No matter where you are, you’re there

Last week marked the third anniversary of me leaving California to move home. It’s stored in my brain’s filing cabinet, being pushed further from memory except this time of year. It was a bit of an ordeal, now it’s just a fact.

But I do think about the last time I fished with my buddies as a California resident and what’s happened over the past three years. I’ve fished with them since, but it was an odd feeling that last day on the Stanislaus River. 

We stood at the tailgate of my buddy’s truck and retold the highlights of seven years worth of fly fishing trips. Fly fishing was a way to better the part of our lives not spent at work. 

The thing about good stories is they rarely require success. Good stories need things like goose attacks. Good stories require forgetting sleeping bags, fly reels, fly boxes, nets, tent poles, or food. Good stories need face-plants, broken rods, holes in waders, broken waders and flooded waders. We had had plenty of those and more, but it was ending, at least the California versions.

That night, a dozen friends came over for a bonfire of broken pallets, old papers, garbage and other artifacts that didn’t make the cut for Alaska. The next morning, I left. 

The thing is, I almost returned to California just after leaving. Mom’s medical issues resolved better than we could have hoped, there was no teaching position in Klawock or Ketchikan, and my old job at my old school opened up. 

I had helped Mom and could resume my life in California. My stuff was sitting by the front door, ready to be swaddled under a tarp in the back of my truck and driven south. The job hadn’t been officially opened or officially offered, but it would. I was moving back on a promise. 

Then Kayhi called with an English job. I literally answered the phone as I was packing my truck. Just as I had accepted and was excited about California, I had the chance to stay. 

I don’t know if it’s one of those “meant to be” sort of things because I don’t think life leads you around by a leash, tugging you in the right direction. In the same way, I think we have the freedom to make the wrong decisions and screw everything up. And yeah, there are days when it’s cold and rainy and miserable and I get text messages from my buddies catching brown trout on sunny afternoons down there when it’s rainy and too dark to fish here. It sounds nice, you know, warmth and sunlight. But nowhere is perfect. That’s one thing I have learned during my time in Ketchikan. The one thing that stays constant no matter where you are is you, and if you spend all your time wondering about other places, you’ll probably end up miserable.

I’m not tempted to move back, though the call of brown trout, warm water, Buffalo Wild Wings and old friends sure makes me happy to visit.

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Looking the part

The longer I stay on a gear website, the more responsible I get.

I become incredulous toward my naïve approach to being outside. How could I have been so careless and risked adventures in the cold weather without the latest, hippest, warmest, most scientifically validated gear?

I do appreciate the low-tech approach to staying warm in the old days. The, “That animal looks warm, I should wear it” approach because they didn’t have the Merino Core Crew Long Sleeve at the dry goods store across from the saloon.

You can be a minimalist in today’s woods, but why? The dead deer probably doesn’t care that you have a leaky old rain jacket. You might as well be warm and cozy. Do I really care that it makes for a better story that I was just out hunting in jeans and a hoodie, settling into low-grade hypothermia immediately after exiting the truck?

I was so cold man, but I got the buck.

Cool story, bro.

We’ve got scientists on the case making things warmer, thinner, lighter, stealthier and more expensive – people engineering outdoor comfort and making clothing so darn cool. The newest digital camo patterns have been proven to be respected more by animals in the field. Rifles also function better when pressed up against triple-layered GoreTex.

See? You need this. It’s smart. But you can’t just get one article. That’s cheap. You need the coordinated attack on rain and cold. You need the “system.” Not only will you hide from animals, but you will hide from the cold too. Plus, “system” sounds so much cooler than boring old “layers.” Speaking scientifically, a system is made up of connected things. If you don’t have all of the system, you don’t have that complex whole that you need when afield. You’re the system-less dude that just bought the water resistant pants because you couldn’t afford the waterproof pants. You look partly committed which leads to occasional success.

So that’s why you missed that buck on Prince of Wales last week.

I have to admit, I am enamored with warm, efficient gear and currently have a crush on Sitka. #sickforit. In one of my fits of responsibility I bought a pair of the water resistant pants and love them. Love them. 

Do they make me a better hunter? No. Person? No. But they are comfortable, they fit, they wick moisture and they are everything I could want in a hunting pant until other gear tells me otherwise. Probably in a few months.

As engineers continue to make gear better, warmer, and cooler (you know what I mean), I will continue to drool.

What’s most clear is that I need to engineer a solution to the monetary problem that is keeping me out of an entire system.

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Hunting goats, and the rest of the story

 a volunteer meat packer, I was up for whatever my hunting buddies wanted and as the one with goat experience, Jesse was up for whatever Ryan wanted.

We were 550 yards away from a mountain goat we were sure we couldn’t get and 535 yards from two smaller goats we didn’t want. Well, “we” in the sense that we were a team, but Ryan had the tag. 

Anyway, we decided to continue down the basin in full view of the animals. If they spooked at least we hadn’t wasted the entire day to get the same result. If we were able to get close enough for a shot at the big one, well, we were close enough for a shot at the big one.

