October 2nd, 2000

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

Close Shave

By Jim Clark, UK

Kukaklek Lake is fed by a small stream, un-named so far as I know, which cuts through a steeply sided valley with grassy river banks, liberally littered with outcroppings of large rocks. From the riverside the first 100 ft or so is heavy scrub with little distorted trees attempting pitifully to establish themselves before winter stunts their growth.

This is Alaska, this is fishing heaven.

I had been put down by plane in mid-morning on the tundra above the river, and was looking down the valley side onto the most beautiful piece of water imaginable. The idea was that I should fish my way downstream, spending a blissful day negotiating some two miles of stream and be picked up at about 6 o'clock on top of the opposite bank, where the Bear Cub, a light plane with wheels rather than the more usual floats, could land and collect me. The ease with which the local guides and pilots use their planes in this part of Alaska never fails to impress, they jump in and go just as we in Britain jump into our cars. They really have no choice though, there are no roads here. I was staying in Iliamna, a village about 150 miles west of Anchorage, with friends who run a fishing lodge. Their normal guests seem to be mainly jaded oil pipeline executives stoking the furnaces of resilience before venturing back into the world of international big business. I was the exception. Oh! How I was the exception!

The other fishermen could not understand why I would rather fish with a fly than with a bait-casting rod and a lure. The possibility that a fish might be so lightly hooked that it could escape seemed to horrify them. In any case,"those little bitty fly rods are too hard to use." I was quite looking forward to my day alone company is alright for a while, but . . .

Back to the day in hand. The arrangements seemed quite straightforward, and without further ado I waved off Larry, my host and pilot, and set off downstream. I easily found my way down to the river, trees and scrub proving no obstacle to an angler preparing to fish a stream which showed no evidence of ever having been fished before. There are so many streams like this in Alaska, and getting to them so impossible without a plane. It was entirely possible the ground my eager feet were treading had never felt the weight of a fisherman's foot, or indeed, any foot whatever.

The afternoon passed in a haze of pure pleasure. Rainbows of monumental greed lay in wait for my fly. I roasted a two pounder for lunch over a fire of driftwood and roots, all the others went back, perhaps twenty fish in the two to five pound class together with the occasional Arctic Char, a most beautiful fish, bright silver with the most startling orange fins, really a privilege to see in it's native habitat.

But the fabulous fishing is not the point of this story.

By five o'clock I had crossed the stream and had arrived at a point below the outcrop of white rock by which I was to await my pickup. I gazed up the slope and realised it was more like a cliff than the gentle valley side I had taken it to be, a very much steeper proposition than the easy way I had come down. Or maybe I was just tired, too much enjoyment can take it out of you!

However, 200 feet shouldn't take the hour I had in hand. As I bent into the task however, it became clear that going up after a warm day's fishing was very unlike coming down in anticipation! This slope was also rather more wooded than the other side, very hard going indeed!

By the time I had cleared the tree line I was sweating and blowing hard, wishing I was fitter, but made myself proceed by fixing my eyes on a distant tussock and muttering "when I get there I'll rest." The real secret of this method of self encouragement lies in one's determination to reach the chosen tussock and then say "just one more, then I'll rest." This worked for the first 100 feet or so , but then just clear of the trees, exhaustion took over. Hot, out of breath and with knees creaking, I at last had to stop and rest. I had a half hour to spare so time did not seem a problem. The sparse leaves of a little group of saplings kept the still warm sun off my face as I lit my pipe and leant back in relaxation. As I lay there, happy and regaining my strength, a strange smell assailed my nostrils, not tobacco, not sweat, not even feet eight hours in waders, just a oddly rancid smell, redolent of nothing I recognised. My thoughts drifted. The scenery was superb, the weather was almost tropical, a bonus for Alaska in July, the fisherman in me was replete. I changed position. I moved my right hand to a spot of greater comfort. Two things now happened simultaneously. My hand met something warm and soft and I located the source of the smell. Looking down I saw by my hand four small black objects not unlike miniature black puddings.

At a time like this reason floods the brain. Bear droppings! Still warm bear droppings! That little group of saplings was only twenty feet from where I lay. There was no other cover. Within seconds all became resolved in my mind. GO!

The last 100 feet of hillside was as a flat field. Encumbered as I was with rod, tackle bag, Barbour coat and wearing waders, fatigue was forgotten. I made the top of the hill in what seemed like mere seconds. Sebastian Coe would have been impressed.

Reaching the top I collapsed and took stock of the situation. I could see no sign of anything untoward, and felt the panic subside a little. A few more minutes and I could tell myself I had imagined it all and had got into a tizzy over nothing. Besides I could hear Larry's plane in the distance. In the circumstances I would overlook his being a little early.

Larry was not impressed by my story. He had seen a few bears that day, admittedly from the safety of the plane, but unless it is a female with cubs, Alaskans pay them little attention. When walking where bears may be, they just whistle, shout, or talk loudly to let the bears know they are there, reasoning that bears will usually avoid an approaching man. Usually!

Females with cubs are a very different kettle of fish altogether. They are unpredictable in the extreme and are inclined to be short tempered and very, very nasty indeed.

"We'll just have a looksee." said Larry as we pulled round over where I had been sitting not long before. "Let's see if we can spook your little old bear." His tone made clear that he felt it most unlikely there was a bear there at all. "Wrong sort of place for them," he said.

As he took the plane low over the saplings I pointed out to him, his tone changed a little. "Jeeze." he said. "We don't usually see that up here at this time of year." I looked down, and with mixed emotions of horror and justified satisfaction, watched with mouth open as out from my saplings ambled a very large Grizzly with two cubs gamboling at her heels.

"That could have been a mite tricky," said Larry laconically and thoughtfully. "With cubs in tow she could have been a trifle testy."

Bears can cover the ground faster than a man can run, a lot faster, and are totally fearless, yet this one appeared to have moved out of my way. It might have been the particularly pungent tobacco I smoked in those days, I will never know. I don't want to find out.

Anyway , the fishing was unsurpassed, but you will not be surprised that the day stays strongly in my memory as one never to be forgotten! ~ Jim Clarke


About Jim:

Jim Clarke

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, longer ago than he cares to remember, and on leaving school went into his family's business - Gunmakers and Fishing Tackle manufacturers. By the time he joined the firm it had become more retail than manufacturing , though the history and reputation of the company was somewhat patrician, which stood them in good stead in the face of the modern, retail only, fly-by-night businesses which proliferated in the fifties and sixties in the climate of leisure time explosion. A few years later, feeling somewhat stifled in a company run by father and two warring uncles, he left to take over an ailing gun maker in Chester, England. He was to stay there for thirty pleasant years, retiring some six years ago, ostensibly to have more time to fish. He had given up shooting, but in reality appears to have retired to garden, decorate and construct THINGS in the garden. He has, nevertheless managed to fish in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, with trips to Sweden and Alaska thrown in. You will find more of Jim's writing in our WorldWide, Europe section.


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