Dithering Over Dogs

Paul SchulleryWhen I walked into the little fly shop in Juneau that day in late July, I was pretty sure my fishing trip was already over. I’d spent much of the previous two months in the Yukon and Alaska, where I’d sampled what was by my standards an amazing array of fishing opportunities. The idea that here, just pausing for a couple days on our way south through the Inside Passage, I would show up at the right time for some fishing, felt like an extreme long shot. But I had to ask; who knows, maybe there was a little trout pond within reach.

So I asked the friendly guy behind the counter if there was any fishing right then, and he gave his head that slow sideways shake that, far from meaning “no” meant, “I can hardly believe the fishing here right now myself.”

One of the places he sent me was Sheep Creek, a small stream that falls off the steep green slopes on the east side of the Gastineau Channel just a few miles south of town. There, he told me, right by the saltwater, I would find a hatchery that produced a strong run of chum salmon, just then in progress.

Now and then over the years I’ve done some pretty determined griping about our odd condescensions to and mistreatments of the non-sport fish that share our favorite waters with the fish we are so passionate about. But the Sheep Creek salmon were a reminder of a different kind of discrimination—the equally ancient and equally peculiar bigotries of taste we exercise among the sport fish. Chum are victims of an almost bizarre disapproval among sportsmen. They are big, strong fish. Their life histories are every bit as dramatic and heroic as the other Pacific salmon. They take flies as serendipitously and demandingly as most other fish.

And they are beautiful. Imagine for a moment that fishing had never arisen as a human pursuit. Imagine that we didn’t have any interest in catching fish, much less eating them. If there were no fishermen and the only reason we went to salmon rivers was to admire beautiful creatures, the chum might well be our favorite. With their flanks jaggedly streaked in complicated non-primary colors, they are among the most strikingly patterned animals we’re likely to see outside of the tropics. The subtle variations on burgundy, olive, cream, and green are enough, but they’re complemented by other shades that almost defy labels. Some observers even claim to see blue. (Well, okay, maybe the off-slate-blue of certain riverbottom rocks, on an overcast day, seen through a foot of glacially tinted water.)

But all this is not enough for us. There are stories of anglers catching chums and abusing them verbally and physically, mostly for not being some other fish they would have preferred to catch— like those stunted souls who pitch whitefish up on the bank rather than return them to the water. This foolishness has to do with many things. As it happens, chums do have a lower fat content and less colorful flesh than the others, so their market value has been historically lower—though why these things should bias sportsmen, especially non-meatfishers, against them isn’t clear. Chum also have a reputation for not jumping, though that hardly makes them unique among Pacific salmon. The reasons for our dislike of chum go on, each with its accompanying “but” to suggest that underneath our stated reasons we don’t like chum because, well, we never did. They’re chum, right? Dog salmon? Dogs?

The folklore of the name is another accumulation of imagined grievances. When I first fished on the West Coast in the 1970s, I was told that they were called dog salmon because they tasted so bad that Indians just fed them to their dogs. Whoever enlisted Native Americans in the anti-chum slander certainly didn’t care what Native Americans might actually do or think, but the literature seems to suggest that historically Native Americans might feed the meat of any species of salmon to their dogs if the meat was for some reason—time of year, efficiency of preservation, and so on—sub-par. They knew their fish and made the most of each species.

Another more authoritative part of dog-salmon lore has it that the chum were called “dog salmon” because they sprout noticeably dog-like fangs during spawning. The guys standing next to you along a river are hardly the best place to acquire a comprehensive overview of a story like this, so I’m sure I’ve missed additional dog-salmon nomenclature lore. Whatever combination of forces gave rise to the name, it couldn’t help any fish’s public relations to be called a “dog.” I wonder how differently this would have gone if those teeth had inspired everyone to call them shark salmon, or even wolf salmon, instead.

The name “chum” probably hasn’t helped the unread angler’s opinion of the fish, either. For most fishermen, the word is associated with the junk meat we toss into the water to attract fish. But according to Robert Behnke’s masterful Trout and Salmon of North America (2002), the word “derives from the Native American Chinook language word for ‘striped’ or ‘variegated’ and is descriptive of the streaks and blotches found on the body of a chum as it nears spawning time.”

