The Fishing Trip
by Buck Meloy
I was looking forward to the coho season on the Copper River Flats with great eagerness. Though the sockeye price had been lower than ever this summer, the fish had returned in numbers previously unimagined. They were the potatoes, and coho were to be the gravy.
Following such a show of abundance, who would have thought that not enough coho would arrive to support a commercial fishery? But that's what happened, leaving the fleet sitting on the beach for a solid month, vainly hoping that the fish were going to show any day. They did come late in Cook Inlet, to the west of us, and in Yakutat, to the east. So wouldn't they here, as well?
"The exceptionally cold winter, without snow cover, in '95-'96 probably froze them out", said the Area Biologist. I had the feeling that I might be about to experience an exceptionally cold winter myself.
So what can a hungry and bored fisherman do? In my case, when John mentioned that he had his subsistence permit, and needed only some of the 30 salmon to which he was entitled, the way became clear. At least for the moment.
"I'm a pro, John. I'll show you how to handle a gillnet."
So it was that we found ourselves heading down the Eyak River in a borrowed skiff with a 55-horse kicker and our allotted 50 fathoms of gillnet on an unusually beautiful and sunny fall day. The plan was to cruise all the way down to the Copper River Flats where, in the saltwater below the grass banks, we could legally set our little net. Recent rains had pushed the level of the Eyak right up to the top of its banks, and the hold-up tide 3 hours ahead should assure sufficient water for our deepish outboard to pass safely down the winding channels and over the threading bars to our destination some 15 miles distant.
It would be a snap. After all, a small part of the Copper River gillnet fleet makes its homes at the upper end of the Eyak. And if their gillnetters could make it up and down, so could we. Our flat-bottomed green and white vessel, dubbed the "Irish Lord" by John but known as the "Buff Bitch" to its female owners, seemed to me to be sufficiently shallow and snazzy for this venture.
As we putt-putted past the dozen jetboats tied securely to the riverbank, I was not surprised to see names like "Lack Water", "High Flyer", and "Top Notch". These big boats had to be shallow to commute up and down the river, even at high tide. Perhaps I should have been put on alert by my observation that all of the little sport-fishing vessels also had jet, rather than propeller, propulsion.
The spruce- and moss-covered river banks, backdropped by large forested mountains, were thick and rich reminders of the rainforest nature of this part of Alaska. Dozens of hues of green, streaked with the beginnings of the yellow of autumn, stood in vibrant contrast to the brown and gray swirlings of the muddy water. The fireweed at clearings waved cottony heads at us, its piercing purple long gone. Only the blood-red berries of devil's club stood out brightly.
The steady drone of the "Lord's" outboard drowned out the murmuring of the flowing water. Small bird chitterings and raven quothings occasionally made themselves heard. The rest of our immediate world stood nearly silent.
The Eyak River snakes away from its source at Lake Eyak, away from the mountains, away from the fairly high forested banks of its upper reaches down into low brushy country. We soon learned where we were likely to find the deepest water, where we could make our frequent crossings from the cutbank on the outside of one sweeping turn to the cutbank on the other side of the next sweeping turn. Reading the water became a challenging game, the stakes increased by the potential cost of a new propeller.
Unwilling to leave the salmon carcass it was shredding for lunch, a startled eagle attempted to drag it further up the riverbank as we passed, relaxing only when we were clearly heading away downstream. The wood butchery of beavers was evident along both banks, heaped stashes of gnawed limbs attesting to their industry. Ducks thinking about greener pastures were beginning to vee up in little bunches. At one point as we drifted over a shallow stretch, motor raised and silent, I heard sandhill cranes gabbling in the distance.
The remains of an old cannery came into view on the right bank. One small building, now perforated with bullet holes, still stood. We hove to, tying off on a handy timber on top of the bank, to explore briefly. Further on, rotting pilings and a semi-submerged boiler showed where the canning building had been until it was thrust far enough above sea-level by the '64 quake to render it unreachable and unusable. Two other canneries on sloughs in the area had met the same sudden end, as had several just outside Cordova. Man may be master of his fate, but when the ground rises, he seems to be stuck with the result.
A few miles further down, on the opposite bank, stood a small cluster of cabins built by duck hunters who use them each fall when the season is open. Today they were vacant, strangely out of place in this vast wilderness.
About a mile below the duck cabins, the going became more difficult as the high, brushy banks gave way to low grasslands. The river broadened and began threading its way through increasingly shallow and widespread sand- and mud-bars. At low-water, which was rapidly approaching, we could see where most of the river flowed, and therefore where the greatest depth might be. We were aided in this pursuit by occasional buoyballs whose lines had been anchored to the bottom to help the jetboaters find their way. When higher water makes passage possible for them, it also completely covers the low muddy bars that would otherwise be useful landmarks. But as jetboater Willy had told us before we got started on this trip, "you have to know which markers are in the right places."
We didn't. And so, within a couple of miles of our destination, we found ourselves so stuck that we could not pole the boat, motor tilted out, to the apparently deeper water ahead. In fact, the "Lord" couldn't be budged even after we shed our boots and hopped out. With an hour to go before low-water, we had no choice but to wait here until the evening's rising tide brought back some depth.
Though still sunny where we were, thick clouds were building rapidly over the mountains. Barefoot, we splashed over to the nearby mudflat to hike. So slick that we had to carry paddles to use as canes, the sun-warmed mud squished up eerily yet pleasingly between our toes.
