By ANDREW CREMATA
It’s easy to get into a routine. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but following a rigid pattern doesn’t lend itself to much adventure or surprise. While some are content knowing what each day will bring, others may feel trapped within this framework and seek out ways to push against it.
There is a certain appeal to a place like Skagway, if you’re the type of person that likes to break free from the middle and discover what hides among the extremes. From gold-seekers to modern entrepreneurs, people that could master the art of living outside of the norm have found a way to make it in the far north.
This is a rare and special breed of human being, and their audacious spirit can lead to great discoveries.
Fishing is no different. Finding success requires the effort of exploration to find the places where fish hang out and can be caught. When you find a place that consistently yields fish, you call this one of your “spots.” If you happen to find a spot that nobody else knows about, this is called one of your “secret spots.”
Fortunately for us, we live in a place where it’s possible to have a large number of spots, because we are surrounded by vast regions of virtually uninhabited terrain filled with lakes, rivers, and oceans teeming with a wide variety of fish.
It’s also possible to find so many good spots that you actually lose your desire to find new spots. When you know places where you are virtually guaranteed to catch nice fish, why bother going to all of the trouble, trial and error to find new ones?
So I made a promise to myself that this year I would be a little more daring, and get out of my established fishing patterns in an effort to test my own skills and rekindle that sense of wonder that comes from unfamiliar surroundings.
This isn’t an easy thing to do, because it’s often hard to find motivation for a sojourn in the unknown. This urge toward complacency has grown more acute as I’ve aged, which scares me far more than the prospect of an encounter with an angry bear or slipping on loose rocks and being stranded in the middle of nowhere. So back in May, right after ice-out, instead of heading toward one of my favorite spring spots in the Yukon, I set out along the shoreline in the opposite direction.
I’ve fished the shorelines of many Yukon Lakes for a number of years, and I have a pretty good idea of what a potential spot might look like. This is good, because it’s pointless to waste your energy casting randomly along a shoreline because it’s far more productive to target fish where they are most likely feeding.
When I set out it was sunny and calm. The rocky lakeshore ran about a half mile before winding out of sight. In the shallows the lake bottom was visible and tinted green from the still water. Further out, the bottom dropped away steeply leaving only the dark blue hues of volume and depth. I was walking north, but over my shoulder I could see dark clouds gathering far in the south toward Skagway. I figured I had two hours, at best, before the weather and wind would make the fishing complicated and unpleasant.
As I approached that first bend, more of the shoreline was revealed. In the distance, about a mile away, the lakeside terrain seemed to become more rugged. Where the rocky beach terminated, a steep cliff appeared to rise from the water – the perfect place for big trout to hide. With a goal in sight, I quickened my pace.
After scampering over a small hill speckled with bright orange lichen, I was able to position myself in such as way so that I could cast parallel to the cliff face into the presumably deep water. I tied on a medium sized spoon and launched it as far as I could.
I let it sink. I was silently counting to myself, “One-one thousand, two-one thousand…” while watching an eagle land on a tree rooted high atop the sheer cliff. Two songbirds were apparently put out by the eagle’s sudden appearance, and began to screech wildly while dive-bombing the bald predator on his newfound perch.
“Twenty-one thousand, twenty-two thousand….”
The eagle seemed unfazed until an empathetic sea gull joined in the fray, and started using the “peck and run” technique on Mister Eagle. More annoyed than injured, the eagle took off and moved to another tree just behind where I was fishing.
“Thirty-four thousand, thirty-five thousand…”
I started thinking back to other occasions fishing along the lake when eagles have landed nearby. It’s something that happens only occasionally, but looking back through the years, it’s usually been a harbinger of biting fish. Are eagles lured by the presence of an angler alone, or do they have some baffling insight into whether fish are hiding in the dark depths of the lake?
“Thirty-eight thousand, thirty-nine…”
The lure hit bottom.
Thirty nine seconds – about 80 feet deep.
I engaged the reel, pulled in the slack and started to turn the crank handle. After two turns there was a distinct thump on the other end of the line, and the rod started jerking sharply toward the water in spasmodic bursts.
When you hook a fish at or near the bottom, its instinct is to run back toward the bottom, so battling this particular trout was more reminiscent of tangling with a lingcod or halibut than a wily trout. Still, the Yukon’s requirements for barbless hooks makes landing fish that fight in this way quite difficult, because trout are prone to rolling violently while fighting, which often causes the hook to come free.
On this occasion, it didn’t matter. The fish was 31 inches, a beauty by any standards, and so big that I had to release it, according to Yukon regulations. None of which mattered, because the satisfaction came from the finding more so than the catching.
I was able to get in a few more casts but the approaching weather made me leery, which was a good thing because by the time I made it back to camp the wind started howling and a black sky began to leak.
On the drive home I had to wonder – was this fish a random passerby, or had I truly found a new spot?
Two weeks later I made my way along that rocky shoreline back to the same spot. Single, bright red rose petals were inexplicably scattered at random intervals along the path, and nestled in between small rocks where water gently lapped against the strand.
I cast into that same spot for a half an hour, letting the lure sink to the bottom on every cast. As doubt began to creep into my thoughts, there was a familiar tap on the line. This trout wasn’t as big as the previous one, but the water was clear and calm enough to watch the fish slowly rise with every crank of the reel. Soon it was on shore – a nice, little five pound lake trout.
It may not always be easy to find motivation for wandering into the unknown, but seldom does the effort fail to reap rewards. In the Land of the Midnight Sun, if you stand still for too long moss will start to grow. Better to take a few chances before the light gives way to darkness, and step bravely toward undiscovered shores.
Andrew’s column appears in the second issue of the month, April-September. His columns through 2013 are now collected in a new book: Fish This! An Alaskan Story available all over. Watch for book signings soon at the News Depot and elsewhere.