Her black polished surface stands an unwavering object staunch and resolute through the seasons. For thousands of years she has endured in this very spot deposited here by some ancient glacier. She is a Remnant of a time we have long forgotten. To see her is to marvel in her greatness, the journey here was not easy. It started with a two hour car ride and ended with a five mile hike in. Today I play a game of “don’t get the old guy wet” leaping some of her smaller sisters. Two jumps this way and three that until finally reaching the middle of the pool. The icy cold Alaskan waters snakes against, around, and some days over the smaller but formidable boulders but they have never taken her. I can assure you she is worth the trip and a beautiful sight that you will never forget especially on a crisp fall day like this one where a golden forest trail marks the way. For once you stand upon her, you realize that she owns this pool and she represents all that is great in Alaska. She is big and stubborn and slippery from time to time. She will be here long after you and I are gone. She stands as the gate keeper to the waterfall that rockets out of the canyon some eighty feet above her. To me she is simply the seat for the Guardian of the pool. For if she was to ever wash away, surely she would take the gin clear pool and the trout which reside in it with her. Let’s hope that days never comes. I sigh as I reach her base and place my hand upon her as if greeting an old friend. I wish I had found her first, but she belongs to another. He is always here and I can feel him today. Call it that feeling of being watched; call it goose pimples or the hair rising on your arms and neck. Even when you don’t see him, Trust me, He is always there watching.
When my friend and fellow Sportsman dramatist (which means Liar in French) Michael Strahan asked me to write a story about my favorite fishing place in Alaska I was not sure which direction I would go. I looked back deep into my fishing archives and scoured notes from previous adventures before being hit with an epiphany. The best trips I have had really had nothing to do with the fishing itself but everything to do with the company I kept. For it is the companions we keep that really marks a man for life and long after we forget about the trout that got away, we will remember who was with us to witness the escape. Such is the case of Norman. There seemed to be no better time to tell the story of Norman, than Halloween. So here goes.
I’m not sure how long he had been fishing Montana Creek. By the appearance of his equipment, His whole life I reckon. Hell, I’m not sure where he lived or even if he had a house. I know he had a daughter in Virginia and a boy who was killed in a war in some jungle half way around the world many years ago. That came out after a few belts of whatever he carried in his flask for “his aches” as he called them. Im not sure what was in it but we did start a soggy fire with it once and he darned near burned up my waders. I figured we all have our crosses to burn or carry so I never asked. What I did know is that He drove an old green bronco that smelled of Canine, beer and Tobacco. Not necessarily in that order depending on the day. It had a giant steel cable wench on the front and it had windshield wipers that you had to reach up above you to turn on by hand. I only know this because he gave me a ride to Talkeetna once when my car would not start. He spotted me on a rainy day, hood up, tapping on the engine with a screwdriver. “Yaw, that’s going to start it!” is all he said. He then gave me the universally understood head wave to get in. I made the mistake of opening up the passenger door. He made me ride in the back. The dog rode shotgun as the sign screwed into the dash he was now pointing at clearly indicated. My bad!
That’s the beauty of fishing acquaintances. Let’s face it, There not really buddy’s. We don’t talk about work, or the girls. We don’t ever come from the same social settings. We don’t have the same friends. We don’t really even talk about anything other than what size bead is working or what color flesh fly the bite is on. We don’t call each other and make plans about what to wear or what time he is meeting me on the water. I’m there at daylight. He is there at daylight, usually. If he is not, I don’t care, im not riding in the front anyway. I can net my own fish. If I’m late he will never chastise me, instead he will simply catch my fish. With that said there is a comfort in familiarity and I enjoy knowing there is someone around, most days while I’m fishing.
We will never discuss religion but we may talk to our god whenever we please.
I met him on a blind corner about twenty years ago 4 miles above Yoder Road on Montana Creek. I heard him giggling like a school girl fighting a huge rainbow. It was a beautiful sight. Fly rod to the sky bent above the cork and line tight shedding water beads as the fish ran. I sat down on a log and just watched as he masterfully turned the fish into a pool on its first run. He brought the beautiful fish to his feet and reached down and unhooked it and set it free. Fly-fishing is one of those sports not unlike many others and yet completely different. If you spend five minutes with a guy competing at the same sport you know where you rank. This guy was clearly better than me in every way. He fished with style and made fly fishing for me aristocratic. It became about the art of the cast, Not the quantity of the fish caught. He looked to the sky and smiled talking to someone I could not see and although I could not hear his voice over the rapids I could see the sincerity in the words upon his face. He was clean shaven and he had a distinct look of class. I waited until he spotted me and I stood up and walked over. He was wearing an old green and black checkered Woolworth wool fly coat. He had a beaten leather hat. I figured him around 70 and a weekend warrior retired banker.
