Author's note: This is why I've been busy... kinda. There's also getting ready for winter and all that. I think I'm done smoking fish for the season, and if I'm not ready for winter yet it's sort of too late since I have about 8 or 10 inches of snow down. I wrote this one several weeks ago but my computer had a fight with Blogger and now they aren't speaking to each other, so it's been slowing down the posting. Sorry about that.
Here’s the thing about fishing: I grew up with the idea that it was something that was mostly done by kids and adult men. As a kid, I never heard about women who would take off early on a Sunday morning to go fishing – and certainly not by themselves or in groups of other women, the way men and children often do. I’m not entirely sure why I had this mental picture of it; after all, one of our family legends - one of those oft-told stories, too good to die – is about my mom fishing in the Sierras of California.
She and my stepdad had gone camping in Yosemite. My mother was, at the time, eight months pregnant with my youngest brother. I can remember her in her camping duds: maternity pants and hiking boots, and an adorable sort of maternity hoodie that she’d made herself. My mother is a capable seamstress, and often made clothing for us when we were little, and for herself as well. She chose a dark burgundy and navy plaid for the hoodie, and equipped it with large warm-up pockets in the front, like you have on your standard sweatshirt. I can just picture her hiking happily about with her little plaid maternity hoodie and hiking boots and her absolutely enormous belly. Bear in mind that she and my stepdad were camping in a two-man pup tent. It’s not all that easy to crawl in and out of those in general, much less with an eight-month pregnancy on board. But my mother loved being pregnant, and always felt very good physically when she was, so perhaps this wasn’t as much of a stretch as it sounds.
They had hiked up to a place called Ireland Lake so my stepdad could fish. He was very stern and serious about it. He scoped about the lake looking for a good spot, and brought out his fly-fishing rod and his Webb Coachman dry flies and his spare leader lines. My mom had no fishing rig, so he cut her an 18-inch branch from a tree and gave her some spare leader line, but couldn’t bear to part with one of his flies; he might, after all, want to change flies, depending on what the fish were striking.
My mom took her stick and her leader line and crawled up amongst some rocks with her 8-month belly. She had a safety pin in her hoodie pocket, which she bent into a hook of sorts by opening it very far and pressing it against the rocks until she had something she thought might work. She caught one of the abundant little green grasshoppers that inhabited the lakeside and impaled it on her safety pin and then dangled her line over the edge of the rocks, jigging it experimentally in the water. It wasn’t as scientific and professional as my stepdad’s approach, but what the heck: something to do, right? And she wasn’t in the way, casting shadows in the water that might scare the fish where my stepdad was sternly fishing away.
Before long, something came roaring up out of the depths and struck my mother’s line - and lo and behold, she landed a trout.
Having no creel or any other receptacle – all of which was with my stepdad, who as the real fisherman, was the one who would need it – she stuffed the fish in the pocket of her hoodie, clambered back over the rocks and along the shore to where my stepdad was casting with his upscale fly rod. Clutching the fish in place over her belly, she was practically dancing in glee, asking “Can I keep it? Can I keep it?” – because she wasn’t sure it met the size limit. I gather some confusion ensued; I guess I can understand that. There’s my stepdad, all focused on his fishing rituals, and his near-term pregnant wife comes up all hopping around and incoherent with excitement and clutching her belly – which was no doubt squirming in a somewhat disconcerting manner, since there was a live fish in her hoodie pocket.
That was the first fish of the day, and my mom caught another three with her stick and safety pin before my stepdad caught one with his fiberglass rod and his dry flies. Mom actually decided it might be best to stop fishing, if she wanted the marriage to last.
You’d think, given this history, that I’d regard fishing as something women were really good at, maybe better than men – but mom never took us fishing when we were kids, and other kids always went out with their friends and siblings, or else their dads. No one else’s moms went fishing. That was a dad thing. It wasn’t really part of our lifestyle growing up.
Still, up here in Alaska – where the quality of our salmon and halibut are world-renowned – it’s a lot more of a thing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you haven’t gone fishing by the time you’ve lived here for 15 years they revoke your citizenship and chuck you out of the state. I managed to skim under that wire, having lived here for 16 years without once catching (or trying to catch) a single fish. When people find out about this they look at me with varying forms of consternation, confusion or astonishment, and say, “You’ve never gone fishing? Never?” in the tones one might use if someone confessed they’d never been outdoors. “What? You’ve never gone outside? Never?”
I decided, therefore, that this year I would go fishing – in part because I want to keep my Alaskan citizenship (really! They throw you out of the state if you don’t try it! I swear!) and partly because I kept hearing on the radio that officials were downgrading escapement estimates of certain salmon runs - to numbers that were record highs. So sorry, we’re downgrading our estimate of the fish coming up that river, and our new downgraded estimate is the highest run ever recorded. We apologize for falsely raising your expectations, but you’ll just have to make do with a record-breaking abundance of fish. We feel so bad.
As it happens, my friend J and her husband K (who, you may remember, I married almost two years ago), have a boat. K likes to go out into Prince William Sound, launching out of Whittier, to fish. Weather isn’t always good – the first weekend we tried to put together a trip there were 9-foot seas – but if it is, PWS is beautiful -and kinda fishtastic.
