Seal On...A Fish Story

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I like photography better than fishing. Not a popular sentiment in Alaska, I realize, but that said, I'm usually the one capturing the prized grip and grin shots of anglers holding out huge salmon like their displaying their first born—proof of their conquests to friends and family. This past July, it rained, as it often does in Southeast. But the rain was good, actually great, because if it hadn't been raining, I would have been taking photos of all the bald eagles and seals in the area, instead of fishing. I would have missed out on the biggest catch I've ever made.

My guide and a contributor to Alaska magazine, Rich Culver, took me to Amalga Cove in Juneau as sort of a last resort. We had fished a few other spots, all devoid of salmon, and he wanted to make sure I got the full experience. He situated us just below the pool of a waterfall. I positioned myself on top of huge, stable rocks to cast my fly. The water boiled with fish. I considered reaching down to grab one with my hands, but that would be cheating, and was probably way harder than I envisioned. Plus, even through the murky and choppy water, I could see their teeth clearly: razor sharp and serrated.

Rich worked with my cast. I hooked more fish than I could count, and loved the fight and pull and speed. He counseled me to let the fish run before reeling it in again. I owe Rich innumerable flies and tippet and line. Every chum I caught got away. Even I knew it didn't count if I didn't land it clean and touch it with my hands. Each time I hooked one, Rich waded out with the net, and each time, he moved farther from shore to do it. I told him, "I don't think it counts as catching a fish if you swim out to get it for me." He laughed and kept wading.

A seal bobbed close to us. I thought the guy was cute, but Rich warned me that he could steal my fish and rip my thumb off. I thought he was kidding, telling an exaggerated fish story of sorts. I knew brown bears occasionally snagged salmon from anglers, but hadn't heard of seals doing it. Novice.

I cast out, got a bite, set the hook, and let the chum run. Been there, done that. Except this time, the speed of the run took a dramatic turn, almost yanking the rod from my hands. My line unraveled off the reel; the handle spun so forcefully against the knuckle of my thumb that I checked to make sure it was still there. The noise of it is what I recall most: the whir and "zzzzzz" of that unspooling reel as the seal made away with my catch. I asked Rich what to do and he shook his head, "Just hold on. He'll take the fish and break the line." I pictured my seal, chum in his mouth, heading out to sea with me on the other end. Then, the line went slack. I started to pull it in and felt resistance. The seal had let go and my chum was still there. Fish on.

I resumed my normal battle, surprised that the fish still had any fight left in him. He made a few runs, but I brought him closer each time. And then, whir and zzzzzzz. Part of my thumbnail lost to the spinning whip of the handle of the reel as the seal returned for his catch of the day. This time, Rich came over, about to cut the line, as we watched it near the end of the spool and I asked in a panic, "What should I do? I can't let go, right?" Of course not. The line snapped. I reeled it in empty. Rich tied on another fly, and I finally got a sizable chum to shore. I even have the video to prove it. But the story I tell back home is that I caught a seal that day, using live chum for bait.

In this issue, you'll find our fishing forecast along with an almost lyrical fishing essay from Rich Culver about one of his favorite rivers. We'll examine what salmon mean to Alaskans and take you along the rivers of Bristol Bay. Fish on.
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