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A Humble Fish Story in Which Old Halvorsen and a
Master Angler Encounter a Lalapalooza of a Fish
A half-pound of bacon blistered away on the cookstove beside a pot of vile crankcase coffee. Atop the counter, a half opened box of Halibut Helper consorted with a black, clinically dead banana, an outboard motor battery, and a bag of smoke flavored pancake mix. It was 8:00 a.m., breakfast time for Old Halvorsen, and the aged galoot was trying to jumpstart his sourdough. Old Halvorsen brings fresh significance to the word "omnivore."
"Drink your coffee. It's getting cold," he ordered.
"That's OK," I said. "It tastes just as bad cold as it does hot."
I was practicing tolerance and patience waiting for Old Halvorsen, the self anointed breakfast chef, to pronounce himself ready to go king salmon fishing. I had risen early and eaten at the resort's restaurant next door. It was one of those gamy, unapologizing places where the table setting consisted of a knife, a fork, and a fly swatter. As I watched old Halvorsen eat his breakfast, I made a mental note to begin recruiting a more fastidious and punctual fishing partner. The old boy finally filled his belly, his thermos, and his tote bag and we drove down to the boat rental place. Along the shore, the houses clung like limpets to the rocks, and you could tell it was a fishing town because the grocery stores were smaller than the liquor stores.
After parking the car at "Fishin' Impossible," Old Halvorsen got out and immediately shouldered Methuselah, his ancient 15-horse Evinrude and some other stuff. With the 15-horse, we figured we could both troll and run out to the fishing grounds and back. This seemed simpler than him packing, say, a 35-horse and me a 3-horse. Why carry two engines when one could do both jobs? Besides, my neighbor wouldn't loan me his 35-horse and his 3-horse.
Walking up to the clapboard marina office, we sensed the cough of the inveterate red throated smoker. Sniffing out its nest, our casual premonition was elevated to a confirmed sighting. We were in the office of the proprietor of Fishin' Impossible, a Mr. Lester Ratbone. Perched behind a sleazy metal countertop and shrouded in smoke, he was rattling the ice cubes in a galvanized marine coffee cup, which was clenched in a meaty tattooed hand. There was a Bassett hound puppy gumming a soiled blanket beneath the desk, while its probable mother reposed in stock-still decay in the corner. The place had not been raked for months. It occurred to me that I've been thrown into better places than this. With all alacrity and due respect, we asked Mr. Ratbone about our skiff reservations. Ratbone exacted his toll in money and diatribe, the latter of which we endured with feigned regard. He seemed to be a veritable pumpstation of misinformation. He told us "the run of king salmon was over, but there were a few guys takin' Dolly Varden." I knew that wasn't true because, first of all, I had read in this very periodical that the king salmon run peaked in this place right about now. Secondly, no king salmon fisherman of high character fishes for Dolly Varden on purpose. Unless he is alone. Old Halvorsen, nonetheless, asked where we could catch some Dolly Varden, and slipped a $10 bill across the counter.
Ratbone made an attempt to grin, flashing parts of 6 or 8 yellow teeth, and proffered that the wise angler would find the elusive Dolly off the mouth of Amazon Crick. He also promised that were we to broadcast this top-secret information, we would forever be singing soprano. Then he turned, ignored us, and endeavored training the puppy to roll over, which was plainly difficult because, to my mind, the puppy had the higher I.Q.
We left the bourbon cowboy to his amusements.
We gathered our gear and toted it down to the boat, a 14-foot Hi-Laker. I was carrying my Warren W. Wiley ultra light, split bamboo, cork handled, custom-made king salmon rod, and a six-pack. Old Halvorsen carried the lunch, the bait, his rod and reel, the tackle box, the tool box, the cooler, 15-horse Evinrude, the battery, the gas tank, first aid kit, and a box of sinkers. As we boarded the Hi-Laker, Old Halvorsen was sniveling about something unimportant pertaining to division of labor, fair play, and equal treatment under the law. He soon quit, though, when he stumbled over a tie-up line and fell face down on the deck, scattering the gear around him.
I quickly rushed up to him and lifted the Evinrude off his chest.
"Are you hurt, old man?" I queried.
"I'm just fine," he said, shaking his head. "It looked for a moment there I was going to be hurt bad, but landing on some sinkers took the sting out of it."