Sunday we had a good weather report and everyone had a day off, so down to Whittier we went. We had snacks, drinks, fishing licenses galore, sunscreen, safety gear, bait, cigars and a dog – all the stuff you need for a fishing trip. In addition I had my hoodie with a salmon on it and I was wearing the earrings my brother Tode made me that remind me of salmon: A dark orange-red teardrop of glass with iridescent green flakes that glimmer fish-scale-like when I move.
The drive to Whittier is gorgeous – well, it is Alaska, after all! – and not that long; a couple of hours. You get to drive by Potter’s Marsh, a famous and important migratory waterfowl sanctuary, and also the Portage Wildlife Reserve, where their woodland bison graze close enough to the road that you can see them as you drive by. Sometimes you see Dall sheep or mountain goats on the cliffs as you drive down. And for some reason there is one particular spot where everyone seems to stop to get water from a pipe sticking randomly out of the Cliffside. It’s good water, but seriously: You’re going to stop at a stretch of road bounded on one side by a sheer cliff and the other by a sharp drop-off into the icy waters of the bay, park your car on the verge on one side of the road or the other – on a bit of a curve, mind you – and fill up from a bit of black pipe sticking randomly out of the side of the mountain? Really? Oh, and you’re going to cross the road to do it because you’re parked on the far side? And you’re doing this at ten fifteen on an overcast night - which I will grant you is before sundown, but it is overcast, the speed limit is 55, and visibility isn’t really the greatest, nor the road the widest, at that point – and remember, it’s on a curve so you can’t see very far in either direction, since your eyeballs can’t see around the corner. Trust me on this. But you’re still going to stop and get water there? Really?
Oh, well. No one was killed, anyway, so I guess that’s okay.
To get to Whittier you have to cross under the mountain through a one-lane tunnel. Because it’s one lane, traffic has to go one direction for 15 minutes, then stop; there’s a fifteen minute pause to clear everything from the tunnel, and then traffic can go the other way. The tunnel also accommodates the train, so you want to be sure to obey the rules. We’d timed it to get to the tunnel on the first Whittier-bound opening, and by consequence arrived at the docks when there were only, like, 15 or 20 people in line waiting to put their boats in.
It was a truly gorgeous day, and K expertly backed the trailer down to the water and J expertly helped. I inexpertly held lines when told to do so, and helped walk the boat down the pier when told to do so and got on board when told to do so. K put on the tunes, lit up a cigar and motored us sedately out of the marina and into the Sound.
Once clear of the marina, we cruised out into the waters of the PWS. Many another boat was out and about. We kept an eye out for sea otters (mainly spotting the well-known PWS Mock Otter, composed of mats of seaweed and likely-looking bits of flotsam). K found a place he thought likely and we started trolling.
It was sunny and hot, and the motion of the boat was soothing. J and I relaxed on the rear deck, chit-chatting and keeping an eye on the fishing rods. These were set up with down-rigging, lures and bait. After a while the starboard rod-tip bowed violently toward the water and then sprang back up.
“Fish on!” J called, and K idled the boat. I pulled the rod out of its socket and began to reel. It felt like there was some resistance – but then it seemed too easy, all of a sudden. As the line came in, it was clear my fish was gone – along with the center portion of the bait, mowed away by a fish that had managed to slip the hook. We re-set the line and kept trolling.
Things were slow initially - slow enough that I started to wonder if I was a fishing jinx. But J and K didn't seem to worried, and I was distracted when, for the fun of it, we went into a little bay and did some sight-seeing. We crossed paths with a harbor seal there, and plenty of birds, but no larger wildlife. After a bit we cruised back out and set up in another spot.
Pretty soon J’s line bounced and jigged. “Fish on!” we both chorused, and this time the fish didn’t slip the hook. I tried to watch closely without getting in the way while J landed a nice fat Coho. Okay, now I see how it’s done: You reel the fish in close to the boat, ease it back into the net (which one of your helpful companions will be wielding), pull it on board, take the hook out and stun it with the hefty little fish bat. Then you pop a couple of gill veins to bleed the meat and stick it in the fish locker.
Okay. That’s not too scary.
The Coho you pull out of Prince William Sound tend to run between 8 and 12 pounds. Also known as Silvers, they’re pretty fish, and a ten-pound Coho looks pretty substantial when you pull it flipping and wriggling into the boat. It’s hard not to look at them without thinking of succulent, fragrant fish steaks on the grill… or coming out of the oven… or poaching in wine … Well. It’s nowhere near the limit, but at least we’ve gotten a nice start on future dinners.
J caught another fish almost immediately. I started thinking: Hmmm. I want to catch one now. In fact, I was starting to feel left out. I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t catch a fish that day. So I invited my mother’s fish mojo to make an appearance.
We trolled quietly along. All of a sudden my line jigged hard. J and I chorused our “fish-on”, K cut the engine and I started reeling like mad. The fish was strong and fought a little, but at K’s instructions I dropped the tip of my rod and kept the line tight and reeled it onto the net. It came out of the water sleek and fat and gleaming silver, its sides blushed with a delicate faint rose, its eyes silvery green with the mysteries of unknown seas.
