Alaska is a land of many dreams, some broken and some achieved after years of great dedication and sacrifice. However, sacrifice and dedication will not be mentioned again in this tale of a big Rainbow trout, a skinny girl and the worst dead drift ever to catch a trout. The sad truth of this story is that it doesn’t end up being the happy tale about a fish of a lifetime. Unfortunately, the events of this day became more of an allegory on how the tiny, pervasive seed of envy can rapidly grow to darken the souls of even the most gracious fly fishermen.
The inner mechanisms of many an angler’s psyches will often drive him or her to the far-flung corners of the Earth in pursuit of an entity that has no cognizance of life, death or the passage of time. Yet numerous species of fish, particularly the Rainbow trout, have caused the breakdown of decorum and the destruction of common sense in many a fly fisherman’s brain. The list of casualties who have lost their minds to the blinding green hue of jealousy over a trout is endless, including captains of industry, theologians, and world leaders. On that day, however, there were no presidents or ex-presidents or king or princesses present, just aging men and women who felt their clocks winding down.
And on that day, their last chance of being extolled during cocktail hour with a manly slap and a hearty; “Well done!”, something they all secret craved from their peers slipped a little further away because of a young housekeeper with great luck and absolutely no fishing skills.
The story of the largest trout I ever touched started innocently enough. It was common, almost expected, for a staff member to tag along on a fly-out on their day off if it was OK with the guests that were going out. Brooke followed the rules to the letter by first asking me if it was alright if she went to Moraine Creek the next day with the two anglers that I was taking over. I then went and asked Tim and Mike if a lodgekeeper could accompany us. The said that they would love it and when I told them who it was they were doubly pleased because they had grown to like her over their stay at Kulik Lodge. So the next day was set.
Brooke was totally inexperienced with a fly rod. She also knew that all my attention would be with the guests. All she really wanted was to get away from the confinement of the lodge after a long summer of making beds and serving meals. I could hardly blame her because the lodgekeepers worked exceptionally hard, long hours without many kudos. In reality, they were probably the most important employees that worked there. I tried to take as many of the girls with me as I could because of this, besides the guests really seemed to enjoy them tagging along. Fresh conversation and an excited face, something that the guests often didn’t receive from their guide since he was busy trying to get them into trout, always lightened the angler’s experience during their day on the stream. Many times I have seen clients tip the accompanying housekeeper after they get back to the lodge just because of how much they added to the experience of the day.
After taking care of Tim and Mike by getting their lunch order and telling them what to expect the next morning, I got Brooke ready. I gave her one of my Sage 7wts with a Ross reel to use and told her; “You are going to be pretty much on your own. I’ll help you when I can but don’t expect great water to fish.” She nodded, already knowing how it was going to work. Her excitement was palpable. She thanked me so many times that I told her if she did it one more time I wasn’t going to take her. She feigned being hurt and did a mocking zippering motion across her mouth as she headed off to her cabin with my gear in tow.
Morning comes early at the lodge for the anglers. It takes a little cajoling to get some clients out of the rack sometimes, especially if they closed the bar down the evening before. Tim and Mike took about three knocks as I cracked their door and stuck my head into the dim light as I gave them my best; “Wake up Wally! Wake up Beaver!” I ducked as a shoe flew over my head into the dim 5:30 AM sunrise, a vapor trail that smelled of booze and stale cigars surged behind the footwear as I hurriedly closed the door. I told them not to be late, hearing groans and the creak of bedsprings, I knew that they were moving. Crunching down the path towards the lodge through the frost, I had no idea in twelve hours there would be a dust-up reminiscent of the old movie Twelve Angry Men taking place at the bar.
My two cohorts and Brooke all managed to make it on time to the float plane for the scheduled takeoff, even with Tim having to run back to his cabin for his fishing license. The short 11 minute trip by air, which was the second favorite part of my day, and the subsequent hike to Moraine Creek from the pothole lake was so uneventful that the only thing I remember is Mike offering to carry our raft. It was strapped to a pack frame and weighed a little over 65lbs. His graciousness was short-lived, throwing a dramatic hand to his groin after he tried to pick it up. I had seen this before but I still gave him a pretentious laugh and a golf clap for his performance. Then our gleeful group of anglers started the short, but arduous climb out of the hole that held the lake that we landed in. At that moment I am sure no one was thinking about anything other than the beauty of the morning, not slipping on the steep, frosty tundra and fishing.
“Mend, Mend, Mend…..”