Old Halvorsen picked up the spilled gear, and tossed it all into a handy receptacle, which on a larger boat would be referred to as the "cabin." The old boy set to mounting the outboard while I busied myself preparing the bait. Old Halvorsen and I universally agree that one thing good king salmon fishermen like to have with them when they're fishing is some bait. A lot of guys like to use herring. I like to use herring. Most of all I like to use plug cut herring.
According to all leading authorities, a proper plug cut herring is one that has the anterior cephalic segment separated from the remainder of the deceased fish by a double bevel cut in the pectoral region. The book put out by the Fisheries Department prescribes that the double bevel cut should be 44 degrees from top to bottom, 36 degrees left to right, and made so that the blade passes sequentially through the third scale from the right anterior end of the lateral line, splits the 19th longitudinal striation of the Lateralis superjicialis, severs the hypaxial and epaxial musculature, divides the left ventricle of the heart into aliquot segments, shaves the posterior base of the left pectoral fin, and exits the opposite side someplace other than where your finger is. But I, and Old Halvorsen, and a lot of other guys, just cut the head off.
I soon had the bait prepped. I also strung the rods and rigged the leaders just as Old Halvorsen got Methuselah, the ancient Evinrude, to fire. A cloud of blue exhaust rumbled and spiralled from the transom, enveloping the boat with the aroma of burned gasoline, creosote and tidewater. Finally, we cast off with that exquisite deliverance familiar to saltwater skiff dwellers everywhere: an ambrosial high. The sea was calm and we were on our way, exhilarated and alive.
It was a ten minute run to the king salmon grounds off Cape No Cape, a well named promontory of sorts, apologetically interrupting an otherwise straight coastline between Skagway and Port Hardy. Cape No Cape was the king salmon drag in this area - the hotspot for the locals, the attraction that draws fishermen from far and wide, the very reason why Lester Ratbone owns a marina, the Mecca among moochers of the mighty chinook salmon.
Despite the reputed popularity of the spot, there wasn't a soul present as we arrived.
Old Halvorsen figured the solitude was worth comment: "There's not a soul present as we arrive," he noted, captain-like.
"Probably just a coincidence that everyone had to stay home this morning and mow the lawn," I observed. "And like us, a lot of fishermen are also upstanding pillars of faith in their community and are maybe attending morning worship."
"On Tuesday?" he disputed.
Knowing we could never fathom the reasons why no one else was present, we accepted our fate and commenced trolling. It looked fishy. The steep beach was shellacked with black mussels and seaweed holding fast to dark boulders below a mantle of hemlock and alder. Sea birds foraged among the tidal slicks where feeding herring dimpled the glare. A slight breeze intensified the brightness of the water, forcing the eyes to squint. Methuselah coughed, sputtered, smoked, and forced the nose to be as selective as possible about inhaling. But there were no salmon.
An occasional gull would nose-dive the herring. A seal poked up about 50 yards away. Murres, murrelets and cormorants also worked the herring over. Indicator birds. It occurred to me I would never want to be a herring.
A lifetime of being a target, your average six or eight year old herring knows all about terror. Between attacks from bigger fish, the birds, the seals, sea lions, whales and commercial fishermen, herring pray for rejection. Glorious consummation of life's dream for a herring is to die rebuffed, unwanted and unloved. Smart herring do not seek recognition or box office attraction. The last thing a herring wants is to be on everyone's lips.
I am truly grateful to be an honest, law-abiding, upstanding, world class, humble king salmon fisherman instead of a herring. But even after being caught, frozen in a package, beheaded, and impaled my herring was still applying his lifestyle. He was totally ignored. Unattractive. Spurned. Passed over. A wallflower. In its view, a sensational smash triumph. It was time to switch bait.
Nothing we tried seemed to work. Each herring was an impressive reject. Masters of the cold shoulder. Old Halvorsen seemed at wit's end, but then he was never very far from there anyway. In desperation, he suggested we saunter over to the mouth of Amazon Crick and try for some Dolly Varden.
I don't think he would know a Dolly Varden from an avocado. The only fish forms he can recognize on sight are the pickled salmon and the deep fried shrimp.
