Monday, July 9, 2012

The Whisky Fish

There are few things I love more than a good fish story. A buddy of mine on sent me this...I was so enamored with it, I asked if I could put it up here. So, here it is folks. (For a story about a small fish, it ain't bad).

It occurred to me upon arrival to the city of Craig, Alaska on the Prince of Wales Island that part of the Alaskan experience is the journey to reach it. While not difficult compared to 50 years ago, it is still a bit of a jaunt by today's standards. 

With the last connecting flight being a float plane, a 50 year old Dehavalin with it's low fuel level light coming on every time we made another wild turn, the young bush pilot was living up to his colleagues wild reputations and clearly enjoying his chosen profession. 

When the plane makes its final side-slipping drop into the bay, skipping like a smooth stone on the water before finally sinking comfortably down to the water line, you are truly primed for an Alaskan fishing trip. 

The first day on the boat was amazing. Making our first run to the fishing grounds through the fog, we began to get a "feel" for our captain and guide (Lee); a young native Alaskan, who, upon making a wrong turn in the fog, grinned and explained that he wasn't used to this boat. Hmmm. 

As we made it through the islands and open Alaskan ocean and into the fishing grounds, I looked and saw several other boats drifting through and hooking up with fish, the adrenalin started flowing, and I couldn't wait to get my line in the water. 

After receiving instructions from our guide and one of the other, more experienced, members of our group (Eddie), I dropped in my line and began the "top to bottom" technique that would dominate the trip. This simply means dropping your bait to the ocean floor and immediately retrieving it all the way to the surface and then repeating the process. This gives your bait exposure to the bottom feeders as well as the more aggressive and unpredictable Salmon who, as the captain explained, could be hanging out at any depth. 

I'm not sure if I hooked up with a Silver (Salmon) first or whether it was a King that first took my bait, but catching a King salmon first makes for a better fish story, so I'll stick with that. It wasn't a huge fish by King standards, but it was big and it was a King Salmon and I was thrilled. Time went on, several Silvers were boated and another King was nabbed by Eddie - roughly the same size, and then it happened...

At first, I thought I had just hooked up with another fish, but as the intensity and momentum built, our guide said confidently that I had a King on my line, a big one. He directed everyone to pull in their lines and the fight was on. 

Later, someone would say that the fight lasted for a half hour, another said 45 minutes, again I'll stick with the better story of 45, because afterwards it felt like an eternity. During that time that fish almost spooled me twice (ran out all my line). At one point, Lee said "how much line do you have left?" I looked down at my reel and it looked like a single wrap of cellophane around a thimble. I grunted, "not much!" 

He replied "reel faster" as he gunned the little outboard "kicker" toward the chase. 

At another point, the stubborn salmon ran under the boat. The danger here is that if he rubs the line across the keel or other sharp part of the boat he can cut your line. So all I could do was jam the tip of my rod underwater to try and clear the bottom of the boat. It was at this point that I turned into Captain Quint from the movie Jaws. "He's gone under the boat!" I yelled and I might have even included the pirates "arrg" with it. Lee spun the boat and cleared my line and it was back to work again. 

At one point, I'm not sure of the chronology of it, a snapshot was taken by my brain that will stay with me forever. A picture of a brief moment in time that took my breath away; there in the distance, running directly away from me and toward the open ocean, he broke the surface. With the line singing off my reel, he came out of the water like a torpedo, straight as an arrow and not losing any momentum. As he sailed through the air, something unintelligible escaped my mouth and "click" the moment was eternally captured in the camera of my mind. 

As time wore on, my arms began to burn and the only things that kept me going were pride and the repeated urging from the captain to "reel faster". Then the fish gave me a break. He bunkered up at about sixty feet and took a break. He kept swimming and so kept tension on the line, but at that point the real fight had left him. I was able to shake out my arms and get the blood going back into my hands, sending oxygen to my starving muscles. 

After the short respite, he began again and the gut check was back on. As I continued to make ground on the stubborn fish, I was exhausted to the point of reeling in square circles. A hurky jerky motion no angler would be proud of, but anyone has been there knows what I'm describing. 

Another surreal moment came when at one stage of the fight; Eddie, who was never given over to much exaggeration, quietly and calmly said "Now JT, I don't want to make you nervous but remember that fish you caught a little while ago? (my first King)...well this one's twice that size." 

He made me nervous. 

As the King neared the boat, he gave a few more attempts at escape. It was at this point that I really began to think of everything that could still go wrong, I thought, "don't you dare let him get away" and the terror of losing this fight began to materialise. More adrenalin kicked in and I summoned up enough strength to finish the fight. 

As Lee finally got the net around him and, with help from Eddie, they hauled the fish aboard, I got my first good look at the Whisky Fish. 

Now, not being familiar with the term and clearly not aware of what I had just accomplished, I was curious about why the captain was jumping up and down hugging me and yelling, "you got the Whisky Fish!" 

I looked around at my girlfriend Lynn who, only moments before, was struggling against sea sickness, jumping up and down screaming with delight. Stoic Eddie had a big wide grin. Our other group member, Jim, gave me a high five which I was barely able to return with a shaky hand. Only then, did the reality that, hey, this might actually be a really big fish, began to take form. 

After the Captain finished calling his fellow captains from the lodge on the radio and telling them that, not only were we "on the Kings", but that we also had caught the elusive Whisky Fish, the rest of the boat started fishing again. I leaned against the gunwhale and caught my breath and stopped shaking. 

The rest of the day was wonderful. 

Eddie nailed another really big King, but even as he was reeling it in, he gave me a wink to tell me, "don't worry you've still got the biggest fish". He also hammered the bottom fishing out in the deep water and the Silvers were piling up at his feet. 

Lynn bravely fought the sea sickness and continued to fish. And while she boated a halibut and caught a couple monster Ling Cod that we had to cut loose, she didn't have many fish to show for her efforts. She was having fun, but was clearly yearning to catch some Salmon. A curse that she would later destroy on our final day of fishing. 

Jim had a respectable day and went on the following day to catch his own monster King. As for me, that was the last King I would catch on this trip. 

As we finally came back to the lodge, word had gotten out that we had bagged the Whisky Fish, and the dock was filled with the other boat captains as well as all the lodge guests. There was back patting and picture taking and generally a bit of a festive mood all the way around. It was my tiny 10 minutes of fame and it was great. 

But what's with the Whisky Fish? 

After the group on the docks dispersed, one of the deck hands from the biggest boat came over and said that Lee wanted to see me on it. So, I went over and was invited aboard and into the cabin. There sat all the captains from the lodge around a monster bottle of Crown Royale, which we proceeded to pass around as I recounted my fish story. Their excitement was genuine as I told of the various aspects of the fight and they interjected their own fishing tales throughout, with much laughter and many more tugs at the bottle. I was briefly invited into their world as I had passed the test and was temporarily a fisherman in their eyes. The following day I would return to being just another guest, but for that brief moment, I was on an episode of "After the Catch" 

Any fish over 50 pounds is a Whisky Fish and the owner of the boat buys the captain a bottle of Crown. 

Mine was the only Whisky Fish of the season; it weighed in at 54 pounds, and it represented the return of Captain Lee's Mojo. He had been on a losing streak that season and was clearly relieved that it was broken. 

One of the captains informed me that he had fished all his life and his best was 49. 

Sure, there have been bigger fish; Lee bagged a 64 pounder the year before and, further north in the Kenai, they get bigger still. 

All in all it was a phenomenal trip and I am eternally grateful to the Whisky Fish. Cheers! 

Good Luck and Godspeed 


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