2013 Robert Traver Fly-Fishin Writing Award

2013 Robert Traver Fly-Fishin Writing Award

Rich Chiappone is the author of Opening Days: A Fly Fisherman Writes

  • By: Fly Rod and Reel
  • Photography by: Becca Schlaff
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Rich Chiappone is the author of Opening Days: A Fly Fisherman Writes, published by Barclay Creek Press. His stories and essays have appeared in Playboy, The Sun, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, American Angler and many other magazines, online sites and anthologies, including In Hemingway’s Meadow. Chiappone teaches in the MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage, and at the Homer campus of the Kenai Peninsula College. He is a former senior associate editor at Alaska Quarterly Review, and has been a long-time faculty member on the Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference. He lives with his wife and cats on the Anchor River, where he has fished for steelhead, salmon and beautful Dolly Varden char for 30 years.

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Requiem for a River Bend

You can go home again. But it will be different.

by Richard Chiappone

Last fall, I lost a quarter mile of the river that flows behind my house here at Anchor Point, Alaska. After nearly three decades fishing the big bend that used to lie within sight of my living room, I have to say it was a little disconcerting to find it had become a high and dry oxbow remnant overnight, when the rain-swollen river blasted a new channel and took its water there. My river bend is gone.

The Anchor River is a river in name only. Thirty feet wide and shallow enough to wade across in most places, it is by Alaskan river standards more like an Eastern trout stream. Starting in the soggy tundra of the Caribou Hills on the Kenai Peninsula, it runs westward for 20 miles before passing my house here on a heavily wooded promontory overlooking the little river valley. Three miles farther downstream, the river crosses the beach at Anchor Point and enters the salt water of Cook Inlet.

The erstwhile bend was a big J hook that slowed the current and created holding water for anadromous fish, which in turn created some of the best road-accessible fly-fishing for wild steelhead anywhere in the United States. But the new channel flows in a featureless line from the top of the J to the point of the hook, basically a quarter-mile chute as straight as a drag strip and just as fishless.

It’s not like this can be undone. Recently I read a commentary on memoir writing in which the author said that memoirists act on a longing to revisit parts of their pasts in the way that rivers seek to return to their old, former channels, now dry and overgrown with brush and trees. It’s a lovely metaphor. But anyone who lives on a river—or anyone who ever took earth science in high school—knows that just the opposite is true: as a river ages, it leaves those doomed oxbows behind forever. Driven only by gravity, a river’s singular intent (if I may continue with what Ruskin called “the pathetic fallacy” of personification and intentionality here) is to carve the shortest path from its source to the sea.

Yes, the Anchor has constantly changed over the two and a half decades I’ve fished it. That’s what rivers do. Season after season, fishable pockets of water have come and gone like fashion trends. But it was incremental. With each small shift in holding water I had to make adjustments in my fishing, which added variety and new challenges. It helped alleviate the monotony of flogging the same water over and over. And, I must say, there was nothing more satisfying than discovering a new slot or run that held a couple of big fish where, only the season before, there’d been barren shallows. But that bend was a huge geological feature, a major curve in the spine of that river that contained three great steelhead holes. Small changes notwithstanding, I foolishly assumed those holes would endure—at least as along as I did.

It’s a 10-minute walk from my house to the dry oxbow that was once the bend, and only a few steps more to the new channel nearby where the river relocated itself. When I last saw it, just before ice-up, the new stretch of river was still churning through a maze of downed spruce and cottonwood trees it had bowled over on its shortcut to the sea—their yellow leaves fluttering madly in the current, roots reaching for the sky. It’s true that, over time, as the ice and spring floods gouge declivities and undercut banks and wash away the fallen timber, new pockets and holding water will form in that channel. Even so, making new friends does not entirely ameliorate the loss of old ones.

Of Fish and Friends

The Anchor River is home to three species of salmon (kings, silvers and pinks), steelhead and Dolly Varden char. The river opens to fishing each year the last week of May, but in order to protect the highly valued kings on their upstream spawning redds, spring fishing is permitted only from the tidewater zone to the first bridge, about a mile upstream. By the time the stretch behind my house (another three miles upriver) finally opens to fishing on August 1, the kings are dead and gone, and it’s a little too early for silvers or steelhead. But at the top of the J where the bend once began, a wide, slow run we called the Meadow Hole was invariably full of small Dollies.

