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.


Anonymous Bryan R. said...

Damn, what a trip man. Great notes too.

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