As baby clams, worm holes, cryptic small-creature tracks, and tiny sticklebacks in half-inch deep pools attested, this slime is the virtual mother of life for an enormous portion of the food chain. Rich in the detritus flowing out of the verdant rain forest above, this is the primordial ooze that we long ago stepped out of. And the death in it when the salt rises up, the cold descends, and the larger predators have passed it through their digestive systems, will feed the vast life in the greater depths downstream. Sensibly, we were able to resist the urge that welled up strongly within us to strip naked and roll in this slime, coating ourselves in its unctuous potency.
The Era Aviation flight from Anchorage descended slowly towards Cordova's distant airport. An occasional small plane buzzed low across the greying sky. Small vees of ducks, their wings whistling faintly, strained ahead to their destinations. And then a lower drone became audible.
Coming into view well above us, a jet bowpicker was practically flying down the river. Astounded, we watched him near, skimming along on a thin layer of lubricating water. It was Willy on the Top Notch, all 450 horses at a full gallop, showing his 3 visiting friends the lower river. Screaming past us, his boat hit the same bar that had captured us. Its momentum carried it over, a grey cloud of sand spouting skyward behind, into the necessary foot of water beyond. A mile further on, it stopped abruptly.
"Looks like they finally ran completely out of water", I commented smugly, misery loving company as it does.
Two hours later they were screaming back up the river, coming to an abrupt stop just below us, stuck once again. The rising tide had not yet deepened the water around us. We watched them throw the anchor; it was so shallow that it didn't sink.
We finally had enough water to dislodge our skiff from the sand and push it upriver to a semblance of a channel. The clouds now obscured the remaining sun. It had become distinctly chilly, and would soon be dark. We had to decide whether to try to return the way we had come, or to drift down-river into deeper water where we could make the much longer run to town completely exposed and in the dark. Whether due to cold air or wet feet, we concluded that safety mandated heading up. At the very least, we could probably reach the duck cabins, where we might find shelter, in the dark.
We encountered enough depth to lower the outboard and putt upstream briefly, going stuck once again near another one of the "channel markers". John, peering anxiously into the thickening gloom, suggested flagging down the Top Notch to request a tow, if and when they once again got moving.
"He won't abandon us down here", I responded, "but I don't think he could get up on the full step he needs with us in tow." As though on cue, the Top Notch fired up and headed our way. When Willy stopped just above us, I knew that he would have to wait, once again, for enough water before he could move. We poled the "Lord" slowly up alongside and tied on. A strong smell of burning rubber permeated the air. The sand he had sucked up when he shot by us the first time had packed his risers, stopping the cooling flow of water into his exhaust. The flex hoses had rapidly burned through.
We joined them on board, basking in the warmth of his overheated engine. Two of them improved the temporary repairs they had earlier made on the exhaust system. It was apparent that darkness prevented our traveling much longer, so we gladly accepted their offer of a ride, "no guarantees, and we have only one sleeping bag."
But I was anxious to get the "Lord" at least up to the duck cabins, where it would be secure, and where we would be able to get back to it later even under unfavorable conditions. So as soon as we had enough water, John and I fired up the outboard and headed up. I had memorized the patterns of the nearby secton of the river while we still had enough light, so was able to reach our goal after only a few minor groundings. We could hardly see the bank right next to us, but found a stairway to one of the cabins and tied to it. Soon thereafter, Top Notch had gained enough water and, its spotlight piercing the murky darkness, headed our way.
Thus it was that near midnight we found ourselves flying through a black wilderness at 30 knots, Willy deftly avoiding deadheads and dry bars as the spotlight probed them out of invisibility, often at the last minute. An occasional lurch or bang provided evidence of less visible obstructions. And overhanging brush slapped us more than once, reminding me to keep my teeth clenched and a firm grip on the gillnet reel. Periodic "waahooos" punctuated maneuvers, and then we were back.
The remaining chore, hiking the primitive riverside trail through the forest to the parking lot in the pitch dark, was a relative breeze. Willy's brother fell only once.
After breaking the trailer jack, by pulling on a wrong something in the dark, we were finally able to unhook it so that we could leave it in the lot and head to town in my truck. The new plan was to run a Zodiac with a small kicker down to the "Lord" the next morning, and then tow the Zodiac back up. We would meet at 10 a.m..
The shallowness of the Zodiac assured a smoother trip. It also permitted the wake of a sport boat we passed to slop over the side wetting my entire backside. By the time we reached the cabins, drizzle had begun wetting my frontside as well. But this trip I was heavily draped in wool and down, and could have survived a complete dunking without immediate hypothermia.
We retrieved the "Lord" and, after clearing the cooling system of the mud packed in it that prevented circulation, we were once again on our way up, Zodiac in tow. Our ability to read the river had improved greatly, and we had already discovered the locations of many hazards, so the trip went relatively smoothly. In fact, we were back at the boat launching ramp before 4 hours had elapsed.
Sometimes on a fishing trip, one fails to catch a fish. So I like to look upon this trip as a normal one -- although we were unable, in 2 days, to even get our net wet. I had, while stuck in the mud on the first day, tried to lure a coho with a deft cast of rod and reel. However, in keeping with the overall tone of this particular venture, the handle snapped off the reel on the first retrieve.
John says we will have good success if we just take my gillnetter, with his subsistence net, out to the grounds from the harbor like normal people do. What more can happen? We will find out on The Fishing Trip II, coming next week.
© 1997, Buck Meloy
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