Ptarmigan on the Ptundra


A walk in the hills today turned up white grouse and scenic loveliness.

Dawn in the high country was colder than I expected. About frost-nipped my fingers shooting with my gloves off.
A willow ptarmigan soaks up morning sun.
A willow ptarmigan tears across the snow.
These two males were having a turf war. It’s that time of year … breeding season for ptarmigan.
Dawn breaks softly on the peaks.
A living snowball peers from a drift.
Ptarmigan tracks.
A willow ptarmigan sails over the alpine snowpack.
I think the bird at top right is a drill sergeant or something …
A ptarmigan looks up from its pussy willow breakfast.

Who We Are

By Ken Marsh

“In order to subsist this early man had to dedicate himself wholly to hunting. Hunting was, then, the first occupation, man’s first work and craft.” 

– Jose Ortega yGasset, Meditations on Hunting

The photograph was, at first glance, startling. It featured bright, sticky blood smeared on the brown cheeks and forehead of an 8- or 9-year-old boy. A rack of reindeer antlers, fuzzy with summer velvet, rested on the tundra nearby while in the background a treeless horizon that could have been the Oshetna country, Anaktuvuk Pass, or the hills surrounding the Kobuk River met a cold, white sky.

But it wasn’t Alaska. Looking on was a group of leather-faced men with wrinkles flowing in wakes from the corners of their eyes. All Natives of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula according to the accompanying magazine story, the men were smiling. A caption indicated the dabbing of blood was a cultural rite, a baptism that honored a young Kamchatka Native boy’s bond to the tundra, the reindeer, and the circular path that brings everything together.

In the distinctive way photographs have of stopping time and distilling emotion, I’m envisioning the image of another young boy, standing waif-like in torn pants on a Nelchina River gravel bar, gripping a small rack of velvet-covered caribou antlers. Once tacked to a wall above my office desk, but long since lost, the photograph was a monochrome, relic of an era. Still, it provided the necessary detail – willows in the background, a ribbon of river running through the upper quarter. Your heart filled in the dimensional gaps: color, temperature, the gurgling stream, etc.

Taken on different continents more than a quarter century apart, the two photographs overlapped in an impressionistic sort of way. Rather than two boys of different cultures, they revealed children bound by tradition. You could look into the faces of both boys and sense similar auras of security, innocence, warmth. The presence of blood, the racks, the deaths of beasts, were outshone by a radiance that declared: This is who we are.

A grizzly track appears in frozen mud along Alaska’s Koyukuk River in September.

I’m marching back in time, my feet crunching into the pregnant gravel of a Nelchina River bar. Beside my small, pigeon-toed boot prints are the tracks of caribou (each cloven impression a neatly broken heart), accompanied by the larger, longer, more linear tread of moose; the padded, canine signature of wolves; and in the mud at the water’s edge, the clawed, helter-skelter meandering of a grizzly.

From the time I was 5 years old I followed the men of family and a group of close friends into the Nelchina wilderness each August to hunt caribou. Not unlike the Kamchatka people, we hunted for meat to feed our families. Much of what is important to me today is rooted in that place and to those times, where willows glowed in yellow bursts, and autumn air hung humid and cold, fragrant with the river’s scent (a sweet, earthy blend of wild grasses and damp soil). The country was a place where passions bloomed.

In my earlier years I served a kind of apprenticeship, providing camp meat by catching graying with a bamboo fly rod featuring a wildly flared tip. Later I graduated on to a .410 shotgun and white-winged ptarmigan – tundra chickens. Ultimately, I became a big-game hunter.

Your mind is a sponge when you’re 6, 8, 12 years old. You remember things that adults might think trivial. But symbolically, the livery flavor of ptarmigan fried in flour and butter or the image of a ridgeline bristling with a forest of silhouetted antlers become a part of you.

Along the way you learn things only hunters know that can’t be explained, but must be felt. Ancient, primal emotions intrinsic to men and wolves develop and grow tangible. You discover the peerless freedom of the hunt surging in the grip of wood and cold steel or howling in the wind of a high pass. You’re introduced to basic realities of success and failure, life and death.

