Wednesday, September 30, 2015

First Alaska Notes

[I'm old now and my camera is old; there are many things I can't do when it comes to pictures, etc. and as such my first order is to direct you to carp on the fly to see some good imagery from Alaska.]

My conclusion is that the important substance of this trip is in the place, the fisheries and the friendships (both maintained and new).  As such the following notes comprise a partial report-out.  Could be more later; e.g. the logistics of the trip, the lodge, the staff, the fish counts, etc.  There’s a lot to think through and at this point I mainly just wanted to offer some study and praise and thanks.

Alaska bounds an area of 663, 268 square miles.  The main river systems in southeast Minnesota drain around 1000-1500 square miles.  Cannon River, Root River, Zumbro.  There are approximately 81 such “major watersheds” in Minnesota.  Looks like you could fit around 445 Cannon River watersheds in Alaska; some simple math.  My boys asked how big is it Dad.  A while back I had one of the kids do an exercise in population density: (people)/(area), to help get a grasp of what it means to be big vs populous vs dense.  Because I’d say Alaska is big and they’d say so it has the most people.  He looked up the numbers and did the ratio analysis; I think he took something away.  So when they ask how big is it I say it’s bigger than the second, third and fourth largest states: Texas, California, Montana – combined.  Another way to think of it would be in terms of acres – a unit that was penned to describe the land area that one man could plow in one day.  It’s about one football field.  If math is right, Alaska is 424.4 million acres, so one guy could plow that area in 1.16 million years (can that be right yes I think it is; there is a lot of second guessing at numbers of this magnitude).  Another way to think of it would be to assign a team of 640 plowmen or ploughmen.  Enough to plow one section of land per day.  Then you’d shave it down to 1817 years of plowing meaning they could do the job in the time after Christ’s death to right now.  Woe be to he who thinks of plowing Alaska but you understand it’s just an exercise of scaling; we are often charged with this task how many dumptruck loads is that how many inches of dirt would cover the state how many pounds of this that etc.  I think the AD summary is best: 640 able-bodied individuals with one yoke of oxen each, starting around the time of the birth of Jesus would end about the time that Thoreau was born.  They’d stable the oxen and call it good.  It’s a different scale that requires an adjustment in thinking and perception.  Expansive tracks of land that cannot be traversed by man unless frozen over solid.  Every viewscape a lesson in hydrology and geomorphology.  And this all absorbed on our way to/from six different river systems on each of six days of full-on, uninterrupted, 100% focused, ears-pinned-back fishing.


Had never caught a salmon, save a smolt or two fishing the Deschutes with John Montana years ago before we abandoned that river for carp water.  I have had guys tell me, in rebuttle to carp praise of the highest order, that “you’ve never caught any of the salmon.”  And they were right about that; it was true.  So there was some anticipation.  In the name of good science let us catch these fish and make the determinations.  Let us examine the spectrum and go forth and discuss.  In the end, the fascination would outweigh the impression left by the fight in these fish.  To this minute I can’t get over it: fish that leave fresh water for years; become part of a distant, saltwater nutritive cycle, and then return to their natal waters with all that energy amassed and deposit it in the form of eggs and flesh.  The boys just had a vocabulary word and my wife asked what does it mean: influx.  Well this is an influx of energy to these relatively infertile waters.  We ended up landing all five pacific salmon species; although the focus was coho.  I think a person could spend years reading on the science, cultural importance, lore, etc. of these fish.  Would be a worthy undertaking.  

Fascination #1: they can live in both fresh and salt waters.  “One aspect of the genetics of salmonid fishes is quite unusual: their ancestors millennia ago apparently underwent a doubling in chromosome numbers that has stayed with the whole group ever since.  Thus instead of the typical animal diploid genetic makeup with pairs of duplication chromosomes this fish family has body cells with four copies of each chromosome.  Such genetic multiplication has been cited as a possible factor in the striking saltwater-freshwater versatility of these fish and hence in their remarkable anadromous migration. (Waterman).”

