Fish, Fur and Film by Jeff Varvil
In 1867 at the urging of Secretary of State William Seward, the United States paid $7,200,000 or about 1.9 cents per acre for the Alaska territory. We, (like I was there), purchased 586 thousand square miles of the modern state of Alaska. That’s a big number; it’s like, what a billion dollars to me. I know it must be a lot, but its more than my limited brain can comprehend. Of course, I am also having a hard time comprehending the $200 it takes to fill up my motor home every hundred miles. Only five hundred miles left until we hit our destination of Valdez. Yes, I said Valdez. It’s a real place. The one that brings up memories of a bottle of Vodka, a drunken ship captain, an ugly ship, a reef, and one gazillion gallons of oil dumped into Prince William Sound. Not a great combination if you were a sea otter.
I had an old 1977 Ford LTD I used to call the “Valdez.” It was not a very aesthetically pleasing vehicle either. It also used to leak oil to, hence the name I gave it. That old girl however could hold a 16-gallon keg in the trunk. Ok, I got a little off track there. I am jolted out of my random thoughts by the squeal of the brakes as the big motor home pulls over to the side of the road to a designated motor home nesting ground. This is a deserted area as it is early spring, and the annual motor home migration has not started yet. The doors of the battleship open, and we all unload, wishing Alaska was now the size of Maine.
We are here to film the new TV show Alaska Outdoors Television. It will debut on FOX this September. Yours truly and Doc Johnston are two of the hosts. The plan is to meet a long time buddy, Josh, in Valdez and spend three days, shrimping, fishing, and hunting black bears. The producer, Tim, is a friend and a local chap who grew up in Valdez and has come home after many years in LA to film what he terms as “Real Alaska television.” No celebrities or fancy lodges, just a working mans show. “Finally, a real man’s show, for men!” I yell out as Doc laughs and begins to shave his chest. Tim tapes a microphone in between his pecks. Then it was my turn to be initiated into television. We put on our best smiles, which for both of us is easy, climb on to a rocky point where the TV crew is waiting for us. And as Paula and Randy say, “Welcome to Hollywood.”
Upon arriving in Valdez, Doc and I met Josh at the dock. He gives Doc and I the customary head nod as we approach as handshakes in our circle are avoided like the plague. Handshakes are reserved for church or meeting someone new. We have all been friends for fifteen years. Josh pears over our shoulders at Tim and the equipment he is carrying, giving me a wary smile as if to say, “what’d you get me in to?” Tim proves to be more Alaskan than a Californian. And the two quickly become friends. We fire up the twin 200 hp Hondas and the 26’ foot Kingfisher heads for open water. Josh had dropped shrimp pots early that morning so I take control of the throttle and head to the waypoint on the 12” Garmin display. The water is calm, almost flat, and the temperature is a balmy 58 degrees, which in Valdez, is about as nice as it gets. The boat flies through the water as if on wings and we leave the little town as we are swallowed up by the reflection on the water by the enormous Alaskan landscape. The avalanche shoots spill down to the water from 3000-foot peeks and the bears have already begun to feed on the new green vegetation on the south side slopes. Doc taps me on the shoulder and smiles as Josh is having his microphone taped to his chest. Josh opted for the Duct tape to chest hair approach, which will cost him later!
I slide along side of the first of five shrimp pots. Josh hooks his first buoy and feeds the line to his electric pot puller. When you’re shrimping in 600 feet of water, these will save your arms and back a lot of work. On the other hand if you need the exercise, well, pulling in five pots in from Davey Jones Locker may be for you! We get about 35 shrimp per pot on average and a few crabs. The cameras roll, and all goes as planned. Of course the crabs are sent back from where they came from and the shrimp are put in to a bucket for later consumption. We eat a few raw on the spot for the camera. Josh, Doc and I now pow-wow on the back of the boat and decide what the game plan is for the next three days. We decide to sleep in the morning, check the pots in the afternoon, halibut and rock fish until 4 P.M and then chase bears all night. This was all decided in about 30 seconds. That’s the way men make decisions. Wrong or right, come hell or high water, (both of which I have seen) we were going with the simple stupid plan.
We pulled up to the secret halibut hole and josh maneuvered to drop anchor. Doc and I rigged up our fly rods and decided a deceiver was the best fly for the test run. Josh went to sleep again. We used 425 grain sinking tips and 20-pound maxima leader. Doc’s no more than hit the bottom and was hammered by a rockfish. I opted for building up the fishes self esteem by casting and recasting for an hour. I am now very proficient at casting a 14 weight. Doc on the other hand was nailing fish one after the other. Being the purest fly fisherman I am, I purely switched to a halibut rod, a giant herring, and enough lead to kill Godzilla. A funny thing happened, I began to catch halibut. Now just for the record, halibut fishing is not rocket science. Most days on charters I am out fished by 80 year old tourists. Fly fisherman tend to want to set the hook, which is not productive when using a circle hook. I have learned that when I feel the bite, I then close my eyes, and begin reeling slow. It goes against every fishing trick I have ever learned, but again, when in Rome! We land plenty for the freezer and the day flies by; the cameras roll footage and soon enough bear hunting hour approaches.
We slowly patrol the beach at about 300 yards offshore. We glass the slides and it doesn’t take log to spot out first black bear. His shiny coat shows no rub marks and he feeds slowly down the fresh green slide. We ease the little Zodiac in to the water and depart for our first assault on the beach. Doc and I form a quick game plan. He will take the camera crew to the bottom of the slide and set up there with his rifle If the bear showed signs of leaving dodge in a hurry he would harvest it. I would take my Browning Bow up through the heavy woods along the side and see if I could stalk within 30 yards, which is my comfort zone for bears. The plan goes off without a hitch. I sneak up through the mossy hillside and close to within 15 yards in the heavy timber. The old growth timber reminds me of the heavy pine trees from Michigan some of which are as big around as a bus. I place a giant spruce between myself, and Doc below. The beautiful animal was oblivious to my presence but I still could not see him as he was in the gully that forms the slide. I knock an arrow and pull back the bow as the bear take one step in to a tag alder bush. I wait almost ten minutes for him to emerge about 10 yards higher up the hill. I pull back the bow just as the rifle booms. The bear hits the ground immediately and I can hear cheers from below.
I walk to the bear in the plain view of the camera crew, Doc, and Josh. The bear expires quickly from a head shot. I pull him to the snow shoot, and he slides 200 yards to the bottom and lands at Docs feet, too easy! Pictures are taken and stories are recounted as we each tell our side of things. Doc throws the bear over his shoulder and we load him in the boat.
We had enough video footage in one day to make two TV shows. We would spend the next two days on the same song, just a different verse. I never did get close enough to take the bear with my bow this trip. At one point on film you can see a total of five bears around me. They are all within 50 yards and none of them know I’m there. I know they are there, but seeing them and shooting one with a bow as you know are two different things. It is truly humbling to be in the Alaska wild among these animals on their turf. In the end I was happy to have a great trip with my friends Josh, Doc and Tim. That’s the way it works with friends, hunting is not harvesting and fishing is not catching, its all about what goes into an Alaska trip that makes it worth while, not the actual killing or catching itself. Some of the most beautiful things in this world lie in front of us in plain view. We just need to open our eyes a little wider to see them sometimes.