Thursday, May 10, 2012


I’m confused.  I grew up learning that Texas is the biggest state, and there is nothing outside of Texas that is bigger or worth going to see.  Yet I know I saw things that weren’t in my Texas schoolbooks when I went fishing in Alaska. 

I flew to Juneau, Fairbanks, and then Anchorage for business meetings in August one year, and I know I spent more time in that airplane than it takes to cross Texas.  After the meetings were over I spent some time at a fishing lodge.  I saw whales, and I know Texas doesn’t have anything that big.  I caught fish that were sooooo big that…oops.  Well, it’s hard being a Texan or a fisherman without bragging, and it’s doubly hard when one is both a Texan and a fisherman.  Add to that the problem of being a Texan bragging about the size of something outside of Texas, and maybe you can understand my confusion.  But see them I did.  And catch them I did (well, maybe not the whale).

The trip was unusual in that I had more vacation time stored up than the company normally allowed, and I was in Alaska at the right time of year for fishing.  I had been to Alaska before on business trips, but either I didn’t have enough space in my schedule to go fishing, or it was just too darn cold for me.  I never enjoyed standing in water with chunks of ice the size of my car floating by.

In Anchorage I crossed paths with a lodge owner/outfitter who had flown into the city for some supplies or something.  We talked for a couple of hours about the fishing near his lodge, and I decided to go for it.  He put together a fishing package for me that he believed would turn a Texan into an Alaskan.  And he came close.

The first day we would fly to his lodge where I would get outfitted for the two trips I would take.  The first trip would be for halibut in the saltwater, the second trip would be for salmon or Dolly Varden on one of the rivers.  These trips would be four days each, and there would be a one-day break in between them.  A simple plan and the outfitter would fill in the details.

We tossed my things into his plane and I climbed into the co-pilot’s seat beside the outfitter.  As I buckled in my first thoughts were not about the dented pontoons.  My first thoughts were not about the rusty patches I saw on one of the wings and the tail.  I didn’t even think about the cracked windows.  My first thoughts concerned my entire life flashing before my eyes. 

It took a few tries to get the prop to turn over, and when it did, the noise from the engine was deafening, and the plane shuddered and shook like a California earthquake.  The outfitter handed me a set of earphones that helped eliminate the noise, and we could talk to each other through the attached microphone.  But I wasn’t listening, and I wasn’t talking.  I was trying to figure out how to open the plane’s door and jump before we were too high off the ground.

I didn’t figure out the door in time, and I must have given some indication of my intentions, because we took off rather abruptly.  Most airplanes taxi to the runway, and then begin a long takeoff.  We were airborne before reaching the runway.  Almost immediately we did a hard right and flew up into a cloudbank.  I didn’t see anything but gray for three long, long hours.

Ultimately we descended through the clouds to land the plane on an incredibly blue lake in a sea of luminous green trees.  We taxied up to a pier where someone lassoed a spike sticking out of the side of the plane, pulled us in, tied us up, and stood there grinning like he had caught the big one.  We tossed things out onto the pier where the grinning person loaded them onto a big wagon attached to a three-wheeled ATV.  And we walked to an amazing log-style building in the middle of nowhere.

I don’t know what it took to build that big house, not to mention the eight or ten large cabins lodged in the woods just steps from the lake, but somehow someone did it, and I was ready to take full advantage of the comforts I imagined were awaiting me.

I stepped into the main room of the big house and looked at the fireplace at each end, found a huge overstuffed leather chair and sat down.  It took about half an hour to realize I had gone from hell to heaven.  At least I would have to wait ten more days before I climbed back into that plane.  Uh-huh.

I traveled everywhere with at least one fishing rod, and this trip was no exception.  Drifuss, the outfitter, looked at my equipment and declared it fit to be used only on those weenie fish like they have in Texas.  It seemed to me this Alaskan had never been to Texas, so I just kept my mouth shut.  He said he would put together the proper gear for tomorrow’s fishing trip for halibut.  About an hour later he called me to go over the things he had gathered for my use.

