The Billion Hole Golf Course," said Bill Martin. He dipped a wing of the Cessna 185 Skywagon to afford a better view of the rolling landscape below. "See that dogleg to the right down there? That's the 9th hole fairway. It's a four-mile shot from the tee."
The country sprawling 2,000 feet beneath the plane did indeed resemble a non-stop golf course. Long, crooked swatches of open ground snaked green and tan and lavender through the dark spruce forest. Ponds and meandering streams dotted or slashed the countryside, some of them as artfully placed, it seemed, as any Robert Trent Jones water hazard. There was, however, not a clubhouse in sight, nor yet a single duffer to be seen. These fairways were actually avenues of soggy, man-swallowing tundra, alive with mosquitoes and no-see-ums thick enough to suffocate a caribou, the water hazards icy glacial moraine holes and their connecters. The only regulars on the Billion Hole Golf Course were moose, caribou, brown bears, barren-ground wolves and crafty carcajous. The only eagles were of the bald and golden varieties. Ah, but the fishing!
If ever there was a land built solely for the delectation of the fly-fisherman, it is this Tikchik Lakes country of southwestern Alaska, 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. Rainbow trout of 10 pounds are considered barely keepers. Record class grayling are so abundant that serious trout fishermen, after catching 30 grayling before a single trout has taken the fly, consider the "sailfish of the north" a dadratted nuisance almost as bad as the ubiquitous 12-pound northern pike of the slower flowages. Sea-run Arctic char, lake trout, Dolly Varden and even that jut-jawed remote cousin of the salmonids, the shee-fish (or inconnu), can be reached handily by Tikchik-based float planes. And during the summer and early fall five varieties of Pacific salmon—chum, pink, sockeye, coho and king—run up the fast, icy rivers from the nearby Bering Sea to spawn.
Martin, our pilot on this initial reconnaissance of the region, is the owner and operator of the Royal Coachman Lodge, one of only three fishing camps in the Tikchik country. In order to protect the angling resource from the overfishing that has spoiled such former hot spots as Canada's Great Slave and Great Bear lakes, the lodge owners permit their clients—at most 300 in a season—to kill only one "trophy" fish apiece, 'in the short summers at this latitude," says Martin, "it takes a rainbow seven to 10 years to hit 10 pounds. After that the growth rate is even slower. With unlimited killing you could clean out this country in a decade, maybe less. Even with the Alaska limit of five rainbows a day. it wouldn't take long." The lodge owners allow the client to decide for himself what's a "trophy" and what isn't. "After all, it's a relative judgment," says Martin. He is heartened to see that many of his guests release all their fish, regardless of size.
December 12, 1977
"A good fly-fisherman can catch 350 to 400 fish a week here, rainbow and grayling," says Martin. "More if he knows how and when to use the dry fly. Well, talk is cheap. Let's go on down and you can see for yourselves."
The Royal Coachman Lodge squats snug and homely on a point of raw land just below the outlet of Tikchik Lake. A brawling rapids pours down and hangs a hard right to become the Nuyakuk River outside the front door. Within minutes of our arrival, Charlie Cook, a 61-year-old house-plant wholesaler from Dallas, was hanging grayling of a pound or better on an artfully cast black gnat. Doug Reid, 36, a Datsun dealer from San Diego, who never fly-fished before, picked up a rainbow on his first throw. The fish, short but chunky, and bright as all the rainbows in this drainage—at this time of year at least—leaped and somersaulted like an ice-water Comaneci. Reid, a saltwater, big-game angler up to now, watched with bulging eyes. "This is better than marlin," he said.
From across the Nuyakuk, toward sunset, came two guests who had arrived earlier. Lewis Little, 46, is a cattleman from Austin, Texas. His partner, Charles Le-Noir, 39, used to be in the oil pipeline business but is now a gentleman of leisure. Both looked bone-weary and preoccupied.
"How'd you do?" asked Martin.
Little shook his head ruefully. "A couple of about six pounds," he said. "The big ones aren't up there." He gestured toward the top of the rapids. "They were there a few days ago, but now they're gone."
"How many grayling did you catch?"
Little made a wry face. "Dunno. Maybe a hundred?"
All of this just outside the front door.
