The ice goes out and the trout start biting, finally, at “Spider Beach” on beautiful Tutshi Lake in British Columbia north of Skagway. Andrew Cremata

First trout


By ANDREW CREMATA

Spring is a time of mixed emotions. Ice is replaced by water. Winter’s rigid brown branches turn green and flutter in the wind. Quiet gives way to noise, and streets that were empty are suddenly filled with strangers.

Is this seasonal change anywhere more dramatic than Skagway? May’s first breath of warm air gives life to chaos, and it seems to seethe beneath some veneer of normalcy, like the Victorian false fronts that adorn the modern businesses on Broadway.

It wasn’t too long ago I strolled along the boardwalk on a precious sunny day in late January. In the dead of winter, sunlight is at a premium – and that low-angled light seemed to ignite the desolate, snow-covered street with yellow fire. The only sound on that quiet afternoon was compressed snow squeaking underfoot, and a raven’s strange call from its perch on a light post three blocks away.

Sounds seem more meaningful when they penetrate pure silence, but spring is not known for its subtlety. The ice cracks and the rivers swell and every living thing suddenly finds the drive to advance.

For the year-round Skagway resident, the warm air is welcome and it’s always nice to see a few new faces, but there is often some hint of sadness in their eyes that conveys a sense of loss. This look is frequently accompanied by the words, “I’m not ready for summer,” but I suppose that’s what spring is really all about.

I find it far easier to make the seasonal transition by chasing lake trout in Canada. My favorite spring fishing holes offer a chance to step back into winter for brief moments in time, targeting fish along sections of shoreline where ice has begun to thaw. This time of year is always a mystery because you never really know where or when that first trout will make an appearance.

Other pertinent factors that influence success include my own level of incompetence based on not having held a fishing rod in more than five months, and the unpredictable nature of spring in the Yukon. During some years I’ve been able to hook up on my first trout in late April after only a few minutes of trying. Because we barely had a real winter this year, and due to the abnormally hot spring we recently experienced, I was fully prepared to catch my first trout earlier than any previous year.

All of which proves how poor my powers of prognostication really are.

I managed to find a promising area to fish during the final weekend of April. I fought my way through waist-deep icy, wet snow down a steep embankment with my mouth already watering with the promise of fresh trout. Instead of trout, I found frustration from losing two lures and exhaustion from being forced to climb back uphill through that deep snow, empty handed.

My dog Rufus was even less impressed after falling through the ice into shallow water. After his chilly swim, he ran around frantically for some time, trying to warm himself back up. When he settled down and sat at my side, the look he gave me was one of utter disgust. So we packed it in and headed home.

The following week offered better hiking conditions, but the trout were still playing hard to get. I was able to find some grayling in Carcross, but that was little consolation. My “summer” doesn’t begin until that first trout is safely nestled inside my cooler, but at least I was able to enjoy some grayling and eggs.

I was quite certain that the following week would be a slam dunk. I went online to review the fishing regulations so that I would know how many fish I could legally keep. I took a friend along and, while trying to temper his expectations, I had little doubt that we would both limit out in mere minutes.

Nothing. Not even a bite. Rufus, who usually dines on the fresh fish right after it’s caught, had to settle for kibble when we got back in the car. Worse, my friend and I had only two beers between us. This sad turn of events happened because I told him that we would be so busy catching trout, we wouldn’t have time to drink more than a couple.

Rookie mistake.

Three days later, on Sunday May 18, I was sitting at home in the early afternoon lamenting my mid-month trout-less plight. I could hear the din of spring in the air – cars driving down the street, airplanes taxiing down the runway, and drunken Canadians celebrating Victoria Day weekend. I asked Rufus if he wanted to catch a spring trout and he made abeeline for the front door. That was good enough for me.

We didn’t drive far because it was later in the day, so we tried one of my spots in British Columbia, which usually doesn’t turn on until June. The warm weather had melted a large area of the lake beneath a stream delta that looked promising from the highway. We hiked down to the hole under a blanket of still air and chirping songbirds.

The water was perfect. The air was warm. And my arms were tired because I’d been casting for 45 minutes without the first hint of a fish being anywhere within 1,000 miles of where we happened to be. Rufus had given up on me and fallen asleep in the sunlight.

As I watched the ice that remained on the lake in the distance, my mind wandered back to winter. I was lost in that thought, whatever it was, barely aware that I was still casting and retrieving my lure. Suddenly, there was tension in the rod and I muttered an unsavory word because I figured I was stuck on the bottom.

When I held the rod steady I could feel a fish on the other end, and I was catapulted into the moment. The last thing you want to do is lose the first trout of the season.

The trout was only 18 inches long. Rufus started licking the lake trout as soon as I set it on the shore, and I could understand his enthusiasm. For a Skagwegian, the transition from winter to spring is often bittersweet, but once you accept it good things are bound to happen.

Now I’m ready for summer.

Andrew’s column appears in the second issue of the month, April-September. His columns through 2013 are now collected in a new book: Fish This! An Alaskan Story available all over. Watch for book signings soon at the News Depot and elsewhere.

FIRST KING SALMON – Local resident John Harris caught the first king of the season, a 30-incher, on May 8. Matt O’Boyle