Well. My first fish, and it’s really kind of beautiful.
Still, this isn’t catch-and-release fishing (which, when you think about it, is kind of fish torture), so we dispatched my catch as quickly and mercifully as possible, and returned to our fishing. Having found a good spot, we trolled there for a while. I caught two more (limiting out my Coho allowance for the day) and J hit her limit shortly thereafter. J took the tiller, since she and I were limited out, and K did some fishing. We had a bit of a lull, during which we watched a sea otter for a while, and also a sea lion peevishly snapping at gulls and other water birds, perhaps trying to eat them, or perhaps just snapping in annoyance at them. We cruised slowly back and forth, admiring the otter and enjoying the warmth of the early evening. We hadn’t limited the boat yet;. I had three fish, J had three and K had two. Now we were cruising in pursuit of his limit when the unexpected happened.
The rod next to me jigged hard, bowing almost double and jumping in its socket hard enough that I thought it might leap out and go overboard. “Fish on!” I yelped, grabbing the rod reflexively to keep the rod from going over. I almost couldn’t lift it out of the holder. I started reeling furiously. The line jerked sideways, nearly taking the rod out of my hands.
“Fight it! Fight it!” K shouted, practically hopping up and down. I started laughing with exhilaration, shades of my mom and her trout; the fish was so strong I could barely reel against it. In fact, I didn’t think I was making much progress, and the line was singing against the reel. I looked at the reel and paused for a half second in confusion. Not only wasn’t the reel bringing in any line, in fact the line seemed to be going out despite my efforts to bring it in.
At about that second K heard the rising hum of the line as it stripped off the reel and he whipped his head around.
“Give me that.” He said shortly, taking the rod from me. He braked the line hard with his thumb, snapping the rod upwards, trying to break the line. Then he reeled frantically, and tried a second time to break the line. The rods were rigged with 50# test. At first he thought we might have hooked a sea lion or a shark – but if he couldn’t break the line, whatever it was weighed less than 50 pounds, so we probably wanted it.
K put his back into it and began working furiously, braking the line with his thumb, hauling the tip of the rod up and reeling in the slack at a vicious pace, using his thumb to keep the fish from stripping the reel again. The drag was set for smaller fish, and was not enough to keep whatever was on the line from taking back what line had just been reeled in. It seemed like a long time, but it was probably only a few minutes before we started to see the flash of silver scales just under the surface of the water. J snatched the net and leaned over the side of the boat , managing to scoop the net around an absolutely enormous salmon, three times the size of anything else we’d caught that day.
“Holy crap! Holy crap!” I am saying, dancing from foot to foot. “That is freaking HUGE!”
“Haul it in!” K is shouting, as the fish makes a nearly-successful bid to leap out of the net. J foils it by tilting the net to close it up against the side of the boat, but the fish is too heavy for her to pull it on board while it bounces and lunges in the net. I grab the long shaft of the net handle behind her hands and heave. Between the two of us we land it.
“Shit, that’s a King!” K exclaims. We all look at each other. King salmon, also known as Chinook, are usually river-caught. Because of their size and their light-orange, buttery-rich flesh, they are a prized sport fish.
“Are we allowed to keep it?” I ask. K snatches up the fishing regs.
“Limit in PWS… two Kings per stamp per day,” he says. We all beam. We have a King stamp. We are golden. We stun our fish and pop its gill veins. We can’t stop staring at it. K has a scale. We weigh it. It’s 28 pounds.
“Well… that’s not the biggest King salmon I’ve ever seen,“ I allow, “but that was still really exciting!”
“It’s not the biggest one I’ve ever seen either,” K says, “but in all the years I’ve been fishing in the sound, I’ve never seen anyone catch a King out here. The ocean-caught ones are the best; they haven’t started to lose condition by making the spawning run. This is pretty special - so whatever you’re doing, keep it up.”
We take pictures with the fish. I have to admit it’s pretty amazing. When it lays next to the other fish – which seemed so large and substantial only minutes ago – they seem almost puny beside it.
Well. I’m calling today’s fishing efforts a win. Still, K is one shy of his limit, and we still have daylight. He decides we still have a little time to troll. He resets the bait. No sooner does he set the line than it pops fee of its downrigging. He goes to reset the downrigging – but to his surprise there is a fish on already. He lands it in short order, and now we’re done. The boat is limited out on Coho, so there’s no excuse to go on fishing.
We pack it in and cruise back toward the marina. As we cruise along, K, puffing thoughtfully on his cigar, says, “Well, ladies, I have to thank you. That’s the first time all season we’ve limited the boat “ He takes a detour into a small inlet with calmer water where he guts, heads and fillets our catch. We divide it up and head for home. I am slightly windburned, and a little tired, but wholly content. Everyone caught their limit, plus we got a bonus King. I am not a fishing jinx. In fact, I believe I’ve inherited the mojo.
Well. That’s rather satisfying. Thanks, mom. Between that and the late-graying gene, I feel pretty lucky, inheritance-wise.