Mission Fishin’ – also known as a “grocery run”. Our hopes? To fill the freezer with our limit of pike. Tales of numerous, big, ferocious fish charging the lure and fighting like a monster had me just a little worried. I’m still new at this whole fishing thing, I still have a hard time “hitting” the fish when it first nibbles on my line when they are itty-bitty fish. But I was sure I’d get the hang of it. Eventually. And eventually it will have to be.
We loaded the truck with the cooler full of sandwiches, one each, from Hilltop Truck Stop, a couple of gas cans, and the aired up spare tire for the boat trailer. We loaded the boat with a few different rods and reels and a couple of small containers of various lures. We stopped in town and picked up a couple more lures that looked large enough and heavy enough to snag a small whale. Then our journey began.
We made our way out around “Murphy Dome”, a mountain always seen from a distance on the Elliott Highway, near “home”. The pavement turned to a well-maintained dirt road, which eventually gave way to a potted, rutted, fifteen mile hell march. I’ve lived on dirt roads this potted and rutted, but only a few miles, not fifteen. Fifteen miles of potholes and ruts towing an air boat is not the most fun you can have in an afternoon, but being on the Chatanika River reeling in mountains of frisky pike would make it all worthwhile. To be certain.
We made it to the river and backed the airboat in. There were a few other trucks parked in the area with empty trailers, so, presumably, others were out fishing, somewhere along the river. One family was pulling their airboat out as we launched. The wife, I assume, was in shorts and flip-flops, as were the two little girls. I was in head to toe fabric after performing a “sheep dip” in DEET and still, the mosquitos were snacking on me. I guess I am just that sweet.
We loaded the cooler and the gas into the boat and made our way out onto the river. We’d been worried about the looming dark clouds, checking the weather those brief moments we had reception for an update. Funny, when I’m home, I’m super particular about what I wear and what I pack before I head outdoors. Years and years of training as a scout leader and many, many treks into the backcountry, plus certification in cold weather survival and wilderness first aid told me that, today, in jeans, a tank top and a cotton flannel shirt, no socks and Vans, I was a prescription for disaster if we ran into any kind of weather or if we were to break down on the river far from the truck. To my credit, I did have a hoodie (though cotton) in my daypack. This is Alaska. What was I thinking? All I could think about was the purple, packable, parka I saw at Sportsman’s Warehouse where we’d just bought those bodacious lures. Shoulda bought it. I always regret retail restraint when I do actually exercise it. But, I was better outfitted than anyone else I saw on the river, and purple packable parka would’ve made me look like a wimp. Or like I was from California, or something. As I like to say, “whatever.” Living dangerously, I guess.
I don’t fear hypothermia. Well, I do, but I have an understanding of it. If I had to choose the way to die, it is pretty high on the list. I guess. Other than simply going to sleep and not waking up. As a matter of fact, my children and I have a loose pact, if I become a burden in my old age, demented, tumor filled, prescription dependent, it’s time to go “snow camping”, and I will just conveniently leave all my super expensive cold weather gear behind (I’m senile, remember?). I will have my own tent, and in the cold of night, I will slip into hypothermia and pass. Once the initial (few hours of) discomfort pass, you slip into a delirious state where you actually feel warm. Then you die.
It was pretty cold on the river as we skimmed along atop the water. The cool thing about an airboat, especially a smaller one, it can navigate through passages only three inches deep. So we did, and we head upstream for turn after turn after turn. After about fifty turns, though, with as many closely proximate turns, I was pretty sure we could still see the truck through the trees if we looked closely enough. So, when it did start to sprinkle I wasn’t too, too worried. We hadn’t gone all that far. Luckily the sprinkles subsided and the skies lightened and we had no more rain for the day. Things were looking up.
We stopped and tried a good-looking fishing hole. We cast and cast and cast. Nothing. Curious. There should’ve been something. Where were all those voracious fish we’d heard about? We got back in the boat and headed on.
As we headed on, something began to pelt my face, at first I thought it was rain, but the sky, though overcast, was light and whatever was hitting my face wasn’t particularly wet. Gnats. Billions of gnats. At thirty-five miles an hour, a billion gnats hitting your face is an interesting sensation. Not painful, really, but not comfortable. Like micro-dermabrasion. I had gnat corpses stuck to my sunglasses, and thank goodness I had those damn sunglasses on, because I can’t imagine peeling gnat carcasses off my eyeballs. I also had a layer of gnats, dead and alive, plastered into my hair.
We tried fishing some more here and there, and nothing. No fish. Anywhere. We moseyed on. We ventured up Goldstream, according to plan, the locale of legendary pike. On and on we pressed up the more brackish water. It was almost thick, it seemed, in places. Pike, I guess, like this. But then again, maybe not, because they weren’t here. We came upon a cabin with three guys out front. They’d paid to be dropped by a plane for a few days of fishing. In twenty-four hours, almost continuous, between the three of them, twelve fish. And not very impressive ones, at that, “hammer handles”. We headed back out of Goldstream and decided to try upstream from where we launched. Still. Nothing.
But, for the discouraging fishing, it was still an awesome day. On our drive in, we saw a great horned owl glide over the road and into the canopy. On our way downstream we startled a moose. We saw a couple of beaver along the way, one here, one there. We saw lots of ducks and other birds, a few big birds of prey. A second moose. We saw a bald eagle. Twice. If you’ve never seen a bald eagle floating along overhead, in the wild, you haven’t lived. I think the most amazing thing I saw, except for the bald eagle, was the glass-like water, especially in the overcast and broken clouds. We’d come around the corner and the reflection in the sky was so bright and so vivid my brain would go, “whoa, wait”. It was like finding yourself upside down. The water was so clear and so reflective it looked almost like you could walk on it.
Empty handed, cooler full of empty beer bottles and empty lunch sacks, but no fish, we made our way back to the boat launch, and back up the bumpy road towards home. For me though, it was still a magical day. A bad day fishing here is better than a great day in a lot of other places. Treasure every day for what you find special.