F+G ninjas, absinthe dreams, and our man Letherman stomping around southeast Alaska
by Troy Letherman
The milk-run from Anchorage, a rental car of marginal utility, the year’s first Rainier in cold packs behind the seat.
Wrong turns down dirt roads that feature more puddles than gravel, six shades of brown in every direction, the occasional skunk cabbage and an abrupt license-check from two Forest Service employees creeping around the woods like a couple of ninjas.
“What are you two doing out here,” the ranking ninja asks. Startled enough, I nearly snap my rod in the overhang from a nearby tree.
Flying kites, I want to say. I turn instead and try for my most pleasant smile. The guy’s wearing mirrored shades, though no one’s seen the sun down here since sometime last fall.
“Flying kites,” I say.
He’s apparently humorless, just as you’d suppose a fake ninja to be. I somehow get off without a ticket, probably because, you know, I wasn’t doing anything wrong in the first place. Either way, we can now restart our day.
Snow lingering along the banks, rain, numb fingers and three tries at a Surgeon’s Loop. A fly with all the least desirable qualities of the Hindenburg, a re-tie, another poor choice that’s chipping away at my confidence before I even gather the gumption to false cast.
Raspberry snuff, cigars, running out of beer by noon.
It’s fishing season in Alaska again.
Clambering over a fallen tree trunk the size of my first apartment and later grabbing onto devil’s club to keep from sliding down a high-walled bank, I wonder, along with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, “To what purpose, April, do you return again?”
It’s wet, it’s drab and it’s cold, and I’ve barely approached the creek. People I purport to care for are pissed at me for ditching my responsibilities again, and the saddest part is I hardly expect to find any fish.
But as our poet wrote of this typically wet and miserly hump-month, “Beauty is not enough.” Surely she means there’s more to fishing than the actual fish, and thus there’s more to April than catching something, which is what I’ve told all those folks who refused to give me a ride to the airport. In truth, of course, beauty would be just fine with me. That’s primarily because steelhead are beautiful. They’re why I’m here; they’re what make April different than May.
Other people, with other sporting interests, have things like warm-up runs, spring training and preseason games to get in shape. For the Alaska fly angler it’s winter one day and then steelhead the next. And Steelhead don’t suffer much in the way of trial efforts. Bungle the cast, lose touch with your drift, try to sneak by with a poor knot or make any of a hundred other tiny but fatal mistakes and that’s it—flushed fish.
This is as advanced as freshwater angling gets, and it occurs first, before there’s any time to properly prepare. Unless, that is, staring at an office wall while dreaming of tight lines and crimson sides counts as preparation. It’s what I seem to do most of the time from at least January on. What’s worse, I don’t entirely recall how I got to this point.
There is all that history for this type of fishing, of course. Even better, it’s a solely western history. None of that frumpy tweed and silk cravat business over here. No bullshit flies made from two dozen different materials; no private beats handed down through the generations, great water given over to some non-caster just because his great-grandfather was some sort of robber baron who had both the money and the sense to buy up a stream. No, what began with cane rods and silk lines on Northern California’s Eel River in the 1890s is now shooting heads and weighted flies on everything from the Kispiox to the Dean. What sent Joe Brooks deep into the Skeena system or led Zane Grey to “the cool green forests, the dark shade, the thundering rapids, and the wonderful steelhead of the Rogue” is certainly something special—but enough, heritage alone, to have me out here dripping next to a giant fern bank in the late-morning light of southeast Alaska? Probably not.
The places themselves are pretty special, too, though. Here, the temperate rainforests of Southeast present an ecological theme park filled with coastal streams winding through thick, twisted timber that begins at river’s edge, massive old-growth trees lording over the water, dark green moss blanketing their limbs. Towering mountains jag the horizon; glaciers fill the valleys. Nice, even through the rain, but on its own not enough to drag me this far this early in the year.
It must be the challenge, then—and steelhead are certainly challenging, both to catch and to find. The crapshoot nature of steelheading is even compounded in Southeast, where we’re mostly after small runs of fish in streams nobody knows much about. The weather is a challenge. Water conditions are fickle. The fish you do find frequently won’t eat.
A beautifully difficult thing, fishing for steelhead, but unless there is something more at work, the challenge itself would probably just be a whole lot of bother, and boredom, for very little reward. As someone once said, steelhead fishing isn’t one damn thing after another; it’s the same damn thing again and again.
I think about that, without irony, as I change to another fly, grab another beer.
The truth, in the end, is there’s no reason to wonder why I’m here, because I am here. Somewhere deep in the psychic recesses the choice has been made, and there appears to be little I can do about it. The rod is strung, the knots are good and the right fly—the only pure question of faith in this whole ordeal—has finally been found. I wade around the boulders, feel the cool water pushing against my waders for the first time in six months and adjust my grip against the smooth cork.
An uneasy, getting-to-know-you-again sort of back-cast to start things off. The beginnings of some rhythm. A little more line let out on the forward stroke. More rhythm.
Feeling good now.
My fly is stuck in the spruce behind me. My friend Chugach is laughing. The people I left at home still hate me.
I do love April, though, even if, as our bohemian poet noted, it “[c]omes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”