A fine tasting monster on the line, the Pacific halibut. Andrew Cremata
By ANDREW CREMATA
Around Skagway, there isn’t a lot of ocean to fish in. At least, not when compared to almost any other coastal community in Alaska. The land that rises above the Taiya Inlet sits atop the longest and deepest fjord in North
America and, while it’s impressive to look at, most fish simply won’t make it this far.
Before fish can be caught in our little slice of ocean, they have to make their way here though an obstacle of natural predators, gill nets, and tourists armed with rental fishing gear. Still, there is something almost mystical about targeting fish in the ocean. While lakes, rivers, and streams are finite in a way that the mind can readily grasp, the ocean seems to defy any sense we may have of measurable size.
The ocean’s scale is planetary, and it makes the entire state of Alaska insignificant by comparison. And yet we still sit upon that vast sea surrounded only by horizon, in our tiny little boats, holding a fishing rod over the edge in a reckless attempt to penetrate Earth’s unfathomable nadir.
Caution is recommended. Lurking among those black depths are sea monsters, terrible in form and composition, and you never know when one might decide to taste whatever it was you placed upon your hook.
I’ve tangled with my share of these fish, and I can’t say I’ve ever won the battle, or even had a chance to win. One particular fish stands out, and I say “fish” because even though this scenario played out over several years, I knew it was always the same fish.
I was in my late teens, fishing a favorite ocean catwalk, when I encountered my first sea monster. I was fishing bottom with heavy gear, and a large chunk of fish for bait. The bite was nothing special – a few taps. I set the hook and the fish turned immediately toward shore and started to run. It wasn’t a fast run by any means, it was merely methodical, as though the fish had no idea a hook was imbedded in his gums.
It ran perpendicular to the catwalk down its entire length, and I had to excuse myself in front of numerous other anglers who began gathering behind me in a line to see what the mystery lunker might be. When the fish reached the shoreline it turned into a deeper channel and began running out to sea. It was moving away at that same steady pace, line slipping from the drag almost comically slow.
Fifteen minutes passed before I realized there was no way I was going to turn the fish. With only 10 or 15 yards of line left on a spool that held over 250, I tried a last ditch effort to maximize my resistance against the fish’s determination. When the line reached the final knot that held it to the spool it gave way with a quiet popping sound. The butt end of $15 worth of 30-pound monofilament slowly slipped through each individual eyelet on the rod until it fell effortlessly into the water and disappeared.
I pondered the turn of events that led to my spooling and concluded that it was merely an isolated occurrence. Surely, whatever events transpired unseen beneath the surface were nothing but a random anomaly, and I was determined to put the whole ugly experience behind me. Still, in the darker corners of my own mind I couldn’t help but wonder what it could have been. In my quieter moments throughout the day I would speculate on the composition of that mystery fish and conjure all kinds of fantastic scenarios.
A week later I was back in the same spot, with the same bait, but this time I brought my heavier gear. It was a stout boat rod with over 300 yards of 80-pound Dacron line. I spent an hour the night before tying a Bimini Twist with heavy monofilament for leader, which is a technical way to describe how obsession had already started to creep into my brainstem. It was Saturday, and the catwalk was full of weekend fishermen with bottles of spirits and language to match. I was lost in the scene when I saw the rod tip twitch.
The rod almost ripped from hands when the heavy Dacron line reached its end. It broke just above the knot, giving way with a hard crunch of the reel’s gears. The fish hadn’t seemed to care about being hooked when it first ran toward shore, then out to sea – same as the last time.
I was perplexed. Worse, I could feel this tension in my stomach that I knew would grow into some seething and miserable thing. I told myself, “If I could just see what it is!”
I walked back to my spot on the catwalk and sat down to re-spool my rod.
“So what happened?” grunted an old timer sitting next to me. He was tanned and wrinkled, with three days of gray stubble thick on his cheeks and chin, shirtless and toned for his advanced age. He was drinking a Budweiser, and I knew that he had a couple of nice trout in his cooler next to what was left of his six-pack.
“Damndest thing,” I said. “The fish spooled me. It was the same exact thing that happened last week.”
“Let me guess,” the ancient man said, chuckling. “He took you to shore then turned out to sea. I see he got all your line.”
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“I’ve hooked into that fish before. So have a few other fellas.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“A nuclear submarine,” he said, laughing. “Hell, I don’t know, son, but whatever it is, it ain’t gonna be caught on any rod and reel. Who knows? It’s prolly some kind of sea monster.”
The old man’s words did little to quell my thirst for answers, and over the next few years I would occasionally become reacquainted with my friend, the sea monster. The end result was always the same, and to my knowledge no one ever solved the mystery.
Over the years there have been other fish, in other distant parts of the sea – fish that have left behind only lingering questions. The ocean is a big place, full of the unknown and the unknowable. And maybe it’s better that way. It’s quite possible that hidden things should remain so, especially those things that choose to hide among the depths