Life As An Alaskan Fisherman

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The following appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


Richard Chiappone has worn a lot of hats in his life – from college professor to watercolor artist, musician to construction worker. Growing up in the spray of Niagara Falls in upstate New York, Chiappone’s love of fishing and adventure eventually brought him to cast in Alaska’s endless waterways. Chiappone, who lives in Homer and teaches in the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Master of Fine Arts program, has chronicled his fishing tales in his new novel, Liar’s Code: Growing Up Fishing. Published by Skyhorse Publishing, an excerpt on a flood-ravaged Anchor River fishing hole below his home begins on the next page.


The Anchor River empties into the salt of Cook Inlet at Anchor Point, the westernmost point on the contiguous highway system of North America. A mile and a half upriver from the beach is the steel trestle bridge spanning the river in the town of Anchor Point where I witnessed a lonely but intrepid winter solstice fisherman out there at the edge of the ice, casting into the Bridge Hole.

The Bridge Hole is a much busier place in the summertime, and for good reason. It features a big gravel parking lot, picnic tables and a modern concrete outhouse. There is a little steel box mounted on a post for the five-dollar daily use fee. Across the road to the beach, there used to be a tackle shop and a huge fish-weighing scale where many silver and king salmon made their official entry into the summer derby held there. Within walking distance of the fishing hole is the bar and restaurant at the Anchor River Inn, offering all the things a man could want after a hard day’s fishing: food, drinks, pool tables, and a huge big-screen TV.

The Bridge Hole itself is a deep, straight trough with a high cutbank and a forest of cottonwoods on the north side and a long, easy-to-wade gravel bar on the south shore. It is also the first good water anglers come upon after making the four-hour drive from the big city of Anchorage. With a tackle shop on one bank and a bar on the other, it is obviously going to be the hardest fished hole on the river. During the first salmon run of the season, in May and June, fishing is allowed only downstream from the bridge to protect the spawning king salmon upriver.

The crowds at the Bridge Hole can get pretty dense as anglers jam as close as they can get to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s “No Fishing Above This Point” signs on both sides of the river. For this reason, it is not my favorite place to fish, although I’ve braved the mobs on occasion in order to put the first fresh salmon fillets of the year on the Memorial Day grill. Later in the summer, when the upper river opens to fishing for steelhead and trout, I am happiest walking the mostly unfished water behind the house that my wife and I built on a promontory overlooking the Anchor River valley a few miles upstream from the bridge.

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AS IS THE TRADITION on trout streams everywhere, favorite fishing holes on the Anchor River have names given them by their devotees. Even the Alaska State Parks Department recognizes the legitimacy of such longstanding monikers. Each of the parking areas and camping sites along the heavily fished section between the Bridge Hole and the ocean have official signs reading Picnic Hole, Dudas Hole (named after a local family), and Slide Hole. Below the Slide Hole is the less officially named Grass Hole, located at the peak of the high tide mark where tall salt grasses line the twice-daily flooded mud banks. On the upper river, one hole is known as Dolly Land. I would love to say that it is the favorite fishing hole of that great country music star herself. But in truth, it was named for the numerous small Dolly Varden char it attracts each summer and fall. It is right behind my house.

Dolly Land is a long walk from the public access at the bridge. But from my back door it is about an eight-minute hike down a steep ravine filled with blown-down spruce and then across a couple hundred yards of knee-deep bog. When I started building the house in the late 1980s it was also one of the best steelhead holes on the river and anglers often did hike the 2 miles upstream from the bridge just to fish Dolly Land. It was that good. But like all rivers it has changed, and not for the better, and very few people make the long walk to fish the less productive water any longer.

My wife, Lin, and I bought the 3 acres our house now sits on in 1983, shortly after we moved to Alaska from the Lower 48. Although we lived and worked in the big city of Anchorage, 200 miles north of the property, over the next 20 years we built on it almost continuously: first a tent platform, then a small cabin, and finally a real house on the edge of the ridge above Dolly Land. With the exceptions of a concrete contractor and an electrician, and the help of several loyal friends from time to time, Lin and I built much of the place by hand ourselves, working through summer vacations and more weekends than I care to think about now, making the four-hour drive each way to and from Anchorage, our pickup truck stuffed with building materials and tools. It is a very slow way to build a house.

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FINALLY, IN THE SUMMER of 2002 we moved down to the river full time, and I got ready to settle in and enjoy my lifetime dream of living on a wild steelhead stream. I pictured myself fishing Dolly Land every day during the great fall runs of anadromous fish, the peppy little Dollies and the big beautiful steelhead just waiting to be fooled by a fly – right there in my backyard!