With time the fundamental lessons of hunting grow more complex. You discover hunting is as convoluted as humanity itself: There is subsistence, there is recreation and, rarely, the good of it is destroyed by dark elements like greed or bloodlust. Somewhere within this tangle of character and natural instinct, where innocence and knowledge mingle, we define ourselves – as a species and as individuals.

Most of my time these days is spent far from the Nelchina River country and its caribou. Even so, it’s encouraging to know that the land and its animals live on and that hunting there remains a priceless, ageless option. That’s because hunting is a birthright, something that can never really be taken away. The Kamchatka people would agree, as would their Alaska Native cousins, my Anglo ancestors and, if they could speak, so would wolves.

Back on the Nelchina River, my uncle showed me how to fashion a whistle by cutting a willow with a jackknife and carefully slipping the bark. Another man taught me how to skin a caribou without slashing my knuckles by gripping the hide like so. And when, at age 11, I killed my first caribou, the men smiled and patted my shoulders and generally treated me as an equal. I’ve since known no greater honor.

That, truly, is why the photograph of that scene on the Kamchatka Peninsula made me pause. It made me realize that some things about us change little with time. Or geography. And if, in the 1960s, baptisms along the Nelchina River were subtler than those on the Kamchatka Peninsula, they were no less important.

Today I drive an automobile that burns gasoline and live in a house that has permanently displaced wildlife habitat. Indeed, if you traced everything I do, you would find my existence somehow comes at the expense of other creatures. So whether or not I hunt this fall (as I plan to do), I still have blood on my hands, and coursing through my heart. We all do.

###

Author Ken Marsh with hares he harvested with a .410 shotgun near Chickaloon, Alaska, in, October 1971.

ODD DUCK

A bird of another feather dropped in at the mallard pond the other evening. The common merganser hen landed on the small bit of open water, got mouthy with the locals, then winged off again, into the sunset.

A common merganser drops out of the sky late last week to land in an Anchorage pond.
A common merganser hen shows she won’t intimidated by the resident mallards.
The merganser takes on a diving stance.
Reflecting among the squiggly lines of evening.

The merganser is off again, into the sunset.

HUNTING FOR HEAVYWEIGHTS

Halibut in Alaska waters grow huge — the state sportfishing record stands at 459 pounds — and are rightly considered big game. 

By Ken Marsh

Forty fathoms beneath the charter boat T. Rex, in the murky depths of Montague Strait, the cargo pilot’s short, stubby saltwater rod seemed suddenly possessed. It bucked and wrenched and bent perilously over the gunwale. The veins in his forearms swelled, sweat beaded on his brow. 

Framed by the cabin door, the skipper smiled broadly, his lower lip fat with a double dip of snuff. “Don’t rest your rod on the rail,” the skipper coached. “Lift up, keep pressure on the fish.”

The cargo pilot, taking a day off from his job in Anchorage, strained to lift his rod. The rod writhed. He grunted. And then his line fell curiously slack. 

“I think it’s gone,” he said. 

 By the tone of his voice, it was hard to tell whether he was disappointed or relieved.

The skipper spat over the side. 

“He’s still there. Reel, reel!”

The cargo pilot lifted the rod and gave the reel a couple of cranks. Then the rod tip shot abruptly down, forcing him to stop reeling and hang on.

“Take advantage of it when (the fish) lets up,” the skipper said. 

After that, the cargo pilot got into the rhythm of the battle: Pull up, up on the rod, then lower the tip and reel fast. Repeat. That is how a saltwater angler gains on a strong fish. Pump and grind, pump and grind. Three feet … of line … at a time. 

Ten minutes and 235 feet of line later, as the cargo pilot strained against the bouncing rod, the white bottom-side of a halibut flashed below the boat. The skipper snatched his heavy gaff from its holder and, leaning dangerously over the side, hooked the fish by the jaw.

 At that instant, a new fight was on. The halibut thrashed, splashing saltwater onto the deck and pounding its tail against the side of the boat. The skipper hung on, like a bull rider on a crazed Brahma. Then, with the grace of a seasoned professional, he hauled the fish smartly over the side and onto the deck. 

