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Anchorage woman passionate about fishing for fickle steelhead

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2001

ANCHOR POINT, Alaska (AP) -- The sky was pale, the breeze October-raw and vaguely damp. Cottonwood leaves fluttered down in bright yellow flurries and through it all the river muttered, flowing like an oily ribbon between banks of alder and wild straw.

The scene was a study in solitude, an image of the lifeless serenity that precedes a long Alaska winter. Yet there in the center of it all, clad in thick neoprene waders and waving a 7-weight fly rod, stood a living contradiction.

Each cast seemed an act of faith, each drift a query begging an answer. But to the unlikely passer-by, no question knocked more loudly than this: What was Tiffany Hanson doing in the Anchor River on such a bitterly cold, late-autumn day?

The answer lay in the current -- and in the heart of a young woman to whom fly fishing is more passion than sport.

A preface: Near the end of each fishing season, beginning in late August and running into October, a race of big, bright sea-run rainbow trout leaves the briny waters of Kachemak Bay to enter the Anchor River.

They're called steelhead, and for many anglers -- particularly to a unique breed caught up in the mystique of these 8- to 12-pound anadromous salmonids -- they are the last, best fish of Alaska's annual dream season. Hard-fighting and growing increasingly rare throughout the Pacific Northwest, Anchor River steelhead are pursued each year by a handful of aficionados from around the world.

Count Hanson among the passionate few who brave cold, wet weather -- even snow -- to find and battle these fish. As the days grow shorter and the willows turn gold, the river and its steelhead own her.

At age 22, Hanson is an extraordinary young woman even by Alaska's often bigger-than-life standards. On June 19, 1995, at age 14, she climbed to the summit of Mount McKinley with her father, Stephen Hanson of Talkeetna.

''We stayed up there for an hour and a half,'' Hanson said. ''It was so awesome.''

Hanson had first attempted the mountain in 1991. ''My dad made me train for three years. We went backcountry skiing (and on) three-day winter-camping trips.''

Despite the training, a storm kept Hanson and her father buttoned in a spike camp for nine days, and the expedition a decade ago had to be called off.

But she was back again four years later, and became the youngest girl to summit North America's tallest peak -- until a younger Merrick Johnson reached the top just a week later.

Hanson wasn't bothered by Johnson's success. In fact, she cheered it.

''(Merrick) was up there at the same time,'' Hanson said. ''We hung out in our tents, played cards together. It was great.''

Still, Hanson's achievement gained her a measure of fame. Her story appeared in several national magazines, including Seventeen, which awarded her a modest scholarship.

She doesn't talk much about these milestones. And when she does, she blushes and casts her eyes down.

BORN TO FLY FISH

Born in Palmer and raised at the Chulitna River Lodge that her parents owned, Hanson and her two sisters grew up not only in the shadow of McKinley, but also in a land coursed by rivers.

''People used to ask my dad if he ever wished he had a boy,'' said Hanson. ''He always answered, Why?' I mean, we did everything together.

''I would go on rafting trips with him and fish all the streams.''

Hanson paused, then added, ''I would like to go back and fish all the places I fished as a little girl.''

Like many fly fishers, she started with spinning gear. ''I still remember my first little tackle box,'' she said. It was filled with spinners and spoons that sparkled like colorful promises.

But something about fly fishing intrigued her -- ''I was attracted by the motion of it, the casting, I guess'' -- and seven years ago, while working as a naturalist for Talkeetna-based river guide Steve Mahay, the hook was set.

Now Hanson ties her own flies, builds her own rods. She has friends who fly fish, and her smile and enthusiasm constantly attract more. She fishes with ''guy friends'' and girl friends because, in her mind, gender and fly fishing aren't mutually exclusive. When you boil it all down, she fishes for no one but herself, and for that reason she frequently steps out alone.

