I am no stranger to fishing as a native of Minnesota’s northern lake country, and my grandpa made sure I knew how to bait my own hook and tie a good fish line knot before I was ten. If you had asked, I would have told you I grew up in a place where fishing was a big deal.
Alaska, however, has opened up a whole new world of fishing for me. I realize now that fishing was, for all its popularity, still considered by myself and many of my Minnesota friends to be merely a recreational hobby that fostered a great tourism industry, a way to relax on weekends, and a lot of meaning in life for retirees. Here, it’s all those things, but also much more than that. For many people in Alaska, it’s literally a way of life. They take their fishing seriously because it’s legitimately how they fill their freezers and pantry shelves, and feed their family for the year. The best part, of course, is that it actually IS as fun as it is rewarding—and so I present a few tales of discovering that for myself.
Tale #1: Someone told us the salmon were running along an easily accessible beach on their way to the river. Climb down the bank, cast out and you can catch salmon right from the shore, they said. I had never fished in the ocean. I had never fished by myself. But, I’d been dying to catch more fish, and I knew I’d be driving right by that very beach on the way to a dentist appointment. The way it was described to me, it seemed easy enough. I decided to try it.
Let it be noted that this was a very last minute idea and literally all I did was throw a pole in the back of the car before I left in a hurry for my appointment. I definitely didn’t dress for fishing (something I noted wryly as I clambered awkwardly down the steep bank), and I brought no net, pliers, or fishing tackle. I stopped in town to pick up an extra lure, just for good measure, dubiously guessing which one might be appropriate based on it’s popularity (the one that was nearly sold out ought to be a good one, right?).
But what I lack in planning ahead, (waders would have been nice) I assure you I make up for in determination. I nearly lost two lures to the rocks, but saved them by wading out across the sharp barnacles in my stocking feet.
I could see the fish jumping a few yards out, but I was struggling to cast out far enough and having lost one lure and gotten wet over my knees rescuing the two others, my enthusiasm was dwindling. I’ll give it ten more minutes, I decided. A few minutes later, I had a fish on the beach.
There was no one there to witness my success but God and the seagulls. It was not very big, too small to keep. But it was my first of it’s kind, and I had caught it all by myself. I snapped a quick picture, then slipped it gently back in to the salty waves to go back and grow bigger.
Tale #1 will stand in somewhat interesting contrast to Tale #2.
A few days later, I went fishing again. This time I had waders, but more crucially, this time I had a pair of fishing guides, some dear friends who had been regaling us all year with tales of fishing the Klawock River during the salmon run. When word came that the fish had arrived, Zach insisted on staying home with the kids so I could go.
My first clue of what was to come was when we had to work to find a parking place amidst a long row of vehicles, a rather unusual problem for here. From there, we grabbed our gear and took the short hike down through the forest to the river bank. The first thing I noted in amazement as we came out into the open was that the flowing water was literally boiling with fish. The second was that the banks were lined with fishermen, nearly shoulder to shoulder. There were large, beautiful coho salmon being landed at a constant rate, people graciously moving aside as needed in an unspoken code of fishing etiquette. Everyone was intently focused and in high spirits.
This was not so much a place as it was an event. I was excited and intimidated all at once. I was timid to cast out, afraid that I, in my inexperience, was going to hook some hapless fellow human in the eye. And so, of course, being timid, I caught nothing at first.
Now, I’m just going to say right here that it’s fantastic and tremendously character building to learn by trial and error and teach yourself.
However, it’s infinitely better if you just have a Glen and Rose.
They were the best teachers, tirelessly demonstrating the techniques to me as they proceeded to smoothly land a limit each in short order, kindly critiquing and patiently coaching my faltering rooky efforts. Glen taught me how to tie their home-cured fish egg bait on my hook in such a way as to survive a vigorous cast, and then Rose showed me how to cast it out there like I meant it. When I finally got a fish on my line, they coached that beautiful big fighting silver all the way up out of the river and into my delighted possession, rejoicing with me in the prize. And, as a sign of true friendship, they waited for me to catch my entire limit myself when they could have probably caught it themselves in half the amount of time.
I am still smiling at the memory of this day, even now as I write this. And here we are, in all our water soaked, fish slimed and scaled glory.
Tale #3: One sunny Saturday morning, Tim and Rita invited me to go out in their boat for my very first chance to try ocean fishing. Susanna came along, which is a good thing, since she was the only Ender in the boat to catch anything. I got not even so much as a bite, which, I assure you, is no reflection on my fishing guides’ expertise. But, as my grandpa used to say, a true fisherman must learn to enjoy the trying as much as the catching. And I was truly grateful for the chance to try.
It was a bit choppier than we expected, so we couldn’t get out to Tim’s favorite halibut spot, and I had to work intentionally to ward off seasickness. But I loved getting to see the mouth of the bay for the first time. Thorne Bay is long and narrow, and curves around before it opens up into Clarence Strait, so even though I’ve been out on it in a kayak or a friend’s skiff a few times, I had never been quite far enough to see the big water around the corner. It was beautiful to see how the mountains met the sea out there, and the way the waves crashed on the rocks. I learned how to bait a double hook with herring for halibut, an entirely different technique from the egg bait I’d learned to tie on for salmon earlier in the week. We cheered when someone landed a flounder and laughed when our lines got tangled in the flurry of pulling it in. I thought I caught a mega halibut, only to discover with great disappointment that I’d merely caught “the whole world” (aka, the very much immovable bottom of the sea). Back at the docks, I recovered from a light case of sea legs, then took Susanna’s cod home to become fish tacos for supper.
Tale #4: “Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.” (John 21:5-13)
(Just in case you needed proof that the love of a good fishing tale is entirely Biblical.)
I am so grateful to all the various friends here who have generously given of their time to teach us how and where to fish the waters of our island home—and I’m looking forward to many more fishing tales (and fish) ahead next year!