Saturday, June 9, 2012

Life Lessons From Pike Bay

Layla meets Mr. Pike, compliments of Tom K.
We finally had the chance to shake the dust off the fly rods a few nights ago. The 60 degree weather was just too tempting to pass up, and after not being able to fish the night before due to high winds- we were ready to get on the water. The work-days are always long up here, but this time of year we’re feeling the added pressure of trying to get a lodge and three outcamps opened up in time for the arrival of our first guests here in a few weeks.

Until it’s time to train new guides and get to the real test-fishing, the act of boating to a nearby river or down the lake with rods in hand just doesn’t happen. Instead, we find ourselves busy pounding nails and fixing snow-damage, loading and unloading a season’s supply of just about anything you can think of, splitting firewood, or scraping and painting… just to name a few. The days are long, the projects are numerous, and it seems like everywhere you turn you can see something that needs to be done.

The first few days at the lodge are a special time. The first crew inbound includes six veterans who have been with the lodge for many years. Each year, we step off that plane in Dillingham knowing exactly what we’re getting ourselves into, though sometimes we never know what to expect when we first show up at the lodge. We all have a routine that involves a lot of grunt-work as we get the long, painful process started.

Since we don’t have a way to get back to town for a day or so, we find that taking our time and being methodical about the whole process really helps increase the focus on safety. After all- we are in the middle of nowhere, and there’s a lot around here that could kill you in a heartbeat. At least, that’s our excuse for going a bit slower and taking a little more time to enjoy the “calm before the storm.” 

Perhaps it was this feeling that called us to the lake, or maybe it was the casual discussion of fresh pike as table-fare for the next night. Whatever the reason, I still find it a bit strange. The three of us that piled into the boat have guided for Bristol Bay Lodge for many years. The other two chumlies, Tom and Tyler, each work at and help run outcamps on some of the most coveted fly-water in the world.

We all started at the lodge, innocent rookies racing around chasing pike in the spring while the water was too high to venture up the heavy current of our nearby river. In a strange but comical way, you could almost compare it to three professional backcountry skiers deciding to head up to their local mountain to spend a few hours shredding the bunny hill. To us, pike fishing has been old-hat for many years.

For some reason, we decided last night would be a good night to introduce my English Setter pup, Layla, to Mr. Pike. Since our guide-boats are still hibernating next to the hangar, we piled into the Auburn, an all-welded aluminum V-hull which to me resembles an old battleship or ice-breaker. A couple hard yanks on the pull-cord and the two-stroke Yamaha jet fired with a sweet hum, filling my head with wonderful memories from past years. A light haze drifted from the motor as the engine warmed itself, with the pungent odor of outboard exhaust in the air. A quick ten minute cruise had us in the heart of Pike Bay, a long, shallow inlet surrounded by willows. The bear grass covering the shoreline was still brown and matted by the long, harsh Alaskan winter. I cut the engine and jumped on the oars.

The silence of a beautiful June evening was indescribable. My mind wandered and I recalled a wonderful conversation I had with a guest from the UK several years back. Phil enlightened me one day by helping me develop an appreciation for the silence we get in the Alaskan wilderness. For about five minutes, he wouldn’t let me talk, didn’t say a word, and didn’t fish at all, we just sat there in the boat listening to silence. A bit awkward at first, after several minutes I felt a wonderful sensation come over me and I couldn’t help but smile. Phil noticed my grin right away and proclaimed, “That’s why I come to Alaska.” He was right- it was amazing. Who would have thought I would be the one who needed to unwind and take it all in? I guess after being so wound up from guiding day in and day out, it was just the nature of the beast. I still thank Phil for sharing that special moment.

Tom and Tyler with a "dinner-fish"
I rowed over to a nearby weed-bed and Tyler and Tom started fishing. It didn’t take long for us to get into our first fish. Most of the pike in this lake are smaller in size, but it’s all about watching the take. Tom was fishing black, Tyler chartreuse. The two went back and forth, busting each other’s chops as fishing buddies usually do, pointing out casting errors and missed fish, each proclaiming one color is far better than the other. After landing (and missing) several pike each, I decided I would be on Tom’s side and favor the black fly, mostly because he was taking the brunt of Tyler’s comical trash-talking. We fished hard and laughed harder, like excited kids at a summer fishing hole for the first time.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that life will humble a person with age.  I always thought this would come more from making mistakes, falling down and getting back up, taking a wrong-turn in the path of life, and so on. It’s amazing to me how life humbles a person in a more subtle approach than I ever thought possible. The story of Phil and learning to appreciate the silence of the wilderness was an example of this. As I sat there with my two fellow guides laughing until my sides hurt, I realized this was another one of life’s subtle humbling moments.

My angling experience, like life in general, has been a great journey. A decade ago, I had my first Pike Bay experience as a rookie guide. Somewhere along the line came a fascination with species other than Pike, including Kings, Silvers, Chums, and so on. I even found myself a dedicated “trout-snob” for several years. Guiding and fishing other rivers on our program seemed to cause me to lose any desire to experience Pike Bay, and beyond using it as a training tool for young guides becoming accustomed to running a jet-boat for the first time, I really haven’t had any interest in being there at all. For one reason or another, I felt a calling to return to Pike Bay. The pike are still there.


  1. Oh hot damn, It's my sweetheart the auburn. Treat her well

  2. hey nate, just curious what type of camera you use these days? your photos are great, point and shoot or dslr?

  3. Hi Dan, sorry I thought I responded to your last comment but it must have not gone through. I shoot a Nikon D90 with a Nikon 18-200 lense. Thanks for the kind words!