Angling the Yukon - Face-off with Silly Fish of the North by MICHELE MURRAY
Tumbling Trout staff has been floating on Spinney. They are wrangling trout with nymphs, scuds, emergers, lures, jigs, Rapala’s, garrotes, grenades, dynamite, and prayers. The troutie were hanging out, visibly lurking under the boats, silently moving from person to person like dolphins. There was a little surface activity, which I know so well when those particular animals are not taking the flies. This is a very frustrating experience. I’ve been suspicious that these trout – the 20-inchers – are checking the people out. They have their own curiosity, you know. That is why they take a stimulator from time to time.
Yesterday’s situation reminded me of fly fishing in the Yukon with my bro-in-law:
The large, milky rivers of the Yukon looked like volcano barf. Their thick, swollen, mineral-laden waters flooded the open plains as if the Earth had belched its belly out. We were terrified of their immense proportions. Root-Balls of upturned trees stuck out of the rivers vibrating in the powerful current here and there, higgledy-piggledy across the nearly half-a-mile wide girth of desolate flood-plain, like ghosts of a forest destroyed by some catastrophe. We had read Anthony J. Route’s book, “Flyfishing Alaska,” (revised edition), which portrayed the huge rivers of the Yukon as fertile and hosting abundant giant fish. He was dauntless in his suggestion to use heavy silver lures and brightly colored yarn streamers to attract the aggressive salmon from the murky depths if we dared. However, each margin of the swollen rivers threatened to swallow us alive when we approached. The tall banks were composed of unconsolidated cobbles and sand. They trembled from the flooded current gouging away underfoot. If the banks were to crumble away, only the moose and caribou would know of our demise (and a caribou doesn’t care-a-boo about you.) Despite the potential for demise, we ventured into the braided meanders of the river’s torrent with huge, over-sized rods originally purchased for fishing the coastal surf of Mexico. We hefted fat metallic lures with sharp treble hooks, brightly-colored fiber streamers, and an abundant variety of wet-flies to snare a salmon. After two days of trying: no luck. There were no great fishys in the Yukon rivers fool enough to accept our pathetic decoys.
“We’re skunked, man!” That was the disparaging conclusion from my companion (brother-in-law), Dillon. “How could a fish live in there? It looks like oatmeal.”
We returned to the rental car and spread the mighty paperback book on the hood. “Says right here, “…the first look at the seemingly opaque water of a glacially-colored river brings
disappointment. They (anglers like us) think the river is blown out, unfishable. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Dillon followed the printed word with his finger as he read aloud, as if seeking absolution.
“Obviously, visibility decreases in glacially-tinted water…use larger patterns…a size 2 Black Woolhead Sculpin…or chartreuse…when fishing glacial waters, many fishers employ a method called attractor-yarn technique…brightly colored piece of yarn tied to a leader about 2-feet ahead of a more somber offering such as a nymph….hmmm…ends with a warning about wading with caution in glacially-silted water. Might end up over your head…”
I wasn’t listening anymore. I had my powerful digital camera out and was on a mission to capture the butt of a bald eagle sitting directly overhead. They are everywhere – thick as pigeons – the bald eagles.
That stop was one of many repeated poor fishing sessions as we drove on a circuitous route from Skagway’s flooded fjord above Juneau to Delta Junction, Alaska. We would be meeting up with my huzbun at the Clearwater Lodge and then continue our fishing journey up through the Yukon of northern Canada to Dawson City and return to Skagway via Whitehorse. We wanted to catc steelhead, King Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, Pike – all the great fish of the North. Everything in the Yukon seemed extraordinarily huge and vacant. The lakes were like seas. The forests were uncut. The plains unfenced. Horizons were uninterrupted with no power lines or even contrails of airlines passing over the rest of the world’s surface. And each river seemed larger and more swollen than the last. I noticed that Dillon began to tie long ribbons of yellow and red twine to his line to no avail: not a bite.