Hanson enjoys fishing for trout, grayling and salmon in the streams and lakes of her native Susitna Valley. She also visits the upper Kenai River where some of her friends work during the summers as fly-fishing guides. She dreams of traveling north to the Kobuk for sheefish, and intends to get out one day for big Interior pike.

For Hanson, every fish is a gem. Some are bigger or more colorful than others, some fight harder or come from waters that seem more aesthetic. But all are works of natural beauty and the last one caught, no matter its size, is always as good as the first.

Even so, there's no denying a special flame within her for Anchor River steelhead.

On the best days, when the fish are in and the water isn't running high and dark from autumn rains, Anchor River anglers casting middleweight fly rods catch and release steelhead all day long.

But not every day is that way. Steelhead are fickle fish that come and go on time clocks of their own. Sometimes they're in and sometimes they're not. And even if they're in the river, there's no guarantee they'll strike.

If you're like Hanson, you simply summon your faith and go. And hope. You give it your best shot, without reservation, just like climbing a mountain.

AN EXERCISE IN FAITH

As sure as the steelhead run and the cottonwood leaves fall each October, Hanson was on the Anchor River last weekend. Upstream from the Anchor River Inn, in a secluded place where few anglers go, she was stepping into her favorite run, a long, dark stretch of riffles and pools where steelhead often hold.

She came here many times last fall and caught and released many fine fish. On the drive up from Anchorage, where she now lives, she pulled out a stack of prints, each showing her releasing a different steelhead. Some of the fish were dark, with hooked kypes and ruby flanks. Others were bright as polished chrome. All were heavy and sleek, the essence of what a gamefish should be.

On the river, a cold breeze pinched Hanson's cheeks as she rigged up her fly rod. ''I don't know how many steelhead I caught last year,'' she said. Numbers, she implied, aren't the point. ''Guess I'd say I caught a lot,'' she said, laughing at what she perceived as a breach of her intrinsic modesty.

On average, the Anchor River hosts a run of roughly 1,300 steelhead, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists. In exceptional years, the river may see as many as 1,600 fish. All Anchor River steelhead are wild -- no stocked fish. Introducing hatchery fish would dilute the wild strain. As a result, something distinct and precious would be lost forever.

Anchor River steelhead are protected by special regulations. Only single hooks may be used on the river this time of year, and bait is prohibited. When caught, fish may not be lifted from the water and must be released immediately.

Hanson casts a 7-weight fly rod rigged with floating line and a long leader. Her favorite fly patterns include the standard Glo Bugs and Egg-sucking Leeches. Like most anglers, she also has a few ''secret'' flies that she prefers to keep under wraps.

Despite the fact that the Anchor last weekend was high and turbid from recent rains, the first cast was made with great expectations. Hanson's face showed no trace of disappointment when it elicited no response. Nor was she discouraged on the unanswered second, fifth or 50th casts.

That's steelhead fishing.

Each drift was executed as an exercise in confidence and faith. The smile that constantly lights Hanson's face never faltered.

By early evening, Hanson had worked her run several times over. Except for a couple of dark silver salmon, no fish rolled. There were no strikes.

Thinking the steelhead might be downstream, she headed to the lower river to continue fishing until dark. A dozen anglers were gathered there, below a pool locals call the Dudas Hole. A Dolly Varden was caught by a kid casting a drift rig. But no steelhead.

The other anglers said that no one had caught fish on Saturday. In fact, very few steelhead had been caught even before the rains.

''Maybe they're late this year,'' an angler from Healy speculated. ''Maybe they're not going to come at all.''

Undaunted, Hanson was back at her upper river run the next morning. After an hour she caught a Dolly, which made her laugh, because it was small and somehow represented an irony separating this year from others.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you fish, the catching simply doesn't happen.

By the time Hanson paused and reeled in for good, most anglers would have long admitted defeat, leaving the river to brood about those rare and beautiful fish that come and go with the tides.

Hanson smiled and stepped out of the water.

''I think the river's made its point,'' she said.

Indeed, it had.

And so had Tiffany Hanson.

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