Dolly Varden—pink and purple spotted creatures, supposedly named after a Dickens character who wore similarly colorful hats—are a lot like brook trout. Only even less wary. When they’re feeding on swimming caddis nymphs they’ll hit just about anything you drag through the surface film on a tight line. No difficult wading, no tricky casting required, no mending needed. An unweighted nymph or almost any drowned dry fly flopping at the end of a drift will produce strikes all day. All of which makes Dollies great fish for newcomers to the sport. And, between the Dollies’ predictability (steelhead and salmon can be as uncooperative as an ex-spouse) and the wide-open and brush-free banks of the Meadow Hole (hence the name), it was a wonderful place to introduce novices to fly-fishing.

The youngest angler I ever took there was then-six-year-old Ross Bass, son of my longtime business partner and old friend. Ross showed up wielding a pushbutton spinning rig he was already adept with. So, I tied a nymph on the end of his line a couple feet below his Goofy bobber (the Disney character, that is; it was the size of a navel orange), and he was soon into squirming, foot-long Dollies. Because Ross was a little too young to appreciate the sublime pointlessness of catch-and-release, we built a corral of rocks in the shallows and filled it with the fish he landed. I told him we’d take the whole batch home to show his mother at the end of the day. When the Dollies found their way out of the pen—as I was almost certain they would—Ross was only moderately disappointed. He’d done what he’d come to do: catch fish. Purposely deceiving a small child aside, I felt that it was a good day at the Meadow Hole. One of many.

At the other end of the age range, another memorable first-timer was a woman in her early 70s named Cecilia. A late-in-life transplant to Alaska from New York City, Cecilia was great looking, and an adventurous spirit in knee-high rubber boots and perfectly coiffed hair. She was talkative and good company, and we gabbed cheerfully on the walk to the water, down the steep promontory trail and through a jumble of beetle-killed spruce trees stacked like pick-up sticks for giants. As we fished, I thought about her age, and worried a bit about the walk home, a lung-straining climb back up the same trail, zigzagging around, over and under the dead trees. I’ll admit that, in recent years, upon reaching the top of the hill I’ve begun pausing to sit on a stump—you know, to take in the view of the river valley—before staggering the last hundred yards to the house. But Cecilia, buoyed by an afternoon of sunshine and fast Dolly action, and probably by the dizzying misconception that fishing would always be like that, marched uphill through the obstacle course and straight to the back porch, chatting all the way. I wheezed out an answer or two, when required. Still, it was another good day.

I’ve taken several other neophytes down that path to the river over the years. But the bend was not just for beginners. Later each autumn, the Dollies would abandon it and move upriver to feed on salmon eggs behind silvers spawning in the headwaters. And then the steelhead would slip into my backyard. October is winter in Alaska, and that means time to stow away cartoon bobbers and say goodbye to attractive older women, time to climb into winter undies and heavy waders, to clamp lead on leaders and make short, thudding casts for icy and often fruitless hours. Not the kind of fishing that would endear the sport to most novitiates. It’s time to fish for steelhead.

The Bend Hole

A good hole for winter steelheading used to lie just downstream from the Meadow Hole in the crook of the elbow in the J. There the water cut a trench against the far bank, and a bright-pink Glo Bug or a hot-cerise Bunny Fly lobbed behind a couple heavy split-shot often produced one of the river’s native steelhead (these fish have never even met anyone who’s been to a hatchery).

As with most steelhead water, the Bend Hole offered some productive seasons, and some poor. But when it ran hot, it could be a scorcher. One day, walking down from the Meadow Hole, I found a pair of 20-something anglers occupying the deep cut at the bend. Screened by a wall of willows, the pair didn’t notice I was within earshot. As one knelt to release a steelhead, his partner asked, “How many is that now?” And the first guy answered, “Twelve.”

The thing is, it was only midday, and I don’t know if “twelve meant their joint catch, in toto, or simply his twelfth fish. That’s how good The Bend could be.