“Whoa!!” I woke from a start in the front seat. Dillon was braking the car hard for a dark shadow that leapt across the road in front of us and flew like a wisp of smoke into the woods. It was late in the day but the sun was still shining – a perpetual presence in this land of the Midnight Sun.
“Did you see that?” He asked. “It must have been someone’s German Shepherd way out here!”
“I don’t think there is a dog running around out here. I think we just saw a WOLF!”
During our journey, there were multiple times when we braked for moose, caribou, fox, eagles, or simply grand views that stirred our hearts. However, despite our upstream jaunts, we never once saw a bear.
By the end of the first week on the road of no-fish-in-hand journey, Dillon had devised a cunning technique: He took a large (#6) stimulator pattern (that is a fuzzy, colorful dry fly found particularly appetizing to a snacking trout) and tied approximately 24” of orange twine to trail behind the fly. With great care, he spliced together a fat leader of heavy fishing line and the combo fly / orange twine. Then, he meticulously applied a fine amount of viscous floatant (schmoo) to both the fly and to the leader taking care not to muss the fine ends of the spliced center. When this operation was accomplished, he stuck a chunk of hot dog on the hook and threw the wad by hand into the river as far as he could toss the mess like a meatball. He refined this method and eventually abandoned using any fly at all, just a plain old treble hook with a hot dog. Basically – we were bait fishin’. However, we still didn’t catch anything. Not even a glimpse of a fishes’ sniggering snout.
“I don’t get it. Are we supposed to be using hand grenades or something?” His frustration was growing. For most of the road trip, I couldn’t have asked for a more benign, easygoing, comrade than my brother-in-law. Dillon was unassuming, uncomplaining, and a trooper except for the leg of the journey when our gas gauge was reading near empty and the next town still loomed 15 miles away. He was so distracted by the steadily dipping needle that I feared he would steer off into a herd of caribou from distraction. I took over the helm and placed a music cassette over the fuel gauge so he wouldn’t focus on it. When the little gas-tank light went on, I put black electric tape over that.
“You’ve got to trust me – if we even get 16 miles to the gallon -- and a carton of milk is a gallon, so imagine a gallon of gas -- there has got be at least 10 miles worth of go left in our tank. We can dip at least a quarter-of-an-inch below empty and there has still got to be a coffee cup of juice left in the tank before we truly run dry. I think we can make it no problem!” That is my usual take on running low on gas. I have only ran out of gas one time in my life and even then, after I let the engine sit overnight on I-25 north of Gallop, New Mexico, enough had condensed in the tank to start me up and roll me forward five more miles to make it to the exit ramp, which I coasted down and rolled into the gas station before it even opened.
We were just not familiar with fishing rivers of this monstrous size, being Colorado natives after all! So, when we came across more manageable streams along our route through the Great North we pulled the car over to the side of the road and sought zealous vindication from the fish. Dillon attached a big bottle of bear spray and a pound of cow bells to his vest prior to hiking up the banks of the smaller tributary streams in the vicinity of the greater rivers. We angled with our more common-sized gear in these smaller, clear creeks, all the while whistling and yakking for the sake of scaring bears. We yelled the “Marco-Polo-Buddy-System” back and forth to each other through thickets along the way (You yell “MARCO” and if your buddy hears you, he replies, “POLO!!!” to keep track of each other and let the bears know exactly where the stupid fishermen are wading).
When we finally arrived at the Clearwater Lodge, we had to admit to my grinning huzbun, that we just spent 4 days fishing the Great Rivers of the North in pristine wilderness and not had a single bite.
“You’re way too early for the Salmon. They won’t be running up this far north until the end of the summer, and even then, only the Kings, the Chum, and the Silver Salmon make it this far into the interior. The Steelhead stay near the coast.”
We were flabbergasted! (We hadn’t actually read the book verbatim.)
“Don’t worry, though, the Clearwater is known for the Grayling! And there are Dolly Vardens up here too,” He added.