Fascination #2: they find their way home.  In most cases to the precise natal water.  There has been much written on this topic.  But we were schooled in the vast hydrology of Alaska every day, flying above in the beaver float plane: stream orders, moving channels, endless miles of flow.   Salmon traverse these ladders, choosing the right forks at numerous points.  Waterman notes an experiment (he does not cite source) in which the nasal cavities of many salmon were plugged with cotton.  Pretty coarse method there: plug the nose; see what happens.  The conclusion was that this disrupted their ability to find their respective home waters.  Thought being that chemical signatures in the water enable the homing.  He describes another experiment set in Lake Michigan, in which groups of salmon were “imprinted” with chemicals added to water; seemed to work, as the salmon later came upstream to points in river systems at which the respective imprinted chemicals were planted/present/discharging downstream.  So they smell their way home; these unique scents defined by the local geology/soils/water/etc. 

We found salmon in these situations: (1) wadded up right outside the lodge, miles from saltwater, (2) fresh out of the ocean, covered in sea lice, (3) spawning in a small stream.  They all smacked streamers with regular ferocity.  Although I noted that some of the fish right out front seemed to just “stop” the fly more than hit it hard: strip, strip, come tight.  The fresh salmon were a bit more of a jolt.  And those spawning in the stream we tried hard to avoid: we could see them and they were generally slow such that we could keep flies away from them as we sight fished to dollies.  Best deal with the salmon was approaching them with a popper in shallow water.  Gator snout would break the water and wake toward the fly…     set down pretty good on it.  Got half a dozen by this means; unforgettable. 

Tippet imprints on snout due to death rolling.

Karl Lagler notes that “Salmon has been called ‘the real gold of Alaska.”

There's pink and then there's fuschia.

Dolly Varden and Char

The segue way from the salmon species to other fishes is by way of the egg.  Can’t get over the egg fishing.  Taking finger nail polish to perfect beads.  Watching the fish move two feet for a drifted egg.  White mouths opening.  Watching the egg drift in the water…      And I had plenty of time to think on the egg rigging method and I am 100% good with it.  The egg was secured 1.5-2 inches above the barbless hook.  Fish would eat egg; set, and the hook would typically embed on the outside of the mandible/mouth.  I’ve heard rumor that some call this snagging but I would drive at the fact that you are fooling the fish into eating your offering; the fish is eating it, and you are choosing to deliberately hook it on the outside of the mouth so it can be released with minimal damage/trauma.  Zero problem with it.  How could I have a problem with it when I watched countless eggs go right into fish mouths.  Not foul-hooking. 

I’d heard from some that Dolly Varden and Arctic Char are the same specie.  Heard otherwise from other folks.  Some reading in advance of the trip confirmed that indeed, for years they were considered by many to be the same fish.  But the current thinking, as far as I can tell, is captured by McClane:

“The Arctic char is one of a number of salmonids that apparently evolved from a common ancestor in the Pleistocene age, when the Pacific Ocean was separated from the Arctic Ocean by a land bridge.  It has been speculated that the land bridge isolated a population of char to the south, which we know today as the Dolly Varden, and another population to the north, which followed a circumpolar path across Asia, Europe, and North America and which became the Arctic Char (McClane).”

We also had some discussions regarding whether or not the Dolly Varden is a “skin fish.”  McClane notes that “the fish has small scales.”  And in the fall these scales are remarkable in that they appear to be God’s hand painting and setting a canvas in the water.  Look for the white fin edges the guides said and soon we were ignoring giant mean-spirited salmon and searching the ranks for these clown suited fish.  There are the fins and then the fish would would materialize; some shadowy and some apparent; not skittish just hanging in current.  We sight fished to them; watched them eat.  Eggs, streamers.  We caught the plainer females; many of those blind nymphing in likely lays.  But the big colored up males were not hideable and we spotted them from high banks and spotted them while we walked the water edge.

