Sam Nelson with his big pike. AC
By ANDREW CREMATA
The red and white Daredevil spoon was only 20 feet away, easily visible under the still, clear water as Sam steadily reeled. Just behind the wiggling piece of steel the water began to surge unnaturally. At first it was the hint of a ripple, then a small wake cutting the calm surface rising higher as its maker closed in.
The attacker took shape; a hint of drab mottled green and a pair of eyes fixed atop a large, flattened head. Suddenly the wake was chaos and water became noise. The sun shone though a thousand tiny droplets as they rose and fell through the warm morning air. As the big pike turned and ran toward deeper water, the high-pitched whine of Sam’s drag became the only sound that mattered.
There were three of us on the shore that morning. It was one of those rare windless days without a hint of a chill in the air. Everything was awash in blue. Clean morning light turned the mountains that framed the horizon into azure sentries that offered little definition between sky and water.
As Doug hooked his first pike of the day, three large beaver muddled by just beyond the reach our casts. Sam was already working on his third slough shark. I was busy formulating the final act of a three-part plan designed around the attainment of a lofty goal often sought by fishermen but seldom achieved.
The previous evening, we were gathered around the campfire as I explained the requirements for obtaining the ultimate Yukon angling prize - the Yukon Slam.
“The goal is to catch a grayling, pike, and lake trout all in the same day,” I said. “It may sound easy, but in ten years of trying I’ve only done it once.”
This was true.
Even though it may sound easy, catching all three species of fish in one day without the aid of a boat is extremely difficult. One reason is because grayling, pike, and trout have a fondness for eating one another. Also, the three prized gamefish of the Yukon are also very different in design and physical attributes thus requiring the use of vastly different gear and techniques. This makes it impossible to catch all three without completely changing every bit of terminal tackle between fish.
Less than an hour before Sam was landing his first pike, I had brought in the first fish of the day. It was a small grayling that required an hour’s worth of casting from three groggy fishermen before it could be caught. It would be the only grayling of the day, but the only grayling required to meet the stringent requirements of the elusive Yukon Slam.
All that was left to catch was a lake trout.
The ease of that statement belies the fact that lake trout would most likely be the hardest to catch of three. It was decided that we would play it safe and head back to camp for breakfast, then try a spot where we would have the best chance of tangling with a small laker.
Upon arriving at camp we cleaned the pike and put the tasty fillets on ice. It’s common practice to take the bones and viscera of the fish and simply throw them into the water, but I have always liked to take some of the waste, attach it to a hook, and let it soak in the water in the hopes that some lunker trout will happen by and find an unexpected meal. A decade’s worth of effort had resulted in exactly zero fish.
I set up a rig, cast it out, and let it settle to the bottom. I propped the rod up in a pile of rocks with the drag set loose and went about pouring a cup of coffee and indulging in a plate of food.
The rod was only 30 feet away, so from time to time I glanced over to see if anything was paying it any interest. As usual, all was quiet.
A thick yellow film covered the surface of the lake to a distance about 10 feet from shore. The mustard colored gunk was pollen that had settled on the water and collected. Massive clouds of the stuff were billowing up from the mountainsides opposite the lake - clouds of yellow haze thousands of feet high drifting on the whims of the wind.
Holes began appearing in the pollen along the shore where grayling were surfacing to feed on insects mired in the goo. I went down to the shore for a closer look along with Doug’s 10-year old son Zachary. There were multiple grayling swimming underneath, but would only reveal their presence when they breached the surface and left a clear impression, like footprints appearing magically in the yellow mire.
We watched mesmerized until I heard a shout from behind, “Your rod just fell in the lake!”
I whipped my head around to the spot where the rod stood only moments before. The handle of the rod was visible, poking out from the yellow glaze, but the rest of the rig was completely submerged. I wasn’t far away but I ran stumbling to the rod, and as I lifted it from the water it was covered in yellow slime and line was peeling from the drag. I tightened the drag, set the hook solid, and by the bend in the rod I knew I was in serious trouble.
Either haste or lack of coffee had caused me to tie my hook onto 10-pound line with no leader. This may not seem like a big deal, but large trout have jagged teeth that will work their way through light line during a fight. This makes landing the fish from shore extremely difficult without a net because the fish goes spastic when he sees strange animals reaching out to hoist him from the water.
Everyone was gathering around to see what might be tethered to the other end of the line. The rod was bent deep as the fish ran parallel to the shore and I said aloud we were going to need a net.
At the neighboring campsite was a Canadian family with a small skiff. Doug asked Zachary to see if they had a net we could borrow. Zachary made a beeline for the skiff where a man was working on the engine.
“Excuse me, Canadians! Canadians!” he shouted. “Could we borrow your net?”
In the clear water beyond the pollen’s edge the fish came into view. A massive trout was writhing on the other end. My hands were shaking.
Zachary gave Doug the net and he waded into the water. The trout took heed and ran again for the deeper water. A few minutes later it was back within range, and Doug deftly maneuvered the net under the thick laker.
The scale said the fish was just over 15 pounds, but it was fairly obvious it was some kind of malfunction and the trout was pushing 20. More importantly the Yukon Slam was secure – a true team effort.
For many years my fishing rod was a lone sentinel upon the campsite shoreline. Soon after the trout was safely in the cooler, three poles stood where there had been but one.