It was year 2000 and I had just arrived at the airport in my rented pickup-camper combo. I had got into Anchorage the evening before, and today, Saturday, after I had taken a cab out to the rental place, I got the rig and headed straight down to the Kenai. There was no time to waste for I only had two weeks of fishing time this year – after all, I was gainfully employed.
After making haste and getting down to the Kenai in record time, I pulled into the airport and began to get my stuff ready. There was no time to lose, heck, it was already July 15th and the reds were in. I wasn’t quite sure how many had gone by and how many were left, so every minute of every day counted.
With gear donned and ready, fly pole rigged up, and caps and sunglasses in place I made the trek down the trail to the fishing hole. Back then the trail was still “au natural” – no stairs, no walkways – just a variety of beaten paths scattered along the hillside leading down to the river. I sure do miss that now, but with all of the foot traffic over the years, I guess the stairs were “inevitable”.
I took the small footpath that led directly to my favorite hole and slid down the last few feet onto a strip of dry riverbank next to the water. I looked the riverbank up and down both ways trying to find a spot that was open. The river was crowded, but not overly so, and with a little effort there was plenty of places that I could make my way in to fish. In fact right where I was standing at the time didn’t look too bad. I was about 15-yards downstream of my favorite spot which was occupied at the time. But alas, I wasn’t in too bad of an area, I was just upstream of a large submerged boulder which sometimes acted like a nice holding pocket for the migrating salmon.
Looking around I motioned to the couple that seemed to be occupying this area at the moment and asked them if it was okay for me to fish there. Take notice, this is the proper way to make an entrance into occupied waters. The couple, who were of Japanese origin, gave me an approving nod and I set out to start fishing.
The first 15 minutes of fishing each year brings a whirlwind of emotions flooding back to me. The casting techniques come back, the connection with the river returns, the feeling of the river bottom begins to transmit back up my rod through my arm and into my brain. In just a few moments all the cares of my former self ebb away and all that’s left is a man in pursuit of sockeye. A sockeyer reborn!
Fishing was pretty good that evening. In the first hour of fishing I had put four nice chrome sockeye on the bank. The next hour, which ended around 9pm, saw me getting another two fish rounding out a six-limit on my first evening out. Now that’s the way to start a fishing trip. Along the way, I chatted a bit with the Japanese lady beside me, and a little bit with her husband – who didn’t speak any English. They also did pretty well and had a bundle of fish between the two of them, though, I don’t think either of them got a limit by the time I had left.
The next day I headed down to the river and met up with Marvin for the first time of the season. We spent some time catching up on things and generally stood around and chatted just being pleased with ourselves for being at the river fishing again. We spent the next few hours in miscellaneous small talk while fishing away and occasionally putting one on the bank. A couple of hours into our session the Japanese couple made their way down to the river and migrated towards our spot. Apparently, they decided that this was their spot for the year, too. Luckily, Marvin and I are early risers and we usually get to stand wherever we want. There wasn’t a lot of fishing room at the time for the Japanese couple, but they managed to slip into a place about 20 yards downstream of our position.
Throughout the day, the Japanese lady would get out of the water and rest along the bank. That usually meant that she was sitting right behind me as they had placed all of their jackets and bags in the nook of the log hole – which is where I was fishing at. Because she spoke English and she felt comfortable talking to me we occasionally had some short small-talk conversations. They were on vacation. They lived in Japan. She worked for JAL and therefore got cheap travel to Alaska. They were in Soldotna for 10 days. They had been to Homer one day a few days ago. She likes to catch sockeye. They really like the hens so they can get the eggs. Many of their friends in Japan like the eggs. And so on and so forth.
So on it went with the small talk every time she came over for her break. Marvin was definitely amused by my new friendship with this lady and he gave me some goofy looks to go along with some of his funny comments. But, hey, I was used to it. For whatever reason, I tend to attract a lot of conversations from people I don’t know when out on the river. It’s part of the experience, part of the game. Some folks are interesting, some folks are not, and some folks you just want to chuck in the river. I’d probably mark the Japanese lady down as “friendly, not so interesting, but tolerable”.