“Dollies have been known to live 19 years.  They grow fastest in the northern part of their range.  The table shows that a nine year old dolly would be 21.2” in the north and 18.2” in the south (Sternberg, 1987)."  We taped one at 27.5 and one at 26, and we caught several more in that range that we did not tape.  A coarse estimate on that 27.5 incher suggests approximately eleven years old; could have been second or even third spawning run if I am reading literature correctly. 

These fish were not particularly strong fighters but that took nothing away from the deal.  Our day of walking that water ended far too soon.  JM and I pushed it to the max and on the way out, the guide let us go down for one more double; two giant males from a deep pool.  After we released them he said okay we need to jog out now because the plane is waiting boys. 

We caught char (non-DV-char) mixed in with rainbows in both big river and small stream settings.  They seemed to hold well to the bottom and refuse to rise; refuse to give.  No big runs or athletic leaps but strong bullish fights relative to size.  The day we walked through countless bear beds and pushed through alders and high sticked good water small water we caught many, many char; some of which were pretty big.  It felt like home nymphing only for fish that were an order of magnitude greater in mass.

Final note on DV and char is from McClane, regarding field identification: “In the field the two can be distinguished as follows: if the spots are smaller than the iris of the eye the fish is a Dolly Varden; if the spots are larger it is an Arctic char.”

Second final note from Lagler: “The Dolly Varden has been accused of being an important predator on salmon eggs and young.  For many years Alaska paid a bounty of several cents for each Dolly Varden tail.  However, research revealed that many of the tails so turned in were from salmon and other trout and the practice was discontinued.”  Later it was discovered that before his tours in Mexico, a one John Joel Glanton had led a band of vigilante DV hunters through Alaska claiming these bounties and after he was apprehended and exiled to the south, this foul practice was no more. 

Ten Days Ago

We returned to the lower forty eight on September 20th.  I'm still thinking through each of the six days and feeling like a guy ought to share some of the feelings and imagery and details but there is so much substance, my take at this point is that it cannot be addressed via "reports."  Which is okay.  I think our group will mete out some imagery and memories and writeups of details here and there.  Rainbows, grayling: not even mentioned herein.  Swinging big flies all day.  Finding nuclear char in a mountain lake.  There is much to consider.  The remarkable affability and wisdom of the guides is itself a topic that deserves considerable address.  For now I'll say that I am sleeping better after firsthand experience in one of the world's vast wild spaces; it's possible that I'm seeing through different lenses now back home.  It's possible some tension is gone from me.  We've added another chapter to our growing book and this one for me is marked by great honor and appreciation in being invited to take part in a special family affair with JM.  Go look at carp on the fly, read his perspectives and view some great photos.

Lagler, Karl F.  Freshwater Fishery Biology.  1972 twelfth printing. 
McClane, A. J.  McClane’s Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America.  1965.
Sternberg, Dick.  Freshwater Gamefish of North America.  1987.
Waterman, Talbot H.  Animal Navigation.  1989.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Local Carping

Hasn't been getting my attention lately but I keep getting notes from folks saying I saw this fish, I saw that fish I saw ten fish twenty pounders feeding.  All welcome transmissions.  Good to see people get excited about big fan tails breaking the film. Yesterday said okay; better take a minute to check this out.  Snap some attention back to the big gamers; the gamefish; the gamest quarry.  What I found did serve to reinvigorate my local fishing drive; even though I've been pretty well ruined by the great fisheries of other regions.  How could hundreds of people walk by this I asked.  How could people drive 233 miles to catch 16 inch fish when they could walk down to the river here and HUNT down the biggest fish of their lives...    I did engage a few from above, and I thought they'd be a 100% go.  They spooked on me though.  Either me waving around, or the fly got them; pinched their nerves such that they left out for other waters.  Those opportunities gone, I proceeded to enter the river.  A water that I suppose is perceived as generally unwadeable and undesirable but I find it to be otherwise.  No waders.  No sinking.  Amphitheater setting; time to put on a show.

