Thursday, June 17, 2010

Smoking Reds

I was lying in the tent, 3:30AM, wondering how many rules I could actually break before Alaska might actually break me. Here I was lying in a sleeping bag without a ground pad, freezing. My clothes are covered in fish slime and prodigious amounts of blood (both mine from a nasty cut on my knee and a lot of salmon blood). Outside the tent a couple of coolers are there- filled to the brim with red salmon. By contrast the box of doughnuts my companion had stashed on his saddlebag for breakfast seemed the least appealling bear snack in the immediate area. Did I mention we were in bear country- at the apex of the salmon run?

I had been on a marathon mission- a full day of work, a four hour drive to the Copper River, a 2 hour trek to the Canyon, and a half hour climb down the steep face to the swirling back eddy that would serve as a killing ground. I had been fishing for eight hours by the time the climb back up the cliff seemed impossible- in fact I had considered holing up in the rocks swathed in my rain gear if the temperature hadn't plunged to the 30s while we were fishing. I mounted the packframe with a game bag containing 10 salmon (at 10lbs or better each!) and grunted my way up the trail- exhausted to the bone. About 100 feet above the river a rock rolled out from underfoot and I went down hard on one knee. I felt blood splash in my jeans- that was going to leave a mark. A short while later I stumbled into camp at the top of the cliff and stashed my fish in cooler. My companion had turned in hours ago after hitting 15 fish before my first five.

I examined the gash on my knee and determined I'd live- I let it bleed a little, washed it off with water and tended it the best I could with my first aid kit and a roll of duct tape. Exhausted, I crawled into the tent, threw the pistol up near my head and pulled the sleeping bag up around my ears in an effort to escape the mosquitoes the were somehow finding their way in the tent.

Sleep happened quickly.

I awoke to the sound of an ATV on the trail several hours later and glanced at my watch- 3:30 AM. Only after the fog that the quick nap had finally cleared did my actual condition dawn on me. Covered in fish slime, gut and blood, lying in a tent in bear country with a virtual ursine banquet right out the door- I groaned. My companion was snoring loudly despite the fact the the tent was on enough tree roots and rocks to keep a company of chiropractors in business. He was an ex-Cavalry trooper- he can and has slept through a war. This must have been amateur hour for him. I rolled over, tried to find a softer spot through the lumps and go back to sleep.

I awoke again at 5:00AM, this time for good. An owl was hooting loudly somewhere near the camp and I heard my companion groan from deep in his bag, "Tell Nature to shut up will ya?" It was apparent the from the pain in my back I had better get up now or be prepared to spend a long time lying here. I roused out of the tent, donned my rain gear and headed back down the cliff. I spooked the little owl that had been sitting in the tree that stood at the trail head. Hopefully the fishing would be hotter today.

I arrived at the bottom and looked at the swirling, churning water that vaguely resembled chocolate milk. I carefully tied myself off to a boulder- a trip into this water would result in my inevitable death by drowning. The current was rushing down the canyon at 15 knots or better resulting in reverse eddies and moving whirlpools while the silt content would quickly make a set of clothes into a hundred pound sandbags. Many people had made a one way trip to Miles lake here. I stuck the net into the water and found the eddy line with the tip of the rim at the end of a twelve foot pole. Within seconds I felt a thump that signalled the arrival of a salmon into my net. I hauled back quickly and pulled the wriggling fish from the water in the bottom of my net. She was a smallish hen so I threw her back, even though this was a one way trip for her. She would spawn out and eventually die far up the Copper drainage after laying the belly full of eggs she contained. I wasn't disappointed in the catch because her color was like liquid chrome. That meant a fresh run of fish had entered the watershed from the sea and were surging upstream in numbers.

A salmon starts to die immediately upon entering fresh water. The ten fish I had netted the night before were dull and starting to turn the characteristic red color. They were the trailing legs of a burst of fish that had passed while I was making my way here. Many of those lagging fish lacked the strength to make the migration and wouldn't make it to the spawning ground at all and instead wound up in my net at the rate of slightly more than one per hour. That was last night though, these fish were different. I dipped the net back into the water and almost immediately another jolt came up from the handle and I wrangled another fish from the water. A bright chrome rooster- all of twelve pounds and full of fight. I placed the fish in an alcove of rock and placed one hand firmly on his back to keep him from tearing himself to shreds on the jagged rocks in his struggles. I picked up the billy in the other hand gave him a quick rap on the skull- his struggles ceased as his piscean brain ceased to function. With larger fish this saves the meat and makes handling them much safer. I cut his tail fins to show that he was part of a personal use harvest and quickly slipped a fillet knife under each gill plate to bleed the fish and lead to more preservation of the meat. I placed him in a partially submerged game bag to keep him cool and wash away part of the blood.
A scant hour later and I had eleven fish in the bag. These were bright, strong fish and full of vigor and many had struggled heroically until the end. I even managed a 30 pound king salmon- a forward guard of the run that was just starting. I found that wonderful fortune since the personal use bag for kings was a single fish and that frequently closed well before the dipnetting season was over. It was hard not to feel privileged as I stood there by the rushing , hissing water in the morning sunshine. Thrusting a net into the water searching for an invisible prey and hitting red gold within a few minutes of each attempt; all the while standing upon an ancient rock that humans had stood on for millenia- doing the exact thing I was doing, taking advantage of a primal and mysterious urge in these fish to return to the waters of their birth to spawn and die.

It frankly felt like I was being fed directly from the hand of God. I have no other experience in my life that felt more like the Israelites finding quail on the ground during their desert wanderings than dipnetting salmon at the height of their spawning migration.

I was just finishing up lashing the bulging bag of fish to my packframe when my partner appeared, disheveled and fresh from his sleeping bag.

"Wanna fish some more? We've got ten more on our limit.", I queried.

"No way", he replied, "we've got near three hundred pounds of fish with that huge bag you've got there. We'll be butchering them all dang weekend." With that, I shrugged into the heavy pack frame that must have weighed over 120 pounds... I had packed moose quarters that weighed less.
I was exhausted but happy as I started the long, painful pack up that mountain. When winter was set in and the dark Arctic cold had surrounded me I could come back here in my memory while indulging on the rich, red flesh of these fish.

Freshly smoked Red Salmon