Do you feel lucky?
By ANDREW J. CREMATA
When I was a kid growing up in Tampa, Florida I had a favorite fishing spot. It was a small inlet that opened into a circular bay surrounded by sandy beach. I would head out just before sunrise armed with my fishing rod, tackle box, and a couple dozen live jumbo shrimp for bait. My dad took me there long before I knew how to drive. We were usually the only ones there as it was a 20-minute walk from the car park to the little bay as we called it.
The rig was simple. A free-lined shrimp on a 1/0 long shank hook, with a foot of 30-pound leader. If the timing was right the sun would just be coming up, making the water a ballet of orange and red ripples. I remember the quiet. The feel of the water between my feet as I waded out to where the bottom dropped out of sight. The way the line would fall gently on the surface after the first cast.
The wait was never long. When that shrimp starts jumping out of the water in a frenzied panic, you know something is heading his way. Sometimes you see the fish coming, slicing the water like a knife, and getting faster with each passing moment.
Then it happens.
A splash, the rod bends, the drag sings and the day is silent no more.
I caught my first big fish here, a 30-pound drum. I landed my first snook here. I caught my best redfish here, a 35-pound monster with an irritable disposition.
This was a true estuary, you never knew what to expect. On Monday the ladyfish might be hitting, a 24 to 36 inch silver torpedo with owl-like eyes and the ability to jump 6 feet out of the water. On Friday the snook were on the prowl. These are the most prized game fish in Southern Florida. The Corvette of fish, chrome plated, complete with a black racing stripe; ill-tempered and smarter than the average fisherman.
What I remember most from those days are the sights and sounds that could transcend an ordinary day of fishing. Watching a Great Blue Heron step cautiously through the surf, his stare fixated on a potential dinner under the surface. The whoosh of an ospreys wings as it dives from out of nowhere to grab a meal to go. The smooth feel of a passing stingrays wing, brushing your leg as it flies through the water. A school of porpoise assaulting baitfish from below while terns and pelicans attack from above. Enjoying the unique beauty of a manatee with a pup lumbering by, just out of arms reach.
Tampa was a fast-growing city, and growth is seldom good for fishing.
The redfish were the first to go. The fishery seemed to collapse overnight. The next thing to go was the baitfish. It was not uncommon to see schools of pilchards or greenbacks boiling on the surface as far as the eye could see. Suddenly they were gone, victims of commercial netters using airplane reconnaissance to wipe out entire schools in one shot.
Without baitfish to feed on summer algae, red tides increased in both frequency and severity, covering the shoreline with decomposing fish. Left in the sun to rot, even the birds knew better than to eat their poisoned carcasses.
Then came the developers. Its funny to me that when you live in the city people spend so much money to build gate-restricted communities in unspoiled areas while leaving the older parts of town to wither from neglect. Why fix what youve got when its easier to buy something new?
Needless to say my favorite fishing hole was no more. A rock wall was built to stall the aggressive tides. A home was built of lumber, cheap siding and fiberglass. Childrens toys replaced the waterfowl. And the neighbors houses all sprang up within a year, cluttering the shore with discarded lawn equipment and old cars on cinder blocks.
I felt a great loss, a little angry. I knew this spot didnt belong to me but I never imagined any one would ignore its treasures. There had always been talk of preserving it, but waterfront property in Tampa is valuable, and the money always wins. Its the logic down there: Its one of the last beautiful and unspoiled areas in the entire city. Lets move there!
Ten years have passed. Ive called Alaska home for the last six.
Last week I went with a friend to Dyea to do a little fishing. It was a sunny day with no wind. On the drive out we stopped along the way to take in the sights.
The hooligans were running and the flats reminded me of footage of the African plains teaming with life that you might see on the Discovery Channel. A hundred yards offshore a group of sea lions jumped from the water in a playful display. Hurtling over one another as though they were playing leapfrog.
The mouth of the Taiya River was clogged with dozens of seals bobbing their heads in and out of the water. Many of them watched us as we drove by or stopped to get a better look through the binoculars.
Further up the river thousands of seagulls concentrated their efforts on a small bottleneck, diving endlessly in an effort to catch their lunch. When one got lucky he had to eat fast. His buddies would harass him, trying to steal his meal until he got it down his throat.
A young bald eagle made a charge at the pack of gulls, setting his sights on one and giving chase. For a moment it seemed as though he had captured his prey, but the gull knew how to swerve and dodge at just the right moment. The eagle gave up and decided to rest on a branch a few feet away.
Three swans slowly floated by. The lead swan making quiet calls to the other two. They floated past mating pairs of Harlequin ducks, seemingly content just to pass the time.
At the Taiya River bridge we decided to stop. My buddy went for a walk down the river and I started casting where I thought the fish might be. An eagle behind me flapping its wings while it sat high atop a cottonwood distracted me. Once my eyes were pointing up I noticed another, and another.
I had to concentrate on the fish. I let out a few more casts and I heard a noise behind me. An otter was hopping out of the woods making his way to the water, he glanced at me as he passed by but never missed a step.
Sliding into the water he dove immediately. I could follow the bubbles on the surface and when he came up he had a fish. He sat on the opposite shoreline munching away. I asked him what the secret was. He gave me a blank stare and dove back into the water out of sight.
I put away my fishing rod and sat down.
This is when I started to remember my old fishing hole back in Florida at the little bay. These are different worlds, separated by thousands of miles and many degrees of Fahrenheit. The fish are different. The animals dont even compare. The only thing that seems familiar is the squawk of the seagulls.
There is one other similarity I had never noticed: The feeling of fishing in a place of unspoiled beauty. Where the typical day of fishing is transcended and one can find meaning behind the chaos. This is why every angler counts the days until Friday. Sure, everyone loves a meal of fresh fish, but its so often the case that the best day of fishing doesnt include dinner.
I no longer think back to those days in Florida with disdain and anger. Those days were a gift, as was that day in Dyea. Come to think of it, every day of fishing in Skagway has been a gift.
Im a lucky fisherman.
If you dont mind a beautiful drive up the pass, this is a great time to break out your light fly fishing gear and head to B.C. or the Yukon to tackle some grayling. This time of year seems to produce the largest of the season with a trophy fish or two well within reach. A trophy grayling is over 18 inches in length.
Grayling are not picky when it comes to flies, and catching 50 fish in an hour is not uncommon.
Spinning and baitcasting gear work well also, and you would be surprised how those tiny grayling mouths will pursue a large spoon. Remember: The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish.
Grayling are susceptible to over-fishing. A 12-inch fish can be six years old. A trophy fish can be 10 years old. Their slow growth and eagerness to bite make restraint necessary. Grayling only taste good when cooked fresh, within 36 hours, and they are delicious sweet fish. In the freezer they will turn to mush.
Keep one or two for supper and let the rest go. You can always fish for them again next year. Be sure and get your appropriate licenses both in Skagway and Canada. Check the laws and restrictions, they change every year. Good luck.