The new wave barrier, otherwise known as the “Pier of Death,” can even hide fishermen from view. Jeff Brady

Fishing the structure


By ANDREW CREMATA

Having a little structure in your life can make a big difference. There is a lot to be said for consistency, security, protection, and fulfilled expectations. Forays into the unknown can be random and dangerous, but four walls built upon a secure foundation are the backbone of civilization and society.

No one will ever mistake a natural wonder for a manmade creation. Natural forms are organic – endless varieties of chaos masquerading as implied symmetry. We can identify a Sitka spruce or a black bear, but none will ever perfectly match another of its kind.

Things built by the hands of men are more rudimentary. Four wheels, four posts, fours corners, or four legs provide the basics. And it makes sense if you’ve ever tried to kick back on a three-legged chair.

I fish a lot of remote places in Alaska and the Yukon. Some are rocky beaches where magenta blossoms of fireweed take root along the shoreline. Others are stream deltas flowing into glacial lakes where the sound of the water itself is alive and pounds at your chest as it falls toward an ocean thousands of miles distant. Here there are caribou that meander past and enter the lake to swim across, their antlers arched and reaching skyward. And everywhere are the patterns of nature, always on the edge of comprehension, a mystery man has tried to decipher since the days they painted their forms on the walls of caves. They are the balance of function and form.

I have also done my fair share of fishing from piers and bridges. And what is a pier, but a four-sided structure meant to traverse a waterway or make it accessible?

Growing up in Florida my life was built on structure. Not only one governed by manmade rules and laws (many I may not have agreed with), but one where time itself is managed by a clock that tells you all the things you need to know about when to wake, when to work, when to sleep, and when to eat. There is some comfort in such a well-arranged and organized life, but where there is order there is also rigidity. Four walls can provide a home, but at times they can become a prison.

Even most of my fishing spots were piers, bridges, catwalks, and shipping docks. These are the places where bait fish congregate for protection from the sun and from predators, where food is carried along and trapped for their consumption. It is also the place predators lie in wait for an unfortunate victim. And anglers definitely fall into this category.

A fellow who taught me a lot about fishing once said, in his heavy South Florida accent, “Andrew, you gotta fish the structure! You gotta get that bait down there by the pilin’s. That’s where the fish are, you see.”

This is by far the single most valuable piece of fishing instruction I ever received in my life. The information made everything click, and I suddenly understood the complex interplay of organisms around a pier that makes it such a special place to fish.

Moving to Alaska opened up a world of fishing unencumbered by wooden guardrails that delineate the “end of the pier.” Here were unending beaches and shorelines to test and try for fish and I tried every place that my four-wheel-drive truck could take me to. It took a few years to figure it out, but even though there aren’t a lot of pilings on a secluded beach in the Yukon, there is still plenty of natural, hidden structure that fish find irresistible.

And there is some manmade structure as well. Two of my favorite places to fish are the Tagish Bridge and the Carcross Walking Bridge. Casting from the bridges takes me back 30 years and 4,700 miles to Tampa, Florida where the sweet smell of cut bait drying in the hot sun and the sound of the boards on the pier creaking underfoot are still as vivid as they were then. This is where my dad taught me to fish, the places where the structures of life broke down and we laughed about nothing and talked from the heart and watched the orange sun sink under the blue waters of the bay.

Now Skagway has a little structure of its own – a brand new fishing pier. There are some that will tell you it’s a “wave barrier,” but take a walk on the thing and tell me afterward that it’s anything other than a bonafide fishing pier. On any given day you will see a plethora of shrimp and crab pots hanging from the rail, and quite possibly a fisherman or two casting along the rail.

It’s likely one of those fishermen will be me as I learn the ins and outs of what is commonly being called the “Pier of Death.” How the pier got this name is anyone’s guess, but it’s a deserving name considering the fate of most everything that ends up coming over the rail.

The Pier of Death has already proven itself one of the better spots to fish around town and has yielded some nice Dolly Varden, some monster flounder, and some strange eel-like fish that are either really “cool” or really “scary” depending on who you ask. I only really care if they are “delicious,” and so far I haven’t been brave enough to find out.

Heeding wise words, I have simply been dropping my baited hook straight down along the pilings and finding quick success. I even caught a small king salmon a couple weeks ago and was certain that I would catch another during the Skagway fishing derby and win the coveted $200 “shore prize.” I have a long list of reasons why I did not catch that fish but Jeff, the editor of The Skagway News, would not be happy with four-part fishing article dedicated to a litany of wanton and pathetic excuses.

Regardless, there will be many more opportunities to catch king salmon from the “Pier of Death.” And while winning fishing derbies is great, it’s the fishing itself that actually makes it fun.

In the years to come, many a father will take his son to the pier to teach him how to cast and reel, to hook and fight a fish, to tie a knot and leader, and to choose the perfect lure or bait. Those moments are more than just “quality time,” they will provide the foundation for the qualities a man needs in life and a place from which to build a future.

Having a little structure in your life can make a big difference.

DERBY DAYS

Sixth annual Pat Moore Memorial Game Fish Derby

King Salmon Leader Board:
1) Ken Olson 38.05 lbs
2) David Moore 28.65 lbs
3) Al Mitchell 28 lbs
4) Taylor Olson 27.95
5) Paul Brisley 27.85
6) George Hepner 27.70 lbs
7) Missy Tyson 26 lbs
8) Jarrett Malchow 24.45 lbs
9) Tim Fairbanks 24.15 lbs
10) Cheryl Olson 24.10 lbs
Skagway Local’s Prize: Missy Tyson 26 lbs.
Yukoner’s Prize: Ken Olson 38.05 lbs.
Pat Moore Sportsman Award: David Moore who turned all of his prize winnings over to the Luke Whitehead family.
Team Event: The Olson Family with a whopping 328.78 lbs of king salmon entered in derby 
Heaviest angler: Tim Fairbanks, about 158 pounds of fish
Youngest person to enter a king salmon: 11-year-old Hailey Jensen
Youth largest king: Taylor Olson 27.95 lbs
We gave away over $12,000 worth of cash and prizes and raised over $4,000 for the Taiya Inlet Watershed Council, high school scholarships for Skagway’s best and brightest youth, and the ALS Association for Lou Gehrig’s Disease research. – TIWC

Photos by Jeff Brady and Andrew Cremata