Persistent rivulets of icy rainwater had breached the narrow gap between my shivering neck and my poncho collar. Having slid inside, they were now gleefully chasing each other down the spinal causeway indented into the goose-bumped surface of my back. Soon they would join the thousands of rivulets that had preceded them into the very soggy pit stop formed by the seat of my pants. I reflected miserably on the inscrutable irony of how the sun can be blazing so cheerily in the sky above Copper Center, while a few miles past Kenny Lake, as the Edgarton Highway begins its descent toward Chitina, thick, sticky, gray clouds can pounce out of ambush to suffocate the sun. Then, as if they were made of wet tissue paper, the bottom falls out of the clouds, dumping torrents of rain all over a hapless dip netter’s windshield and saturating the gear on his trailer. I guess that’s just the price a guy has to be willing pay for attempting to capture the best salmon in the world…the legendary Copper River Reds.
I love fresh salmon. I love it baked, grilled, or smoked. I love it in chowders, in sandwich spreads and in salads. I love salmon cakes and salmon steaks. I like it plain, with barbecue sauce, with Old Bay, with lemon and butter, with dill, or with tartar sauce. I even love it on my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that not everybody seems to share my gastronomical love affair with the delicacy. One time, in my naïve exuberance, I carefully nursed a frozen salmon through airport security so that I could proudly prepare it for some relatives I was visiting in the Lower 48. I was shocked and hurt when some of them refused to even try it, explaining condescendingly that they didn’t care for fish. Fish! FISH? What sacrilege! Calling a Copper River Red Salmon a mere “fish” is like calling Italian white truffles “mushrooms”! Other relatives at least gave it a try, tentatively plopping a tiny flake onto their plate, only to turn green and gag when they bit into it! Incomprehensible! Prior to that traumatic moment, it had never crossed my mind that any healthy, mentally stable human being could fail to be enraptured by the heavenly succulence of Alaskan Salmon.
It was precisely that heavenly taste of which I kept reminding myself as I sat impaled on that spine of slimy rock, blinking the raindrops off of my eyelashes and blowing them out of my moustache. For a while I had feared that my numb fingers might conspire to make me drop my dip net into the raging Copper River current. But that fear had abated several hours previously when I noticed that, fortunately, my hands seemed to have become welded solid onto the dip net handle–net and hands merging into a single indistinguishable blob of ice. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to tear my hands free in order to remove a salmon from the net if I should wind up catching one. However, if I could only stave off hypothermia and remain conscious long enough to recognize the telltale bump of a salmon hitting my net, I would deal with that pleasant crisis when the moment arrived.
I had to catch at least one salmon. I simply had to. The alternative was unthinkable. You see, my honor was at stake. This whole trip had resulted from a bet I had made with my friend Zebedee Clanston, who was visiting from Minnesota. Zeb is one of those disgusting anglers that that refuse to listen to my fishing stories, but instead, insist on bragging incessantly about their own fishing exploits to everyone within earshot. Most guys like that you can dismiss with a few well-timed smirks, a raised eyebrow and a knowing, “Whatever you say, there, Sport.” But Zeb couldn’t be so easily ignored. At the first flicker of incredulity, he would whip out his iPhone, jab at it with a tanned finger, and, before you could flee, thrust the phototgraphic evidence of his fishing prowess in your face. It was ghastly. You would be compelled to view a gratuitous shot of his leering mug, somewhere in Chilean Patagonia, triumphantly brandishing aloft an obviously photoshopped stringer of fat brown trout, each one as long as my leg. As you would grimace and attempt to back away from the sickening sight, Zeb would poke the screen again and up would flash another picture of him gloatingly straining to prop up a 150lb. Atlantic Sailfish at Onjango Resort in Luanda, Angola, Africa. Like some sort of nightmare, in rapid succession the visual assaults would just keep coming: the Great Barrier Reef, Australia; the St. Lawrence River, Ontario; Pinas Bay, Panama; Munster Blackwater, Ireland. There were muskies and bass, flounder and barramundi, tigerfish and zander, albacore and grouper, all in ridiculous numbers and of grotesque sizes. I had finally grown nauseated by the pompous pretentiousness of it all and decided to shut Zeb up once and for all.
