The following appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
Two of Conrad Jungmann’s passions have been fishing and storytelling. A journalism major with a master’s degree from the University of Missouri’s famed School of Journalism, Jungmann has been in the media industry in various capacities for more than 25 years. But the Pacific Northwest resident – he grew up in the Midwest – also spent six summers in his younger days working as a commercial fish broker in Alaska, crisscrossing the state from Sitka to Cordova, Kodiak to Bristol Bay.
It’s that backdrop that inspired him to tell a story: a 1988 murder mystery whose main character, an aspiring journalist and a seafood processor, found himself in the tangled web of a homicide investigation that stretched from a Dillingham fishing camp to the newsrooms and police precincts of greater Seattle. Julian Hopkins, Jungmann’s caught-in-the-middle fictional protagonist, took advantage of a break in his busy work schedule to sportfish the pristine waters of Bristol Bay’s Agulowak River. Hopkins’ fishing partner that day, a somewhat aloof co-worker who called himself Lev, was a mystery himself. The following is excerpted from Edge Of Redfish Lake, by Conrad Jungmann Jr. and published by Black Opal Books.
BY CONRAD JUNGMANN JR.
Tragic news travels fast in remote Alaska villages, sweeping from dwelling-to-dwelling, camp-to-camp like a fever, leaving no one unaffected.
Before breakfast could even be served everyone within 50 miles knew two Native teens had drowned and one of their bodies had not yet been recovered. At lunch Mike addressed the mess hall crowd and requested a moment of silence for the dead boys. Then he put his hat back on and cleared his throat.
“Listen up everyone. Spawning escapement goals are way ahead of schedule, so Fish and Game is opening up commercial fishing three days from now in every area. It’s time. The run is upon us. We need to get this plant cleaned up and ready for peak season production.”
Fishermen whooped and cheered, a stark reversal from the somber silence they’d been sharing. To ensure long-term sustainability and to withhold upriver tribal treaty promises, each year Bristol Bay marine biologists allowed the first waves of returning salmon safe passage upstream before they allowed commercial fishing nets to drop. Only during seasons of record fish runs did escapement goals get met this quickly.
“About a hundred more workers will arrive this Sunday. If you’re going to get any sleep before we go balls to the wall, tomorrow is the day. If you want to get any sportfishing in before we shut down in August, better do it now. From the sound of things, I don’t think we’ll get another break until it’s all said and done.”
An avid sport fisherman himself, Mike understood the draw trophy fishing had on his key men. A tantalizing hour upstream loomed the legendary Wood River lakes system. All five species of salmon and six other types of trophy sport fish could be caught there on any given cast. The series of lakes connected by wild short rivers provided extraordinary diversity, size, and abundance found nowhere else on earth. Mike was convinced it was the primary reason the core of his key workers came back to Dillingham each year, rather than go work in other parts of Alaska.
Dave Stevens was quick to inform Mike he’d already taken the bait. Everyone knew he’d frequently run up the Wood before the season, after the season, and any rare chance he got in between. “I’m going. You guys still joining Charlie and me?”
“F*ck ya, we are!” Julian, Boone and Chris said in unison.
“I’ll get my Whaler in the water tonight. You guys gather up food and drinks so we can roll out early tomorrow morning. Charlie and I will meet you here in the mess hall at 6.”
Some jobs in the fish business were repulsive for the soberest soul, but when nursing a hangover, they could curdle milk stored in an armored stomach. Coupled with the tragic news from the night before, the afternoon passed by painfully slow for the three friends. Tubs were scrubbed and filled with ice shavings. Forklifts got topped off with fuel. Dozens of 50-pound boxes were folded together and stacked in impressive cardboard pyramids. Hidden chunks of fish guts were squeezed out of cracks as machines got hosed down and deep cleaned.
“It will just be the four of us today,” Dave announced the next morning as he filled a large green thermos with coffee. “Charlie’s sicker than opossum sh*t and it’s not alcohol related. He really wants to come but I made him stay in bed. I need him healthy for Monday’s opener. So, that leaves one open spot in the boat.”
“Can I go?”
