November 5th, 2001

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Catching Vs. Fishing

By Captain Scud Yates, Fort Walton Beach, FL

With heavy heart I write about such a mundane subject, fishing, when the country is reeling with the NYC attack and our recovery from it. But, our leaders want us to go ahead with life, so I will. I took a trip to south Alaska five days after the towers fell, because I could not think of anything else to do to help. I did start a beard that horrible day just in case someone wanted an undercover cleric.

I had never fished for salmon before but got invited by an old friend, Ardie, from my former Air Force life to do just that. He rounded up three other former AF buddies and led his yearly weeklong jaunt to Prince of Wales Island, just a floatplane flight from Ketchikan, Alaska. What I got into was a fantastic adventure, especially for a "shorts and flip flop" wearing professed bonefishing saltwater specialist.

Getting there and back via airlines is a story all by itself while the US was deciding how to re-start and protect air travel. Many flights were changed and some of us spent long hours waiting to get strip searched and delayed again. All the searching and stripping was being done by idiots of the lowest order.

It took me two days to get there. I did get to re-up with some great friends while staying over in Seattle. All five finally joined at the bar in Ketchikan airport waiting for the fog to lift so we could take the floatplane the last leg. Beers are expensive up there and when the weather lifted we could have flown without help. I got my first introduction to Alaskan women too. The bartenderess had a better beard going than I did.

Arrival

Arrival on the island was late PM and a mad dress and dash to the river started the fishing. Flying over showed the island as a rock island (the largest in the USA) covered half with forest and clear-cut where forest had been. We over flew the prime fishing river going down to Fireweed Lodge with the partial view through the clouds. It looked pristine. We checked in, got a SUV rental and drove a mile to a fishing hole. Walking through the forest a couple hundred yards from the road started to dispel "pristine." The smell is what hit you first. Then the sight of fish in the many stages of life's end made "pristine" fade even more.

This particular river is the host to three distinct types of salmon runs each summer and they do not start and end running at the same time. The Coho or silver salmon we were after is the last to run. All three types overlap and stragglers of first type, chum or dog salmon, which had started over two months ago, were dead, dying, mating and with some still arriving. Emphasis would be on the dead and dying. The second type, pink or humpback salmon, started a month after the chum so they were a little less in the dead stage, heavy on the dying and mating and still arriving in droves. Our target had been running less than a month and just getting into their heaviest arrival flow.

With that said, the scene standing on the river looked like the basement in the movie 'Texas Chain Saw Massacre,' only it was fish not people this time. Dead fish were in the path beside the river where bears had eaten the good parts, in every bush in the river, dying fish were swimming along like ghosts in the slower water and lying on their sides in the shallows breathing their last gasps. Mating fish were chasing each other off gravel beds popping eggs and sperm at each other and the fresh arrivals were crowding the open water going up stream to wherever they came from a couple years ago to do the same as all the other early arrivals.

A single fish lasts about a month after leaving the ocean so the mating-through-death part of life is rather short part of a two to three year life span. Among the salmon were also sea-run dolly varden trout that come up to mate and return to the ocean. They catch a meal on salmon eggs while fooling around, while the salmon are all through eating in this life. The trout are eating while the salmon only bite out of instinct or from being bothered. Heck, you can catch something on any cast, as the fish are almost thick enough to walk on, if you just set the hook at first bump. Of course, you may snag one in the butt and that is not an easy fight. After seeing this whole act I don't think bears are as talented as Discovery channel insisted. I did grab fish by the tails as they passed and had to be careful to not to step on them while wading.

After taking in the vista we took to wading up to our hips until standing in front of a deep cuts in the river and tossed our flies into the fish filled holes. Being a quick-handed feel-all-bumps fisherman I started what was to be a long string of sticking everything that was swimming. The river was about twenty yards wide and the five of us had it to ourselves even though we were within a mile and half of the lodge and the small town. I was so busy landing humpies (pink) and almost dead chum that I did not notice that the experts, Ardie, Skip, and Gary were getting some nice Coho along with a lot of the "trash" fish.

The pinks were pretty fresh out of the ocean, which was only about a mile downstream from us, and ran usually in the two to four pound size with, sometimes, a lively seven-pounder. They do not jump but did some cutting and running around when hooked. The chum/dog were mostly long in the tooth but with a few fresh ones. These ran large, up to twenty-five pounds and did little running just a lot of pulling, not a jumper in the bunch. The Coho, in this river, were all new on the scene. When they got hooked they came out of the water like a baby tarpon and kept up an aerial act of up to a half dozen jumps, triple flips included. They seemed rather uniform in size all between ten to fifteen pounds. A coho is a beautiful fish to chase, look at and catch.

