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So there we were, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. Andy heaved back on the rod as a large fish peeled off drag, down in the depths. A fierce wind gust threw the canoe sideways and threatened to capsize us. A lifer on the line - a wild leaping fish, now - with a stilletto rain stabbing us in the face and an iron wind scudding us across the whitecapped lake. My numb hands fumbled for the net as the boat swayed and spun around ...
But we're getting way ahead of ourselves.
It started, as most worthy fishing adventures do, with a mad idea. A rumor had gradually turned into a set of odd facts, the odd facts had then turned into a weird plan, and that weird plan turned – eventually – into a stark raving reality. It went something like this:
"Sure. Let's dirtbag it. We can't afford much."
And so it went. The first order of business was to rent a car and get the hell out of Anchorage - as always. A midnight drive to Anchor Point was in order, then a short, cold sleep through a 34-degree night. We were up early in the morning and out on the river. The water was an ugly brown, well over its banks - so fishing was bound to be tough. We fished the Anchor River around the campsite, with Andy hooking two big fish but losing them. We headed for the upper river - but it was also blown out, unwadable and the color of chocolate milk. I fell in a hole while thrashing through the impenetrable alders and almost disappeared completely beneath the earth. Beaten by the land and water, we retreated downriver. Finally, at a spot where we had seen some old duffers fishing earlier in the day, we found a nice pod of active pink salmon.
A pair of rough fishes, for sure, and a good start. Pink salmon don't get much respect in Alaska, but they are game fighters and ready biters in the right conditions. These fish were fresh, and fought well for their size. The banks were littered with their dead brethren. Afterward, we headed for the lower river, near the mouth, where there's a fine run just at the last bend in the woods. Below it, the river shoots out onto the grassy flats that lead down to the seashore. There we found a few Dolly Varden, very recently migrated in from the ocean to feast on pink salmon eggs. Dolly fishing is my favorite. We welcomed the game thrash and pull of these shiny fighters like an old friend.
But then Andy hooked into something big and dark-backed, a scaly torpedo that fought him like a demon, racing up and down the river and leaping over and over. After a hard battle, Andy's first ever native steelhead came to hand.
What a fish. For all the years we have pursued this fish as an introduced exotic in the Great Lakes, it was incredible to get one in its native land. It was so close to the salt, you could hear the surf. Afterward, we headed back to camp. The Dollies were delicious, cooked on the campfire with a couple of cans of beanie-weenies.
Rain moved in and stayed doggedly with us. We fished the Upper Anchor for a few days, through some very wet and cold weather. We took a few breaks from the river to fish off the Spit in Homer, but the bites were few and far between. I caught a couple of cool-looking saltwater sculpins and a strangely familiar flatfish. I believe the first sculpin is a small Great Sculpin (Myoxocephalus polyacanthocephalus) and the second one (with the prominent dorsal fin spot) is a Pacific Staghorn Sculpin (Leptocottus armatus). The flatfish, I believe, is a Pacific Halibut.
But we kept coming back to the Upper Anchor, to the spot we dubbed "Slabrock Hole" and the one we called "The Old Guy's Spot". We caught some Dolly Varden, but had to work for them.
Andy fished over a huge coho for over an hour, to no avail. The fish just would not take any of the flies or beads Andy drifted by it. But in the fast-running chute at the head of Slabrock, I hooked into something big and mean. It muscled out into the current and then leaped midstream. I knew I was into a steelhead. After a fierce battle, it was in the net.
I was elated. This was a real tank of a fish, thick as a brick and broad as a clown shoe. I cradled it in the water for a photo, as the law requires for this species. We had both gotten our native steelhead, one upriver and one by the salt.
Fishing a little side-channel, I hooked a powerful fish that jumped four times, flashing red and orange and black. We had not seen any Dolly Varden in their beautiful fall spawning colors, yet, but that was about to change.
It was just beautiful. One of our main goals was to catch and photograph a spawned-up Dolly varden, and this one was dressed to the nines. But the char were few and far between here, so we headed north to look for other waters. Cooper proved a bust, the Kenai was not our style. So we picked out a likely spot on the Russian River and hiked there. Unfortunately, some other fishermen had beaten us to the punch ...
