Thursday, September 16, 2021
Thursday, September 16, 2021
Three hours after breakfast I poured my fifth cup of coffee and stepped outside into the milky glow of a drizzly Alaska morning. There was little to see. The mountains I’d stared at all week were guillotined at the shoulders by low clouds, and I barely made out the floatplanes at their moorings just 50 yards away. Down on the dock, the lodge’s two pilots were each busy in their own way, the first wiping invisible spots off his plane’s windshield like a latter-day Macbeth, the second mouthing an unlit cigar and whittling at something in his hands. It was a cigar box he was fashioning out of driftwood—his second of the morning.
“On days like this,” he nodded sagely, “a pilot must have hobbies.”
When visiting Bristol Bay’s array of great lodges, the fishing is almost always exceptional—except when low clouds ground planes. When that happens anglers and guides play a waiting game, with pilots radioing back and forth until conditions at departure and arrival sites are acceptable for flight without instrumentation—that is, by human eyes alone. That was the situation on the last full day of a week-long trip to the Bay—waiting for an “all clear” that might or might not arrive. We’d enjoyed good fishing and fair weather for five days, and most of the lodge guests were in high spirits and happy to exchange their coffee for cocktails, to embark on fish stories instead of fish sorties. But I wasn’t so keen to call it a day. Rather than donning my Crocs and pouring a Seven&Seven, I slipped into waders and grabbed a 7-weight. Dress for the job, they say.
It worked. A few minutes later a guide named Bryce came up and mentioned that there might—might— be a char crash underway across the bay. It was the right time of year and conditions were ideal. We could get there by boat, he explained. No plane required.
My response: “Char crash?”
“The salmon smolt come out of the river into the lake in waves,” he said, swimming his left hand at eye level to illustrate. “And the char”—he tilted his body and held his other hand down low at his knees, as if grasping a giant accordion—“wait at the first deep drop.
“Once the smolt push out into the bay,” he said, now straightening and violently smashing prey and predator together,“it’s one fish after another. Wave after wave. All day.”
I mulled it over. Deciding how to spend one’s last day in Alaska is not so much a major decision as an existential quandary. My inclination had been to try for the one thing eluding me on my bucket list—connecting on a king salmon of a lifetime. The run was late that year and the only chance I’d had, with a fish that yanked my shoulder with the strength of a draft horse, hadn’t borne fruit. So what to do? Hold out for a break in the clouds and possibly an 11th hour king? Or head out for char that may or may not be there?
I looked down the dock where the pilots were now sitting side by side. The long-haired one had taken the portentous step of actually lighting the cigar. Above his head, a plume of rich smoke widened prophetically.
“Char it is.”
We hopped in an 18-foot aluminum flatbottom with a plywood floor—the classic Alaska workhorse—and jetted out across the lake, the cold drizzle prickling my face as the miles ticked by. No matter what happened, I told myself while cinching my jacket tighter, it had been an excellent week. I’d twice come an inch shy of the world record catch-and-release grayling. I’d skated up a dozen big rainbows that chased a Muddler like it had emptied their 401Ks. I’d seen how surreal the world looks at 200 feet. I’d eaten reindeer sausage biscuits ‘n’ gravy for six mornings in a row. Whatever happened next—or didn’t—it had been a great week.
“There!” Bryce yelled over the motor, pointing into the foggy distance where the river met the lake and seagulls massed in the hundreds. “It’s on.” We edged up on the crash, with birds bobbing placidly in our wake. I stood—very deliberately—and stripped out some fly line—very slowly. I’d seen this Hitchcock flick before.
“Don’t cast yet,” Bryce said. “Just be ready.”
A minute passed. Then two. All was quiet. Night-before-Christmas still. And then, out of nowhere, as if I existed in a great snow globe, the gulls erupted in a blizzard of white. Shrieking, they flung themselves skyward in all directions, gathering above us before breaking off and funneling toward a spot in the bay roughly 200 yards away, where the water was boiling with char.
The jet roared and soon we were in the thick of it, gliding into a murder scene. I ripped off a cast and stripped it through a froth of tails and fins, backs and snouts, setting the hook once, twice, three times before the line came tight with an angry chrome char on the end of it. There was no horsing this fish on a 7-weight. By the time we netted it, the bay had gone quiet, the water still, the birds preening and aloof. I could hear my own heartbeat.
Then it happened again, a couple hundred yards away.
“Char!” Bryce yelled while firing up the jet, almost knocking me over trying to quickly get on plane.
We did this over and over again, landing solid char with each crash, so many that we started calling our episode, The Great Bristol Bay Char Crash, 2106. Sometimes the fury lasted long enough for two fish, sometimes three, but most often we’d land just one before the smolts would ebb and shift, and the char and birds would reassemble in an entirely different part of the delta. I’d experienced plenty of hand-over-fist fishing in my life, but this was entirely different. It was gold rush and ghost town in a minute-long window, as many fish as you could catch followed by such an empty calm you wondered if it hadn’t been a hallucination. It was a cosmic clash of primal element, land versus air versus sea. It was, I realized as the tally reached 10, 20, 30 fish or more, the greatest fishing afternoon of my life.
At one point a Beaver roared overhead and the lodge manager’s voice cracked through the radio—the weather was clearing, and did I want one last chance at a big king?
Now, it’s true that my brain had stopped working properly a dozen char ago, but even in its addled state I knew this: You do not leave fish to find fish, and you sure as hell don’t leave a thousand fish to find one. “We stay,” I declared, and reared back into another fat char.
We fished the rest of the afternoon, trading off crashes until we neared physical collapse, then went ashore to eat a few of the fallen. As the ruby fillets simmered in oil and garlic, I thought what my own home state of Michigan looked like five or six generations ago. Grayling by the thousands packed in train cars bound for restaurants in Chicago and Detroit. Sturgeon stacked like timber on the banks of rivers. Passenger pigeons so thick they darkened the sky. Extinct. Endangered. Extinct.
But Bristol Bay Alaska still seethes, so bountiful the fishing you never heard of becomes the fishing you can’t forget. And I wondered, as I put aside a plate and looked out at the diving gulls and crashing char, what other secrets are out here hiding in plain sight—if you only take a day to look for them—in what remains, The Last Frontier.