“You should have been here last week,” say good-intention locals to travelers who haven’t found what they expected on their journeys. Perhaps the ceaseless rain has wrinkled both the skin and the spirits of the sodden RVers, and of course last week brought postcard-perfect blue skies. Or maybe the wildlife has gone missing throughout the visit, but a week-ago Tuesday looked like a zoological parade. Whatever factors contribute to the less-than-stellar visit, one of the last things travelers want to hear is that their trip would have been spectacular, if only their timing had been better. The very last thing a traveling angler wants to hear is some oversized tale that shatters the bounds of piscatorial credulity, the teller of said fish story always prefacing the whopper with, “I swear this is true. If I hadn’t been there myself, I’d a never believed it.”
“Then keep it to yourself, bub,” is the silent response of the sulking angler who couldn’t find the seafood section in the grocery store — with the help of a hungry grizzly. If I sound disillusioned, it’s because I am currently one of those sulking anglers. I had planned to rectify my up-north fishing woes of previous trips by catching boatloads of salmon during
my nine days exploring the Golden Circle, a stunningly beautiful, very RV-friendly route that passes through the Yukon Territories, a sliver of British Columbia and a chunk of Southeast Alaska, skirting countless rivers, streams, creeks, ponds, lakes and fjords along the way. During a month in Alaska on previous trips and a week in Northwest Territories,
I’d managed to string together only about three hours of fishing, with salmon and halibut not even a possibility.
This trip, I knew, would be different, since I was signed on to fish with a guide in the Yukon and with another in Haines, Alaska, where I was sure to tire my reeling arm while landing salmon and halibut that would take bites out of the Last Frontier’s angling records. Upon arriving in Whitehorse, I learned that my Yukon fishing trip had been cancelled. “Here we go again,” I thought. I filled my day with anti-angling — museums, shops, coffeehouses. That night, in the truck camper rented from Fraserway RV Rental in Whitehorse, I dreamed of kings, cohos, pinks and sockeyes. By the time the camper and I reached Haines a few days later, I was more than ready for some water-borne action. I waited at the dock, then called the captain when he didn’t arrive. “I have some bad news, Bruce,” the captain said, then informed me he was sick. I expressed my sympathy and hung up the phone … then invented six new curse words. The Lynn Canal that Haines perches above seemed to mock me in all its turquoise fishiness, another Alaskan waterway in which I would never wet a line.
Out of desperation, I asked a local merchant if a jinxed angler could buy some cheapo gear and land anything that possessed scales in the local waters. Having received an affirmative response and been steered in the right direction, I took my $25 rod and reel (including a spool of 10-pound test) to nearby Chilkoot Lake State Park. Anglers in full neoprene waders, many using RVs parked along the road as a base, stood waist-deep in the frigid waters at the head of the Chilkoot River. Knowing that the disaster-courting hopscotch on slick rocks I’d have to perform just to reach the water made my chances slim — not to mention the too-quick current — I tried anyway.
The first cast cost me the highly recommended hot-pink Pixie lure I’d just purchased. Since I only had two others —
and some just-in-case salmon eggs — I moved a quarter mile upstream to the outlet of Chilkoot Lake. The glacial-runoff water, towered over by jagged mountains and dipped into by bald eagles scooping up their meals, is absolutely beautiful. But I was there to fish. At least until my reel seized up on the fifth cast. When I returned to the lake later that evening, intending to do nothing more than take photos of the grizzlies that regularly fish these waters, I took one look at the 15 anglers plying the mouth of the river and managed — through supreme concentration, deft manipulation and stone-cold luck — to get the reel working again.
But a couple hundred casts resulted in not a single bite. It was no consolation that everyone was being skunked. Pixies be damned, I thought, then resorted to the first technique I learned as a boy while fishing for alpine trout — salmon eggs on a treble hook. The pink salmon weren’t biting, but that didn’t mean the Dolley Varden wouldn’t appreciate a snack. When I landed my first fish, I thought I should call the Guinness Book of World Records immediately. On a No. 8 hook, large enough for either a Dolley or a salmon, I hoped, I had managed to catch a spectacular fish.
I swear — this is no fish story; I have witnesses — the salmon fry at the end of my line was no larger than my pinkie. I think I heard the eagles snickering at me as I let the tenacious little guy go. I caught a small Dolley soon thereafter, but I had a hunch I was being punished for some fishing transgression I’d committed unknowingly in my past. Determined to right this Alaskan-fishing wrong, I signed on with Choctaw Charters when I got to Skagway. Mike Hardy and his assistant, Marion, both friendly and professional, negotiated the Choctaw Lady, a well-equipped 30-foot trawler, around the docked cruise ships and headed out into ruggedly gorgeous Taiya Inlet.
That late-July afternoon, we were in search of feeding, not spawning, king salmon. A client, Rudy Martinez of Tucson, Arizona, landed a shiny, hard-fighting 15 pounder almost immediately. We didn’t catch another fish. Late-season mornings are best for kings, “in August and September,” Mike told me. In other words, you should have been here next month.