An Outdoor View: Fishing at a ghost town

Author’s note: This story originally appeared in the Nov. 28, 2003 edition of the Clarion. — LP

In fishing, as in most other endeavors, timing is everything.

We flew to Katalla in a gathering storm. A strong headwind perceptibly slowed the Cessna 185 during our 50-mile flight down the coast from Cordova. Below, the white-streaked Gulf of Alaska grew more ominous by the minute.

If the pilot had been anyone other than Gayle Ranney, the longtime owner of Fishing and Flying, in Cordova, I would’ve been nervous. But when your pilot has flown more than 22,000 hours in bush Alaska, you tend to relax and enjoy the view.

I was looking for some sign of Katalla, the town that had once stood at the mouth of the Katalla River. But as Ranney lined up the 4-seater to land on a diminutive dirt airstrip, I could see no trace of a town.

In September of 1902, Alaska’s first successful oil well was drilled at Katalla. An “oil rush” began. A refinery was built on the spot, and its products were shipped to Cordova for local use. Over the years, 44 wells were drilled.

About the same time as the oil boom, two competing railroads were being built at Katalla to connect the nearby Bering coalfields to the rich copper deposits at Kennecott.

As told by Lone E. Janson in “The Copper Spike,” “Anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 persons, including construction workers, oil men, coal miners, prospectors, Chinese coolie laborers, Bohunks, Irishmen, card sharps and phony stock brokers, jammed Katalla in 1907. It was probably the most rip-roaring open town since Nome or Dawson, for that year. The ‘Katalla Madhouse,’ one of the most notorious saloons in Alaska, was doing a booming business.”

But politics, bad timing and bad weather kept Katalla from becoming the “metropolis of Alaska, where the rails meet the sails,” as boosters hyped it.

President Theodore Roosevelt stymied coal exploration when he withdrew all of Alaska’s coal lands from entry.

A series of fierce fall gales in 1907 destroyed Katalla’s dock, railroad trestle and what engineers had said was an “impregnable” breakwater. By 1910, the town’s population had plummeted to fewer than 200.

Cordova, a more protected location for a deep-water harbor, became the railway terminus and port for shipping out the ore from the Kennecott mines.

Of all the oil wells drilled, only 18 produced. In three decades, they produced 154,000 barrels — about two days’ current production for the North Slope’s Alpine field. The field was abandoned in 1933, after fire destroyed the refinery.

Today, the population of Katalla is zero. Except in summer, when crazy people go there to fish.

That was me in late September. As a guest of Orca Adventure Lodge, I had a chance to go there for an “overnighter,” so I took it.

Fly-out fishing and hunting trips, unless you allot at least four or five days for them, are always iffy. This one was no exception. A storm was brewing, as I already mentioned. With the wind roaring through the spruces and hemlocks around me, I fly fished for silver salmon at a nearby beaver pond that afternoon. Or tried to.

In the best of situations, what I do with a fly rod is barely recognizable as fly fishing. But to cast in that wildly gusting wind severely taxed even that scant ability.

The pond contained quite a few silver salmon, but the bite never turned completely on. The wind on the water and the movement of the brush and trees apparently had the fish spooked. With weighted flash flies, I did manage to catch a few of the dumber and more reckless ones. I had hoped to catch them on surface flies, but they were having none of that foolishness.

That night, I slept in a small cabin, alone. I was awakened several times by a Boeing 747 that thundered past at rooftop level, or so the wind sounded. And all night long, rain pounded down, or more accurately, sideways.

In the morning, the wind and rain abated. With two other anglers and a guide, I went silver fishing, up the Katalla River in a skiff.

We were excited. The day before, the river had been so hot, the five anglers who had fished it could hardly describe it. They were beyond counting. If they missed a strike, like as not, another fish would grab their fly, they said. They were hooking a silver on nearly every cast, keeping only the largest ones to take home.

But — curse the bad timing — the heavy rain in the drainage had blown out the river. What had been fishing Valhalla the day before was now just an interesting place for a boat ride. We caught a couple of silvers, and that was it. The water was too deep and fast for a decent presentation. Silvers that had been holding in holes the previous day were now migrating, taking advantage of the high water to reach their spawning grounds.

Though the river was dropping and clearing even while we fished, it didn’t drop quickly enough to benefit me. That afternoon, I had no choice but to fly back to Cordova.

If I had been there the day before, or one day longer, I would’ve had some great fishing. Maybe. I guess the trip had something in common with one of the things that doomed the town of Katalla: bad timing.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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