An Autumn Dolly
Bear tracks. Last night's. I hesitate before following them. A skiff of snow lies draped over brown tussocks and perched on black limbs. Curled, yellow leaves cling to gray willows. Pale rose hips hang with the red-and-black calicos of spawned chum salmon. A bright silver breaks water in the pool. A second silver, shiny as tinsel, jumps, cartwheels twice, while gulls impatiently pace the gravel beach bared by spring runoffs. Kodiak Island’s American River runs clear, and my steps parallel the bear's.
I last fished here a year ago. The river was higher, and was full of humpies and Dolly Varden. I was after silvers then, but not this morning. I'll be leaving Kodiak in a week; don't know when I'll be back. I want one of those big Dollies I know are here. So watched by a pair of bald eagles in a downstream cottonwood, I string a sinktip line through the guides of my flyrod, add a two-pound tippet, and knot on a glo-bug: egg with a flame spot.
One gull attacks another.
Another silver jumps, jumps again, splashing both gulls.
I cast to the far bank where the placid drift carries my little yarn fly towards the tailout. My fly looks like a salmon egg, what Dollies are feeding on.
Green, a green flash. My drift stops. I set the hook. I'm into a big Dolly that wants to slug it out, tug-of-war fashion. Strength against strength, felt through the bent glass, we're unequal adversaries joined by an invisible strand.
Shedding my coat, I step into the river and glance at the bank. My tracks end. Only the solitary set of bear tracks disturb the snow. And I wish I'd brought a rifle.
The Dolly changes tactics, races across the river, jumps over a limb hanging from the bank. But I flip a loop in my flyline that rolls the leader off the alder before the tippet snaps. I want this fish. He's strong and wild. He wasn't reared in a concrete pen by hatcherymen.
Six weeks ago, in Oregon, I stood beside returning king salmon at the Bonneville hatchery. I watched as kings banged bloody snouts against weirs that blocked the stream of their nativity. They jumped against closed wood gates, fell back, and jumped again. They—each a survivor, one of ten thousand that went to sea—weren't needed as spawners. Rather, a Native buyer dipped them from the pool, stacked them in the bed of a pickup, and left them in the sun in the parking lot while the buyer drank beer with the hatcherymen.
I first learned of big Dollies in the American River from two fellows drinking beer: "Them Dollies are stacked in the holes like cordwood. Won't bite. You gotta snag 'em. And they're fat, make good crab bait."
The two fellows were fishing silvers at Pasagshak. The taller guy had caught a small Dolly, and with the heel of his boot, had just ground the "damn egg-suckin', fry-gobblin' bastard" into the gravel beach when I came along. There have been a few times when I wished I was a cop. I made small talk, but wanted to pinch off their heads.
I glance at the bear tracks that continue downstream. I wonder where the Brownie went. Is it lying in the brush, watching me? I hope it went all the way down to Middle Bay, where, I suspect, this Dolly, the one I have hooked, spent the summer, preying on smolt, a bully slicing through schools of fry, crippling more than he could eat. I've watched Dollies herd schools of salmon fry into shoals, then race through the schools with jaws open, slashing right and left, their teeth like knives attached to chariots wheels. There used to be a bounty on their tails, as there was a bounty on bald eagles' feet. The salmon packing lobby was stronger then.
The Dolly boils, then holds in the current at the tail of the drift. I splash downstream, taking in line.
Except for the murmur of the river and the raucous cries of gulls, the morning is silent. I can almost hear the bear tracks on the bank.
The Dolly tires, his weakening telegraphed through the taut flyline. I want this Dolly, want to have him mounted, want to hang him on the wall. An icon. A painting that reminds me of mornings like this one.
Standing in knee-deep water, I seem at one with the Dolly. My fingers are cold, stiff. I feel the strain in my wrist, in my forearm. I should be opening the shop about now, beginning another day of twisting wrenches, torquing screws. Yes, I could be there. The keys are in my pocket.
I increase strain on the tippet, gain a hand twist of line, then another one, surrender a twist, gain another one, and another. The Dolly turns towards me, slackening the strain. But I recover quickly. So when the Dolly runs through the shallows near my feet, I keep even pressure on him.
The Dolly sulks in fast water, fighting both the current and my hook.
Ice fills the snake guides: I melt it with my fingertips, pinching each guide, careful not to add strain to the gossamer-like tippet. The Dolly is more than twice as heavy as the tippet is strong.
I step on the carcass of a dead humpy, now fuzzy with moss, and feel the rotting flesh squish beneath my boot. I slip, surprised by the feel. Staggering backwards a step, I lose a yard of line to the Dolly. But he's too tired to take advantage of the gift. I grab the line, gain another yard, and another.
A silver jumps, races around the hole, dorsal fin out of water like a shark. It jumps again, then disappears into the depths. The gulls and the eagles look on. None of the birds seem to notice the short-tailed ermine gnawing a salmon carcass in nearby willows.
Guiding the Dolly into the shallows, I see my fly in his kype; I step behind him and keep him between myself and the bank. I don't want to lose him, not now.
A shotgun blast. Somewhere downstream. Then the whistling wings of two mallards. Duck hunters. The mallards sail overhead and continue upstream. Sometimes in the quiet of the river, I forget I'm only minutes from town, from work.
I grab the Dolly by his tail and slip my hand under his belly, as if to release him. I step ashore. Metallic green back, sides peppered with red dots, gray belly singed orange. He's a world record, really is.* I admire him, even think about returning him to the river. But I am his adversary. I crush his skull with a stone.
* The International Game Fish Association recognized this fish as a fly-caught, line-class (2# tippet) record in its 1986 book.