A couple of thumps between the eyes with an aluminum baseball bat and the fish fell still.

“Forty pounds,” the skipper announced matter-of-factly. 

The cargo pilot beamed. He’d only been fishing 20 minutes. The day had just begun.

Halibut are heavyweights. Where trout are creatures of poetry and color, halibut are big, broad, mud-colored lugs with close-set eyes situated frog-like on the tops of their flat, fat heads. They fight with impressive strength on the far end of a line and their delicately flavored white fillets are the fare of high-end restaurants. Halibut in Alaska waters grow huge — the state sportfishing record stands at 459 pounds — and are rightly considered big game. 

We stalk them by boat, often traveling miles out to sea, armed with rods thick and flexible as flagpoles, and harpoons with detachable heads tied to buoys (a la Jaws). Big halibut brought to the surface may be struck with the harpoons or shot with .44 Magnums or .410 shotguns. The fish spend their lives lying flat on the sea bottom; to reach them, you may need five pounds of solid lead. A steel hook large and stout enough to hang a 130-pound moose haunch is required to hold them. For bait you might use a herring the size of trout caught and released in Prince William Sound streams. Or you might use a three-pound pink salmon. 

 A few minutes after catching the first halibut of the day, the cargo pilot caught his second fish — a 45-pounder.  

“That’s the best I’ve ever done,” he announced. His limit secured, he sat down to relax and enjoy the late-morning sunshine.

One by one, fish came to the baits of the other four T. Rex anglers. One man from Minneapolis was experiencing his first Alaska fishing trip. When he hooked and brought to the boat a 35-pound halibut — considered small in local waters — the skipper asked if he wanted to keep it. Still holding his rod, the angler turned to his mates:

“I catch my first halibut and this guy asks if I want to keep it!” He laughed, then turned back to the skipper and said, “Hell yes I want to keep it.”

The angler, whose biggest fish prior to that were walleyes pulled from his Minnesota lakes, later rounded out his halibut limit with a fish that weighed close to 50 pounds. Joining the cargo pilot, he sat down and looked over the flat-calm seas. To the north, the jagged peaks of a nearby island were silhouetted against warm blue skies. Here and there a salmon leaped. Puffins paddled by.

“You know what surprises me,” the angler said, “is that we’re not surrounded by other boats. I thought there would be other boats, but I haven’t seen another one all day.”

###

PRECIOUS SPECKLED TROUT

When I look at a cutthroat trout, I am reminded of a shy child, freckled, cast out of the mainstream because it is small, less aggressive. The name “cutthroat” is derived not from the creature’s disposition, but from its appearance. Cutthroats lack along their lateral lines the decisive red stripes of rainbow trout, wearing them instead in distilled vividness beneath their lower jaws. In fact, Alaska’s coastal cutts are particularly susceptible to bullying. When spawning they often seek tiny streams — muskeg trickles, remote headwaters, springs barely a foot wide — to avoid competition with belligerent coho and steelhead.

In some waters they are found in both sea-run and resident forms. No one seems to know exactly why one fish spends time in the ocean while another in the same stream does not. In the end cutthroats are where you find them, one day among the barnacles chasing minnows, the next sipping mayflies from a freshet.

In their own subtle way, cutthroat trout are metaphors for Alaska as I’ve long known it: beautiful, wild, innocent. Vulnerable. They are worth finding and catching and letting go, to remain in the heart like poems of sunlight, shadow, hemlock and spruce, and days spent on the water in the world’s last, great wilderness. 

— km

Hunting with Harry

A story of a southern gentleman, duck hunting, and the heartbreak of September in Alaska.

By Ken Marsh

September was nearly over and, even though Harry was a fine man – a South Carolinian and southern gentleman in the truest sense – I didn’t feel much like talking. We sat side by side on a drift log, a great weather-bleached cottonwood, next to a pond on the Susitna Flats. A cold wind blustered, pinched our cheeks and turned them pink while we waited for ducks that came in fits and starts, cup-winged over the decoys.

