BY ANDREW CREMATA
Here we are again – poised on the narrow edge of Skagway’s two-headed coin. When the lake trout’s flanks match the orange and yellow mountainside, the white of winter peers down from snowy peaks.
It is a bittersweet time of year. Time to adjust to a different pace. Soon the streets will be empty. The drone of trains, planes, and buses will give way to the querulous calls of morning magpies. We will say goodbyes to friends who wander the world, and when they return in the spring it will be bittersweet yet again because we will know our winter peace is about to be shattered.
I can’t decide which transition is more difficult – or more welcome. And it really doesn’t matter, because the wheels keep turning in this place where the season means more than the seasons.
For many, winter starts when that last cruise ship turns south and is swallowed by the northern edge of the Lynn Canal. However, those who stay in Skagway know that this is when we all get to exhale. And reflect.
Recently I’ve been wondering whether a duck can bring good luck.
Just a few days ago I was fishing for fall trout in the Yukon and while setting up my special rig, I noticed a duck just off to my left. This was no ordinary duck. It was a species of duck I’d never seen before – ruddy brown with a white spot just behind the eye.
While the focus of every angling endeavor is to catch fish, there is always time to take note of the flora and fauna sharing these sprawling outdoor spaces. In the fall it’s often difficult to keep from being mesmerized by the surroundings, especially when some random duck is entirely unfazed by the fact you’re wading into the water right next to it.
I said, “Hello duck,” and it seemed to understand the words, quite possibly winking in my direction before going back to its underwater meal.
[quote_right]I said, “Hello duck,” and it seemed to understand the words, quite possibly winking in my direction before going back to its underwater meal.[/quote_right]
I have no idea what ducks eat. I do know that their heads disappear under the surface, causing their butts to comically poke straight into the air. Then they bob up and down, and for some reason I think it’s funny.
So I’m laughing audibly at this strange duck while casting and reeling, and I feel a tap. It’s subtle, but there is no mistaking that it’s a fish, most likely testing the lure to see whether it’s actually food or, well, a lure.
I pause my retrieve, because if I strike at this cautious fish, it will turn back toward the bottom and laugh at the impetuous human much like I was laughing at that duck.
I start reeling again and the fish circles back and inhales the lure. This was a good fighting trout that jumped clear out of the water and made several good runs. After landing it, I took out my tape measure. Twenty-five inches.
I pulled out my scale. Nine and a half pounds.
Then I looked over and that weird duck was staring at me.
“What are you looking at?” I asked, but the duck didn’t answer.
A week later I was working the length of the Skagway River in search of fall coho. The water was clear and cool-blue, riffling rhythmically under a bright sun and utterly devoid of fish.
The wise angler will always save their best spot for last – an ace in the hole. Why? I have no idea, because it seems rather silly when you think about it.
When I arrived at my secret Skagway coho hole, that duck was there. Staring.
How do I know it was the same duck?
I’ve been fishing in Skagway and the Yukon for 20 years, often in the vicinity of various ducks. As a general rule, ducks do not like people in their immediate presence, nor do they like it when that person begins flailing a projectile in its direction. This duck just went about its business, frequently swimming right where I was trying to cast.
Butt in the air. And yes, it was still funny.
I felt the pull and saw the flash of the coho’s flanks when it grabbed my lure and began twisting below the surface, directly underneath where the duck’s butt was poking skyward. When that effort failed to dislodge the hook, the bright silver rushed the surface and thrashed wildly, its head thrashing manically in an attempt to throw the lure.
A minute later I dragged the coho onto the shore, bonked it on the head, and cut the gill to bleed it.
I looked back out over the water, and there was that duck. Staring.
Years ago, I had a friend in Florida named Jesus who asked me to teach him to fish. While it’s natural to assume anyone named Jesus would be a good fisherman, this was not the case. I took Jesus to my best spots – places where getting skunked was impossible, and he either failed to get a bite or lost every fish that somehow managed to find his unlucky hook.
Jesus watched incredulously as I caught fish after fish, so he became convinced that I was withholding some secret that, if revealed, would unlock the impenetrable mystery of the angling experience.
“DREW!” Jesus would plead, “Drew, tell me the secret, Drew. I know you have the secret, Drew. Please, tell me the secret. I want to catch the fish, Drew, please tell me!”
At first I tried to explain to Jesus that he would get better with time, and that there was no patented fishing secret other than perseverance.
“DREW! Come on, Drew. I know you have the secret, Drew. You can tell me. Please tell me the secret, Drew.”
Every time I caught a fish, Jesus became more convinced that I was holding out on him, so his pleas became more emphatic. Jesus would put his palms together in supplication, desperate to discover the confidential fishing recipe that, in his mind, was passed on at clandestine meetings steeped in symbolic ritual designed to carefully guard ancient angling enigmas.
“DREW! Please, Drew. You can tell me the secret, Drew. I promise I will never tell anyone. Please, Drew!”
Jesus eventually breached the threshold of my patience. One day, we were driving to the local pier, and after another round of desperate begging for the unnamed fishing secret, I blurted out, “Jesus, you have to use the right hook – a 2/0 long shank. THAT is the secret.”
Within minutes of reaching the pier, Jesus caught the first fish of his life – a four-foot-long blacktip shark that he somehow caught on a 2/0 long shank hook with no wire leader.
Can a duck bring good luck? I can’t answer that question for a certainty, but if a man named Jesus can find fishing salvation armed only with the power of belief, then I guess anything is possible.
Andrew Cremata’s ‘Fish This!’ column will return again next April.