I can recall our first return trip from Yahtam being a roughly two-hour boat ride in the steady rain. It wasn’t thick sheets of rain, but each drop was fat and consistently beat on the outer shell of your clothing like a deep rhythmic bass drum so persistent that it became almost impossible to focus on anything else. The temperature was easily in the mid to low 50s. It was cool enough to see your breath but not obviously cool enough to first take notice of the temperature. That is not until you find that the seams of your Gore-tex jacket are leaking.

“That’s why we always called it Wet-tex,” George explained after I mentioned my predicament.

Two-thirds of the way through the return trip what started as two leaks in the seams of my jacket turned into the most miserable, damp, bone-chilling, teeth-rattling experience I can remember. As the moisture spread I, slowly at first, noticed my body temperature drop a bit but that soon began to compound and became exponentially more miserable.

I don’t know if I officially became hypothermic, never received any certificate or anything, but that experience taught me just how dangerous such a circumstance came be. It begins almost unnoticeable but then quickly spirals out of control. Where it becomes most dangerous is when you’re in a place such as the Alaskan wilderness. You realize quickly it’s unlike camping in the backwoods of Alabama or most forests in the contiguous United States. It’s not like it’s feasible to stop and build a fire (see rule #2) to dry off and warm-up. The sun isn’t out and very likely hasn’t been out for any long duration for some time. Where are you going to find anything that’s dry enough to burn?

You also are at least a day away from the nearest town or any medical assistance. You’re very much in a situation where, if you don’t know what to look out for, you’re likely to think you’re fine right up until the moment you’re not. Unwittingly exposing yourself to this type of situation is not only dangerous but possibly deadly.

George did mention that he had a box of trash bags and candles in case of an emergency.

“Huh?” was the unanimous response.

“Well if we’re in trouble and you’re wet how else are you gonna dry off? Everything else is damp too. You gotta remove your wet clothes, and crawl into one of them 72-gallon hefty trash bags. Light the candle and just sit there until you warm up and dry off as best you can. May have a can of soup in there too if you get hungry.”

Fortunately, we never had to experiment with such a survival tactic. When we made it to our destination I was able to remove all of my wet clothing and fire up a small diesel stove to warm up next to. I then spent the rest of the day and night wrapped in a sleeping bag trying to warm the chill out of my bones. It’s amazing how that feeling just refuses to leave you until you’ve exhausted every possible measure to remedy it.

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It’s difficult not to philosophize when discussing fly fishing. The mixture of science (objectivity) versus art (subjectivity) demands it at a certain point.

In the beginning, it feels like a black art. The cast seems like something only a sorcerer could master. The mind hardly even knows where to begin at this point. The art of it is sublime and the thought of becoming proficient is daunting.

As one becomes more familiar with the techniques the framework for understanding begins to develop and the mystique slowly begins to melt away. Of course, the mechanics make sense. They must make sense. Otherwise, none of this would work. The part of your brain that could in anyway comprehend this at the start slowly but surely becomes attuned to the subtle movements and stops that make up adequate casting. Science has won out, and all of the mysteries of the world seemingly reveal themselves to be made up of all the deterministic properties one would initially assume it to be.

But like anything worth-while pursuit, there’s always more to it.

The more you learn the more you understand how much you don’t know. As the constructs of forage life cycles and fish habitats solidify so does the confidence of the angler. This is undeniable, but so is it to say that this is all. One may be able to identify the Latin name of genera and species of insects, its morphology, and distribution. The Ephemeroptera guttulata and its complementary predator’s ecology has been perfected and dissected; however, at some point, the realization sets in that his or her ability to fully understand the richness of such a relationship remains incomplete. The justifications for the sizes and hatches and whatnots begin to become contingent on factors like the way the sun sets over the tree line, weather patterns, and other factors that cannot be precisely explained. The mind can only go so deep.

And so we’ve come full circle.

 

There’s a hard bend in the back corner of the harbor opposite the houseboat that upon initial approach isn’t obvious. Once you make it back to farthest and westernmost point of the harbor it’s possible to see the bend cutting back to the north. A grim reminder of the harshness of navigating the waters sat at the mouth of the river that flowed back into the harbor.

A shipwreck from an old fishing boat that had clearly misjudged its ability to make it through the narrow waters and into the lake. As we moved into the bend it sat just barely submerged and oriented in such a manner that suggested that maybe the captain was caught heading out of the bend at the wrong time and ran aground. George speculated that the boat probably tried placing crab pots in the lake since, as we’d later discover, it was a very productive area for catching Dungeness crab.

Fortunately, our guide and small aluminum craft made it up the river and through the developing yet small class rapids into the lake. We had to move in just as the tide was coming up so that we could leave while the tide was still high. Otherwise, we’d be sleeping there. Like anything in Alaska, you’d best plan every step of the way. If you found a way in then you better know your way out before entering.

It was in this hidden lake that we’d catch a mess load of fish for dinner and my father would almost ruin our first trip in just half a day and only part of the way to our destination.

George found a school of fish holding and anchored the boat. We tossed our spoons tagged with treble hooks into the thick of them on our oversized spinning gear. We didn’t care about the fight. We cared about eating.

