Photo: Waterfall Resort/Facebook

How a Guy Who’d Never Caught a Fish Learned the Beauty of the Sport in the Wilds of Alaska

by Matthew Meltzer Jul 13, 2018

There’s an old cliché that goes something like:

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

Which is great, unless you don’t eat fish. In which case learning to fish is about as useful as learning Aramaic. Teaching me to fish would feed me for about five seconds before I made a face like a five year old, spit it out, and drank three glasses of wine to wash away the flavor. This is why I’d never really learned to fish, and subsequently never in my lifetime actually caught one.

I’d tried. We took a family salmon fishing trip to Alaska when I was 18, and my 13-year old sister caught three massive fish to my zero. She may have mentioned it once or twice since then. I went ice fishing in Quebec, and managed to drill a hole in the one place on the lake no fish swam. I am, for the most part, the Charlie Brown of fishing.

Hearing of my lifelong losing streak, a friend who worked for the Waterfall Resort in Alaska convinced me a trip to her resort would get me off the schnide.

“There’s no way you don’t catch fish here,” she said. “People spend good money to come up here and fish, trust me, our guides aren’t letting them leave without catching something big.”

A layup like this seemed a little like going to Thailand to lose your virginity. Sure, it gets the job done, but it doesn’t do much to boost your confidence. But nobody wants to be a 40-year-old fish virgin, so off to Alaska I went.

Outdoorsman’s paradise and true disconnection

The Waterfall Resort sits on Prince of Wales Island, a space roughly the size of Delaware populated by about 5,500 people and 500 times as many seals. Waterfall was once a commercial cannery where workers packed seafood for soldiers during World War II. The resort’s cleaning and processing operations are now housed in the old cannery buildings, while guests stay in cabins converted from the workers’ old living quarters.

Guests are whisked from Ketchikan to the resort via a scenic 40-minute float plane flight, and almost immediately put on heated, 27-foot cabin cruisers to navigate the islands of Alaska’s inner passage. There’s no cell service, limited Wifi, and not much to do other than fish. Which is perfect for an actual vacation.

Immediately upon arrival I was brought to the docks and introduced to my guide, Jeff — a bearded, fit guy in this 50’s who’d served in the Navy — and Brandon, my fishing buddy for the weekend.

Brandon was one of those good-looking, genuinely nice people who was better than you at everything the first time he tried it, but was so nice about it that you could never get mad. He was the kind of guy you wanted to be rivals with, but since he was always better, he never saw anything as a competition. Even with a Notre Dame hat on, you couldn’t dislike the guy. If this were a romantic comedy, Brandon would be the love interest’s existing fiancée.

Of course the only love we were competing for was the bite of a King Salmon, which Jeff the guide said was the big trophy we’d come up here to fish. As a guy who had a hard time getting his pet betta into a net, to me this seemed a little ambitious.

Lesson #1: Fishing isn’t hard if you’re in the right places

The fishing we were learning to do is called “mooching,” where you drop a piece of bait to the bottom of the water, reel it in 15 or 20 revolutions, and drop it back down until something bites. Jeff informed us we’d be doing this roughly 400 times over the course of the day.

This seemed roughly as entertaining as a NASCAR race with no crashes. Lacking anything to drink with more kick than a Mr. Pibb, I braced myself for a mind-numbing afternoon.

But I wasn’t even mooching 20 minutes before I felt my line pull, and as I tried to reel it back my line wouldn’t budge.

“Oh, ya got one,” Jeff said as he rushed over to my line. “Looks like it’s got some shoulders too.”

This is a fishermen’s term for a fish that fights.

After about 100 feet of reeling it in my forearms started to burn. Since most of the avid fisherman I knew looked like they enjoyed exercise about as much as I enjoyed seafood, I never realized there was any actual exertion involved. But I fought through it, gritted it out, and soon saw the poor fish who was about to be my first-ever catch dragged to the surface by his mouth.

“Oh, a halibut!” Jeff exclaimed. “Excellent, ok.” He pulled on my line and grabbed a wooden club with a hook on the end (called a gaff), then whapped the fish in the head to kill it fast.

It was probably a foot and a half long and didn’t weigh more than 10 pounds, but I took a picture holding it up on the gaff because after a lifetime of futility, a fish is a fish.

Brandon, for his part, caught nothing. But he was all smiley and congratulatory and happy for me and all that stuff you’re supposed to be. He was even good at being bad.

Lesson #2: Don’t ever take a picture with a tiny fish

Apparently I was right about the unimpressiveness of my catch. I posted my picture on Facebook Thursday night and awoke to a string of congratulatory comments.

