October 20, 2021
Someone had spray-painted “Rehab is for quitters” on an otherwise blank concrete wall. This was in the Designated Smoking Area outside the Anchorage Airport where I was waiting out the third consecutive delay of my flight with some strong, silent types I took to be commercial fishermen. (Roughnecks from the oilfields have a more sullen look, and everyone else dresses better.) Flight delays are so common in Alaska that waiting gracefully becomes a necessary skill, and since it’s done in public, there’s an element of performance to it. I try to imagine myself as a character actor—maybe a Bruce Dern type—playing the role of the veteran north-country traveler who understands that no amount of fretting and whining will make the plane go if the plane isn’t going. Meanwhile, the real old hands simply find a patch of unoccupied floor and lie down for a nap, hugging their backpacks as though they were feather pillows.
The flight was finally called three hours late, and my friend Ed and I walked out onto the tarmac with a dozen other sports and climbed aboard the little turboprop Saab 340. We fastened our seat belts, they started the engines, and we waited for the plane to move. A few minutes later the engines sputtered to a stop and the pilot came out and asked if we’d please go back inside and wait in the terminal. He did say “please,” but it wasn’t a request.
From inside, several of us watched as a guy pulled up in a van, climbed a stepladder, and began tinkering with the starboard engine. (Work of this kind is deeply fascinating when it’s being done on a plane you’re about to fly in.) Sometime later he replaced the cowling, the pilot restarted the engine, and they both stood a little distance away talking. I couldn’t help but imagine the conversation:
“There. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds like a weed whacker; you expect me to fly that thing?”
We got back on board, and this time the plane taxied smartly out to the runway. I don’t have more than the usual fear of flying, but I did hope the aircraft would work this time and that to a trained ear both engines would sound more like Maseratis than weed whackers.
Soon we were at altitude and flying southwest toward Bristol Bay. Off the left side of the plane a river poured through a canyon into the Gulf of Alaska. Off to the right its corrugated headwaters reached to the horizon with blue-green glaciers nestled in their cirques. Only minutes by air from the biggest city in the state, and already the landscape seemed unimaginably somber and remote. When the guy in the seat ahead of me came back from the bathroom, he said to his seatmate, “That toilet is so small I ended up pissing in my hat by mistake.”
At the lodge we suited up and motored down Aleknagik Lake to the mouth of the Agulowak River with these ancient Athabaskan names catching in our throats like chicken bones. At this time of year—mid-July—three- to four-inch-long sockeye salmon smolts pour out of the river by the tens of thousands on their way to salt water, and Arctic char and Dolly Vardens stack up there to ambush them. It’s a perfect setup for fish and fishermen.
When we came around the last point we could see it was in full swing. There were half a dozen other boats anchored or drifting near the mouth—two that we recognized from the lodge, the rest probably up from Dillingham—and the air was filled with wheeling and diving Arctic terns, while fat white gulls bobbed around like anchored yachts. Fish were milling all over, but every few minutes a pod of char would push a school of smolts to the surface and a quarter acre of fish would boil past the anchored boat at current speed. When one of these frenzies went into a window in the glare you could see it all clearly: hundreds of silver smolts flashing like welding sparks in the sun, and uncountable ominous shapes looming up from below like something from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
The Agulowak is a big river, so multiply that by a current plume hundreds of yards wide and a quarter mile long, where seven boats are spaced far enough apart to avoid tangling lines even on long runs, and in each boat there’s at least one fisherman holding a bent rod. This is the kind of jaw-dropping abundance that draws fishermen to Alaska and that also sometimes produces cases of shameful fish hoggery. I don’t mean the locals who diligently fill freezers with fillets because winters here are as certain as death and taxes; I’m talking about dentists from Omaha who lug home coffin-sized coolers of fish that their wives won’t know what to do with. A few big meals where Dad brays about being the hunter-gatherer back from the wilderness, and the rest is lost to freezer burn.