I coaxed my lip into a pitying, yet tolerant smile. “Not bad for a beginner, Zeb. Some of those fish were almost worth keeping.” I attempted to make the compliment sound credible enough to seem genuine, yet a bit detached in a bored sort of way. I even allowed him to observe an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a yawn. I patted him on the head, reassuringly in my best fatherly fashion. Boy, that worked even better than I had anticipated! His face turned brilliant crimson and he slapped my hand away from his head as if it were a poisonous spider.
“Not bad?” he hollered. “Almost worth keeping? I’d like to see you do any better!”
That was the opening for which I had been maneuvering. “Oh, don’t sell yourself, short, Sport,” I murmured magnanimously. “You could have done worse. A lot worse. After all, not everyone can be blessed with access to the best fishing in the world. Just because I might be able to bring home more fish than you, pound for pound, on any given day, is no reason to kick yourself.”
The corner of Zeb’s left eye began to twitch and engorged veins commenced pulsating purple in his neck. “Stop talking down to me like I’m some kind of cheechako! I won’t stand for it. I have dropped a line in every fishing hole in this state, from the Togiak River to Lake Illiamna, I’ll have you know.”
I patted him on the head again. “I know you have, Sport, I know you have. Don’t feel bad. You did the best that could be expected with a rod and reel. You’re just not a resident, and so there are some privileges you just don’t have access to. I understand that, and I certainly won’t hold it against you.”
“Is that a fact, Sir Blabsalot?” blustered Zeb. “Well pick the day and the species, Buster, and by the end of the day if I don’t have more fish in my cooler than you, I’ll eat the brand new $500.00 G. Loomis GLX spinning rod I just ordered from Cabela’s.”
I literally purred with satisfaction. He had taken my bait like a 24 inch grayling sucking in a Red Tail Mosquito dry fly. I had played him like a pro and was now poised to scoop him up with my landing net. “OK! You’re on, Sport. How about this Friday? The species is Copper River Red Salmon, and by the end of the day if I don’t have more fish than you, I’ll eat the $4.95 can of fluorescent PowerBait I just picked up at Wal-Mart.” Grinning victoriously, at my own cleverness, I leaned forward, waiting for him to start flopping around, gasping for air like a trophy King in the bottom of my boat. I was going to enjoy watching him hem and haw and try to backpeddle out of the bet.
However, my triumphant smile wilted a bit as, instead of admitting defeat, Zeb grabbed my hand and shook it enthusiastically. Was he actually accepting my deal? After all, avid fisherman that he is, I thought he’d know that dipnetting in the Copper River is classified as a Personal Use Fishery and is restricted to Alaska residents only. But the sly look that had crept into his eyes was beginning to unsettle me. What could he possibly know that I didn’t? He didn’t stand a chance, did he? Why, I could harvest my household limit of 30 fish, while his daily non-resident sportfishing bag limit had to be, what? Surely not more than six, maybe ten measly fish? But he had foolishly thrown down the gauntlet, and now I would crush him. I had to crush him. I wasn’t going to let a Minnesotan out-fish me in my own stomping grounds.
But now as my aching arms swept the churning back eddy with a dip net whose aluminum handle had become permanently melded to my frozen hands, I was growing desperate. The only bump I had felt in my net for 12 hours had come from a floating tree branch which had ripped a huge gash in my netting. I had tried to repair it with the drawstring from my poncho hood and now the hood wouldn’t stay up. I was getting real tired of all those icy rivulets using my back as their own personal racetrack. I honestly didn’t know how much more of this I could take, and yet at this rate, Zeb would only need to catch one salmon to win the bet.
Maybe a huge lunker was hovering just below my net, laughing at me. Viciously, I stabbed the net deeper into the current. As I did so, the rock on which my left foot rested broke off and toppled into the river with a splash. If I hadn’t previously displayed the foresight of letting my wife nag me into roping myself to the bank, I might have followed the rock’s example. As it was, I almost did anyway. The only part of the bank I had been able to find which seemed secure enough to support me had been a flimsy willow shrub. As I began to fall, I jerked heavily against the rope, snapping it taut against the willow shrub. The plant shuddered and promptly ripped out of the cliff face to which it clung.
