Jack, and Eight Pounds of Rainbow
by Mike Spinney
and Bob Cusack
Thompson was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Pacific
Theater in World War II. He was a successful businessman,
and an avid fisherman. Jack Thompson was also my father-in-law.
A child of the Great Depression, Jack’s values and
work ethic were molded by events of the first half of
the 20th Century. War and economic hardship taught him
to appreciate each day and each gift life gives, whether
material or spiritual. He went forth in life with a matter-of-factness
that allowed him to see situations with precise vision,
and through this approach he accumulated wisdom. Jack
gave and expected honesty. He trusted God and his own
experience, and was generous with all he had toward anyone
Our mutual love of fly-fishing created a bond between
Jack and me. We fished for landlocked salmon and brooktrout
together on the Magalloway River at his camp on Parmacheenee
Lake in Maine, and for striped bass on Maine’s Kennebec
River, New Hampshire’s Piscataqua, and on the Merrimac
River in Massachusetts.
Often, when we weren’t fishing, we talked about
the sport. When I would bring up some new approach to
angling, or a new piece of gear that I was anxious to
try, Jack would often reply with the phrase, “The
fish doesn’t know.” Fads and brands didn’t
impress him. Results did, and he eschewed the latest thinking
in favor of the proven approach.
Eventually, when the topic was fishing, the conversation
would turn to Alaska.
Of all the places Jack had cast a fly – Christmas
Island in the South Pacific, the Miramichi on New Brunswick’s
Atlantic coast, the Bahamas – it was clear that
Alaska was his favorite. Each year for more than a quarter
century, Jack would travel to the Last Frontier to chase
rainbow trout and silver salmon, returning with new tales
and memories that punctuated his love for the place.
Jack’s host during his annual pilgrimages was Bob
Cusack, proprietor of Cusack’s Alaska Lodge on the
shores of Lake Iliamna in the heart of Alaska’s
trophy rainbow trout management area. For Jack, the friendship
that developed between he and Bob was as much a part of
Alaska’s draw as the angling, and the character
named Bob Cusack became more animated for me with each
A no-nonsense bush pilot, Bob Cusack seemed to me to be
a bit of a swashbuckler. There was no timidity in him,
nor was there any room for it. The big land of Alaska
deals harshly with those who lack respect and boldness.
Cusack had both. He was Jack’s perfect complement.
Where Jack was no-nonsense, Cusack was lusty; but both
understood the consequences of breaking rules. In the
Pacific islands as on the Alaskan tundra, a failure to
follow order might get someone killed. Self reliance and
specific rules were insurance policies for survival.
When, in the summer of 1996, Jack asked me if I’d
be interested in accompanying him on his next trip, I
nearly choked trying to get the word “yes”
out of my mouth before there was an opportunity for him
to reconsider the prospects of spending a week with the
bum who’d stolen his youngest daughter away.
For me, the prospect of traveling to Alaska was a dream
come true. Long before I met Jack, I’d fallen under
the spell of Alaska’s big water and big fish. Jack’s
tales of strong trout, leaping salmon and of sharing time
on the water with hungry brown bears only added to the
attraction. The notion of being transported from remote
location to remote location by float plane and casting
flies over wild fish, then retiring to a rustic lodge
to relive the day’s events was more than appealing
The visions I had grew in my mind’s eye as the trip
neared. Every waking moment was spent in anticipation
of setting out for Alaska, and every sleeping moment spent
in fantasy. A few weeks prior to our departure, Jack and
I visited L.L. Bean, the famous Maine outfitter, to stock
up on gear. Jack wanted to buy a new fly rod and asked
my opinion of a couple models, asking me to pick one for
My mother-in-law interjected in my defense, protesting
that that Jack might be teasing me and that he should
just buy whatever rod he wanted.
“Why shouldn’t he pick it out?” Jack
replied. “It’ll be his after I die.”
Dismissing the prospect, I suggested Jack get a particular
model by a noted manufacturer. It was a quality rod and
highly praised in angling circles. Jack purchased the
rod while I acquired a supply of egg-sucking leeches –
a popular and proven fly pattern for late season Alaskan
The days crawled by, but eventually we boarded a jet bound
for Anchorage, Alaska by way of Chicago. The flight was
crowded, and long, but everything went smoothly. In Anchorage,
Jack and I retreated to the restaurant in the Captain
Cook Hotel to fill the void that airline pretzels couldn’t,
then made our way back to the airport to catch a plane
for the village of Iliamna.
Even in Anchorage my preconceived ideas of Alaska were
beginning to change, but during the flight to Iliamna
and especially upon my arrival it quickly became apparent
that, for all the vivid pictures I’d drawn in my
head, the reality of Alaska was far beyond my imagination.
