchings line the walls, and they wanted a watercolor of their view. I started with a simple sketch and worked it into this painting.  

Back Window from Blueberry Lodge...This painting is now in the collection of the Blueberry Lodge.. For fine bed and breakfast accomodations call Jay and Judy at (907) 463-5886.





 Sport of Kings

I had purchased a full year nonresident fishing license on an earlier visit and was considering another hundred dollars for a full year king salmon stamp. But on average it takes twenty three hours of angling to catch one, and as a nonresident I would only be allowed one for the entire calendar year. The big kings are more common up on the Kenai, so it would have to be a pretty large Juneau area king salmon to make the hundred dollar stamp more economical than the local supermarket at three or four dollars a pound. I could fish as much and wherever I wanted without a king salmon stamp but if I hooked one I'd just have to let it go. Thinking the odds were against me anyway, I was willing to fish for knowledge and let any kings go. My decision changed when on the day I read that the entire area of waters on the east side of North Douglas Island are included in opening of the Juneau Terminal Harvest Area, where regulations are cast aside for the return of a thousand or more hatchery king salmon that will not spawn anyway. Every year they release smolts in Fish Creek pond and they thrive for a season then leave for the open waters, but when they return to their imprinted waters they will not find appropriate spawning habitat. Not only do fish caught here not count against the nonresident yearly allotment, but use of bait and even snagging is allowed. This was enough incentive to purchase the stamp, and soon thereafter the yearly allotment for nonresidents was increased to three fish instead of one. I was now happy to buy the permit and confident that even if I did not get a hundred dollars worth of salmon to eat, I would learn more then a hundred dollars worth of information by targeting these kings while they were around.

I tied two to three-inch long bucktail streamer flies on stout hooks in combinations of white, chartreuse, green, blue, purple and black and selected a heavyweight Berkeley Parametric fiberglass rod that I would not feel too bad about if it were snapped by an uncontrollable fish. Glass has the disadvantage of being heavier and not as fast and powerful in its flexing action compared to modern graphite for fly casting, but has two advantages: fiberglass rods are not as brittle when bent to their limit, and thanks to Ebay I had quite a few that I had picked up for thirty to sixty dollars, with the total combined price for all of them not close to approaching the price of a single modern graphite rod. If an oversized king was to break one I'd just string up another.

Not knowing enough to be fully confident about use of flies when the local fishing was mostly done by trolling herring from small boats off the shore, I also tied up a chartreuse fly of soft hackle on a stout single hook to replace the treble hook of a large silver spoon lure and rigged it on a heavy spinning rod, which I could cast about twice as far as a fly rod.

On the first Saturday after my arrival I went down to the North Douglas boat ramp, to paint and see what I could gather about the fishing by observation. Most of the boats were clustered in the cove near the mouth of fish creek, but both boats that ventured past the boat ramp just off where I sat and painted hooked up and landed salmon just outside of casting range, but I wasn't fishing. A man ventured from his nearby picnic to cast a lure, and frustrated me when he continued to cast repeatedly to the same spot instead of fanning his casts to cover the whole range he had access to. I wished I had brought the spin rod to at least give a realistic attempt, but was quite content to paint instead.

A few evenings later Dianne, Sundance the dog and I took an evening walk out to the mouth of Fish Creek, and I cast a fly into the creek and a few areas of open water. There were three anglers across on the other side of the creek mouth. Nobody caught anything. The Cutter bug stick repelled mosquitos or perhaps there weren't many around yet, but tiny no-see-ums seemed to be bothered not at all by it. What surprised me was how calm even the open waters were; you could float tube it as long as the tidal currents didn't sweep you away.

I continued unpacking and organizing my things in the closet and cabinets that Dianne had cleared for me, ran two new phone jacks for my modem, seasoned her cast iron skillet and helped with cooking and cleaning around the house. My number one goal is to immediately make a positive impact to lesson Dianne's workload around her little funny farm. Between teaching art at five different schools, stocking her etchings at three galleries and cooking meals and preparing lunches for her two sons she works way too hard. With fishing just up the road I would have plenty of time.

