Friday, March 13, 2009

The Togiak-Part II

The Grumman Goose circled Togiak Lake and touched down smoothly near the headwaters of the river. We unpacked on a sunny beach and waved goodbye to our pilot. As the drone of the engines faded into the wide-open Alaskan sky, it hit me: an infinity of suffocating silence. There was the slight gurgle of moving water and the wavy swoosh of wind, maybe a bird chirping, but the absence of any noise pollution whatsoever was both stifling and liberating. We were alone, that was sure. The nearest town, actually an Indian village, was about thirty miles down river. If I didn't understand why my Dad had spent the last year meticulously packing, planning and deliberating over this trek, it was definitely beginning to sink in now. Any mistakes from here on out and help would be a long timing coming, if at all.
The next day we floated and fished at our whimsy, stopping along gravel bars to eat and sleep and fishing until late into the morning. In the northern latitudes, during mid-summer the sun barely sets, dipping below the horizon for a few hours. It plays tricks with your biological clock and you find yourself engrossed in letting your spoon drift through the currents ripples, hooking fish and fighting with them until your arms tire. Often we wouldn't retire until well after midnight with no signs of fatigue or even a hint of darkness.
It was probably two days in before we saw our first bear. It was a long ways off across a swampy bog. It stood up and sniffed us and disappeared. We made our way down the river quickly.
I hooked a nice king salmon on our third day. We were standing on a beaver pond and I could see it struggling deep down under the cool clear water. I remember trying not to give it too much pressure and instead gave it too much slack. I watched in agony as it opened its massive jaws, shook its head and spit out the spoon. My Dad, for the first time in my life, didn't say a word when I yelled out "F(*&!".
The next bear we saw before it saw us. We were drifting around a bend and the bear was working it's way across the bank. It reminded me of a shaggy puppy, only slightly smaller than a VW beetle. "We can drift right up to it", whispered my father.
"Won't it get us?", I asked.
"Not if we're in the water", he replied, feigning confidence. I wasn't so sure but I remember distinctly that when it stood on it's hind legs, caught our scent and went "whooooof", our paddles both hit the water simultaneously, like those synchronized swimmers in the Olympics. The massive bundle of fur, muscle, claws and teeth wheeled and ran into a thick stand of Alders. What impressed me the most though, wasn't it's size, but it's quickness and grace. Retreating into the bush, it didn't make a sound. Maybe I just couldn't hear it over the pounding heartbeats in my ears!
We met the first of three other groups only minutes later. A make-shift fishing camp greeted us along the same bank as we had seen the bear. We told them about it and they replied that he was their pet. Only in Alaska. The second visitor was a game warden/biologist. She didn't check our licenses but preferred to talk about the weather. "You guys are pretty luck" she said. "Before this week there's maybe been a day and a half of sun. The rest has been nothin but rain. Last summer we might have had five days of sun all summer." Considering that we had been there five days and had only seen a light shower once, we did indeed consider ourselves very lucky.
My Dad hooked a lively Chinook later that day. He fought it for maybe fifteen minutes until finally he brought it up alongside me. I had the net ready and scooped it up, knocking the lure out as I jammed it into the small net. The tip of the salmon's nose hit the rim of the net and it's body circled in the mesh so that it's tale hit the other side of the round rim-it barely fit! We were both ecstatic.
The last day of the trip the river slowed into a slough's pace. I had all but given up on my chances of catching a mighty king, though we had landed many sockeye and arctic char. I sat back in the rear of the canoe and casted to the bank from an inclined position, lazy like the river. My line stopped and I thought I'd snagged a submerged tree trunk when I saw a huge tail flap into the air-fish on! I scrambled up and began the fight in earnest, trying to gain line on the beast as the canoe picked up speed. The clever behemoth was using the current to his hook-nosed advantage and it became apparent to my Dad and I that we'd have to pull over or we'd be pulled downstream forever. My Dad paddled for the nearest gravel bar and I hopped out, hoping we hadn't stopped too soon and I could find a way to slow the big fish down. I remember the line started to make this humming twangy sound as the big Chinook stretched it near the breaking point, my Dad standing helplessly next to the big fish in knee deep water with our pathetically small landing net. Finally I backed up the gravel bar until the fish ran out of water to swim in and my Dad pounced on it, wrestling the flopping behemoth up onto the pebbly shore.
