The monster pike made a sharp turn and swam hard toward the boat, straining my 10-pound-test line. Dark water churned as the fish’s tail broke the surface. Whirlpools followed as the tail slammed back into the water. My arms ached. I could feel the fish jerking, trying to free itself from the lure.
Pulling hard, I stopped the run and turned the fish. The pike surfaced, admitting defeat. I guided it into a net. After releasing it, I gazed across the lake and prepared to make another cast. The spinner hit the water.
I started my retrieve. The line went tight. Another trophy was hooked. And then I woke, sweating, thoughts racing, heart pounding and arms tense. A fishing dream should be a good dream, but not this one. It wasn’t just a dream, though. These thoughts were the memories of a trip to Alaska. Sure, the fishing had been spectacular, but the experience was marred by the wilderness paranoia that beset two members of our group.
In 1972, assignment orders sent me to a radar site in the Alaskan wilderness. I was a young airman and looked forward to the fishing opportunities at my remote home. On base I asked around for some local advice and everyone agreed that I should talk to Sally.
Sally was a hermit. She lived in an isolated cabin 12 miles from my radar office. Even for guys at the edge of civilization, Sally was rough looking. She wore a greasy black snowmobile suit that matched her dark hair. All but five teeth were missing from her grin and her skin resembled a well-worn leather coat. Locals claimed she took two baths a year: one after ice-out and one prior to the fall freeze.
I wasn’t there to judge hygiene, though. I wanted to find record-breaking pike, and this woman, according to everyone I asked, knew exactly where to go. Her cabin, which stood in a small forest opening, was adorned with miner’s lanterns and a potbelly stove. That was all she needed.
When I approached her, she said in a soft voice, “Yes, Sally knows where the fish are.” Not the most charming person, but I believed her. After a short conversation she agreed to be my guide.
At the base my enthusiasm was hard to hide. Two civilians, Peewee and Jim, asked to come along, too. Why not, I thought? But their hidden instabilities would, in fact, push our fishing party to the brink. [pagebreak]
I commandeered some circa-1947 C-rations, a 16-foot boat, an old outboard and other gear needed for a three-day expedition. That included sidearms for the bears and insect repellant for the swarms of mosquitoes that worked the Alaskan woods like Red Cross volunteers on a blood drive.
The trip began with a clear sky and Mt. McKinley in the distance. Our battered ’65 pickup bounced down a potholed dirt path 22 miles to the banks of the Kuskokwim River. Upon our arrival we unloaded the truck, loaded the boat and shoved off from the rocky shoreline. The river, swollen with spring melt, was moving fast.
For two hours, the hum of the outboard broke the silence. In the third hour, Sally pointed to the river’s east bank. “Go there,” she said.
The boat’s direction changed and we found a narrow channel leading into thick brush and floating marsh. Slowing the engine, we crept blindly through the waterborne wilderness for half a mile. Then, like sunshine breaking through clouds, a small lake came into view. This was Wilson’s Slough, 62 acres, round and lined with trees. The motor opened up and the boat’s bow split the wwater for the south shore and camp. We all felt the excitement of fishing these lost pristine waters, and wasted little time establishing camp and returning to the boat.
Armed with a 6-foot spin rod and a box of spinners, I took my first cast. Fifteen feet from the boat the lure was slammed. My rod bowed double under the hit and the drag on the reel chattered as a 4-foot northern pike plowed toward the lake bottom and a jungle of cabbage. Twelve trying minutes later, the 27-pound pike was subdued. From 10:30 to 11:30 that night, every cast was met by the razor-sharp teeth of a pike in the 15- to 30-pound range. Fish after fish greedily sucked in the baits being thrown, then thrashed to the surface and tail-hammered the boat. In a water-soaked hour I landed six pike, all trophies. With the midnight sun fading and a soft easterly wind in my face, I set down my pole, too exhausted to continue the fray.
[pagebreak] Despite the phenomenal fishing, Peewee and Jim couldn’t stop bickering in the boat, complaining about getting in each other’s way during casting and landing. They even sputtered about how to handle the net, tie on lures-things that don’t matter when you’re in fishing heaven.
Later that evening the tension escalated. Peewee and Jim started acting menacingly toward each other. Peewee kicked a flaming log toward Jim for no apparent reason, and Jim kicked it back. Jim chided Peewee for making the coffee too strong, and the two exchanged angry words. Sally and I just sat there, still as statues. At one point Peewee approached me, saying he thought Jim was looking at him funny and that Jim was out to “get him,” and that he, Peewee, might have to shoot Jim in self-defense.
I had heard tales of the “backwoods crazies” that people fall prey to, but I was now observing it firsthand. In a moment alone with me, Jim whispered that he knew Peewee hated him and had bad plans for him. I tried to soothe him with reassuring words, but that night I slept fitfully, my nearby .357 Magnum offering me its own brand of reassurance.
[pagebreak] The next morning we drifted the shorelines, picking out fish like produce in a supermarket as they lay sunning in the shallows. A well-placed cast in front of and 3 feet beyond a fish’s nose instantly produced water-churning blowups from 20-pound-plus fish. Peewee and Jim continued to disagree throughout the morning, staring at each other wild-eyed and angry, filling the air with their mutual distrust.
With the situation between the two men deteriorating, I insisted we pack out at noon the second day. When we reached our point of embarkation, it was like a light switch had been turned off. Peewee and Jim immediately warmed to one another, boasting about the fishing and loading the gear.
Returning to the radar site with our 200 pounds of pike fillets, we held a fish fry the next evening for the base. Jim and Peewee never again displayed the rancor they’d exhibited on the trip and talked often about what a great time they had had.
I couldn’t help but agree.