Up Front Notes

Up Front Notes

  • By: Greg Thomas
Greg Editor Fmt

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, with much of that time spent in Alaska, I don’t think summer is as much about sunshine, Reef sandals and warm weather as it is about daylight, and the number of bright hours we get each day between the end of April and September.

In Alaska, even in the southern panhandle, you can read a book at 1:00 a.m. without a headlamp. That means you can also tie on a fly. And you can fish. Which is what we did. A lot. Usually in a pelting rain.

We couldn’t fish during the workday; at 16 I was already plying my days at a salmon cannery, punching in at 6:00 a.m. and punching out at 9:00 p.m. or later. My cousin, Gary Thomas, worked there, too. We’d get off work, meet at Norma Tenfjord’s house and borrow her 12-foot skiff with a 15-horse Johnson attached to it.

From there we cruised up and down Wrangle Narrows, casting flies for sea-run cutthroat, Dolly Varden, pink salmon and the glory fish—cohos. Some evenings we’d run south past Scow Bay and Greenrocks, all the way to the mouth of Blind Slough to cast for cohos. We threw flies, but we generally caught those fish on coho bolos—treble-hooked spinnerblades masked by neon-pink plastic skirts. There was nothing like netting a thrashing buck coho at 2:00 a.m., with its pronounced snout, developed teeth and evil eye. I got the feeling that a 15-pounder, given arms, legs and agility, would have cleared us of the boat.

But the best fishing was straight across from Norma’s house, in a little bay. That’s where we drifted near shore with the tide, searching for tiny dimples and boils on the surface, sea-run cutthroat picking off shrimp, sand fleas and other detritus that looked tasty. We simply covered them with a Jackson Cardinal yellow Humpy. We’d net three or four a night, plus a few Dollies, before we gave in to the ultra-tired sensation.

Once the skiff was tied off and cleaned, we pedaled bikes the three miles to town as if our lives depended on it—I was young, defiant and opposed to authority, but getting fired meant a smudge on the family record that I didn’t want to explain. When the alarm went off at 5:30 there was no giving in to the urge. We were out of bed and enduring the grind 30 minutes later. And to think I didn’t start on coffee until my 30s.

Thinking back, I’m surprised to see the urgency—we were young with lots of years ahead, but trying to get as much in as we could, as often as possible, before it was too late. On occasion we stayed up all night, figuring it wasn’t worth shutting our eyes. One August evening, drifting in that cove, with the Borealis coloring the sky and phosphorescence dancing around the oars, the whole world seemed art deco, lit up in neon. Gary hooked a cutthroat, watched the water turn shiny green and said, “This is what summer is about. Getting out. Doing it. Fishing. Not working. Working is for winter and spring.”

Gary quit cannery work shortly after and moved to Salmon, Idaho, where, by all accounts, he’s never worked another day. He fishes a little during summer, hunts in the fall, makes saddles during winter, sleeps during spring. Most locals say he’s the happiest guy they know.