Tuesday evening my friend Freddie, son Alex, daughter Julia (the NCAA rowing champ) and I packed up the dip nets and other gear, loaded up on sandwiches, coffee, water and ice, and headed up the Glenn Highway toward Chitina.
Although most fishing reports from the Copper River during the week leading up to our trip had been dismal, with high water and few fish, we had to go then to fit the schedules of all four of us. We didn't have high expectations, but felt immediately rewarded by the beautiful, long sunset, driving through the upper Matanuska canyons and into the high country near Gunsite Mountain.
We all managed to get at least an hour of sleep between arriving at O'Brien Creek, and lining up with other dippers along the bank of the Copper River, to await the charter boat skippers' arrival at about 5:00 a.m. It was cold - 39 degrees - and windy. At just before 4:50 a.m, the sun came up, promising warmth in a few hours. We managed to get on the second load of fishers, with longtime friend Mark Hem at the helm of one of the most banged up, yet skillfully worked jet boats in Alaska.
The ride down the Copper River into Wood Canyon, where the multi-braided river becomes one constricted channel, never ceases to amaze me, even after fifteen years of taking the trip. The surging, downward flow of the river, forcing its way through the coastal Chugach Mountains, to reach the sea, is inexorably powerful. We rode all the way down the main throat of the canyon, and were set ashore at a feature sometimes called "Ship Rock."
Ship Rock is a very exposed outcropping, with a couple of back eddies that are among the most productive fishing spots in the areas open to dip netting. It is also very dangerous, and roping up and movement discipline are musts for fishers. We set up for three to fish, and one to deal with the catch, from up on a ledge above the water, out of the dipping zone.
Alex and I have fished here before, so we got right into the routine. I love to catch fish, but last year, as I was recovering from rotator cuff surgery, and didn't want to work my arms too hard, we found out that by having one person handle all the fish away from where they are being caught isn't just the safest way to fish the place, it is the most productive. A couple of the four nets we brought have gill net web in them, and the fish can get rather tangled. My seven years experience as a Copper River gillnetter back in the 1970s gives me an edge on how to unravel fish in the gill net web, so I cleared the fish, clipped their tail fins, strung them up, and did the paper work. Then I'd sit on my perch fifteen feet above the river, cheer leading the other three.
"King, King, King!" I'd shout. It worked twice. Both Julia and Alex had really big Kings in their nets that they couldn't manage to bag, but Julia and Freddie both caught nice 30-pounders. I did go down and catch a few while others took my spot on the ledge for a break from routine. But no Kings for me.
The early afternoon sunshine was wonderful, but I then had to keep bringing water up from a nook behind the rock, and dump the cold water onto the burlap and grass cuttings covering the fish, so they wouldn't start to spoil.
We limited out in just under seven hours, and were picked up a few minutes later. As the last of us stepped into the boat's cabin and sat her tired butt down onto the bench seat, I said a quiet prayer of thanks for our catch and for our safety.
We heard about the Exxon Valdez settlement on our way back through Glennallen. Both Freddie and I could have been plaintiffs in the suit, but chose not to participate. My theory is that a day of worrying about what one's attorneys are doing or thinking, is a day erased from the book of life.
Within 22 hours of leaving Palmer, we were back home, getting ready to brine or vacuum seal this year's Copper River bounty. As I write, the smokehouse is about to disgorge its first of three loads. My King salmon ceviche, made from the scraps left on the carcasses of the two Kings, after they had been filleted, should be ready any minute now. I think I'll steal a taste.....