An Autumn Release A favorite place in a favorite season.
[by Andrew Cremata]
With the last days of September comes the realization that my troutfishing season is almost at an end. As wild animals feast on Alaska’s autumn bounty, I seek nourishment in the form of solitude at my favorite fall fishing hole.
I hike a narrow trail that weaves toward a massive glacial lake and through a dense aspen forest that’s littered with relics from a long-forgotten mining camp. Ruffed grouse occasionally cross the path and stare bewildered, until my dog, Rufus, chases them into low-hanging branches.
Ahead of the trail and beyond the trees, I see the lakeshore and can feel my heart pounding in rhythm with my quickened step. My breath, condensing in the cool morning air, is white smoke—a reminder that winter’s front edge looms heavy. The cold compels me to look toward the mountain peaks where freshly fallen termination dust offers confirmation that the machine of the world is forever turning.
With chilled hands, I fumble with the latches on my tackle box. The rattle is muted against the open expanse of the lake. I tie on a red-and-yellow spoon, pick up Rufus, and nestle him into the top of my waders. He pokes his head out as I step into the perfectly clear water.
“The bright yellow leaves that cover the slopes reflect on the mirrored surface of the lake, and I am suddenly waist deep in a sea of molten gold.”
My first cast slices through the morning silence, leaving a trail of arcing monofilament before breaking the surface of the lake and sinking to the bottom. I retrieve the spoon and repeat the exercise and wait for the sun to crest the uppermost threshold of the mountains.
Fishing tends to focus my mind and body in one accord, but after a few fruitless casts, my mind fully engages the surroundings and the season. High overhead, a flock of trumpeter swans heads south. Their honking sounds like the horns on old cars. Across the lake, mountain goats clear a path for a climbing grizzly that’s gorging on berries in anticipation of its long hibernation. The lake trout I catch this time of year have an extra layer of fat yet are still eager to feed if conditions are right.
Autumn here is transient and full of last-ditch preparations for winter. So, I take a deep breath, mindful of the waning opportunity to catch fish before they spend months under a thick blanket of snowcovered ice. Still, I make one more aimless cast.
In Alaska, people are like autumn. They come and go, often leaving when the north winds blow. I think of long-gone friends with whom I’ve shared this special place. There was the lanky construction worker from California who, after catching the first trout of his life, composed a song that he called “I Love Fishing” and sang joyously around our campsite for two straight days. And the young woman from New York who managed to catch a 10-pound trout even though she was oblivious to the fact there was even a fish on her line. And my once-favorite fishing buddy, a young man from Vermont, who smiled like radiant stars when he cast to rising grayling and released every fish with utmost care.
These faces and more. All intermingling on the vibrating strings of time as I stood casting and believing that something meaningful can be pulled from the depths.
The first time I fished in this place, I felt some great release, and it filled a place within me that I didn’t know existed. It was as though I had been born tethered to some giant elastic band that eventually stretched beyond its limits over the great expanse of North America. It pulled at me, but I pulled back until the tension proved too great. The break propelled me headlong toward this place, my inevitable liberation.
As the sun crests the mountain, light spills out onto the whole of the world. The bright yellow leaves that cover the slopes reflect on the mirrored surface of the lake, and I am suddenly waist deep in a sea of molten gold. This is when I expect a bite, and my mind joins my body in focusing on the end of my line. I feel a tug and set the hook, and all ruminations fall away into the moment. There is only me, Rufus, who has nodded off in the warmth of the waders, occasionally whimpering as he dreams, and the fish. It’s a fighter and runs toward the bottom. The drag whines and the spool rotates, creating a fine mist that hovers like glitter illuminated by the whitewashed rays of the sun.
Slowly backing toward shore, I make up ground on the fish. In one last maneuver, it runs toward me and jumps entirely out of the water. Its fins are orange, and its golden flanks match the leaves quivering in a gentle breeze.
The spent trout comes under my control in the shallows. It’s a female full of eggs, 33 inches long, plump and ripe and ready to play her part in autumn’s ritual. I slip the hook from her mouth and give her release. If this is the last fish of the season, I can face the winter contented. Still, before we leave, I catch a couple male trout to add to my winter’s larder.
With my tackle secure, we head toward the break in the trees. Rufus looks at me. “What do you think?” I ask, to which he tucks his head back into the nook of my arm to dream whatever it is that dogs dream.
Andrew Cremata is an author and photographer who lives in Skagway. His book, Fish This! An Alaskan Story, is available on amazon.com.