Salmon in Two to Three Feet of Water

One afternoon the tides were moderately low then inbound, and with the water dead calm again I gave the pontoon float tube a try in the cove that the trollers favored. I stayed just to the shallow side of the trolling boats and there were splashes of rolling and jumping salmon within casting distance. The weather in the high seventies felt like a heat and the water was milky with increased runoff from the Mendenhall glacier, and warm to the touch. I was uncomfortable and sweating in neoprene waders with a fleece jacket and life vest. I alternated between casting the spoon and fishing the fly, first with a floating line and then changing to a fast sinking shooting head. I had little confidence in the fly in the milky waters and soon learned the sinking line reached bottom almost immediately; it was much shallower than I thought and I could touch bottom only three feet deep with the rod tip. I caught and released a small starry flounder, then two sculpins in the eight to ten inch range. I continued casting methodically around the tube and was able to pass the lure near some of the large splashes of big fish, but the only other fish I hooked was what I think was a dolly varden of about fifteen inches that flipped off the hook in my hands as I was about to release it anyway. I had no net or stringer and had only planned on finning to solid ground if I hooked a king. Soon the current was approaching the speed of a steady river, and rather then end up far down the channel in downtown Juneau where I'd have to hail a taxicab, I worked hard to get back to the quickly disappearing sandbar at the side of the cove from where I had departed. I had put in about four hours of hard work, hauling the tube, waders, fins and two rods and finning to the point of cramps against the increasing current to stay near the showing fish. My experience left little faith in the fly rod and I figured I might end up more of a spin rod fisherman up here.

Sometimes It's Easy

Two mornings later I went out again to the mouth of fish creek. The tide was just peaking, Large fish splashed a few hundred yards out from the mouth and quickly the splashes were drawing nearer. Nobody else was around, on my side or the other. I cast the heavy spoon with the chartreuse fly hook and on about the fifth cast the hook was stopped abruptly with a throbbing resistance: a king salmon for sure. I played it calmly and it seemed docile and cooperative, and soon it flopped on the bank, a beautiful and chrome shiny deep bodied female a little longer than three feet, about twenty pound. I cleaned and hid it from the eagles and ravens in cool tall grass under my raincoat. The fish splashed closer now and I dedicated to the fly rod, casting and letting the fly swing in the current as the tide had begun to flow out. I was joined by three spin anglers on my side of the creek mouth and another four lined up across the bank. Two boats arrived from around the bank. It seemed like there were fish jumping everywhere, yet few were caught. One angler from across the way caught one on a spin rod, and one person vigorously pumping his rod at a low angler from a boat hooked one, surely snagged but apparently legal here in the terminal harvest area. I cast a chartreuse and white fly repeatedly for another hour and once felt a soft bump. I thanked the three on my side for leaving me plenty of room to cast the fly, fetched my fish from the grass to their surprise and left for home to get it on ice.

Fresh Water and Salt, Flies and Lures

The following day an hour later on the same point of tide, no fish were visible. The same three kids arrived on my side and said that a few more had been caught after I left yesterday. It had rained overnight, and the creek water had a slight tea tint to it and was a higher amount of the volume leaving the estuary mouth. I tasted no salt at all in it. Perhaps this had pushed the fish out further. Within an hour the fish started jumping, far out of casting range but steadily approaching. As they arrived within a long cast of a heavy surf rod, a flotilla of kayaks came right through, two of them between me and the shore as I waded chest deep. I let them know that it was not polite to approach within casting distance of shorebound anglers. The fish that had been showing seemed gone, with no rises in sight for ten minutes after they passed. The commotion must have affected the fish only briefly, and they must have continued their progress to into the creek mouth because soon they were jumping everywhere. Four fly casters each hooked up and battled large salmon and I watched them closely. I could not see the flies they cast but they were not the bright flourescent chartreuse that I was casting based on my earlier luck with the spin rod. Their retrieves were slow occasional strips with the natural swing of the ine in the current playing the najor role in providing motion to the fly. The other anglers casting spinning rods were not catching anything. I switched to a darker purple, green and white streamer and cast again and let the fly settle in the swing of current and striped slowly. Within a few casts the line stopped abruptly with the solid weight of a salmon. It seemed at first to react calmly, taking short runs towards open water but when it stopped and held and I leaned into the rod and gripped the reel to turn it my way I was unable to even budge it. Twenty yards at a time it headed out between pauses until after about ten minutes it was over two hundred yards offshore. I had noticed a seal floating out there and now I knew my fish was in its neighborhood. I felt a surge on the rod and saw the big fish jump clear of the water beyond the seal, and the seal noticed too and turned in pursuit. It was like a rerun of a bad movie; I knew with no recourse what would probably happen next, and braced for the overwhelming pull when a seal gets your fish. Instead I felt only a strong but fishlike surge and then slack line. I reeled in thinking the line had broken in a desperate surge to escape as the fish saw the threatening seal, but the fly was still at the end of the line. I contnued to watch for the seal to surface with the fish, for gulls or eagles to gather for scraps, but the seal only bobbed back the the surface and looked our way.

