Growing up, I spent every summer at the Jersey Shore. It's where I learned to fish. My dad would rent a wooden garvey with an outboard motor, and we would drop our lines in the bay, hoping for the best — or even a flounder. There were certain things you had to look out for: hooking your sister's shirt, spilling the bait trap of minnows in the bottom of the boat, or a marauding seagull diving down to snatch the bait. You did not have to watch out for grizzly bears. You do when you go fishing in Alaska.
In July, we returned from a trip there.
I had the chance to go fishing in Redoubt Bay, where the salmon gather — and where bears gather to eat the salmon. The bay can be reached only by seaplane, so we flew in a four-seater from Lake Hood, the world's largest seaplane airport, across the highway from the Anchorage Airport.
The seaplane flew at an altitude of 500 feet, below the clouds and just above the trees — low enough to spot beluga whales lounging in the bay, and moose on the wide, green, uninhabited expanse that is most of Alaska. In New Jersey, when you drive over the causeway that divides the mainland from Long Beach Island, you overlook the motorboats, windsurfers, power skis, and clammers in Barnegat Bay. No moose, just some kids being towed on inner tubes. Barnegat Bay is three feet deep. Most of the bays in Alaska are hundreds of feet deep. They were formed by glaciers thousands of years ago.
Lake Clark, a branch of Redoubt Bay, is surrounded by mountains, a glacier, and streams that empty into the lake. Salmon come to a corner of the lake, waiting for the unexplained hormonal cue that will tell them it's time to leave and swim upstream to spawn. For several weeks before that, the lake is teeming with salmon. They swim back and forth, on top of one another, jumping out of the water, circling and splashing. You might think going fishing in a spot like this is like "shooting fish in a barrel." Well, it is, but that's harder than it looks, too. Have you ever tried to shoot fish in a barrel?
As our fishing guide, Aaron, explained it, because the salmon are hormone-crazed, waiting to spawn, they won't take the time to bite a hook with bait or a lure — the traditional way to catch fish, the way we do it in New Jersey. In New Jersey, you put some bait on a hook. You want to get fancy? You use a lure. The fish bites the bait and gets caught on the hook. In Alaska, you cast your line and reel it in, hoping to snag a salmon by chance as it swims by. If you hook a fish on its body, past the gills, you are not allowed to keep it. Salmon also have to be at least 16 inches long — and the limit is three. So fishing in Alaska means randomly hooking a fish and giving the line a strong jerk.
This was counterintuitive to everything I had been taught about fishing. In my head, I heard my dad saying, "Don't jerk your line." Because in non-Alaska fishing, if you prematurely pull on the line, you'll pull the hook away from the fish, out of its mouth. Jerk the line, and you'll lose the fish. In Alaska, jerking the line is everything.
I wanted to give it a try. Standing in a small, flat-bottom boat, I cast the line out, started to reel in, and was surprised — I had a fish! My very first throw, and I had a fish. This was easy. I reeled and reeled and the salmon fought harder than any New Jersey blowfish ever had. I finally got the line in enough, near the boat, and Aaron reached out with the net and brought in my catch. He held the fish next to a ruler on the side of the boat, and it measured a bit more than 16 inches — but the hook was in its side, just below the gills.
"Let him go," I said, thinking this was too easy. "It's OK. You can put him back." So Aaron removed the hook and let the salmon swim free. That was so easy — I can catch another bigger, better one in a minute, I thought to myself.
More than an hour later, my back was starting to ache from casting and leaning down to reel in. Aaron had told me to try to keep the line "at their level." Cast and reel in, cast and reel in.
"Hold your cast a minute. Bears are coming," Aaron said quietly.
"Huh?" I asked as I paused and looked up at him. Over his shoulder, a mama brown bear and two cubs were walking on the edge of the lake about 20 feet away from our small rowboat.
All fishing stopped while we watched the bears try their hand, er, paw at fishing. The mama and two cubs climbed on the rocks surrounding the lake. They waded into the water, noses held high, sniffing the air for the scent of fish, people, wet clothing, everything in their path. A bear's sense of smell is seven times better than a bloodhound's. Bears can smell food 20 miles away. That's why bringing snacks on the boat is forbidden — another not-New Jersey rule. On so many fishing expeditions from my childhood, the highlight was store-bought hoagies and warm soda provisions we had packed. In Alaska, boats filled with fishermen who wear deodorant, used toothpaste, and have eaten breakfast create a bouquet of smells for the grizzlies.
"Most of these bears we know, and they know us," Aaron reassured us. "They're used to the boats, and we just give them some room."
That was comforting to hear as the bears swam around our boat toward a small island, looking for the salmon carcasses that fishermen have left for them in the shallow waters.
"And if she comes close, I have the 'scrub-brush of doom,' " Aaron said, meeting my questioning look by waving a blue brush with a long wooden handle. "I can bop her on the nose if she gets too close."
That was less comforting. A toilet brush was all that stood between me and a killer bear. I really hoped the bear was more eager to have a salmon snack for lunch than to investigate our boat.
After about an hour of frolicking and munching on salmon, the mama bear and cubs headed back on shore and started following a path away from the water. As they ambled up the rocks, disappearing into the forest, I cast my line back in. Now, I really wanted to catch a fish. I had thrown one back hastily. This technique wasn't as easy as I thought. It took a few more throws, but finally I had one. I can't tell you what I did differently, or whether was just chance that I finally snagged one, but I reeled it in, and Aaron got the net.
"Yeah," I said when I saw that the fish was big enough to keep. "We can stop now. If you want to fillet it, we can go back when you're done."
"OK," said Aaron. "I'm done. I fillet these guys pretty quick."