By now the evening cold was coming on. A west wind spat snow, and the lodge, with its peeled yellow logs and a plume of woodsmoke lying out flat against the black of the woods, looked warm and welcoming. In Alaska, one soon learns, the difference between indoors and outdoors is of quantum magnitude. In the Lower Forty-Eight, or Outside, as Alaskans call the rest of the U.S., an out-doorsman is frequently reluctant to see the last light fade. But up here, after a day of wading through ice water, filling a boot or two, staggering through knee-deep muskegs, repelling rain or squinting through snow squalls, one finds the indoors inevitably welcome, regardless of natural beauty or the fecundity of fish. Many Alaskans build their houses without windows, not just to conserve heat but because they see enough of the raw wilderness during the workday.
Mary Martin, Bill's wife, greeted the guests with drinks and good cheer. A former stewardess for Alaska Airlines, svelte, black-haired and ruddy-cheeked, she is a model of self-sufficiency in the true tradition of frontier wives. Not only does she bake bread and cook marvelously (her wild duck dishes are particularly memorable), but she is also an excellent angler and a fine shot, both wing and rifle. She can sweat a copper plumbing joint, fell a tree, butcher a moose or stitch up an ax gash with the best of them. She once shot a prowling bear that had laid siege to the lodge. She is also rearing two attractive children—Robert, 3½ and Ann Renae, four months old. Young Robert is already a practicing fly-fisherman and hunter.
The morning broke clear and windy. Yesterday's spit of snow at this elevation had dropped a white parka over the high mountains to westward, and the thermometer outside the window read 28° F. This in late September. The black 55-gallon fuel drum that serves as the lodge's sole source of heat had plenty of company as it warmed up.
After breakfast, Martin took the three Texans by plane up to the Agulapak, a nearby stream abounding in rainbows. The rest of the party piled into a john-boat and headed down the Nuyakuk with shotguns and fly rods for a day of catch-as-catch-can. Our guide was Rusty Beall, a mustachioed, 22-year-old Oregonian from Martin's hometown of Dallas. A short distance downstream he ran the boat up on a gravel bar and gestured to either side. "Rainbows and grayling," he said.
"Anywhere in particular?"
Wading out along the bar to about mid-thigh depth, leaning into the strong current, I worked about 30 feet of floating line out through the guides and dropped a No. 12 mosquito pattern at the head of a riffle. At the end of the float, just as I was about to pick up the cast, a grayling arched into the air and dived on the fly like a Stuka. I popped the barbless hook into him—Martin suggests pinching down the barbs on all flies to minimize injury; most of the fish are released, anyway—and checked him with a forefinger as he ran fast out into the main current. He got up once, ran again, downstream, then turned and ran up between my boots. He looked to go about 1½ pounds. I held him up against the light and raised the dorsal. Opalescent and spotted in pale, nacreous ovals, the dorsal started low and then swept up to a high, trailing roach—the signature of a male (female grayling have smaller dorsal fins that start high and tail out low). The back was dark, a greenish black, and I could see how the fish, with its drag-less, torpedo-shaped body, could hold so still to the bottom that it would be invisible to the angler's eye in all but the most favorable light. A man could fish with a thousand grayling just 10 yards from him and not see a one, until it dive-bombed his fly. It's that element of surprise, rather than any exuberant acrobatics after the hookup, that makes the grayling such a delight on the fly rod.
In the next half hour, we hooked and released about 50. Some, to be sure, were "long-line releases," when the fish threw the barbless hooks, but all of the strikes were the same: the downstream dive on the fly at the very end of the float.
Grayling existed in great numbers in the Lower Forty-Eight as recently as the early 1900s, particularly in Michigan's Lower Peninsula where market fishermen serving Chicago and Detroit had a field day on such streams as the Au Sable and the Manistee. But heavy logging combined with the big kills to wipe the fish out. Today, apart from small populations in the northern Rockies, the Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) is found only in Canada and Alaska. Its European cousin, Thymallus thymallus, is still abundant, though. In France they have a beautiful name for the fish: l'ombre. which means the Shadow. Appropriate.
Farther downstream, under banks gone skeletal with spruce snags, Beall suddenly cut the motor. He pointed to the left. A large, dark bird moved slowly out over the water, pursued by two ravens. "There's a family of bald eagles nesting here," the guide said. "That's the baby."
