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Alaska, Jack, and Eight Pounds of Rainbow
April 1, 2004
by Mike Spinney

Jack Thompson
and Bob Cusack

Jack 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 who needed.

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 new story.

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 to me.

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 him.

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.”

Nice thought.

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 rainbow trout.

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 a place.

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.

An exhausting day of travel eventually sent us to our bunks, however, and in spite of my excited anticipation, sleep came easily.

The 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.

In 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.

“Are you sure about the tippet?” Jack asked, suggesting I might want to go with something heavier.

Nope. 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.

“Okay,” 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.

Stepping 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 bottom.

Mixed in with these fish, it was explained, were trout greedily devouring any eggs that might tumble down the current.

Jack 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.

Unprepared, I thought. Paying too much attention to my surroundings rather than focusing on the task at hand. Won’t make that mistake again.

Indeed, 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.

But soon enough, another rainbow trout decided to test the limits of my choice of leader and came out on the winning end. Then another.

“Are 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.

No, 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.

Returning 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.

Stumbling 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.

“Top that, Michael,” Jack said.

I’ve 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 equaled.

(Mike Spinney is a volunteer staff writer for 2 Walls Webzine)

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