Fly fishing guides work with hundreds, if not thousands of clients over their time on the water. Faces and names can melt together into a mix of different recollections that end up as one of several catch-all personas. Memories of the clients that were exceptionally needy or thought that they were far superior anglers than they were are the ones that I usually remember. As usual, it is the majority that suffers for the acts of a few. There is one client that I recall almost daily when I think about those trout anglers who have positively impacted how I guided and lived my life.
Often I am possessed by nostalgia for my guiding days and it usually starts with thoughts of Vic. These sentimental feelings can be so visceral that I can close my eyes and envision Vic as he sat on my raft smoking his pipe in a cold Alaskan rain while
he reminisced about his 70 plus years of fly fishing. His big grin wedging his Irish cheeks up so high that they lifted his glasses off of his nose.
Vic and his family had reached almost legendary status when I arrived for the first time at the lodge between the lakes to guide. They had been coming to the old lodge in the heart of Katmai every year for 21 years during the same week. The annual migration north of the patriarch, two brothers and one brother-in-law was as reliable as the return of the Sockeye salmon.
The salmon are responsible for the entire food chain in southwestern Alaska from the Brown bears to the massive Rainbow trout. As an ecosystem, its dependence on one species for the entire food chain is quite amazing. The yearly cycle of this monoculture flourishes for such a short, intense time that bears, birds, and trout fixate on one thing-eating. Salmon fry and smolts are the early summer appetizer for the trout who instinctively know that a smorgasbord of protein-rich salmon eggs and flesh will arrive at the end of July. A bounty of this magnitude makes the Rainbows large and somewhat easy to catch. This is reason enough for most fly fishermen to travel halfway around the world to fly fish here, including Vic and the family.
Vic was no different than other anglers, he had found a place he liked and kept coming back and coming back and coming back. By the time I had started packing ice and olives across the tundra for their customary martinis while we waited for the float plane they had been coming for over two decades. My first day, actually my first hour of guiding them made me realize that I was there for two things. The first was to stay planted by Vic’s side since he was now in his late 70’s and the second was to make sure that everyone made it to the pickup on time. Hanging out with Vic was easy, the latter was just a little tougher, to say the least. As I was soon to learn, the boys (now in their late 50’s) would scatter the second they got out of the plane.
My first memory of guiding Vic was standing knee deep in Kukaklek Lake holding onto the 207 Cessna’s tail as everyone piled out of the plane, taking just long enough to help Vic wade to shore. By the time I had turned around after the pilot had given me
my pack and the plane had started taxiing away the two sons and one son-in-law were gone. The only person to be seen was Vic, lighting his pipe as he stood ankle deep in the gooey mud about 30 yards away. I trudged in and told Vic that I guess that is was just us. He took a big puff on his pipe and smiled as we started to make our way to dry ground. “Those boys;” was all he said, the words weighed down by the noticeable tone of pride that he had in those three men.
The creek we were fishing was more like a small river and as usual in this part of Katmai, it flowed between two lakes. Vic would later tell me that is was his favorite place in the entire world. It would become mine too, largely because of his reverence for the stream with almost invisible water and large trout. For 6 years I would make his annual pilgrimage with him, looking more and more forward to his arrival in August every year.
Vic and I walked slowly upstream. Most of the time we had to wade through knee-deep water and mud. He carried his old Sage 8wt in his left hand that I had rigged while we walked. His right hand was placed on my left shoulder to steady himself while we slogged on, lifting it off only to re-adjust his always smoldering pipe. He told me stories, less about fishing, and more about his and the boys’ love for the place while we moved along. He told me about breaking his ankle one year after he tripped over a log or rock or something because he was staring at “the biggest rainbow he had ever seen.” There was the time that Rick, the youngest son, got attacked by a caribou or at least that is what he said happened. Vic painted a timeline of wonderful times and epic adventures on the creek with every word. Glancing over at his face as we made our way, I could see a sparkle in his eye that was growing brighter with every step. Vic told me he needed “a new pipe”, after crossing the creek in waist deep water. This was his way of saying he needed to rest. We had gone about a ½ a mile.
We parked on a little gravel bar that had some willows to block the sudden gusts of wind that had been a slight breeze minutes earlier. Vic sat on a log, his hands shaking while he loaded his pipe. His oldest son John had told me the night before that the shaking had just started this year. John couldn’t hide the melancholy in his voice, almost seeming to accept his aging father’s mortality at that very moment. Fortunately for the both of us, Vic overheard him and told him to mind his own business. He said as long as he could cast and smoke his pipe he would be fine. So far he had the pipe smoking part down. I wasn’t worried about the fishing part either unless we couldn’t find a fish.
The wind in Katmai that day was exceptionally fierce. Gusts tore at the willows that were at our back. Even the herds of bears had disappeared for the most part. The harsh weather blanketed us in a solitude that made me feel like we were the last men
on the planet. Vic sat smoking his pipe evocating to the wind how much he loved his old Simms raincoat. Smiling, I wandered upstream a few yards trying to spot a trout through the rip on the water for him to fish to.
