Something died today. The air around the launch is heavy with it, a wall of rot signaling apocalypse for the year’s salmon. In the slack-water shallows a few fish mill about, already spawned and clinging to a last few hours—of what I cannot imagine. We push off and the drift boat sweeps downstream. The sky appears to begin about thirty feet above the river, gray in layers growing progressively darker. It’s starting to snow and it might not stop until April. The stink remains, relentless as a jackhammer.
I commence throwing down drifts while the boat slides along. In the summer, Alaska’s Kenai River glints in glacial turquoise. Under the sepulchral light of late fall, it looks like a river of ink. There are kings and sockeye in various states of decay littering the gravel bars; chunks of washed-out flesh hang from the sweepers and lodge in the rootwads. Here or there a grass bank is matted from bear traffic, their moveable buffet marked by the sudden pileup of carcasses. Bald eagles pick at the leftovers. No one else is around.
As with the bears and the birds, Alaska’s trout go as the salmon go. Each stage in their juvenile life cycle presents opportunity for high-caloric sustenance, from alevin to fry to smolt—the Muscle Milk of the aquatic world. River systems with large headwater lakes, rearing grounds for tens of millions of sockeye, produce the most stable and productive environments, and thus, the largest rainbows. In the late summer after the breeders have returned the egg drop begins and the trout gather, hanging below the spawning beds and hunting in packs. In autumn, flesh adds to the feast. The more it stinks, the better the fishing.
We round the first bend and I pick up a fish. No line ripping off my reel, no acrobatics: I know instantly it’s a Dolly Varden, rambunctious and playful and still nearly mint-bright from its summer feeding sojourn into the sea. About two pounds, I don’t bother with a photo, instead releasing at the gunnel and casting again. Another Dolly, also about two pounds. The char, so stupidly oblivious to anything but eating this time of year, are almost never alone. I catch a third and swap flies. I change the size of the pattern, the color, whatever—anything but risk another dozen non-trout encounters in the next half-mile. It feels audacious, representing the kind of vagrant optimism important for the pursuit of truly large fish.
In my everyday life—the one I call “real”—there’s hardly any occasion for bold maneuvers. I’m frequently late for something, tired, busy, bored: nothing feelings in a nowhere state. Not to disparage the genus Salvelinus nor the art of getting by, but I crave something solid and substantial to stamp on my floating mind.
With a new fly I look for new water, stretching a cast towards the far bank. Only a few feet into the swing everything comes tight. The bend reaches into the cork. Slack line snaps against the rod and then whistles through the guides. “Good fish,” I mutter to no one but myself, wondering if that counts as justification, or just an excuse.
I can recall my only panic attack with a clarity typically reserved for other firsts—milestones involving girls, tarpon or guest accommodations in a small-town jail. Twelve years old, laying in bed on Christmas Eve, I remember fretting over the clock, disturbed by the casual pace of a night that couldn’t go by fast enough. Suddenly I was well and truly afraid the morning would never come. Confronted with the most uncomfortable fact of all, knowing for the first time that I was actually going to die someday, both my Sunday School education and a carefully cultivated bravado failed me. I probably cried.
Since then, wiser in the ways of avoiding tears, I’ve shunned such direct rumination. Instead, the anxiety of losing time affects me from underneath, exhibiting itself in a weird and unremitting desire to discover the next big thing. Brown trout in Argentina one year, bonefish and three trips to the Bahamas the next. I can wake up one morning having decided there’s nothing more critical to my existence than perfecting a Skagit-style Spey cast; two months later I might be really into pinot noir. Then it’s September again.
There’s nothing subtle about making a commitment to chasing big trout. It involves more than the eight-weights and the large-arbor reels that are necessary, more than outrageously large flies, more than disgracing oneself with split-shot—first, to catch big trout with anything approaching regularity, it’s helpful to feel contempt for everything else. Second, one should get used to the idea of fishing through the worst local climates have to offer.
It was day four of a weeklong excursion to the Naknek River in the Bristol Bay region of western Alaska, and my attitude towards the weather had already become markedly indifferent, despite the freefalling temperatures and buckets of rain. The trees and tundra had swapped summer green for the polychromatic brocade of fall; the river had swollen to unrecognizable levels and the bears were out in force. The spawn was complete, the season’s salmon dead or dying, and the Naknek trout, a standard by which all trophy rainbows must be judged, were nearing their finest form: happy and fat and eager for more. I brought out the sketchy behavior—the early rising, the late-night fly-tying, a certain nonchalance towards scheduled mealtimes, overreliance on whiskey mixed with my caffeine. At one point, I casually equated fishing with a bead to executing a war crime, and then, after zeroing with streamers for an entire morning, I deployed a 6mm Apricot Swirl and worked up a manifesto on the perils of streamside snobbery. On this day, looking for a second opinion on an unproductive run, I climbed a tree. I soon fell, and rolled most of the way down the bluff, but not before the improved angle had told me exactly where to cast.