We took pictures and measurements. 36lbs and 42 inches long if I remember correctly. I wanted to keep it but my Dad reasoned that we would be boarding the plane later that day and we were far from any freezer or cooler. I didn't realize then that trophies don't always have to be killed and mounted. The satisfaction I have now, knowing that big fish reproduced, outweighs any meal it would have provided us.
We arrived at a windswept tract of tin roof shacks named "Togiak". A "dry" (apparently you don't mix Eskimos and alcohol) village with a population of less than 100. The most distinct memory I have of that remote village was of two Eskimo children playing catch with a grapefruit sized boulder, occasionally clunking it off each others' heads and having the time of their lives. Maybe not much to do in that village for children too small to fish? Probably one of only a half-dozen sunny days they would enjoy that season; and to think that my Dad and I picked this exact week for our vacation over two years in advance. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Better than a good day at work.

Before we got here, Pacific Salmon were a way of life for the Native Americans. Their lives were intertwined with the salmon runs since the ancient times.
I haven't eaten Salmon in almost two years. That's because I refuse to eat "farmed fresh" yuck fish and because the DFG has closed the season off the coast of California indefinitely. I'm sure that someday I'll be telling my kids about "the good old days" when you could actually catch your own salmon off the coast, but for now I'll just have to settle for reminiscing on this here blog.
My first experience with Salmon fishing was with Old Man Phil and "Flipper" his 19ft bathtub. Phil is older than the ocean and he can still outhunt or fish anyone, just ask around. Long after everyone's on Gary's porch sipping on "duck tales", Phil is still out trying to get one more. On the ocean, he's known for saying, usually around 1 or 2 when the twilight wakeup call and midday sun starts to turn the most avid angler into a sleeping baby, "Just say the word and we'll head in." It's a kind of salty dawg game of chicken-I'm not going in until you say "Uncle". I can't ever remember hearing Phil call it quits, he's the epitome of a diehard.
Duxbury Reef off Stinson Beach is one of his favorite spots and "mooching" his favorite style of fishing. Although trolling is definitely the most popular method and possibly more effective-mooching is a lost artform. There's no drone of the outboard, no 2lb. ball of lead to man handle. Adrift on the sea like a hunting pelican, the mooch is a dance with the ocean. If you read the clues and drift through the right spot, with the patience to let the salmon nibble, nibble, nibble and then take your bait, you will be rewarded. One thing that makes Phil's blood boil, however, is the circle hook. The result of overzealous fish and game bureaucrats who make a name for themselves creating new and more stringent rules and regulations, the circle hook is now the law. We usually lose a fish or two each time because of them. Tough for a guy who has fished with a J hook for 50 years to swallow-no pun intended. Nobody ever said Phil wasn't stubborn.
Probably the one characteristic of Phil's that sets him apart from all the youngsters is his respect for a dollar. A young man during the great depression, Phil can squeeze a quarter between his butt cheeks and fart out 25 pennies. When we head out, he calculates the bait, gas, launch fee and ice costs and gives you a price for his charter. "Alright, it's gonna cost you $33 dollars". Now that's a steal when you consider the charter boats will charge you $80 plus a tip for the deck hand. If you give him $40, he insists on giving change.
It was no suprise then, when we pulled into the Richmond boat launch and the arm that's supposed to lower after each fee stayed up, that Phil hit the gas. Not to mention the fact that the car in front of us had a Gore sticker. "Come on Phil!" I said as the Gore car pulled through under the arm, "don't let those damn democrats get one over on you!" Phil sang some crazy song for the next half hour, "I didn't wanna do it, but I did it anyway... You made me love you!!!" at the top of his lungs. He was so happy we got a free launch that day that he forgot to undo the transom straps, or at least to check to see if we had. Little did we know we would pay for that $6 dollars saved in bad juju for the rest of the trip.
