Fish This!

Potential bear bait.

When animals invade...


I think it’s safe to say that all of us here in beautiful Skagway, Alaska can agree that the weather this summer royally stinks. Still, I wanted to be the first to go on record with this dismal assessment. I feel especially bad for the first time seasonal employees who will go back to their respective homes in the Lower 48 with the horrible impression that Skagway must somehow be deserving of God’s wrath to be forced to endure such unrelenting wind, and dreary, raining skies.
I guess the bright side is that I haven’t had to water the garden very often.
While some have no choice but pedal to work in the face of this daily fearsome breeze only to discover they are actually moving backwards, other living things in our vicinity seem to be taking pleasure in Mother Nature’s cruel joke.
Skagway’s vast array of wild animals are enjoying our daily typhoons, and for many, myself included, it has been a grand year for spotting wildlife in and around town. From breaching humpback whales off the Railroad Dock to hungry, marauding bears in the sloughs of Dyea, and back again to the smoke-filled entrance of Moe’s Frontier Bar, the wildlife is out in force.
It makes it a little easier to brave the bluster and suffer wet clothes when there is something so incredible and awe-inspiring to witness first hand. Still, one must be cautious. Running up to a feeding predator just to snap a few photos is a bad idea, albeit one that many tourists often seem comfortable with.
On a recent trip to Portage, B.C. to fish for trout and grayling, I turned away from the wind to adjust my hat, which had nearly blown free of my head. Upon turning I noticed a small cinnamon bear foraging about a quarter-mile away on the very trail I was walking. I pulled the binoculars from my pack to get a better look when the bear moved out of the brush completely. It was at that time I realized I had only seen its rear end, its head and shoulders having been concealed while it fed.
The head on this massive grizzly was about the size of my doughy torso. Worse still, it was coming in my direction. Fishing suddenly seemed less important than making a beeline back to the truck and praying he wouldn’t follow me home.
It’s a thought I have always kept in the back of my mind: “What if a bear suddenly appears while I’m fishing?” Many of the spots I fish are narrow gaps in the woods where the water is barely accessible. There would only be one viable option, and this summer has not been conducive to wearing swimming trunks.
However, going for a fully-clothed dip would be a good way to clean soiled clothing.
Many longtime Alaskans I have spoken with on this topic have said, “I’d rather run into a bear on the trail than a moose.”
It’s very possible this is some macho Alaskan thing to say, but I’ve run into both of these animals now while hunting fish and I’ll take the moose over the bear any day. Maybe it’s the razor sharp claws and formidable teeth on the bear that do it, or maybe moose are just a little hard to take seriously with their slack jaw and dopey gaze.
For a moment, imagine walking along a narrow trail. In one direction a moose blocks the path and in the opposite direction a particularly large bear.
Which passageway would YOU choose? I’ll always choose the heading that crosses paths with the gangly mutant deer resembling a domesticated farm animal over the route blocked by the Yeti-like beast that can knock my head clean off with one swipe of its paw.
But that’s just me.
The pink salmon run this year has not only attracted grizzlies in Dyea, but the seals and otters have been enjoying the feast at the Pullen Creek outlet underneath the Broadway Dock. On one of the very few sunny days of late, tourists snapped photos with wild abandon at their feeding antics.
One harbor seal in particular stood out from the pack. While his brethren used more traditional predatory tactics for hauling in their daily catch, this fellow lazily hunted while swimming on his back. He would briefly dive under water and resurface with his humped prize clutched firmly in his jaws, casually hoisting it in the air while it fruitlessly flopped to escape. His eyes never once broke the water's surface, his nose like a chambered piece of coal oscillating as he breathed the crisp, morning air. I guess the sun on your belly is a good thing, and during a summer like this, something that should never be taken for granted.

A seal and his meal. Photos by Andrew Cremata

While all of these mammals are quality fishers, there is nothing sporting about their tactics. For the humans who have to play by the rules of angling engagement a little rain is no big deal, but the wind leads to all kinds of problems that can make you feel like you're reenacting the fisherman's version of the Keystone Cops.
And while you sit there fiddling with tangled line and snagged lures, there is little pleasure in seeing an otter hoist an 8-pound fish out of the water and begin to dine on it right at your feet, looking up at you and snorting out what you swear sounds like a taunting laugh.
I have one working theory that explains the recent abundance of wildlife and it has to do with the weather. Could it be that the weather is so poor that we Skagwegians are staying inside more than normal? Could this account for the animals suddenly taking advantage of the vacant trails and waterways?
Perhaps. But if this is the case we better take heed, because if the weather doesn’t improve it’s only a matter of time before they invade and occupy the streets and boardwalks of our quaint, little town. Next it will be our homes.
And I for one do not want to come home one evening from a long, hard day at work only to discover three bears in my bed and all my porridge gone.
I know my fellow Skagway anglers are not to blame. They’ve been out there in the rain and cold testing the waters and cursing the seals tossing 40-pound king salmon into the air just for fun. Fathers and sons, boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, and more than a few retirees have all taken advantage of our fine fishing with zipped-up jackets, long underwear and wool skull-caps.
I see them every day on the breakwater, on the rocks around the ferry terminal, and out in the inlet trolling from their boats in the high seas and rolling waves.
Yes, reassure yourselves with the fact that we Skagwegians are a hardy bunch and still at the top of the food chain. And when it comes to Alaska sport-fishermen, there is no tougher breed, human or animal.