I was sitting in a camp chair between the white line at the edge of the road and the guardrail along the bridge. It was a 40-foot drop to the river below, and the tide was going out. My bobber drifted back toward me and disappeared beneath the bridge. I reeled up.
Fishing Alaska’s road system had never been so literal.
A man who looked like a cross between a Hells Angel and a Midwestern farmer headed across the road from the other side of the bridge. In a deep Louisiana accent he called out, “Only ever one fi sh caught dat side a da bridge.” He was standing in the middle of the road.“’Bout 20 years ago. I was here for it, an’ I couldn’t believe it den,” the man said, waving us over. “You wanna fi sh dis side a da bridge.” I looked at my partner. This location was his idea, after all. He was already folding his camp chair and grabbing his tackle box. I did the same.
The big guy led us to his spot and introduced us to his buddy, a silent, bearded guy who organized his tackle when the fi sh weren’t biting.
The guy from Louisiana talked continuously.
If I believed every third thing he said, I’d have been led astray.
“Dem are some fish coming,” he said.
“Female.” The silvers were coming in. Although the rare fl ounder or cod could be caught from the bridge, it was the two weeks of good silver fi shing that gave the place its allure.
“How can he tell they’re female?” I asked my buddy, quietly.
He was shaking his head and baiting His hook with eggs.
“See dem Vs?” Louisiana asked, rhetorically.
“Dem are female all right.” I tried to imagine what a female fi sh might do differently in the water to make it identifi able from 40 feet above. Maybe they were shaking their hips.
I looked over at Louisiana’s tackle box. He was pulling out balls of tangled lures that looked like an unkempt pile of earrings.
“Dese work great,” he said.
When he bragged that they came in pairs and were purchased at a hair salon, I decided to keep my mouth shut.
A car pulled up behind us, and the driver turned off the engine. There was a sign a couple hundred yards before the bridge that read: “No Parking on Bridge.” The car door opened and an older gentleman got out and lighted a cigarette.
“How’s the fishin’?” he asked.
“Dere comin’in,” Louisiana said.
“It’s not time yet,” the older gentleman said.
I would later discover that the older gentleman was famous on this bridge for calling the time the fi sh came in. The bridge was about a half-mile from the inlet and about 500 yards from the end of the road and this “bridge to nowhere” was one of the best-kept secrets in our community two weeks of the year.
An Old Hand It didn’t take long to become a regular at the bridge. After fi shing the spot a few times, I learned how to answer the inevitable questions posed by curious people who wound up at the end of the road.
“What are you fi shing for?” they would ask.
(Whatever is down there.)
“How do you land the fish?” (A net attached to a long rope.)
“You don’t really catch fish here do you?” (When it’s time.)
Soon, I was perpetuating the lore of the place: looking at my companions knowingly when a newcomer set up on the wrong side of the bridge, or believing in the old man’s timetable, inconsistent as it was.
One night a group of visitors staying at a nearby campground wandered over to see what was happening. Louisiana gave them the rundown of the bridge.
Before long, they were fishing on borrowed poles and following the ceaseless instruction of Louisiana as he yelled, “Keep da head up, I’m getting da net.” He lowered the net, attached to a hundred feet of rope, and swung it under the fi sh. The crowd cheered. It was the most inexpensive fi shing trip they’d been on, and they stayed most of the night as Louisiana regaled them with 30 years of tales from the bridge.
I decided to give the newcomers room and wandered down to the muddy bank of the river. The tide was coming in, but there was still plenty of mud. I was wearing waders and inched as close as possible to the water. I cast a spoon across the narrow river and reeled. I listened to the crowd on the bridge identify silvers coming.
“Here comes a battalion,” they shouted.
“Leave us some.” I did.
An hour passed before I got my first bite. It wasn’t the swirling around and sniffi ng I’d been seeing all week. This fi sh was on his way somewhere, and my reel spooled out yards of line as if he didn’t notice he’d been hooked.
Then, suddenly, he turned and ran back at me. I reeled the slack as fast as I could, noticing for the fi rst time that I’d sunk too deep in the mud to step back.
The assembly on the bridge yelled instructions in the vein of Louisiana, “Don’t stop reeling! Tire him out!” My arms were sore as the fi sh made another run for the inlet, then back at me in full force. The only movement I was capable of making was at the knees, hips and elbows. Still stuck in the mud, I looked like I was doing the chicken dance. I glanced up at the bridge periodically, wishing I’d thought to bring a net. How I was going to land this fi sh without full range of movement or a net?
But that problem was solved when the fi sh ran the bank and I pulled up my rod, breaking the line. I didn’t even swear, probably because every cuss word I knew was lodged in the back of mind where I’d left all other necessary fi shing items.
I finally landed a silver, unstuck myself from the mud and crawled on my knees up the bank. The fi sh and I were covered in mud as I trudged toward the bridge. The group of onlookers congratulated me.
“It’s not as big as the one that got away,” I said.
“Never is,” Louisiana bellowed from up high.
Many Tales to Tell Another night I got to talking with a woman who had caught on to the place around the same time my fi shing buddy and I did. She said she’d seen brown bears and their cubs in the fi eld below and moose swimming across the river.
She shared stories of other locals, including one in which a bull moose ran across the bridge nearly knocking someone Over (Louisiana’s version had a boy hanging one-armed from the bridge for safety) or how, one season, a group of Asian visitors came around asking, “You eat heads?” and she cleaned her fish on the spot and gave them all her heads.
“They were so happy,” she said.
“You seen Louisiana around?” I asked.
“No, it’s early yet,” she said.
“I remember the first day he told me about how you couldn’t catch a fish on the other side of the bridge,” I said.
“Long as I’ve been here that’s true,” she said. “First time I came out, he came over to me and said, ‘Get yer ass over here if you wanna catch da fish’ and I did.” Sitting there on warm summer days or rainy summer nights, year after year, it’s always the same: People stop to ask what we’re doing, those in the know point out the “correct” side of the bridge to fish, and locals park on the bridge despite the sign.
Now, you might be wondering where this spot is, thinking you’d like to see it for yourself, maybe drop a line or hear Louisiana spin a yarn.
But I’m not going to tell you.
As is true with any great secret fishing spot, they aren’t listed in any brochure or fishing guide. To give directions would take away the joy of finding these places by mistake and being initiated into their mysteries by the people who know them best.
I’m still not able to tell the gender of the fish when they start coming in from the inlet, but I’m part of a group that tells as many fishing lies as it keeps fishing secrets.