This was Harry’s first trip to Alaska. He’d waited for more than 60 years to get here, working 40 of those years as a heart surgeon. Saving lives for a living or, at the very least buying time for the doomed, he was a miracle worker by any measure. Yet there I sat, three feet away, silently nursing something broken inside that he could not fix.

The two of us had shot poorly all afternoon. The ducks came fast on the autumn wind and we suspected we were not allowing proper leads. Perhaps on that day there was not enough lead in the world; maybe the ducks and the wind were simply faster than reflex, powder, and shot.

Duck hunters sometimes have to wonder where the birds come from; one moment the sky is a lifeless place of wind and clouds, the next you hear overhead the jet-engine rip of wings cutting air. And there they are. This time it was a group of wigeon, a dozen or more in a tight wedge. I just had time to stand, point, and shoot. There was the report of my gun, the solid splattering contact that you feel deep in your chest, and then a bird from the flock’s tail end dropping like a stone out of the sky.

There had been no time for Harry to shoot. The ducks had vanished almost as quickly as they had appeared. Still, Harry was happy. For me. And for himself.

Earlier in the week I’d taken Harry hunting for ruffed grouse over my orange-and-white Brittany. When the dog locked up in some yellow grass at the base of a hill, Harry had stepped up and bagged the first ruffed grouse of his life. The bird had flushed with wings beating like a frenzied, racing heart, and the surgeon had coolly pointed his shotgun and squeezed. For a flash there was silence, a cloud of feathers hanging in the air like someone had torn open an old-fashioned pillow. Then the kindly, silvered-haired southern gentleman stood and yelled like rebel at Fort Sumter. Later, Harry told me that he liked Alaska. “It’s a man’s country,” he’d said.

More ducks came and we dropped a few, including a headshot bluebill that flew perfectly for 300 yards before folding up in an odd, delayed reaction. And Harry made a fine shot on his first canvasback, a huge drake that splashed down among our decoys with a definitive finality. Then the sky grew dusky and we gathered our spread and motored off in a beat-up johnboat across the pond’s dark, troubled waters.

We were staying with two others at a duck shack (a plywood outbuilding set upon stilts to avoid flooding by the highest Cook Inlet tides) far away from the forest, yet I imagined that I could hear leaves falling even as winter’s darkness fell and the night’s frost came on. Oddly, Alaska appears more crisp and vibrant in September, even as it seems to die. Within a week the trees would scratch the raw sky with aching, naked limbs. The duck flats would lie bare and silent, ponds sealed in ice, the air dead, the last wigeon and greenhead gone. Like always, a hollowness would expand like a balloon in my chest and for no tangible reason I would feel the need to hold back tears. A courtship would have died and I would find myself left alone because time and its season do not wait. That is the heartbreak of September. And no heart surgeon in the world can fix it.

You may love all seasons, but you may not live them all at once. You must take each one singly, as it comes, and no matter how much you yearn for another, you are committed by time to remain where you are.

That night the clouds parted and gave way to stars, a full moon, and complete stillness. By the glow of a propane lamp, we played cards and sipped scotch. Outside the moon glared, illuminating the flats and creating a black-and-silver world that was surreal. We could hear geese yelping all night long, leaving with the frost under the light of the moon. The card game grew subdued and it is possible that we all knew just where we sat: on a cornice, the threshold of winter.

Next morning the sun rose over the Chugach Range, a bright circle of fire that burned cold like frozen steel. The ponds had frozen and ice crystals glittered in the hard blue mud. No geese called or peppered the pale sky, and the ducks of the day before were gone.

Harry remained upbeat, as always, which made me think of the stories he’d shared over our decoys the day before. In one story he’d diagnosed a woman with terminal cancer. The woman had been told that her life could be extended with chemotherapy, but she refused to accept the diagnosis and, against Harry’s advice, left the hospital. A year passed. Then one day Harry had glanced up and there was the woman – still very much alive. She’d never felt better. An examination showed that her cancer was gone. She’d had no treatment, and Harry remained to that day happily puzzled. He was a spiritual man and had often felt a greater presence while performing grave operations. His stories made me think. They offered hope.