I explained to Old Halvorsen that no highly regarded king salmon fisherman seeks a secondary quarry, particularly one so far down the respectability scale as the low-life Dolly Varden, or "snake" as we call them around these parts. I emphasized that real top notch king salmon fishermen do not lose patience so readily, and that the only "right" thing for us to do is stay put.
Among his many bad habits, Old Halvorsen tends to ignore me when I point out correct fishing form. During his silence, you could hear the boxes of dead information clattering and shuffling across the floor of his brain. Then he turned and instructed Methuselah, the Ancient One, to take us to Amazon Crick.
The mouth of Amazon Crick is one of those spellbound places where a small stream slides unruffled into a still lagoon through a sleeve of alders cuffed with driftwood. The total effect is an emerald estuary literally enameled with peace. The verdant shoreline, untouched by woodsman's axe, combines with distant peaks and still blue waters to grace a setting pretentious enough to bring Jacques Cousteau to his knees. I thought it a shame Dolly Varden should be allowed to live there.
Old Halvorsen, on the other hand, suffered from no such misgivings. He snapped on a lure and commenced trolling for Dollies, nosing the boat left and right as if on the spoor of a fish. I decided to impale a small herring on a 1/0 hook and drag it along in the off chance there was a king salmon in the vicinity.
As pure dumb luck preordains, Old Halvorsen soon yarded in a pair of fair sized snakes, each, expectedly, about as lively as a clam in molasses. One was three pounds, the other closer to four. Old Halvorsen guessed their weights significantly greater than that, but then he never did think much of the 16 ounce pound. For him, somewhere between six and 10 ounces filled out a good round pound. Unimpressed with his fish, I continued to drag that stone dead herring through water bereft of motion and life. My spirits were as effervescent as a five day old beer. I was ready to call it a day and head back to Fishin' Impossible, and I told Old Halvorsen as much.
Suddenly I felt a savage strike and the rod was nearly wrenched from my hands. An angry fish pricked by the tiny hook in that headless herring exploded in the boat's wake and raced off like an express train, scarring the lagoon's varnish with a streak of froth. I tightened the line a bit which only seemed to enrage him. Then he turned and sped straight for the boat. He began his jump at us when he was less than 12 feet away.
Old Halvorsen, who was not used to encounters like this with hostile fish, raised an oar in self-defense. I hit the deck, flattening myself on Old Halvorsen's lunch just as the fish whooshed overhead. I caught a glimpse of the evil redness in his eyes, and the scales on his speckled sides rattled and clashed like sabers in the air.
The line, of course, was slack since I couldn't reel to keep pace with his charge. We both realized there was now a discernible danger that an arm or leg could become entangled and he would carry off either me or Old Halvorsen. But I untangled it as best I could, and just as the line shot out again Old Halvorsen's oar, which had become tangled in the line, snapped like a toothpick. It was a near thing.
The fish, sensing my resolve, went to the bottom and sulked. Not knowing what it would do next we waited, hearts pounding. Then he rose to the surface, lashing and stirring the waters with his tail. His strategy became ever so slowly evident.
It would be false modesty to admit I was not equal to the occasion. From a point 50 yards in front of the boat, the fish charged to a point 50 yards astern, furrowing the estuary like a rototiller through the 18th green at Pebble Beach. Then it turned and raced back to the point of beginning. Repeating this cycle, a seiche was created in the lagoon and the waters became very rough.
Steep would understate the slope of the resulting seas. Parallel to gravity is more accurate. Many anxious moments passed as we hung on for dear life, avoiding all thought of the consequences of being tossed into the roaring waters with that crazed fish.
The lessons I showed Old Halvorsen that day in wizardry of rod handling, resourcefulness of judgment, innate seamanship, and humility should last him a lifetime. My professionalism, endurance, and experience over the course of many dangerous, uneasy moments exhausted the struggling fish. As I led him to within four or five feet of the boat, Old Halvorsen managed to gaff it and heft it across the gunnels and onto the deck, where he clubbed it into submission with half an oar.
With that, our fishing ended for the day. Spurring Methuselah to full throttle, we hurtled triumphantly back to Fishin' Impossible. A reporter from the Fishing News snapped photographs as we hoisted my fish to the scale. It was a DoIly Varden and it weighed eleven ounces.
This story first appeared in the spring 1986 issue of Alaska Fish and Game magazine and is reprinted with permission from Larry Edfelt.
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