February 9th, 2009

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Silvers with Riley
By Hap, Alaska

The hike was miserable; almost two miles, cold, raining and the wind gusting. The brush was soaking wet and the silver salmon creek we were headed for promised to be too high and muddy to fish.

Riley was struggling, trying his best to get through without help. His pride at seven was already a serious force. His raincoat nearly swept the ground and hardly seemed necessary since his hip boots were pulled all the way up. His feet had outgrown his legs that year producing big loose wrinkles in the boot tops. Neither the excess coat yardage nor the rubber wrinkles helped him through the brushy hummocks.

As the hike wore on I worried Riley would give up, but he didn't. Then I nearly gave up when we finally reached the creek. It was every bit as high and roiled as expected. A pinch point in the current produced a standing wave and it was throwing foam balls and some rose enough to get caught by the wind and tossed into the bank of willows and alders above. The small island in mid-hole was submerged. The stream below the hole was running through the alders for several feet on either side, above and outside its usual banks. And still, Riley wanted to fish. He had been tough and deserved better.

We waded out to the submerged islet and found the water only a few inches deep at the islet's highest point. Riley immediately started working a coho fly, flopping it out and stripping it back in his best imitation of the technique that included both hand stripping and swiveling his hips.

It took only minutes before I saw him holding the rod above the handle with scarlet fingers and pivoting his whole body from the ankles up. He looked to be snagged among the trees across the hole, but he had not been working enough line to get there. In slow motion the rod doubled over, snapping Riley back around, nearly pulling him over as a great, sea-lice-infested, purple-blue-chrome silver came airborne and hung with beads of water suspended and then, ever so slowly, fell back into the roiled water.

Riley regained his footing and leaned back on the rod as the silver came to the surface again and ran, half-exposed, downstream and into the maze of flooded tag alders, tangling more and more until Riley could no longer feel any pressure and we could hear the silver thrashing back in the dark recesses under the alders. Without stopping to consider the potential problems in leaving him alone so close to the raging water, I ran up out of the hole and beat through the brush to go around and come in from below the tangled fish.

Almost immediately I stepped into a deep hole hidden by the frothy water and went to my knees, the water over my waist. When my breath finally returned it was only good for gasped profanity.

The silver hung down current from a larger alder trunk, rolling and shooting back and forth on a six-foot tether. I could not grab the fish, missing his tail several times as he swung past, so I grabbed the line with my left hand and tried to grab him with the right. Panicked by the rough handling the silver shot away up current. Stumbling back and forth through the brush I again went to my knees, exchanging the slightly warmed water in my boots for fresh ice. I could no longer find the silver and blowdown, awash in the torrent, kept me from going straight back to Riley, so when it was obvious the fish was lost I stumbled back through the brush the way I had come. When I could see the hole and most of the flooded islet Riley was not there.

In flooded boots I slogged, no small amount of panic, to the top of the dirt slide down to the creek and there knelt Riley holding down his fish and looking very concerned. He said he kept the line tight and took whatever slack the fish gave him, until it was flopping on the islet and from there he dragged it to the small beach. Silver teeth are fierce and tender young hands could easily be torn by them, yet he managed to remain intact.

On the hike back the sun broke through the low clouds igniting the burgundy fireweed and crimson blueberry leaves. In a bright patch Riley indulged me in a photo session and he looked so cold and lost in his rain gear. It remains a strong reminder of the resilience and uncomplaining character of a boy, now nearly a man and his independence building on the strength of a bent fly rod. ~ Hap

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