The men all whipped their heads around. Seated across from Hannah, Lev managed a smile. To the surprise of many, and chagrin of Chris, the lonely girl and awkward man had recently become friends and were often seen hanging out together.
Chris groaned and in a jealous tone snarled, “Do you know how to fish, Lev? Do you own a fishing pole? Or any gear?”
“Uh, well, no… maybe I kin borrow some’n from Mike. He ’uh … Mike might loan me some’n to use.”
“I don’t think Mike will loan anyone his gear,” Chris lied, and without thinking said, “Plus, the boat won’t fit five.”
“Then how was Charlie gonna’…” Lev’s chest deflated as he realized Chris was lying, hope flushed from his face. Julian was startled by the flash of deep-rooted anger in his eyes, but he couldn’t blame the guy. Chris was being a jealous a-hole.
Dave made eye contact with Julian and without words they agreed on a plan. “Lev, if you want to go, you can use some of my gear. We have plenty of room in the boat.”
“And I’ve got tons of lures,” Julian added.
Chris gasped and shook his head in disbelief. Lev looked up at Dave and Julian to see if they were being serious and confirming they were –aided by a comforting smile from Hannah –slowly nodded. His pupils burned hatred at Chris.
“All right then,” Dave decided. “We’ve got a full boat. Let’s go fishing.”
THE 20-FOOT OUTBOARD DAVE kept at Dragline for the sole purpose of sportfishing was tied to a floating platform at the end of the dock. Because it moved up and down the height of a two-story house each tidal change, the dock crew had hoisted the Boston Whaler over the previous night when the tide was high.
In just a few hours the river would flood, raising the platform to be even with the top once again. Under the dock, steel crossbeams and angled wood planks crisscrossed in layers for 150 feet back toward the plant. Pigeons and gulls shrieked and shrilled as they flew beam-to-beam picking barnacles and pieces of dead fish from exposed pilings. As he climbed down the rickety-steel ladder, Lev began to point something out to Julian in the labyrinth of support under the dock, then didn’t.
“You guys all got blades on ya?” Dave confirmed as they boarded. They all nodded, even Lev. Dave manned the Whaler upstream with confident captainship. He was more at ease behind the wheel of a boat than a car. After all, he had spent a lifetime of summers learning from his legendary grandfather. As they meandered upstream past alluvial shores of silt, sand and gravel, the men marveled at the river’s inherent beauty and placid serenity. Misty veils of fog wafted over the water in quilted complexity like rolling layers of cigarette smoke in the Blue Spruce [a bar and favorite watering hole of the fishing crews back in Dillingham].
They spotted a bull moose shredding off his velvet in the willows of curvy Arcana Creek. Swans, ducks and geese rose in noisy processions from the braided sedge, cotton grass, moss, and white lichen landscape. The wind whispered an ancient verse as it rustled through waist-deep river grass.
An hour later, around a corner in Lake Aleknagik, they heard it, rushing like a rumor through walls of head-high alder, its icy spray splashing across large boulders –the Agulowak. Sun rays slanted toward the glacial peaks of the Wood Mountains, filtered in places by spruce, poplar, aspen, and birch on upland benches.
The fabled fishing oasis consisted of a narrow, fast-moving river just a few miles long that funneled a million migrating fish up to the next lake in the chain, Nerka. Layers upon layers of sockeye were now stacked at its mouth regaining the energy they’d need to master the fast-moving water and next strenuous leg of their journey.
Dave slid his boat up on a small sandy beach. “Tie us to that log, Lev. We most certainly have arrived.”
CHRIS JUMPED OUT with his fly rod and popped his shoulder into Lev as he passed, almost knocking the man down. “I know where I’m heading. And don’t even think about following me.”
At the end of the previous season, Chris had caught a unique strain of blue-shadowed rainbow trout and an enormous Dolly Varden in a gentle secluded pool downstream near the lake. Without waiting for a response, he bolted. Boone and Dave grabbed their gear and raced each other upriver to another famous spot, leaving Julian and Lev suddenly alone. The soulful cry of a loon added to the stillness.
“What do you like to fish with, Lev?” Julian asked. “You can use anything you want in my tackle box.”