When Pattyo backed in the flipper, of course it refused to leave the trailer, so Phil leans out and undoes one of the straps, thinking that of course we hadn't forgotten to remove both of them. He finally wrestled it loose as the 6am traffic at the launch ramp increased to a bona fide "jam". Pattyo, always loathe to suffer even the slightest embarrassment, especially in front of fellow fisherman, was growing impatient. "What the hell's going on back there" he yelled as we asked him to pull forward and then back up twice. He couldn't hear us over the sound of honking horns so he stopped the truck and came around to find out for himself. When he went to start it back up, all we heard was, "clickclickclickclick". Oooops!! What do you do when you're stalled on the ramp with a boat half-assed off the trailer? You ask someone to jump you of course, after all there's a line a mile long waiting for you to get the hell out of the way. This of course is Pattyo's worst nightmare so I do the talking. We finally get the truck started and undo the other transom strap and we're motoring out.
Everything's going smooth, except Phil isn't singing his usual "I Love Fishin!" song at the top of his lungs like usual when we leave the no wake zone at full throttle. The motor had suddenly started acting up. Turns out Phil bought the new fuel filter but, ever the conservative (liberal is a four letter word to Phil) he just cleaned out the old one and put it back in. So now he's changing the fuel filter as our competitors leave us in their wake and the sun starts to brighten the day. We finally get to Duxbury and it's a parking lot: party boats, private boats, six packers and one Boston Whaler with a family of eight that's got about two inches of free board (distance between the waters surface and the edge of the boat). Luckily they're all wearing life jackets! We can't get a hit to save our lives and end the day with one barely legal twenty and one-half incher.
Pattyo and I take the boat battery with us to start up the truck and head up the ramp while Phil tends the flipper at the dock. Uh-oh looks like the boat battery has drained now too! "Hey, you guys got any jumper cables?" We're both thinking maybe Phil should charge us a higher charter rate and invest in a new battery.
Don't get the wrong idea though, Phil knows how to catch salmon and I'll forever be grateful that he introduced me to some of the finest fishing right outside the Golden Gate. I just hope the season opens up again someday and I get another chance to go out with the old man, for everyone's sake.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Scary Larry

"There's only two things I can't weld, a broken heart and the crack of dawn!"
Scary Larry was a caretaker at the Tule Belle for about a decade. When I first met him, we pulled our buddies blind out with his truck and proceeded to kill about eight black widows with brake cleaner. He called it "Panther Piss". It worked well. The poor widders would curl up and drop from their nests. Kinda freaky on a dark night with just a pen light.
Larry was known as a poacher, "Some guys wait for the ducks to come to them. I go after em'. I hunt em down and I kill em!" Larry upheld the season and bag limits, he just liked to remain blissfully unawares of certain boundaries. Usually he'd get into the landowners good graces, hunting a neighboring club on their non-shoot days or visiting a farmers marsh when their truck just didn't happened to be parked there. He used to say, "You've heard of A-zone and B-zone? Well, this is R-zone!"
Somehow he got the keys to some P,G & E land and we hunted all late summer for a blacktail. Finally Larry came running down the mountain like a hillbilly running moonshine. "Get the truck, there's a buck up there" he hollered. I grabbed my buddies truck because he was off somewhere on Larry's dirtbike. "Drop me off here! When you hear a shot, come over the hill and pick me up!" I did as I was told. My heart started thumping in my chest when I heard the rifle crack and took off like a Duke Boy up that dirt hill. When I got to the top I noticed a fence and cattle grate but there weren't any "No Trespassing" signs so I slid around the hill and backed up to the bottom just as Larry dropped the tail gate and slid the small buck into the bed. "Get goin!" he half-yelled, half-whispered. I was concerned with his sense of urgency but I just figured this was Larry being Larry. Gettin excited about being excited and so we rolled out with a growing plume of dusk following us through the gate and back down the hill. We stopped and rendezvouzed with Kenny. He heard the shot and motored up to meet us. As we sat there contemplating the bucks inexplicably small antlers, I noticed a truck on the top of the hill facing us. "Uhhh, Larry, did you see that truck before?"
"Uh oh, we'd better high tale it boys".