Fish This!

A quiet reminder


I can sit in my yard on any given summer day and take in the disjointed symphony of sound permeating Skagway’s open spaces. In the morning it starts with a cruise ship horn or a train whistle and gives way to buzzing airplanes, buses ripping rubber along the pavement, and voices held aloft and carried by the breeze.
It’s hard to imagine any place on this planet, not so long ago; before industrialization, before the hyperkinetic interplay of modern machinery, before the airwaves were stifled with satellite signals carrying sound to radios, televisions, and computers.
This is the white-noise of our era, and it seeps under every locked door and into every hidden corner of our lives, like creeping tendrils of smoke from a nearby raging fire.
After a work shift within the confines of our tourism economy, my head is often a rattle of residual sound. Even when my home is powered down, dark, and still, my eardrums vibrate an echo of the evening’s background clamor. Dreams too are filled with this unnerving resonance, out of tune and without volume control.
Under these constraints sound loses its significance. A heartfelt conversation can be lost to the ringing of a cell phone or a honking horn. The simple enjoyment of a robin’s song drowned out by a passing car with a thumping bass.
We use controlled sound to isolate ourselves from random sound. One headphone in each ear secured by a cord to an iPod can take us back into our own space, drowning out the din of our surroundings and offering some structure to the offbeat world around us.
But there is no substitute for silence.
Not everyone craves the quiet, in fact, some people abhor it. Still, there is no denying its effect. The other senses become stronger; the mind becomes free and drifts into moments of clarity. The ability to concentrate becomes acute.
And maybe it’s for this reason fishermen seek out places in a state of rest to test the waters. Over the years, there have been many places I’ve been lucky enough to fish where the perfect chord between silence and good fishing has been struck. None, however, has matched the faultless, still waters of Atlin, British Columbia.
One small lake in particular, which will have to remain nameless to preserve its tranquility, is blanketed by a dearth of sound so permeable the quiet itself becomes a living force. In many places, one notices quiet only when confronted with a sudden absence of sound, but on this lake quiet itself declares its own dominance.
Some years ago, I canoed into the recesses of this body of water with my wife on a sunny, windless day. Two otters bobbed their heads in and out of the water as they followed us along, equally curious and surprised at the sight of unfamiliar faces.
We were in search of northern pike, and a local had told us the biggest fish were at the far end of the lake. After a good deal of paddling and a short portage through tall grass we passed though a narrow section of the lake which revealed its farthest shore.
It was here we were met with a wall of quiet.
Removing the paddles from the water and coasting to a stop, there was no sound to be heard. Pointing out how quiet it was seemed a bit absurd, and so without a word we took in this rarest of experiences.
Under these circumstances sound takes on a different hue. A rhythmic hum of forced air broke the silence; the beating of a raven’s wings a few hundred yards away.
Then there was the sound of fish.

Lindsay Breen holds up a Yukon ‘slough shark.’- Angie Cremata

The reverberation came from the nearest shoreline, maybe 50 feet away. It was the popping sound of a pike taking a meal from the water’s surface. My head turned instinctively to see the large swirl, conspicuous in the otherwise flat water. The fish responsible for this clatter was big.
I whispered to my wife to get her spinning outfit ready, lean forward in the front of the canoe, and get ready to cast. I explained I would maneuver her into position for a shot at the fish.
“When I give you the signal, cast right out in front,” I said in the softest of voices.
It should be noted that pike are nasty predators with a full set of razor-sharp teeth set into a grotesquely large mouth. Large pike can instill fear, especially if you’re an unlucky duck, lazily swimming along, when a really big pike comes out of nowhere and leaves behind a handful of floating feathers and a scent trail of fresh blood.
My wife is aware of this fact, as am I. There is a reason some of the local Canadians call them slough-sharks.
I pushed the oar under the surface, the sound of bubbles and moving water met my ears. I could hear my better half release the bail arm of her spinning reel with a familiar “click.”
The canoe shuddered as she leaned forward, ready to cast.
Unfortunately, due to my mediocre canoeing skills I approached a little too quickly, making it difficult to stop in time for the perfect cast. I whispered that I would back away slightly.
My wife peered over the front edge of the canoe, looking down into the clear water for any sign of the pike. She held her rod out forward, her silver spoon dangling just a foot from the surface, its polished steel clanging against a dangling 6/0 hook.
In an instant there was an eruption of sound; an explosion of water followed by a scream.
From my vantage point I could see the head of the massive pike as it lunged from the water in an attempt to grab the noisy lure. In its path was my wife’s head, which let out a horrified shriek as she flailed backward into the canoe.
She turned to me with eyes like dinner plates and said, “Did you see that? That pike tried to eat my head!”
Panic turned to laughter and soon everything was calm again. We sat still and cast quietly, careful not to let the lures hang over the edge of the canoe when we paused for a sip of beer.
I will never forget the sounds amidst the pervading silence on that summer afternoon: The latch on the tackle box, line emptying from the spool during a cast, lures splashing down in the water, raging pike mauling the surface lures, the song of the drag.
On one retrieve, I watched a pike make a run at the lure very near the boat. He swooped up from the darkness and, even though he missed the lure and all the action took place underwater, I could swear I heard the silent fish’s rushing surge.
Now, whenever I hear a cruise ship horn, I remember that place where the silence is spread out like a blanket of thick fog. It’s always good for a little peace of mind.

Andrew Cremata's "Fish This! column appears monthly April through September. It was judged Alaska's best outdoors column among all media for the 2006 Alaska Press Club awards.