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“Look! We’ve spotted our first bear!” Dad joked as George greeted us coming off of the float plane.

George had a welded metal houseboat docked on the backside of the harbor just out of sight from Tom’s. It was painted in camouflage as well which made it very difficult to spot.

An entire chapter can be written on the whimsical character, Tom. I still don’t know his last name, and I have a feeling he’d prefer it that way. Alaska certainly seems to be the ideal place to go if you’re in the market to not be found.

I imagine George had struck a deal with Tom. If Tom would watch his houseboat and make sure it wasn’t messed with then George would let him peddle his handmade jewelry and whatnots to whomever George brought up there.

The houseboat George kept tucked around the corner behind Tom’s was also very safe. It had one specific requirement and that was it had to be bear-proof. A welded and riveted camouflage painted barge with a low pitched roof that slightly covered the front to give it somewhat of a deck, It was not a seafaring vessel rather it was constructed and deliberately towed to its location.

The houseboat was easily the most comfortable place we stayed the whole time we were there, and yes that includes the Stikine Inn in Wrangell. It was sturdy and had four bunk beds in it with foam mattresses. My dad always joked that it was the Hilton of Southeast Alaska. Certainly 3-stars by any reasonable person’s standards.

Staying overnight at the houseboat was required in order to make the journey in George’s small aluminum boat to East Yahtam the next day. The trip isn’t easy and required the right amount of planning.

I never kept up with it but I know even until 10 o’clock at night you’d still see sunlight, but every now and then you’d wake up in the middle of the night because nature was calling. For the hour or two or three that it gets dark in Alaska during the late summer, it gets really dark. Remember, there’s an almost guaranteed chance that it’s either raining, or the sky is overcast so there’s almost no chance you’re going to have any moonlight. It’s at that moment that you realize just how dark a dark night can be.

There is a small trail that leads from the tent to the rear of the small island. This was the place that we mostly did our private business whenever it demanded to be dealt with. Walking with a flashlight towards the back of the island with a shotgun and a roll of toilet paper can be unnerving. You’re constantly on alert for bears and other critters. The night is so dark it feels as though it swallows your entire surroundings except for whatever your flashlight is aiming towards. Such circumstances make it tremendously difficult to relax, which in turn makes the entire process seemingly impossible. It’s at times like this that the reality of your remoteness really starts to settle in. How far away you are from everything, and just how foreign the feeling of trying to use the bathroom on a tree in the pitch black is. At some point though the need overcomes the angst. You accomplish what you came to do, and hurry the hell up back to your sleeping bag; bears and boogeymen be damned.

 

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A story my dad tells often is one night he got up to answer the call and poked his head out of the tent. My dad can’t see very well. In fact, without his glasses, he’d admit his eyesight is pretty much useless. Add that to the fact that you’re not exactly the most alert when you first wake up, and you can see how frightened he must have been when he made his way out of the tent flap only to greet a mother black bear and her two cubs. When they caught sight of him both cubs shot up the nearest trees almost as though a tether yanked them into the treetops. The mother bear immediately hunched her neck and began to growl.

“George…” he called with a whisper that quickly crescendoed into a shout while slowing backing into the tent, “I thought you said they wouldn’t bother the tent.”

At the beginning of our trip, George had assured us that no black bears would come up into our camp because he had marked his territory all around the island. He informed us several times that “the bears around here are on the program. They know better than to mess with me.”

This momma didn’t get that message, and while I was half asleep I heard George yell at my father, “GET INSIDE!” and the rest of us to stay where we were.

He grabbed one of the two shotguns propped up near the entrance and barrelled through the tent flap shouting at the top of his lungs every four letter word imaginable and then some that he made up. He had the gun in one hand, but the other hand throwing everything he could grab at that bear. I think it was a folding camping chair that finally caused her to turn around and run towards the back of the island.

George has had more experience with bears than anyone I know, have met, or am likely to meet. I’m still not convinced that was the most likely outcome from such an encounter, and I’m not sure how he got away with not having to shoot her out of self-defense. Still, the bear was gone, and dad decided to hold it until the morning.

