Fly Fishing With Drag Queens

Winner of the 2010 EDTU fish story contest

Fly fishing with drag queens – only in Alaska. In the summer of 2007, I convinced my wife Kat, who at the time was my girlfriend, to accompany me to Alaska. I remember selling her on the idea. It would be an adventure trip full of hiking, sightseeing, and wildlife viewing. Kat had only been fishing a few times, so what I did not exactly fully disclose was the fact that I had already booked a week at a remote fishing camp about ninety miles south of Denali National Park. I wasn’t being totally dishonest, though. Sure, we would be hiking. We’d be walking from one hole to the next on one of the three rivers that flows through the camp’s property. Sightseeing? You bet. We were within sight of Denali National Park, where gorgeous vistas of Mt. McKinley would take your breath away. And there would, hopefully, be plenty of wildlife viewing. The rivers were known for their prolific runs of silver salmon and king salmon, among other species, and for their resident population of trophy rainbow trout. I did mention that we’d be spending at least part of the trip fishing. So, two days before the trip, when she saw me packing two 8-weights and a 5-weight, my waders, boots and the rest of my gear, instead of calling me out, she simply shook her head.

We flew from Chicago’s O’Hare airport into Anchorage. The flight was long but smooth, and we were able to see the Canadian Rockies in all their snow-capped beauty. In Anchorage, there are two airports adjacent to each other– Ted Stevens International Airport, which is the main commercial passenger and freight servicing airport – and smaller one called Lake Hood Seaplane Base. The latter serves small prop-jobs and puddle jumpers – literally. It has a gravel runway strip and a water strip for seaplanes. After landing at the larger of the two, we collected our bags and my gear and walked over to the secondary airport. We found the “airline” that would be taking us to the camp, and I introduced myself to Gus, the ticket agent. Not coincidentally, Gus was also the gentleman I spoke to several weeks prior that had taken my reservation. As it turned out, he was also the airline’s weather forecaster, the airplane mechanic, and the pilot. The only thing he did not do was handle baggage; that was left to me.

Near the ticket counter was another gentleman with whom my wife was speaking. His destination was the same as ours. I winced when I saw his travel gear. Sooner or later Kat would realize that this was a fishing trip, with more of an emphasis on the fishing than on the trip. The traveler was wearing a Simms waterproof wading jacket, polarized sunglasses around his neck and a Sage fly fishing hat. But my fears were allayed within two minutes of their conversation when he volunteered that he was a sommelier at an Italian restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina. For the next hour until we took off, he and Kat talked about food and wine pairings, much to my relief, because I don’t think Kat heard Gus when he asked the Kat and I how much we weighed. “Um,” I quickly replied with a lowered voice directed toward Gus, “the two of us, with our gear, weigh about 400 pounds.”
An hour later the propeller was started and we taxied toward the downwind side of the paved runway. The plane was a four-seater; the pilot and the sommelier in the front seat and Kat and I in the rear seat. We took off heading north on a course toward the fishing camp. Forty-five minutes later we landed on a gravel strip and were greeted by the camp’s owner, his St. Bernard, Tiny, and a couple of guides who took our bags to our rooms. When asked by the owner what we wanted to do first, I knew that we had a few hours before dinner, so I said, “Let’s go fishing.” We were introduced to our guide Dave and in less than hour, we were standing beside one of the rivers.

That first day of fishing could not have been worse. Because we didn’t have much time, we went to the nearest river, which was generally known to be the least productive of the three. The runoff from glacial melt made the river gray and impossible to see through, so site fishing was out of the question. Dave tied on a sculpin for both Kat and I and for the next two hours, we swatted mosquitoes, casted, and swatted mosquitoes. I had never experienced anything like the mosquito attack – they say that the mosquito is the Alaskan state bird – and after a short spell on the side of the river, even I wanted to go back to the camp’s lodge.

The next day we fished a crystal clear stream. In the river before us we could plainly see pink salmon, chum salmon and king salmon all on their way upriver to their spawning grounds. They were stacked tight and did not seem to have much of an incentive to head upstream into faster waters. Dave asked Kat which kind of salmon she wanted to target. Kat pointed in the general direction of the river, smiled, and said, “any of those would be fine.” He then asked Kat if she cared what fly she wanted to use. She looked over about 20 flies and pointed out a pink and purple fly, the likes of which I’d never seen. It looked like a feather boa with glitter, something you’d only see on Halloween night in West Hollywood. “How about that one?” Kat asked. Dave picked it up and told her that it would work well in catching any of the salmon she could see.

