Sunday, November 25, 2012

Catching a Giant Pike In Alaska

This isn’t an easy place to find. I find it mainly by luck, since the maps I have of the river aren’t very
accurate. I’ve sought out this river because I believe there will be large northern pike, which is often the case where a large river meets another. The Black River, as its name suggests, is indeed dark – nearly black. Its banks are low, grassy, and muddy instead of sandy or gravely. The mouth of the river is about four hundred meters wide and its sheer length with all the many loops and turns stretches perhaps three hundred miles or more, with its headwaters in the Olgilvie Mountains in Canada over a hundred air miles away. It’s a wild and rugged region up the river, and very few people travel through it.
     I once read about one young couple who left Vermont and spent their entire summer pulling and paddling their canoe up the Black. It’s the reason I’ve come here; to see what lured them here. I find more, endless spruce forests back over the bank of course, and some grass growing along the edges where the river empties sluggishly into the Porcupine on the far side. I beach my canoe, and because the water is fairly clear, I start fishing.Now more than ever because I'm out of food, days from the nearest village, and hungry as hell. I don't take killing animals lightly, but do it with great respect and only when I need to eat to stay alive. 
      With the broiling sun beating down and a rare lack of any breeze, I pull the brim of my hat down low and wade out into the knee-high slough and grass for one last cast. I fling my line about thirty feet off shore into water that’s about five feet deep, with a muddy bottom. I start reeling in my line right away, wrapping it around my round block of wood almost as fast as I can. Northern pike are voracious predators with toothy mouths and large bony skulls. They like to go after prey that moves fast, and they like to hit it hard. Sometimes when I reach my hand into the water to get something I dropped, I get a little squeamish thinking a pike might bite my hand.
     Before I get the first cast in, bam, a fish strikes my lure and runs hard with it for a couple of seconds. I give a tug and it runs again, yanking my line off the block of wood, hissing with rapidity until most of my line is drawn tight across the river. Not wanting to break my eight-pound test line, I let the fish run several times, trying to tire it. I try to reel the fish in when the line slackens, but I don’t always get very far before it runs again and pulls out more line. Feeling the weight and power on my line, the fish is a giant compared to the rest I’ve caught and I don’t have a clue on how I’m going to land it.
     Then I get an idea. I make my way over to the small beach where I have my canoe, fumbling through the mud and weedy water while playing the fish and making sure my line stays taunt, but not tight enough to allow the fish to break it. And this isn’t always easy to do. There’s a fine line when playing a huge pike like this. You have to respect it and not expect too much and get your hopes dashed. The majority of Northern Pike will probably break your line or throw the hook. They’re that strong and ferocious. I’ve had far more on than I’ve landed. You have to let them run, but you have to bring them in when they give you an inch of slack.
     While holding my wooden reel with one hand, I push half my canoe in the water with my other hand. I leave the other half sitting on a flat sandy beach. The canoe, angled against the beach at about sixty degrees, acts as a funnel so that when I get the fish into the opening of it, it won’t be able to bolt to the side and run again. Not having anywhere to go but back, it might use its own power to propel itself up against my canoe and onto the beach.
     Once the canoe is set, I ease the fish to shore several times, its massive missile-shaped body slipping ahead just below the water line like a dark lethal torpedo. Half a dozen times, it shakes its head and shoots out from shore into deeper water like a jet boat, leaving me feeling helpless to get the fish in. I’m sure I’m going to lose it. Its speed and strength seem insurmountable by my flimsy fishing gear – or any fishing gear for that matter. I’m almost certain it will break my line at any moment, like much smaller pike have already done, but I keep playing it to see how the battle will end, letting the fish run with the line at will and not attempting to force it onto shore before it has gotten tired. And with uncertain days ahead of me, I will surely eat the meat.
     The tenacious fish refuses to give in; it’s a survivor, evolutionarily nearly flawless, who has gotten so big by its aggressiveness to catch prey. But now this same aggressiveness has caused it to be hooked by my lure. Most fish in these waters have never seen a lure or been fished before. The pike around here think everything they can fit in their mouth is food or something to be tried. I reel it in time after time, perhaps a dozen in all, and each time I bring it in, it reacts by tossing its head, spinning around, and rocketing away from shore. My arms are actually starting to get tired.
     After about twenty minutes the fish does tire somewhat, as far as I can tell, so I ease it to shore again. “What the hell,” I say. “It’s now or never.” Then at the last second before it bolts and breaks my line, I slide the fusiform fish quickly along the side of my canoe where it can’t get away easily. It gives a half-hearted attempt to swim away, but the only direction it seems to be able to go is forward toward the canoe and the beach. It doesn’t seem to have the ability to turn completely around and shoot out the way it had come in. Without it jerking to the side, I slide it up onto shore. Then I jump on it, literally straddling the fish with my legs and using both hands to hold it from shaking loose and slipping back into the water. I start to get up while holding it in both hands, but the fish jerks in my hands and causes me to fall down over my canoe, banging my knee in the process. I land on my side in the soft mud so manage to still hold the fish in my hands while rolling back over on my knees. “Holy shit,” I mumble. I’m not starving yet, I but I could be if the weather turns severe and I can’t paddle for days. I don’t enjoy killing animals, but by keeping all the meat this fish provides, it will help insure my survival and ability to get out of here.
     I hold the fish for about thirty seconds, before standing up. Then I pen it against the gunnel of my canoe with one hand and my legs. I reach inside my canoe to get hold of my paddle, where I then start beating it on the skull to kill it, bashing it several times as fast as I can. I believe in the quick clean kill. If I’m going to kill something, I don’t want it to linger and make a show of it. I just want to get it done before the fish has more time to become more afraid. There’s nothing pleasurable in it for me. It’s just survival.
     This fish doesn’t die as quickly as I would have liked. After I smash it in the head the first time, its eyes widen with fear and its muscles tighten. I feel bad, but there’s no turning back now. I continue the kill, hoping to make it as merciful as possible. But can you really be merciful at killing something? I hit it again five more times hard and quick before it dies. Blood and slime splatters onto my arms and face. I (or my dog) always eat what I kill, and sometimes I eat stuff I don’t kill, the entire thing, head tail, organs, everything except the large intestines, which I dry and use for small pieces of cord to tie things. If I’m going to ruin a life that has been succeeding in its environment, perhaps happily, before I so arrogantly muddled in, then I have the obligation to respect it and not waste any portion of it.