I once overheard an argument between one of these privileged dimwits and a bush pilot who’d spent one too many seasons watching the pointless carnage.
“Why shouldn’t I bring home 50 pounds of salmon? They’re gonna die anyway.”
“They’re gonna die after they spawn, and every one you kill is one more that doesn’t. Are you really too stupid to see that, or are you just playing dumb so you can go on being an asshole?”
The next day we flew to a compact little tent camp on the Togiak River: a couple of WeatherPorts pitched on an open coastal floodplain with a fire pit and improvised driftwood lawn furniture out front. There we were told that the king salmon fishing had been “slow:” a fisherman’s euphemism for “pointless.” For weeks now the weather had been sunny and warm for Alaska, and a lack of rain had kept the Togiak and other rivers in the region low and on the warm side. Some said the kings had petered through early—a few at a time, but never in fishable numbers—and were now far upriver spawning. Others thought the few that had been seen were advance scouts and that the bulk of the run was still staged in salt water, waiting for gray skies and a flush of water. Less analytical types just thought it was a rotten year for kings.
We spent the next day catching Dollys and rainbows on beads and flesh flies. On my first trip to Alaska I had to get used to the idea of these noble game fish gorging on stray salmon eggs and shreds of rotting flesh as a succession of five species of Pacific salmon run up the rivers to spawn, die, and decompose—not to mention fishing flies tied with sickly pinkish-beige rabbit fur intended to imitate rancid meat. It’s one thing to be told that the entire ecosystem here depends on countless tons of dead salmon and that without those nutrients brought inland from the ocean every year, Alaska would be a cold, fishless desert, but once you actually see it you realize that this is the aquatic version of 50 million buffalo.
The most striking example I ever saw was one September on the Karluk River on Kodiak Island. Miles of riverbank to the high-water line were ankle-deep and slippery with the corpses of pink, sockeye, and silver salmon, and the river itself looked and smelled like a cauldron of spoiled cioppino. Kodiak bears the size of pickup trucks were greasy with fish oil and so stuffed with salmon they could hardly move. Likewise, the big, sleek Dolly Vardens in from Uyak Bay were so full of salmon eggs they were dribbling them out their gill covers. If you’ve ever fished with dead drift nymphs, beads will be a familiar form of manipulation, but these fish would chase a bead even on a swing, apparently so blinded by gluttony that it didn’t occur to them that eggs don’t swim. This is the best reason to go to Alaska: not for the chance at fifty-fish days but to see for yourself that nature isn’t the least bit dainty or sentimental.
There’s a lot to be said for these lodges that operate on the grandtour model. For one thing, you see six or seven rivers at close range and lots more beautifully empty country in between from a floatplane, which incidentally fulfills a childhood fantasy of mine sparked by overwrought stories in Field & Stream. Also, when the fishing sucks—as it occasionally does—you know you’ll be somewhere else tomorrow where it will probably be better. The flip side is that when the fishing is fabulous, you know you’ll be leaving on the same plane that brings in your replacements, so it’s possible to begin getting nostalgic by lunchtime. And as the trip winds down there can be the sneaking suspicion that although you saw multiple rivers and caught countless fish, you never quite sank your teeth into anything.
This can make you mildly jealous of the guides who work there and live what seem like enviably authentic lives at the camps you only visit for a day. Still, you avoid gazing around admiringly and saying, “God, what a place to spend the summer!” because the guy’s heard it a hundred times and might reply, “Yeah, well, you can’t eat the scenery.” There’s sometimes a fundamental disconnect between guides in their 20s and 30s and clients at the deep end of middle age. This can be as complicated as fathers and sons or as simple as the fact that, as Gina Ochsner put it, “Young men drink because they don’t know who they are, and old men drink because they do.”
"You Can't Eat the Scenery" is an excerpt from John Gierach’s latest book A Fly Rod of Your Own (Simon & Shuster, 2017).