It was just after the afternoon cookie break that I decided that I would give Brooke a little guidance. The other members of our party had been hooking a fish on about every other cast for the last 6 hours or so. Neither had moved from his spot for hours other than to let me land a fish and then take a photo or to take a leak.
The two men had even forsaken lunch, afraid to eat or take a break out of fear that the magic might end. Their frozen smiles and glossy eyes made them appear almost hypnotized, almost maniacal if the light hit their faces just right. The silence would be broken once in a while by a childish giggle or one of them saying something dumb like; “I am the greatest fly fisherman in the world” or “I hope I don’t wake up.” All the while, a monstrous trout would be jumping or tearing line off of one of their reels as they made their gleefully childish comments. I had seen this before, probably the day before, and I just rolled with it.
When I told them that; “I am on lunch break. You can land your own fish.” They barely grunted comprehension of what I said as I sat down on the tiny gravel bar behind them with Brook. Before I could get our sandwiches out of the bear barrel they were doubled up on matching 7 pounders, both turning to look at me for help simultaneously. I smiled and waved as I took another bite of my PB&J. Everyone was laughing and catching fish, except for Brooke.
As we ate our lunch watching the two men fish, or I should say catch, we talked about the season winding down. She said wistfully that she wished she had more time to learn to fly fish better. There was a melancholy to how she talked that I had heard before from countless employees who had spent their summer changing sheets and cleaning bathrooms. The sadness in her voice lingered in the sound of the water as it splashed through the rocks next to us. Then without warning, the calls of thousands of Sand Hill Cranes that had materialized from nowhere on the northern horizon, echoed across the tundra and into our ears like the trumpets of Jericho. The forlorn feelings of opportunities lost floated into the vapor, giving way to the grandeur that we were experiencing as the aerial parade of Sand Hills started south for the winter. Looking back, this was an omen from Mother Nature of what was to come, of this I am sure.
Brook and I finished eating in a silence that was only broken by the birds and the two men who were having the time of their lives. After putting the food away and scanning for any bear who might have smelled our meal, I waded Brook to a spot downstream of Tim and Mike. It was slow moving frog water that hardly had any current compared to the riffle that the men were having so much success in above. Telling her to fish, I watched as she attempted to roll cast the bobber, split-shot and bead out into the silver-white water as she could. This went on for several minutes with me coaching her on her casting and fishing techniques. I thought to myself that there is no chance of a trout being where she was fishing as glanced upstream towards my guys. Seeing that Tim had just broken off his rig, I turned to go. As I started slipping and sliding over the dead Sockeye carcasses that littered the bottom of where we were fishing I said; “The most important thing you can do now is to make your bead look like it isn’t attached to anything. So think, mend, mend, mend.”
Slogging back upstream to Tim and Mike after getting Brooke lined out I thought to myself; “Maybe there is a Grayling down there that will eat.” I turned around about 40′ or so below Mike and watched her fish for a while. Her casting had gotten better but her indicator looked like she was skating for steelhead as the bead was surely swinging in an arc at light speed under the water. I hated swinging beads, but it would happen as long as the concept of mending eluded her. But try as she might to place the fly line above the bobber it only happened about one out of ten drifts. The nine other drifts she looked like a crazed maestro with a giant baton leading an invisible orchestra through a dramatically violent crescendo. Sometimes her bead would launch out of the water on a particularly violent attempt or she would mend downstream for some reason only known to her, smiling the entire time.
Turning back upstream, I headed to Mike. Just as I arrived at his side I slipped on a dead Sockeye and fell to my knees into the water next to him. Without missing a beat, he laughed at me and set the hook on another trout. After I got back on my feet he asked me how she was doing. I gestured downstream with a big sweeping motion of my left arm, water flying from my newly soaked shirt sleeve and said; “You judge for yourself,” without looking at her. A bewildered expression came over his face as the amazement of the moment distracted him so much that he didn’t even notice the fish he was playing spit the hook.
“Um, I think Brooke has one on. She might need some…;” his speech trailing off into the light breeze that was blowing across Moraine Creek. I had already started sprinting, if one can actually sprint in a pair of waders, as soon as I turned my head and saw the scene that was taking place some 100 paces below us. About five steps into my race down river, I slipped on yet another dead fish in the knee-deep water. Half smiling and half grimacing as my face was about to go under the surface of the stream, I managed to get the most cliche’ two words of guide-speak out; “Tip up!” and then my hat started to float away.