There’s so much that can go wrong when trying to catch a fish on a fly rod. There’s at a minimum 4 knots that connect the fly to the reel. Hook sets are critical to fly fishing as well, and they can be very species specific. You certainly don’t set the hook the same way on trout as you would a saltwater fish. It doesn’t just take knowledge it also takes much practice. Even as I write this I can only think of the many shots I’ve missed on delicate carp takes.

The fly cast can be flawless with a perfect hookset, but then there’s another challenge. You’ve got to bring that fish to you. This part can be incredibly fun, but it’s not nearly as straightforward as one might imagine.

You can strip the fish in if it’s the right size, or you can put the fish on the reel to tire it out. Either method works fine, but neither is complete in its totality. Once a fish is hooked and the rod tip begins to dance (hooray it’s not a snag!) then you begin to put pressure on it with the line in your left hand — if you’re right-handed. It becomes apparent fairly quickly if this is a fish that can be stripped in or fought on the reel.

Did you remember to clear your line? That would be a heartbreaking ending to an exhilarating moment. I’m speaking from greater experience than I’d ever like to admit.

Also, this would be the wrong time to fret over whether your knots were tied correctly.

This is a good time to remember that, unlike conventional fishing, the rod doesn’t bear the brunt of the heavy lifting. Sure, the rod’s designed to bend and not break, but it’s also not meant to lift a 3 lb fish out of the water like a medium-heavy baitcasting rod.

Just like casting fly line the interplay between the rod and the reel/or left hand when done properly displays a synchronous harmony of skill and technique that can only be described as sublime.

 

 

At times I can hardly distinguish what characteristics actually define the person or the place until I arrive at the singularity where George and Yahtam are really just one and the same.

I’ve mentioned before that George and Bo Jackson were good friends. They bow hunted together, and apparently while Bo was at Auburn, he learned to bow hunt with George. It’s no surprise then that their legacies (one is most certainly more well known than the other) are similar. Both of them were/are larger than life, and it’s nearly impossible to know what really happened and what was just a tall tale.

Did Bo actually jump clear over a VW Beetle? Did George actually kill animals with only a knife on his hip? It’s hard to say, but ask people and they’ll swear by its authenticity.

That last account about George with the knife wasn’t true and I know it because I asked, but I remember when I was a kid hearing stories from people that didn’t know him swear that he was such a minimalist that he was known for doing things like that. I personally believe that he developed that reputation from his unusual approach to bow hunting from the ground but that’s another topic for another time.

I do believe what I’ll remember most about George as a fly fisherman is that he was not traditional by any understanding of the term. I tried to have a conversation with him once about bamboo fly rods, and he just laughed. He told me about one that someone made him, and he never had any desire to fish with it. Instead, he showed me his heavy duty 14 wt saltwater rods he built from Sage blanks with casting guides mounted all the way to the tip and a stout fighting butt on the other end. There was not a single snake guide to be found anywhere on it. I believe it would’ve repulsed just about any angler with a slight sentiment towards mountain streams, Quill Gordons, or tweed jackets.

“I once caught a 70 lb grass carp on that thing,” he informed me.

George wasn’t worried about the lifestyle. He was worried about the fish and in particular, he was worried about the big fish.

It’s difficult at times to clearly think about someone or something legendary. Often times it’s hard to distinguish the factual account from the fictional. In fact, rarely do we set out to create anything in our minds contrary to what actually occurred.  What tends to happen is that the feeling of the memory is the same, but the justification for that feeling— as the memories develop being replayed over and over again in the mind — calls forth embellishments in order to satisfy one’s understanding of what, when, and how it really happened.

East Yahtam and George are no different.

I can recall our first return trip from Yahtam being a roughly two-hour boat ride in the steady rain. It wasn’t thick sheets of rain, but each drop was fat and consistently beat on the outer shell of your clothing like a deep rhythmic bass drum so persistent that it became almost impossible to focus on anything else. The temperature was easily in the mid to low 50s. It was cool enough to see your breath but not obviously cool enough to first take notice of the temperature. That is not until you find that the seams of your Gore-tex jacket are leaking.

“That’s why we always called it Wet-tex,” George explained after I mentioned my predicament.