We hauled several fish in, all pink salmon, and tossed them into a Rubbermaid trash can. Good eaters, and very abundant. My dad then hooked into one that he proclaimed must have been a whale. It didn’t have a fighter’s chance being that it was on such heavy tackle, but he kept saying over and over again how it felt like he was reeling in something much bigger. Once the fish surfaced next to the boat it became clear what had happened. He foul-hooked the fish right under the skin of the fish’s back near its dorsal fin. The fish had been dragged sideways the entire way.

 

The moment it surfaced the skin broke with a loud “SNAP!” and the spoon popped out of the fish which immediately kicked away. I looked and saw my dad’s face which could only be described as a bewildering mixture of shock and dread. The spoon that popped out of the fish’s back had flown up into the direction of the rod’s tension which shared the same path as my father’s face and slapped his cheek directly below his right eye. Only one of the three treble hooks was visible and sticking out from his face. The other two hooks were embedded in his cheek all of the way up to the shank.

 

Here we are in a small boat in a remote lake in the Alaskan wilderness. It required a full day’s travel to get to where we were, and we weren’t even finished traveling; yet, here’s my father with a fishing lure embedded in his cheek so deep it’s difficult to imagine not needing minor outpatient surgery to remove it. The myriad of complications that could arise from two large treble hooks buried just under an eyeball is a thought that’s frightening enough. Compound that with the remoteness of our location, and just the sheer time and effort it took to get there, which means the same time and effort to get back, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to envision the best case scenario in which this could end. There was no way in anyone’s mind it would end right there on the boat. Anyone’s mind except for George’s that is.

George calmly shifted around from the stern of the boat and kneeled right next to my father.

“Remove your glasses and look over that way. Be still and don’t flinch” he said in a placid tone.

He then began talking to dad about a seemingly unrelated topic to what was going. It may have been something like Auburn football or a mutual acquaintance neither had seen in a while. I can’t recall exactly what it was because I was so shocked and sickened by the whole ordeal. As George was talking he took his forefinger and put a gentle but forceful amount of pressure on the side toward the bridge of Dad’s nose and his eye; right in between the nose and the lure.

“Now don’t move,” he reminded him and continued their trepidatious conversation. Then with a quick snatch from George’s other hand, which I had failed to even realize he was using, it snatched away from Dad’s face with the spoon in hand and carrying the hooks with it. I looked at Dad’s face and all I could see were two small holes the same size as the gauge of the hooks. A little bit of blood, but no more than two slight runs down the side of his cheek.

The wounds would later easily clot with persistent pressure from a handkerchief. No stitches needed. It was the cleanest wound you could have envisioned given that two treble hooks had gone into his face up to the shank and then had come out of the same hole.

It was the damnedest thing I’ve ever witnessed.

I know the protocols for removing fish hooks. I’ve seen the lemon demonstration and all of that. I know it’s doable, but the fact that this wasn’t a single #8 panfish or #2 bass hook, but relatively large gauged treble hooks that were embedded (I’m not exaggerating how deep they penetrated) right below his eye is incredible, or in George’s words, “awesome.”

We should have had to go back and wait on the sea plane to pick us up to take us back to a doctor in town. Worst case we could’ve tried ourselves and ripped his face up to the point that we couldn’t get it to stop bleeding. How he didn’t need stitches in that instance is nothing short of remarkable.

But to know George Mann is to know he’s a remarkable person. He understood the need for preparation in more than just the collection of tangible goods. Knowledge was easily one of if not the most important commodity to take with you, and that knowledge undoubtedly saved our first trip. Because of that, we were able to leave the next morning for East Yahtam.

“Y’all did alright today, but just wait until tomorrow. We’re going to hike up through there and hit the honey hole,” George told us as Dad was cleaning the day’s catch.

The term “honey hole” is widely used in fishing lore. To keep it within the realm of fishing, it’s the proverbial end of the rainbow where there’s an abundance of fish just waiting to be caught. It’s El Dorado; the lost city of gold. There are numerous abstract descriptions to conceptualize what a honey hole is and what it means to a particular individual. What’s incredible to think about is that a honey hole as described could actually exist.

Walk upstream from camp about 100 yards towards the back of our island. Walk across the “sometimes-creek” bed and from here you can wade up through the river to a nice pool that holds an adequate amount of salmon, or just before you reach said pool there’s a trail in the thick conifer tree line. The trail is tight and just wide enough to go one by one between tree trunks and boulders. The trail then rises up over the first pool and cuts through the woods which gives access to move further upstream to access the next pool just below the same ridge. The floor is advantageously lined with the same thick moss as the campsite which keeps your approach quiet as if you’re walking across carpeted floors. Walking along the ridge by the edge of the river you’re given a roughly 8-foot elevation above the water’s edge where there’s an excellent vantage point looking down into the next pool. The trail ends by dropping back down to the river about midway through the pool.   

