And, of course, it was rewarded. Two hours after he first wet his line. Cook's rod tip bent and bucked; he straightened with a nearly audible creak from his crouch and the reel began to chatter. A blue-green fish with silvery sides spotted in pink vaulted from the water and headed into the deep. Cook checked its run, turned the fish, recovered some line, then stood helpless as the fish surged again, with this run taking him well into the backing. Some 20 minutes and half a dozen jumps later. Cook brought the fish to hand. Gently easing the fly from its jaw, he sent it back into the deeper water off the bar.
"I've waited 50 years for that fish," he said. "It was worth every second."
The fish was a sea-run Arctic char, and with it Charlie Cook had completed his life-list of the major North American trout. Iowa-born and fly-fisherman since he can remember. Cook has fished the upper Middle West, the Rockies, the Canadian Northwest Territories and even the British Isles, but this was his first Arctic char. It wouldn't be the last. Before the day was out, he would be taking char on every cast.
According to McClane's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, the Arctic char evolved during the Pleistocene ice ages when a land bridge separated the Arctic Ocean from the Pacific. The chars caught to the south of the bridge became what we today call the Dolly Varden (itself named for the girl in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge who always wore a pink-spotted dress). The other chars are the brook trout and the lake trout. The Arctic char, though, is the only one with circumpolar distribution, occurring in Iceland (as the bleikja), Norway (r�ye), Sweden (r�ding), Great Britain (Windermere char), France (omble chevalier), Germany (der Seesailbling] and Russia (paliya).
The grace point when it comes to Arctic char is the magnificent coloration they adopt during the fall spawning season. Along their underparts the males turn a bright reddish orange, almost Day-Glo gaudy, while the dorsal surface and the head turn a midnight black just tinged with green. The ivory-colored leading edges of their pectoral, pelvic and anal fins highlight the fireworks. Sea-run fish come in bright silver, then quickly go to blue accented by the pale pink spots. Arctics of more than 25 pounds have been taken from the sea-run population, while the landlocked variety rarely exceeds eight pounds.
The trick to catching Arctic char, as Cook quickly discovered, is to work your fly all the way in. Like the Dolly, this fish will often stalk a fly or a spinner all the way back to the rod tip. I hooked one—a veritable light-show of a male—not six feet from the toes of my waders, and Doug Reid caught and released five bright males from a pool in the Geshiak inlet that couldn't have measured 40 feet from head to tail.
Mixed in with the char at Geshiak Lake were swarms of tough little rainbows, none of them bigger than four pounds and most in the two-pound category. The rainbows far outperformed their distant relatives in acrobatics—Focke-Wulf 190s as compared to Brewster Buffaloes—but since the name of the game that day was char, they got to be a nuisance.
Imagine it: rainbow trout a nuisance! That's got to be angler's heaven.
Later we flew down the Togiak River, prospecting for schools of fish fresh in from the sea. Martin spotted some in a long, gravel-bottomed stretch just above a set of rapids and we put down. Dead, spawned-out salmon—mainly kings and cohos—carpeted the bottom, but when we cast out into the riffles at midstream we picked up char on almost every throw. Cook took 15 on 17 casts. These fish were sprightlier than the ones up in Geshiak, leaping and tearing off line. We kept a few to eat. The flesh was firm, bright orange and delicately flavored. Altogether an exemplary fish in an exemplary setting.
Rusty Beall was waiting on the gravel bar when we landed. A party of Eskimos, he reported, headed upriver this afternoon. "Three men and five guns," he said. "They told me they were going to kill anything that moves. Except people." Beall laughed. "That made me feel a little better."