The Flaming

Farther downstream, at tip the of the J, where the final good hole on my river bend used to be, there is now a wide, still lagoon. This is spillover water from the new channel blasting past and backing up into the low end of the oxbow. On the cool September afternoon I discovered the big changes, dozens of fingerlings—salmon and steelhead parr, or young Dollies perhaps—were gulping midges and late-season mayflies off the surface of the frog water. But it used to be a hell of a steelhead hole. Originally referred to as the Lower Bend Hole, about 15 years ago it was re-named by one of my oldest fishing pals, Gomer.

I met Gomer in the late ’80s, when he still lived in Anchorage and worked for one of the oil companies. Over the years, we fished together from Kodiak Island to some of the greatest trout streams of Bristol Bay. I’ve never met anyone more fun to share an inflatable raft, a gravel bar or a campfire with.

Gomer had what might be called a personality of excess. In those days, he ate too much, drank too much and smoked too much (he was quitting cigarettes every day of all the years I fished with him, and is probably still quitting today). He laughed loudly and frequently in a high giggle, like a coyote with hiccups, and kept a line of entertaining (and mostly apocryphal) stories going for hours. The guy fished like he thought he was going to have to give it up at any moment. In the subarctic, where the summer sun can own the sky for 18 or 20 hours a day, keeping up with him was an extreme sport in itself.

One October, on Columbus Day weekend, Gomer and our mutual friend, Henry—an airline pilot with similar habits and an abiding steelhead jones—made the 200-mile drive from Anchorage to Anchor Point to fish behind my house. The steelhead run peaks on the Anchor River around the second week of October, and the water can get crowded. All weekend, Gomer, Henry and I found ourselves shut out of our favorite holes by strangers who had made the two-mile trek from the bridge, the nearest public access point.

To celebrate the Italian explorer’s holiday, the Anchorage hedonists brought a box of gourmet comestibles from one of the tonier grocery stores in Alaska’s big city. So late one afternoon, tired of being crowded out of the most productive water anyway, I headed back up to the house to start braising some veal shanks. Not surprisingly, Gomer and Henry stayed on the river and fished until dark. When they finally arrived at the back porch—Gomer gasping for breath between puffs on his cigarette—they ranted about the appalling lack of streamside etiquette they’d suffered when they finally got a shot at Lower Bend Hole.

As stories of riparian abominations tend to, this one involved a gang of rude non-flyfishers. Gomer and Henry had no sooner parked themselves in the productive hole, when two (or was it four?) philistines with spinning rods waded in upstream and down and proceeded to cast hardware across their lines (also a familiar trope in these tales). Of course, it wouldn’t be a story unless the bastards started hauling in steelhead—which, no surprise, they did.

Suffice it to say that the Lower Bend was forever after referred to as the Flaming Ass Hole.

Change

Nothing stays the same for long. The older you get, the more you quit trying to believe otherwise. Not that it makes it much easier.

Last fall, with the bend holes gone, I brooded, and fished a long deep run called Dolly Land, a bit downstream from my house. Dolly Land got its name because the little char were so numerous there they could be positively pestiferous if you were trying for steelhead. Even so, it was also one of the most consistently productive steelhead runs on the river. Or it used to be, until last September. Without the big bend upstream from it, the current now races into Dolly Land, filling the best parts of the run with rubble carved out of the new channel. More good water gone.

Not all the changes in the river have been geological. Like almost everything else in the world, the Internet has had an effect on it too. If you Google “Alaskan steelhead fishing,” your trusty computer will point you to the Kenai Peninsula and the three rivers there that have steelhead runs—including the one in my back yard. As I said, there are very few places left to fish for wild steelhead on the road system in America, and fewer yet in most other countries. These days the Anchor can get very international and more than a little busy wherever it rubs up against the road, as “walking guides” and their Japanese and Italian and German clients occupy the water. In response to the ever-increasing pressure, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently shortened the season even further.

More fishermen, fewer days to fish, less good water. Things change.