Undeterred, we detoured around the hungry brown bears and waded into the river just downstream and around the bend from them. The river was full of salmon, both living ones and others in every state of death and decay. The cloying stench of rotting fish flesh hung over the river like a burial shroud.
At the tail of a swift run not far from the bears, I hooked something big. I knew it was a coho right away as it snapped its hooked jaws repeatedly, trying to throw the hook. After a gruelling fight, I muscled it into the shallows, where Andy pounced on it quickly, putting the bears to shame.
It was my first native coho. This was an amazing fish. Just a slab of pure, angry muscle with a craggy face full of wicked teeth. I hooked another one later in the day, but it beat me in exciting fashion after being beached multiple times. Andy and I both touched the fish only to have it go berserk and escape each time.
Then we headed off into the unknown, found a new campsite, and rented a canoe. It was time to pursue our mad plan. When we finally threw the canoe down, we were standing on the banks of a seldom-visited lake in the middle of the trackless pinelands of the Swanson River drainage of Alaska. A narrow, weed-choked path led down to the greenish-stained waters. The road just sort of peters out up here, as if the road-builders thought they were onto something and then halfway through decided that it just wasn’t worth it and went home. Here are some deep, cold lakes – empty hollows created by huge chunks of ice that were left behind when the glaciers receded 13,000 years ago. No aircraft are allowed here, nor any off-road vehicles. Just canoes and dogsleds, boys, and in the winter you’ll be hand-cutting your ice holes so bring a file to keep your spud sharp. Cellular service is mercifully absent. It’s a chunk of Old Alaska, I suppose, left behind by progress and the world’s inexorable slide into rampant mechanization and development. A very unique fish has also been left behind out here; a fish that’s very hard to find south of the Arctic Circle. Their closest cousins are over on Kodiak Island or over on the far side of the Alaska Range. They are Arctic Char: Salvelinus alpinus, the northernmost salmonid among the world’s many and a fish generally reported from the sort of regions where polar bears roam. It’s almost as if a fragile piece of the high arctic somehow broke free from the coast of the Beaufort Sea and slipped down south while nobody was looking. A population of these fish has been surviving here for untold millennia. Here, in certain small, deep potholes, they thrive. At least, thirty feet down they do, way down in the cold dark waters that the rainbows find too chilly.
Unfortunately, this lake would not give up its prize easily. We fished for four hours on the calmer north side of this lake, with no strikes. What had started out as a breezy day was rapidly building into a hum-dinger of a windstorm. We let the wind push us back into the main basin to try our luck over the hundred-foot depths of the windswept main lake. Which brings us back to the start of our tale, with a solid hookup in about sixty feet of water.
Andy played the fish expertly, drag set loose to remove any possibility of a breakoff. Finally, it emerged from the depths. "It's a char!" I yelled. Then it glided toward the canoe and I swiftly got a net under it. Andy let out a primal whoop. Lifelister achieved!
This fish was pretty amazing. A big, robust char of a completely new species. It was very clearly different from the Dolly Varden we had been catching, with its thin caudal peduncle, compact head, and deeply forked tail.
I love it when a plan comes together. Andy got a well-deserved high-five for this amazing accomplishment. Unfortunately, it didn't come together for me personally, as the wind storm had become a gale. We gamely tried another drift across the lake, but with furious waves crashing over the gunnels and our spoons racing far too quickly through the water, we gave up, exhausted, and threw ourselves down on the bank.
After returning the canoe, we ate this magnificent fish for dinner. As we gorged on delicious arctic char meat, we pondered how the last time we were in Alaska, Andy had caught a round whitefish, while I had come up blank for that species. We had eaten that fish, too. We decided that we need a T-Shirt that says "Eat Your Lifers". Almost nobody would understand what it means.
The next morning was perfectly calm, of course. But the lake is unfishable from shore, and we had no canoe. With that, we said goodbye to Alaska. We did try for Alaska Blackfish in some of the Anchorage Lakes, with no catches aside from a sole stocker rainbow. We had no blackfish sightings at all. Strange. Another mystery to solve, I guess.
There's always next time.