No previous experience of an entire life spent fishing
throughout New England could have prepared me for such
Bob Cusack picked us up in his Cessna 185, a sturdy, reliable
aircraft popular in a region where such qualities are
valued in a plane. Outgoing, but all business around the
plane, Bob quickly got our gear stowed, then took off
across the lake for his lodge.
Wide-eyed, I took in as much of the expansive landscape
as my eyes allowed. Photos in an angling magazine, I concluded,
could not do this place justice. Bouncing along a few
hundred feet above the inland sea known as Lake Iliamna,
the sense of adventure grew. I bounded up the walkway
from the shore to the lodge once we landed and secured
the 185. Carrying our gear, I was anxious to get the day
done and see the next morning dawn so that we could get
to the business of fishing.
There was catching up to do for Bob and Jack, though,
and familiarity the two shared fostered a congenial atmosphere
as we lounged beside the lodge’s brawny wood stove.
exhausting day of travel eventually sent us to our bunks,
however, and in spite of my excited anticipation, sleep
next morning, breakfast went down quickly. And lots of
it. Fuel for a long, hard day of hiking along a riverbank.
Pride and self-confidence forbade me from expressing the
true level of my giddiness when I first climbed aboard
Cusack’s little Piper Cub and embarked for the Gibraltar
River. Fly-out fishing was a new experience for me and
my heart raced with excitement and anticipation.
the lodge prior to leaving for the river, Jack offered
some advice and asked how I intended to fish the river.
I said I’d start by throwing my egg-sucking leeches
on a 6lb tippet.
you sure about the tippet?” Jack asked, suggesting
I might want to go with something heavier.
I assured him that I wanted to give myself every opportunity
to take a few Alaskan rainbows and I didn’t want
to risk spooking these wild fish with a bulkier line.
Besides, 6lb tippet ought to be more than enough for an
angler of my skill level to subdue whatever the river
had to offer.
Jack laughed with an inflection that betrayed a man resisting
the urge to tell me I should listen to the benefit of
experience. It didn’t take much prescience for him
to see the outcome, but better for me to learn on my own
than to nag me on the issue, he reasoned silently.
out of the Cub, we waded across the mouth of the river
and made our way to a gravel bar that ran along a broad
pool filled with spawning sockeye salmon. Wide-eyed, I
stood amazed at the swarm of fish that quivered and splashed
in the shallow water, depositing the makings of a new
generation of fish throughout the river’s gravel
in with these fish, it was explained, were trout greedily
devouring any eggs that might tumble down the current.
and I took up positions on the river and began casting.
A few minutes into the effort I managed to stumble into
a bit of luck and drift my fly in front of a hungry rainbow.
I’m guessing it was a fish of some merit, but only
it and its maker know for certain. The strike was unlike
any I’d experienced trout fishing before, and the
weight of the fish was only momentarily felt before my
tippet snapped under the strain.
I thought. Paying too much attention to my surroundings
rather than focusing on the task at hand. Won’t
make that mistake again.
I managed to land a few smaller specimens, 2 and 3 pound
fish; enough to restore my confidence and convince me
that my previous gaffe was nothing more than a fluke.
soon enough, another rainbow trout decided to test the
limits of my choice of leader and came out on the winning
end. Then another.
you going to keep that up, or do you want to borrow a
heavier tippet?” Jack asked. He’d been watching,
amused, from the next hole downstream.
thanks. I’ve got some 12lb in my vest, I said trying
not to sound too sheepish. Swallowing my pride, I reasoned,
was going to be less expensive than sending any more flies
to the riverbed.
to the river with my buttressed tackle, it wasn’t
long before Jack let out a whoop. I turned just in time
to see a fat trout on the end of his line make a splashing
re-entry. Moments later the fish propelled itself in the
air again then bolted downstream. I strung up my rod and
chased Jack in pursuit of the fish, which decided it might
find safety a fair distance downstream.
over rocks and through debris deposited along the riverbank,
we finally caught up with the fish in a pool of deeper
water. It leapt a few more times before Jack tamed it,
cradling its body in the current in an effort to revive
the fish sufficiently for its release. Consensus estimated
it to be a solid eight pounds. Respectable by any standard.
that, Michael,” Jack said.
been back to Cusack’s twice since that inaugural
trip and haven’t yet met Jack’s challenge.
I’ll go back again before too long, packing the
fly rod I picked out ten years ago. But even if I manage
to land an Alaska rainbow that eclipses Jack’s on
my next trip, the fact that I won’t be able to share
my joy with him guarantees that his fish will never be
Spinney is a volunteer staff writer for 2 Walls Webzine)