I felt the line go tight in my hands and gave it a sharp jerk which proved to be too little too late.
About five feet from the boat, an enormous rainbow trout, even larger than the one I caught last year, jumped straight up out of the water, cleared its full body length, and came back down with a splash. It had been after my bead that I was fishing with. A very close miss on a record fish — damn! If I had not been in the presence of two other grown men, I probably would have cried.
We started the day at 5 a.m. as planned, but for various reasons did not make it into the water until around noon. I spotted one moose standing in knee deep water, but he never looked my direction. For being such large animals, sometimes I think their brains are out of proportion to their body sizes.
The shore just past the boat launch was covered with “combat fishermen”…those without boats that stand almost shoulder to shoulder and cast out hoping to snag a salmon. The poor salmon are running a gauntlet of hooks and lines, trying to reach their birthplace to spawn and die. It seems like this would be tough on the fish, but it is actually a good thing. I would rather someone get to eat them rather than have them die in vain and end up food for the water birds always keeping a close watch above us.
Luckily for us, we drifted right past the fishing gauntlet and down one of the prettiest rivers in the country — or world, in my opinion — the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula.
Just like last year, the grand finale to the so-far-fishless (is that a word?) float, was running the rapids through the canyon at the end of the river. We made a brief stop to strap everything down and enjoy a cigar which I smoked until I couldn’t pinch it any more, and then we were off on a wild ride. Skip managed to steer us around all the larger rocks as we bounced over white swirls and waves.
Others were not so lucky. My heart sank as we passed one boat very similar to ours that had wrapped itself neatly around a boulder.
The freezing water was crashing over top of it with a vengeance. The crew was missing, but the gear and such was downstream. Whether the impact hurt them or not, the icy glacier water would definitely present a problem if they had no way to get dry clothes fast. And by the looks of it, they may have lost their gear. Not good. These guys were probably fishermen just like ourselves out for a day of fun that had turned into a day of survival. I was suddenly very glad to have someone experienced behind our oars.
We finished the whitewater run and drifted to a stop at the mouth of the Russian River in Skilak Lake, the same lake that left a lasting impression on me last year. I hopped into the cold, knee-deep water and immediately could feel the chill through my rubber boots. With one eye looking up for bald eagles, I cast out over and over into the deep-channel water, praying for that one trout that has been waiting for me to come along all day. I looked up mid-cast to see Skip yelling from downstream, but I didn’t have to ask what it was: I already knew.
He had seen a bear.
I ran as fast as I could, one hand digging into my Gortex for my small camera, but by time I reached him it was too late. If I had been holding one of my own fishing rods, I probably would have slung it into the weeds like a frustrated golfer throws clubs. Anyone that followed my adventure here last year knows that for over a year now I have been dreaming of an encounter with a bear — preferably one which I survive — and now I had come this close, just to fail. Again. I knew that my only realistic chance of finding a bear was on this remote lake, a lake only reachable by two-day boat ride or float plane. My last chance at coming face to face with a grizzly would be somewhere around the cabin we were planning on using tonight.
Life is still fishless and bearless, but good.