After I had dozens of fish caught and released and stopped long enough to watch Ardie hook and land a couple of coho, the art of getting to the "right" fish started to dawn on me. We were using sinking lines and throwing up river to let the fly sink down to the coho. The coho are the biggest fresh fish in the river and take the prime resting spots at the bottom of the holes under the banks, trees and cuts. If you let the fly flow through the trash fish and only set hard when it feels like a fish is biting it, you have a 50/50 chance of catching something in the mouth. You are using barbless hooks and cannot keep any foul hooked fish so learning the "art" is necessary. If you got it down deep enough you might have the right fish too. Ardie had a shooting line with tips he could change out easily for any speed and depth he wanted. Skip and Gary had the same setup but some great feel too, as they were good at getting the right fish and often. Dave was a first timer too and joined me in giving a wide variety trash fish "E" ticket rides. The "catching" part was really there and I could see, but not do, the "fishing" part yet.

Dave started our bad run of equipment destruction on this day when he broke his pole on some big fish. The trick used to get the wrong fish off the line, without backing out of the hole, was to strip in enough line to let it go and flop the pole over your shoulder grabbing the fly line and then hand-over-handing the unwanted catch in for release. If you got a nice coho you backed out of the hole and landed him with a net in the shallows behind us. The "hand landing" work could be tough with a lively humpie or a big chum. Skip took a couple of direct hits below the belt warning the rest of us to take care. The method could also fail with the fish bursting away and catching you with the pole in an awkward hold. This is what got Dave and broke his rod in half. I should have taken better notes on this then.

Skip - one in hand

We fished for only an hour and half as the sunset leaving just enough time to make the dinner hour at the lodge. There were ten nice sets of coho fillets in the box for packaging. I had gotten two of them mostly by accident not feel.

Lesson for the day: nine-foot leaders were not needed, you only cut the hell out of your fingers trying to get bad fish off. You needed to start with a three-foot leader so you could hold onto the line while unhooking. If you should break a lot of fish off, especially the chum, and when the leader gets down to a foot remaining, replace it. That is why you tied a hundred and fifty flies for this trip.

I loaned Dave my nine-weight rod the next morning and I took out the ten-weight. The island has many rivers and we had fished what Ardie called his 'honey hole' that first night. Next morning early we headed to another river where we could 'sight cast' to the fish. The drive was past the honey hole, where a couple of SUVs were parked, and then a half-hour over a pass to a river running to the other side of the island. The walk in was a bit longer through the same rain forest to a river that was very low. We could see the fish and stood in a foot of water to fish. "Fishing" was required but there were few good fish as the river was so low no new fresh ones had a chance to get up it. The few coho we got were slightly reddish on their sides meaning they had been out of saltwater for a while and would not be good to eat. I caught many fish I cast to so I felt better about not having the feel for the "catching" in deep crowded water. Locals said it had not rained in a couple days and this place would be better later when new water and fish arrived.

We headed back to the honey hole. There were a few of the others still in the hole when we got there and we dinked around waiting for them to limit (six a day) and leave. Once in, the catching commenced. The coho and humpies came in waves up the river and one indication that the big fish were coming was the humpies busting up the river getting out of their way. If you had a hook in the water when the hundreds of humpies went boiling past, you would have to get another one off your hook. The warning was to yell "humpy wave" if you were the first to see it so you could get the hooks out.

I got two more this day and started to figure out the 'feel' of a biting fish. I stopped early as the ten-weight rod, already damaged from the last tuna outing, ended up starting to come apart again. I did the net handling for a bit and then entertained the brothers with a little river diving demonstration.

There were two rocks in the river behind us fishermen and I managed to trip on one in the thigh deep water and upending nicely. While attempting to figure out which end was going to float first, the air filled waders or my head and skillfully keeping directly over the slippery rock, I had the gulls doubled over trying to not puke up their latest meals. Skip was nearest and decided I was not going to die before he laughed his ass off too. He had his hands full or he would have gotten a picture of my "dinner plate" sized eyes. I was pretty wet and cold so went back early. I did some pole fixing and came back for the guys at the end of the day. They came out carrying 17 fish this day. The rain started on this first full day and never ended on this trip.

Lesson of the day: watch the evening beer intake as Ardie leaves early and the truck was 'close' when all five are dressed for wading. Also, protect your rods. There is only a finite number available on the island. Also, swimming in waders is tough even in baby pool depth water.

When at the lodge, a teamwork effort in the 'packaging factory' got the filets washed, cut to dinner size, vacuum packed and laid on a rack in a walk-in freezer. It was less than a two-beer half-hour act the way the old heads ran the show.

If the fish quota of seventy pounds each was to be reached, the limit had to be caught a couple of the days. We headed to the honey hole again only to find it loaded with folks; three car loads this time. We tried to go to another place but the road was closed and we went back to an upstream spot from the honey hole. After catching only humpies we visited a private hatchery and got a tour. The guys there eased my mind about not releasing fish when he stated the Coho run was already over the goal and capacity of the this river. They were into processing fish for sale and not just making new fish. We then went back to the honey hole.

