Alaska Fish Stories
Outdoor writer, Dave Atcheson
Dave Atcheson has lived on the Kenai Peninsula since the 1980’s. He is a frequent contributor to Alaska Magazine and author of the guidebook, Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, as well as Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond, recently published by National Geographic Books.
The Four Seasons
It’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated the desire—indeed, the necessity—of the truly devoted angler to pursue his passion throughout the entire year. Yet most, if not all outdoors enthusiasts, especially in the northland, appreciate and even revel in the change of seasons. And most of us, even if we can’t explain it, sense a connection to something greater than ourselves that comes alive under the canopy of old-growth forest, in the midst of towering snow-capped peaks, or in the roiling drawl of a river soon after ice-out.
Speaking with the undeniable slant of the devout angler, I believe it is an affinity even more acute in our kind; ours being a connection that is intensified as we move from casual observer to participant. As actual players we are more apt to discern the subtle voice of creation cast in the natural drama unfolding before us, and it becomes something we seek, though by very different means, throughout the year. Whether alone in spring, with a 4-weight fly rod and only our own reflections for company, or sharing the lower Kenai in July, salmon stick in hand, surrounded by 400 of our favorite friends and neighbors—whether trolling off Seward’s rugged outer coast in search of an autumn coho, or scraping ice out of the guides of our rod, casting for the rare winter steelhead—each season holds its own magic, its own reward, its own intimate connection to our natural world and that undeniable spirit that created it. What follows is an ode to the four seasons and the fishing that keeps that connection alive.
In his famous concertos “The Four Seasons,” Vivaldi’s spring commences much as ours does here in Alaska. It begins slowly, with a lilting rise and slight inflection of strings, merely a whisper, the reawakening of something dormant as the ice releases the lakes and streams once again begin to flow. The music builds just as our anticipation builds, with the gathering and sorting of gear, rising with the odor of old reel oil and moldering hackle feathers, and the planning of the year’s first trip. Whether to newly uncovered lakes or to the banks of rivers just beginning to fill with spring runoff, it is a time of revitalization and renewal. Even the trout seem to move at a tempered pace, slowly filtering into rivers and on lakes gradually coming back to life with the incremental rise in oxygen.
With early fishing often slow — and the arrival of the salmon and the tourist-crazed days of summer still far off — there is valuable time for contemplation, to take in the subtleties we so often overlook; a freshness in the air, the budding of alder and willow harkening the great change upon us. A rare opportunity to actually listen to quiet and appreciate true solitude, the lakes often so solitary I almost feel guilty at the intrusion of my paddle upon their stillness.
Yet as time inevitably moves forward and spring progresses the world awakens, the moose drop their young, strings of ducklings frantically follow their mothers along the shoreline, and fish begin to feed, building their strength for the seasons ahead. With the leaves and the delirium of spring fever now in full bloom, it is a lively dance of celebration — Vivaldi’s third movement in all its splendor ringing in a joyous return to life and the inevitable march toward the dog days of summer.
In “The Four Seasons,” the summer concerto begins slowly, almost lazily, but I must forgive Vivaldi, he was not a fisherman in Alaska. For the fisherman, or any Alaskan, the transition into summer is abrupt. All at once, almost without knowing it, the tempo of our days has changed. We awake to a world of renewed spirit and vigor. People are bustling around. Thousands of visitors, having taken to that great series of asphalt rivers, have arrived in Alaska; perhaps our own visitors, with salmon and sightseeing on their minds.
The time to contemplate is suddenly over. It is replaced, amidst our lengthening days and the limited time we have, with an urgency, the need to try and fit it all in before winter. With freezers to fill and reds to catch we enter fishing’s infamous combat zones and reserve countless hours for the courting of kings. With guests to entertain and many lakes having hit the summer doldrums, we trade the lithe precision, the whimsy, of our fly rods for the bounty and awe of the ocean and the utility and graceless efficiency of the halibut rod.
There are also our own adventures to plan, the float trips we’ve always wanted to take or hikes to distant mountain waterways which stand ice free for only a moment; all balanced against the usual litany of summer chores, the houses to be painted, the sheds that must be built, and the gardens that need planting. With barbecues to host and friends to be reacquainted with, there is barely a moment to think. Yet there is also something vital in this frenzy, in the frenetic energy of a full day and in the satisfaction of that first well-deserved sip of scotch on the porch, after the fish are cleaned, under the midnight sun.
Vivaldi’s “Autumn” begins with the celebration of a successful harvest. For Alaskans, it’s a larder full of halibut and salmon. With our visitors having made their exit there is a slow return to the clarity we heard in “Spring.” It is a brief and welcome respite as the restlessness and ambition of summer begin to wane. Still, this is by far the shortest of our four seasons and for many Alaskan fishermen our favorite. While there is a chance once again for introspection, to revel in the changing landscape — in this case a growing pastel of bright orange and brown and a sea of mountainside fireweed — much of our best fishing still lies ahead. With kids having returned to school and the annual exodus of seasonal Alaskans, pressure on many of our favorite fishing holes has thinned, their trout having become greedy, desperate for the sustenance that will see them through the long winter.
This is also the time of year when the ancient, innate urge to hunt and gather seizes us. While many are lured afield to pick berries or pull the trigger, many of us, forsaking our shotgun or rifle for a fly rod, fulfill this urge with the stalking of silver salmon or our beloved steelhead, great prizes left exposed in the clear pools of autumn’s ebb.
It can be the best of both worlds, great fishing and quiet times, in a season we often try to prolong, refusing to accept the inevitable until finally we are driven from our favorite lakes and all but a few of our river strongholds, the forces of nature denying us access.
Overnight a heavy frost has blossomed and dead leaves swirl in time with the season’s first snowflakes. Winter is finally upon us and this concerto opens with the distinct sound of someone shivering, perhaps the winter fisherman, also stamping his feet rhythmically, streamside, in order to stay warm. No longer in denial, it is a peculiar fisherman’s jig we are all familiar with. Having fully accepted the season and its short days, we now briefly seek out open bits of water, casting between ice and slush flows, regularly stopping to pick at frozen guides; hands often so numb the mere thought of tying a new leader or even picking a fly out of the box is painful.
Nevertheless, there is a delightful sense of urgency, of adventure, that sparks to life this time of year, in extreme weather. And there is a certain satisfaction in knowing you are likely to be the only fisherman in sight, every hole yours for the taking, even the most heated combat zones in the battle for summer sockeyes having fallen quiet and returned to the spirit of the river. And, of course, there is the prospect of tangling with one of the few remaining rainbow trout or a late-season steelhead, a worthy incentive and enough to drive any fisher from the warmth of their lair.
Yet Vivaldi doesn’t forget that there is joy in returning indoors as well, his second movement the peaceful pleasure of a crackling fire, a moment of contentment made all the more poignant by our time outdoors; for it is here we are warmed by our memories, by the hopes and spirit of the river, and by the dreams of fish yet to be caught.
Author's note: A version of The "Four Seasons" article appeared in Alaska Magazine in October 2010.