Two-thirds of the way through the return trip what started as two leaks in the seams of my jacket turned into the most miserable, damp, bone-chilling, teeth-rattling experience I can remember. As the moisture spread I, slowly at first, noticed my body temperature drop a bit but that soon began to compound and became exponentially more miserable.

I don’t know if I officially became hypothermic, never received any certificate or anything, but that experience taught me just how dangerous such a circumstance came be. It begins almost unnoticeable but then quickly spirals out of control. Where it becomes most dangerous is when you’re in a place such as the Alaskan wilderness. You realize quickly it’s unlike camping in the backwoods of Alabama or most forests in the contiguous United States. It’s not like it’s feasible to stop and build a fire (see rule #2) to dry off and warm-up. The sun isn’t out and very likely hasn’t been out for any long duration for some time. Where are you going to find anything that’s dry enough to burn?

You also are at least a day away from the nearest town or any medical assistance. You’re very much in a situation where, if you don’t know what to look out for, you’re likely to think you’re fine right up until the moment you’re not. Unwittingly exposing yourself to this type of situation is not only dangerous but possibly deadly.

George did mention that he had a box of trash bags and candles in case of an emergency.

“Huh?” was the unanimous response.

“Well if we’re in trouble and you’re wet how else are you gonna dry off? Everything else is damp too. You gotta remove your wet clothes, and crawl into one of them 72-gallon hefty trash bags. Light the candle and just sit there until you warm up and dry off as best you can. May have a can of soup in there too if you get hungry.”

Fortunately, we never had to experiment with such a survival tactic. When we made it to our destination I was able to remove all of my wet clothing and fire up a small diesel stove to warm up next to. I then spent the rest of the day and night wrapped in a sleeping bag trying to warm the chill out of my bones. It’s amazing how that feeling just refuses to leave you until you’ve exhausted every possible measure to remedy it.

 

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It’s difficult not to philosophize when discussing fly fishing. The mixture of science (objectivity) versus art (subjectivity) demands it at a certain point.

In the beginning, it feels like a black art. The cast seems like something only a sorcerer could master. The mind hardly even knows where to begin at this point. The art of it is sublime and the thought of becoming proficient is daunting.

As one becomes more familiar with the techniques the framework for understanding begins to develop and the mystique slowly begins to melt away. Of course, the mechanics make sense. They must make sense. Otherwise, none of this would work. The part of your brain that could in anyway comprehend this at the start slowly but surely becomes attuned to the subtle movements and stops that make up adequate casting. Science has won out, and all of the mysteries of the world seemingly reveal themselves to be made up of all the deterministic properties one would initially assume it to be.

But like anything worth-while pursuit, there’s always more to it.

The more you learn the more you understand how much you don’t know. As the constructs of forage life cycles and fish habitats solidify so does the confidence of the angler. This is undeniable, but so is it to say that this is all. One may be able to identify the Latin name of genera and species of insects, its morphology, and distribution. The Ephemeroptera guttulata and its complementary predator’s ecology has been perfected and dissected; however, at some point, the realization sets in that his or her ability to fully understand the richness of such a relationship remains incomplete. The justifications for the sizes and hatches and whatnots begin to become contingent on factors like the way the sun sets over the tree line, weather patterns, and other factors that cannot be precisely explained. The mind can only go so deep.

And so we’ve come full circle.

 

There’s a hard bend in the back corner of the harbor opposite the houseboat that upon initial approach isn’t obvious. Once you make it back to farthest and westernmost point of the harbor it’s possible to see the bend cutting back to the north. A grim reminder of the harshness of navigating the waters sat at the mouth of the river that flowed back into the harbor.

A shipwreck from an old fishing boat that had clearly misjudged its ability to make it through the narrow waters and into the lake. As we moved into the bend it sat just barely submerged and oriented in such a manner that suggested that maybe the captain was caught heading out of the bend at the wrong time and ran aground. George speculated that the boat probably tried placing crab pots in the lake since, as we’d later discover, it was a very productive area for catching Dungeness crab.