We flew in a small plane back to Anchorage late that morning, over the lifeless duck flats, through a mass of gathering clouds spitting snow. And somewhere between the Susitna River delta and Lake Hood in Anchorage, I felt a sudden warmth and knew my heart was healing. Maybe it was something the surgeon had said. Or perhaps it came from somewhere else.

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Rainbow Connections

Anglers seeking big surprises and some of the largest, meanest rainbow trout on Earth need look no farther than the trout streams of wild Alaska.

By Ken Marsh

My very first rainbow trout startled me: It struck hard, wrenching my wrists, my shoulders; it stole my breath and stirred a strange tickle deep in my chest. The fish snatched my bait in the shallows of a famous Alaska river, the Kenai, and ran fast for the deep, swift water in the main channel. My instructions were to sit and not move, no matter what, but to call out should a fish be hooked.

So I held on and cried out to my father who cast for trout from a gravel bar upriver a good, hard shout away. My fishing rod wasn’t much – maybe three feet long, cork-handled, white with red wrap, and rigged with a secondhand, single-action reel that my father had dug from an old box and cleaned of rust and spray-painted red. The outfit was fine for a 5-year-old boy, the rod stout enough to provide the leverage I needed to hold that fish as my father splashed and stumbled across the river to the little slough where he’d left me.

I landed the trout, much to my father’s delight – and to mine – and later a second rainbow trout followed, a three-pound twin of the first. I’ve long lost track of a snapshot recording the event, a print already creased and fading last I saw, taken by my father of his grinning crew-cut kid holding up both fish by the gills. 

Enough water has flowed from Alaska’s trout streams over the ensuing 45 years to form an ocean and, in that time, I’ve caught many, many rainbow trout. But the images of that day have never left me. Even today every rainbow trout I catch, large or small, is measured against a time when I was very young and the world was new and everything that happened came as a surprise.

A heavily spotted Gulkana River rainbow trout is readied for release.

***

The element of surprise is a large part of the rainbow’s allure, particularly in Alaskan waters where the next trout hooked might be a three-pound scrapper, or a heart-stopping heavyweight three feet long. The fish come in two forms here, resident and sea-run, and both grow big. The state record, a sea-run version caught in briny Southeast, weighed 42 pounds, 3 ounces, and stories of resident fish busting the 20-pound threshold are written on our rivers every summer. 

Rainbow trout are native to Alaska’s southern third, a roughly California-size hunk of wild lands, streams and lakes spanning a procession of geographies and climate zones from temperate Southeast, north and west to the Susitna Valley, the Kenai Peninsula, and far beyond to the tundra reaches of Bristol Bay, Kodiak Island and the western Alaska Peninsula. 

Most common are the resident trout that spend their lives within given stream or lake systems. These may be honey-colored creatures, freckled like leopards, such as those of the tannic brooks and ponds south of the Alaska Range; or flashy chrome-flanked behemoths that lurk among spawning salmon in the great lake systems of Bristol Bay. 

Sea-run rainbow trout, called steelhead, are generally found close to the coast where their life cycles mimic those of Pacific salmon. Steelhead spawn and rear in freshwater, but spend several years maturing and growing in saltwater. Once mature, the sea-run rainbows return to natal streams to spawn and the cycle comes full circle. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead may recover after spawning to return to the sea and reappear in subsequent years to spawn again. 

Steelhead come and go with the tides of spring and fall; anglers seek them in more than 300 Southeast Alaska streams and in others more sparsely distributed north and west around the Gulf of Alaska and ultimately far west toward Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. Steelhead runs in Alaska are generally small, with annual returns ranging from highs of up to 6,000 fish in Yakutat’s Situk River to fewer than a hundred in many smaller systems.

***

To fish for rainbow trout in an Alaskan river at dusk is to tempt a monster. Depending on where you’re fishing – say, a wilderness dream like Southwestern Alaska’s Alagnak; the swift, mountain-clear waters of Southcentral’s Russian; or an evening tide in April on the whiskey-tinted streams of Southeast’s Prince of Wales Island – nighttime here is the venue of 20-pound legends.  