I was wrong. “I am 82, you are 4.2 miles above touron fishing central, which means you’re either ambitious or an adventurer type and both are suspect, my name is Norman” he spoke clearly and shook my hand. “If you’re going to watch the best show on earth son, the least you could have done is net an old man’s fish” With that he simply turned and walked up stream. Now those of you who know me know I am very seldom at a loss for words, but he had me. “My name is Jeff” I yelled over the rapids. He put up the back of his hand a waived a half hardy goodbye never looking back and at in the same monotone voice said “ I am 82 years old ,It does not mean I sir am deaf” and with that he was gone.
By midafternoon I caught up with him again upstream. I had made my way through the boulder gardens and was now just approaching the waterfalls I had described above. There he was laying on his rock with his hat drawn over his eyes and his canvas back pack under his neck. I tried to sneak around him to what I could clearly see was a pool full of salmon which to me meant Rainbows. No dice. “Welcome to The pool” He said from Ten feet above me.
“Thanks” I said. “What took you so long” He shot back never lifting his cap.
“I was fishing sir”.
“Any big ones?” was his reply.
“I caught a few. One nice one over twenty”
“Ya I saw that, I was right above you.”
“Well you could have netted a young man’s fish” seizing a sarcasm moment.
He simply smiled “There is a 30” fish in that pool. I have hooked him but never landed him. Do me a Favor? ”
“When you catch him, please let him go.”
“Thank You” and with that he slid off the rock with the agility of a twenty year old and began making his way back down stream. And so it went. For many years, more days than not I have fished on my beloved Montana Creek I have met Norman. We would park our cars in the same pull out and Walk the stream to the falls together fishing along the way. He would climb upon his rock and look into the pool always on the lookout for that 30”. He would than take a nap wake up and head down stream.
Sometimes I waited. Mostly he caught up. I would mimic his streamer technique, learn by watching as I was always to proud to ask him for help. He would swing the fly through the large pools and then retrieve them very fast. It was money in the bank as the big Rainbows hammered his homemade creations. We would trade his fly’s for my hand painted beads as I ruled the braids and he owned the pools.
He once said “Do you actually go in and buy those fandango Maybelline colors?”
“Yup” I said under a cigar trying to Man up.
“Better you than Me” he said and chuckled.
Many years had passed since I fished with Norman on that river. One summer he just never showed up. I knew he had passed away as we all will someday.
Montana Creek is Located 60 miles North of Anchorage. It runs clear and fast along the south side of the Talkeetna Spur Highway until it crosses the Parks Highway and spills gently into the Big Susitna River. Most of the fishing takes place at the confluence where King Salmon in the 50 pound range are not uncommon. You can access the Montana Creek off almost every road off the Talkeetna Spur including but not limited to Yoder road which I described above. From spring to fall it offers the fly fisherman endless opportunity’s to fish on wide open gravel bars and tight confluences. You will find grayling, Rainbow Trout and of course King, Silver, Chum and Pink Salmon. It runs crystal clear and cold most days and even during heavy rains drains and clears up fast. If you get a chance to walk the 5 miles to the falls take some kind of Bear protection. That may consist of a Gun, bear spray or just someone slower than you. As I fish below the falls this day my eyes search for a thirty inch Monster that supposedly resides in the deep blue. It’s been twenty years since that fateful meeting and I still have never seen a 30” rainbow in the old man’s pool but I figure I owe it to him to keep looking. My girlfriend Aimee who has accompanied me today has been collecting shapely rocks and sticks for our fire when she walks up and gives me a punch in the back of the arm and says ”any big ones?” I shoot her a look that must have been just short of something from an episode of the twilight zone.
“What did you say?”
She says “That guy back on the trail just asked if you had caught anything big out of that pool?”
I said “Honey we’re five miles from a road.”