Ever dream of catching the real deal in Alaska’s rugged waters? We sent Senior Food Editor Julia Rutland to try her luck on the Last Frontier.

By Julia Rutland
May 01, 2011
Michael Hanson

Forget “I love you.” The sweetest words to a fisherman’s ears are “You’ll catch a lot of fish.” This promise from my guide makes me smile as I sit in a boat on the glassy waters off Cordova, Alaska, 150 miles southeast of Anchorage. While I appreciate the trend of eating food grown close to home, I always make an exception for wild salmon in the grocery store. It’s that good—and good for you. But instead of running to the market, I’ve traveled some 3,500 miles to fly-fish for my dinner.

Pale gray clouds circle Sheep Bay, guarding the stunning scenery. Suited up in bulky brown waders, we anchor at low tide and step into the adjacent Sheep River, where pink salmon are heading to spawn. For the next few weeks, the river will teem with wild salmon, whose life cycle begins and ends in freshwater. After hatching, the fish migrate to the ocean for their adult lives. Then their powerful spawning instincts guide them back to the very spot where they hatched.

During our excursion, we see a brown bear, breakfast still writhing in her mouth, looking at us with eyes almost as wide as ours. The guide unholsters his bear spray, the photographer grabs his zoom lens, and I stand there, slack-jawed, unsure if I should be thrilled or terrified. It is one of the rare moments in my life when I have nothing to say. The bear decides bringing dinner to her cub upstream is more interesting than hanging out with a group of humans, and our time on the river draws to a close. I have my fish, and a fish story, too.