What’s a Fish Worth?

What’s a fish worth? One fish. Not a boatload, not a stringer of lunkers, not even a trophy. Just one fish. One little fish. What’s one little fish worth? I’m not asking about a king salmon or a rainbow trout. My inquiry is concerning a Dolly. What’s one Dolly Varden char worth?

One spring, Easten and I got the desire to go fishing. We knew we were pushing the season a bit, but we couldn’t wait to get out. A call to Craig Ketchum, and a day later, we were at one of Ketchum’s Kenai Lakes cabins.

We had fishing on our minds, and even before gear was put in the cabin, we installed the boat motor and headed for the spot Craig had advised. Two loons crossed our intended route to the fish, and we slowed to let them pass. Alternately, one would dive, searching for food, and the other stood guard. We forgot fishing for the moment and stopped to watch and listen. As we watched the loons, we became aware of spring’s first green appearing on the bushes and trees along the shore and realized it was the beginning of summer. After a time, we started the outboard and moved on, leaving that part of the lake to the loons.

Craig advised us to troll the edges of one of the lake’s islands. As we throttled down, a movement on shore attracted our gaze. There she stood—a huge cow moose staring at us from the protection of a small swamp spruce. We stopped, killed the engine, drifted with the afternoon breeze, and watched. Deciding we presented no threat; she moved toward the lake shore. Trying to follow, almost walking between her back legs, was a newborn calf. We were perhaps witnessing his first steps. The breeze gently pushed us away from mama moose, and we watched as she disappeared with her offspring into the cover of spruce, birch, and brush.

Our earlier near panic rush to get the fishing slowed by loons and moose now moved to a pace almost matching the speed of the greening of the trees. For some reason, it seemed better to move slowly and see what other pleasant surprises our fly-in lake held. Before we reached Craig’s selected spot, we saw two more loons; a flock of geese was V-ing north, and groups of ducks made low passes overhead and moved on. A pair of mergansers worked the lakeshore. Small birds called out their warning and greeting.

A couple of hours passed before we set up our rods. We took our time. Tied the swivels on with knots like we were pros. Easten captained the boat, and I set out our lines. One on each side over the gunnels. I handed Easten his rod, and he soon played pull and tug with a little fish. A little Dolly, about 12 or 14 inches.

We’d missed lunch, stopping to buy licenses and hurrying to meet Craig’s takeoff time. Evening arrived with the landing of the Dolly, and being hungry, we decided to use the season’s first fruits for supper.

Easten cleaned his catch, and we wrapped it in strips of bacon and fried it between slices of potatoes. Other foods were added, and dinner was served. The best fish we’d ever eaten.

Next morning we took out the .22 rifle and killed four soda pop cans with two boxes of bullets. It took about three hours for the bullets to disappear and the cans to succumb. We motored around the lake and became better acquainted with its resident mama moose, her calf, the loons, and mergansers. We forgot to fish. And then Craig came to pick us up.

Since that day, Easten and I rarely have a fish dinner or even talk about fishing, that the conversation doesn’t end up at the Dolly dinner wrapped in strips of bacon, served with fried potatoes, and eaten at twilight in Ketchum’s Kenai cabin.

What’s a little Dolly worth? I know one that’s worth plenty, gets more precious every day, and will increase in value after I’m gone, and Easten tells his children, my grandchildren, about the spring he fished with his Dad on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and the Dolly who came to dinner.

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