First he provided me with the proper clothes.  After I tried on a few heavy jackets, thick pants, and heavy boots, then added a thick wool cap and big gloves, he was satisfied I would be warm.  Then he handed me a sixty-pound tackle box, and he followed it with a fishing pole as thick as my wrist.  It was about seven feet long and had rollers instead of guides.  The reel was made from two truck rims welded together, and had a telephone pole for a handle, and instead of monofilament, the reel was spooled with quarter-inch nylon rope.  Wait—that’s a Texan talking.  But it was bigger and heavier than anything I had ever seen before.

After everything was prepared, I had a dinner of some kind of a steak.  I didn’t know at the time what kind of steak it was, but I was certainly impressed by the size of the thing.  I once ate a 72-ounce steak at a place near Amarillo, Texas, and I admit it was more meat than I preferred to eat at one sitting.  However, this steak was much bigger.  I thought it was to be divided among the several men at the table, but each of the other men was also staring at something similar.  And that was only the beginning.  There was the giant potato, the onion rings, mac and cheese, rolls, gravy, pies, cake, and the list goes on.  Someone asked about a salad, but we found out that was the purpose of the onion rings.  The ketchup doubled as salad dressing.

Then off to bed.  Feathers.  It was a real feather bed.  Well, a real feather mattress, real feather pillow, and a real bearskin top cover.  The room had everything the best hotels could hope for in the realm of luxury.  I had doubts about ever leaving this room to go fishing.  My thoughts wandered toward living the rest of my life in this luxurious room.  My thoughts were transported to a level of ecstasy reserved for kings in palaces. I should have listened to my thoughts.  Mind you, the fishing was great, but that room…

Breakfast was on the table at five the next morning.  I had another steak (much smaller this time), biscuits the size of my plate, fried potatoes, and four different kinds of gravy.  There were stacks of pancakes, baked fish, ham, bacon, cheeses, gallons of orange and apple juice, and not a drop of coffee to be found.  WHAT???  NO COFFEE!?? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooo  Apparently Drifuss was supposed to bring it back from Anchorage, but he brought me instead.  I got more than a few glares from the other men.

Drifuss instructed us to go out to the pier where our gear had already been loaded onto the boat.  Four of us headed to the pier to get in the boat, while the other three men just hung their heads and tried vainly to stifle the laughter.  Arriving at the end of the pier we looked around for the boat, but the only boat we saw was that plane.  We thought the boat may have been taken somewhere for more fuel or something, but Drifuss informed us that the boat we were getting on was indeed the plane.  NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooo

It was a scramble to get to the back seats where we could somewhat ignore what was happening around us.  But I was too slow and again I was sitting next to Drifuss in the co-pilot’s seat.  Until yesterday I had never landed on water, and it was actually fun, but taking off from water is another story, especially in this plane.  Again the prop didn’t want to turn over, and this time there were four men agreeing with it.  But Drifuss had the stronger will, and the plane began to roar and shake.  The water had some low waves, which added to the fun of our takeoff, and the plane was overloaded, which meant we made five or six tries up and down that lake before climbing into the air.  By then my life had quit flashing before my eyes.

About two hours later we landed on a glass smooth inlet from the ocean and taxied up to an old wharf where a strangely familiar man with a big grin lassoed the spike on the side of the plane.  We tossed things out onto the wharf where the grinning man loaded them onto a big wagon attached to a three-wheeled ATV.  We followed him about a hundred yards or so to a very nice fishing boat that would be our home for the next few days.  Within the hour we were at sea, and soon after that we heard the sound of a struggling plane overhead.  None of us even looked up.  We knew what that noise was about.

We were shown where we would bunk, given a few instructions, and told that meals would depend on what we could catch.  Meanwhile, there was always coffee in the galley.  I don’t know what the captain said after that, and I’m certain the other men knew as much as I did, because getting to the galley was far more important than anything else the captain had to say.  Five or six cups later, the captain resumed his short speech about safety and some other issues.

