By Andrew Cremata
When it started raining, we were two miles away from the truck. My rain gear was in my backpack and in the 20 seconds it took to retrieve it, I was soaked.
“It’s supposed to rain like this for a while,” said my fishing partner, Tim, as he wrestled his own rain gear onto his burly frame.
I was visiting Tim in Thorne Bay for a few days of fishing on Prince of Wales Island. Tim is a good fisherman but doesn’t say much. Not saying much is often a sign of a good fisherman.
With heavy rain pouring down around us, we continued along the muddy road toward our destination. Somewhere just past the end of the road was a short trail to a place where large fish were rumored to dwell. It was at least three miles to our destination but we chose to hike instead of drive. Tim said the old logging road was notorious for trapping vehicles in soft mud – even pickups with four-wheel drive.
Rumors of large fish in hard-to-reach places are common. Few pan out. Often, these legends reach mythical proportions and each story has one element in common – getting to the fish is an epic journey fraught with peril.
Tim and I rounded a narrow bend where the road suddenly disappeared. In its place was a mountain of mud at least 60 feet high. Mighty fallen trees stripped of their branches seemed as though they were being swallowed by the mud – suspended in time by some recent cataclysm.
“Landslide,” said Tim. “Looks to be a few weeks old.”
We made an attempt to traverse Mud Mountain but the size of the debris proved impossible to overcome. After briefly discussing our options, we decided to climb down the steep roadway embankment and hike around the mudslide’s terminus somewhere in the dense forest below.
Bushwhacking through tangled underbrush with fishing poles sticking out from the top of our backpacks was unpleasant. Slipping and falling onto a thick stalk of devil’s club was painful. Still, the thought of reaching a fishing hole worthy of Promised Land status kept my feet moving forward.
Tim led the way as we slowly trudged back uphill toward the road. I said, “Tim, I need some motivation. Tell me again what it is we’re fishing for at the end of this road.”
Tim removed his worn Traveler hat and wiped his brow. Without turning to face me he said, “Wild cutties. Big ones.”
A “cutty” is a colloquial name for a cutthroat trout. A wild cutty is a true Alaskan native – ancient and beautiful. Black spots on a silver body with golden yellow highlights and a blood-red slash across the lower gill plate.
Thus the name.
Interestingly, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between a big cutty and a small cutty. Most cutties are no bigger than 16 inches. An 18-inch fish makes an angler’s eyes get larger. A 20-inch cutty makes fishermen shout uncontrollably and fist-pump the air. A trophy cutty is rare and still only 25 inches long.
Trekking through miles of dense Alaskan bush teeming with ferocious wild animals to catch fish less than two feet in length may seem maniacal and even somewhat deranged. These accusations are undeniable.
My legs were burning when we climbed back onto the roadway. A half-mile further along, the rain stopped just as quickly as it had started. Against the silence, I could hear the distant rhythm of a flowing river and realized we were close to our destination.
I thought back to other wild treks in search of large fish. Some were exploratory in nature while others were based on tall tales overheard in seedy bars where anglers gather to brag and imbibe. Nothing fuels a fishing story faster than bottled spirits and a listening ear.
I once hiked ten miles through alpine muskeg for the reward of a 6-inch long northern pike. On another outing, I walked upstream for 4 hours in ice-cold water until my legs were entirely numb. When I finally reached my destination, I cast aimlessly in water utterly devoid of fish.
Many years ago in Florida, I trekked along a mile of dry palmetto scrub in an attempt to locate legendary lunker inshore redfish. After stumbling upon someone’s makeshift marijuana farm, I made haste in another direction and eventually found the spot I was looking for. While I didn’t catch any redfish, I did manage to land a 40-pound black drum.
When Tim and I finally reached the river, we quickly sorted our gear. Tim tied a mosquito pattern onto his fly rig while I attached a Mepps lure to my spinning outfit. Working down-current, we caught fish on virtually every cast. Tim landed a few beauties well over 20 inches long. Not once did he utter a word or show a hint of emotion.
Some 30 minutes later, I hooked into a hard-fighting fish that took me on a ride downriver. Hopping from rock to rock, I eventually got control over the big cutty and dragged it into the net. The colorful trout was just short of 23 inches, not quite a trophy but it was the biggest fish of the day.
Holding up the fish for release, I heard Tim yell, “Nice fish!” from his location upriver. When I turned to look in his direction, Tim gave me a big thumb’s up.
At that moment I was satisfied. All of the effort that went into finding one tiny slice of the Alaskan wilderness was paid off in full. Even the hike back to the truck suddenly didn’t seem so daunting. Heck, it might even be enjoyable! I could already taste the cold beer back at Tim’s house.
A few minutes later, Tim and I had to work our way through a stand of dense alder. When we emerged, I was startled to see another fisherman fly casting toward a deep pool just below a shallow riffle. Two large cutties tied to a stringer were laying on the ground next to his feet.
The man turned to face us.
“Nice fish,” I said.
“Thanks,” he replied. “The bite’s been on since I got here.”
“Did you hike in from the road?” I asked.
“Hell no!” the man answered. “I took my boat. The river ends about a quarter-mile downriver from here.”
I looked over at Tim, whose boat was sitting in his driveway back home.
Tim shrugged and said, “Good to know.”