With instincts honed by many years of backcountry experience, I screeched hysterically. I’ve developed that technique for just such an emergency situation as this. You see, hundreds of hours of research have taught me that screeching stimulates a savvy outdoorsman’s adrenal gland and tones his diaphragm muscles. I find that it also alerts any passersby to avoid the dangerous area until I have been able to assess the situation and render the environment safe. I plummeted about three feet toward the torrent of instant death, until one of the willow shrub’s roots held, abruptly arresting my freefall. Since my hands were still frozen to the dip net handle, I deftly caught myself on the jagged corner of a rock by my cheekbone. Sadly, one of my boots, not noticing that I had stopped, continued its plunge. Undaunted, I quickly whipped up an improvised dye, consisting of a mixture of 75% blood from my gashed face, and 25% raindrops. Using the tip of my nose, I carefully dripped them into the river at the precise spot where the river had swallowed my boot. Perhaps later I could return to the location and recover it. Right now, though, I had fish to catch.
Using the handle of my dip net as a lever, I was just wallowing back into a position of relative safety when my wife’s voice floated down to me from above. “Are you alright, Honey?”
“Of course!” I snapped. She’s always interrupting the serenity of my fishing trips with banal chit chat. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you just screamed like a woman? Is that blood on your face? Where’s your boot? I think you better come up here and take a break and drink some coffee.”
“I’m fine! I didn’t scream. I was just yawning loudly.”
“And about the boot? I…uh…I took it off because my foot was getting hot and sweaty.
“Just one foot was getting hot and sweaty?”
“In this weather?”
“That’s what I said, and I’m sticking to it. What is this? The Spanish Inquisition?”
“I’ll ignore that. Where’s the boot? I just bought those for you.”
“I…uh… and accidentally knocked it in the river, when I…I was fighting with that big King I caught. That’s where this blood on my cheek came from. Yeah, that’s it. It’s salmon blood.”
“So where’s the salmon?”
“It got away.”
“Whatever. But if you fall in that river and drown, I’m gonna kill you.”
From there, the day took a turn for the worse. By midnight I had only caught one and a half Reds. The half of one hadn’t been dead long. It’s other half was probably still flopping in some Grizzly Bear’s stomach. Glumly, I trundled my single solitary fish, my gear and my wife back to where my truck patiently waited at O’Brien Creek. I wasn’t looking forward to facing Zeb at our pre-arranged rendezvous at the Hub in Glennallen. My only hope was that some tourist in a Winnebago had backed over his fishing pole in the Klutina River campground or wherever it was he had decided to fish.
When I arrived, I steeled myself and peeked into the bed of Zeb’s rental truck. I expelled a huge sigh of relief when not a single salmon met my inquisitive gaze. About then, I felt Zeb’s big hand slapping me on the back. “How’d you do?” he boomed cheerily. Uh-oh. That wasn’t a good sign. It was never a good sign when Zeb boomed cheerily after a day of fishing.
I summoned my most nonchalant tone. “Oh, not bad. Not bad. You?”
Zeb grinned like a Cheshire Cat and out came his iPhone. “Let me show you. A picture is worth a thousand words. And in this case it’s worth a thousand fish. Actually, thirty-five hundred and twenty seven Copper River Red Salmon to be precise! I caught them in about 45 minutes.”
I was staring in stunned disbelief at the picture of a boat’s hold overflowing with massive fish. Beside the huge catch was Zeb’s leering mug, and he was holding a newspaper with today’s date clearly readable. I found myself compelled to sit down suddenly. Zeb eased me onto his tailgate and began to fan my face. “How…where…what…?” I managed to squeak out.
“Sorry for the shock,” he snickered. “I guess I must have forgotten to tell you that I own a 30 foot gillnetter. I call her the ‘Four Leaf Clover’ and I keep her docked in Cordova. For the last three years I’ve owned a limited entry commercial permit to harvest salmon near the barrier islands along the Copper River Delta. Can I get you some Pepto-Bismol or anything? You look like you’re about to throw up.”
I shrugged off his proffered hand and staggered toward my truck. “No thanks,” I called over my shoulder. “Right now, I have some fluorescent PowerBait to swallow.”