The others loaded up early and we moved in. It had started heavily raining the night before so the comfort level was, at least for me, going to poop. It had been overcast the whole time and around 50 to 55 degrees, but now the rain came down, on and off and sometimes hard. Nobody seemed to mind but me and I could feel the flip-flop tan lines on my feet fading away. We took over the river as the other guys cleaned their full limits behind us. We started catching.

I had my nine-weight back as Dave was using one of Ardie's favorite poles under treat of death if he broke it. The fishing was slow but picking up as the river started to rise. I was at the top of our known 'good' spots and a single guy came in and asked if he would bother us fishing above us. Of course, we said 'no problem at all' knowing we had the good spots. He stood back and tossed beautiful fifty foot casts into some holes up near the far bank and started landing one after the other; mostly coho. I inched up his way to watch as I liked the method (most of our casting was 20 to 30 feet). He invited me up near him and we talked and he showed me what he was seeing and throwing at. He could see the black fins in some minor holes we had not used before. The fish were not holding there so much as passing through and "showing" as they did. He was using steelhead flies. I could easily throw that far and started working beside him, with his blessing, and started catching on to both seeing them and feeling them bite.

Limited out I caught two big ones and walked each downstream to get the net, missing the rocks carefully, as I had already taken another spill this day like the one before and on the same damn rock. The other guys were still there and got in on the show. The third one I landed without the net to avoid the long walk and on the fourth, a real big one, managed to get him to the shore and have him do a late sprint when I had the tip of the rod near the trees. I was over confidant and this one got me wrapped in the line and trees and the tip of the rod broke. I was now the king of broken equipment and out of big rods. I managed to seem blasť about it but was embarrassed for the second time this day, having only received a 3.5 on my second dive. I later borrowed Gary's back-up rod and went back to the long casts and caught some more. We limited out that day and packed up thirty nice fish.

Lesson of the day: don't walk in the river where the damn rock is. Also, the line cuts from the first day do not heal well in this water. Seawater is bad for infection but this 'fish' soup is really bad. The hands were pretty sore.

The Fireweed Lodge (fireweedlodge.com) is very nice and on a bay with access to the sea. Our kind of fly fishing is secondary to the lodge and only keeps it opened up a couple weeks extra each season. Bob Anderson and his daughter Jodie run it and live down it the lower forty-eight during winters. It is a log cabin building with hotel rooms off the sides and a big dining room/restaurant. Unfortunately, they have a big screen TV and a million channels. Bad for this trip as the 24 hour-a-day ground zero coverage with breaks for Mariner's games was a downer. The food is wonderful and you eat watching the 12 foot tides change the looks of the bay out the full wall of windows. At low tide the bears, sea gulls and eagles fight over fish in the flats a couple of hundred yards away showing only at low tide. Seals are there on all tides taking chunks out of fish you see later smarting in the river.

There is a drying room to put all the soaked gear in at the end of the day and a hot tub for the soaked bodies. At least you start out dry each morning.

The "processing" area is a clean facility where you cut, wash and pack, not clean the fish. The three vacuum machines and two giant walk-in freezers make the job very easy. For a small charge per pound they will even do all this for you.

I took off one afternoon and watched Bob and Jodie clean and process some big halibut we had asked him to find for us. They were not fishing them at this time, as all the boats were stored for the winter. Down on the dock I watched the first of the dozen 20 to 30 pound fish filleted by a master. Bob could get all the meat and do a fish in two minutes. It was still raining and a half-hour was going to get me wet again. Jodie walked up just then and in a blur did the same cleaning in about forty seconds flat. Bob played with one last fish as she worked through the last half dozen. Bob says they cut up about 350,000 pounds of king salmon and halibut a season and Jodie (22 years old) is the head fish chopper. She will be missed when she leaves next season to run her own business. There ended up to be 133 pounds of fillets. I got to help with the packaging and was probably in the way but they were nice enough not to say so. Jodie seemed idle waiting on my part sometimes.

The day I took the afternoon off started with us going back to the "too low" river because of the rain. It was "too high" this time and we aborted as even the ones that went into the water backed out. It was too dangerous and fishing too tough. We drove all over the place looking for other new rivers to jump into but ended up going back to the lodge, where I jumped off, and the rest of them went back to take ten more fish from the honey hole. We had all the fish we needed, with the halibut, to fill the seventy-pound boxes. For that day I did not break anything and did little fishing. Lesson: Don't stand too near Jodie working with a knife in her hands as you could lose body parts.

