On a quiet June evening near the shore of Swan Lake, the silhouette of a trout sprung from the water’s flat surface. For a moment it hung in the air and then, after a brief visit into the atmosphere, fell back into the lake. Circles softly rippled outward along the surface, marking the beginning and end of the trout’s journey.
It was almost enough to make me scream.
The rippling circles taunted me like a flashing target. I cast my lure into the target, and it landed just a few inches from the center.
“Click, click, click” went the reel as I slowly retrieved the spinner at the end of my line. I thoughtfully timed each spin of my reel, careful to retrieve the spinner slowly, but not so slow that it would catch in the sticks and weeds near the lake’s bottom.
I had thrown several hundred casts into the lake that day. But had the trout shown any sign of appreciation for my effort? No.
Ever since I arrived early in the afternoon, trout had been mocking me, splashing at the air with their tails, leaping from the water and chasing schools of minnows until they jumped like miniature pods of dolphins. But not once did the trout give my lures a moment of attention.
No, I had never caught a trout before. But until last December I had been living in the Midwest, where the fishing’s not bad, but it’s not Alaska.
Certainly I had come prepared. I had a canoe, a tobacco tin of nearly 10 different types of spinners, a pole and Dave Atcheson’s guide to fishing on the Kenai, which I had read from cover to cover in anticipation of this trip.
I had paddled my canoe through six lakes and carried it over six portages to reach trout fishing paradise. But after a long afternoon of casting from my canoe and from shore, I had made zero progress.
As I continued to cast into the evening, a campfire crackled impatiently behind me, waiting in vain to blacken the scales of my first trout.
I had forgotten my watch, and although the sun had been skirting the horizon for sometime, I could not tell if had set or just ducked behind the mountains.
Anyhow, I was beginning to feel like I was wasting my time. But every time I reeled my lure to shore and was about to hook my line into one of the pole’s eyelets and call it a night, a trout would jump, goading me to cast one last time.
“Atcheson! What am I doing wrong?” I thought desperately, as I set down my pole and opened the tent to retrieve the fishing guide from beneath a sleeping bag. The book had guided me to the fish, but now how was I to get them?
I paged through the guide and rescanned the sections on spinners and trout. Maybe I hadn’t been varying my speed enough, I thought. I was about to rush back to shore and try again, but instead I decided to stop. I had managed to put down my pole and walk away from shore, perhaps it was finally time to take a rest.
But the midnight sun continued to shine from just below the horizon and it wouldn’t be long before the pole was in my hands once again.
“Plunk” went the trout throughout the night and into the morning, as I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and tried to pretend they were not there. “Plunk” went the loons as they surfaced from their dives to the lake’s bottom and sounded just like more jumping trout.
“Plunk, plunk, plunk,” it just wouldn’t stop. And before I had even had any breakfast or coffee I was standing at the shore in my boxers and casting again.
This continued for hours, just as it had the day before, until finally, I decided to pack up camp and cast some more from the canoe. As I was about to leave a second canoe pulled up to shore. “Hello,” the two occupants greeted as their canoe bellowed hollow complaints over the shore’s rocks.
They asked about the campsite, and I noticed their poles and asked about the fishing.
They had both caught more fish than they could count, they reported.
I pursed my lips and swallowed a frustrated scream.
“What are you using?” I asked. “Spinners?”
“Pixies,” the man at the rear of the canoe said as he climbed out with his tackle box.
“Pixies?” I asked. I didn’t remember Atcheson saying anything about pixies. Maybe I hadn’t read as carefully as I thought, maybe I had fixated too much on the section on spinners.
Even if Atcheson did mention pixies, there’s a good chance I forgot. The book discusses more lures than I had even known to exist before I moved to Alaska.
The man opened his tackle box to show me what he was talking about and withdrew a golden spoon-like disk about the size of the pad on my thumb. The disk dangled over a hook and in its center was an odd mass of orange plastic, molded to look sort of like a tiny mass of eggs.
This attracts fish? I thought. Who was this really manufactured to fool? The trout or the fishermen?
“All of the trout that I caught today, I caught using this lure,” the man holding the pixie said. “You can have it if you like.”
“Yes! I’m going to catch a trout after all,” I thought as I tried not to explode with excitement and thanked him for the offer. Now I was practically racing to get out of camp and try the new lure.
It was much heavier than the spinners I had been using and made casting long distances easier.
“Whiz,” went the fishing line as I cast to the east. “Whiz,” went the fishing line again as I cast to the west and every other direction on a compass.
But with each cast my enthusiasm dropped, until it was dragging on the bottom of the lake behind my canoe.
After the sun had been descending for some time, I let the canoe drift toward a bank near the portage that would lead me back to my truck. I dropped my pole to the bottom of the canoe, sulked and gazed down at the little gold-like flecks sparkling in the sand beneath the canoe, like discarded fish scales.
Finally, I gave in and heaved my canoe out of Swan Lake to begin my trek homeward. Behind me I could hear the trout plunking their goodbyes, disappointed, I’m sure, that I would be leaving without taking any of them home.
Patrice Kohl is a reporter for the Clarion.
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