Just after the big billy reclined to sleep, we moved and immediately spooked the smaller two. Big boy stayed sleeping and as we got closer, we realized the slope was steep, but not ridiculous. As our angle changed, the cliff continued to relent. 

We made our way across the bottom of the basin, eying the still-sleeping billy. We tucked behind a mound just below it. It hadn’t seen us. We had a play.

Ryan crawled up a small depression then poked up from behind a rock.

Jesse and I trailed and stopped 15 yards behind him. It was looking right at us.

In seconds it was over.

We hiked to it, and Ryan stood above his kill with the euphoria that comes with taking a beautiful animal. It’s sad on some level because the beautiful creature is dead, but you did just go get meat yourself rather than relying on someone else to grow, butcher, ship and wrap it for you. A few generations ago, there weren’t many middle men, it was just the way.

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River spice

There’s a point that indicates the official end of summer, but everyone has different ideas about when summer really ends.
Is it when the last fireweed blows its top in a final fit of bloom? Is it when the tasty alpine carpet turns brown and chases the deer into the timber?
Does summer end when school starts, or when the cruise ship traffic slows?
The calendar says it’s over in a few weeks, but the grocery store says Halloween is just around the corner. A friend of mine in California told me, “Everything here is already pumpkin spice this and pumpkin spice that.”
Speaking of spice, two weeks ago I was on one of my favorite rivers and it was over-spiced with rankness. If it hadn’t been warm and sunny, I might have thought it was late September or even October by the amount of dead fish. But it wasn’t. It was mid-August on a river that should have been so choked with fish that my sense of smell didn’t work. Unfortunately it did. Humpies caught in thin, warm water died and washed ashore at one of my favorite spots. Their bloated, furry-with-rot carcasses baked in the sun. Mom and I casted in the hopes of finding a hearty silver swimming among the pinks but we didn’t.
Thus my summer salmon fishing on Prince of Wales ended with a whimper.
I wrote a column a few weeks back about the importance of water and it seems particularly important now with only a few scattered puddles of snow creating little trickles of runoff that end up being creeks where there used to be rivers.
I’ve seen the rivers lower, but low water plus poor returns was almost traumatic. It wasn’t enough to ruin my summer by any means, but it certainly didn’t punctuate the season.
We, I at least, sometimes get the feeling that I’m owed a good August because of January and February. Yeah I only had to suffer through one period of glaciated driveway, but it was still dark and gray. So this season cannot end with those salmon bonanzas that get hundreds of likes on Instagram!
Actually it can and looks like it will.
Fortunately there’s always something to look forward to as green turns brown and the seasonal workers return to their Lower 48 homes with stories of part-time Alaskan adventures.
The full-timers dig in, and without the benefit of long days and warmth, it takes a little more effort to live deeply and fully. After the second day of school I went home with the intent to change and go on a hike or fish like I had the previous four days. The weather was great, the spirit willing, but guacamole, salsa, chips and the couch won.
I felt guilty for wasting one of the last great afternoons, but I was tapped out. I was jealous for a second because my friends in California can look forward to slowly declining temperatures and increasingly hot fishing that culminates in the October trout fishing extravaganza.
I visited California twice this summer and got caught up with small trout streams, beautiful scenery and Buffalo Wild Wings. But it’s not perfect. Far from it. The rivers of asphalt get bigger returns of vehicles every year.
That alone is worth enduring a down fishing year and the coming cold.

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Coffee Town

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska – This is a coffee town, probably a coffee state. You need it to talk. You need it to fish. You need it to hunt. You need it to kayak. You need it to be, or to tolerate, tourists.
As an English teacher who fishes (or a fisherman who teaches?) coffee is vital to my existence. The sweet (bitter) nectar is necessary to ensuring I function properly. Okay, maybe that’s a little much. I do like coffee but as a casual consumer. I don’t need it or get headaches if I don’t have it, I just drink it. By the way, when I say coffee, I mean coffee with coffee in it. Not something like a 620-calorie white chocolate mocha. That’s a drink, not a coffee. I take my coffee black unless I’m fishing in northern California or Oregon, in which case I’ll get an Annihilator from Dutch Bros because it helps me catch trout and has a cool name.
Anyway, there are really two divisions of coffee.
The first is the place you go simply because you need a brain slap. You don’t get the trucker blend at a truck stop then stick around to see what’s good. You get the largest size and get back on the road.
The other coffee style is the sit down and relax sort of way. You go there to visit with friends, tell fishing stories loud enough that everyone can hear, read the paper, eat or write.
Where you drink your coffee is almost as important as the coffee you’re drinking. No one wants to spend an hour sipping a few cups at a place you can’t stand. So with all that in mind, here are the best places to get caffeinated with a book, laptop or a friend.

5. Refiner’s Roast. It’s quiet, the seating is comfortable and the coffee is good, hot and comes in very tall cups. That’s the point.

