At the end of a long bay in a corner of Alaska’s Prince William Sound lies a stream with no name. Stand alongside that stream in the right place, at the right time, and you will see untold numbers of salmon swimming upriver — enough to turn the water black. It is an astonishing sight. So astonishing that if, God forbid, I ever found myself dying of cancer, one of my final acts on this earth would be to fish this place.
I have fished many streams, many rivers, hundreds of lakes, two oceans and three seas. For 37 years I’ve wetted a line as often as I can; fishing runs through my blood stronger than any other thing I do except breathe, eat and sleep. In that time I’ve seen days where my skin blistered in the heat of hours spent staring at a line unmoving. I’ve had more than my share of good times, too. Days where you spend the drive home singing to songs on the radio and thinking about who on earth you’re going to give all your extra fish to.
But in nearly four decades as an angler, I can count on one hand the times that fishing has been so good it’s taken me to a primeval place — a place where eternity seeps into my bones. Days where I am Capt. John Smith, seeing the Chesapeake choked with gigantic striped bass, or that first Basque fisherman, whose name is lost to history, discovering that the Grand Banks were paved with cod. Last week I was Spanish explorer Salvador Fidalgo, standing mouth agape at a tsunami of salmon.
It was Fidalgo who named Cordova, Alaska, in 1790. And two centuries later, that tidal wave of fish is still there. Early that morning Holly, my friend Dan and I, led by our guide Ian of the Orca Adventure Lodge, steamed out from that little town towards the unnamed stream at the end of Sheep Bay. Ian said the fishing should be “pretty good.”
The head of the bay is too shallow for all but a rubber raft, so Ian dropped us off and we walked to the stream. All around us fish were jumping. Eagles squeaked and tittered in the trees above, sounding like a child playing with a creaky door hinge. Gulls yodeled in the distance, and the breath of the wind in the pines underlaid it all.
Low tide was approaching, with its oddly intoxicating aroma of decay. Mussels and a strange, mustard-colored seaweed that looked like overcooked egg noodles alternately crunched and slid under our boots. As we walked closer, a tidal plain spread out to our right, rimmed by pines. This was grizzly country, so I kept a close eye. I said nothing, not wanting to alarm Holly or Dan, but I suspect they too were scanning the grass for Mr. Grizz. Thankfully, he decided not to make an appearance.
We decided to fish opposite a low rock wall where there was a deep pool in the stream. On our side we could wade in several yards before the water rose above our boots. Armed with light action spinning gear, the goal was to cast upstream as far as we could a wrap float that suspended a pink jig. The lure would float and bob downstream, annoying the salmon: Salmon do not eat once they return to streams, so to catch one you need to induce it to bite instinctively. Apparently salmon don’t much care for pink lures floating in their face.
I sent the float soaring upstream. It landed with a plop, and bobbed only a few feet before it was dragged under. I reeled in a couple of turns quickly and set the hook hard; salmon have tough mouths and you need to put the wood to ‘em. Fish on! Immediately I could tell it was a pink salmon, a humpy. Strong and acrobatic to be sure, but nothing like the king salmon I’ve been catching this summer in California. Those fish weigh 20 pounds or more. This little pinkie probably weighed all of 5 pounds.
Still, on light gear it was not easy to haul him in. Salmon are strong. They need to be, for the mouth of this stream is only their beginning. Some salmon, such as the sockeye in the nearby Copper River, swim more than 200 miles upstream before they spawn. The fish need to lay on a thick layer of fat for such a journey, which makes Copper River sockeye one of the most prized salmon in the world. These pinks were different. Their spawning grounds were nearby, just around a few bends in the river. Far from spent, the pinks and chum salmon that use this stream arrive full of power. Ian said they mill about for weeks before heading inland.
Another cast. Another strike! This fish was larger, more belligerent. Unlike the gymnastic pinks, this fish stayed low in the water and just pulled. I’d felt this sort of thing before, fishing in the Gulf of Mexico: This felt like an amberjack, which is the angling equivalent of hauling in a pony. Slowly I gained line. Then it saw my boots in the water and decided it wanted to swim the other way, tearing line off the reel the way a steelhead does in winter. As it settled down, it kept up a rhythmic pulsing in the line, a constant series of head shakes. Not the thrashing head shake of a shark; this felt more sullen.
Slowly I managed to get the fish closer, close enough to see its sides had the characteristic camouflage pattern of a chum salmon. Chums, also called dog salmon or, euphemistically, keta salmon, are the least desirable of the Pacific salmon species. Their meat is pale and soft, even compared to pink salmon, which rank below king, sockeye and silvers in the salmonic hierarchy. Still, a chrome-bright chum is perfectly good eating. This was not a chrome fish, however, so we let it go.
Another cast, another fish. Again and again. Epic was the word I was using to describe it, but surreal is probably a better term. I caught a salmon on 17 straight casts, missing a strike on the the 18th. In three hours of fishing, I failed to catch a salmon only three times. Holly, who is new at casting a rod and reel, did nearly as well — nothing like catching fish to improve your skills…
Why, you may ask, were we catching so many? To be honest, we were in a gauzy blur most of the day, giggling incredulously at fishing better than anyone could possibly have hoped for. But we did have a purpose: We were fishing for chrome fish, which are superior eating. Chums get that camo pattern on them when they’re past prime, and pinks turn olive drab; the males also grow a huge hump on their backs the way some reef fish and bluegills do. You get to know when you’ve caught one, because they will turn themselves against the current of the stream and stop your reel cold.
After a while, I got good at reeling a salmon in quickly, seeing if it was chrome or not, then, if not, dropping my rod tip to release tension on the line. Most of the time this was enough to let the fish off the hook. The others we released as quickly as we could. Ian said he rarely sees a released salmon die. I am sure some do, but they are resilient fish.
We needed just one more fish for our limit. I sent the float upstream one more time, and one more time a salmon took it downward. At this point I could tell just by how jumpy the fish was that it was a chromer. I backed up, away from the rock wall, and took the fish with me. On the slick rocks the salmon looked like a slab of steel.
I rarely feel bad about killing fish the way I do about killing mammals and birds. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been killing and eating fish since I was in kindergarten. Maybe it’s because we humans feel a closer bond to our warm-blooded colleagues. Could be the fact that fish have no feet, as Kurt Cobain once sang. Whatever it is, I usually kill fish without thought.
Not this time. I looked long at that slab of steel, a pink salmon that would not be making its run upstream. There was never any question I would crack this fish over the head, bleed it and, later, eat it with gusto. My hesitation was more one of reverence.
Here was a gift. A gift not just of one salmon, or of the 18 Dan, Holly and I would return home with. This salmon on the rocks represented a gift to all of us. The cod that supported the vast Basque fishery, that built New England, are all but gone. And while the striped bass in the Chesapeake have edged off the ledge of extinction, they will never return to the numbers John Smith once saw. But for the most part, Alaska’s salmon runs have — in no small part due to human forbearance and husbandry — persisted in numbers large enough to boggle the mind.
This fish on the rocks was but one of 4.4 million pink salmon that would run the rivers just in Prince William Sound alone. Runs of this size exist in no other place in North America. It’s very existence is a flicker of light in an increasingly dim, metallic world. It is a sign that at least here, things are as they should be in this world. And I am grateful that I was lucky enough to see it.