Late afternoon is a mystical time of day when you’re sitting on the bow of a fishing boat, rod in hand, during the height of Alaska’s short summer. The low-hanging sun carves the mountains in high definition, accompanied by the scents of pine, salt and sunscreen. The water looks like cut glass, disturbed only by otters swimming by with a bunch of mussels in their bellies.
No sooner than I thought, man, it doesn’t get any more peaceful than thisfelt the distinct pull of a rockfish taking my bait – the fish.
Keeping a twist on the rod, I flipped over, pulling the fish skyward. As soon as it surfaced, it spat out the hook and landed on its back in the water. She fluttered her appendages like a shell turtle before an eagle swooped down from the top of a nearby fir tree, scooped her up in its talons and disappeared into the mist towards the opposite shore.
“Hah,” said a boatmate. “This is not quite what I imagined when I imagined him leaving.”
Like the rockfish, I too am the one that got away. I lived in Alaska for most of my 20s, only seven full years. I recently moved to Colorado, and this summer fishing adventure was on my first trip back.
One of the great dilemmas of travelers is deciding where to go next. Do you launch yourself into the unknown, seeking novelty in the customs, food, clothing and language of a place you have not been to? Or do you spend the time slipping back into the relaxing comfort of a destination you already know?
Typically, if given the option, I would usually choose to go somewhere new over somewhere I’ve been before. However, last July I returned to the 49th state on a fishing boat, in the Alaskan shoal on a return trip to the secluded Waterfall Resort fishing lodge.
In a past life, the resort was a salmon cannery, so it makes sense that the waters off it are rich in omega-3-carrying fish. Guests stay in converted staff quarters and spend their days reeling in as much salmon, the odd halibut, rockfish and cod as fishing limits and luck allow. However, the most coveted is a salmon species known as king or Chinook. They are prized for their buttery flavor and size (they can weigh over 50 pounds, but most fall into the 15-20 pound category).
Although I had been a card-carrying Alaskan for many salmon seasons, I had never caught a king. This would be the year.
“I call this place Jurassic Park,” said Tony, the skipper, on our second full day of fishing. My three boatmates and I dropped our bait – which immediately got four bites. Every time the hook hit the water, a rockfish, red minnow or worm was on it within seconds. In less than 20 minutes, the floor of the ship was filled with fish. But there are still no kings.
Later that evening, I traded fish stories at the Waterfall bar with a gentleman from Texas. This was his 12th summer visiting Waterfall Resort. The achievement was impressive, until he said his father had been coming for more than 20 years. The resort, it seems, attracts many returns. The Texans had already been on the property for three days and had each reached their limit of kings (non-residents are only allowed to keep two kings in July), to be envied.
If I were to land a king, it would be because of our parallel destinies to be called home by an unseen force. A salmon’s entire lifespan is a round trip from river to sea and back again. A year after hatching in Alaska’s freshwater lakes and streams, the young fish swim downstream until they are released into the sea, often hundreds of miles away. For the next two to seven years, they move around the ocean, eating smaller fish and mass in preparation for their return journey.
At some point, a flip passes and their only mission is to return to the place, almost exactly, where they came into the world. Over many weeks, salmon leave the ocean to fight their way up an unyielding stream until they find the area where they themselves hatch to find a mate, spawn and die. Their bodies are consumed by insects, which will feed the young salmon when they hatch. It’s that journey that brings them past our waiting bait, and with any luck, into our fridge.
On the last morning, we headed south, the only boat to do so. “It’s hero or bust,” said Captain Tony. “Either you will catch nothing, or we will catch everything.”
We had only caught one king between the four of us in the last three days. While it was the second largest of the season at 33 pounds and enough for each of us to enjoy several meals, it was well short of the limit mandated by our Department of Fish and Game. If we went north, the chances of getting a salmon were slim. We decided to make a big bet.
Although we sailed to a spot directly above the kings we were hoping to catch—they boomeranged on the boat’s depth monitor screen—they just weren’t biting. (There is some truth to the saying that it’s fishing, not catching.)
I did not find a king. Stack that on top of my recent move from Alaska, and a trip back seemed even more important. After settling into a new life in Colorado—making a new set of friends, buying a house, learning how to move—there was comfort in returning to the familiar repetition and patience required of a fishing trip to Alaska.
Soon after, back at the dock, another fisherman told his story about a salmon that got away. “It was so big,” he groaned, holding his hands about three feet apart. And, having been there myself many times over the years, those hands will move further and further away with each return to that story.
If you go
Book now: Waterfall Resort; rates start at $2,775 for three days, two nights
Waterfall Resort operates from June to September each season. The boats allow four passengers each and the captains are equipped to work with anglers of all skill levels. All accommodations are suitable for two people and include rooms in the main lodge and self-contained cabins. The resort includes a dining room, bar, seating areas with water views and a gift and merchandise shop. All tackle is provided, including rods, bait, waders and boots.