4. The Point. For the same reasons an angler might prefer Green Bean, I’m sure plenty prefer The Point. It’s a gallery/coffee hybrid that appeals to others the same way Green Bean appeals to the angler, or New York Café appeals to those who want a mug on a creaky, aged, wooden bar. The views are good, even when it’s blowing 30.

3. Sweet Mermaids. This place certainly has a bakery feel more so than a coffee joint. It’s bright, the employees are friendly and efficient and the overall scene is not chaotic and uncomfortable.

2. New York Café. The perfect combination of ambiance, hearty mugs and coffee you can drink all morning. Boats floating in the harbor, old wooden tables, it just feels right to sit there and let the morning slide by. It’s the rustic authenticity that coffee chains will never, ever achieve. Ever. Because it doesn’t even try to be a coffee shop. It’s a place that happens to serve it and serve it well.

1. The Green Coffee Bean. Was there any doubt? All fly shops worth anything have a coffee pot but this is a fly shop that’s a coffee stop. How can any other coffee joint compete when there are fish on the wall, flies in a case and rods in a stand? But that’s not all, you can get a great tasting, freshly roasted cup of coffee there for a buck.
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Where the pursuit takes you

So I took a week off from salmon fishing, mountain climbing and deer scouting to go to… California?
Yeah, seriously. A couple buddies of mine kept texting me pictures of beautiful mountain streams that meander back and forth through grassy meadows that smell like wild onion. They were catching beautiful little brook, rainbow, brown and golden trout on 1-weight fly rods and as a dude who loves fly fishing, it was too hard to resist.
It’s not that I tire of mooching for king salmon, or swinging flies for silvers or that I prefer brook trout that can’t fill a purple pack of bait as well as herring. You can’t compare. A king salmon will probably get more likes in my Instagram, but reading thin water and making a cast to a run that’s only three feet long and a foot deep is challenging and fun. Fishing isn’t all about weight and size. It’s about the process. Getting In-N-Out Burger one last time before next spring or summer wasn’t a bad perk either.
So I went. I fished five rivers in four days and caught the Sierra Grand Slam, the rainbow, brown, brook and elusive golden trout all in the same day. It was awesome.
The premise of a Grand Slam is a little odd. It’s evidence that the human race has reached a point of ease where we can make specific rules in our providing. We can hunt and feel completely satisfied and successful without providing a tangible, edible result to fight off natural selection. It’s just the feeding of our soul to be recalled in a story with pictures. And I’m cool with that.
Things like slams come mostly down to money or information. Sometimes enough money can buy you the information you need to get it done and become part of the elite-ish group of people who have done something that matters to a population probably smaller than the people who have actually accomplished it.
Get a cutthroat, rainbow and Dolly Varden in an hour ­— or all five species of Pacific salmon — make yourself a t-shirt, wear it to the grocery store and no one will really care.
But it’s not about the bragging rights. It’s about that pursuit and where it takes you. It’s about going out and finding something that’s rare and beautiful and testing your skill against it. It’s about how you feel accomplishing it, rather than what other people think about you doing it. It’s about recreation replacing medication.
At one point I was standing on a rock with my left foot against a rock at waist level, backhand casting upriver at a rising brown trout. It was sweet. I screwed it up a few times, but it’s the variety that fishing provides that makes it so great and never boring.
Anyway, I got the four fish in a few hours and reconnected with my California friends and don’t feel like I missed anything.
And yes, I went to In-N-Out.

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The miracle of water

Water is everything.
Without it, we don’t survive. Without pumping an entire river’s worth of it from hundreds of miles away, Southern Californians wouldn’t be hydrated enough to get to the store to buy gluten free and free range stuff.
Without water fish wouldn’t survive and then I’d figuratively perish before I literally did.
The water situation has been weird the last few summers thanks to a poor snowpack. Don’t worry, I’m not going on a global warming, El Niño or Fukushima rant, I’m going to be a lot less like a bioregionalism activist and more like the dude with a fishing rod who shows up to the river, sees the flow and says, “Huh, look at that.”
So a few years back I was fly fishing on a river I don’t want to ruin by naming, because it’s already pressured enough, and saw cutthroat trout taking flies on the surface. I tied on a No. 18 elk hair caddis and hooked a few cutthroats, then a 20-inch rainbow pushed its way through the crowd and took my fly. The water was so clear, I could clearly see the red stripe down its flank. I had one of those moments that was part, “Yes!” but mostly, “Oh man, please don’t lose it.”
I’ve fished that river since, but that little slot where all those cutthroats and that huge rainbow fed only gives up a fish or two at the most. Most of the time it doesn’t seem like there’s enough water to hold that many fish. I’ve analyzed the picture on my laptop a few times and decided I’ve fished it at comparable levels, but there’s a lot more that goes into catching, or not catching fish where you once did. Water drops and rises quickly. High water makes the river change course and can fill feeding slots with riverbed. Fish move. Fish die. People kill 14-inch trout for dinner or lunch. People kill trout and salmon smolt while trying to untangle barbed treble hooks on big lures meant for big salmon. People kill big, old salmon about to spawn, thwarting the miracle of the return days before completion…

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