Out of Bristol Bay

I have guided anglers into many more salmon than I can remember. I’ve stood at tidewater and cast to fish as they entered river systems. But I had never seen salmon cruise a beach within range of an average fly caster. I spent most of the next day in knee-deep seawater casting to packs of pinks rushing past in the surf. The fish aren’t quite so aggressive in the ocean as they are in the river, but they still eat, and it’s sight fishing, watching the chase, the attack.

That afternoon I saw my first silver salmon of the trip. It was leading a group of pinks through the waves, its back glowing green, tail etched with black. My excitement interfered with my cast, and the fly landed well to the side of the fish and off angle, so that, when stripped, it jerked along his side instead of in front of him. As soon as the fish saw that marabou monstrosity, he turned off course, inhaled it, and carried my backing out to sea.

The fishing continued to be so good all week that to describe it in detail would be tedious. The marketing slogan for the camp is “500 Million Fish, 100 Thousand Bears, and You, with One Fly Rod.” When I asked Russ, the camp owner, where he got the statistics, he said he contacted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and asked for estimates about bear and freshwater fish populations in the state. The bear number was easy, as those species are closely tracked and managed, but the biologist balked at the fish count.

We loaded back into helicopters and explored nearby drainages so thick with silver salmon that, after a couple of hours, catching them began to feel routine.

“I have no idea.”

Russ worked on him. “Yeah, I don’t need an exact figure or anything. Just a general idea, your best guess.”

This was a biologist, not a writer or an advertising agent. He didn’t do guesses. He did estimates based on corroborated data. Though Russ was once an engineer with a similar affinity for objectivity and numeric precision, he’s spent enough time in Alaska to accept a touch of romantic representation. He did some Google searching and settled on 500 million. The slogan conjures a strong image, and one that accurately captures how I felt much of the time I was there, regardless of veracity.

We hiked up the river valley and caught Dolly Varden in slow pools below spawning salmon. We took a boat into the bay and threw heavy sinking-tips to cod and small halibut. We anchored on kelp beds and caught black rockfish on flies until we got bored. We loaded back into helicopters and explored nearby drainages so thick with silver salmon that, after a couple of hours, catching them began to feel routine. The fishing was so consistent and so excellent that I found myself doing exactly what I often suggest to others and usually fail to do: tucking my rod under my arm, looking around, and appreciating where I was.

Despite the scenery, the wildlife, and the fishing, my favorite hour of the trip was musical. As the setting sun lit clouds hugging the ridges, the guides worked their fretboards with cracked and callused fingers, leaving space for solos and vocal improvisations. On the tidal flat below, bears pulled salmon from pools and eddies. A sow lay on her back and let her cubs suckle. Birds glided overhead, and short-tailed weasels hid in the surrounding grass, hoping for food scraps. The assembled guests broke into applause and then rushed for their cameras, hoping to catch a sliver of the scene to take back to Houston, San Antonio, Boston, or in my case, Montana.

We were all hoping to hoard some remnant sublime moment. A few days later, all of us guests would leave this remote valley, but these men would remain for another month of 14-hour days. Running a fishing camp in an environment as harsh as it is breathtaking is hard work; guitars and music provide necessary distraction.

But the concert wasn’t for our benefit, and I felt a sense of intrusion, like catching someone through a lit window dancing alone across a room. I envied them some, but mainly I felt gratitude to be there, to be listening to them, and seeing the bay stretch out beyond. 

Miles Nolte misses his summers in Alaska, but Montana isn’t a bad alternative. More of Derek DeYoung’s art can be seen at www.derekdeyoung.com