One Last Cast
From Alaska Outdoors Radio Magazine
By Evan Swensen
Betty’s First Fish
The Talkeetna river runs toward the ocean at the foot of Mt. Mckinley, North America’s tallest mountain. Each fall, it’s not climbers that rush to Talkeetna village, located at the river’s mouth. The climbing is done in the spring. Those, like my daughter and I, who show up in August, suffer from silver fever.
Long before Betty and I used fishing as an excuse for a daddy-daughter date, the Tanaina Indians fished the river for survival and named it Talkeetna—River of plenty. Talkeetna is a tourist town. Tourism in Talkeetna in August means fishing. Located at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna Rivers, its location permits access to more than 200 river miles of prime fishing territory. The region boasts the second largest run of migrating salmon in the world, second only to the Iliamna-Bristol Bay area.
It is two and one-half hours by paved highway from our driveway in Anchorage to the boat landing in Talkeetna. The community exists because of good highway access, beautiful scenery along the roadway, specifically the opportunity to see and photograph Mt. McKinley and fishing. In season, all five species of Pacific salmon frequent these waters. In addition, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and grayling can be taken.
On the last Friday, before school started one fall, Betty began bugging me about going fishing. She hugged me and told me how good a father I was. One hundred and fifty minutes later we were in Talkeetna, registering as guests at the Swiss Alaska Inn for the night and making reservations with Mahay’s Riverboat Service for silver hunting the following day.
Betty talked nonstop during dinner. She changed the subject after every breath. I got the lowdown on everything. Music and musicians. Boys and brothers. Sisters, school, and summer. Clothes, cars, crystal, and charge cards.
We were at the boat landing at eight the next morning. Steve Mahay uses jet-powered riverboats for transportation to the clear water salmon-spawning streams entering the Talkeetna. A 20-minute boat ride weaving between islands and eddies puts us at our private fishing hole, a side stream entering the glacier-fed opaque Talkeetna.
Often silvers will be seen jumping, trying to shed sea lice, or loosen eggs, or for whatever strange urge besets them. But, that day, the surface of the creek was unusually quiet.
In typical guide style, Steve started his “You should have been here yesterday” story as he rigged up the rods. Then, after ten no-nothing casts apiece, we began our own story. “It doesn’t matter if we catch fish. It’s just being here that’s important.” Neither guide nor clients need have bothered with the excuses.
Luck changed. Beginning with Betty hooking up first, a serial of fish-capades played throughout the day. Silvers are the most acrobatic of salmon—resembling the jumping, tail-walking, skydiving antics of their cousins—rainbow trout. Every dive, jump, and run trick pulled by a fish brought rock opera audience-like squeals from the teenage angler. It is amazing how the sound exploding from the lungs of a teenage daughter can affect a father. In front of the family room television set, it is irritating. On the riverbank, exhilarating. Heard above the stereo, exasperating. Under birch trees, next to mountains, at the end of a fishing rod, like the voice of an angel.
How many fish were caught (some kept, some released) has been lost to history. Numbers are insignificant. What seems to be important is the closeness I felt with my daughter. Sunday afternoon, back home, during a fresh silver salmon dinner, Betty confessed, “It isn’t necessary to catch fish to have fun. What is important is that every chance you get, take your dad fishing.”