Our party fished drys until lunch and the fishing had been good. But it wasn’t until I crept up a small, narrow side channel and decided to go subsurface that it would become the kind of good that realigns all the neurons in your brain 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 my leader with the tip of my rod, paying close attention to the water as my fly bobbed in and out of view.
The take of a wild rainbow 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, its pie-tin back and crimson stripe flashing in stark relief against the tundra. I was in no way, shape, or form ready for that first fish, which broke its tether 50 yards downstream of where I hooked it. 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. I’ll note here that I have always, and everywhere, 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 any and all 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 of pure novelty as well. 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 had 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, I smashed char between naps on the tundra, the Original Ganster of of posturpedic sleeping. There was the day it was too cloudy to fly and we fished the Naknek’s famous smolt-busting summer rainbows, all of them 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 fly-outs.
By the last day of the week, my fish-fighting forearm was the same sinewy rope it had been when I played high school baseball, and up to all challenges—no massage therapist needed. More important, 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, 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 politely but firmly took my rod, bit off my caddis and replaced 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.”
Now, I have done many Brook Trout Death Marches in my life—agonizing tramps through thick, buggy swamp that leave you looking like you’d gotten attacked by measles and cougars at the same time—but it wasn’t until that last hour of egging char that I discovered its equal and opposite enterprise: the Downstream Char Relay. For over an hour, I ran eggs through pods of char that fought one another for my fly and then towed me downstream to the next pool, where they handed me off to the next fish like a human baton. When I arrived at the plane an hour later, I was out of breath, punch-drunk, and in desperate need of a helmet, though I accepted a beer instead. This, I thought, as I sat on the plane’s pontoon and kicked my boots into the water, shaking my head and listening to my blood hum as it hadn’t in very a long time . . . this was why I had come all this way.
And just like that, it was over. One week, five fly-outs, 200 rainbows, and 1,000 “Hey, Bears!” later, my angling scurvy was in full remission. The timing of my recovery was excellent, as my Michigan friends were reporting that the rivers back home were finally stabilizing and fishing was decent to good. As such there was mousing to be done during the last few weeks of summer. Tricos to chase as the mornings cooled. Streamers to strip between sits in the tree stand. After a mere week of stupid good Alaskan fishing, I felt ready for any and all opportunity the rest of the sporting world might throw at me. A brook trout death march across the entire UP didn’t seem out of the question. I was ready to grind.
And it was all thanks to Alaska, that roadless nirvana, that horn of plenty, one of the last places in the world where your hunting and fishing dreams are more likely to come true than not. As Americans, we all walk around with Alaska in our back pockets, a place to light out to when we need to see the world as it looked when it still worked, not because of our human interventions, but because of their absence. And yet at the time of this writing, a tribe of sad miscreants are making yet another push to gash it forever in exchange for a little bit of coin, and everywhere from the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to Bristol Bay is in play. A hundred and fifty-two years ago this year, America purchased Alaska on the cheap from cash-strapped Russians looking to turn a quick profit. Let’s not make the same mistake for one of the last stupid good places on earth. Let’s take care of Alaska so Alaska can keep taking care of us.
Dave Karczynski is the author of Smallmouth and From Lure to Fly. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and serves as American Angler’s man on the spot when we need someone to go blindly deep into bear country and return with a great story to tell.