However, our very first autumn on the river we were hammered with the 100-year flood of October 2002. Monsoon-like rains drenched the southern Kenai Peninsula for a week, raising the Anchor River far above flood levels to near historic highs. At the bridge, the river came up over the banks and tore out the parking lot; the road to the beach had to be closed. On nearby rivers the highway bridges washed out, briefly disconnecting the town of Anchor Point from the rest of the world. Obviously, my plans for bucolic fall fishing in my backyard got put on hold. The flood waters were so powerful that Dolly Land actually moved more than 100 feet out of its normal channel, the river carving a new run into the woods along what had been its south bank.

“Oh, well,” I said patiently as the river crested and the roads closed. “Mother Nature, and all that. What are you gonna do?”

You can’t help but get philosophical about a 100-year flood, seeing how it is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, when the second 100-year flood came three weeks later in November, I watched from our living room window, incredulous and far less amused as the river valley filled and became a lake. The tops of the naked cottonwood trees protruded from the muddy, rain-splattered surface like the beseeching hands of thousands of drowning victims. Somewhere at the bottom of that lake was my already-damaged Dolly Land, or whatever was left of it, as it took its second beating in one month. Needless to say, I did not get a lot of fishing in that first season.

I have to admit I started to take it personally. For 20 years I had been building a house within a short walk of one of the best steelhead holes on one of the very few unspoiled, undammed rivers full of entirely wild steelhead left on American soil. I’m a rather pessimistic mope by nature, a trait that has served me well – though it hasn’t made me easy to live with. The beauty of pessimism is that you can only be pleasantly surprised when good things occasionally happen. At the same time, you feel pretty smug when, more frequently, reality is its uncooperative self. But two 100-year floods in six weeks? This was a little over the top. Around Thanksgiving, weeks after the river was finally back to normal for the second time, I hiked down to inspect the damage. I found, in a bed of displaced river sand among the trees in the middle of the forest, a steelhead, high and dry and very dead. I began to think that either Mother Nature was one mean-spirited broad or She had a wacky sense of humor.

In a world full of disasters, this is pretty minor stuff, of course: a few bridges and parking lots washed out, the road destroyed a couple times, lots of cottonwoods turned into easy beaver food. The personal property toll was relatively light: A few people who had places on the banks of the river lost their cabins and the assorted junk cars that we consider yard art in this part of the world.

But nobody was seriously hurt in the flooding, and in the face of real suffering – Katrina-style, for example – devoting two decades of my life to building a fishing shack and then losing all the good water is really pretty fluffy as
disasters go.

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THE FOLLOWING SUMMER, WHEN the river opened to fishing behind our house for the first time since the big floods, I once again called upon my pathetically thin stores of hope and optimism and hiked down to Dolly Land, fly rod in hand, hoping that somehow everything would be as before. Dolly Land was actually missing – at least the hole I had known by that name for two decades. At the head of where the pool used to start, there was a smooth, flat-topped boulder where I often sat and tied on a leader and fly or enjoyed a salami sandwich. Sitting in the sunshine on that big boulder, my feet dangling in the shallows, I had more than once sat and congratulated myself on the capture and release of a big steelhead, celebrating with a can of beer from my pack.

But that big flat boulder was now a half-acre of gravel and rocks distant from the new Dolly Land hole. The heart of the old Dolly Land sat high and dry, baking in the afternoon sun, and with it any hopes I had of hanging onto the past. Optimism really is a bad idea.

Already, grasses and crimson-leafed fireweed shoots were unfurling in the soil between the boulders around which I had once drifted my Glo Bugs and streamers. Willows would take hold next, and then alders. And then, over the years, cottonwoods and maybe even a few black spruce would move in, if the ground stayed dry long enough. I knew that rivers changed, that bends oxbowed into sloughs and then into landlocked ponds and then marshes and finally thickets and forests. A history of satellite photos of any small river will verify that. And simply walking across the bottomlands of my own property it was easy to see the long, winding declivities where the old riverbeds lay hidden in the weeds, the old channels gone to bushes and trees over the years. But I always assumed that such natural progressions were the products of history in all its famous sluggishness – not the aftermath of sudden events. Stunned by the river’s dramatic upheaval, I walked across the huge barren gravel bar that had been the bottom of my favorite fishing hole. I stood on the bank of the new channel, taking no pleasure in the fact that Dolly Land was now 100 feet closer to my house than it had been a year before.