If I had to guess why the chum’s other common name, “Calico salmon,” hasn’t caught on more than it has, I’d propose that it’s too pretty and descriptively appropriate to appeal to the people who already prefer to dislike the fish and need to give it a suitably insulting name. Besides, how many right-thinking, chumstomping manly men would be caught dead fishing—anywhere near home at least, considering the exotic appeal of the calico bass—for something named “Calico?”

So often these prejudices come down to quirks of local culture and availability. Many Americans look down on the carp, whose comprehensive introduction in North America has led to many unpleasant complications in native fisheries. But some of the United Kingdom’s most passionate and literate anglers enjoy the sophisticated and vastly rewarding sport of carp fishing. (The fish is not native there, either, though it has been around a lot longer than here.) These Old World experts, recognizing just how savvy and wary carp can be, reverse our own biases and refer to carp as “salmon, with brains.”

On the other hand, while I and many like me look at the grayling with little short of reverence, there is a long tradition among many UK anglers—they are known as thymallophobes—of treating that magically beautiful fish as a pest. They hate them with an inherited bitterness the match of any of our chum loathers. We’re fishermen; why should I expect more of us?

I was lugging along all this cultural baggage, and probably other complicating notions, as Marsha and I drove down to Sheep Creek that day, but in my case it was completely swamped by something else: My lifelong dream of finding myself, fly rod in hand, standing within casting distance of an immense number of really big fish.

This, too, gives me pause. Some of our most venerated angling writers have described the progression of the typical fisherman’s engagement with the sport. According to their formula, which varies somewhat from writer to writer, we all start out as nearly barbaric little fish vacuums, mad to catch anything of any size by any means. We grow from that into self-competitors, seeking to best our own previous record by catching the most fish possible or the largest fish possible. And we finally arrive at a stage that is invariably portrayed as the wisest, in which we care only to catch the most difficult, challenging fish. By the time Edward Hewitt gave us his version of this prescription for an angler’s life journey (in, for example, his A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy-five Years, published in 1948), the prescription had taken on a slightly bullying tone. Hewitt, who is now remembered as much for the confidence of his pronouncements as for his angling expertise, clearly believed that if you were serious about fishing, you must follow this course or prove yourself a boorish lesser creature.

Luckily, most of us don’t buy that narrow a code. A day with bluegills has a glory of its own. There is no shame attached to it (except maybe a little if you can’t catch them).

As much as I love difficult fishing for selective fish, I have never lost my affection for hog heaven. In fact, that affection has been intensified by many years of wilderness fishing for easily caught trout. The more the better. The more and bigger, the better yet. Nothing suggests the joyous complexity of sport in nature better than the bewildering process by which we define its success and failure.

Being mostly an inland and highland angler, I had few opportunities for exposure to those occasions my world-traveling friends told me about, in places where there were fabulous numbers of very large fish within easy reach. I had heard about situations like Sheep Creek, and I could imagine nothing more exciting than the chance to see if it was, indeed, possible for me to get tired of it. Apparently not.

At high tide, the tidewater stretch of Sheep Creek was barely any length at all. It poured from the mountainside almost directly into the hatchery operation, then under the road and immediately on into the saltwater. As the tide went out, the creek was left in its channel, twenty to thirty feet wide, which wound across the wet, dark rocky ground and grew longer and longer until there were a few hundred yards of it. The rocks didn’t dry because it rained lightly most of the time we were there.

The tackle-shop guy said that the salmon hit only on the incoming tide and the locals all seemed to agree. As many as a dozen anglers would be scattered along the creek or bunched up near the steadily climbing “mouth” of the creek. Fish splashed and rolled almost everywhere. The carcasses scattered here and there demonstrated that these chum were typically about thirty inches long, and their substantial depth from dorsal to belly led me to believe that they probably weighed between ten and fifteen pounds. I know that’s nothing unusual to many globe-trotters, but I’d never hooked even one fish so big. A bunch of gulls and ravens—and a solitary pigeon, of all things—picked at the carcasses, especially up closer to the hatchery, where the dead fish seemed thickest.

