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Life and Death on the Agulowak

Life is beautiful and dreams do come true. Keep casting.

Life and Death on the Agulowak

(Rob Benigno art)

It’s 5:40 A.M., and I woke up with Alaska in my dreams. Alaska is like that. It hangs in my waking thoughts and calls to me in my sleep. I remember every detail. Like how the alders and spruces embraced the edges of its cold, clean waters and how the salmon, char, trout, and grayling vanished into its deepest holes. I remember the sensation of floating on currents of air as the 1957 de Havilland Beaver carried me over forests and tundra—and then floating on the currents of its rivers while casting and connecting to the many beating hearts that swam within them. I recall the primal gaze of brown bears and how that moment of eye contact grounded me in the certain knowledge that in the wilderness, I’m simply another source of protein. And at this moment in the darkness of my room, I am reliving my first and final days when a single river and special fish were both joined to the deepest part of my eternal soul. This is our story.

Ever since I was a boy who sat up at night reading Jack London, Russell Annabel, and vintage outdoor magazines, I’ve dreamed of this moment. To my childhood mind, taking off and landing in a float plane was the ultimate gateway to adventure. It brought to mind the images of floating over rugged mountains, raging rivers, and endless expanses of wilderness where trees were many and landing sites were few and far between. And now here I was about to begin my weeklong adventure at Bristol Bay Lodge with my buddy, sporting artist, author, and guide Bob White.

Ron Salmon is a quiet, kindhearted, and exceedingly competent pilot with more than fifty years of experience. Every lesson he ever learned during his winged lifetime was self-evident as he effortlessly launched and landed the float plane on the surface of Lake Aleknagik. The subtle separation between the surface of the lake and underbelly of the plane’s pontoons was surprising, and it took me a while to realize we were airborne as perspectives altered and realities shifted. As we rounded Jackknife Mountain, Ron adjusted flaps, mixture, propeller, and throttle so that the alchemy of his actions resulted in the pontoons resting back onto the water with the natural grace of a mayfly. Stepping onto the dock and into my childhood dreams come true, I could never know that at that moment, I was coming home.

The flat metal tin can of a johnboat bounded and slid across the choppy surface of the Agulowak River as my newest friend Sam Fisher deftly maneuvered us toward Grayling Island. I had barely stepped off the float plane before I stepped into the boat and told Sam that my number one dream was connecting with an Alaskan grayling. I asked if he thought we might find one before dinner, to which he responded, “Heck yah!” Sam is a kind, open-minded, and able young man with an infectious smile and good nature. We hit it off immediately and it mattered not if we were 26 or 62—real friendship is timeless. It was my first day, and every possible reality lay in front of me as each cast would roll out like dice tumbling across a table.

Sam set the anchor at the edge of a community of half-submerged willows, and I began casting a fluffy white dry fly with a tiny Copper John nymph dropper. Almost immediately the dry fly became an indicator as I raised my rod tip a bit too softly, hooked and then lost a grayling as we both lit up with excitement and then moaned with good-humored disappointment. That scene continued through four more halfhearted hook-sets before I finally shook off the first-day jitters and landed the first grayling of my current lifetime. It was all I had hoped for, and more. He was a beautiful fish and I tried to burn the image of him swimming back home into the currents of the Agulowak, where it would live and die and live again as its DNA passed through time. It is the way of things that we are all both mortal and immortal—all at once.

For me, a fish is not a thing; it is a living being with a desire to survive as long as possible and with the best quality of life possible—just like me. When I do take a rare photo with a fish, I am never intending to say, “Look what I caught,” but rather, “Look who I met.” This is why I bring him or her to the net—not it. And this is why I say “thank you” when I release each beautiful creature back into the river of life. In the language of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Native American ancestors I might say, “Megwech.” The intention is the same. Respect, empathy, and gratitude.

For me, a river is not a thing; it is a living being with a desire to flow as long as possible with clarity and good health—just like me. I’ve noticed that how we treat ourselves often determines how we treat others and the planet. If I eat more plants and less meat and processed foods, my heart and soul will thrive. If I pollute my body with fat, sugar, and salt, I will no longer be the man I might have been. It’s the same with forests and fishes and rivers and relationships. We get what we give.

The week passed by like a dream unfolding, and during that week I caught and released many salmon, trout, char, and grayling. And now it was my last day of fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region—bittersweet. Time (whatever time is) had rolled out in front of me like dice lying motionless on a table. The rain fell across the Agulowak in soft sheets of mixed drizzles and downpours. I was cold but not unbearably so. Bob and I loaded up into the boat and our guiding friend Andrew Tartaglio began motoring us through the chop, around the bends, and past the bears to our final destination, Grayling Island. Almost magically, I had come full circle.

Andrew set the anchor at the edge of a community of half-submerged willows, and Bob and I each began casting a Squirmy Wormy that was suspended about 6 feet below a brightly colored indicator with a small nymph dropper about 10 inches below the wiggling top fly. We could see some nice-sized grayling rising up and taking something just beneath the surface, but they ignored our offerings until Bob allowed the whole contraption to drift briefly behind the boat and a grayling grabbed the “emerging” nymph. It was a gorgeous fish and he caught another that way, and I did the same. Even though Andrew was technically our guide, I always tell my guides the same thing: “We’re just friends going fishing, so please feel free to fish.” He did and in short order he too caught a grayling while Bob and I watched and cheered for him—and the fish.




It’s not a competition. It’s all about connections among people, places, and other living beings. When the fish or the river tugs, we tug back. It’s all just tapping upon the prison wall. Can you hear it?

It amazes me how quickly things come to an end. This is true with fishing adventures and lifetimes. This river flowed just as freely long before I ever took my first breath, and it will continue to flow long after I take my last. The grayling and I share the same finite fate, and infinite future. And in the end, there is no end. There is only the mortal cycle of life and death and the immortal circle of timeless souls swimming and soaring through the never-ending universe.

The next morning I sipped coffee and stared out wistfully at Jackknife Mountain. I knew then that I would miss this place and these people. I walked out on the dock and jumped up into the copilot seat of the Beaver, and soon heard the sound of Ron calling out, “Clear . . . contact!” as the engine of the float plane came alive—one final time.

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Only Africa has touched my heart with as much depth as Alaska. I remember back then looking out the window of the small commuter airplane that carried me over the Kalahari Desert—and as it did, I tried to burn the images of vast savannas, mopane forests, wilderness, and wildlife so deeply into my memories that I might never lose them—even after death. (I wonder . . . can love outlive our lifetime? Will my soul recall those people and places I love in this life when I move on to the next? I sometimes feel this is true.)

And now as the mid-century float plane rose up from the waters of Lake Aleknagik and rounded Jackknife Mountain only to alight again, ever so softly upon the lake, I once again burned the sights, sounds, and sensations of this place and time into my memory. I hoped that these images and feelings might travel with me along whatever paths await me.

Living has little to do with biology and much to do with the ghost within this machine. So many people are the walking dead. But now as the sunrise comes to my Texas Hill Country home, my mind lives in the here and now, and also in the then and there. Every now becomes a memory—in an instant. Life is beautiful and dreams do come true. Keep casting.


Steve Ramirez is a Texas master naturalist, poet, and Marine Corps veteran. He is the author of three books including Casting Seaward (Lyons Press, 2023).

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