I believe and hope that the fish escaped both the seal and my line. I still had the fly and now the confidence to fish flies full time. That night I filled my biggest reel with three hundred yards of thirty pound test backing, and attached the thin floating running line and intermedite weight clear shooting head. With the clear line I'd have a very slowly sinking line for the shallows and only need three feet or so of tippet; I used twenty pound test that would normally be butt section for a fine trout leader. I took the removeable butt extension from the Parametric and wrapped tape to build up the diameter to mate it to a heavier ten weight Fenwick glass rod. I felt as ready as I could be on my ebay budget.

The four day weekend for Fourth of July brought a lineup of ten to fifteen cars every time drove past. I didn't want to see the small creek mouth with that many anglers and knew I would have no room to flail with the fly rod, so I left it for those who cannot fish during business hours on regular workdays. I heard they caught quite a few. I had my photos developed and worked up a painting of the creek mouth with the background of the Mendenhall Glacier.

Wednesday I was rested and ready to fish and left at 5:30. The tide had peaked at four o'clock at eighteen feet and was on its way to a minus three feet at ten am. Tides, like a pendulum, do not move much at the extremes of their swing within an hour or so within peak highs or lows. With over twenty feet difference the water was dropping about a foot every twelve minutes. It was not a time for the float tube. The water was still very high on the bank of the cove and fish splashed close to shore as I rounded the point to the creek mouth. Four anglers were spread along the bank on the other side, and the creek was a wide river flowing with a brisk current. A few fish splashed as we cast our flies and lures, but in an hour only one fish was caught, a hundred yards upstream. Soon the creek was smaller than I had yet seen it and the other anglers gave up one by one. I walked around the grove of trees instead of taking the shortcut and stopped to sit on a flat rock and enjoy a homebrew, filtered through the bug net draped from my hat against the biting no-see-ums. The water had receded baring about a hundred feet of wet clay mud interspersed with clusters of greenbrown short kelp. Three hundred feet further the crab bouys floated peacefully and an occasional vigorous splash slashed the flat surface. A brown mussel encrusted rock gradually emerged with a lapping sound to show a foot above the surface, all in the short time it took me to savor the homebrew. A fish showed just inside the crab pots. I started out and figured I'd wade out to explore the contour, see how far I could wade, maybe find a dropoff or shelf for future reference.

I was surprised that the bottom seemed not to slope at all, and I was two hundred feet out and still only thigh deep when a fish slashed the surface just fifty or sixty feet beyond. I quickly stripped off line, hauled two false casts to clear the shooting head from the rod tip and flung a cast well beyond the swirl. Three strips of a retrieve and again I felt the unmistakeable solid and heavy throbbing. I played the fish carefully and was able to apply strong pressure with the stout rod, reel and leader to keep it inside the crab pots, gradually backing up to land it on the muddy beach. I had tried in vain in California for a few days each summer for years when the salmon were reported close to shore, at rivermouths and off the jetty at Half Moon Bay, and now in about thirteen hours of trying I had my first king salmon on the fly. I was happy to be in Alaska, my new home.