Jerry Pippen of Rainbow Bay Resort and I were trying to do something no one had ever done, catch all five species of Pacific salmon in one day.
“There they are!” A deep hole contained about 20 kings.
“Is that bar upstream on the right long enough to get in and out of?”
“I think it’ll be okay.”
Master bush pilot Pippen picked his spot for touchdown and set the Piper Cub up for landing. The huge tundra tires caught the tops of grass and undergrowth, and the bush plane settled onto the improvised landing field. Our sandbar airport was, in reality, one of the islands forming the Alagnak River braids. Two hundred yards below the island, two other branches of the braids joined into a deep water run where kings lay.
“They’re there alright,” Jerry said. “Now all we got to do is catch one. Fish on!”
“Fish off,” Jerry responded. “It was a rainbow.” Jerry got a taker on every cast. “Another rainbow,” Jerry complained. “Where’s the king?” he muttered as he released a 22-inch ‘bow.
“Hey, Jerry. How many clients do you have who’d complain about this kind of rainbow fishing?”
Jerry’s line went tight as his experienced reflexes automatically set the hook on what he instinctively knew was a big fish. “Here’s what we came for!” he shouted. “All we got to do now is get him in and take his picture.”
Pippen seldom missed with a well-hooked fish, and the king’s fight was stalled long enough for a stand-up bow for my camera. Then, almost concurrent with the release, Jerry and I turned toward the airplane for the flight to the coast.
Jerry’s intended stopover for two more species was a short stretch of clear, fresh water emptying into Lower Cook Inlet. Confirming the direction of the prevailing winds, Jerry turned the Cub for a short downwind, then final, a short rollout landing on the gravel beach, and finally taxied to a stop 20 feet from the fishing hole.
The first cast produced a pink, and the second fish toward a grand slam. I recorded the event on film. With the release, Jerry moved upriver, hoping for a chum. Several large chum salmon were swimming in a clear pool at the foot of a small waterfall.
“Like shooting fish in a barrel,” quipped the confident fisherman as he cast into a group of chum salmon. A fish sighted the lure and attacked. Jerry set the hook. The fight lasted only long enough to make it interesting, and the third member of Pippen’s grand slam was soon held for the recording eye of my camera.
“We got three. Let’s go to the lodge and catch a sockeye while the boys gas up the plane. We can then go on up the inlet for a silver.”
On landing, Jerry and I mounted the four-wheeler and headed for a bay on Lake Iliamna. “Gas her up, and we’ll be right back,” instructed Jerry. “It won’t take long to land a sockeye.”
Jerry was right. Almost before I could get my camera adjusted for the late afternoon sun, Jerry landed and released the fourth species of his grand slam. “Number four is down. Silver coming up!”
The sun was completing its setting at 11:30 when the red and white airplane turned final approach. “We’ll have to be lucky. I hope the fish are here, and they will take my lure,” Jerry commented to no one as he hurried toward the hole. “Hope we’re lucky,” thinking out loud as he cast across the hole.
The fish were there, and they took his lure. Silvers go airborne as soon as they feel the bite of the hook and pressure of line restraining their movement, and Jerry’s grand slam silver was no exception. Jerry and I saw the tail-dancing silver waltz across the hole in the failing light.
It appeared that Jerry’s goal would soon be realized, and the fish would be subdued. I, outfitting my camera with a flash attachment, anxiously awaited the right moment to snap the photo. In my mind, I even prepared words of congratulation for Jerry.
The fish twisted and became entangled in the line, and Jerry slowly inched the concluding element of his quest toward shore. He bent, reached for the fish, and lifted the rod tip to bring it closer. The fish rolled with the tension on the line, became untangled, and darted away, leaving a spray of mud and water. Instinctively, Jerry quickly raised his rod tip to reset the pressure. In the darkness, Jerry had not observed his line was caught on the reel handle. As the line tightened, the inevitable occurred, with the line snapping and the fish escaping.
Where victory had been only inches away, Jerry silently stood, stunned by fate’s flustering feat. As if to add insult to injury, the fish boomeranged and bounced from one side of the hole to the other. Time and time again, it stood on its tail and, with the lure still in its mouth, shook its head at the disenchanted Alaskans. Finally, having scolded them into an admission of defeat, it made one final leap and disappeared forever from their sight.
Jerry looked at his watch. In the darkness, he could hardly make out the numbers. Finally, his eyes focused. Four minutes past midnight. Time had run out.