Ice-Fishing on the Newhalen River

We were on the ice mostly to have a look and get a photo or two, but when I was offered a turn at fishing… how could I say “No?” It didn’t take long to put a pan-sized rainbow on ice. It took me back to being a kid on Pennsylvania’s Clarion River trying to get a few tasty perch for a wintertime fish-fry.

From an upstairs window, we could see the anglers begin to gather across the river. “Let’s go see what they’re up to!” It’s about a quarter mile walk to the river from our place and another three-quarters of a mile across the frozen water. No worries. The ice is over two feet thick.

Ray Wassillie had organized the gathering and brought along the power ice auger. Now we want one! Between the Newhalen River and local lakes, there is an abundance of wintertime quarry: Northern Pike, Lake Trout, Dolly Varden Char, Rainbow Trout, Grayling and Burbot!

We’re both battling colds and therefore didn’t hang around long. The fishing was just starting to heat up as we were leaving and I really wanted a shot of someone pulling in a decent fish. This woman had the hot hand, so I kept my camera trained on her. Of course, that put the jinx on her. After a lull that seemed to last forever, she finally had a bite… and pulled out this tiddler! Some of the fish were pushing 20 inches… guess you’ll have to take our word for it.

In addition to a “Big Fish” contest, there was a side event to see who could chop through 30 inches of hard ice the old fashioned way – with a steel pike. Up from New York on a student teaching stint, Griffin was game. Talk about work though. I think he sufficiently had the “idea” of it by the time he got a foot or so into it and wisely put the pike aside to get back to fishing.

I had not intended to fish, but when Ray offered a line, what could I say? My first fish through the ice in… geez, over 40 years. As it is with any addiction, I should have known not even to unscrew the cap from the bottle. We’re now shopping ice augers!

 

 

 

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First Silver of 2018

Ocean-bright and full of fight, Barbra’s 12-pound Coho today is the first and only salmon we’ve put on the bank this year… so far.

In each our previous six years in Alaska, our fish for the coming months were long ago caught, cleaned, freezer-packed or smoked and canned and put away.

Not this year.

Like a lot of salmon runs around Alaska, here on the Chignik River its been a mere trickle of fish compared to other years. In fact, for a few weeks in July fishing was closed altogether. Still, we were confident upon returning from our bike trek in Hokkaido that we’d be able to get the couple of dozen or so fish we need.

That was nearly a month ago. Admittedly, it’s not like we’ve been hitting the water every day. But the few times we’ve been out, it’s been discouraging. When lots of salmon are around, so are bears, eagles and seals, and we can generally see lots of jumpers – salmon fresh from the sea and full of energy spontaneously leaping for whatever reasons salmon spontaneously leap. But it’s been eerily quiet; the usual eagle roosts have been empty.

Even in this down year, hundreds of thousands of Sockeyes ascended the river, and there will undoubtedly be thousands of Coho as well. It felt great to finally get one. Pasta with fresh salmon is on the menu tonight.

Corrupting a Child into the Art of Angling: a Journey from Granny Knots to 8-Weights

The 2018 cover of the Southwest Alaska Fishing Regulations featuring my photography: I was out on the ice last winter when I happened upon these two cuties (Barbra’s students) trying their luck for Dolly Varden Char and smelt on Chignik Lake. Teaching a young person to fish is an action that can have long legs and far-reaching positive consequences.

My father started my little sister and me with granny knots, #6 hooks, 10 lb test line, wine cork bobbers and solid fiberglass poles sans reels. Hers had a red handle. Mine was green. Half-a-mile below our house down the winding Route 322 hill lay Piney Dam Reservoir, an impoundment on western Pennsylvania’s Clarion River which, back in those days, was fairly fishless thanks primarily to acid runoff from coal strip mines and effluent from a paper mill 60 miles upstream. This was in the days before President Nixon’s executive order establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. The river looked clean – but the acid runoff left it relatively sterile, bereft of the web of aquatic weeds, tiny crustaceans and insect that make up a healthy ecosystem. These days, the coal mines are mostly gone, grown over with mixed forests of white pine and oak and other hardwoods that have reclaimed the landscape from the war-zone look I remember from childhood. Thanks to EPA regulations, the mining operations that remain are much more responsibly operated. Meanwhile, the paper mill modernized, also guided by EPA regulations. Now trout, bass, muskellunge, decent-sized panfish and, I’m told, even walleyes swim in waters that back in my day held little more than a few stunted sunfish, perch, shiners and bullheads.