First carp in a while.  Cast was pretty long.  Wielding an old 5 wt.  Fish followed a slow drag for about fifteen feet.  Had to use educated guess on the careful lift of the rod.  It all worked out okay.

I dig this new net.  It served well on Lake Michigan.  Has the features required of carping.  Cost $16.

Scale said 11 lbs 4 ounces; less the net tare puts the fish at 10 lbs.

If I'd had more time I would have beat down this water.  It was good.  There were a lot of positive targets.

That's it for MN for a while.  Heading off to new waters.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

BWCA 2015

Is happening right now.  I am not there.  This September comes another adventure; journey of a lifetime; a special chapter.  Tailwinds and tight lines to my kin; join you next year.  

Here by the camp-fire's flicker,
Deep in my blanket curled,
I long for the peace of the pine-gloom,
When the scroll of the world is unfurled

-R.W. Service

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Late Summer Fishing

The fish were where we thought they were.  There are only a few developments/notes worth mentioning; even they are debatable as to substance.

Morning on good water.  Air temps very high (this was early August).  First hour or so, got blanked.  Snagged a couple in the belly which told me that I was not committing the mortal sin of not getting down; rather, the fish were not seeing and/or not eating what I had to offer.  There is no real panic though.  They don't go anywhere; they don't disappear like fish can do in Lake Michigan.  They are in deep holes like this one.  To approach it, put your leader up through the tip top of the fly rod such that you are dropping a rig straight down; manipulate it so the current allows it to sink deep; mend and move so it delays and then set the hook when the fish indicate.  Don't cast.  Stand in the riffle and operate. The trout were in very specific locations in that little hydro-cushion.  Down deep.

I abandon and revisit water over time; came back to this reach this year; great stream miles.

Friend handed a Tenkara rod free and clear.  Thanks.  At the last hole, I took it out of my pack and rigged it up.  My report is that as you'd figure, it's great for high-sticking.  I found that one can execute a little back-forth slap cast pretty well.  Roll cast can be accomplished although it's marginal because there is no fly line.  Presentation was no issue.  Fighting fish just fine.  Landing them I found to be tricky, as I was not aware of the technique (which I now understand is commonly applied) in which one flexes the rod to a near-circle thus allowing the leader to be pinched near the cork grip; reach down with off hand and grab trout.  I can see how that would work pretty well.  I still need to think on the plus/minus of this rod vs a standard fly rod.  Other than the obvious draws regarding alternative means, other cultures, historical significance.  It is limiting in terms of diversity of presentation/approach.  More time to figure on it.

Applied a couple nymphs that are probably ten years old; tied on long hooks with descent dubbing from Hareline (a coppery wire-like dubbing).  Doesn't matter what nymphs are employed; that may be the point.

Some time in wooded corridors; some time walking over giant particle size colluvium.  Ended the morning at the big hole up there in the background; out in the open amidst the cliff faces.

Note about coolers.  Many are generally flawed in that the lid is garbage and there is too much headspace between the cargo and the plastic above.  I don't spend much time thinking about coolers but my suspicion is that the $300 versions cannot have insulation that is markedly better; rather, I wonder if they are simply designed better; fit tighter, etc.  To transform my shitty coolers into good coolers, I pack camp towels or wet clothing or discarded rags etc. into the top to make for tight insulation.  Thereby nullifying the design flaw.

This is what I found on this day, after placing this ice around 500 AM; fishing all morning and then leaving the cooler in the back of my hot ass car all afternoon and into evening while we all floated down the river on tubes.  Ice cubes still holding shape; ice block in the jug greater than 75% frozen.  Fish underneath stone cold.  Which I think is good.  And required of me was only combining things that I had on hand.

Found a DNR tag up along the dorsal of one trout fated to be harvested, filleted, eaten, buried in the garden.  I've taken to filleting trout because my kids like it a lot better.