Fortunately, our guide and small aluminum craft made it up the river and through the developing yet small class rapids into the lake. We had to move in just as the tide was coming up so that we could leave while the tide was still high. Otherwise, we’d be sleeping there. Like anything in Alaska, you’d best plan every step of the way. If you found a way in then you better know your way out before entering.

It was in this hidden lake that we’d catch a mess load of fish for dinner and my father would almost ruin our first trip in just half a day and only part of the way to our destination.

George found a school of fish holding and anchored the boat. We tossed our spoons tagged with treble hooks into the thick of them on our oversized spinning gear. We didn’t care about the fight. We cared about eating.

We hauled several fish in, all pink salmon, and tossed them into a Rubbermaid trash can. Good eaters, and very abundant. My dad then hooked into one that he proclaimed must have been a whale. It didn’t have a fighter’s chance being that it was on such heavy tackle, but he kept saying over and over again how it felt like he was reeling in something much bigger. Once the fish surfaced next to the boat it became clear what had happened. He foul-hooked the fish right under the skin of the fish’s back near its dorsal fin. The fish had been dragged sideways the entire way.

 

The moment it surfaced the skin broke with a loud “SNAP!” and the spoon popped out of the fish which immediately kicked away. I looked and saw my dad’s face which could only be described as a bewildering mixture of shock and dread. The spoon that popped out of the fish’s back had flown up into the direction of the rod’s tension which shared the same path as my father’s face and slapped his cheek directly below his right eye. Only one of the three treble hooks was visible and sticking out from his face. The other two hooks were embedded in his cheek all of the way up to the shank.

 

Here we are in a small boat in a remote lake in the Alaskan wilderness. It required a full day’s travel to get to where we were, and we weren’t even finished traveling; yet, here’s my father with a fishing lure embedded in his cheek so deep it’s difficult to imagine not needing minor outpatient surgery to remove it. The myriad of complications that could arise from two large treble hooks buried just under an eyeball is a thought that’s frightening enough. Compound that with the remoteness of our location, and just the sheer time and effort it took to get there, which means the same time and effort to get back, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to envision the best case scenario in which this could end. There was no way in anyone’s mind it would end right there on the boat. Anyone’s mind except for George’s that is.

George calmly shifted around from the stern of the boat and kneeled right next to my father.

“Remove your glasses and look over that way. Be still and don’t flinch” he said in a placid tone.

He then began talking to dad about a seemingly unrelated topic to what was going. It may have been something like Auburn football or a mutual acquaintance neither had seen in a while. I can’t recall exactly what it was because I was so shocked and sickened by the whole ordeal. As George was talking he took his forefinger and put a gentle but forceful amount of pressure on the side toward the bridge of Dad’s nose and his eye; right in between the nose and the lure.

“Now don’t move,” he reminded him and continued their trepidatious conversation. Then with a quick snatch from George’s other hand, which I had failed to even realize he was using, it snatched away from Dad’s face with the spoon in hand and carrying the hooks with it. I looked at Dad’s face and all I could see were two small holes the same size as the gauge of the hooks. A little bit of blood, but no more than two slight runs down the side of his cheek.

The wounds would later easily clot with persistent pressure from a handkerchief. No stitches needed. It was the cleanest wound you could have envisioned given that two treble hooks had gone into his face up to the shank and then had come out of the same hole.

It was the damnedest thing I’ve ever witnessed.

I know the protocols for removing fish hooks. I’ve seen the lemon demonstration and all of that. I know it’s doable, but the fact that this wasn’t a single #8 panfish or #2 bass hook, but relatively large gauged treble hooks that were embedded (I’m not exaggerating how deep they penetrated) right below his eye is incredible, or in George’s words, “awesome.”

We should have had to go back and wait on the sea plane to pick us up to take us back to a doctor in town. Worst case we could’ve tried ourselves and ripped his face up to the point that we couldn’t get it to stop bleeding. How he didn’t need stitches in that instance is nothing short of remarkable.

But to know George Mann is to know he’s a remarkable person. He understood the need for preparation in more than just the collection of tangible goods. Knowledge was easily one of if not the most important commodity to take with you, and that knowledge undoubtedly saved our first trip. Because of that, we were able to leave the next morning for East Yahtam.