Matthew Dickerson: Alaskan rivers and first fish on flies
Neither Kira nor Tuesday had ever been fly fishing before. But there they were in Alaska taking a three-week environmental writing class taught by my friend David O’Hara (from South Dakota’s Augustana University). And there I was, helping teach the class.
Our first week was spent hiking, camping and writing at an elevation of 2,600 feet by a remote alpine lake in Chugach State Park. The week was spent camping a few feet above sea level in Kachemak Bay State Park where our remoteness was broken up by seals, otters and commercial fishing boats making daily trips past our seaside campsite. In between those experiences, we had a weekend to restock our food, enjoy the solid roof above us, and explore some of the natural ecology and human ecology of the Kenai Peninsula.
On Saturday, Dave took most of the students to visit the SeaLife Center in Seward. I opined that a few hours fishing a headwater of the peninsula’s namesake river at the top of the spawning run of sockeye salmon might also be a good experience for our students: a different way to learn something about important aquatic members of the ecosystem and the relationships between forest and stream, freshwater and marine.
Ptarmigan Creek is less than five miles long. It flows from Ptarmigan Lake into Kenai Lake, which drains into the Kenai River which flows another 50 down to the Cook Inlet of the Pacific Ocean. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of salmon swim back up that river, reversing the path of the water as they find their way into numerous tributaries. Although the salmon never reach Ptarmigan Lake—thanks to an impassable waterfall at its outlet — many do enter Ptarmigan Creek.
None of those salmon are yet in the river when I start up the trail with Tuesday, Josh (another of the students), and Rob (the third instructor), picking wild red currents and blueberries as we walk. It is still a week or two before the sockeye will make it this far upriver. Nonetheless, their presence is still felt. Centuries of spawning runs have brought tremendous amounts of nutrients upriver from the ocean to be spread around the landscape by the creatures who feed on those salmon — catching them alive or feasting on corpses of the spawned-out fish. It is not only the bears, eagles, otters, gulls and other birds and mammals who benefit. As the bears (and others) eat, digest and defecate, the nutrients get into the soil and to the trees, grass, bushes and flowers. I suspect one reason we have found such abundant and productive berries is the salmon-enriched soil. The rotting corpses of dead salmon also sink to the bottom of the stream, or get tangled in log jams providing nutrition for life on the stream bottom.
Nonetheless, with no salmon in the river now the resident trout must find other sources of food. And thus, as I look for a place to fish and a fly pattern to fish with, my eyes are drawn to the insects flying over the river. I see numerous small black midges, a smaller number of tiny mayflies, and even fewer little yellow stoneflies. Though I see them in the air, they are aquatic macroinvertebrates: They begin life on the stream bottom, hatch from eggs to live a year or two in an aquatic form dining on algae, stream-bottom detritus, or other insects, before transforming into adult winged insects that rise from the river to mate, lay more eggs, and die — much like the salmon that will soon return to this stream to start a new generation of offspring that they will never live to see.
One of the big spruce trees that once lined the riverbank — protecting the soil from erosion and helping shade the water, while drinking in unlimited water and taking advantage of extra sunlight and nitrogen — has fallen across the river. As important as these living riparian roots and canopy are to a stream, trees that occasionally die and fall from a mature forest into a river are also important. This particular spruce spans the entire creek. Water plunges over the top and forms a long pool behind it with several patches of softer water where the branches divide up the current. I have already caught a small but energetic rainbow trout below the surface when I begin to see trout feeding on the surface. This is a great opportunity for somebody to watch trout feed, and an equally good opportunity for a neophyte angler to catch a first trout by casting a dry fly on the surface and actually witnessing the strike. I call Tuesday down to the water and — although none of us have waders and the water is cold — I convince her that standing thigh deep in the river will be worth her while.
Tuesday has never caught a fish on a fly. I stand beside her and show her how to hold the rod. I show here where the fish are rising. They are only a few feet past the tip of the fly rod. She won’t need to cast. All she needs to do is flick the fly onto the water, and then try to control the drift with the rod tip so that the fly doesn’t drag unnaturally on the surface.
And that is precisely what Tuesday does. She does it only once, though, because on her first attempt a fat, wild, 14-inch rainbow trout strikes her fly. Instinctively, Tuesday lifts the rod and sets the hook perfectly, and suddenly she is connected to a wild native Alaskan fish.
In my instruction to Tuesday on how to cast, I didn’t think to explain how to actually play a fish if she hooks one. We have about two minutes of excited, on-the-job training. Namely: I shout at Tuesday what to do, and she tries not to panic at my frantic shouting. I’m worried she will lose the fish. She is worried she will break my rod. Neither of our fears are realized. Tuesday manages to lead that fat trout into the net. She does not need any instruction on how to smile and she gently holds the fish at the surface of the water while Rob takes a photo.
A week later, I stand in the waters of the Tanalian River in Lake Clark National Park. We have one more night under a roof at the Farm Lodge with hot showers before being shuttled 20 miles up Lake Clark for four more days of camping, writing and workshopping.
This time, it is Kira who stands beside me. Upriver of us, Rob and Josh have already both caught grayling in an eddy against the shore, but the eddy is too small for three people to fish. So I’ve waded out into the river with Kira. She is still waiting for her first fish. The river is swift and we have to be careful of our footing as we inch our way down toward less turbulent water where the river spills into the lake. I see the head of a fat grayling periodically breaking the surface of the water to suck up a fly. Dave has seen caddis flies under stream side rocks, so I tie on a caddis dry fly for Kira and instruct her on how to drift it down to the waiting fish.
Kira does. The fish hits. Kira misses the hook set. It’s tough to see the fly in the current, and the hook set has to be instantaneous. She tries again. The fish hits again. She misses. A third time, I help her hold the rod. The fish hits. We set the hook. The fight is on. I let go of the rod and let Kira play the fish while I get the net ready.
Kira, too, is full of smiles as she holds her first fish up for a photo with the spectacular Alaskan landscape behind her and all her classmates cheering from the shore. As soon as the fish is back in the water, she is ready for more. She needs no help catching her second and third grayling, and despite the warm and luxurious lodging and dinner awaiting her, she is the last one who wants to leave for the 30-minute walk back from the river. Back to writing. Back to class. Or, maybe, the important class just ended.
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