Eventually, I arrived at her side looking like a wet sponge designed by Simms after chasing my hat down. Brooke was grinning and I was grinning and dripping as cold fingers of water slowly oozed down my back. Most of the time I never ran to an angler with a fish on. There was always lots and lots of time to get to their side because this was Alaska and the trout are somewhat large there, not to state the obvious, taking several minutes to land on average. So I would calmly talk to them as I would safely make my way to the spot of the battle, all the while giving sage guide advice like; “Let the drag do its work” or other gems of that ilk. This instance was different because I had glimpsed the tail of what looked like a Moby-sized trout disappearing into the depths of The Moraine. That is why I had started running. But as I was standing there dripping and somewhat out of breath, Brooke innocently asked; “Do you think it is big?”
The fish tore up and down the river for over 20 minutes. Brooke would gain line with two or three straining turns on the reel only to lose the line she had gained on the next ferocious run. I never told her how big I thought it was during the entire time she worked to tire the Rainbow to where it could be landed. There were no “look-at-me” jumps, there was no vanity for this creature, just a constant strength that kept the old Sage rod bent and the line tight enough that the breeze made it sing as it moved by us. Tim and Mike had reeled in and were standing above us watching and waiting to see if this was truly that worthy of a fish to warrant the guide getting so excited. Several times I had to pull Brooke’s hand from the reel so the fish could run without snapping the 10lbs leader. By this time she realized that this unseen fish must be special so she passively went with whatever I did or said. There was more silence than anything since all our group could do was wait.
Mike more serious than joking asked; “Do you think it is a foul hooked Sockeye?”
Tim had gotten his camera out and was busily snapping photos to record of this little piece of history when Mike asked his goofy question. He stopped and just looked at Mike. Then he started shaking his head and said; “No Mike. Don’t jinx her.” He then went back to clicking away as Brooke’s knuckles started turning white from grasping the rod far too tightly. In our silence, I know we were both glad Tim had said something. Superstition and luck have always played a role in fly fishing, don’t let any angler tell you otherwise. The bigger the fish, the less tempting of fate it takes for a big fish to instantly become a, “How big do you think it was?” Even Brooke knew this simple truth and she knew she needed the fish gods on her side at that moment.
The viciousness of the runs began to lessen. With every crank of the reel, the fish was moving closer to us with only the occasional breath stopping head shake in protest. We hadn’t even seen the fish yet and it had been hooked for 20 minutes or so. The longer it was on, the better chance Brooke had to lose the fish from the hook pulling out or it burying its head under a rock in final desperation. But like most people, the large trout did the opposite of what we thought it would. Instead of one final surge downstream or attempting to find safety under a rock the behemoth fish came to the surface for one last attempt to free itself.
The trout looked like a small door as it tried to put its body in the heaviest current, using the water’s force to free it from the hook. Brooke gasped, Tim lowered his camera, Mike’s mouth fell open and I fell into peaceful awe at the sight of this beautiful fish directly in front of us. Other than its tail, this is the first time it had been seen since it had been hooked. Softly I told Brooke to move her rod tip downstream and get ready to reel. It happened so quickly that it caught us off guard. She moved the rod tip downstream and started reeling as fast as she could. In two blinks of my eye and no time for me to say anything, I was kneeling in front of Brooke with the fish’s tail grasped in my hand.
Tim took the photos as Mike kind of stuttered and stammered out a very gleeful celebratory sentence that had not one word I could write here. Brooke just smiled and knelt beside me as I measured the big female. Then Tim snapped a few pictures, of which I have only one, and we released her as Mike was still stammering and stuttering a slew of happy cuss words. The hard part was over or so I thought.
Old Guy Fly Fishermen Planting The Seeds Of Tears
We were a happy little group as we paddled the raft to where the floatplane was picking us up. But the joy was not to last as the reality of not only human nature, but the reality of many fly fishermen psyches was abruptly inserted into my brain by a harmless little statement by Tim. He said with a mischievously lilting tone; “Boy, there are going to be some upset people at the bar when they hear about Brooke’s big fish.”
He was right. It could end up being a stinking mess. I told Brooke that she shouldn’t make a big deal out of the fish until some of the guests could come to grips with a lodgekeeper catching a trout that they would probably never see in their lifetimes. It was better to let Tim and Mike tell the story of her fish in a way that would only take one double Scotch for some guests to wash it down as opposed to a whole bottle. We all agreed that the day’s events would be handled in a very low key manner as we floated down Moraine Creek in the waning Autumn sun. Sighing with hope and relief, I watched more Sand Hills fly south from the back of the rubber raft. With all of us on the same page, maybe a skinny girl catching big trout might not get blown out of proportion at an Alaskan fishing lodge. Yeah, right..