Some baby. The bird's wingspan was a good five feet, and its talons, catching the low morning light, glistened like a Gurkha's kukri. But the adolescent eagle didn't know how to use its weaponry quite yet. It flew clumsily, screaming pitiful squawks for its mommy as the two adult ravens stabbed their long black beaks at its head. Then, with an audible whir of pinions, mommy arrived. With two quick passes she sent the ravens flapping back over the water. The eagles settled on snags across the river, with the mother ostensibly reading the raven riot act to the youngster.
From a slough beyond the eagles' nest we jumped a small flock of bluebills. The shotguns sounded and three ducks fell while the remainder whirled back upstream. Ahead, with the motor stopped for the shooting, we heard the low mutter of white water. "The falls of the Nuyakuk." said Beall. "There's a portage that the Eskimos cut just above them. We'll put in there and hike over to the tail of the white water. There's rainbows galore."
A party of river Eskimos had preceded us downstream that morning. They had been gillnetting up in the Tikchik Lakes, and we found them encamped at the far side of the portage, cooking white-fish for lunch. Small, almost delicately boned men with wide flat faces, they offered us a taste of the broiled fish. The leader of the party was a wizened man who said he was 81 years old. In their heavy wooden boats lay 500-odd pounds of fish: lake trout, northern pike, lake char, whitefish and grayling. Rifles and shotguns were in the scuppers, rusty and weather-worn.
The falls poured down through two channels, doglegging to the left over smooth-pocketed boulders that shone bone white in the sun. We fished the back eddies but picked up only grayling. Don Sullivan, a partner of Reid's from San Diego, put together a spinning outfit and cast a Mepps out beyond the reach of the fly rods. That's where the rainbows were. He fought a fish of about six pounds right up to his boots, only to lose it at the last moment, then picked up a smaller trout on the next cast. We fished for an hour and then headed back upriver, hoping to jump some more ducks.
"There's teal back in the slough," said Beall as we idled up the right bank. "Green wings. Let's put in on the point and walk around. Maybe we can puddle-jump 'em."
It was hard going through the mud. Halfway around the point of land that separated us from the ducks, whose gabble came to us faintly on the wind, like the chatter of old ladies at a tea party. we saw fresh bear signs. The tracks measured a good eight inches across. "There was a black bear in here the other day," Beall said. When we neared the far end of the point, the teal jumped, well out of range, and hustled around the other side. It was to become an all-too-familiar sight.
As the afternoon waned, we picked up two more bluebills and Don Sullivan fell in the mud. The teal outsmarted us at every turn. We headed back to the lodge. The Texans had returned from the Agulapak, where the rainbows had been all of a size: about four or five pounds. Charlie Cook, while walking the tundra from one rapids to another, had fallen in a sink hole. "He was pushing along through that waist-high grass, complaining about the rough going, when all of a sudden—zip—he was gone."
"The damn thing was man-deep." said Charlie, laughing. "Man, I'd hate to have to walk out of this country. It would take you a year to go 20 miles. To top it off, I managed to fall in the river when we got back to it. Talk about cold...."
The next morning Martin flew four of us down to the Alaska Peninsula to hunt ducks and geese. "Even though it's only 50 minutes away by plane," he said, "it's a completely different country. Probably the best game area left in North America. Barren-ground caribou, brown bear, wolves, wolverine, moose, ptarmigan and more ducks and geese than you could believe existed." Crossing Bristol Bay, an arm of the Bering Sea just south of Dillingham, we could see Mount Katmai shining off to the left, and ahead the snow-covered Peninsula range. From the mountains to the sea the land lay flat and grassy, broken everywhere by sloughs and ponds and mud flats. "A few thousand years ago the mountains and the glaciers ran right down into the sea," Martin said. "All this flat land has been reclaimed from the sea. The wave action piles up sand and silt and holds it there, then piles up more. Look—caribou!"
A dozen gray shapes stalked in file across the ridged muskegs. Martin dived down to 200 feet for a better view. The lead bull had a huge rack. "A non-resident can only hunt here with a guide," Martin said, "and a fully outfitted hunt would run about $3,000. If you wanted to add a grizzly to the caribou, it would be a $6,000 tab." The farther down the peninsula we flew, the more caribou we saw. It would be tough hunting, though, hiking the muskegs and skirting the mucky sloughs.
The hunting shanty that would be home base for the next two days stood lonely and austere on a point of land just south of the town of Egegik. A few miles to the north, the Bering Sea was busy building more land with its long, roiling rollers. To the east, an icy inlet footed the distant mountains. Duck and geese by the thousand dotted the water, huge rafts of them feeding right beside the cabin. They flushed as we landed and the sky was black with birds. The weather was lowering, gunmetal clouds scudding under the push of a gusty wind. Fine weather for ducks, as they say.
