I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a hunter, but I’m not against hunting. I like to fish, but my version of fishing is to hang bait on a hook and let it marinate in the water for endless periods of time. Long ago I did a Cost Benefit Analysis and realized that, while there is a stoic serene pleasure of the art of fishing, if I have to provide sustenance at the end of the day it’s more beneficial (and easier) to just avoid the cost of gas, bait, whatnot and just go to the local supermarket and buy the damned thing. If out in the wild, I’d probably trade tools, furs or whatever implements of survival for a nice fresh culled moose. If I were on an expedition with Teddy Roosevelt, I’d be that guy who gets chased by the lion or attacked by piranhas.
But I will not pass up a chance to go fishing, especially if it’s in an exotic place. Also, if there’s no better travel options. But I do like to give fishing another chance at the roulette wheel of sport. So, when I was in Alaska in the mid-90s for a military deployment, the offer was made and I jumped like a wild salmon at the opportunity.
We had a weekend off from our military duties, and I was invited by 2 cohorts, Andy and Steve to pitch in on the rental of a Ford Expedition. Our plan was to rent fishing gear and all the accouterments at the Morale, Welfare and Recreation center on base, stock up on provisions and drive like bats out of hell towards the wilderness.
Being the novice I am, when I was at the MWR I passed a requisition slip to the haggard-looking man at the desk for the various equipment I would need. Under interrogation I was asked about which type fly fishing rod, lures and other particulars I would need. I just wanted something, and was definitely out of my element in this arena. I felt like that guy on a TV game-show that when asked the $64,000 question, would freeze up and assume that famous look of the deer in the headlights.
During this time in Alaska, it was mid-June so the sun practically never set. If you’ve never experienced this, it will definitely shake your circadian rhythm about.
Our first stop was outside Fairbanks. We parked the truck and made our way to what seemed like a nice spot. Up until then I had never tried fly-fishing in my life, but this, like other episodes in my life, was when I was willing to give it a sporting chance. Very little expectations and potentially big rewards.
Fly-fishing for those who’ve never done it, is a series of cascading whips of the rod, with the appropriate lure on the end (specifically chosen for the target and region – you wouldn’t want to entice a 9-year old with prune juice or a 90-year old with a skateboard). This methodical wrist-action and bullwhip of the line can be tricky, but even an amateur like myself can make it look passable.
After a few hours at our first spot, with no luck, we decided to pull up our stakes and get even further north to Denali National Park. Both of my travelling companions talked up the mystery of the Arctic Grayling. This fish only exists in the wild in cold, northern Arctic waters (hence, of course, its name). My local fishing experience consisted of sunnies, catfish and maybe trout.
At the end of the first day, we caught some trout, but not enough for what we hoped for, and definitely not the elusive Arctic Grayling.
We parked the Expedition on the side of the road at about midnight, which looked like noon at this time. Tired and exhausted, we pulled our ball caps over our eyes and went to sleep inside the truck. Or tried to. At about 4:30 in the morning, with the sun still hanging low in the sky, I was woken by the sound of 2 grown men snoring, so I decided to go outside alone and stretch my legs. For an urban Easterner, the sprawling McKinley Mountains can be truly mesmerizing. The grandeur of the snow-capped mountains is a sight one can never tire of. I walked and walked to explore more and more of this beauty. I was a ways away from the truck when I noticed a glacier slope to the west, and I wanted to keep walking and seeing more. But then a thought dawned on me – Alaska has quite a few bears in its population. And they are territorial. I decided that my walkabout was enough and sauntered the 2 miles or so back to the Expedition.
At about 7 in the morning we packed up and drove to the nearest tavern for a bit of food. As we walked in, there were the locals sitting, caressing their tall neck Budweisers for company. Spoiler alert: Alaskans drink a lot. After a short reprieve we headed back out for more fishing. We finally found a spot alongside a nice hill and tried once more. Using the wrist-action and bullwhip, I landed the lure on top of the lake in the crisp clean air. Suddenly, a tease of a tug and then a slight yank of the line and a determined resistance. Reeling in, with a playful fight, I brought the prey closer and closer and when he came up to the surface I had finally caught my first Arctic Grayling. The sun was bright, the water cool, and I had my trophy. TR would’ve been proud.