Even Andrew’s lucky dorky hat could not help Romaine catch a fish, but the bait was taken. Andrew Cremata

Vapors


By ANDREW CREMATA

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he steals all your secret fishing holes.”
— Ancient angler’s proverb

Last October I made a trip to Haines to fish for coho salmon in the Chilkat River. As the plane was landing it made a sharp bank over the river delta where the water flows in braids. A multitude of individual channels crisscrossed one another on a wide, sandy flat before finally finding release in the form of silt-laden plumes that dispersed into, and became one with, the ocean.
I’ve taken a lot of people fishing over the years, people who have come and gone. They were moments of coalescing, where the braids of different lives intertwined before separating to find their own ways. Those memories are like vapor — real but impossible to see. Yet if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can recreate those lost days into translucent, phantom images.
Two winters ago, at a beachside cabana in Nicaragua, I was watching the Super Bowl on a 13-inch black and white television broadcasting in Spanish. A slight breeze and a cold beer helped dull the heat and humidity. It was halfway through the first quarter of the game when two girls I had met a few days earlier tapped me on the shoulder.
Their names were Romaine and Barbara, and in their heavy Swiss accent they asked, “Andrew, would you teach us to fish?”
I had developed a reputation during my stay and was commonly being referred to as “The Fishing Guy.” So it was only natural for someone with an interest in the sport to inquire of my services.
While the Super Bowl only comes around once a year, you still have to maintain your priorities. I gathered my two fishing poles (always bring a spare), tackle box, dorky fishing hat, and a bottle of rum just in case there were any unforeseen emergencies.
It was only a few short steps to the beach, and under the rustling palm trees I went over the basics with the girls. I explained that in order to be successful as an angler you have to wear some kind of ridiculous hat that also protects you from the sun. Romaine was eager to learn and she quickly donned the dorky cap I offered.
I went over the basic design of the spinning rod and reel combo and showed the girls how to use it in unison with the body to form a successful cast. Romaine quickly developed her own casting method that resulted in the lure somehow going sideways and landing on the beach behind her and to the left.
This went on for some time.
After a while, and amidst a great deal of laughter, the girls were finding their own angling rhythm, and it was good to sit back on the sand and offer words of encouragement between sun-kissed sips.
There were no fish caught, but the new converts to the sport were happy. Before leaving Nicaragua I suggested they come and see me in Alaska and thrilled them with stories about plentiful fish in America’s last frontier.
A month ago I got an email from Romaine that she was travelling with Barbara’s twin sister Birgit and wanted to come and visit. They arrived in Skagway last week and were here for four days while the weather actually decided to cooperate.
April fishing in Skagway is a risky proposition due to the fact that salmon have yet to appear and the lakes are all still frozen. Still, the girls wanted to try some genuine Alaska angling so we made our way to the Ore Dock to fish the bottom and see if maybe we could find a flounder or even a Dolly Varden.
The snow on Mt. Harding was like white satin, glowing in the morning light. An assortment of ducks cruised along the still water where seals heads would suddenly appear from beneath the surface. The chill in the air was balanced by the heat of the sun — the simplest of all spring’s pleasures.
I gave another lesson with the gear and since there was no need to cast, both girls soon had their bait in the water. We waited for some time before Romaine, who had apparently remembered some of what I had taught her in Nicaragua, said, “C’mon fish, bite!”
Even though we utilized my complete repertoire of superstitious, fish-bite-inducing mantras, we never persuaded even one to eat our hooks. The fish simply weren’t hungry.
Still, when you get a chance to cross paths with friends you can’t cry over uncooperative fish. And even though they never had a bite, when we were done they both said, “I love fishing!”
So do I.
My dad always used to say, “If you want to get to know someone, take them fishing.”
It’s possible that wiser words have seldom been spoken. Maybe it’s the fresh air, or being surrounded by the intricate simplicity of the untamed wilds. Whatever it might be, there is definitely some mysterious aspect of fishing that provides peace, honesty and good conversation.
I’ve often thought that secret lie within the ceremony of tying knots, baiting hooks, casting and reeling. It’s a ritual that frees the mind and spirit. And between the brief moments when thrashing fish and singing drags fill the air with unbridled excitement, there is only one thing left to do.
Wait.
Within the vapors of my memory I can recall many a fine conversation that filled the waiting time between fish, and I’m sure there will be many more.
Soon the ice will melt from our lakes, the rivers and streams will flow freely, and the ocean will warm as the summer season approaches. All will be teeming with hungry fish. There will be little excuse for not taking advantage of the opportunity, no matter what might be on television.
So grab your best girl, a close friend, or even your next-door neighbor and spend a few hours with a line in the water. You only get so many chances to cross paths with people you care about, and if you’re really lucky you might even end up catching a fish.

Andrew Cremata recently won his fourth Alaska Press Club award in five years for this outdoors column. It appears in the second issue of the month from April through September.