By early afternoon we were sitting on a perfectly smooth ocean preparing to drop our lines into the water for halibut.  Captain Rafe told us that the halibut are usually active here and to expect some good action, but the bottom where they live is many hundreds of yards down, so it will be a long slow tiring process of bringing them up.  Be prepared.

I dropped my line and watched as the line on the reel quickly disappeared.  About the time I thought I would run out of line, I reached the bottom.  The leather pads I had on my thumbs to slow the line speed were so hot from the friction, I thought my thumbs were cooked to well done.  Once the reel stopped spinning, I pulled off the leather pads, took up the slack, raised my weight a few feet from the bottom and waited.  And waited.

After half an hour one of the crewmembers suggested I jig the line a bit and see if it would stir up some action.  I tried it a few times and felt a small tug.  And I mean small.  At that distance I wasn’t certain of anything happening on the bottom.  I told the crewmember about the small tug, and he got excited.  “Pull it up!  Pull it up!”

I started cranking the line back onto the reel, and at first I didn’t really feel anything other than the 5-pound lead weight and the weight of the line, but soon I began to feel something all right.  It was my muscles.  What goes down must come up.  So I cranked.  I had reeled in about two hundred yards of line before I knew with certainty I had hooked a fish.  Now along with the lead weight and the weight of the line, I had the weight of a fish that didn’t have any desire to come to the surface and visit me.

I cranked for another hour.  By now even my hangnails were hurting.  I kept cranking in spite of the tears running down my face.  I lost feeling in my hands for a while from the pain.  I cranked another hour.  And another hour.  I thought I saw my life flash before my eyes for the third time in two days, but this time the flash was a fish.

Actually it was a big halibut I was seeing.  Captain Rafe and the crewmembers were prepared with large gaffs and a wench to bring it on board through an opening in the railing, and although it was a struggle, that fish landed on the deck of the boat.  They tied a rope around its tail and hoisted it up on a boom.  (I may not be using the proper terms here, but you get the idea).  It was bigger than me.  The scales on the boom stopped at 304 pounds.  And that was one ugly fish besides.  How could a fish be so dark on one side, so white on the other side, and have both eyes on the same side?

I tried to get to my bunk to lie down, but the deck was closer.  It wasn’t long before someone noticed me, and soon I was back in the galley with a crewmember helping me get some feeling back into my arms.  I rested there for almost an hour before moving about some, and when I returned to the deck, the big halibut was still hanging by its tail, and the men wanted pictures.  Photographs were taken, the fish was lowered into a freezer, and I was lowered onto my bunk.

The following morning I discovered I wasn’t the only one recovering.  One of the other men with my party had also hooked a halibut over three hundred pounds and, like me, was paying a big price for being out of shape.  We waited until the third day before fishing again, and this time we fished much shallower, and definitely not for halibut. 

It was on this third day a large Orca, or killer whale, surfaced near our boat.  The captain stopped the motor, and we floated and watched this magnificent creature and several members of its family play around us.  According to the captain, we were being treated to a rare display by these leviathans.  This isn’t their normal territory, but they do show up every two or three years, and when they do they like to show off for the boats in the area.

On the fourth day the whales were gone, and we quit fishing early to travel back to the wharf to meet up with our plane.  All four of us had caught halibut, but the two smartest men caught several smaller ones instead of one big one.  They kept their fish, but I gave mine to the crew, and they had it portioned out among them rather quickly.  Subsistence living is not easy, and every little bit helps.

Reluctantly we climbed back into the plane to go back to the lodge.  Again I was in the front, but this time it wasn’t so bad.  The plane was coaxed into starting, and we were in the air on the first attempt.  Still, there was this thing about my life flashing before my eyes, but I was used to it by now.

There was one day of down time back at the lodge before we went fishing for Dolly Varden.  The salmon run had just ended for all practical purposes, but the Dolly Varden were moving and Drifuss knew the place to take us.  I was afraid to ask if it involved a plane ride.  Of course it did.

We landed on a long narrow lake less than an hour away from the lodge where three of us this time were dropped off along with the grinning man who was to be our guide and cook.  He had us wait by the edge of the lake while he disappeared into the woods for a while, and when he returned it was with a three-wheeled ATV with a wagon behind it.  We loaded up the gear onto the wagon and followed him up a small trail to a cabin.  A nice cabin.  Very nice.

