There is an old axiom that’s says there are reasons why it’s called “fishing” and not “catching.” There is never a guarantee that a fish will bite your bait, lure or fly. Even if they do bite it they don’t always get hooked. Even when you do manage to fool a fish well enough to get them to bite and get hooked there is no guarantee they will stay hooked long enough for you to successfully land the fish. Whether you are trying to put meat on your table or are a purists trying to count coup with a photograph, your odds are fairly low. I think my lifetime average trolling for cohos is 50%. For a purist that crimps their barbs it’s half that, maybe less.
And that challenge is the appeal of the sport. If catching were guaranteed would we still pursue fishing with such passion? I doubt it. We fish because it’s challenging. All you have to do is consider those poor souls that fish for steelhead and my point becomes as clear as spring snow melt over a gravel bottom. So, when I go fishing I try to bring that perspective with me and appreciate that I will face obstacles in my quest and in the end the story might not have the ending I would prefer, but that there will always be other less tangible benefits that will make the outing worthwhile.
When fishing for King salmon on Fish Creek on North Douglas Island, one of those obstacles are the bugs. I have fished all over Alaska, and I have never encountered bugs as bad as they are at Fish Creek. Bug spray is utterly useless. A head net and rubber gloves are totally required. A person without a head net lasts five twitchy minutes before they drop their rod into the creek and run away screaming with their hands waving over their head. Really, it’s that bad. Even with a head net and gloves, the cloud of bugs flying around your head probing for an opening is five inches thick and does actually obstruct your view some. It’s your wrists that suffer the most.
I had been fishing for several hours already. The tide was falling and past half tide. The majority of the fishing crowd had left already, if there had been a couple of fish caught over the day. The water was still high enough to flood the flat above the cut bank channel, but you could stand just off the channel to cast now and you could see where you were casting. With the crowd thinning out I could aim my cast more upstream too rather than just straight out from me as is polite when it’s crowded. This let me get the fly into the channel earlier in the drift and gave the fly a little more time in front of the fish.
When this fish broke the surface lunging at my fly, it was only 6 feet in front of me and close enough that it actually made me jump. I snapped the rod back to set the hook and something odd happened, the fly didn’t catch in his mouth, but hung up on a tangle of line that unraveled as I pulled. I realized my fly had hooked the broken leader of someone else’s hook and that the fish was somehow tangled in fishing line. The fight was awkward because part of the tangled line was wrapped around the middle of the fish caught in its dorsal and pectoral fins and I would end up with a broadside pull at times. As I got the fish closer I reeled my fly line all the way in until the fly was at the rod tip. But that still left maybe fifteen feet of leader from the fly to the fish that I could not reel in. Pointing my 9-foot fly rod sideways away from the fish with my left hand I used my arm and the rod length to pull the extra leader past me and bring it closer to my body. The fish was tired and followed the pull. With my right hand I pulled my fish bonker from my wader belt and as the fish glided past my shins swimming slowly on the surface I hit it once in just the right spot and the fish quivered it’s last. Several folks came over to congratulate me and to see what the tangled mess was about. As we unraveled the lines we marveled at this brave fish’s fate.
First, the bottom hook of a mooching rig was caught in the fish’s mouth with the upper hook and a foot of monofilament line trailing. So the fish had originally been hooked out in open saltwater by a sport troller and had managed to break the line and escape. Then, snarled badly around the upper hook of the mooching rig was the line of a lead weighted snagger’s treble hook with the hook still attached. The treble hook itself had not hooked the fish but was dangling from the snarl. So, after breaking the mooching rig line the fish had already been up Fish Creek and into the Snagging Pond where someone had casted their snagging line over the fish’s back, and in twitching and turning away the fish, had tangled the snagging line around the upper mooching rig hook. Based on the size of the snarl that was a messy fight, and the fish obviously broke that line too. Then, after swimming back downstream from the Snagging Pond dragging the dangling weighted treble hook along the bottom the whole way, the fish had lunged at my fly and I had managed to hook a loop of the broken snagging line with my fly. And that whole mess hung together long enough for me to land the fish. Crazy.
And such is the allure of fishing.
Sometimes it is the most unlikely of successes that are the most satisfying.
• Steven Dahl was inspired to share this story by “I Went To the Woods,” a column by Jeff Lund that appears twice monthly in the Juneau Empire. The Capital City Weekly, which runs in the Juneau Empire’s Thursday editions, accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for Writers’ Weir. To submit a piece for consideration, email email@example.com.