Rain began suddenly. Pounding drops driven by the 40 mile per hour gusts pummeled me. Cupping my hands around the brim of my hat to cut the glare, I stared at rocks and logs on the bottom, trying to turn them into Rainbows. A blast of wind hit me so hard that I almost went to my knees. Conditions were tough for anyone, but for an old man, this was going to be a long day I thought. Bracing against the wind I looked down the creek towards Vic. He was digging through my pack like a gleeful bear cub. Pipe clenched in his teeth, he produced my thermos from the blue backpack. Then he pulled an ornate flask from his jacket, poured a little into the cup that served as the cap and then filled it with steaming coffee. Settling back onto a log, he looked towards me and raised the cup with a big smile. The wind settled at that moment. Glancing into the water as Vic took a sip of the hot, doctored up coffee, I thought I saw something. Another cat’s paw ripped across the creek and then the wind settled again. Ghostlike, the form of a good-sized trout materialized about thirty feet in front of me.
Staring at what I hoped was a fish for what seemed like forever, the trout confirmed it was not a shadow by moving about six inches upstream. Racked by the weather, I moved through the knee-deep stream towards the shelter of the willows where Vic sat on his log. The relief from the rain and wind welcomed me as I plodded out of the water and onto the shielded gravel bar where the old man sat with his coffee. He offered me a sip from the chrome thermos top that he had clenched in his hands. I declined with a shake of my head knowing that I was going to need the coffee to keep him warm later in the day. Then he asked; “Did you see anything?”
“Yeah, a nice one. Let me know when you want to go get him;” I said as I looked for a good spot to burn some wood.
“Let me finish my pipe and we will go get him;” he said as he fished out the leather tobacco pouch from his jacket. A bear poked its head out of the bush about 10 feet from where I had spotted the trout. The haggard-looking young bear looked into the water somewhat dourly. Moving forward a bit, the bear grabbed a sockeye carcass in about a foot of water. As he submerged his head
fully under the surface I stepped out into his line of sight. When he lifted his head my presence startled the jittery youngster his jaws clenching his breakfast from the bottom of the creek. Turning so quickly, the bear crashed into a stump as he tried to hide in the thick brush. He escaped into the thicket on a dead run with the dead salmon firmly clenched in his jaws. A mischievous smile must have been on my face when I turned back to Vic because he told me; “You liked doing that too much.” His grin framed his pipe in approval.
I grabbed his rod when looked like he was about finished smoking. Noticing the Tibor reel was engraved with his name, I wondered how many fish had pulled on well-used reel’s drag. Offering my left hand, Vic grabbed on and I helped him to his feet. Silently we walked into the water and into the wind that would have toppled him if his hand weren’t on my shoulder. As we made our way the 30 or so steps to where the trout had been Vic must have been aware that I was a little nervous with him. He stopped as a wave of rain splatted loudly on the green Gore-Tex that shrouded him and said; “Isn’t this great? Even if we don’t catch a fish today?”
Praying to myself that the fish was still there as I got Vic situated where I thought he could get a good drift. His hand shook as he stripped line off his reel while I tried to spot the fish again. Subtly a long shadow drifted back down the stream into the little window of clarity that wind was kind enough to give me. Vic knew I saw the fish. He stopped shaking after I told him to cast his old Sage towards a bush on the other side of the creek with about 25 feet fly line. His roll cast was perfect, as was the mend. The fish didn’t even notice the bead as it drifted by him.
After about 8 or 10 drifts I changed the bead to one that he suggested. But after quite a few casts the fish was still unhooked. His casts were as good as any could be in the conditions that tormented us. Vic started talking to me while he fished. His mending and casting were perfect, even as he became more focused on what he was saying than his fishing. He talked about his first trip to the lodge and how the fishing was so good that he never thought of going to any other lodge after that trip. Stories of bad guides, he assured me I wasn’t on that list because I had remembered coffee. This caused me to laugh with him. Stories about why he loved the creek that we were fishing so much. I listened for a long time as he fished, my eyes straining on the trout as the egg pattern went by the fish. Vic looked at me and said; “Quit trying to will it to eat.”
“One more bead change and then we will take a break;” I said as he swung his bead rig into my left hand. “Look Vic;” I said as I pointed to a spot where there were several pairs of Sockeye. Suddenly the water’s surface as churning as a red started spawning with a couple of males fought to fertilize the eggs. “Let’s try this one;” I said as I tied on my equivalent of the “secret bead”.
I had guided in lots of places before Alaska and there is no secret “anything” anywhere in the world other than getting what the fish wants to eat in front of it. But I had already arrived on my “Goto Bead” when fish were being finicky. Honestly, it was just another egg pattern among the 30 some I used. It just seemed to work all the time. So I put my version of a fresh Sockeye egg on Vic’s tippet because of the active spawning that was taking place 20 feet above us. I dropped the bead into the water at his feet. He glanced at me as he rolled his fly line in a perfect cast above the trout so deftly that the bead barely rippled the water when it hit the surface.