There’s an excellent view of this pool at the trail’s highest level. You can see back towards your feet there’s a shallow enough bar that will allow anyone wading to cross to the other side, but if you sit still long enough you can look down into the pool directly below you and have absolutely no doubt about where you are. The water’s surface is moving slowly left to right with the current headed back towards camp, but the riverbed isn’t. It should be motionless contrasting against the moving surface water, but it isn’t. It’s seemingly moving upstream against the current. The movement is subtle at first and by no means obvious until a small spot in the riverbed flashes and you realize it’s not the riverbed.

George speaks up, “Y’all ever seen anything like this before? It’s like this every year.”

Hundreds of salmon are stacked up virtually on top of each other bottle-necked in the pool below waiting for their opportunity to make it to the next one upstream.

Welcome to the honey hole.

Alaska 2007 - part 2 012

George’s explanation as to what the name means was fairly simple, “Yahtam means ‘nothing’.”

The name literally means East Nothing.

I can only imagine part of the reason how he came up with the name being he didn’t want anyone knowing anything about where he was fishing. This isn’t particularly uncommon amongst anglers. If you know of a good place to catch fish then the quickest way to remedy it is to tell someone else about it.

I can remember sitting outside on an unusually clear night at the camp in East Yahtam and seeing blinking lights way up high in the sky.

“Oh, look it’s an airplane,” someone observed. Keep in mind this was clearly a commercial flight cruising at an altitude so high that it was barely perceivable by the observers.

George immediately responded, “Looks like we’ve gotta pack up and find a new place.” We sort of laughed it off, but you could tell in his tone that he was slightly perturbed.

He had his location where he knew the fish were and where they were plentiful. Pink salmon, Chum salmon, and King salmon could be found in abundance. Yahtam had pools with congregations of fish nearing the hundreds. They were all stuck in the traffic jam of the late summer migrations in a shallow river making their way to the spawning grounds.

Of course, the term “Yahtam” was used by George in more ways than giving a relative direction to nowhere. Many times he’d say things like:

“If you don’t listen to what I’m telling you then you won’t catch yahtam.”

“They can’t do yahtam about it.”

“A lot of people think they know how to catch big fish, but they don’t know yahtam.”

Of course, the key to catching big fish is finding big fish, and if there was anyone on the planet that knew how to find big fish then it was George.

Without him, we wouldn’t have found Yahtam.

Tales from East Yahtam: An Exercise in Remembering

I previously mentioned that I wanted to rethink what I was doing with this space. After thinking about it I’ve decided I want to use this space to help myself remember some things.

I’ve recently felt very nostalgic about my past trips to Alaska. I really do hope to go back and fish there again someday, but I also understand greater now that I won’t be able to do what we did 10 years ago ever again.

George Mann was a friend of my father and an accomplished outdoorsman. That actually might be selling him a bit short. Around here, and even in Alaska, he’s a legend. He held at least 21 IGFA fly fishing records, but surprisingly that’s not where he made a name for himself. He accomplished his notoriety in hunting exclusively with bow and arrow and holds many more records and accomplishments in that realm than he did in fishing. Consequently, these accomplishments landed him in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, and many of his accomplishments are on display at the Mann Wildlife Learning Museum at the Montgomery Zoo.

Bow hunting for grizzly, brown, black, and even polar bears is what brought George to Alaska, but it’s not what kept him there. For decades he went to a special place in Southeast Alaska that only he knew about to fish the late summer salmon run. He invited my father and me along several times, and the experiences were truly life-changing for me.

George passed away two years, and for what we know the locations we fished and how to get there went with him. We’ll never be able to go back even if we could find it on a map. Losing George meant losing that opportunity forever.

That gives me all of the motivation to move forward by going back — in my mind, pictures, and videos. I’m hoping that telling the story — if only to myself — will help keep him and the adventures we had alive in some way, and if nothing else spur me into growing as a fly fisherman through narrative and reflection.

George taught me how to fly fish. I’d certainly consider him a mentor even though no one would confuse me with being his protege. While these stories will certainly be an ode to him in many ways please don’t mistake this as an attempt to tell his story in any way. There are others who knew him better than I did that are more qualified to do that.

This space and the writing that falls into it is for me. I don’t plan on promoting it because I really want to have the luxury of posting something that sucks or is grammatically incorrect or is plain flat-out poorly written.

So, here we go.

Welcome to Tales from East Yahtam.

I’ve decided to change the name of this blog. For years it has — mostly sat dormant — gone by the title On The Fly. I still like that name. It makes as much sense as it did 6 years ago, although I’m not entirely convinced there aren’t tens of others out there going by that name or some variant of it.

What will I change it to? I have no idea.

Actually, that’s not true. I have a handful of ideas with one I’m particularly leaning towards, but I do think it’s necessary to make sure I don’t limit the focus with what I’m trying to do here [insert laughing/crying emojis here].

I absolutely despise writing about things I’m going to do. That’s a really productive way of never doing any of them. I already feel like there’s enough of that in my life as it is so the idea of committing to or starting something I’m even slightly hesitant on seems unnecessary.

One thing I do know is that I’m going to change the name of this blog, and hopefully rethink or recommit to whatever it is I want or might be able to do with this space.