At the moment, it’s mid-September and I’m back on the upper Kenai River, not far from the spot where those first rainbows stole my heart 45 long years ago. Everything has fallen quiet now that the sun has dropped for the night behind the Kenai Mountains; everything, that is, except the river. The angling author Roderick Haig-Brown wrote that a river never sleeps, and now, in the late-evening murk, the current’s gushings and gurglings – the sounds of water hustling along, folding against logs and rocks – seem eerily amplified. A chill has crept into the air, and I’m casting my fly rod as much to stay warm as to find a fish.

We started fishing late that day. I’d driven the hundred or so miles south from my home in Anchorage on the scenic Seward and Sterling highways to meet Paul, a friend from my college days, and his 85-year-old father, Pat. By the time we rendezvoused outside the upper Kenai River community of Cooper Landing and loaded up Paul’s pontoon raft, the night’s frosts had dissolved and the usual fleet of anglers in drift boats and rafts had long departed, leaving broad stretches of river to us alone.

The day was brilliant. The sun burned brightly over the mountains as we rode the glacial blue-green Kenai, fishing and watching the world flow by, the hours framed by yellow cottonwood leaves backlit and glowing against powder-blue skies. We caught fish all day long, a few two- and three-pound rainbow trout and many impressive Dolly Varden – red-bellied, pink-spotted char resembling overgrown brook trout – weighing five and six pounds apiece. At one point as we drifted silently along, a brown bear stepped out of the brush and trundled down the shoreline, picking at the scores of dead, spawned-out red salmon that lay helter-skelter at the river’s edge like casualties of an epic battle. 

The bear ignored us as we drifted silently past. Powerful muscles rippled beneath its shaggy hide and its long claws clicked like sabers against the shoreline cobbles. For a moment the world seemed a dangerous place where salmon die by the thousands and a monstrous grizzly was king. None among us seemed aware that a monster might be lurking in the water beneath us, too, waiting for nighttime to strike.

***

Alaska’s biggest rainbow trout, fish that eclipse an almost unbelievable 30 inches in length, are most often linked to the state’s great salmon rivers. Because many of the most productive salmon rivers are those fed by great lakes, anglers in search of the world’s largest, most abundant rainbow trout will do no better than the lake-and-river systems of the Bristol Bay region. Here, sockeye, or “red,” salmon return each summer by the millions to rivers draining enormous lakes like Iliamna, Naknek, and Aleknagik. The lakes provide critical rearing habitat for young sockeye, and important wintering water for rainbow trout.

The relationship between salmon and trout works like this: When the salmon return from the Pacific en masse each summer to spawn, the rainbows are waiting. Like wolves following a caribou herd, trout shadow the salmon schools upstream to spawning gravel where they wait to feed on freshly dropped eggs. The salmon eggs are protein-rich and available in abundance throughout the summer and well into the fall. And once the salmon die after spawning, their carcasses litter streambeds to provide more protein-rich provender for meat-hungry trout.

Outside remote Bristol Bay, the easily accessible Kenai River is a major producer of salmon and trophy-size rainbows. The Kenai River drains Kenai and Skilak lakes and hosts annual returns of more than a million sockeye. Large returns of spawning Chinook, pink, and coho salmon also contribute eggs and carcasses to the river, further extending the availability of excellent feed for ravenous rainbows. As a result, nice trout – fish weighing 6 to 8 pounds – are not uncommon in the Kenai. But it’s the truly big fish, the fabled 20-pounders, that make this already famous river even more so among anglers.

Other highly productive and easily reached rainbow trout waters flow through Southcentral’s Susitna River drainage. Anglers who travel the Parks Highway north of Anchorage enjoy banner days fishing the region’s many smaller streams where trout may range from a foot- to two feet long. Lacking the dynamics of the Bristol Bay and Kenai River systems, 30-inch-long fish are all but nonexistent in the Susitna River drainage. Even so, the venue is a Mecca for anglers who enjoy catching two- and three-pound trout all day long – along with the occasional five- or six-pound lunker – in the very shadow of Mount McKinley. 