I grew up in an industrial area of the Great Lakes, nearly devoid of gamefish in the ’60s and ’70s, when I lived there. Maybe that’s why I spent more than 20 years building a house on a wild salmon and trout stream. And now that the work is complete, and I’m retired and have more time to fish, a geological phenomenon has eradicated the best holes within walking distance of the house, and the season is so short a couple good rainstorms can effectively eliminate it. It sounds like the comic restaurant review: “The food was terrible, and the portions were too small.” It’s a good thing I’m a fan of irony.

More Change

Today, Ross is in fifth grade and so busy with school activities he’ll have long outgrown that Goofy bobber by the time he gets back down here; Cecilia, after several harsh Alaskan winters, has moved back to Manhattan; Henry has retired to New Hampshire, where he lives on a lake with a long Native American name and smallmouth bass; and Gomer now lives in Tennessee and hasn’t fished since a tumor on his spine put him in a wheelchair a couple years ago. When I talked to him on the phone this week, he said he was starting radiation treatments on what little of his pancreas the surgeons deemed prudent to leave behind in his most recent operation. But he didn’t want to talk about that. Mostly he wanted to know how the river fished last fall.

I didn’t have much good to report. The truth is, I stopped fishing in mid-October, after only a couple of trips. I told myself it was because of the changes in the river. But maybe one of the things that kept me from making the hike was the sudden awareness that the river valley bottomland is filled with the impressions of much older oxbows. The dead river channels closest to the foot of the promontory are the oldest and most filled-in. They probably ran heavy with glacial melt water as the last glaciers deposited the big gravel esker my house is built upon. Now they faintly reveal themselves as crescent-moon curves of willow or twisted black spruce jutting up from the wet grasses. Closer to the river, the trail crosses several other channels that are much more recently deceased. They are now deep trenches, at least one with a trickle of remnant river current still detectable in the tannic water, like a weak pulse. Others have become long, narrow ponds, stagnant and leaf-clogged, their muddy bottoms gouged by moose hooves.

In a few places I recognize the ghosts of runs that have vanished in my own lifetime, holes I remember fishing not that many years ago. There is one we called the Eagle’s Nest Hole. Almost entirely obscured by thick bank willows, the little pocket was rarely noticed by anglers making the long trek from the bridge to the famous Dolly Land. I believe it was Gomer who blundered upon it and the great fishing it offered. The namesake eagle’s nest, now abandoned and crumbling, is still visible high in the big cottonwood that used to tower over the hidden hole. My fishing journal shows that I caught steelhead directly under that nest every day for 13 days in a row one October in the 1990s. A hundred feet of gravel and dry river rocks now lie between that tree and the closest water.

On the other hand, maybe I chose to stay at home and watch the river from the comfort of the chair closest to the wood stove so many days last season because the fused vertebrae in my neck and lower back, and their attendant titanium rods and screws, were making the march through the fallen spruce and across the boot-sucking wetlands more trouble than the fishing—such as it was—could make up for.

Yet, now, deep in the dark heart of another Alaskan winter, with months to go before the new season opener, I can’t remember the geezer aches and pains as clearly as those sunny days fishing with friends, nymphing Dollies flashing in the Meadow Hole like little bolts of underwater lightning, and big, red-cheeked steelhead bulling into the tailout of the Lower Bend.

Two things I know for sure.

Rivers straighten with age; men bend.

And, come August, those Dollies will be out there somewhere, and so will I.

This is the 18th year of the Voelker Foundation’s partnership with FR&R in publishing the winner of the Robert Traver Writing Award, which the late Charles Kuralt, a Voelker admirer and Foundation board member, called “the most prestigious outdoor writing award in the nation.” John Voelker wanted to encourage anglers to “spin a few yarns,” and we have worked to realize that goal, awarding almost $40,000 to the 14 distinguished authors who have received the Award. With the payment of this year’s Award, we have exhausted the original endowment. To keep the Award a living thing, we encourage FR&R readers to become Foundation members by purchasing a boxed, limited edition of the Traver classic, Trout Madness, signed by the author. Of the $300 subscription price, $265 is tax-deductible. For information, visit voelkerfdn.org, or simply send your order to: John D. Voelker Foundation, P.O. Box 15222, Lansing, MI 48933-5222.

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