“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
-Hunter S. Thompson
By ANDREW CREMATA
FOR THE SKAGWAY NEWS
My dad bought me my first “grownup” fishing outfit when I was eight years old. My hands barely fit around the seven-foot heavy boat rod, which was outfitted with a Penn reel spooled with 50-pound monofilament.
The rig was absurdly oversized for a little kid, but my dad was both old-school and an optimist when it came to fishing.
Outfits like mine were built for boat fishing where heavier gear is often needed.
Casting with these rigs is difficult. Since my dad and I did most of our fishing from local piers and beaches, I was forced to develop my own casting technique in order to keep pace with the big boys.
A year later I could wield that fishing rod like a weapon, and felt confident that I could win a professional casting competition if such a thing existed.
If fishing was slow, my dad and I often challenged each other to see who could out-cast the other.
The first cast in our two-man contest would determine the National Casting Champion. The stakes were raised on subsequent casts until we were competing for the proud honor of Casting Champion of the Universe.
When fish were biting, we vied to see who would catch the first fish, the biggest fish and the most fish. Bragging rights for these individual contests usually lasted for days, especially if I was the winner.
When I first moved to Skagway, I met a fishing captain who seldom seemed to be in a good mood. We developed a kinship based on our love of fishing, playing cards and because we were both entirely disengaged from our past.
Whenever we went fishing, a “gentleman’s bet” of one dollar was paid to the angler who caught the biggest fish of the day. My friend was a fishing guide affectionately called “Captain No Fish” by his closest friends, mostly because he seldom caught fish when a customer chartered his boat. Whether this was accidental or entirely purposeful is open to some debate.
He wasn’t happy about this distinction, so our friendly bets became serious business.
The Captain also talked a lot of trash, which usually backfired in his face spectacularly.
Some years ago we traveled to the Six Mile River in Tagish for some early June pike fishing. We hiked out to a grassy jetty where a small creek empties into the main river. As we approached the shore, cliff swallows darted through the air on strange trajectories, collecting insects that fluttered skyward from the high grass.
Captain No Fish tied on a red and white Daredevil spoon. I decided to use a whole herring for bait.
“We’re on for our dollar bet?” asked the Captain.
“You know it!” I responded.
My herring was in the water for less than a minute and I was already getting a bite. I let the fish swim away with the bait by allowing line to flow freely from the reel. Thirty seconds later I set the hook. The rod bent over a double for a split second before the line went completely limp.
Pike have razor sharp teeth, so it’s necessary to use wire leader to prevent them from biting through monofilament line. Even though I had a 12-inch wire leader attached to my rig, the pike somehow managed to bite through the mono above the wire.
This could only mean one thing – the pike was big.
While reeling in my slack line, Captain No Fish hooked up on a nice fish that immediately ripped out about 30 yards of line from his spool. The moment his 36-inch pike was on the shore, the Captain was already gloating.
“Would you look at that fish! I wonder how I’m going to spend my dollar. Remember how you almost caught a fish?” – and on and on like this for quite some time.
I tied on a 24-inch wire leader, put the largest herring I could find on my hook, and cast it out into the same spot.
Then I waited. Meanwhile, the Captain caught another nice pike. Even though it was smaller than his first fish, this didn’t prevent him from hurling another round of taunts in my direction.
When my line started moving, I didn’t utter a sound. A fish had picked up my bait and was moving slowly out toward the main river. Line fell from my spool in curls as the fish munched away. I remained silent.
After gently engaging my spool, the line slowly straightened. I called over the Captain and said, “Hey, look at this!”
When he turned his head in my direction, I set the hook.
Water exploded, the rod bent to its breaking point, and the drag whirled so rapidly I thought the reel might start billowing smoke.
As line disappeared from the spool, I placed my taunting on hold and concentrated on the task at hand.
Lucky for me, the large fish stopped before entering the main river, or I would have lost it for sure. Then it turned and ran back up the creek perpendicular to my position. After putting so much of its energy into the initial run, the fish didn’t have anything left in its tank for another. I put heavy pressure on the spool and soon pulled it into the shallows.
The 43” pike was too large to drag onto shore, so I carefully grabbed it underneath the gills and lifted it onto the embankment while trying to avoid its razor-sharp teeth. That was the day I learned that the gill rakers on large pike are also quite sharp.
I laid the fish next to the Captain’s pike, making it look more like bait than a prized catch.
“Hey! Look at that! My fish could eat your fish for lunch and still be hungry!” I said, to which the Captain offered me his trademark sneer and ornithological digit.
Later that evening, I gloated over my dollar prize before using it to buy the Captain a drink. We played a few games of high-stakes cribbage, as was the custom, accompanied by significant trash talk on a variety of subjects.
When the Captain moved away last summer, he gave me his prized handmade bamboo fishing rod as a gift. It was a curious gesture from a man for whom sentiment wasn’t a strong suit. I have to admit, it seemed almost strange to receive it as a present instead of winning it on some ridiculous bet.
Captain No Fish met his end last winter, far away from Skagway where he built his dubious reputation fishing the Upper Lynn Canal. There was no ceremonious toast to honor his achievements. No quiet whisper of reassurance that tells of a story of found peace. Only an abrupt ending that leaves you grasping at memories that disintegrate the moment they’re touched.
Such is the life of an outcast, many of whom end up in the north where weirdness is often considered an attribute. Skagway is such a place.
Here, divergent currents carrying wayward vessels sometimes meet. I’ll wager that it’s likely to happen again.