Voices from the River: The elusive No. 5

Photos of the Naknek River by Mark Hieronymous

By Jenny Weis

Working in communications for Trout Unlimited, I encounter more than a fair share of “grip ‘n grin” fish photos. Given this, I like to think of myself as somewhat of an expert on the components for what makes the perfect photo. In my humble opinion, the list looks something like this:

1. Beautiful scenery

2. Good lighting

3. Genuine smile (easy part)

4. Lookin’ fly

5. Awesome fish, properly handled (hard part)

It’s rare to have all the five qualities necessary to achieve the perfect G ‘n G photo. Last night, I was well on my way. I had been in Bristol Bay, Alaska for the past week helping out at the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy – where we taught 14 local youth many of the skills they’ll need to become fishing guides on their world-class home rivers such as the Nushagak, Naknek, Mulchatna, Koktuli and Kvichak.

The students had headed home on charters back to their villages throughout the region earlier in the afternoon, and I stayed one more night to visit a seasoned fishing guide, Connor, at a nearby lodge with hopes of sneaking in one teenager-free evening out on the water. The conditions were perfect to drum up a quality G ‘n G last night. Here’s how it went down:

Ingredients 1-2: It’s hard to beat the Naknek River at dusk in June. The sun had lots of setting yet to do at 10:30 p.m., when we were out, but was taking on the distinctive orange glow that tells us Alaskans it’s time to start thinking about the general direction of bed. (But then we usually remember the recent 3:30 p.m. darkness and crack one last can of beer anyway.) I saw only a couple other boats on the way upstream, and due to the bend in the river, there were no humans in sight as we stepped out to wade. The sun illuminated the richness of the tundra and rocks through the clear water like a painting, and a breeze kept the mosquitos away. Beautiful scenery and perfect lighting: check, check.

Ingredient 3: The week at the Academy was exhausting. But in the end, the group of instructors could not have been prouder of our students. I was so energized by the successful week, and very excited to fish again with Connor on such a beautiful evening. The smile was the easiest part, fish or not.

Ingredient 4: There’s not much to say about the "lookin' fly" category, but I’d be lying if I said that a cute wading belt; stylish hat, shades, and hair-braid; or maybe even a new manicure doesn’t help take a good G ‘n G photo to the next level.

Ingredient 5: I caught a small rainbow right away, before a lull in activity. As I was slowly making my way back downstream toward the boat (it was well on its way to 11 p.m. by now), I hooked into a rainbow that felt a lot like how hooking into a pretty sizeable pink salmon felt in the Tongass National Forest last summer. Connor saw I had a fish on and asked if it was “net-worthy,” and I said I thought it was.

It didn’t go for much of a run, but lumbered along enough to involve effort. As Connor made his way upstream toward me with the net, we both got a good look at it and he said, “Jenny, that’s a good fish!” At this point I’m getting excited. As a somewhat inexperienced angler, it’s tough – working for TU in Alaska without a solid G ‘n G photo. My "fishing cred” could really use one of those.

As he was almost back upstream with the net, the ‘bow came unbuttoned, and just like that—the most critical component of the perfect grip n’ grin swam away. A few words I probably wouldn’t have said around the students may have slipped out at that point. Connor later asked me if I wanted to know his estimation for how big the fish was, and I of course did.

“Well over two feet,” he guessed.

Someday, hopefully soon, I’ll get over not fully seeing that rainbow. The good news is, missing it gives me a perfect excuse to come back to the Naknek and try again. I don’t think items 1 through 4 will be a problem then either. It’s that  No. 5 that gives me so much trouble.

Jenny Weis is the Alaska Communications Director and lives in Anchorage.

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