Confessions of a Spit Rat

Angling Alaska on hope, dreams, and
condiments pilfered from the Safeway.

[by Dave Zoby]

MURPH SAYS BEAUTIFUL A LOT. Perhaps too much. He says he caught two beautiful silver salmon on the incoming tide—“You should have been there, right in the Homer Fishing Hole where everyone else fishes.” He says he found a beautiful fire pit where he’s going to grill salmon tonight, along with some beautiful halibut cheeks he talked off of a fisherman at the public cleaning table. He says why pay for a place to park his van at night when there are so many beautiful places to just back up, roll out his sleeping bag, and sleep a few paces away from Kachemak Bay?

I have so much to learn about being a spit rat. I’m new to it, and it doesn’t come naturally. In the Lower 48 I try to solve problems with money, automatically reaching for my wallet, swiping my credit card. But Murph says sometimes you don’t need money. You just need a code, a sort of map to go by. If you’re going to rat on the Homer Spit, Murph says, you have to use your head. Cash is for suckers.

HOMER, ALASKA, IS ONE OF THOSE PLACES to which I keep returning. I can never get enough of the mountains across the bay rising from the sea. Or the energy around the wharves, especially when the charter boats are returning with hauls of salmon, halibut, rockfish, and ling cod. Fireweed explodes by the roadside. Floatplanes drone overhead. I don’t take many photos in Homer. Where would I point the lens?

This year I decided to drive up. I bought a camper shell for my truck, a 120-quart cooler, and bear bells. I gathered all the shot records for my dog, Rocket; found someone to cut the grass at my house. My friend Steve Schroeder took the bus from Salina, Kansas, to Casper, Wyoming, where I waited for him with a cup of coffee and a full tank of gas. We drove for days, stopping in Banff, Fort Nelson, Whitehorse. Rocket swam in huge Canadian rivers, the current ferrying him downstream at an alarming rate. Brutalized by high fuel prices, harassed by swarms of biting insect, we emerged from the Yukon after eight days of camping and fishing and headed for Anchorage, where Steve needed to catch a flight home. It was still July, and Rocket and I had nowhere to be until late August.

After I dropped off Schroeder, I checked out the Kenai River’s sputtering sockeye run. I had reserved two nights in the Russian River Campground, a picturesque state-run area with bear warnings nailed to nearly every tree. I caught some feisty rainbows on dries and then wandered down to the confluence of the Russian and the Kenai with my dog on a leash.

There wasn’t much happening; just lots of people unsuccessfully jerking weighted flies through the aquamarine waters. I decided to drift down to Homer and live off the fat of the land, pop my head into the Salty Dawg Saloon, catch my fill of silvers in the public lagoon. I had no concrete plan. After all, Homer is named after Homer Pennock, who swindled his way to Alaska and beyond selling fraudulent gold claims. Perhaps I could blend in with the RV crowd, with the photographers and sightseers. I had a few halibut charters lined up. I thought I’d fish until I filled the enormous cooler, then steal off to Wyoming with my fingers crossed, hoping all the way—2,800 miles—that the fish would stay frozen. Arriving in Wyoming with fresh halibut, I’d receive a hero’s welcome.

MY FIRST DAY ON THE SPIT I decide on a reputable RV park complete with a bathhouse and free wi-fi. I haven’t had a shower since Haines Junction, where I paid four loonies for a stall featuring mosquitoes, a dilapidated floor, and water pressure that brought to mind a cheap coffeemaker. This shower is hot, with no annoying timer like you find in the RV parks along the Alcan Highway. I buy a bundle of firewood, some frozen herring for bait, and a six-pack. Things are looking up. There’s drizzle, and bald eagles perched on the tsunami-warning speakers, and bald guys with serious cameras pursuing them, and the usual mob at the fishing lagoon getting fired up because one woman is reliably catching one Coho after another.

I walk down to the beach with Rocket. A few charter boats are returning, passing the green sea buoy, long manes of foam trailing behind them. I toss a rubber retrieving bumper into the sea for Rocket, who has never seen the ocean. He tries drinking from it, then plunges in, swims out to the dummy, and comes back. Pretty soon he’s swimming with the seals. We play on the beach for hours, until people break out their guitars and small campfires dot the Spit. I figure it’s time to go fishing.

It’s nearly midnight by the time I lock Rocket in the truck and begin casting my fly at the lagoon, the tide ripping through the small cut that connects to Kachemak Bay. My “fly” is a blue-tinseled deal as heavy as a spark plug, and I’m casting with vigor, being careful not to hook myself or the dozens of others gathered for the onslaught of silvers schooling just outside the jetty. The salmon mingle in a tight ball and then run the gauntlet of hooks and lines. They leap, arch, and fall back with a splash. Seals are chasing them. Fishermen are cussing the seals.

At the lagoon, behavior isn’t at its best. Several guys snag fish and drag them ashore with no style whatsoever. In some places in Alaska, snagging is allowed, but not here. Most people look the other way while their fellow sportsmen cudgel enormous silvers in the vague twilight. I manage to hook one fish legally—a huge buck that leaps, ripping my line out in burning bursts—but when I get him near shore no one has a net. A fellow who favors Steve McQueen puts down his spinning rod and tries to corral my fish. He wades out past the limit of his rubber boots, tries to kick my fish ashore, but the fish runs through the wickets of his legs and leaps in the dark, eventually throwing the hook.

After losing the fish, I want to sit down and weep. The guy who helped me turns out to be a local.

“I’ve been fishing here twelve years and I’ve only caught a few—they’re so strong,” says Mike. Mike, it turns out, likes to trade fishing and hunting adventures all over the world. I don’t have an adventure to offer, but I have a Marlin .30-30 in my truck that I want to get rid of. We discuss a couple of halibut trips out to Flat Island. He tells me to meet him at the boat ramp in two days, look for a 23-foot Sea Nymph. I slink back to the RV park where some airmen from Elmendorf are rallying around a smudgy fire and recounting stories about Iraq. They party all night, smoke billowing into my camper shell until both Rocket and I are almost bacon. One of the pitfalls of scenery, I’m learning, is that it attracts so many admirers.

The next morning the airmen are gassed, sleeping in their tents, the flaps open, a drizzle falling onto their hatchet faces. Half-smoked cigars are plunged into the sand and the fire is still billowing black smoke, like a tire fire. I’m careful not to wake them.