[by Dave Karczynski]
All anglers need the occasional freaky good day. Such days clear the system of junk, like an angioplasty for the fishing soul. Depending on where you live, head-shaking days may or may not be frequent. But that’s no matter; the good mojo generated by a single day of stupid good fishing can carry over months and even years, buoying you aloft when you wake up at 4 a.m. to drive an hour to fish flies small as a birthmark, or leave a perfectly good campfire to pull an all-nighter under a new moon, alone but for the coal-black mouse tethered to your 0X. Yup, the odd day of ridiculous fishing sustains the optimism all anglers need to remain inoculated against golf, competitive birdwatching, and other things of that nature. But what if one day you found yourself a broken angler, one with an urgent medical need for not just one, but a fistful of Stupid Good days?
That was my predicament this past spring. Owing to one of the freakest springs on record in Michigan, fishing had been not so much a mixed bag as an empty void. The rains came early, stayed late, and in their ferocity seemed intent on returning the Michigan mainland to the inland sea from which it came. Hatches were delayed or suppressed. The fish, oblivious to the anguish of thousands of anglers who lived to drift bugs above them, hunkered away under timber and filter-fed on earthworms. Despite these abominable conditions, I fished as hard as I ever had, driving through two tire rotations and chasing minor windows of opportunity whenever they were to be found. The results were close to nil, however, and after nearly four decades of fishing, I was for the first time beginning to lose the one thing more essential to angling than the angle: a sense of optimism. So, on the Fourth of July, after two weeks of waiting on a Hexagenia hatch that never arrived, I got on a plane bound for Alaska. To rehabilitate my angling heart. To repair my fishing soul. To get back in touch with what that old reptilian part of my brain knew, deep down, fishing was supposed to be.
Project Salvation, as I had taken to calling it, would take place over a week’s time frame 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 Dollys 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 also 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, explained my guide, Frits, and all day long wave upon wave of Dollys, 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, picking 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, inchlong 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 when it came to fighting fish. 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, the question of where we would fish the next day was an open one—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 fly-outs the Rapids Camp program offers, 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 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 fifteen 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 Alaska-fied version: that 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 it 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.