“Is that fish even legal?” said a guy I haven’t seen since high school.

“More like Ketchi-can’t” quipped another.

“Did you really need a gaff for that tiny fish?” said I guy I’ve met maybe twice.

“That thing is too small to legally take out of a canal in southwest Florida. You disgust me.” That one, of course, was from a guy I’ve been friends with for 20 years.

Lesson #3: The goal isn’t catching ANY fish, it’s catching the right fish

Over the next couple of days we caught all kinds of stuff. Mostly they were Rockfish, who are apparently about as tasty as a slice of linoleum. They’re also covered in poisonous spikes that, if they pierce your skin, will have you on the next $100,000 medical airlift to Seattle. Jeff threw those back.

We also stumbled upon a school of Black Bass at a spot 15 miles offshore. Fishing for these is a little like hitting the slow machine at the batting cages. We couldn’t get a line down 50 feet without getting a bite. It reminded me of that King of the Hill where Hank starts fishing with crack.

Confidence brimming, we returned to the shoreline and caught a couple of 20-pound Lingcod that put up a decent fight before we reeled them in. We even said “they’ve got some shoulders” like we were salty old vets. Though when looking at them later on the dock, we realized they basically qualified as “respectable.” Without the big sexy King Salmon, we were still just gonna be a boat of beginners who’d never caught anything “real.”

Lesson #4 – Fishing can be like playing a slot machine, so don’t get up

Around noon on our last full day we were still King Salmon-less, so Brandon broke for lunch and busted out the Mediterranean spinach wrap he’d ordered from the kitchen. He handed his line to Jeff and within 30 seconds the guide yelled “Oh I GOT something here.”

He began dipping and pulling his rod, clearly fighting something trying to get away.

“Brandon, come over here and fight this! I think we got a King,” he yelled.

Brandon dropped his spinach wrap and took the reel from our guide. For the next 10 minutes or so, Jeff led Brandon through the fish fight, telling him when to let it go, then when to reel it back in. This repeated until it was close enough to net. They high fived after they got it in the boat. I just stood there with my rod in my hand.

As we were only allotted two King Salmon between us, I was determined to catch the next one. So I moved to the side of the boat where Jeff had gotten his bite while Brandon took over my side. Not five minutes later he yells “Oh, I think I got another one!”

Son of a bitch.

“Oh, that is a sal-MON!” our guide exclaimed, his eyes getting wide as he rushed for the net. I felt like the old lady who gets up from a slot machine after five hours and sees the next person hit the jackpot.

Again, I watched Jeff and Brandon fight the King Salmon, letting it swim out, reeling it back in. Brandon let out an excited “YES!” as they finally got it in the boat. Then got another high five I was not invited to.

“Musta been the spinach wrap!” Brandon smiled at me.

“Fuck off, Brandon,” I thought as I opened up my third bag of sour cream and onion Lay’s.

With our legal limit of King Salmon now in the boat, there was no chance for me to catch one on this trip. I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten any good at fishing, since I probably could have stuck my 13 year-old niece on that boat and she’d have rolled home with enough Black Bass to cater her Bat Mitzvah.

I drank away the disappointment of the day at the Lagoon Saloon, Waterfall’s bar on a serene lake where guides tell fishing stories and drink freely with the guests. Even though our next morning started at 6 a.m., I stayed out a lot longer than I should. And didn’t turn down any shot put out in front of me.

Lesson #5: No sport lets you relax and disconnect like fishing

“Long night last night?” Jeff asked as I showed up at the boat ten minutes late. I didn’t respond and just asked for coffee. Brandon had gone to bed at 10.

Having caught our limit of pretty much everything, we spent the morning with quiet music fishing tranquil waters and not reeling in much. Jeff taught me how to bait a hook. We reeled in a few Rockfish. We each caught another halibut.

As I looked out at whales breaching in the distance and eagles swooping down for breakfast, I learned why dads the world over love to fish. It is pure peace, quiet, and disconnection. It doesn’t matter how much you catch, or how big the fish is. It matters that you’re out on the water with no one to answer to, just you and your friends and whatever’s under the water. And for those brief few hours nothing else in the world much matters. Despite the vodka flu pounding in my head, that morning was the best I’d felt in a while.

The sun came out and we returned to the dock. The airline reps at the resort asked me where I wanted my 30-some-odd pounds of cleaned-and-gutted fish filets checked to. As a non-seafood eater it wouldn’t even feed me for a day, so I saw no point in lugging it all the way back to Miami. I told my friend to take it home as a thank you for the invite. Judging by her Instagram, she’s made good use.

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