The island has many rivers so we took off the next day to go where even Ardie had never gone before. He had plenty of maps so I navigated while we careened off on everything from good black top roads to logging paths. We did find a great fishing hole just below a falls. The path in was through wetlands and was newly made raised wood planking on poles set by the park service. One of the workers said a helicopter was going to bring in some more planks and we would have to stay at the river while it was flying around. We had about three hours to fish before it was to arrive. The walk in was a half-mile through a beautiful forest. This part of Alaska gets the most rain in all the USA, including Hawaii. The trees are pine types but the plants are jungle types with large wide leaves. Deer and black bear are everywhere but not tame. They are both hunted so don't like people.

I am the slowest walking and got to the falls last. Fish were jumping up the falls like you see on TV. All four of the guys were rigging up so I climbed above the falls to be alone. I fished for an hour out of sight of the others without catching a thing. Ardie climbed up to see if I was pouting or had fallen in again. He stated that they were getting one every cast and I could join if I wanted. I thought he was lying but followed after a bit.

All four of them were waist deep twenty feet from the shore throwing 15 to 25 foot casts to the swirling pools downstream from the rocks below the falls. All four were fighting fish and fish were bouncing their way up the falls in the background. All fish seen or caught on this day were coho.

It looked crowded so I tried to go below to where another falls was supposed to be. After a half-hour of searching and not finding any more good looking pools I went back to join in the fun. I got beside the rest and started "catching" again. I think all five of us were hooked up at one time. We left and got out before the airborne assault with many fish having been caught. I got at least twenty myself and I missed an hour of the catching. The borrowed rod from Gary sustained a broken tip so I cemented the 'prime destroyer' title. Ardie also managed to break his favorite rod with a fish taking him under a log when he thought it was all through fighting. I had the feeling he did not do that often or maybe never had. He was not all that happy but never shows too much emotion except when all of us are hooked up and the lines are wrapped around everybody. Then he laughs at us. Dave had purchased a rod from the local trading post so Ardie had a backup but not with him.

Lesson of the day; surgical tape covered by duct tape covers all the infected holes in the fingers very well and stopped all pain. Also, learn this earlier next time and have a better time.

We stopped at two other rivers in various stages of fish runs but did not find another "catching" spot on this day. We saw lots of the island this day, but with the rain could not see too much of the beauty that must be there. Many hours in the packed truck and no fish to clean made for a great party night. We decided to start out late the next day, six instead of five, adding to the fun.

Flies for the trip

The last day was short for me. The honey hole was open when we passed so we turned in again. I was down to the six-weight rod I would need when I got to my sister's in the states, so I tried for dollies, very carefully. After an hour or so and no fish on my part except more humpies, I quit. Dave needed to go back to the lodge for a biological so we went together. Dave borrowed my waders to try the river without the 50-degree water around his jewels for the first time this week. His, waders that is, had leaked the whole time. I read the book "Deliverance" to get myself ready to re-enter Southern society again. The guys did one last day catching and releasing more of all the fish types. I did without more breaking and the wet/cold easily. It had been a great week.

Observation of the week; one of Ardie's, at the last snap of the last suspender of your waders at the end of all the dressing up, every bodily function is in need of happening, now.

More on the Alaskan women: The ones that loaded and unloaded the vans and planes on the return trip would pick up two fish boxes at a time and carry them to the plane and throw them in. They were not really big women and not petit either, just hard working strong ones. Bob's Jodie is a good-looking woman and is like these. The man she chooses will be a real man, and lucky. He had better be sturdy.

As it started, the trip home was eventful with the plight of the nation and airlines at full "correction" mode. At each airport "everyone was getting on every horse and riding everywhere" trying to get something to be more secure. The best story out of it came from watching one guy trying to train a new lady on how to search through baggage. While going through Ardie's fish box and coming to the end of the exhaustive search, Ardie asked her to put the halibut in the middle upon repackaging, as it was more expensive meat. At the end of the lesson the guy turned to the new girl and asked her what was the most important thing she learned. There had been many major things taught, some oteric, like assessing the terrorist's attitude and demeanor while asking simple questions. She stated the most important was "putting the halibut in the middle."

Part of the reason of going on this trip was to see if this kind of fishing might be part of Hugh Smith's and my future customer's travels. It could be but is really quite a change from worrying about SPF 15 or 30 and sun damage to the skin where we usually go. Adding twenty minutes to dress for a day of rain standing in 50 degree water full of fish is hard to do after getting used to Mexico and the salt flats. I felt like I had finally gone to the place people have been telling me to get my head out of all my life; "where the sun never shines."

I hope to do this again. It was a wonderful experience thanks to Ardie and his friends. He did say, 'if I brought a crowd up, I had better not overlap with him and crowd up the honey hole.' Sorry Ardie, that secret is out, but I will do as you wish. I hope to go with this gang again though. ~ Capt. Scud Yates, Oct. 01


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