Orvis receives a lot of letters and emails from customers who have a story to tell, but few of these writers capture the excitement of discovering fly fishing and the wonders of a journey to Alaska the way Emily Williams does. Just 14 years old, this high-school freshman from Princeton, Massachusetts, displays language and observational skills well beyond her years. And it seems she’s pretty good with that fly rod, too.
Here, in her own words, is Emily’s story:
I have spent many a Saturday morning before breakfast in waders, tossing a fly line into a river or lake with my dad, usually to catch bass, sunfish, and the occasional trout. Just being close to the water is good enough for me. I love the outdoors.
When school ended in June, and I graduated from the eighth grade along with all my friends and classmates, I didn’t think life could get any better. Which is why our trip to Alaska came as a huge surprise. Mom said, “We’ve got plane tickets and everything.” To which my younger sister, age eight, began hopping up and down, waving her arms frantically. My younger sister can most accurately be described as a small blond comet. She likes dogs, candy, and art. I love her very much.
Among the commotion, my dad leaned over to me and said, “We’ll be doing some serious flyfishing.” To which I began hopping up and down, waving my arms frantically-well, not really. But it felt like something inside my stomach was doing exactly that.
I’ve been fly fishing for a while-exactly how long, I’m not sure I could say-so the chance to do some “serious fly fishing,” in Alaska, no less, sounded like great fun. I own a small fly rod with a small reel, which is the perfect size for the fish I love to catch the most, brook trout. I’ve tied a few flies, and I’ve lost a fair few of them on overhanging branches and stubborn boulders. I’ve been hooked, hemostat’d, pinched, spined, and have even unwittingly stepped off of rocks into five-foot-deep holes, filling my waders with freezing river water. Fly fishing: I love it.
It was August. Five days till Alaska. I was in my room, reading, for a change, when my dad came in holding a fish field guide open to the plates section.
“Dolly Varden. These and rainbows are what we’ll be fishing for,” he said. I leaned in for a closer look. Dad was pointing to a large trout-like specimen somewhere between green and brown, with the signature fishy stare and small pinkish spots from tail to gills. “See the white edges on the fins? That’s how you identify the Dollies as a char. They’re pretty, aren’t they?”
I wouldn’t be bringing my small fly rod on this trip. Two weeks previously, a long, thin package arrived from Orvis. In it was a brand new fly rod and reel. This reel was the real deal (bar stock). A hundred feet of line, loads of backing underneath that, and when you turned the handle, you got a nice, smooth click-click-click-click sound. And the rod! A dark, sleek, nine-foot six-weight which came apart into four pieces for travel. Dad and I tried it out at the reservoir one day. It was by far heavier than what I was used to, but in time I got used to it. This was going to be awesome. Ready or not, Dolly Varden.
Imagine, if you will: Thin clouds in varying shades of gray chase each other across the clear, pale blue sky. You can feel the fine chilly morning air, laced with chimney smoke in places, and your breath rises in curls of condensation. Perhaps it is the lack of oppressively humid summer weather and the presence of spruce and hemlock trees all around the tiny log cabin where you have spent the night, but something feels distinctly different. Welcome to the outskirts of Seward, Alaska.
If you ever find yourself in Alaska, make sure you visit Seward, just to take it all in. It’s a small town at the foot of an enormous, vivid green mountain so tall it becomes lost in clouds. Among the active streets full of a cozy variety of shops and restaurants, people-mainly tourists-can be seen going about their daily business. One young man pedaled by on a bike, steering one-handed, a fishing rod firmly grasped in the other. I had to smile. At the harbor, lined with boats of every shape and size, the smell of fish pervaded the air, and Resurrection Bay sparkled in a thousand shades of blue. Clouds rose majestically off the far-away snowy mountains; one cloud rested on the water itself, and we could see the shadow of a seaplane traveling across it lengthwise. This was the only sunny day we experienced during the entire trip, typical for Alaska.
Anyway, the fishing. On our third day in Seward, Dad and I headed off to Moose Pass to meet up with our fishing guide. He was not only exceptionally kind and good with fish but owned a dog named Lily (one of my best friends has a dog named Lily, as well).
When we arrived at the stream with our fishing gear, we walked a fair distance from the highway, down a steep slope, across a log lying on a patch of stagnant, murky water, and through lots of underbrush. The water was miraculously clear, and I saw my first few fish.
These were red or sockeye salmon, the body of which is a shocking vermillion color, easy to see through the water. The males have the characteristic hump and an oddly hooked beak full of huge (for a fish) teeth; the females are a more regular shape with the same coloration. All have the same colorless, bulging eyes. The Dolly Varden seemed to be invisible; you could only make them out by their shadows, as they tended to hang out right behind large groups of salmon.
I was surprised by our choice of flies. Instead of the traditional fly made from feather pieces and a hook, we were equipped with a tiny orange bead (meant to simulate a salmon egg) tied in at least two inches above a bare hook, a weight, and strike indicator tied in above that. Our guide told us how the trout would always bite the bead, mistaking it for an egg, and the hook would automatically become caught in the fish’s jaw. He was right. Almost immediately after, Dad had a salmon on the end of his line, and after several minutes of struggle, a beautiful female salmon was brought to shore. Lily was all over this; she bounded over to inspect the salmon until we laid the magnificent fish back in the water where it took off.
Not long afterwards, I caught my first salmon. They seemed to be biting the eggs out of aggression but they were hard to avoid, there were so many and our Dollies were slipping right in behind their holding spots. The take started with a single jerk of the bobber. It was rather like having a sack of flour at the end of the line; the salmon didn’t seem to want to move. Then it apparently realized it had been hooked and swam off.
The effect was immediate: it stripped off a good amount of line as I struggled to keep the end of my rod up high. “When it stops swimming away, reel in as much line as you can,” yelled our guide.
On the other side of the water, Dad had a Dolly Varden on his line. Dad’s Dolly Varden didn’t much want to be held. It tried to wriggle out of Dad’s hands; he almost dropped it but snatched it up again before it could wriggle loose. This was all catch-and-release, and that fish was very happy to go.
I cast my line just above a group of salmon hoping to catch a large Dolly hanging just behind and was shocked when my line snapped tight, hooked into the jaw of a king salmon. “I got a King!” I screeched. It took off downstream before I had a chance to reel; all of my line was out, I was down to the backing, and the king salmon kept pulling, so hard, in fact, that all I could do was try to slow the run down until my line snapped at the bead. The big one got away. No Matter, my heart was rushing.
A couple Dolly Varden later, Dad got the catch of the day: a huge male sockeye, glistening red. Its formidable toothy jaw opened and closed almost comically as the hook was removed and it was returned to its fishy haunts. A splash and it was away.
All in all, it was a truly enjoyable day, though my forearm was sore for days afterward. During our visit to the Portage Glacier Lodge, I came across a polyester sockeye in the stuffed-animal section of the gift shop. He’s mine now.
Alaska is home to beauty on every scale, from the glistening drop of water at the center of a lupine to the huge, glacier-covered mountains, from the smallest creek to the largest ocean, from the tiniest cabin to the grandest restaurant-it’s a mind-blowing experience of spectacular proportions. My thanks to the person who invented fishing. Whoever it was, they sure were on to something.