A few days later, Marvin and I were down fishing in our spots again when the Japanese couple made their way to the river. Marvin and I were both bundled up in our rain gear due to the inclement weather. Despite my disguise, this time I received a wave and a greeting from the Japanese lady as she made her approach. I’m sure I was a little red in the face when I looked over at Marvin after that, but luckily it was hidden beneath the hood of my rain jacket. As we were again separated by a good 20+ yards during the morning, I didn’t really have any interaction with her during the fishing session. Well, not until she took her break and came over to talk. She had brought down a thermos of hot-chocolate to drink on this day. So, she had quite a bit of time for conversation as she finished her drink. Due to the rain and the wind, I was able to get away without being such an active participant in our conversation this time. After about 10 minutes, she had finished her drink and was ready to go back out into the river. But before she left, I saw her hands search through the pockets of her jacket. Grasping something in her right hand she approached Marvin and I.
“Here’s some mints. Please have some.”
With that, Marvin and I were a bit dumbfounded, but the lady stuck out her hands towards us and handed each of us a couple packets about the size of a “Sweet N Low” packet as seen in a restaurant. Each packet carried the initials of JAL, as well as, a bunch of miniature Japanese writing. After that, she headed back downriver to go fishing. Marvin and I looked at our “gifts” and just chuckled to ourselves. I stuffed mine down into the pocket of my rain gear and went back to fishing. Marvin did the same.
The next day of fishing came around and once again Marvin and I found ourselves fishing next to each other. Not having seen the Japanese couple all day, Marvin sarcastically says to me,
“Where’s your friends today?”
Now, I instantly knew who he was referring to, but I couldn’t give in to his questioning so easily.
“Who?” I answered.
“Your friend. You know – the Mint Lady.”
The way he said “the Mint Lady” as if that were her real name just cracked me up to no end. I can still see Marvin and hear those words as if it were yesterday.
“Oh, the Mint Lady. Yeah, haven’t seen her all day. Maybe she’s gone home finally.”
“Hey,” Marvin replied, while grabbing at something out of his pocket, “You want my mints? These things are awful. I tried one last night and about choked to death.”
“No, that’s okay, I had one last night too. Tasted like dirt or something. I think you can just keep those for yourself.”
Marvin was right, those mints were the most awful forsaken food I had ever put into my mouth. Heaven forbid that my breath should smell like that on purpose. But, I didn’t throw away my other pack of mints just yet. I still had a plan hatching.
Months later, I was at home on Saturday afternoon when the mailman arrived with the mail. I went up to get it and noticed that I had received a letter from Marvin. Hurrying back to the house I opened it up to read a nice Christmas card with a “purple-flash” coho fly taped to the interior. I got a good chuckle out of that.
Forever, I had been telling Marvin that no self respecting sockeye fishermen would be caught dead with a purple fly – let alone a purple-flash fly – on the end of his line. It just so happened that Marvin always carried one in his little tackle box. Whenever fishing was slow or he was having a hard time of it he’d always tease that he was going to have to pull it out and tie it on his line. And now, here I was, the recipient of this most prized possession.
The next day I set to work on writing Marvin and his wife a nice letter in return. Encased in my letter, however, was not a goofy purple fly, but a nice pale green packet of JAL mints. I was sure he would appreciate that.
The year came and went and suddenly it was fishing time again. I had made my way to Alaska again and found myself walking down an all too familiar path to the Kenai. As I made my way down to the river and started towards my favorite hole, I looked up and saw that Marvin was already firmly entrenched in our favorite spot. As I made my way over to his position, my hand went into my pocket, as I was ready for this moment already. Coming nearer, we both broke out into smiles. I reached out my hand and offered him a purple-flash coho fly, he reached into his pocket and offered me some mints. We both had a good laugh and then we went fishing.