I was suddenly reminded that 20 years had passed since I held the Dream Job. It was the best job any fisherman could ever have hoped for, and the job that ruined me for every form of employment I’ve had since. I would not have noticed that 20 years had passed had it not been for a Facebook post from a friend who also happens to be a state legislator and avid fly fisher. He’d commented below one of his many streamside trout photos, “If only there were a job where you got paid to do this!” “Ah, you’re dreaming,” posted a series of other anglers. “No you’re not,” I countered, “I actually had a job like that.” Then I went on to explain.
I had been a rookie with his name on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s waiting list, hoping for a job, any job, as long as it was outdoors in the country I loved. I was, however, a little bit puzzled when the biologist who called asked if I liked to fish, if I fly fished.
“Sure,” I replied, anxious to make a good impression, “I’ve been fishing all my life.”
Although I had received my first fly rod on my tenth birthday, I conveniently left out the fact that I’d mostly been a lake fisherman and spin-caster, and that fly fishing was still somewhat of a mystery to me.
It didn’t matter, the department needed a fly fisher to participate in a study to determine the population and age-distribution of rainbow trout on the Upper Kenai, as we all know one of our state’s premier destinations for trout. If I was hired, I would be part of a 3-person crew that would capture, tag, and release these fish. As improbable as winning the lottery, here it was, a fisherman’s ultimate fantasy. For four months my office would be a drift boat, my walls the majestic Kenai Range, my duties to float these beautiful jade-green waters, plying each deep hole and trying my luck along every gravel bar, many with the largest of native ‘bows lying in wait. I would be fighting fish that would stir envy in the most seasoned angler… and getting paid to do it!
Needless to say, I called back numerous times to lobby for the position, reiterating what a conscientious worker I was. Never mind that I was a novice fly fisher (that fact didn’t surface during my pleading calls) or that, should my efforts be successful I’d find myself thrust into the intensity of a very brief season, during which I’d be expected to learn—and learn fast—the intricacies of a large and, especially for the neophyte, very difficult river to fish.
Of course, when I did finally land the job, these realities sank in with a vengeance. Fishing, always a relaxing pursuit, had suddenly turned into serious business, and I found myself under tremendous pressure to catch a lot of fish; and at the outset my rod was not exactly hot.
Another challenge was the distrust, even animosity, on the part of some of the local guides, who feared that our findings might alter some of the rules that applied to pursuing rainbows on the upper river.
Always reassuring, however, was the late Curt Muse, Aka Curt Trout, the legendary guide and founder of Alaska Troutfitters. From the beginning, he was an advocate and defender of our work. He assured me that most of the other guides would come around and that the trout fishing, as the waters rose and the salmon began their return, would heat up as well.
He was, of course, right. As the river rapidly warmed, insects began to emerge, and I learned to ply the waters with stone fly and caddis nymphs, as well as smolt patterns and alevins. Not only was Curt a patient and generous teacher, but one heck of a nice guy and simply a great human being. Under his tutelage, along with a wide cast of characters, many volunteers from Alaska Fly Fishers, not only was I paid to fish, but I was receiving the best fly fishing instruction an angler could hope for.
My skills also improved simply by virtue of being on the river every day, witness to the constant rise and fall of its waters, the creation of new holes and hot spots—all of which an angler would miss if absent for even a week or two. And, as the salmon returned, just as my mentors predicted, the fishing became downright scalding.
As for the guides, while there were those who would never take the time to understand what our crew was doing or how we were doing it, most came to accept us, many becoming good friends. Some even established a ritual of bringing clients by to see the tagging process.
With my initial jitters having subsided, the summer soon fell into place. Fly fishing was no longer a mystery, and I could feel it taking its place as a very important part of my life. I’ve always been attracted to activities that put me in flow with nature, that allow me access to its subtleties and secrets. And nothing, no outdoor pursuit I’d ever known, had drawn me so deeply into this realm—into the domain of the insects, the flow of the water, the return of the salmon, this entire cycle of life—quite like fly fishing.
As I began to know where the fish were and what they’d be hitting, I knew I was hooked. I found myself wondering in the evenings not if I’d catch fish the next morning, but how many and how large. I’d go to bed reliving the fights of the previous afternoon, anticipating another day, actually looking forward to the sound of the alarm in the morning and another chance to float beneath eagle nests, to perhaps see a grizzly sow wading with her cubs, to again feel the current of the river pulse up my line, to experience my rod as a conductor, plugging me into this vital flow of life.
The only downside to such a job is that it must one day come to an end. For me, however, only the paychecks stopped. It wasn’t long before I carelessly threw myself into debt for a drift boat and a quiver of custom rods, and began associating with many like-minded, equally obsessed individuals. Each year it was my goal to fish more than the last. And though I still wait, twenty years later, for that call that will probably never come again, to cast a line for pay, I continue to this day to return to many of my old haunts, while also seeking out new waters. And I continue to sing the praises of the fly and to the connection it provides to this magnificent land we are lucky enough to call home.
Dave Atcheson’s latest book is Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas. He is also the author of the guidebook Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, and National Geographic’s Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond. For more info: www.daveatcheson.com.