Highlights of my own summers include days spent prowling the region’s fern-bordered streams, catching and releasing untold hundreds of Susitna Valley beauties, each speckled prize seemingly hand-painted by Mother Nature Herself and sharing a universal rainbow-trout fragrance reminiscent of wild grass, feral water, and pure, fresh, sweet fish. 

***

Back on the Kenai it is late and I’m casting into the chilly night more by feel than by sight. Paul has stopped us on a gravel bar a mile or so above Jim’s Landing, our take-out point, in a stretch of water that gallops like an oversized mountain stream. 

The fishing for rainbows, steady all day, only improved as the sun sunk low and the trees cast long shadows across the river. I caught a good six-pounder – pot-bellied and strong from a summer salmon-egg diet – that led me first upriver, then down, the fish running deep before charging the surface and leaping again and again. Minutes later, Pat caught and released a pink-flanked trout more than two feet long that weighed maybe seven pounds. It was, remarked the World War II Navy veteran, a man who’s seen just about everything, the biggest rainbow trout of his life. 

Fish like that are enough, really, so strong, heavy and fast; they make it hard to imagine that much bigger fish – true monsters – are out there. 

But here in Alaska, monster rainbows are out there. And now on the upper Kenai River where nighttime is prime time, it occurred to me those 20-pounders were already sliding into the main current from dark lairs beneath cut-banks and logjams. 

Which is why I should have been prepared when it happened. 

One moment I was focused on river sounds and the murmurs of Paul and Pat talking in the darkness upstream, the next it seemed my fly rod had been struck by lightning. I had no time to shout, to alert the others that something big was brewing; it was all I could do to hold on, focus, to maintain my composure.

The strike was that of a rainbow, vicious, jarring, but the fish didn’t turn instantly and run as most trout do. Instead, it stayed put and leaned into the current with a startling heaviness. My 8-weight fly rod, stout enough to conquer crazy-fighting sea-bright sockeyes and even the occasional thick-shouldered Chinook, seemed suddenly inadequate. I yanked back on my rod tip to try and move the trout, to get it running so that it might wear itself out. 

Then, as in a recurring nightmare I used to have as a young man, the fish turned and lunged straight away. In the dream I would hold on, a giant fish the size of sailboat pulling me in deeper, deeper, until I lost my footing and fell headfirst into darkness. 

But this was no dream. The trout gained speed, headed for the fast water in the center of the river. I knew right away that the combination of fish and current was too much. The trout was too heavy and strong, the river too swift. Expensive fly line peeled off my reel. I feared the fish would spool me – run out my entire line and backing, then break off the works with a shake of its head. I was whipped.

Wrapped in the night’s shadows, knee-deep in the surging river, I pointed my rod at the fish and clenched my whirling reel. There was a final tug and my leader popped like thread. The trout was gone.

For a heartbeat or two I simply stood there, overwhelmed by an undeniable rush. I don’t know how much that rainbow would have weighed – 20 pounds? Possibly. More poignant was the sense that I’d recaptured a connection to my past; the thrill I’d known when I was very young and the world very new had returned. It was a bit like growing up and discovering that you actually can go home again. Alaska’s trout streams are powerful that way; every rainbow hooked here, large or small, is a reminder that no matter your age or how long you’ve been fishing, big surprises wait just a cast or two away. 

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BUNNY & DUMPLINGS FOR DINNER

So, what do I do with those bunnies I hunt? This time, it’s Bunny and Dumplings – good, old-fashioned comfort food. Three bunnies made for a huge pot. Braised for three hours in chicken stock with onion, carrots, celery, garlic, potatoes, some thyme and pepper, the dumplings were added at the end.

The meat (which I boned when tender after two hours of braising) is delicious. Like dark chicken thigh, but richer … close to turkey dark meat. Definitely worth going wild, hunting, and cooking up.

Step 1: Find a bunny.
Step 2: Harvest bunny.
Step 3: Clean bunny meat.
Step 4: Cook bunny.
Step 5: Bunny … er … dinner is served.