Project Salvation, as I had taken to calling it, would happen over a week’s timeframe at Deneki Outdoors’ Rapids Camp, which is situated on Bristol Bay’s Naknek River at the doorstep of Katmai National Park. On the docket were pharmacological doses of stupid good fishing for summer rainbows, char, grayling, and dollies by day, coupled with bouts of Rabelaisian eating and drinking by night. I crossed my fingers for a week that would not only take me way out of the red, but put me even deeper in the black.
Our first day of fishing was spent at “the narrows,” a short stretch of shallow, yet swift water between two lakes. It was chock-full of salmon fry and all-day long wave upon wave of dollies, grayling and lakers pressed in from the lakes ,like being squeezed in a vise.
This was not my first time in Alaska, but I was still awestruck by the sheer quantity of fish. If all the trout were suddenly removed from my home waters—hell, throw in all the suckers, too—river levels would not drop one iota. But take all the fish out of the seething narrows flowing past my feet and I expect its volume would drop by half. Fish were everywhere. Wade into position and in the time it took you to tie on a fly, a dozen fat fish would file into the seam forming behind your legs. Head to the bank for a beer, or push out into deeper water to chase a distant fry bust, and fish would cram into the spot you just left, like feckless people on a crowded bus. I’d read about Michigan experiencing this sort flesh parade back in the days of the great grayling migrations. But these days you usually have to comb miles upon miles of water in your driftboat, just to pick up a brown trout here, a brook trout there, so that by day’s end you’ve tallied a respectable quantum of resident fish. But here you were as likely to find water without fish as you were fish without water.
Catching these skinny water fry-busters requires a different kind of hatch-matching—“dry fry fishing,” the guides called it. Basically, you wait for one of the hundreds of char or grayling to bust up on a fry ball in your vicinity, then cover it up immediately with a bushy dry fly and a tiny, inch-long Gummy Fry dropper. A dead-drift worked best—it was really the only way to distinguish your offering from the hundreds of naturals—and you usually saw the take in the form of a violent roil beneath the dry—grayling were particularly prone to eating this way. Other times big char stabbed forward like thick swords, twisting and glinting in the sunlight for the kill. Every few fish, I’d pause to rub the forearm of my rod hand, which given the weather was still in spring training mode. I wondered how well it would hold up as the week wore on, and whether this was why the lodge kept a massage therapist on staff.
On the flight back to the lodge, where we would fish the next day was an open question—but only briefly. It was solved when one of our party, a Montanan named Graham whose wife, Anne, had been the hot hand that day, pressed his finger against the window of the Beaver as we flew over a perfect little creek and asked if we could fish there. The pilot canted the plane and dropped low to give us all a better look. At that height the boulders looked like pinheads and the sockeyes, if your prescription was up to date, looked like mosquito larvae. “That’s Contact Creek,” he said. “The answer, of course, is of course.”
Such is the diversity of the Rapids Camp fly-out program. No one had fished Contact that year, which only added to the intrigue and conjecture over morning coffee. After ballasting with salmon hash and poached eggs with hollandaise sauce (this writer does not acknowledge oatmeal’s right to exist in Alaska, though the lodge humors those who do), we loaded the Beaver with 6-weights and were off. After an hour’s flight and a landing in a tundra puddle that, I learned, was big enough to land on but not take off from (with a full load of passengers, at least), I asked my my guide how far off the river was. He paused thoughtfully. “As long as there’s no bear issues we’ll be on the water in 15 minutes.”
It was the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov who wrote that if a gun appears in the first act of a play, it must go off in the fifth. I’d put forth an “Alaskafied” version: if your path to the river is so full of bear scat it looks like someone had been off-roading in a dump truck full of charcoal, you must be high-holed by multiple horribili before your first water break. Our first bear, a mid-sized, lumbering male with a long neck and a sad face, gave us slight pause until we saw that he was singularly interested in sockeye. After that the only real response to bears moving on the opposite bank was to stop casting for a few minutes, since the odds of hooking up on any given cast were roughly 50/50, and no griz needs that kind of temptation.
