Over the Shelikof Strait the morning sky had the iridescent sheen of the shell of a freshly shucked oyster, steel gray suffused with pink and blue lights that took fire on the snows of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and on Mount Katmai, a 6,700-foot-high volcano 45 miles away on mainland Alaska.
The sea was an oyster shell, too, blue with rose highlights, calm, barely moving until it broke lazily against the monolithic cliff of Tanglefoot, stirring the kelp, pushing by Mary's Creek until the water swirling out of the Karluk River checked and roiled it. This was slack tide, with the water as idle as the fur seals riding the little swells, immobile as the three bald eagles settled on a stony spit in the river.
The Karluk itself, on the west coast of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, looked barren: empty, translucent water slid fast over gray stones until it met the Shelikof in an acre or two of confused chop. On a ridge above, I watched the water for a sign that the ocean was starting to bully its way in again. The seals had vanished, the eagles taken to the air before my senses picked up the change and the daily miracle that would come with it, foreshadowed now by a fretting of the calm water and the silver reflections in it. like the sun catching the shields of an ancient army's vanguard.
And now. though this is my seventh morning on the Karluk, the fly rod shakes in my hand as I scramble up the loose pebbles to watch the army that's surging into the Karluk's mouth—the day's new wave of coho salmon streams out of the Pacific on the turn of the tide, thousands of bright-struck fish leaping, cavorting like circus clowns.
Stripping line as I go, slithering down the stones, I wade clumsily out into the river, launch the garish green and purple streamer fly, flashy with tinsel, into the thick of them. My right hand, gripping the rod butt, is wrapped with half a dozen Band-Aids covering cuts of a week's worth of salmon battles. The past seven days have seen this fly rod bend into more than 100 cohos. Still, I tremble. I am in the finest salmon river in the world, no matter what the people in the rustic lodges along Canada's Restigouche or the tweedy inns on Scotland's Tay or Spey or Dee might think. The Karluk is salmon fishing as known in heaven.
The great fly-fisherman G.E.M. Skues, father of modern nymph fishing, once unbent enough to write a little fiction concerning the late Mr. Castwell, a somewhat bumptious dry-fly purist who, as he thought, had ended up in heaven and been provided with a perfect streamside cottage, the finest tackle and an attendant water keeper. And perfect trout fishing, it seemed, until Mr. Castwell began to grow uneasy after catching fish after splendid fish from the same spot. Skues concluded his tale with this bit of dialogue:
"How long is this confounded rise going to last?" inquired Mr. Castwell. "I suppose it will stop soon?"
"No, sir," said the keeper.
"What, isn't there a slack hour in the afternoon?"
"No afternoon, sir."