And that’s another thing—the “h” word. This whole fishery was made possible by a hatchery, the bane of modern wild-trout enthusiasts and the curse of native aquatic ecosystems all over the world. During my long, rambling trip through the Far North, never once had I paused and said to myself, “Golly, I just hope I can find some intensely artificial fishing situation where all the fish are the result of aggressive human manipulation of the environment!” Whether fishing for roadside grayling or salmon and trout somewhere in the bush, I’d never found any Alaskan fishing as grandly circumscribed and aesthetically compromised as this. Looking up from my casting for fish whose lineage was downright agricultural, I could watch enormous cruise ships going by just a mile or so out in the channel.

I suppose I must have underestimated my flexibility, because at the time none of this was a problem for me. The raw excitement of the scene simply over-rode concerns about anything else. This was Alaska; just look at those mountains. These were incredible fish; just look at them, and look at where they’ve been since they left that hatchery. And this was still incredible fishing. I knew I’d think about all the navel-gazing aspects of it later, but right then was no time for ruminations. There was too much of the real thing to soak up. I could save the intellectualizing for later. Right then, coming upon this fabulous scene put me in a category of sensory overload best characterized by a comment made by a man with whom I once dug ditches, who described some similarly overwhelmed soul by saying “that old boy don’t know whether to shit or go blind.” Hereinafter, this will be referred to as the SOGB syndrome.

While Marsha alternated between taking pictures of all things Alaskan and dashing back to the car to read or paint as the next squall came through, I stumbled over the slick rocks down to the nearest part of the stream and started casting, but I was too overcharged to stay in one spot. Figuring there must be some reason that the other fishermen—all of whom were fly fishers, I was surprised to notice—were standing where they were, I overcame my SOGB syndrome just long enough to think for a moment. It seemed likely to me that the fish in somewhat deeper water were much more likely to have the opportunity for deliberation required to notice and take a fly, so I looked for deeper spots. I also imagined, correctly, that the people gathered at the stream mouth were casting over a larger concentration of fish that were holding in the quieter depths there. I also imagined that the fish out there might be fresher than the ones up near the road, some of whom were obviously dying, if not rotting, as they held in the riffles.

It was impossible not to hook a fish, though not necessarily the way you wanted. Snagging was unavoidable. With so many fish holding in the current together, a fly drifted through them would eventually hang up on some fish’s snout, fin, or side, whether the fish wanted the fly or not. At the slightest hesitation of the line or feeling of weight, I had to set the hook, and off the salmon would go. In direct violation of received wisdom, a few of these fish did either breach or even jump completely clear of the water, but most of the struggle consisted of frantic knuckle-knocking runs. I went through most of my modest stock of freshly purchased flourescent chartreuse and pink egg-sucking leeches, the flies most highly recommended right then, intentionally snapping them off in a number of the obviously snagged fish so I could get back to casting.

And here I was confronting an inflexibility of mine that didn’t evaporate even in the face of such a thrilling abundance of big fish. I became nearly obsessed with fair-hooking one. I was not willing to completely abandon my sense of How This Is Supposed To Be Done, no matter how exciting it was just to be randomly connected to one of these wonderful animals after another. I was more disappointed every time I discovered that the fly was just hung up on a salmon’s dorsal or some other inappropriate part of its person. Seeing that one or two of the other fishermen had an obvious and enviable knack for fair-hooking fish after fish on their flies, I figured I owed myself no less.

Local rule and custom in the parts of Alaska I visited were fairly casual about the fair-hooking issue. Hog Heaven is often like that; when there is so much, who worries about details? It did seem that some of the other fishermen at Sheep Creek might be there just for the undeniable excitement of playing and releasing these big strong fish without any particular concern for where they might be hooked. Everybody was having a great time and it was all the same to the fish.

I finally dragged a couple strong and apparently fair-hooked fish right to the wet rocks it my feet before they broke off or got free, and then I landed one that had the fly embedded in the tip of its snout. Earlier in my trip I had been told that, according to local practice and tradition, if the fly is within a few inches of the mouth it’s regarded as a fair-hooked fish, but I ended the day with the feeling that I still hadn’t done this right.

As we drove back to town, I was still shaking with the excitement of having participated in such a magnificent nature spectacle, hatchery and cruise ships notwithstanding. I had a sleepless night in which vague, porcine fish shapes wallowed and slashed ceaselessly before my eyes. It was as if I was worried that something—an earthquake? The Endtimes?—would prevent me from going back and standing there at the edge of that rolling tide of fish and casting and casting until I could once again haul back on the vibrating weight of the world.