I am pretty sure Brooke was out of the floatplane and halfway to the lodge before I had it pulled up onto the shore. Tim had given her his camera to look at the photos of her fish on the flight back to the lodge and I saw it was still in her hand as she galloped away. My boss, who was our pilot, looked at me and said; “I’ll have someone take care of the raft. Get up there before she shows the photos to the wrong person.” Not that he really cared about the guests, but he knew it could go badly for Brooke. He was right.
Jogging towards the lodge with my backpack bouncing on my shoulders, I envisioned a group of old men happily looking at pictures of Brooke’s fish as they listened intently to the story from the triumphant, smiling girl. Maybe, even one of them had bought her a drink in celebration. I entered the lodge with a dumb, upbeat smile after fooling myself into believing in the good in the hearts of men. Sobbing was the first thing I heard and my manager trying to calm a group of four men down was the first thing I saw. Then he saw me and nodded for me to go out onto the deck before I could hear what was being said by the obviously angry older gentlemen. I had to go by the mini-mob to get to the deck. An instant hush came over the group as I passed by, their disdain for me was apparent. Now I know what the conversation was about, not so much Brooke’s fish, but me.
Let’s back up a tad bit so you know what happened when she walked into the lodge. First, Brooke screamed at the top of her lungs about catching the biggest trout ever the second she walked in, not exactly what we had agreed was the best course of action. The kitchen staff came running out to see the pictures. I guess there was a lot of “Ooos” and “Ahhhs” by a couple of the lodgekeepers, but the three or four guests at the bar really didn’t think anything of it. After all, I am sure they were thinking, she didn’t really know what a big fish was. It wasn’t until Brooke made it to the bar and “High Fived” the bartender as she showed her the pictures that the situation went to DefCon 1. She then asked one of the bar patrons, who had a particularly frustrating day, if he would like to see her fish. He took a look, nudged the guy next to him and then lit into Brooke like she was a kid who just got caught looking at the presents under the Christmas tree.
The one sentence that stood out I guess was; “You have no right to catch a fish like that when you don’t even know what you are doing.” Instantly tears fell as Brooke ran out of the building, I guessed I had just missed her by seconds. Then the man and his cronies told the bartender that they wanted to speak with the manager. To them, it was obvious that the guide put her in the best spot, besides they had been to Moraine Creek the day before and their guide hadn’t taken them to where she caught the fish. They were convinced in a matter of seconds that there was some great conspiracy taking place that was preventing them from catching, and I quote; “The really big fish.” Yeah, that is really in the best interest of a fly fishing lodge. That is when the manager showed up and me a few seconds behind him. Now we can get back to the accusatory leers and glares as I passed the group of men as I headed for the deck.
I was filling the manager in when the owner with Tim and Mike walked onto the porch. They could hear the raised voices of the growing Happy Hour crowd filtering through the screen doors, the main subject, of course, was the fish. When one of the instigators tried to open one of the doors and interject himself into our huddle the owner put his foot against the door and told him he would talk to him in a bit. That really didn’t help the situation but it made me feel better. Tim and Mike told the story to my superiors, there was no favoritism and Brooke hardly got to fish in the good water. Both Tim and Mike said I might have been too stringent on that but now they understood why I had been that way. Mike finished as he went in to get a cocktail; “It was pure luck. When you’re done I’ll buy you a drink. Good job today.”
Enough of the story had been heard by the powers that be. I was excused when Mike brought out a glass of Scotch and handed it to me. I thanked him and took the drink as the owner of the lodge passed by me causing me to spill a bit of the Lagavulin on my waders. This was going to be good, I could tell by the childish grin on his face, as I watched him go over to the four or five disgruntled guests.
“Well, I don’t want you to feel left out. So I am going to fly you over there at no cost, so you can swing your beads through as much frogwater as you like. By the way, you owe Brooke an apology;” he said, finishing with a glare at the man who had made Brooke cry.
The trout weighed just over 22lbs by the lodges formula of length x girth²÷750.
No one fished frogwater the next day. After a couple of days and some superior belittling by Tim and Mike, the conspiracy theorists apologized to anyone who would listen about their behavior that afternoon. They even invited Brooke to go with them on one of their trips.