Story last updated at 4:19 p.m. Thursday, August 15, 2002

In search of 'Dollywood'
photo: outdoors
  Photo by Ben Stuart, Homer News
A Dolly Varden poses for the camera  
On an unseasonably warm, short-sleeve sort of day in the first week of August, I packed my truck, picked up a fishing buddy and headed down the highway to meet an old friend. It had been nearly six cold, wintry months since my last memorable visit. And in that time I had told that same story a hundred times.

The story usually began something like: "Well, this one day on the Anchor " or "You should have seen this one day last year " or, my personal favorite, "Now I'm not lying...."

The meat of the story contained certain variables that could be intermixed, omitted and embellished, depending on the company, or the size of the fish story it followed. It could take place on a bright sunny day, or during a terrible stormy night. But overall, it was nothing more than a yarn about catching Dolly Vardens the size of my arm in such copious amounts, and with such frequency, that afterward I had to go see a specialist to surgically remove the grin on my face.

The story ends as most of my stories do. My friends roll their eyes and sometimes chuckle, and I always add the tagline: "I can't wait until next year".

Now that it's August, I don't have to wait anymore.

The Anchor River is a cold, meandering, usually shallow and often clear stream that begins up in the backcountry northeast of Homer and dumps into Cook Inlet at Anchor Point. It supports decent runs of king, pink, and silver salmon, as well as rainbow trout, steelhead, and Dolly Varden char. On Aug. 1, the entire river opens to Dolly fishing, giving the adventurous angler miles of bends, shallow ripples and deep holes to choose from. Good fishing can be found a short distance from the highway, but better spots can be found after a river hike.

I had bribed my fishing buddy to go on such a hike that first week in August, downstream a mile or so from the bridge where we had parked. A quarter mile from the bridge any sort of riverside trail vanished. The only paths around the river are maintained by moose and often lead from the river to higher ground.

We crossed the river six or seven times, hauling out on rock beds, and then back across to the next one farther downstream. Knee-deep in the clear water we paused for the red spawning kings as they made their final desperate push upstream. Overhead, an immature bald eagle soared to its perch high above a bend, and gulls, ducks and tiny shorebirds scattered as we marched on.

There was a little breeze on the river. The sun warmed what my waders didn't cover, and we stumbled and scooted across the current and over the slippery rocks. I would have enjoyed the hike even without the prospect of the good fishing that we hoped awaited around the next bend.

We emerged from a tree-lined section to a clearing of high grass, short willows and a deep clear pool filled with salmon. We drank our bottled water, slapped away the mosquitoes that had hitchhiked during the journey, and prepared to fish the end of the pool a bit downstream.

Dolly Varden are often found in groups feeding behind big spawning salmon. Like rainbow trout, they eat a host of insects, but often prefer salmon eggs from the source or bits of flesh that fall off their decaying companions.

As fly fishermen we try to accommodate. We fish small egg-colored beads, fuzzy orange glo-bugs, or a host of flesh patterns.

Dollies are often aggressive and can be found in numbers. After a careful inspection of the end of the pool, I spotted the tell-tale sign of a nice large group of fish. The riverbed flashed like the bulbs of a hundred photographers chasing down the latest Hollywood star.

Even while wearing polarized glasses, Dollies are hard to spot if they remain still. Their dark spotted tops blend conveniently with the gray rocky riverbed. But if they are feeding, or are startled, their bright sides flash as they move.

Some friends and I like to call this "Dollywood" -- when at certain spots on the river, at certain times of year, when all the factors (river height, temperature, tides, salmon migration, etc.) line up perfectly, and Dolly fishing is at its best.

On this day, the Anchor River rolled out its red carpet to us. It was little more than moose trail lined with fireweed; but I wouldn't have it any other way. The fishing began.

I missed a fish on my first cast, but landed a 12-incher on the second and another on the third. Cast after cast, for 45 minutes, in the same stretch of water, a bright flashing Dolly attacked my beaded hook.

I lost count at 25 fish landed and released, and I know I missed at least twice that many bites. Most were in the 12- to 14-inch range. One or two were as long as my lower arm.

The sound of the river drowned out everything but the "woo-hoo" of my fishing buddy as he caught another Dolly, and then another.

The sun was shining brightly now. A calm breeze kept the bugs at bay. We were at least a mile from the bridge, sharing a river with only the salmon, the gulls and a bald eagle that sat in its perch high above. I could have stayed there all day.

But like all good things, or like when a faucet turns off or some mysterious gate closes, the fish stopped biting. We did have less important things to do -- plans and engagements we could not break, work that we could put off no longer. So we hiked back to the truck and vowed to return to "The Spot."

To this day I have not returned there.

The problem with the opening of the entire Anchor River, is that the entire Anchor River is open. Miles of secret holes, fallen logs and deep, clear pools bait fishermen into abandoning what they know, for what could be just around the bend.

I have fished several times since, with several different friends, at several different spots, with varying results. None of these results, however, compare to that unseasonably warm, short-sleeved day that first week of August.

For instance ...

Monday was a waterproof jacket sort of day on the Anchor River. We parked at a different bridge, hiked up the river, found a perfect hole and threw every fly in the box at them all evening long.

At the end of the night, with the sun setting, and after five hours of fishing, my buddy and I caught three fish between us -- and I got skunked.

The roar of the river drowned out everything but my own inner lament as I snagged another underwater rock or overhead branch with my cast.

But on the walk back to the truck, soaked to the bone where my waders didn't cover, I raised my sorrowful head long enough, just long enough, to see a yearling moose charge full steam into the middle of the river and stop, look around, smell us in the air, hear us with his perked up ears, see us with his large eyes and freeze.

There in the middle of the river, knee deep in brown water, we waited for the moose to cross. Overhead the clouds parted just enough to reveal an orange reflection of the sunset. The Dolly Varden quietly swam upstream, flashing their brightly colored sides as they fed.

Even a poor day on the Anchor is memorable. And like the salmon, I vowed to return.

When he's not getting skunked at various lower peninsula fishing holes, Ben Stuart works as an editorial assistant for the Homer News. Comments can be e-mailed to him at bstuart@homernews.com

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