Tuesday, February 7, 2012


(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

Most people who visit Alaska, whether by cruise or car or plane, will save some time for fishing and many will have their catches flash frozen and shipped back home for a future barbeque with a tale and a tail or two.

Fishing looms large in Alaskan history, whether commercial, subsistence, or pleasure, and it is a big issue today, too.  An entire section in the Anchorage Daily News (and other papers) is devoted to it.  Seattle business interests are often derided in the news for rapacious use of the state's natural resources.  Every sporting goods store posts pictures and comments about recent catches by shoppers. Anchorage businessmen pull on waders and take a lunch break at Ship's Creek downtown when the salmon run.  Even I, of all people,  subscribe to the fish and game automatic emails about updated fishing regulations for my part of Alaska, and have written both those administrators and the Alaska Daily News fishing editor with comments and questions (and they promptly wrote back.) 
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A rockfish caught in Prince William Sound

Every Alaskan has lots of outdoor, seasonal "grown up toys" and the summer ones relate to fishing.   I've seen garages larger than houses.  In 2010 or 11, more than 100,000 (adult) fishing licenses were issued to Alaskans (out of a total population, kids included, of 700,000). Friends spend time and a lot of money on boats, shrimp pots, rods and reels and lures for every fish in the sea.  The real afficianados build separate kitchens for canning, smoking, wrapping, freezing, storing, packaging, and labeling the fish they catch.  Families preserve locations of fish wheels and fish camps for generations.  Many city-dwellers engage in what is called "combat fishing" on road accessible rivers on the first day of fishing season.  Every household has its own special recipes for the most delicious piscatory concoctions I have ever eaten.

We felt very fortunate to have friends take us fishing for several days in Prince William Sound, where under their patient tutelage, we learned the different techniques for bringing up bottom hugging fish like huge flat halibut (on distinctive looking, heavy, C shaped hooks), jurassic looking lingcod and tropical orange rock fish as well as mid-depth fighing silver and king salmon.  We motored out of tiny Whittier. (The winter population is about 159 - all living in one or two high-rise buildings, which also contain the school, a church, and a market.  They are derided by Anchorigians by the mean but funny name, Whidiots.  If you decide to visit the town, which is only a departure point for water activities on the Sound, I recommend the Inn at Whittier.  Anchor Inn looks like a pit. And note: rangers will board boats and check that you have fishing licenses)  The setting is probably similar to the eco-system of the San Juan Islands but what a difference: Once out of Whittier, we saw NO buildings.  No houses, no roads, no ferries.  When we moored off one little island or another at night, there were maybe four or five other boats in view, at a distance,each one valuing its privacy in this stunning setting, too. The closest mammals were dall porpoises.  Where we stopped to walk the ubiquitous Alaska dog, we saw enormous eagle nests, and two parents hovering nervously as a juvenile hid from us by a downed tree trunk.  The first day out was overcast, as usual, but when the sky cleared the next day to reveal the tall mountains and their sparkling glaciers, the view was jaw droppingly gorgeous.  That trip is a memory I treasure.
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A three meal pike caught from our dock

Since we returned to our little cabin with a full cooler full of fish,  you can appreciate that my roster of fish recipes is expanding, particularly for fish I had never cooked before, like lingcod!

Back at our lake, fishing is much more lackadaisical.  For me, it is an excuse to be in a lovely, pristine setting, and if we catch something, so much the better. Dinner!  Our lake, like many in Alaska, has been inundated by northern pike, an invasive species introduced by some evil Minnesotan, according to various stories.  It was soon the alpha species and ate everything else that had previously coexisted in slow rivers or grassy lakes like ours.  As a result, Alaskans hate it and have all sorts of hare-brained schemes for eradicating it, like electrocuting a lake or poisoning a waterway for a year.  One fishing regulation renders it illegal to throw back a live pike! 

Having bought our property after the rainbow trout and other delectables were gone, I can't miss them, and since I like the  mild white fish flavor of pike, I am always happy when we catch one, usually early in the morning.  The most reliable spot seems to be right off our dock.   Since there are so few people on our lake and no road to reach it, and since long time Alaskans don't deign to eat it, we use only 30 pound steel leaders and large hooks (3 or 4) to catch enormous ones - always over 30 inches.  the longest we've caught was 42 inches.  And these toothy fish are fighters!  There is one in the lake we have named Moby Pike.  Bryan has hooked him a few times but the wily fellow straightened the single hook and swam off. (Now we use trebles)  One morning, when I thought we had him, I could see his head or his tail as he thrashed but not both, indicating a greater length than we have otherwise seen.  We think he (or she) is huge

Since pike doesn't freeze wel (it flakes to pieces) l, I usually cook such a large fish quickly in three very different preparations (and we only fish when we plan to eat it quickly).  The first meal is often grilled or sauteed with simple toppings.  The second batch is cooked slowly in the oven so that the little bones we fail to extract dissolve (the X structured backbone makes it harder to fillet nicely than a fish with a flat backbone.  From this meat I make a fish dip, like tuna fish, for sandwiches or appetizers, sometimes with a curry or teriyaki flavor.  The third meal is a fish stew or gumbo, depending on flavorings (although we don't have okra). I've also made a pike and pesto pizza, and quick fried it, like kippers, to serve with eggs for breakfast but it is so lean that it gives a cook no mercy and needs to be coated in breadcrumbs or some such layer.  