Our party fished dries until lunch and the fishing was good. But it wasn’t until I crept up a narrow side channel and decided to go subsurface that it would become the kind of good that realigns all the neurons and endows you with the sort of grin that the English language, in one of its stranger moves, associates with coprophagia. There I stood, staring at a blue sluice of water between two boulders. It was deep enough that you couldn’t see bottom, and sufficiently broken that you couldn’t spot a big rainbow if you knew exactly where it was lying. It was familiar water, a variation on a theme I knew from distant days in Wisconsin—dark, fast slots into which you’d send a tungsten scud like a message in a bottle and see what bad customer wrote back. I didn’t come to Alaska to fish nymphs, however, so I tied on a simple marabou sculpin with a tungsten head, spit on the ‘bou so the first cast counted, and dropped it upstream of my position. Almost tight-lining it, I followed the path of my jog with the tip of my rod, paying close attention to the water as my fly bobbed in and out of view.
A wild rainbow’s take on its native turf is a beautiful thing. Deep in the turquoise churn the water flinches and your fly disappears, reborn a millisecond later as an arcing mykiss, it’s pie-tin back and crimson stripe flashing in stark relief against the tundra. I was in no way ready for that first fish, which broke its tether 50 yards downstream. But I was ready for the next one, and the next. For the remainder of the afternoon I hunted out deep, blue fast water, and from each pulled a fish that dared me to break my ankles giving chase over broken cobble. Note: I have always been an excitable boy with a rod in my hands—high on the list of things I was never taught is keeping my shit together in the face of exceptional fishing. I hoot, I holler, I cry out for a helmet and a chaperone. But here in the land of the griz, my rabidly joyous modus had the bonus function of clearing ursus from the area. Thus did I sally forth all day long, cheered on as I plowed my way downstream, a human bear banger with a chronically bent rod.
By the midpoint of the trip I was starting to even my ledger for the year, not only in terms of fish, but pure novelty. Every day presented a different body of water, a different style of fishing, a different series of snapshots through the window of the Beaver: bonsai gardens of black spruce; meteor craters full of sapphire blue water; bear trails in the tundra like someone dragged a garden rake across a pool table; beluga whales like grains of rice.
The days never blended together. There was the day on Kulik when we swang up rainbows all the livelong day, punctuated by screaming drags and leopard-spotted cheeks. A day on Margaret when I smashed char on the original Ganster, between Posturepedic naps on the tundra. There was the day it was too cloudy to fly and we fished the Naknek’s famous smolt-busting summer rainbows, all the color and shape of the Lombardi trophy. When the poet wrote that “the colors of arrival fade,” he must have been speaking of an expedition without daily flyouts.
By the last day of the week my fish-fighting forearm was the same sinewy rope it was when I played high school baseball, and up to all challenges—no massage therapist needed. More importantly, I had gotten closer toward restoring my angling equilibrium and setting myself straight for the foreseeable future. Confirmation of having turned the corner came when, instead of joining my compatriots in clobbering char going rabid for eggs behind the sockeyes (if you want to know the difference between Alaska and the rest of the world, I offer up the mouse and egg dropper), I sneaked away to cast at spooky grayling in tiny-to-nonexistent presentation windows. I’d cast between shady trees for a two-foot drift that would have them tipping back into sunlight . . . only to refuse and disappear behind their rippling capes. With everyone else wearing out the ball bearings on their reels, I went down to 5X mono. Then 6X flouro. In my Moleskine I wrote purple passages of how noble it was to not catch fish. It was very un-Alaska of me.
My guide, Jeremy, let me have it for most of the day. And then he’d had enough.
“We’re switching you up,” he said, Then he politely but firmly took my rod from my hands, biting off my caddis and replacing it with a bobber and bead. “You’ve got one more hour. It’s your last hour of the week. Egg your way back, and try to keep one of us in sight.”