Dad’s First Fish

(excerpted from my AK2005 journal)

Saturday July 30th

Another great day. God has answered another prayer. Dad has caught a fish!

The alarm went off suddenly at 4 am – just a few short hours after I finally lay down in my sleeping bag for a short night’s rest. Rudely awakened by the alarm I got up and got out of bed. The first thing I realized was that it was extremely chilly and cold out. Instantly, I began to shake with an extreme case of the chills. I started layering on the fishing clothes that were laid out nearby. Even after adding all the layers I was still cold and shaking. Then I had a quick snack and gathered my fishing gear together. I made the short walk outside between motorhomes to gather Dad, who was already decked out in his gear, and we started down the trail. I’ve got to give Dad some credit, even though he hadn’t landed any fish yet this year in a couple of outings, he was still up early and willing to hit the early morning run with me – even on this extremely chilly morning.

We got down to the river and headed over to Marvin’s rock. There was one other guy on the river already down near the #1 hole. Dad thought it was “Stanford” from a previous fishing session, but it turned out to be “Indiana Jim” the bare-hooked snagger. After thirty minutes of churning the water without any results at Marvin’s rock we slid down below Indiana and took up residence below the #1 hole in Glory’s former hot spot. Dad took the little sandbar and I went downstream a few yards and stood underneath the last remaining tree that overhangs the river. Once again we started churning the water. Dad made a few comments to Indiana thinking he was “Stanford”. Finally, I let Dad in on the secret that it wasn’t the same guy from the night before.

After a few minutes in our new spots, while it was still twilight gray-dark out, Dad made a cast and his line made a “slurping” sound. In reaction Dad said his famous words, “Oops.”. Without further ado, his line starting swimming upstream making that famous line slurping and sucking noise. Usually that type of noise is typical of a foul-hooked fish. Hoping for the best, I went with my first reaction – and I began to pray silently– Please be in the mouth, Lord. Please be in the mouth!

His line slurped upstream some more but in an atypical manner for a sockeye his fish never broke the surface of the water to give us a look at the hook placement. Hoping for the best, I slowly turned and made my way to the bank and exchanged my pole for Dad’s small butterfly net. I made my way back out into the current and took up a netting position at the edge of the current. After what seemed like forever, I finally got a look at Dad’s fish and I was able to confirm a positive hook-set. That was good. But it was also bad. Now, I had a new more fervent prayer – Lord, please don’t let it come off. This short prayer I silently repeated over and over in a quick panic.

This was an extremely traumatic moment in time for me. For years, I had been urging Dad to make another trek to Alaska in pursuit of his first sockeye salmon. His two prior trips many years earlier had yielded hook-ups, but never a landed salmon. Finally, this year I was able to convince him to make the trip north again. Part of my spiel was that I  “guaranteed” him that he would catch fish this time. At the start of his fishing trip that turned out to be a bit harder than I thought. After his first two skunked outings on this current trip, including a comment from me that he was “unteachable”, I was beginning to feel the pressure as much as he was. But now, he here was, with a mouth-hooked sockeye just feet from shore – we needed to catch this fish. We had to.

Dad, for his part, was in a full fledged tug-o-war stand off with his fish. I think for the first time, with my 7-weight Pflueger fly-rod in his hand, tip bent over in a complete arch, that Dad now understood how difficult and delicate landing a sockeye could be. Catching and landing a sockeye on a real slow day, when maybe you get only four or five touches all morning, is a real test of your abilities. Being successful at it is what separates those with full freezers from those with half full freezers.

