“Do not tell fish stories where the people know
you; but particularly,
don’t tell them where
they know the fish.”
– Mark Twain
Fish are allergic to me.
Although I have written many fishy stories over the years, both saltwater and fresh, alas I have never caught one, at least as an adult who first came to the Yukon in 1971.
As a child and pre-teen who grew up in a place with many catfish, I was successful because my paternal grandfather, the Catfish King, taught me at an early age how to attach a mouse’s tail to a fish hook with a double bowhitch knot that never slipped. He was also known as “The Catfish Whisperer” and could talk them into jumping into a frying pan by making sounds like a female catfish looking for a date… or maybe he smelled like one. It was hard to tell, because he always smoked a pipe with a wonderful odour of cherry-apple blended tobacco, one of my favourite childhood memories.
He also claimed catfish was the best-tasting fish of them all, something I fervently believed all my life until I finally tasted Alaskan halibut as a middle-aged man.
He was quite the role model for a budding fisherman and, though grateful for those many wonderful Grandpa moments, I’m sorry to report his lessons went the way of the buggy whip at about the age of 12 when I was swept away by the tsunami of puberty and set my childish toys aside, which included my favourite “fishin’ stick.”
They were replaced by bats, clubs, rackets and any outdoor (or indoor) activity associated with balls of any kind: baseballs, footballs, basketballs, golf balls, tennis balls, soccer balls, foos balls and beanballs, which at least partially explains how I spent most of my adult life employed as a sports writer when I wasn’t running bulldozers in order to pursue two of my favourite pastimes in northern Canada: eating and sleeping indoors.
But fishing? Nope, nyet, nada, none, no way, not now, not interested. Why spend beautiful days in prime mosquito habitat with a time-consuming outdoor activity that doesn’t come with a score or scorecard?
My first unexpected experience with Yukon fishing came in Dawson City in 1972, when I was gainfully employed as the first pitboss in Canada’s first legal gambling casino while still, technically, a cheechako since I had passed the winter test but not the annual.
A wild and woolly Yukoness, who shall remain nameless because she’s still alive and well in Whitehorse, adopted me that summer, my first in the Klondike, and introduced me to her friends as “my pet Yankee DP (displaced person) who I’m teaching how to become a Yukoner.”
Her father was considered the toughest man in the Yukon at the time, and she was raised wild and free, sort of a Yukon combination of Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley. She had a whole list of things I had to do to prove myself worthy of her, like climb the Midnight Dome, canoe the Yukon River, wrestle a grizzly bear, etc. before I could be called a sourdough.
On our first, and only, skinny-fishing/camping trip, I had to catch a grayling in Rock Creek, a small tributary of the Klondike… buck naked, except for knee-high rubber boots, then clean it, de-scale it and fry it up with the perfect amount of lemon juice and butter and, if she was satisfied with my survival/campfire skills and her supper, I might be rewarded by being invited into her sleeping bag when it finally got dark.
Well, you don’t have to be much of a northern wit to get the punchline of that gag: A. It didn’t get dark until September, B. I was damn cold in the river while she was laughing herself silly on the nice, grassy shore snapping pics, and C. the grayling weren’t biting, if they were there at all.
I got skunked by fish, eaten alive by mosquitos and we had beans for supper.
So I slept in my own sleeping bag that “night,” married someone else with a gentler sense of humour six years later, fathered my only son and took him on a dream fishing trip up the Dempster for two weeks when he was 11 years old, an impressionable age, in 1989 to show him some more of this magnificent territory he was born and raised in and to teach him how to survive in the Yukon wilderness with just a fishing pole. We stood right next to each other in many streams and rivers all the way to Inuvik, where we celebrated Canada Day with the proud and noble Inuit after first partying with the “People of the Trees” at the Fort McPherson music festival.
Along the way, he caught 17 fish. I caught none. He became the provider. I remained the cook. He even caught one above the Arctic Circle, a northern pike, that had been caught before as it still had a hook, line and sinker attached to its lower lip. Like a good Yukon lad, he removed all the hardware and let it go to be caught a third time without losing any fingers.
And that was the sum total of my Yukon fishing experiences until next week. Between September 1971 and August 2015, I have caught zero fish in the Yukon Territory…or anywhere else for that matter. (Fishing in Whistler would have been like riding a hobby horse at the Calgary Stampede.)
People come from all over the world for the privilege of casting their lines into the sacred waters of Atlin Lake. I lived there for seven years and never gave it a thought. A month ago I wrote another fish story from Tagish with a picture of a guy, a professional fish guide, holding a 38-pound rainbow and I was sure I was about to change my fishing karma and finally catch one of the elusive, slippery bastards. But it never happened. All we did was laugh, tell stories and switch back and forth from iced white wine to margaritas, possibly the best in the Yukon.
So next week is going to be a war on the water.
A convoy of four RVs full of longtime Whistler friends are making their maiden voyage to our fair territory, at my persistent insistence, and I am to be their “guide” as they fish the following lakes in order: Marsh, Tagish, Atlin, Bennett, Kusawa and Kluane. Yes, this is like Bugs Bunny engaging Elmer Fudd as a hunting guide, but I’m simply going to point out their chosen lakes and wish them luck.
Then I’m going to somehow catch my first Yukon fish, if I have to jump off the bridge and strangle it.
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.