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My very first salmon - it looks so small to me now
When the mountain snows have largely melted, we hike to a nearby creek to fish for salmon.  There are beautiful rainbow trout and grayling, too, but those are regulated as catch and release in our area so I won't comment on them. By contrast to a quick morning on the dock, this is generally a five hour endeavor.  The kayak-hike part takes about 45 minutes if the bog isn't too wet.  First, we load up the kayak with waders, backpacks (with garbage bags for the fish, snacks for us), guns, knives, and some naturalist book for me.  Then we kayak across the lake and hike through the bog.  The kayaking is always delightful but the bog part is really tough if you aren't wearing well fitting boots, because the spongy wet surface will suck off your boot with ever step.  Imagine that for 25 minutes.  It is terrific exercise for the quadruceps! 

My favorite part is hiking through the higher woods, between the bog and the creek.  I'm a "suck in the breath and smile" sucker for dappled light through silent trees.  I realize that I have never taken a single photo of this lovely setting.  I just love it!  The first trek of the summer we bring a saw and clippers (and no fishing equipment) in order to clear any trees and brush that have fallen over the path during the winter storms.  Last year, for example, we chopped through a downed spruce and two slimmer birches/cottonwoods. The alder, grasses, and devil's club will grow very quickly but on this first visit, they are almost dormant, and I feel like I can see long distances through Sleeping Beauty's forest.  It is the setting I will conjure up when some doctor says, "Calm down; think of something else."

When we get to the ridge created by a once wider creek, we pull on our waders and gloves and clamor down a path of prickly plants and slippery mud, obviously traversed by moose more nimble than I.  At the bottom, we slop our way through a still water area probably dammed somewhere by beavers.  Beyond that, though, wee can hear the creek running fast over the stones.  Is it sappy to say that my heart quickens?  I love that sound.  We clip our way through criss-crossing alders that want to keep people out and arrive at my favorite mile or so of the creek.  I like it because for an extended distance in either direction are flat, stony and occasionally even sandy "beaches," whereas at other "put in" points the creek is still carving its narrow way through steeper land.  In those other settings, fishing can be exhausting to me, wading for hours through fast water on a slippery stone bottom with no place to rest unless one climbs up a berm to a mosquito ridden woods.  Not a great trade off.

Even in my favorite area, the speed and depth of the cold water (always above my knees, and often up to my middle when we cross the creek) intimidate me.  My husband has more physical grace and confidence.  He traverses the river carrying a heavy backback and. 338 (in case we startle or are startled by a sow bear with cubs that can't hear our approach over the water sounds).  Bryan is masterful at catching fish on his first, well chosen cast.  If he catches one of appropriate size, he guts it there, wraps it in a garbage bag and continues up river.  To tell you the truth, by the time the salmon get to our inland location, they look pretty exhausted.  The huge, red and white striped chum (which we don't catch - they are used for dog food) are starting to shed skin.  We don't see any king salmon here but can catch silvers and reds (silvers are more prized for fillets, and reds are prized for brown sugar brining for smoked preparations). I am not a great caster.  I tend to catch more branches than fish across the rather narrow creek.  Surely that is what has encouraged my enthusiasm to learn to track the bear and moose and other footprints (fox? cayote? wolf?). Sometimes this has proved useful.  For example, my husband naturally seeks out deep pools where he is often successful.  I, however, will also point out places where the bears have spend time, and there we will find the current brings the fish close to a shallow shore.  I feel proud.  It isn't Pocahantes, but it isn't High-Rise Laura, either.
One of the pleasure of these outings is that the creek is so little visited by anyone else.  We can recognize our own boot tracks on sandy stretches above the water line, even weeks later, often traversed by a bear or some other sniffing carnivores. One day, from our cabin, we saw a helicopter land over there. What was that about?  It was so rare that we hiked over a day or two later and followed the tracks of the visitors, which were so unusual as to seem eerie, like a sci-fi movie.  Perhaps they worked for fish and game and were counting fish.  Perhaps they were scouts for a guiding service.  If the latter, they must have concluded that this was not "fishy" enough for paying guests, and that is just fine with me.  I felt like one of the bears that visits our noisy areas of activity a day or two after

Hiking home, through the woods with a backpack full of fresh fish is a bit unnerving, especially when hiking through one five minute stand of 6-10 foot, dense grasses, punctuated by several obvious game trails.  We tend to sing "Louie, Louie" through there, figuring that this song and our rendition would discourage any music loving bear.  But if in doubt, the backpack is detachable and presumably more deliciously aromatic than we are.  

The return hike through the bog seems to take much longer than the way there, partly from the exertions of the day and partly because the bog is actually below lake level, with a little ridge of trees separating the two, so you can't see the lake until you are quite close to it!  This gives the illusion that the lake and our home have disappeared altogether, at a time when you really, really want to get there! Sometimes we leave a can of diet coke in the kayak as a decadent treat.  Hot and sweaty, we peel off the waders, unload the guns, and enjoy the breeze and the sitting as we paddle home to a fresh fish dinner after a day of exertion and exploration. Maybe even a shower.

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

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