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The Gift of Fly-Fishing

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fly fishing-cover

“A fishing rod is a stick with a hook at one end and a fool at the other”
— Attributed to Samuel Johnson.

Here’s a simple question, rather relevant with all that’s troubling our state at the moment: Why do people choose to live in Alaska?

Most Alaskans are here by choice; 42 percent of residents were born elsewhere. For some, the answer might be jobs in industry or the Permanent Fund Dividend; but for many, even those who dwell in cities, the answer is Alaska’s unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The statistics about Alaska’s wilderness areas are worth contemplating: 56,575,848 acres of land are set aside as wilderness, over half of what is by far the largest state by area. The state with the second-most wilderness, California, has less than 15 million acres of it. And Alaska’s wilderness stands out in quality as well as quantity: the towering mountains, rushing rivers, vast stands of spruce and birch, and bird-teeming wetlands are iconic symbols of the place we call home. With our state’s political and financial future in turmoil, it might be salutary to reflect on those positive aspects of life here — aspects which, with a little care, will be around forever.

There are many ways to recreate outdoors in Alaska, from biking to sea kayaking, but “sporting” — recreational hunting and fishing — is probably the most popular, with the deepest roots in Alaska’s history and the biggest impact on its economy.

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has as its main mission the development and enforcement of hunting and fishing regulations across the state, but it also has an educational ambit.

In partnership with the Outdoor Heritage Foundation of Alaska, a non-profit educational and advocacy organization which provides financial and logistical support to the department, ADF&G has for years offered education and safety classes for hunters. More recently, the department has for the last three years offered “Alaskans Afield,” a series of affordable, family-friendly workshops designed to introduce young and novice residents to the basics of a variety of outdoor recreational pursuits, with classes held in Fairbanks, Juneau, Nome, and — most conveniently for the 300,000 urban Alaskans living in Anchorage — the Mat-Su Valley.

On Saturday, June 4th, a half-dozen Alaskans and their families met at scenic Reflections Lake in the Palmer Hayflats (a state wildlife refuge consisting mostly of wetlands, whose remarkable history is worth reading about and whose trails, sloughs, and lakes demand a visit if you’ve never been).

palmer hayflats

The instructor, Ryan Ragan, is by day an Information Officer for ADF&G, which means he provides information to sportsmen about hunting regulations across a large region of Alaska. Saturday, however, the Montana-raised sportsman was there to share his love of fly-fishing; his mellow enthusiasm and love for all aspects of the sport burst through whenever he spoke.

fly fishing

A primer for the uninitiated: There are many ways to catch a fish, from trying to nab a catfish with your bare hands to spearing it underwater to standing at the mouth of the Kenai River with a giant net and waiting for salmon to swim into it.

Any kind of fishing that involves a hook attached to a line is known as “angling” (because a hook is angled). Most angling is done with actual bait like worms or fish-flesh, sometimes alive and sometimes dead; fly-fishing is distinct because of its use of “flies,” artificial lures usually designed to look like insects (hence the name) which, usually, float on the top of the water and entice fish, such as trout, to rise up and grab them.

Fly-fishing is an ancient practice, known in Roman times, but once most commonly known as the preferred fishing method of the English rural gentry. In America, as with most things, it lost its aristocratic flavor, but it still has a reputation today of being a fishing practice that emphasizes the skill, the experience, and the communion with nature, more than as an efficient method for getting food on the table.

This makes it, in many ways, an ideal sport for our state.

The first stage of the class entailed learning how to create the artificial lures, an endeavor known as “fly-tying.”

Although flies can be purchased at any sporting-goods store, many fly-fishermen prefer the do-it-yourself approach. Ryan spoke of the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from catching a fish on a lure you have built yourself. The basic tools of fly-tying are fairly straightforward: a vise to hold the hook in place, a spool of thread to bind the various components of the fly to the hook, and a bobbin to unspool the thread effectively.

Ryan taught us to tie a “wooly bugger,” a concoction made mostly of chicken down and feathers which purportedly resembles various insect nymphs but mostly looks like a bunch of chicken down and feathers (as Ryan noted, in the fishing business it’s best not to question what works).

wooly bugger

While we were hard at work on our flies, we got a visit from Pat Malone, President of Alaska Fly Fishers (AFF), the kind of guy who wears a hat sporting the club’s official lure (the Alaska Mary Ann, if you were wondering).

Just as obvious a true enthusiast as our instructor, he let us know about the mission of Alaska Fly Fishers: as with most sporting associations in our state and elsewhere, in addition to education, AFF has an important conservation component to its activities. Because healthy habitat is so essential to fish and game populations, (most) hunters and fishermen take conservation seriously. That very day, AFF was carrying out a habitation improvement project at nearby Matanuska Lake.

With newly-made flies in hand, we were led to the shores of Reflections Lake by Sierra Doherty, an education specialist with ADF&G who oversees the Alaskans Afield project in the Valley.

There, Ryan gave us a primer on the subtle techniques of fly-casting. In other methods of angling, the weight of the lure is what carries the line through the air and into the water.

Because the floating artificial lures are so light, fly-fishing requires specialized, heavy line and a unique method of casting — this technique, in which the fly is “false-cast” back and forth several times before being landed in the water, is also said to imitate the flight of insects and catch the attention of trout passersby.

We were casting from the shore and the water was shallow and full of vegetation — perhaps not ideal conditions (the no-doubt amateur look of our new flies probably didn’t help, either).

I don’t think anyone caught a fish that day, but that wasn’t quite the point. Casting a line into the still, clear waters of the lake, the craggy Chugach reflected in its surface, it was hard to feel anything but alive and well. Fly-fishing, and all it stands for, is a good reminder of why we live in Alaska.

reflections lake

Ivan Hodes is a public school teacher in the Anchorage School District, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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