Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Leaving The Picket Line

Like remnant pickets, vestiges of an old farmhouse fence, fly fishers line up along the Gastineau Channel shoreline. Their fly rods, like tall late summer grasses bowing in a restless and uncertain wind, flex towards, away, and again towards the water, propelling line and lure into the rising tide.

Occasionally, one of the rods doubles toward the sea, line zings through the brine, and a shiny silver salmon twists skyward, head jerking side to side in an attempt to free itself from the bright pink, or black and white streamer that moments ago triggered a thoughtless, primal reaction to strike, but now bends the fish’s path, and strains its will.

This is the coho run, and for me—and many others—there is no more exciting fishing than this. Late summer, every year, they arrive. From millions of eggs, thousands survive to return to their natal streams. Along the way, they run a gauntlet of giant fishing nets, hungry orcas, desperate bears, and fly fishers. Aggressive, strong, feisty, plentiful, and delicious, cohos are as irresistible to fly fishers as flashy rabbit-fur lures are to cohos.

Behind the rank of fishers, cars and trucks line Thane Road. Beyond the cars, a spruce-cloaked mountain rises precipitously into low clouds. In the channel, fishing boats dart in and out, hunting the fish from the other side. Across the channel, houses dot the shoreline. A couple miles up the road is downtown Juneau.

This place we call Juneau is known by the native Áak’w Ñwáan people as Dzántik’i Héeni, or “Where the flounders gather.” Were naming left to me, I would call this place, “Where the Coho run.” And nowhere around Dzántik’i Héeni is the coho run more convenient or predictably productive than here along Thane Road.

But for all its accessibility and predictably consistent fishing, and though I do fish here on occasion, Thane Road is not my favorite place in Juneau to target cohos, and on this rare sunny late August morning, I am craving something different.

On the other side of the channel, a few miles to the north, I have trudged a quarter mile across the Mendenhall Wetlands, through enervating waist-high grasses and slippery, mucky drainages into a scene very different from the one on Thane.

Here, at Nine Mile Creek, chattering kingfishers and laughing yellowlegs compete for which bird can make the most noise. Skeins of geese beeline down the shallow channel, as mallards rise laboriously from backwaters. At my feet, savannah sparrows and Wilson’s snipe flush from the grass, circle, and land again. Great blue herons patiently pose, ankle-deep and statuesque. Spotted and least sandpipers dart about the shore. A harrier zigzags low over the expanse. Bald eagles chortle. Northwestern crows caw. A common raven quorks.

As I wade into the channel, there are only two fishers in sight. Unlike Thane, there is neither road, no car here, and I have to search to find a couple houses tucked between the trees. Across the channel and up the valley, Mendenhall Glacier peaks blue through the trees in front of the jagged Mendenhall towers. To my right, tiny Thomas Glacier hangs above Lemon Creek. In the channel, there is not enough water for boats. There is barely enough water for cohos, though that is rapidly changing with the incoming tide.

The two nearby fishers are casting spinners. With a range three or four times greater than my fly rod, they cover a lot of territory and target jumping fish on the other side of the channel where a pair of harbor seals patrol for a salmon meal. Every few minutes, I hear the splash and turn around to see them muscling a struggling coho onto shore.

I have been fishing without a strike for nearly an hour when I place a cast, let my streamer sink, give it one quick tug, and see the bright flash of a coho turning on my offering. My line goes taut, I raise my rod to set the hook, and a giant fish leaps from the water, splashes down, and runs. Line strips from my reel, the fish jumps again, and again. With rod tip up to keep pressure on the fish, I step backwards towards shallower water. The fish jumps, runs, and runs some more. My fly rod is strained. Unlike the spin fishers, I haven’t the tools to muscle a giant coho. I have to tire the fish out, and this one is not tiring easily. We have danced for a good ten minutes, when the fish runs hard downstream, zinging my line towards an underwater barnacle-crusted boulder. I rush to get around it before it cuts my line, but I stumble, lower my rod, lose tension, and the fish dislodges my hook.

To the confused amusement of the spinners, I stand in the river grinning, and laughing as one of them treble hooks another fish and drags it to shore.

Two hours later, I have hooked, played, and lost three more fish, each one giving me a thrill before giving me the slip. I am not sure what I am doing wrong to lose so many, but standing here in the water, I am as happy as the laughing yellowlegs, as content as the patient herons, and as at home as snipe, seal, and glacier.

Eventually, the tide goes slack, the fish stop jumping, and I wade back to shore, still without a catch, where the spin fishers are standing over a dozen salmon, laid out in the grass for cleaning.

“Great day!” I say with a smile.

“Should get us through the winter,” one of them says matter-of-factly. “Maybe tomorrow will be your day.” His partner adds sympathetically,

Unable to repress my grin, I respond, “I couldn’t be happier with today.”

As I walk back to the truck, I watch a pair of quorking ravens play on a gust of wind. That same wind catches tall, wispy wetland grasses, bending them toward the river like fly rods in the hands of so many fishers, lined up like leftover pickets, remnants of an old farmhouse fence, put there to remind me why I am here.

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Hey Jim,

Nice post. I’ll be flying over your head Thursday to join the picket line on the Kenai.

What do you think?