Late afternoon is a mystical time of day when you’re sitting on the bow of a fishing boat, rod in hand, during the height of Alaska’s brief summer. The low-hanging sun chisels the mountains into high definition, accompanied by the smells of pine, salt, and sunscreen. The water looks like beveled glass, disturbed only by the otters floating by with a clutch of mussels on their bellies.
No sooner than I thought, man, it can’t get any more peaceful than this, I felt the distinct tug of a rockfish taking my bait—fish on.
Keeping a bend in the rod, I reeled in, coaxing the fish skywards. Just as it surfaced, it spat out the hook and landed on its back in the water. It fluttered its appendages like a shell-side-down turtle before an eagle descended from the top of a nearby spruce tree, snatched it in its talons, and disappeared into the mist toward the opposite shore.
“Huh,” said a boatmate. “That’s not quite what I pictured when I imagined the one that got away.”
Like the rockfish, I, too, am one that got away. I lived in Alaska for most of my 20s, just shy of seven full years. Recently, I moved to Colorado, and this summer fishing adventure was during my first trip back.
One of the great traveler dilemmas is deciding where to go next. Do you launch yourself into the unknown, seeking newness in the customs, food, dress, and language of a place you haven’t been? Or do you spend time sliding back into the relaxing comfort of a destination you already know?
Typically, if given the option, I’d usually choose to go somewhere new over somewhere I’ve been before. Yet, this past July I was back in the 49th state on a fishing boat, in the Alaska panhandle on a return trip to secluded fishing lodge Waterfall Resort.
In a past life, the resort was a salmon cannery, so it makes sense that the waters outside it are rich in omega-3-carrying fish. Guests stay in converted staff quarters and spend their days reeling in as many salmon, halibut, rockfish, and ling cod as fishing limits and luck allow. The most coveted, however, is a species of salmon known as king or Chinook. They’re prized for their rich, buttery flavor and size (they can weigh over 50 pounds, but most fall in the 15- to 20-pound category).
Though I’d been a card-carrying Alaskan for many salmon seasons, I’d never caught a king. This would be the year.
“I call this spot Jurassic Park,” Tony, the captain, announced on our second full day of fishing. My three boatmates and I dropped our bait—which immediately got four bites. Every time the hook hit the water, a rockfish, red snapper, or vermilion was on it within seconds. In under 20 minutes, the vessel’s floor was littered with fish. But still no kings.
Later that evening, I swapped fish tales at Waterfall’s bar with a gentleman from Texas. This was his 12th summer visiting Waterfall Resort. The feat was impressive, until he said his dad had been coming for more than 20 years. The resort, it seems, attracts a lot of returners. The Texans had already been on the property for three days and had each reached their limit on kings (nonresidents are only allowed to bag two kings in July), much to my envy.
If I were to land a king, it would be due to our parallel fates of being called home by some invisible force. A salmon’s whole lifespan is a round-trip venture from river to sea and back again. A year after hatching in Alaska’s freshwater lakes and streams, the young fish surf the current downstream until they’re discharged into the sea, often hundreds of miles away. For the next two to seven years, they putter around the ocean, eating smaller fish and putting on mass in preparation for their return trip.
At some point, a flip switches, and their sole mission is to journey back to the spot, almost exactly, where they came into the world. Over the course of many weeks, the salmon leave the ocean to fight their way up an unrelenting stream until they find the area where they themselves hatched to find a mate, spawn, and perish. Their bodies are consumed by insects, which will feed the young salmon when they emerge from their eggs. It’s that journey that brings them past our waiting bait, and with any luck, into our cooler.
On the final morning, we headed south—the only boat to do so. “It’s hero or bust,” said Captain Tony. “Either you’ll catch nothing, or we’ll catch everything.”
We’d caught just one king between the four of us in the last three days. While it was the second largest of the season at 33 pounds and enough for each of us to enjoy several meals, it was far short of our Department of Fish and Game mandated limit. If we went north, the chances of getting a salmon were slim. We decided to bet big.
Though we navigated to a spot directly above the kings we’d hoped to catch—they presented as boomerangs on the ship’s depth monitor screen—they just weren’t biting. (There’s some truth in the adage that it’s called fishing, not catching.)
I didn’t land a king. Stack that on top of my recent move from Alaska, and a trip back seemed all the more important. After floundering through a new life in Colorado—making a new set of friends, buying a house, learning how to get around—there was comfort in returning to the familiar repetition and patience required on an Alaskan fishing trip.
Soon after, back on the dock, another angler shared his story of a salmon that got away. “It was this big,” he groaned, holding his hands about three feet apart. And, having been there myself many times over the years, those hands will move further and further apart with each return to that story.
If you go: Waterfall Resort
Book now: Waterfall Resort; rates start at $2,775 for three days, two nights
Waterfall Resort operates from June to September each season. Boats allow for four passengers apiece, and captains are equipped to work with anglers of every skill level. All accommodations are fit for two people and include rooms in the main lodge and stand-alone cabins. The resort includes a dining room, bar, seating areas overlooking the water, and a tackle and gift shop. All tackle, including rods, bait, waders, and boots, are provided.