Given time, if the Earth isn’t damaged too much, it can heal.

On the sunny side of the valley at the foot of the old 322 bridge was a small, wooden, long-abandoned dock. The steps leading down the steep embankment were rotting and coming apart. The dock itself wasn’t in much better shape. But unclaimed, we called it ours, as in “Let’s go fishing at our dock.”

Even digging up a coffee can’s worth of worms in preparation for those trips was an adventure, and with my dad being a biologist, something of a science lesson as well. For starters, we discovered that there were different kinds of worms; the little red ones worked best. And turned up by Dad’s spade would be other creatures: beetles and beetle larvae, centipedes and millipedes and alien-looking chrysalises. Sometimes garter snakes and little green snakes would glide out of the weeds ahead of us, and a rock turned over might reveal mice tunnels, big black crickets or shy red-backed salamanders with their protruding, otherworldly eyes.

There are four indispensable characteristics an adult must possess if he or she expects to successfully corrupt a child into the art of angling:

  1. The adult must know where there are fish an inexperienced child would be able to catch…
  2. …and he or she must know how to catch those fish in the easiest manner conceivable.
  3. Once conditions one and two have been met, the adult must possess the abundance of patience necessary to allow the young person to figure out how to catch those fish.

To his credit, although my dad took along his own outfit, after casting far from the cover of the dock out into featureless water where there would be no fish, he would set his rod down, ignore it, and focus on my sister and me. That way, if one of us might say, “Dad, you should fish too,” he could truthfully reply, “I am fishing.”

There were always a few panfish hanging out in the dock’s shade – diminutive bluegills and pumpkinseeds, a shiner or two, and our favorites for their combination of size, brilliant orange fins and qualities on the table, yellow perch. The shiners, too bony to deal with, went back into the water. As for the rest of the fish, five-inches was enough to make a “keeper,” and those went on a hand-made stringer. As long as we didn’t fish it too often, the dock could be counted on for a meal’s worth of fish.

The fourth characteristic necessary to develop an enthusiastic young fisherman is probably the most important. The adult must know when enough is enough. My sister and I were diligent in our attention to our wine-cork bobbers, staying with them as they rocked in the wake of ski boats, not moving our eyes from them for long minutes when they just sat there on placid water doing nothing. We didn’t miss many bites. But as time went by and we thinned the dock’s population of fish, bites became fewer and further between. The sun climbed higher and grew hotter. Small stomachs started to growl.

My father seemed to have a sixth sense for impeccably timing the question, Are you ready to call it a day?

No! Not yet! Let’s stay! Just one more? We’d plead.

Well, my dad would wisely say while enthusiasm was still running high, We’ve got enough for a meal. Your mother’s going to be wondering where we are. It’s time to go.

Aw-ww! That’s the response you hope to hear from someone you’re trying to teach anything to when it’s time to call it a day. Aw-ww, in at least two syllables.

Weeks went by between our trips to the dock, but my sister and I never lost track of whose turn it was to carry the stringer back to the car and triumphantly in through the kitchen door. Down in the basement, Dad would spread out yesterday’s Pittsburgh Press and we’d get to watch as he cleaned the catch. Too small to bother filleting, he’d scale the fish and gut them and remove their heads, so that by the age of six I knew enough about fish anatomy to pass a biology exam. We’d even open their stomachs to examine the dragonfly larvae, midge pupae and other tiny animals they fed on.