It was built for up to ten people, basically two groups of four plus a guide for each group.  And it was well apportioned.  Quickly we settled into our individual rooms, and prepared to go fishing—right after lunch.

I’ll stop calling him the grinning man.  His name was Smiley.  Really.  Actually it was his last name, but he used it as his handle.  And he could cook.  It seems that he should have been a chef somewhere, but here he was cooking and guiding in Alaska.  He slapped together a quick lunch that I would have called a full dinner anywhere else.  Then he gave us some instructions about fishing in competition with the bears.  And a .357.

The bears weren’t usually a problem in this area, he told us, but don’t trust them to just wave “hello” and go their way.  They are actually rather shy, and the bears will normally go somewhere else if they hear you coming, so make noise, it won’t scare the fish away.  To help with the noise, each of us was given a three-wheeled ATV to use, although we couldn’t travel very far with them.  About a mile or so in each direction the lake became a stream again, either inflowing or outflowing, and the ATV would be of little use beyond that point.  It was on those streams where we would be fishing.  Today we were going past the inlet to the lake to Smiley’s favorite place on the stream.

When we arrived at the place where the stream flowed into the lake, I couldn’t tell the difference.  The stream was as wide as the lake, and I will admit it was much wider than any river I had seen in Texas.  But we traveled on and soon I could begin to see riffles and rocks visible in the water.  Gravel bars were making their appearance here and there, and smaller streams were flowing into the main stream every fifty yards or so.  Soon we came to a small falls with a gravel bar just above it.  Here Smiley began to send us out in separate directions.

I was a spin fisherman in those days, and so were the other men with me.  None of us were into fly-fishing at that time, but in later discussions with these men, we all agreed that this was the place to fly fish.  And we caught Dolly Varden until we were absolutely exhausted—not halibut exhausted, but exhausted nonetheless.

That night at the mini-lodge, we had steaks for dinner again.  This time we asked what they were, and were told caribou this time around.  Sometimes they had elk, sometimes deer, sometimes moose, sometimes caribou, but mostly they had beef like everyone else.  I didn’t care; it was all good.

Breakfast was fish, and I assume it was Dolly Varden, but I don’t remember asking.  Along with it was unlimited bacon, ham, biscuits the size of…, but you’ve heard this before.  Needless to say, I was in a state of glutinous euphoria.  The thing I couldn’t understand was how Smiley stayed so thin.  Some people have all the luck.

The second day we traveled down the lake past the outlet, this time the change was very defined, to a long series of gravel bars and riffles where we spread out again to fish.  All day long a chorus of “Hello Dolly” could be heard by any passersby, if there were any, as we caught and released more fish than I believed possible.  And day three was the same. Wow…wow.

Fishing this area was a magical time for me, and I didn’t want to leave, but all things come to an end, it was time to go face the plane.  On day four we fished the banks of the lake waiting for the plane to arrive, and the fishing was just as great.  Then we heard the plane.  God help us.

Back at the main lodge that evening we were having another incredible dinner, this time with coffee, when we heard the sound of a plane arriving at the lodge.  Not Drifuss’s plane, a real plane.  We all walked out to see who had arrived, and all of us were looking at the new plane with our tongues hanging out.  It was beautiful, and it was everything Drifuss’s plane was not.  And we wanted to fly in it.

The man taxied up to the pier, stepped down a ladder onto the pontoon and tossed a rope to Smiley.  He climbed onto the pier, exchanged keys with Drifuss, and then climbed into the old plane.  It took some patience to move the prop, but soon he was airborne, and we were looking at Drifuss.

“Oh, that old thing?  It was a loaner while mine was being tuned up.  I’m glad it’s gone.  Every time I get in it my life flashes before my eyes.”

Decades have passed since that trip, but I ran into Drifuss at a fishing show in southern California recently, and we reminisced about that old plane.  It was the only thing that kept this Texan from becoming an Alaskan.

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