Martin left us in the care of a lean, bearded Texan named Bryan Hatch, 32. The best that could be said for the cabin was that it kept out the wind; the worst was that the stove didn't work. But there sure were plenty of ducks. Walking out the cabin door, I hadn't taken four steps when a wedge of widgeons came angling in from my right. I dropped the leader but missed my second shot. Soon the guns were popping all around. We hunkered in the high grass at the end of a point, trying to drop our birds over land, if possible, or at least not too far out in the gumbo-bottomed water. Widgeon, pintail, mallard, green-wing teal and lesser Canada geese swirled and rose and settled back in, only to fly at the next gunshot. Don Sullivan got bogged in the mud again, second day in a row, and fell face forward, emerging like The Heap and smelling like a septic tank. The trick to crossing the soft spots, we soon learned, was to move fast with a quick, bowlegged trot, keeping the toes pointed downward. If you stopped for even a few seconds, you were hopelessly mired. Hatch was the master bog-trotter, moving so fast and light-footed that one could imagine him walking on water.
Toward dusk, hunting the flats east of the cabin, we crossed the path of a band of caribou. The bull and his harem passed not 200 yards from us. As the bull paused to look at us, the last light caught the wide, palmate spread of his antlers and turned them to pewter. Then the band spooked and moved out, jogging with that long-legged, rocking-horse gait that looks so awkward but in reality is the only way to travel this country. Checking out their tracks, we saw how the long, wide, two-toed hooves spread on the soft ground, enabling an animal that weighs 500 pounds to cover ground in which a small man would sink.
A few belts of bourbon, a dinner of chili and home-baked bread, and we bunked in for the night. The next day dawned on bluebird weather—not a cloud in the sky and a thin skim of ice on the slough edges. It was a better day for dozing in the tall grass than for bird shooting. At one point, a red fox trotted past a lie where three of us lay in ambush. He was already in his winter pelage—fur so thick that his legs seemed stunted and the tips of his ears barely peaked over the rich red pelt. "Probably looking to pick up some of our cripples," said Hatch.
Owls hunted the flats at dawn and dusk. In the still air, one could actually feel the slow pulse of the surf miles away; the combined voices of a few hundred thousand geese and ducks surged every now and then to a racket that would put a Latin American soccer crowd to shame. All day strings of geese—mainly lesser Canadas and snows—yelped across the sky, usually well out of range. Ducks, flying in small squabbling families from pond to pond, offered more shots, but if they were moving on the wind, it was difficult to give them enough lead. Stilts, yellowlegs and jacksnipe whistled past, breaking and darting at the sight of the gunners below them. In the clear, cold air, the sunset transmuted the distant glaciers into rivers of molten gold. By the time Bill Martin returned for us the following morning, the cabin had become home. It would be easy to live a whole life in that marshland and never get bored.
Heading back to the Tikchik country, we overflew thousands of emperor geese—a small, gray goose that for the most part restricts its migration to Alaska, though a few winter as far south as northern California. Hair seals thronged the offshore reefs, and sea otters bobbed in clusters beyond the surf line, playing and fishing. Nearly extinct at the turn of the century, they have come back strongly under strict protection. A dead whale adorned the beach north of Pilot Point, its carcass wreathed by gulls who had already nearly flensed it to the bone. More caribou. Many more caribou. "And this is only a shadow of what the country was like 10 years ago." said Martin.
At the lodge, Lew Little was all smiles. The big rainbows were back in the rapids across from the point. He had taken a 10½-pound "trophy" the afternoon before. Back to the water!
Of all the motives for fishing—from simple hunger to the more complex desire for trophies—perhaps the most laudable is that which drives men to strange new waters in pursuit of strange new fish. It was that sort of compulsion, next morning, that planted Charlie Cook hip deep in the ice water of Gechiak Lake, far to the southwest of the lodge, and kept him squinting for hours on end into a sleet-edged breeze while his purple fingers worked the fly rod. Even if the largest brown bear in Alaska had walked up behind him, it's doubtful that Cook would have noticed. The metronome of his fly-rod would keep right on ticking, the sinking line snicking out again and again over the dropoff beyond the gravel bar that marks the inlet of Gechiak. Such was the strength of his compulsion.
