Bear and Humpies

Scott was our guide when we went to Alaska. Not a professional guide or anything like that, but he wanted to take us to his secret spots, and show us the ropes. And we caught lots of fish.

Not because of any fancy equipment either. I mean, he was very responsible with the boats — in Alaska, you have to be, or Darwinism will kick in and eliminate you from the gene pool faster than you can say “rocks ahead!” But he’s a minimalist when it comes to gear. He’s my role model that way.

We were after silvers. Big, strong ones, the ones that kick your butt before they give in. The first day, as we loaded our gear into the truck for a quick evening session, Scott tossed me a dinky trout pole and a plastic bag from the drug store, with some unopened bubble-packed spinners in it. “What’s this?” I asked.

“My tackle box,” he grinned his carefree surfer grin.

That day, Joyce took two silvers, and so did Hank. I lost two nice ones, and sat in the back of the truck on the way home, to keep Spunky from stepping on our rods, and to keep the fish from falling out onto the highway through the rust holes. Salt water does that to a truck, especially after the parking brake fails at the launch ramp.

Alder LeafThe next day we arrived at an A-frame Forest Service cabin in an Eden-like setting. Behind the cabin, dark spruces towered over a squishy muskeg crisscrossed with mossy logs and punctuated by clumps of huge skunk cabbage. In front lay a glassy tidal lagoon that filled and emptied twice a day, as the moon pulled its brackish contents out toward the Pacific and back again. Getting in was tricky, since we needed the peak of the high tide to navigate through the rock-studded throat of the fiord.

But that’s right where the fish were: a roaring rapid that changed direction twice a day. When the tide was right, we anchored the boats just above the falls and cast for silvers and sea-run cutthroats. We forgot to bring a net, so Scott used an old gaff for boating the heavy salmon. Ever tried that? It’s not easy.

Our next cabin was again idyllic, at the mouth of a burbling stream that again turned out to be full of hungry salmon, trout, and dollies. There were bears too: big black ones that fished down the creek each day like clockwork, on the far bank. I could tell they owned our bank too, by the fresh fish carcasses left ostentatiously on the best fishing spots. They left other calling cards as well. I can now testify — it’s true — I’ve seen it: bears DO defecate in the woods.

Coastal Cutthroat Trout

One day, Joyce entered the cabin with eyes wide and said breathlessly, “Bear...big bear!” It had run toward her, then got between her and the cabin. After that, Scott always hid in the bushes and made bear sounds whenever she went to the outhouse.

Our last cabin was on the mainland, where the bears are brown and even bigger. We stayed close to the boat, within site of each other, and tried to envision an animal that made a track that could hold my entire hand, with room to spare. Once again, the creek was clear and cold and full of spawning salmon: humpies, dogs, and reds. Scott’s father Hank stood off to the side in a cloud of blue smoke, offering a running commentary as we landed and released beautiful dolly varden. The stogie kept the bugs away, he said, and he was tired of outfishing us every day.

Before we left for Alaska, a friend of mine at the office had showed me how to cast a fly line and lent me one of his rigs. Armed with a handful of puffy egg patterns and the borrowed rig, I was bound and determined to catch a trout with it. My first trout on a fly rod.

It was an ideal spot for a novice: a green chute right in front of a huge gravel bar, with plenty of room to back cast. After flailing around a bit, tree-frogging a snag on the far shore, breaking off and retying, I finally hooked up and brought in a pretty (I thought) whitefish. Hank harried me relentlessly. “Stu caught a sucker! Stu caught a sucker!” he announced gleefully.

Scott asked me quietly, “Can I try?”

As we watched, he walked over to the chute, made a perfect double-haul overhead cast, and hooked, landed, and released a respectable dolly, without a word. I didn’t know he could flyfish...he never even mentioned it.

He’s my role model that way.

Text and images 2001 by Stuart Helmintoller @Streamside.

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