Before Doug left our home in Colorado for this month long reconnaissance of the region, he had tied a pile of gray Parachute Adams dry flies that we normally use back home on the Platte River. He now gave each of us a handful of these special flies. I noticed the pattern differed slightly from our usual ones by a distinct contrast of both black and white hackle with added copper ribbing to the thorax. They were extra bushy, too. With this succulent-looking fly, Dillon and I stepped out into the crystal clear water of the – you got it – Clearwater river, and finally began catching fish – new ones to us: grayling and Dolly Vardens.
We spent our first evening in one bend directly across from the grassy lawn of the bar at the lodge, standing about two-arm lengths from each other, casting and catching the bubbly lips of grayling that teamed in the current. The fish were underfoot. They slipped around our ankles. I tried not to kick them in their faces, but when we released them, they only hung out between our feet. The sun never sets in the summer, but the dinner bell does go off in the belly. Eventually, we reeled in our lines and began the return upstream to where the water was shallow enough to cross safely. A very large lady moose entered the river directly across from us and blocked our way.
“You guys just stand still with me. She shouldn’t charge if we just stand here,” Doug cautioned us. However, the moose seemed very annoyed that we were standing exactly where she intended to cross. It was a stalemate.
“OK. Let’s go downstream, but very slowly,” and we followed Doug. The moose made a parallel path on the opposite side of the river. So, we headed upstream again. The place she decided to stop was in front of our rented cabin. So, we moseyed up to the bar.
“Oh, her?” replied the bartender. “That’s the camp moose. She won’t hurt you. Was probably just watching you fish.”
For the next couple of days, we stayed at the lodge and reveled in the abundant fish to be caught. The Dolly Varden were new to us. They look a lot like Brook Trout, but do not have blue dots and orange fins. At that time of year (June) and in the smaller stream like the Clearwater, the Dolly Varden were not very big – tiny actually – being only about 6 inches (or less) in size. However, the little things were amazingly aggressive and would leap from only a few inches of water to take a fly the size of their head. Basically, if a Dolly Varden can get its mouth on it – it’s going to eat it. The Dolly Vardens would commonly take my fly when I was not paying attention, for example, when I was simply looking for signs of fish rising and letting my line drift down river. They are the kamikazes of trout in that way.
The grayling, on the other hand, are an emotional bunch of fish. I was sitting on my butt in my waders half-submerged in the water with my legs sticking out in front of me nursing a hang-over. I let my special Parachute Adams of Doug’s unique design float under willows on the opposite bank (a mere10 feet across from my feet) and watched grayling rise out of the shadow to pounce on my fly like a cat on a mouse. They threw themselves in aerial assault to smother the fly with flat slaps of their bodies (must be why they have sails for dorsal fins, which they actually do). Then, with sudden astonishment, they would look shocked to realize their snack was attached by a thin line to a lady wearing rubber pants sitting in the water.
Graylings only fight for a moment before feinting from disbelief. Even after release, you have to hold them and apologize gently until they get over it or they'll just float away upside down with hurt feelings. I let one go between my knees and he stayed in my thigh-corral thinking about what had transpired. Then, he forgot why he had been so upset in the first place (a newt may be smarter.) I released him from my containment by spreading my ankles apart and sticking a finger in his ear.
Despite an ominous beginning, the over-all ambiance of our fishing trip turned out to be enjoyable. Sometimes life experiences are subtle that way. A precocious person (especially me) needs to be humbled by the wilderness and skunked from time to time. We entered the Yukon with expectations of grandeur and with intent to conquer the Rivers of the North as savvy anglers from Colorado. But, the size of the rivers daunted us and the salmon weren’t even there yet. Only the silly graylings were to be wrangled by the bushel. As austere as the Alaskan and Yukon rivers remain, they still call to us. We can hear their thunder in the North Wind. I think when we return, we will try to go later in the year, when the King Salmon are running.