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Grayling existed in great numbers in the Lower Forty-Eight as recently as the early 1900s, particularly in Michigan's Lower Peninsula where market fishermen serving Chicago and Detroit had a field day on such streams as the Au Sable and the Manistee. But heavy logging combined with the big kills to wipe the fish out. Today, apart from small populations in the northern Rockies, the Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) is found only in Canada and Alaska. Its European cousin, Thymallus thymallus, is still abundant, though. In France they have a beautiful name for the fish: l'ombre. which means the Shadow. Appropriate.
Farther downstream, under banks gone skeletal with spruce snags, Beall suddenly cut the motor. He pointed to the left. A large, dark bird moved slowly out over the water, pursued by two ravens. "There's a family of bald eagles nesting here," the guide said. "That's the baby."
Some baby. The bird's wingspan was a good five feet, and its talons, catching the low morning light, glistened like a Gurkha's kukri. But the adolescent eagle didn't know how to use its weaponry quite yet. It flew clumsily, screaming pitiful squawks for its mommy as the two adult ravens stabbed their long black beaks at its head. Then, with an audible whir of pinions, mommy arrived. With two quick passes she sent the ravens flapping back over the water. The eagles settled on snags across the river, with the mother ostensibly reading the raven riot act to the youngster.
From a slough beyond the eagles' nest we jumped a small flock of bluebills. The shotguns sounded and three ducks fell while the remainder whirled back upstream. Ahead, with the motor stopped for the shooting, we heard the low mutter of white water. "The falls of the Nuyakuk." said Beall. "There's a portage that the Eskimos cut just above them. We'll put in there and hike over to the tail of the white water. There's rainbows galore."
A party of river Eskimos had preceded us downstream that morning. They had been gillnetting up in the Tikchik Lakes, and we found them encamped at the far side of the portage, cooking white-fish for lunch. Small, almost delicately boned men with wide flat faces, they offered us a taste of the broiled fish. The leader of the party was a wizened man who said he was 81 years old. In their heavy wooden boats lay 500-odd pounds of fish: lake trout, northern pike, lake char, whitefish and grayling. Rifles and shotguns were in the scuppers, rusty and weather-worn.
The falls poured down through two channels, doglegging to the left over smooth-pocketed boulders that shone bone white in the sun. We fished the back eddies but picked up only grayling. Don Sullivan, a partner of Reid's from San Diego, put together a spinning outfit and cast a Mepps out beyond the reach of the fly rods. That's where the rainbows were. He fought a fish of about six pounds right up to his boots, only to lose it at the last moment, then picked up a smaller trout on the next cast. We fished for an hour and then headed back upriver, hoping to jump some more ducks.
"There's teal back in the slough," said Beall as we idled up the right bank. "Green wings. Let's put in on the point and walk around. Maybe we can puddle-jump 'em."
It was hard going through the mud. Halfway around the point of land that separated us from the ducks, whose gabble came to us faintly on the wind, like the chatter of old ladies at a tea party. we saw fresh bear signs. The tracks measured a good eight inches across. "There was a black bear in here the other day," Beall said. When we neared the far end of the point, the teal jumped, well out of range, and hustled around the other side. It was to become an all-too-familiar sight.
As the afternoon waned, we picked up two more bluebills and Don Sullivan fell in the mud. The teal outsmarted us at every turn. We headed back to the lodge. The Texans had returned from the Agulapak, where the rainbows had been all of a size: about four or five pounds. Charlie Cook, while walking the tundra from one rapids to another, had fallen in a sink hole. "He was pushing along through that waist-high grass, complaining about the rough going, when all of a sudden—zip—he was gone."
"The damn thing was man-deep." said Charlie, laughing. "Man, I'd hate to have to walk out of this country. It would take you a year to go 20 miles. To top it off, I managed to fall in the river when we got back to it. Talk about cold...."