Of Fish and Fowl

by John Delach

This story was told to me by my friend and customer, Brian, also known by his initials as, BVD.  who passed away about seven years ago. Brian was an insurance man who worked for Exxon in their Houston office. Like most of Exxon’s insurance professionals, Brian made several trips to Alaska  to administer his share of the many claims for damages brought by local businesses and individuals caused by the stranding of the Exxon Valdez.

George, the owner of the sporting goods store handed me my new annual Alaskan fishing license. “Where are you from?”

            “Houston,” I replied. “I got a job with a contractor to settle insurance claims, so I’ll be up here for thirty-days at a time for six to nine months. I don’t read much; hate television and I don’t want to spend my free time in bars, so I figured I’d try fishing.”

            “Well, you picked a good time to start fishing for pink salmon. They start to run in May, and you can fish as late as you like because it doesn’t get dark until about 2 a.m. I’ll help you pick out the kind of equipment and clothing you’re going to need.”

            George selected a rod and reel, a net, tackle box, wading boots, thermal socks, and long johns. “Why do I need thermal socks and long underwear in June?”

            “The water temperature in Prince William Sound does not get out of the thirties. You’ll be happy to be wearing them when you wade out into the sound. If you don’t have a sweater or light gloves, you should buy them too.”

            I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I kept quiet as my pile kept rising on his counter. When he finished counting and totaling my purchases, he reached behind the counter and opened a wooden box and placed an odd-looking fishing lure in the palm of his hand. A big silver spoon with a big red plastic diamond shaped thingy glued to it, it looked like something that your grandmother used to wear on her chest to church on Sunday.

            “This is the best lure for catching pink salmon. It’s called it a pixie. If I were you, I’d guard it with my life. I’m running out of them and I don’t know when I’ll get new ones in stock.”

            I asked him how many I could have, and he agreed to sell me six for six dollars each. I started asking him about places to fish, but he stopped me and called over a Native Alaskan guy hanging around the store. “Hey, Billy, come tell this guy where to fish.”

            Billy and I got to talking and he agreed to meet me at a camp-ground located on the shoreline the next night. We seemed to hit it off and became regular fishing buddies. Also, it didn’t take long for me to realize just how valuable Billy was to me. The first thing I noticed that night was that when I cast my pixie out into the water, it kept going down and down and down. I asked Billy what was going on.

            “After you walk more than ten feet from the shore the bottom drops 500 to 600 feet. If you wander out too far and take the plunge, you’ll have about five minutes left to live.”

I became a good angler catching five to ten fish each night which I cut loose or gave to people staying in the camp-ground who gathered to watch the master fisherman. I usually traded the fish for a cold beer and a relaxing chat with these tourists and retirees in their trailers, campers or RVs. The fishing alleviated my boredom from the seemingly endless task of settling claims. I only regretted losing my pixies which made me feel badly as my supply dwindled.

            One night while fishing with Billy, I cast out my next to last pixie. It didn’t hit the water and my rod started to jerk away from me pulling skyward. “What the hell…,” I shouted as I looked up. To my astonishment, I realized that I had hooked a sea gull on its butt. People on the bank shouted at me to cut the line, but all I could think of was my six- dollar pixie attached to a bird that was maneuvering like an out-of-control kite. Up and down, it flew screeching like all hell as we continued our struggle. I had to let out line fearing that the tension would break it and the gull would make off with my pixie. Finally, it went straight up then came crashing down onto the bank to the oohs and ahs of the crowd who were watching the show.

            I ran out of the water, grabbed onto this pecking and clawing creature who continued to screech for its mother. In desperation, the gull threw up a regurgitated fish onto my boot, but I managed to get a firm grip on its mangy butt to retrieve my pixie. As I stood up, I heard loud and clear, “They’re not very good to eat.”

            Rather embarrassed, I yanked my pixie out of its butt, released the gull who flew away and gave each of my admirers an exceptionally low bow.