THE FOOD CHAIN in and around an Alaskan river is a lot like that in the Gulf Stream: It’s in constant tension and you’re not technically at the top of it. But in practice, of course, you’re not much of a part of it either. The brown bears aren’t about to walk away from their salmon cafeteria to try to run you down, especially now that guides and park rangers have for several bruin generations been practicing applied Darwinism with shotguns and large-bore handguns. You’ll probably be consumed by the beauty of an Alaskan river and its residents, but you won’t get eaten there.
This is not to detract, however, from the generalized ferocity that is never far beneath the surface of those gently burbling streams. Literally. Take a conceptual leap into the Gulf Stream for a minute and imagine yourself covered with and reeking of shark attractant. Now start floundering and splashing helplessly on the surface. Can you sense it? Can’t you just feel something coming? Something huge and underwater and accelerating toward you… ?
You’re a deer-hair mouse dropped next to a grass bank on the Mulchatna River.
Rainbow trout have teeth, and in Alaska they use them. A lot. Summer is short, winter is long, and bite-sized protein doesn’t float free for very long. Under every cutbank and deadfall will be a stationed rainbow, and it won’t be looking for a Black Gnat on a 7X tippet. In most places it won’t be looking for any sort of dry fly, and in the few rivers where the fish do take dries, they take them in June and July only. Try it in September and you literally will never get a rise. On the other hand, the coastal plain is home to millions of lemmings and other small furry critters that fall continually into rivers. And into trout mouths.
The first time I tried mousing on an Alaskan stream, I did it from a high bank, about six feet above the water on a long, gradual bend in the river. The others in our boat had stayed on a good gravel bank to cast streamers to a pool full of salmon, and I had decided to take a little upstream hike. The sky was cloudless and the midday sun warm.
From up on the grassy bank, looking through my polaroids, I could see every rock on the bottom of the river. There weren’t any salmon here in the relatively fast water between holding pools, and I couldn’t make out any other fish, either. Dolly Varden show themselves by “flashing” in the current as they roll and tip sideways, letting the sun glint on their very smooth, shiny flanks. Grayling are active in the flow, moving often and leaving shadows on the bottom. There weren’t, according to the guide, likely to be rainbows in this stretch. It was lovely water nonetheless, and I stopped to sit down.
Since I was on the outside of this long curve in the river, the flow had cut a deep channel along my side of the river, showing as a narrow green-to-blue crescent carved out against the bank for a hundred or more yards downstream from where I sat. It was too deep to see the bottom, and I just knew there had to be fish in it. I also knew that if I cast to them from up here, they’d certainly see the line and the waving rod in the air above them. On a whim, I took out my one deer hair mouse.
I had had the mouse for a long time, tucked in among my smallmouth bass bugs; I hadn’t tied it on in years. It was a bushy, wind-resistant thing to cast, and back when I had first got it I wasn’t much of a fly caster. After a few marginally successful tries in Maine, I had let it stay in the box. Exciting as it was when a bass hit it, the tradeoff had been hours of sloppy, arm-wrenching casting. I’m not really sure why I brought it to Alaska that first time. Probably something I read.
In any case, here on the Alaskan stream, I did it the easy way. Stripping most of the fly line off the reel and onto the grass, I lobbed a short cast down and against the bank, and then I fed line out as the current swiftly took the bobbing little mouse down the channel.
The rainbow came from all the way across the river. Accelerating like a barracuda on the flats, it streaked across faster than I could actually register what was happening and it hit the mouse like a thrown brick. In an instant the fish was in the air and shaking, then back with a crash and off across the shallows, zipping fly line sideways across the surface with a sizzling sound like ripping paper, pulling the slack through my fingers and snapping the last of it taught against the reel without my having to turn the crank once.
I fought the fish for a long time, working it downstream to where I could get in the water and bring it close enough to play out and let go. The rainbow slowly swam away. I looked around.
There wasn’t another person in sight. The river was as placid as it had been before the trout struck, the time-ripples of the event gone and dissipated into the wilderness surrounding me as completely as if they had never been stirred in the first place. I carefully clipped off the mouse and put it in my fly box.
Far across the tundra valley the hills rose toward Bristol Bay, off to the south. A pair of sand-hill cranes wobbled like stick figures with wings against the sky; a raven croaked from somewhere behind me, far away. And in the river where I stood, a pod of a dozen salmon came swimming upstream, steady against the current and ghosting past me with a concentrated indifference that literally filled me with — what can I call it? — an exultant rush of calm, a lifting sense of place, a quiet flood of being alive. And it made me want to cry.
The afternoon air was warm, endless and expanding, the riffled current sussurant by my side, crystal blue and glinting in the low sunlight; I couldn’t have told you what day it was. Tucking my fly rod under my arm, I crossed the river and started back upriver toward the others.