The new cutbank, across from where I stood, had been gouged out of the forest 10 months prior, but was still slowly crumbling into the water in places, the river apparently still testing the possibilities of further incursion into the land mass. Large planes of the forest floor, undercut by the flood, had fissured and caved away from the bank, and now slanted down into the water – trees and all. A dozen cottonwood sweepers, barely anchored by what was left of their roots, lay crisscrossed over each other on the surface of the river, bobbing rhythmically in the current. Heaped at the tail end of the run was a huge jumble of downed trees, fresh with new summer leaves, a shocking green in the tannic river water, like strange freshwater kelp.

But aside from those downed trees, there was a disturbing lack of life. Nothing moved in the water or on the surface. If the big schools of Dollies had been there as usual, it would have been easy to see them flashing as they gorged on caddis casings in the shallows. It was summer and the king salmon should have been evident: deep red torpedoes fringed with fungus, torquing and twisting in their egg-laying, sperm-spuming, life-and-death dance. But there was nothing there in the new river channel. Even the ubiquitous schools of little salmon smolt were missing. And perhaps most frightening of all, the clouds of gnats and midges on which the tiniest fish feasted were also absent.

The riverbottom had been scraped and scoured by the enormous flood waters, and then smothered under immeasurable tons of silt as the flood subsided. Not even the riparian insects were left alive.

I walked along the strange new river, looking but not finding any fish among nature’s wreckage, not finding the insect hatches I should have been seeing, not finding the eagles and yellowlegs and kingfishers and ouzels and mergansers that should have been there, that I had always taken for granted as being there. I was overcome by the dystopian feel haunting what had so recently been a paradise for me. The sickening feeling of seeing nature so badly wounded was one I had not experienced since I was a child living in the industrial wastelands of western New York State, not far from the infamous Love Canal. And the fact that this time nature had done it to itself was little comfort to me as I stood there in the middle of the destruction.

Wherever I went upstream or down- from Dolly Land, it looked like the concussion from a bomb blast had rolled down the river valley. Mature cottonwoods, uprooted and shattered by the raging floodwaters, lay scattered along endless barren gravel bars. At every bend in the river, I found exploded tree trunks and limbs stacked in enormous heaps, two stories high in places. I walked all the way to the bridge and called my wife on the cell phone and asked her to come and get me. I couldn’t bear walking all the way back upstream to the house again through the devastation.

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DOWN AT THE BRIDGE HOLE things were not as gloomy. The deep and heavily bouldered nature of that hole had saved it – that, and the nearly straight path the river followed in its lower reaches where the fresh water made its final dash to the beach and the sea. That straightness had allowed the flood surge to race through it without changing the shapes of the banks significantly and without depositing the silt it carried. In the woods on the north bank of the Bridge Hole, there was weedy debris dangling from the cottonwoods high above the ground at the line of the flood’s highest point. But there was nothing like the damage I had seen in the upper river behind my house, where the water had cut across the meadows and tundra, picking up silt and mud and whole living trees, and then dropping its messy load again as it was slowed by the next serpentine bend. No, the Bridge Hole looked pretty good. I was going to have to fish with the crowds for a while.

Nature being nature, and having infinite time to deal with things, even Dolly Land finally made a gradual comeback. Over the next few summers, the dark brown caddisflies and little gray mayflies and the almost invisible midges began showing up in the riffles again at the upper end of the run, and the Dollies and the salmon smolt – that somehow miraculously hatched through the silted river bottom – appeared once more to feed on them. Five years later, after the mostly forgotten, twin 100-year floods of 2002, I was back at Dolly Land when it opened to fishing that summer. And the fishing was good. I was happy to find that a skated Elk Hair Caddis or a Floating Emerger brought lots of strikes from the smaller fish that were schooling there once again. The steelhead fishing improved too. That fall there were some nice fish holding again in the heart of the new Dolly Land where the water had finally scoured away the excess silt. I guess that if you live long enough, you’ll see just about everything – bad and good.

By this time, we had almost finished the house construction – the project was at that stage where the house was standing, with walls and a roof and doors and windows and plumbing and electric lights, and looked mostly complete to anyone but the guy building it – and his wife. I could put in whole days of work, finishing window casings and exterior trim moldings and the endless taping and sanding and painting that it takes to finish the interior of a house, and at the end of the day no one but Lin and I could identify what I had done all day that so exhausted me. I had to finish the house.

But I also had to go fishing. ASJ