Lev examined several different lures and put each one back.
“I dunno,” he finally sputtered. “I’ve, ’uh … I’ve never bin here b’fore. This place is different from the lake my Pa took me to in … ’uh … the mountains back home.”
Julian laughed and motioned with a full sweep of his arm. “I know what you mean, man. There’s no place like this one. It’s the best fishing spot on earth. And look at all the beauty around us.”
Julian used the tip of his rod to point out a bald eagle landing in a large pine. “What did you and your Pa fish for at your lake in the mountains back home?”
“Uh, wild redfish. I git ’em every year when they come back to the lake. I take ’em back to my cabin and smoke ’em. The lake is ’uh … close to my cabin in the mountains. On the Reservation.”
“You from Alaska?”
Lev shook his head and looked away. “Nah.”
Sockeye? Really? Swallowing his frown, Julian focused on Lev to see if he was kidding. He had been expecting him to say trout. Other than Alaska there weren’t too many high-mountain lakes that still had wild runs of sockeye salmon. Few that he knew of, anyway. Reservation? Lev was an Indian? Who was this guy? Was he pulling his leg?
“Well, you should know what you’re doing then.”
Julian pointed out a school of yardstick long, bright-crimson fish with cedar green heads and hooked jaws muscling upstream through the clear alpine water.
“What do you catch redfish with there? At your lake in the mountains by your cabin on the reservation?”
“Spears … or nets.”
“Spears. Ah. I got ya,” Julian chuckled.
So, Lev was a joker. A wild storyteller. A bullsh*tter extraordinaire. Might as well play along. He reached in his tackle box and jiggled out a shiny gold spoon with a dazzling pink center and dimples that refracted the morning sunlight like a kaleidoscope.
“Well, I didn’t bring any spears with me, Lev, but I do have this Pixie. It will catch anything here. In fact, it’s probably the deadliest lure in the whole state of Alaska. And I make it even deadlier.”
WHEN HE WAS 6, Julian’s favorite uncle had taken him fishing for the first time. On a lure with a black permanent marker his uncle had drawn two dots. “Big monster fish like to eat things that can see them do it. So, I make sure my lures have eyes,” he had explained. A mesmerized little Julian caught two fish that outing, and from that day forward, always drew eyes on his lures. It had become his unique trademark to constantly remind him of his uncle.
Lev caressed the lure in his palm, seemingly spellbound by Julian’s explanation.
“Cast it in that pool, Lev, right below those rocks. Let it bounce downstream across the gravel and watch what happens.”
The Pixie plunked in the river. As it started to flutter to the bottom, a live red torpedo flashed up and aggressively snatched it, before jettisoning downstream and nearly jerking the pole from Lev’s grip. He leaned back and fought the fish like it was a dog on a long leash, up and down the strong current, until it finally grew tired and glided into a shallow pool. Julian splashed in and firmly latched on to the sockeye’s gill plates.
“Oh hell, yeah. That’s a dandy, Lev!” Julian proclaimed, and in the thrill of the moment they were united. “First cast too. I told you monster fish like eyes. This one’s got to be over 12 pounds. What a beauty!”
The older man picked up the quivering fish and examined it head to tail. It was a bruiser buck with hooked jaws and ice pick teeth. Julian rejoiced and fumbled through his day pack for his camera.
“Smile, Lev. This picture will make you famous. You might even make the cover of Field and Streammagazine!”
“No. No pictures,” Lev shrieked, turning his back, tossing the fish back in the water and effectively snuffing out any potential bond between them.
Bothered and confused by the man’s abrupt reaction, Julian stuffed the camera back in the bag and readied his own fishing pole. Slightly frustrated, and more than a little perturbed, he calmed himself down and changed the subject.
“It’s a real tragedy what happened to those Chiklak boys, don’t you think, Lev? Poor kids. They were so young. I saw the father at the Blue Spruce the other night and the man was devastated. He could barely hold it together. He kept talking about the plug not being in their boat.”
Lev stared out across the river. “I dunno.”
Julian bristled and turned, eyes locking on Lev.
