We were camped about twelve miles outside of Thorne Bay, Alaska. We had come for a deer hunt, but the snow in the high country that drives the deer down each year was late. My whole family as always had come.
Our first few days were spent making base camp, after that there wasn’t much to do until the snow came. To me if you’re not able to go hunting, there’s only one thing you can do and that’s go fishing.
It was one of those typical S. E. Alaska days. It was raining lightly, kind of a heavy mist. The clouds were low and thick. It was almost noon, but it looked and felt more like early morning when my five sons and I crammed into the Suburban and drove down the dirt road. A few miles down we turned onto the super freeway, or in reality, a two lane blacktop road.
We were heading into Thorne Bay to talk to some friends we hadn’t seen since deer season last year, Vern and Terri. They live right across from the Thorne Bay Store. Terri had worked in the store for quite a few years and since it was the only store for sixty miles or so, she knew everyone around.
Now, you can fish in any river or stream in Alaska. If it’s at least a foot deep and more than three feet wide there’s going to be fish. Trout fishing in Alaska is some of the best fishing in the world. Ask any Alaska fishing guide and they’ll for sure agree, but I wasn’t trout fishing that day.
I wanted to fish somewhere where the granddaddies lived, the place tried and true to produce a broken line or two. I learned a long time ago, each small town had that one person that always catches the big ones. They even catch when no one else does.
After saying hello to Terri and Vern and just catching up a little, I asked if they knew who the person would be. Without hesitation they both answered the same, “Go to the Post Office!” With a promise we would stop by later to talk we quickly headed to the Post Office. In less than twenty minutes of talking I had more information about where to fish and what to use than you could learn on your own in years.
We were after late run Coho’s and hoping for big ones with plenty of fight. We were directed to a lake that didn’t have a name. Our directions were head down the logging road from town about eighteen miles or until you cross seven rivers. Only the rivers with bridges counted. I was told if you had to drive through a stream it didn’t count.
At the seventh bridge we were to leave the suburban and walk up stream until the river forked. They forgot to mention that was almost three miles. At the fork we were told to follow the left side to a waterfall. At the top of the falls the lake began.
Well, we followed the directions and they led us straight to the lake. When we cleared the falls and saw the lake it was worth every bridge and mile we had to hike and climb. To say this was a beautiful lake would be like saying the sun was warm.
The lake was two or three miles long wandering around the corner of a mountain across from us and a half mile or more wide. The thick forest of Spruce went right to the shore. That day there was a fog like mist on the water with small open patches here and there.
The water was a crystal blue. Right off from the shore it was four or five feet deep. In the center there’s no telling how deep it was. The water in the center had that dark look.
On three sides we were surrounded by snow capped peaks. The clouds were so low you could only see the top of two, but still the snow came down them like someone had poured cream on the tops and let it run down.
The contrast of the green of the trees against the gray of the day made the colors jump out, vivid and bright. Four or five of the hundred and fifty foot trees on the side of the lake with us had Bald Eagles fishing from their tallest branches and to top it off, while we all just stood and stared a family of swans swam from the fog through a clearing on the lake then into the fog again.
Are you getting the picture? This was one of those perfect fishing spots. We could have gone home right then, and had a great day fishing, without wetting a hook, but of course we didn’t. I was still just looking, taking in all I was seeing, when the boys, one at a time, spread out down the shore and started to cast.
It’s not that their complacent with the beauty of Alaska, it’s just they have lived here all of their lives.To them lakes like this one was the normal thing to see. I finally broke away and found myself a place to cast. The lake was really nice, but I couldn’t have my boys beat me at catching the first fish.
By pure luck I did catch the first, on second cast almost as soon as it hit the water a nice trout hit the lure. While I was playing him, another hit one of my kids lines. For the next hour we caught steadily. I admit there wasn’t much skill to catching here or in almost any of the thousands of lakes in Alaska. The fish in these lakes have never seen a lure. If it hits the water, they think it’s food.
Fishing was good, but the Coho’s we were after didn’t seem to be there. We only had about three hours of daylight left when we decided to head back to camp.
The trip down the river was a whole lot easier than going up. In no time at all we were back to the road and on our way home. Even the trip on the road went quickly. When we reached the dirt road that led to the trail to camp the sun was just reaching the mountains.
Just before the end of the road we crossed a small river. We had stopped there for water the day before and I noticed how good for fish that spot was.
The river in that spot was about sixty feet wide. Just upstream there were small rapids with only one deep spot on the far bank only ten or twelve feet. The sixty feet wide area was deep for fifty yards or more. Then down stream it traveled over shallow rapids again. Any salmon going up stream would have a safe place to rest in the calm deeper water. I couldn’t resist. I was already wet to the bone, camp was only a few minutes away and we had at least an hour before dark.
After twenty minutes or so the river was looking like the lake. We caught six or seven good trout, one a five pounder for sure, but no salmon. I was beginning to think they had already come and gone. Then just before dark, with one of the last casts of the day, I put the lure upstream, just after the rapids in the calm. As soon as it hit the water, the spot where it hit exploded.
The rod almost came out of my hand. I had hooked a monster! For the first minute or so he didn’t break the top, he just ran. The hook was set so hard I knew he couldn’t shake it. I was just hoping he didn’t break the line. I had eight pound test on a small Zebco 202 reel. It made for a lot of fun, but I knew one mistake and he was gone.
I’d like to say I stood on the shore and played him like some professional fisherman, but in all honesty I just stood there and hung on. I thought I had hooked a Coho until twice he stopped running, shook and pulled against the line like a bulldog. Coho fight, but they didn’t do that. This fish wasn’t just running wildly, he was fighting, fighting mad. I knew then this was a late run Sockeye.
Sockeye are the meanest salmon of all salmon. I was a Commercial Troller for almost twenty years and I can verify sockeye are hard to catch. In the ocean a green oochie was one of the only things I could get them to hit. The old salts say a sockeye will hit a lure just because it was in front of him and that makes him mad. Over the years I’ve come to believe that’s true.
Whatever reason he hit it I didn’t really care. I was having a blast. All the guys were yelling, “Don’t lose him! Bring him in! Be careful, he’ll get away!” while I was laughing out loud and trying to reel when I could. This went on for four or five minutes before he finally started to tire.
Even when he was too tired to fight he pushed his weight against the line still not willing to give up. Ever so slowly I reeled, pulled a little and reeled again until he was only ten or twelve feet from me. The river was so clear that even in the failing light I could see his bright red back.
A little closer and my eyes grew wide. I know about all the fish stories and I know a fish on the line is a lot bigger than the same fish in your hand, but this fish looked three feet long. It was just about then he gave it one last try. The drag on my reel started screaming as he headed for the other side of the river.
I pulled carefully, but hard to stop him and for a split second we were dead locked. Then with a loud pop the reel broke from the rod and it broke the line. I just stood there dumb founded for a few seconds not believing what just happened.
My beautiful fish was gone with my rod broken and dark closing in, there wasn’t anything to do, but go home, but I wasn’t through. The water was too low for him to get out of that spot and I would be back at first light.
That night as we ate our trout dinner, I knew even though I didn’t land the big one, that would still be a day of fishing my kids and I wouldn’t soon forget.