Upstairs in the kitchen, Mom made them Appalachian style – rolled in cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper and fried golden brown and so crisp their tails were like potato chips. The three of us unerringly remembering whose plate the catch-of-the-day belonged on – usually a nice perch. Bread and butter and a big salad of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers from my dad’s garden rounded out the meal. Those summertime meals of fresh fish and garden salad are far and away my favorite childhood food memory.

Eight-Weights: Alaska Peninsula Summer Trek – Going Off the Grid for Salmon, Trout, Char, Grayling and Pike

Early last Friday morning we put the finishing touches on packing for this summer’s (potentially epic) fishing-centric trek on the upper Alaska Peninsula. Two Salsa Fargo bikes equipped with semi-fat tires, to be loaded with Big Agnes Rattlesnake Mountain Glow tent, down sleeping bags, Alpacka pack rafts, tenkara rods, fly rods, freeze-dried camping food, cookware, compact stove, minimal camera gear, blank writing journals, waders, rain gear, and (for me) just one extra pair of underwear. We then borrowed a pickup truck drove the gear to Chignik Lake’s airstrip and loaded it onto a Lake Clark Cessna headed for Nondalton.

I’ll turn 58 on this trip and I’m a little apprehensive – not as sanguine in my physical endurance and strength as I was in the old days. For the first time in my life, I am aware of physical limitations in a way I’ve never before felt those limitations. But I want to get out there and try this and see if I can handle it. I think I can handle it. If it comes together all right, this trip will set the stage for the next several summers. Fortunately, Barbra has greeted the prospects this summer holds forth with unbridled enthusiasm sufficient to douse my doubts. “Pace yourself,” a friend advised, and although that two-word phrase is anathema to the way I’ve gone about things most of my life, I have to concede that on this series of treks, it’s probably the most prudent recommendation I could receive.

Iliamna Lake is the epicenter of the world’s most prolific Sockeye Salmon nursery.

Nondalton is a perfect starting point. The Newhalen River threads together some of Alaska’s (and by extension, the World’s) most storied fly-fishing waters, including Lake Clark upriver and legendary Iliamna Lake downriver. Along with their nearly innumerable tributaries, the entire watershed constitutes the world’s greatest Sockeye Salmon spawning grounds and nursery. Oh, there are kings, silvers, pinks and chums, char, grayling, white fish and pike, too – and at the right time and place lots of them and large ones. But the keystone species is the Sockeye, and it’s because of these millions of spawning salmon and the ocean-borne nutrients they carry upriver each summer that the watershed is home to some of highest numbers of large rainbow trout found anywhere. Trout 18” and up are common. How far up? The Kvichak River, which flows out of Iliamna and into Bristol Bay, gave up a 23-pounder in 1999, and while there don’t seem to be as many super large trout as in the past, fish well over 20 inches are still abundant, as are large Dolly Varden Char, Arctic Grayling, Northern Pike and Lake Trout. In fact, when I ticked off a list of modestly-sized personal bests for the species we’ll be targeting this summer, our friend Jerry, who talked us into this trek, kind of laughed and replied, “You’re gonna break all those records right here on Six Mile.”

After exploring the Six Mile Lake area, the possibilities are practically limitless. Virtually every lake, stream and river in this part of the Bristol Bay watershed is a world class angling destination. So it’s almost a given that we’re going to catch a lot of fish. And camp, and hike, and pick wild berries, and raft, and swat mosquitoes and see bears and moose and cap an especially good day with a bourbon toast from a small flask a fair distance from anything that looks like civilization.

But it’s not all gonna be blueberry patches and easy trout. We might have to bush-whack into some places, and we won’t use guides or take float planes in to the best water. We’re determined to make the fishing our own, and that will mean fishless stretches at times as we explore, and it might mean tough going at times. That’s the price for getting off the beaten path.

If we each get a few personal bests this summer and have a few fish-after-fish-after-fish days, a few memorable wildlife sightings, a few meals of freshly caught fish… If we learn a few things, experience a few new things…

It’ll be a great summer.