“You don’t know what? What the f*ck does that mean? Why would two 18-year-old kids deserve to die like that?”
Lev absently shrugged, making Julian’s face flush red. “Lev, that boy’s father was heartbroken. He lost his son. How would you feel if it was your kid?”
Lev kept his back to Julian and shrugged again. Julian’s hands began to shake, and he unconsciously stilled them by pulling them into fists.
“Lev how would your parents feel if it was you?”
Lev whipped around and glared, eyes transformed to cold-rusty steel. “I don’t remember my Ma. She’s dead. My Pa…” Lev paused. After the eternity of a few moments, he continued in a chilling tone. “My Pa didn’t like us Injuns.”
Without waiting for a response, the older man stomped upstream to fish alone. Lev’s revelation rippled through Julian like a deep shiver, one he couldn’t easily shake, so he kept a wary eye on him. Lev spent the morning sitting on a boulder staring into the current, refusing to join the group for lunch, preferring to remain motionless – a silhouette without a line in the water. Late in the afternoon, as Julian and Dave were packing the boat, Lev approached.
“Here’s your lure back, Julian. Thanks for lettin’ me use it.” Lev unhooked the special pink Pixie from his pole and placed it back in Julian’s tackle box. Then he lowered his voice to almost a whisper and turned his back away from Chris, who was walking up the bank their way. “I ’uh … I wanna thank you for takin’ me fishin’. I’ve ’uh… never had friends b’fore.”
A sense of admission released from Lev’s eyes, like he had confessed a secret he’d been harboring for a long time. The loneliness of his tone made Julian again feel sorry for him, but then he remembered their earlier exchange about the Chiklak boys. It had been bothering him all day. His heart hardened. The only thing he could bring himself to say was a muffled, “Welcome.”
“I’m glad you came, Lev,” Dave set down the bag he was loading, put his arm around the man’s shoulder, and gave him a playful shake. “And I hope you had fun. Jules told me you caught a trophy fish today –a real monster. Wish I would have seen that. You can come along next time too, heck, anytime you want. As long as there’s room in my boat. OK?”
Lev looked up and connected eyes with Dave. He didn’t verbally respond, but his cheeks managed a slight upward lift. Dave patted him on the back and laughed.
THE WHOLE RIDE BACK, Julian’s emotions were in turmoil. On one hand he had just experienced some of the most intense sportfishing of his life. Over the course of the day he had landed seven species of fish, including a grayling that had to have been close to the state record.
The weather had been spectacular, Agulowak-perfect, and he felt an even closer bond with buddies Dave, Chris and Boone. He appreciated Lev’s sincere words of gratitude and felt pride in the way he had stuck up for him that morning and invited him to come.
But as the mudflats rolled by, Julian’s chest became tight and at times he found it difficult to breathe. He was overwhelmed by a nagging feeling –an unsettling premonition –that something was seriously wrong with Lev Warrens. When he looked at the older man, he felt anxious and unnerved, a prescient foreboding he couldn’t quite articulate.
How could Lev have no empathy for the Chiklak boy’s father? Did he somehow have something to do with it? Julian shuddered when he recalled the horror in Lev’s eyes when he spoke of his Pa, the angst in his voice when he mentioned his Ma. My Pa didn’t like us Injuns. Did Lev’s father kill his mother? Was this guy bullsh*tting or not? Was he telling the truth about spearing wild sockeye in a mountain lake by a reservation not in Alaska? What did Lev mean when he said he never had friends? The barrage of unanswered questions made his head throb, dried out his throat, and turned his hands an uncomfortable, clammy cold.
Shortly before the sun completely melted into the western twilights –as the expedition rounded the last bend of the river before the Dragline dock came into view –a log popped up without warning beside the boat.
Four of the five men shifted abruptly, making the vessel lurch dangerously sideways, almost tipping it over. In that instant, they had all imagined it was the body of a dead boy and breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was not. Julian’s gaze shot to Lev. Why was that f*cker smiling like that?
Editor’s note: Edge of Redfish Lake is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback, hardcover, eBook, and author-narrated audiobook. For more on author Conrad Jungmann Jr., check out his website (conradjungmann.com).