Anyhow, Dad finally turned the fish and it came back my way. The fish hadn’t yet come out of the water this whole time, so I knew it had a least one strong run still to make, and by no means was it finished yet. Regardless, I started a slow shuffle farther out into the water and began to make my netting run. I took a series of small baby slide steps to stealthily make my way out towards the slot where the fish was holding. Again, I knew this wasn’t the best way to net a fish. Typically, I’d wait until the fisherman would turn a fish and bring it into the shallows before attempting a net job. But, this was my Dad – and potentially his first Alaskan sockeye. We had to land this fish and remove his “forever skunked” curse. And so I lost my head a bit and started wading out a little farther than normal. So, with Dad’s butterfly net in hand there I stood awaiting the arrival of his fish. I call it a butterfly net, because it was had an ultra-fine mesh with a real short handle. Basically, I would have to be in a position to actually reach down and touch the fish in order to be able to net it. Difficult, but do-able.

The biggest obstacle in my path now was the gray-twilight darkness. As my part in this battle began to play out I now had a third prayer – Lord, don’t let me lose it. Joe-Dad’s famous line started to echo through my mind and I thought to myself –“Don’t let me beat it off”.

Like I said earlier, Dad eventually turned the fish, but in the gray twilight I couldn’t really see his fish at all. The lightly colored back on a sockeye really camouflages it in low-light situations. So, all I could make out was Dad’s fishing line and a faint discolored shadow below the surface of the silted water. Then all of a sudden, the fish came right to my feet and I made my move. I reacted with precision split second timing and made a graceful scoop beyond reproach. Unfortunately, the fish sensed my movement (using the Force I think ), stopped short of my net and finally broke water for the first time of the battle. His initial splash obliterated all of my visual sensors. I couldn’t see, but luckily the nerve endings in my legs were sending signals that I was in contact with an angry fish. I made a couple more futile stabs at the fish, but to no avail. I think I heard Joe-Dad back behind me in the bushes somewhere chiding me – Don’t beat him off….. Then, I lost all contact with the fish. I couldn’t see it and I didn’t feel it knocking against my legs. The next thoughts that crossed my mind were – “No-oo!”. Eventually, that panic subsided and the fish was away, but luckily it was still attached to the end of Dad’s line. Yes! Thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord.

Again Dad’s line started that “slurping” sound as the fish once more made its way upstream. But now, the fish was starting to grow weary and Dad began to win the tug-o-war struggle. I guess my kicking at it earlier had taken a toll on the sockeye. Dad turned the fish again and I knew we had him. Like a silver bullet he came right towards me and went head first into that little net. Score! Dad is on the board! Thank you, Lord!

With the fish in the net I walked over to Dad and we exchanged a sloppy high-five. Then together we went over to the bank and got the billy-bonker club out of my backpack. I handed it over to Dad and gave him the honors. He clubbed that big old buck about three times and that was that. Dad then handed me his metal stringer and I tried to run a prong through his mouth. I tried twice before noticing that his jaw was basically wired shut by Dad’s coho-fly. The hook had penetrated all the way through the bottom of the jaw and lodged itself in the upper jaw, effectively locking closed the big buck’s jaws. No wonder it hadn’t come off during my first failed netting attempt. It was hooked as securely as any sockeye I’d ever seen. After grabbing out my pliers and fixing that wreck, I finally got that buck double-locked onto Dad’s stringer – I wanted to be sure there was no way it was going to miraculously come back to life and wiggle free. Then I sliced his gills and bled him good. About that time, I started to notice just how big that buck actually was. Dad asked what it weighed. It looked to me like a good ten-pounder and then some. All I know is that when we finally got around to cleaning and filleting him, that buck produced the two biggest slabs of the year. And that’s saying something since I probably fillet around a hundred sockeye during this year’s season.

After getting Dad’s fish stringered up we finally got back out into the river and started fishing, I could tell you how I went on to hook and land three fish that morning and that Dad never hooked up again the rest of that session, but that still wouldn’t change the fact that the morning belonged to Dad…and that my Dad, on his third trip to Alaska, had finally broken through and landed his first Kenai sockeye. The curse was finally over. Somehow those other fish I landed didn’t mean that much. The only thing that mattered was the smile on my Dad’s face when his big ole sockeye finally went into the net.