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Little made a wry face. "Dunno. Maybe a hundred?"
All of this just outside the front door.
By now the evening cold was coming on. A west wind spat snow, and the lodge, with its peeled yellow logs and a plume of woodsmoke lying out flat against the black of the woods, looked warm and welcoming. In Alaska, one soon learns, the difference between indoors and outdoors is of quantum magnitude. In the Lower Forty-Eight, or Outside, as Alaskans call the rest of the U.S., an out-doorsman is frequently reluctant to see the last light fade. But up here, after a day of wading through ice water, filling a boot or two, staggering through knee-deep muskegs, repelling rain or squinting through snow squalls, one finds the indoors inevitably welcome, regardless of natural beauty or the fecundity of fish. Many Alaskans build their houses without windows, not just to conserve heat but because they see enough of the raw wilderness during the workday.
Mary Martin, Bill's wife, greeted the guests with drinks and good cheer. A former stewardess for Alaska Airlines, svelte, black-haired and ruddy-cheeked, she is a model of self-sufficiency in the true tradition of frontier wives. Not only does she bake bread and cook marvelously (her wild duck dishes are particularly memorable), but she is also an excellent angler and a fine shot, both wing and rifle. She can sweat a copper plumbing joint, fell a tree, butcher a moose or stitch up an ax gash with the best of them. She once shot a prowling bear that had laid siege to the lodge. She is also rearing two attractive children—Robert, 3� and Ann Renae, four months old. Young Robert is already a practicing fly-fisherman and hunter.
The morning broke clear and windy. Yesterday's spit of snow at this elevation had dropped a white parka over the high mountains to westward, and the thermometer outside the window read 28� F. This in late September. The black 55-gallon fuel drum that serves as the lodge's sole source of heat had plenty of company as it warmed up.
After breakfast, Martin took the three Texans by plane up to the Agulapak, a nearby stream abounding in rainbows. The rest of the party piled into a john-boat and headed down the Nuyakuk with shotguns and fly rods for a day of catch-as-catch-can. Our guide was Rusty Beall, a mustachioed, 22-year-old Oregonian from Martin's hometown of Dallas. A short distance downstream he ran the boat up on a gravel bar and gestured to either side. "Rainbows and grayling," he said.
"Anywhere in particular?"
Wading out along the bar to about mid-thigh depth, leaning into the strong current, I worked about 30 feet of floating line out through the guides and dropped a No. 12 mosquito pattern at the head of a riffle. At the end of the float, just as I was about to pick up the cast, a grayling arched into the air and dived on the fly like a Stuka. I popped the barbless hook into him—Martin suggests pinching down the barbs on all flies to minimize injury; most of the fish are released, anyway—and checked him with a forefinger as he ran fast out into the main current. He got up once, ran again, downstream, then turned and ran up between my boots. He looked to go about 1� pounds. I held him up against the light and raised the dorsal. Opalescent and spotted in pale, nacreous ovals, the dorsal started low and then swept up to a high, trailing roach—the signature of a male (female grayling have smaller dorsal fins that start high and tail out low). The back was dark, a greenish black, and I could see how the fish, with its drag-less, torpedo-shaped body, could hold so still to the bottom that it would be invisible to the angler's eye in all but the most favorable light. A man could fish with a thousand grayling just 10 yards from him and not see a one, until it dive-bombed his fly. It's that element of surprise, rather than any exuberant acrobatics after the hookup, that makes the grayling such a delight on the fly rod.
In the next half hour, we hooked and released about 50. Some, to be sure, were "long-line releases," when the fish threw the barbless hooks, but all of the strikes were the same: the downstream dive on the fly at the very end of the float.