But we were back at Sheep Creek the next morning, Marsha for more dashing and reading, and me for more fish. It was still drizzling, and I immediately went down to the mouth of the creek so I could fish out toward the deeper water.

Having no success with alternatives, I put on my last pink eggsucking leech. On the first cast, a small Dolly Varden, probably following the salmon to eat their eggs, took it. On the next cast, the fly was taken by a twenty-nine-inch chum who acted a little tired and didn’t run as hard as many of the others, but whose golden sheen was beautiful when the fish was stretched out on the dark wet rocks— and who held the fly well inside its mouth.

For the really dedicated worrier, even a fair-hooked fish provides the opportunity for a little creative agonizing, because it is well known that if you cast precisely and often enough into a pod of big fish you will eventually manage to swing the fly right into a fish’s mouth, effectively snagging it in the mouth. The fish’s willingness to voluntarily participate in the process being an important part of the idea of sport fishing, mouth-snagging fish provides its own interesting intellectual diversions for thinking about how sport works. Ultimately it’s imponderable, though. Salmon aren’t the only fish that require the fly to be presented for their convenience; many choosy trout have a narrow and precise feeding lane. Intention and volition are hard to measure under those circumstances. In that last instant before the fly goes into the fish’s mouth there’s always room to wonder if even the most stodgy and uncooperative salmon may have welcomed it, or even lazily popped its gills a bit, just to speed the fly on toward its gullet. I find wondering about things like this a lot of fun, but I gather that most people don’t.

My final fair-hooked fish of the trip, a thirty-incher, fell into that category. As I fished, I had a good look at him only fifteen or twenty feet from me. The water was murky from all the rain, so as he sank or rose in that one spot he would fade into the gray water and then materialize back into the light. I had the luxury of choosing a nearby position on the bank that would allow me to swing the fly right at him, and after a few easy sweeps of the line I did in fact feed him the fly. How he “felt” about the offering is unknowable. But I can tell you that even in the magnificent buffalo-herd/passenger pigeon biological storm of this kind of fishing, for all the excitement of just being there connecting with these powerful animals on any terms, I still found a special thrill in that first clear sight of the line running tautly down from the tip of the rod through the water to the front end of that fish.

There is a range of temperament in our approaches to fishing that is as broad and diverse as those of us who fish. I call it the Waltonian Spectrum. When we are on the water, our contemplative impulses range from the intense to the nearly absent. The reposeful anonymous anglers pictured in ruffled-sleeve elegance in eighteenth and nineteenth century engravings, sitting under a tree and fiddling with tackle or gazing serenely at the stream, occupy one idealized end of this spectrum. Vincent Marinaro lying comfortably on a lawn along the Letort in the 1940s, his nose inches from the surface as he studied the tiny insect life floating by, may seem at first glance like those quiet ancestors in the engravings, but his contemplation was much more aggressive and demanding. (It was not better; don’t fall into the Hewitt Fallacy of thinking that you’re entitled to imagine that certain neighborhoods on the spectrum are necessarily classier. It’s a spectrum, not a ladder.)

From these fishermen studying so obviously to be quiet, we move along the spectrum, past various types of ease and athleticism, concentration and disengagement, delight and dismay, generosity and greed, altruism and competition, until finally we encounter people caught up in special SOGB moments, when so much is going on that all contemplation must be deferred.

But anywhere on the spectrum, for all but the least attuned of us, contemplation must come, even if it never develops beyond a warm memory of a given day’s fishing. Judging from how often absolute strangers we meet feel compelled to tell us a fishing story as soon as they learn that we are also fishermen, contemplation in one form or another is just what we do.

I fished over those chums in 1998. It took me three years to publish a book about that summer in Alaska, and when I did I didn’t even include the chums in it, partly because I was still engaged in poking at the memories. And here, fourteen years after those rainy days on Sheep Creek, all I have to show for my many hours of contemplation is this breezy little gloss on a very complicated set of memories. I find it comforting to realize that I am nowhere near done contemplating, remembering, and dithering over those dogs. As long as memory holds out, a day’s fishing is never really over. What happened that day never loses its capacity to surprise and excite us again. Maybe we won’t get all the way back to the SOGB syndrome just on the memories, but we’ll get close enough.