I could see the bead tumbling along the bottom of the stream. A soft mend of the fly line came from the old guy standing next to me just as I was about to suggest it. The pseudo egg disappeared in the glare of a glassy boil causing me to switch my straining
eyes onto the fish. A second later I saw the subtle white hue of fish lips through the wind rip and I said; “Set Vic,” firmly enough that he would do it, but relaxed enough I wouldn’t startle him. He ripped the rod with the tip low across the water like the man who had first used the “downstream and across” hookset.
There was no explosion or no blistering run. There was nothing other than a rod bent in an arc that caused the line to sing in wind with a high hum. As the fish slowly started to move away, its instincts told him that there was danger in what he had just eaten. Straining against the rod and drag, the fish started to struggle more. Vic knew that his adversary’s nature would soon force the issue as the battle took an imperative turn with violent, thrashing on the creek’s surface between torrid line peeling bursts. My hand on his shoulder barely kept Vic upright during one great run from the trout. I am sure it would have pulled him in face first. His only reaction was a slight chuckle as he whispered to the fish to calm down.
“Good bead;” is what I heard slip by me and disappear into the roar of the weather. The words spoken through aging chapped lips sounded resonated with more praise than should be due any guide. I nodded slightly as I took Vic by the arm and slowly walked him and his fish downstream towards dry ground.
“Let’s get your feet dry so you can manage him;” I said. The backing on the Tibor was about to come into play. If the fish wasn’t stopped, he was going to swim back to the lake. The second we were out of the water I let Vic do his thing, there was nothing I could tell him that he didn’t know. Standing below him, I watched as his face displayed every human emotion known. From joy and hope to anger and angst, the wrinkles on his eyes showing everything in his mind for the next ten minutes.
The battle culminated when Vic broke the trout’s will after it had tried to swim into a mass of roots and limbs on the other side of the stream. Cranking the reel in slowly, I could tell he knew by the way he held the rod’s grip that there was one more surprise. While I was getting ready to land the fish on the gravel, I heard a soft, firm; “Whoa;” from Vic. This was followed by something I would hear quite a few time in the next few years from him. “Bow to the queen!” he said as he dropped his rod tip towards the water, the trout erupted from the water in a final grand gesture, launching almost three feet into the air.
Vic saw me staring at him after his little outburst. Giving me an almost embarrassed shrug of his shoulders, he backed up onto our little island bringing the fish into shallow water. The chrome trout could do doing more than make a hopeless flop on its side as I grabbed it gently around its tail. The hook fell out of the trout’s mouth as I turned the fish towards Vic to show him his fish and questioned; “Picture?”
He shook his head as he struggled to bend over. I noticed how cold and red his hand was as he gingerly touched the back of the fish as it swam away from us. We both watched for a second as the trout disappeared into the obscuring turmoil from the wind as it pulled at the creek’s surface. Still kneeling, I felt Vic’s hand on my shoulder as he pushed himself upright. By the time I ran my hands through the water, stood and turned around he was already sitting on the log with his pipe out.
“Great fish;” he said as the flame from his ancient Zippo lighter danced in and out of the pipe’s wooden bowl, puffing hard to get his tobacco lit in the swirling wind.
“Yup, great job;” I agreed in stereotypical guide-speak. I dug the thermos out and filled him a cup making sure to leave enough room for a little “sweetener” from his flask.
“You say that to everyone. I have heard that 1000 times;” he said as he gladly took the steaming coffee from me. “You got an old man into that fish. I would have never seen it. Just getting me here made my day.” Smoke swirled out of his pipe and was gone. His praise made me feel awkward. It always did and I felt I was just doing the job that, to this day, I will always love more than anything I have done or ever will in my life.
Later, I lit a fire. We talked and smoked. Occasionally I would get up and attempt to find another Rainbow. After lunch, I went to get up to look again and he told me not to worry about it. The rest of the afternoon I kept wood on the fire as the wind blew the rain over the willows that protected us. Silence took hold and Vic even dozed a bit. His pipe fell from his mouth, startling him to consciousness with a minor cuss word following immediately. Somewhat sheepishly he looked towards me and I pretended not to notice.
With an hour to go before our pickup, we started to make our way to where the plane would meet us in the lake. Vic talked about his fish and getting old. He suggested that he might not have too many years left coming to Alaska. I scoffed and told him that I would get him over here for as long as he came. He squeezed my arm tightly after I said that and I let it alone. We slogged on, arriving at our pickup just as the boys returned right on time. Rick asked his dad how the day went. Vic said it was good, kind of slow, but we got one good fish. The brothers had only caught two between the two of them as I gave them the ice and olives for their traditional martinis while they waited for the plane. I tried to become invisible as I sat back and watched.
This was the last time Vic ever walked his favorite place. Two days later I floated him and his family down from the upper lake by request. For the next five years, I would guide him and his sons three or four times during their week. On Vic’s last visit he caught several big fish and fell in. He told me that day was his best day ever. Two days later was the last time I ever saw him.
He died two years later at 84. I am sure his last thought was fishing with his boys on his favorite creek in Katmai.