“What pattern is that?” I asked.
“That’s the RuPaul.” Dave replied.
“RuPaul?” I thought for a moment. “As in the drag queen RuPaul?”
“Yep, the one and only. Looks like something she… he would wear, right? I don’t know who came up with the name, but it’ll slay the pinks, the chum and the kings in this part of the river.”
That it did. Dave tied on the RuPaul, and almost immediately, Kat had hooked into a pink salmon, about five or six pounds, and even though a beginner fly fisher, she deftly landed the fish and had her photo taken with her first salmon and the largest largest fish she’d ever caught. While Dave was releasing the fish, I looked over his assortment of flies. He came over and asked me which salmon species I wanted to target and which fly pattern I wanted to try. I wanted to put my 8-weight to the test, and I noticed a 15 pound plus king within casting distance. “What works best for the Kings?”
“Honestly, the RuPaul works really well, or you can try one of these zonker minnows or an egg-sucking leach.”

I picked out a zonker, tied it on to the tippet, and began casting. But before my fly even hit the water, Kat had hooked up with her second fish. This time it was a chum salmon. It gave a decent fight but Kat was able to land it. I guessed the size to be about ten pounds. In less than five minutes, she had caught the largest fish of her life, and then topped that with another. Dave removed the RuPaul from its mouth and Kat was casting again. In the next hour, Kat landed ten more pinks, chum, and even a sockeye, all on the same RuPaul fly. Sometime during that stretch I switched from the zonker to an egg-sucking leach, and neither one produced a single fish.
Kat looked over as I was switching flies again. “You should use one of these RuPauls that I’m using.” I pretended not to hear. I’d be damned if I was going to use a RuPaul. I’m not exactly a purist, but the fly didn’t imitate any living creature except for that drag queen from the lower 48. Kat quickly refocused on the fish swimming before her. Now I could see that she was being a little more selective in her casting strategy. “What’s that giant red fish over there,” she asked Dave.
“That’s a king salmon. And that one is huge. Probably twenty pounds.” I watched as Kat casted toward the fish. The first cast missed by about 10 feet. The second was a little closer, and finally, the third cast was on target, about two feet in front of the king’s nose. When it saw that glittery purple and pink feathery substance, it became abundantly clear that king salmon don’t like drag queens. Something clicked in its brain and sent a signal to the fish to devour it. The king pounced on the fly and it was game on. The fish first swam up river, then down. I thought my old 8-weight was going to snap in two, but Kat played the fish well and after five minutes or so, landed the brilliant-red king salmon.

When the excitement was over, Kat decided to take a rest and sat on a fallen spruce next to the river. She said her arms were too tired to fish any more, the comment feeling like she was removing a barbed hook from deep in my throat. I decided to walk around a bend in the river to a new stretch of water, not coincidentally out of earshot from Kat, and Dave soon joined me. “Have any more of those RuPauls,” I asked, with eyes lowered. Dave chuckled. “Sure do. Let me tie one on for you.” In the next few hours, I landed all five species of salmon native to the region, including a twenty pound king salmon, and from my estimation, just a few ounces bigger than Kat’s.

Over the next few days, we caught more salmon than I thought possible, and landed some trophy rainbows, too. On the fourth day, Kat said she was tired of fishing, so we hopped back on the plane and headed back to Anchorage. We spent the remainder of the trip hiking, seeing glaciers, and watching wildlife. On one of the hikes, a beautiful trail skirting the coastline just outside of Seward, I asked Kat to marry me, and she said yes.

We decided to get married six months later. I left most of the wedding planning to Kat, so she dealt with invitations, cake, music, venue, guest lists, and all that goes into planning a wedding. One day, after seeing her frustration at the enormous task, the opportunist in me spoke up. “I’ll tell you what. You plan the wedding and I’ll take care of the honeymoon.”
“That’s a deal,” she said.

The wedding was in early February. Because we were living in Chicago, I decided that a warm-weather trip would be best. “I booked the honeymoon,” I told her about 3 months before the wedding.

“Awesome. Where are we going?”
“South Andros.”
“Um. The Bahamas.”
“Sounds great.”
“And you’ve taken care of everything, right?”
“All but a few small details that can be taken care of right before the trip,” I replied.

Two days before the trip, we were running errands and I stopped in at a local fly shop in Chicago catering to traveling anglers, and took care of those last minute details. I ran in and made my purchase and came back to the car, throwing a small shopping bag into the back seat. Kat reached back, opened the bag, and read aloud, “Bonefish Leader.” She looked at me and asked, “What’s that for?”
“I thought I might try some fishing when we get down to South Andros.”
“The Bahamas.”
“Oh. You can fish down there?”
“I think so,” I answered, as I daydreamed about the fight of the bonefish and the absence of drag queens.