Golden quaking aspen and termination dust on the peaks observed on a beautiful birthday fishing trip up north. AC

The Fall Jump


By ANDREW CREMATA

In the span of a moment everything can change. You wake up one morning and find that you’re a year older. Suddenly it’s fall, and you wonder what happened to summer. One minute your mind is adrift as you work a lure instinctively, and the next it’s focused on the fish that’s attached to the other end of your line.

These things don’t happen by chance, nor do they occur without warning. For me, these events all came along on the same day this year. My birthday is September 22, which is almost always the “first day of autumn.” This also happens to be peak time for trout fishing at my favorite spot in the Yukon, just a short drive north of Skagway.

Someone once told me that whatever you do on your birthday is what you’ll be doing for the following year. For this reason I always make sure to dedicate a few hours to fishing on my birthday, and if the weather cooperates there is little doubt about the spot I will choose.

Since I had the day free I left Skagway early, driving through the lush fall foliage along the Klondike Highway. When I arrived at the lake there wasn’t a whisper of wind. There were no ripples in the water – just the reflection of the steep mountainside on the other side of the lake. The yellow leaves that painted those slopes reflected in the water like molten gold.

I set up my rig, stuffed my dog Rufus into my waders, and walked out into the water up to my waist. I was in the shadow of the mountain, but it was surprisingly warm for late September. I hooked up on the third cast, and brought the fish all the way to shore. Less than ten minutes and I already had a nice 4-pound trout – not bad. A few more casts yielded another fish, but it managed to work itself free after a short fight.

After hooking up on the second fish, the action slowed. I was in a fishing haze, methodically casting and retrieving my lure, when the sun came up over the edge of the mountains. Light spilled out onto the lake, and I could feel the air quickly warming.

Dimples began to appear on the surface of the water, which were formed by grayling attacking insects that must have become visible against the bright backlight of direct sun. At first there were only a few, but within a single minute the entire lake was speckled with circular patterns of ripples as far as the eye could see.

It was then I heard an eagle’s wings beating against that still morning air somewhere behind my position. I immediately turned and looked at my fish sitting on the shore. It’s always a good idea to keep your freshly caught fish covered in some way to protect them against predators. And while I usually practice this ritual religiously, this time I had forgotten, which is undoubtedly why that stinking eagle was heading that direction in the first place.

The eagle had already circled around once and was approaching fast. I had just made a long cast, so I started reeling in at top speed while walking back to shore and screaming maniacal nonsense at the oversized raptor. Rufus simply watched the big bird from his comfortable neoprene nest.

About half way to shore I felt a sharp pull in the other direction and realized that I had somehow managed to hook into another trout. This was unexpected, but I was able to get back to shore, shoo away the eagle, and land the fish without anything going horribly wrong.

Birthday luck.

The trout was a plump female, around eight pounds and full of eggs, so I let her go. I walked back out into the lake and noticed another eagle was about 300 yards away, further down the shoreline. The two eagles began to call out to one another as I made another cast. This went on for a few minutes before the closer of the two swooped up off of his branch and passed us just overhead.

The big bald bird flew around its partner in one long circle, and then descended toward the lake in a predatory approach. It came up with something in its talons, and then headed straight for me and Rufus. As it flew just above our heads I could see a large grayling in its talons. The other eagle gave pursuit and they were both soon out of our hair.

That’s when everything went haywire.

In all the years I’ve fished these waters I’ve only seen lake trout jump a few times. You might see them roll on the surface to grab an insect but they just aren’t the kind of fish that jump completely out of the water. This is good, because in the Yukon you must use barbless hooks by law, and barbless hooks have a tendency to fall out of the mouth of a fish that hurtles itself from the depths.

So it was on this 43rd year of my life that lake trout started jumping all around me for no apparent reason – coming completely out of the water, twisting in midair, and then landing sideways with a giant splash. I was tempted to start giving them scores for technique when I hooked up with a burly laker that started peeling line from the drag.

I played the fish in waist-deep water, being careful so as to avoid stumbling over a maze of submerged rocks. I told Rufus we had a nice one, but his expression didn’t change.

The trout appeared in the shallows as I put tension in the rod to pull it out of the deeper water. It was a nice fish that would easily top ten pounds. Like a sleek underwater guided missile, the trout made one extended run parallel to our position before turning toward us at full speed. I reeled as fast as I could to keep up, but the fish was suddenly out of the water and flying directly at my head.

In that moment the laker was less than 30 inches from my face. I could see the orange fringes of the trout’s pectoral fins and its wet mottled skin shimmering in the sunlight. Its mouth opened wide and the yellow lure twisted free - the tension in the rod causing it to fly just past my left eye.

Still writhing amidst an explosion of water droplets, the trout fell back into the lake with a massive splash. Rufus looked up at me, and his face was just as wet as mine.

No matter how much you think you know about life, in an instant everything can change. This is especially true in Skagway, Alaska at the end of September. Who knows what the 2014 season will bring, but at least we have seven months to speculate.

It’s a good thing too. Because if lake trout truly have learned how to jump, my 2014 is going to be a lot more complicated.

This past spring Fish This! won yet another first place Alaska Press Club award for best outdoors column (we've lost count, it has won something like 6 of the last 7 years!). Want to read more? You can go diving into our summer archives, or you can wait for the book of Andrew's columns, coming later this year from Lynn Canal Publishing. Watch for announcements on the website.