JD

And with that, the staff of CutterLight is off on vacation for blessed weeks on end with no phone service, no computers and no news. Look for accounts of our adventures when we resume publishing toward the end of the summer. 

Nervous Water and Red Salmon

 

first salmon Chignik n

Looked out the window this morning and saw nervous water on the lake. Skipped breakfast. Three hens and a buck. I’ll cure eggs for ikura later today. Shioyaki salmon for dinner tonight. Beginning of our second week in Chignik Lake, Alaska.

Back on the Water: Upriver Grayling in Mongolia

It felt good to finally get out on water. Prospecting for these handsomely marked grayling on a small river in Mongolia took us back to prospecting for trout in small waters in other places.

Nearly as translucent as water and marked like colored glass, the grayling’s dorsal fin…

By mid-September, autumn has come to Mongolia’s steppes and mountains. By the end of September, we’ll have had our first snows.

Sluggish with cold and dark with Autumn, one of the year’s last grasshoppers. 

Yellows, golds and browns mixed with the blue-green of evergreens, predominant fall colors across this land. Here and there a touch of crimson. 

Feet up. Water pours across the floorboards of the doorless Polaris Ranger. One of several crossings.

Not everyone made it.

Stringing up. Something between rumor and someone’s good authority sent us up to these headwaters, prospecting.

I stuck my camera into the icy water to get a photo of rocks speckled with caddis casings. 

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We encountered sporadic blue-winged olive mayflies. Rocks we flipped revealed caddis and stoneflies, a few loaches and this dragonfly nymph. 

Possible water, but not promising. Larch trees yellowed by frost-laced mornings, pools in shaded feeder streams iced over.

It feels like a lifetime ago that we were on our boat in Alaska, filling coolers with a years’ worth of ocean bright salmon, halibut and rockfish to sustain us through months in the Arctic Bush. Back to roots – a fly rod, a small river, drifting nymphs and dries. Bone satisfying to once again feel the weight of a fish. Could be a rainbow stream in Colorado, cutthroat water in Oregon, a brookie creek in Pennsylvania or a yamame stream in Japan. It all feels like home.

Barbra’s first grayling and her first fish in Mongolia.

We hiked and drove and hiked some more. At last we found the water I’d been looking for – the right depth, the right flow, the right-sized boulders breaking up the bottom at the right intervals. And there in front of us, tens of fish materialized out of nothing – out of water as clear as air – porpoising and splashing across a run maybe 60 feet long and half that width in pursuit of something tiny emerging from the water. Several times these grayling rocketed completely out of the water as they threw themselves at our mayfly patterns. A number of times we were both hooked up, simultaneously.

Eight inches or eighty pounds… It never gets old. The grayling were still feeding when we left, reluctantly, the sun low behind clouds.

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A backward look…

Grayling. Grayling water. Mongolia…

Sautéed Salmon Roe

salmon roe sauteed_nOn the East Coast, shad roe is a celebrated springtime delicacy. In the Pacific Northwest, a similar side dish or an amuse bouche can be made from the immature eggs of ocean-caught salmon.

Fresh roe from ocean-caught salmon has a creamy texture and taste with an essence as fresh as the sea. At this stage the small, unripe eggs are firmly held together inside two separate egg sacs and lend themselves to being sautéed over low heat.

Once the egg sacs have been removed from the salmon and cleaned, preparation is easy. We like to keep it simple so that the delicate flavor of the eggs comes through: a little olive oil or butter, garlic clove sliced fine and a dash or two of salt is all you need. Keep the heat low so that the eggs don’t pop and cook the eggs through till they become opaque. Add a dash of sherry or white wine if desired.

A glass of Champagne, a sparkling wine from California, or an Italian Prosecco along with an amuse bouche featuring sautéed roe make an elegant start to to a special dinner. Larger roe sacs can be presented as an entrée similar to the manner in which shad roe is often served.

For an easy method for curing ripe salmon roe into beautiful, sushi-grade ikura, see Ikura: Curing Salmon Eggs