And, of course, it was rewarded. Two hours after he first wet his line. Cook's rod tip bent and bucked; he straightened with a nearly audible creak from his crouch and the reel began to chatter. A blue-green fish with silvery sides spotted in pink vaulted from the water and headed into the deep. Cook checked its run, turned the fish, recovered some line, then stood helpless as the fish surged again, with this run taking him well into the backing. Some 20 minutes and half a dozen jumps later. Cook brought the fish to hand. Gently easing the fly from its jaw, he sent it back into the deeper water off the bar.
"I've waited 50 years for that fish," he said. "It was worth every second."
The fish was a sea-run Arctic char, and with it Charlie Cook had completed his life-list of the major North American trout. Iowa-born and fly-fisherman since he can remember. Cook has fished the upper Middle West, the Rockies, the Canadian Northwest Territories and even the British Isles, but this was his first Arctic char. It wouldn't be the last. Before the day was out, he would be taking char on every cast.
According to McClane's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, the Arctic char evolved during the Pleistocene ice ages when a land bridge separated the Arctic Ocean from the Pacific. The chars caught to the south of the bridge became what we today call the Dolly Varden (itself named for the girl in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge who always wore a pink-spotted dress). The other chars are the brook trout and the lake trout. The Arctic char, though, is the only one with circumpolar distribution, occurring in Iceland (as the bleikja), Norway (r√∂ye), Sweden (r√∂ding), Great Britain (Windermere char), France (omble chevalier), Germany (der Seesailbling] and Russia (paliya).
The grace point when it comes to Arctic char is the magnificent coloration they adopt during the fall spawning season. Along their underparts the males turn a bright reddish orange, almost Day-Glo gaudy, while the dorsal surface and the head turn a midnight black just tinged with green. The ivory-colored leading edges of their pectoral, pelvic and anal fins highlight the fireworks. Sea-run fish come in bright silver, then quickly go to blue accented by the pale pink spots. Arctics of more than 25 pounds have been taken from the sea-run population, while the landlocked variety rarely exceeds eight pounds.
The trick to catching Arctic char, as Cook quickly discovered, is to work your fly all the way in. Like the Dolly, this fish will often stalk a fly or a spinner all the way back to the rod tip. I hooked one—a veritable light-show of a male—not six feet from the toes of my waders, and Doug Reid caught and released five bright males from a pool in the Geshiak inlet that couldn't have measured 40 feet from head to tail.
Mixed in with the char at Geshiak Lake were swarms of tough little rainbows, none of them bigger than four pounds and most in the two-pound category. The rainbows far outperformed their distant relatives in acrobatics—Focke-Wulf 190s as compared to Brewster Buffaloes—but since the name of the game that day was char, they got to be a nuisance.
Imagine it: rainbow trout a nuisance! That's got to be angler's heaven.
Later we flew down the Togiak River, prospecting for schools of fish fresh in from the sea. Martin spotted some in a long, gravel-bottomed stretch just above a set of rapids and we put down. Dead, spawned-out salmon—mainly kings and cohos—carpeted the bottom, but when we cast out into the riffles at midstream we picked up char on almost every throw. Cook took 15 on 17 casts. These fish were sprightlier than the ones up in Geshiak, leaping and tearing off line. We kept a few to eat. The flesh was firm, bright orange and delicately flavored. Altogether an exemplary fish in an exemplary setting.
Rusty Beall was waiting on the gravel bar when we landed. A party of Eskimos, he reported, headed upriver this afternoon. "Three men and five guns," he said. "They told me they were going to kill anything that moves. Except people." Beall laughed. "That made me feel a little better."
As we walked up to the lodge, Mary Martin called out but no one could see her. She was under the house, the world's loveliest mole, having just soldered three water pipes that burst during last night's unseasonable freeze. While her husband and son Robert went down to refuel the Cessna, she informed us that today was Bill's 40th birthday. She sure didn't want him to come back from a hard day's fishing and discover that the pipes had gone pop.
Dinner was ducks a la mode de Mary, the flesh marinated and sweet, breaking loose from the bone at the touch of a tine, awash in a sauce of wine, sour cream and unnamed herbs. Mary was out of her frontierswoman costume—slacks, sweater and mukluks—and into an evening gown, replete with mantilla. She had worked minor magic on her hair, her eyes and her face.
With such a wife, and such a land to hunt and fish in, one could only envy Bill Martin.