Standing knee deep in a silver salmon river, waves of fish pushing past my legs, I thought at first I was seeing things. But the apparition, coming into focus along the Tsiu riverbed a couple of miles upstream from the Gulf of Alaska, was real. First came a huge English setter, galloping up the empty sand beach in the fading sunlight. Moments later there appeared a fellow in blue designer fleece, with a dark beard and what looked like a crocheted tam-o-shanter on his head. He was jogging. The two disappeared over the dunes, leaving me alone again.
After days of traveling the 49th state, releasing more fish than I could count, I had decided on this last leg of the trip to take two silver salmon home. They lay maybe 40 yards away at the water’s edge, looking clean, hard and bright in the sunset. The jogger never came back. The dog did. I saw him vector off course and angle toward my fish. I know about dogs, and I started running.
The big setter reached the salmon first. I was closing fast and meant to fight. But before I could, the dog raised a hind leg and staked a liquid claim on both fish. Casting a look of mild interest in my direction, he then loped away, unimpressed by the fusillade of verbal abuse I fired after him. It’s a good thing fish are waterproof, I thought as I washed the salmon in the river.
None of this would have happened if I hadn’t gone exploring, but in retrospect, violated salmon and all, I’m happy I did. It’s rare that guides let you wander off on your own along an Alaskan river. In this open-shore country on the lower Tsiu, with the silver run just starting and the nearest willows miles away at camp, bears were not an issue. I had watched groups of fish moving upstream, disappearing in the channels, and was as excited to strike out to try to catch some of them as I was to buy some quality time alone.
Hiking upriver a couple of miles I found a widening where the flow spread and the current weakened. I wouldn’t call it a classic holding pool, but the fish did.
I could see their backs slow-rolling out in the shallow water, happy-looking fish now, and I had them all to myself. My hands were trembling.
These fresh-run babies still ate anything that looked like forage fish–blue and white, olive-white or all white. When the action slowed a bit I changed to a flary, downy fly with slab-sided epoxy head, huge spooky eyes and orange flash at the throat. A fish hit right away, ripping line that hissed as it tore through the water’s surface. It was a grand fish, but the new reel I was using chose that moment to lose all its drag and freeze up. Of course, the fly was the only one like it I had. I switched to a spare reel and let things settle down until the fish began rolling again. Then I tied on a foam-headed pink pollywog. It moved quietly in the slow current. I chugged it twice. A head came up, jaws open. The rascal disappeared with a beautiful kerploosh. Then there were more…and even more! Now I was laughing and talking aloud to the fish. It was wonderful.
Somewhere in the middle of all this the ceiling lifted and the St. Elias Range came out with cloud wisps streaking across its face, all blue, white and silver, which is how Alaska is colored so much of the time. Except that now there was the faint pink glow of sunset. And that’s when the nightmare dog and the jogger showed up like some retribution, or for the amusement of the fish gods for my excesses. After that I knew I was done. Besides, it was getting late and would be dark soon.
All the other anglers had been taken back to camp a while before on four-wheelers. I figured maybe the guides had forgotten me. So I shrugged into my pack, found a driftwood branch on which to carry my two salmon and started walking. It was a pretty heavy load altogether. The route the four-wheelers took was on the other side of the dunes along the gulf, but I stayed low along the river, half hoping my promised ride wouldn’t find me even though it would be a long walk back.
And I never did learn where the dog and jogger came from.