Alaska! Better yet, fishing in Alaska! The whole idea of traveling to Alaska came about 5 years ago, after I was diagnosed with cancer. Reaching five years of remission would be an excellent reason to celebrate. And what better way to celebrate than the fishing trip of a life time?
To me an exotic fishing trip means the opportunity to fish for something that I can’t find at home. In Alaska I could fish for five different types of Pacific Salmon, Dolly Varden, Artic Char, Grayling, or Rainbow trout. All of these fish would be available with a fly rod. We decided to skip Pike fishing. There are some big Pike in Alaska but honestly you have a much better shot at a big fish right here in Minnesota. We also decided against ocean charter fishing. Halibut can get gigantic, however the average fish caught isn’t a whole lot bigger than the Sturgeon we catch every April in Lake of the Woods. Nope, we wanted to stand in a river or creek full of Salmon and Trout.
There are a lot of ways to approach a fishing trip in Alaska. You can rent an RV and drive to campsites, or there are float trips where you camp your way down the river. You can rent a car and fish from the roads. There are lodges (resorts) that range from tent camps all the way up to really lavish operations. We wanted to find a reasonable compromise between civilization (her) and living in a tent (me). That meant a reasonably priced lodge located on a decent river that had private cabins with plumbing and electricity. Watch out for the operations that talk about the food before they talk about the fishing! After a lot of searching on the Internet, talking to outfitters at the sports shows, and checking other sources we finally decided on a lodge. Check references and ask questions! In our case, it was important to me that they provided a guide, that they catered to fly fishing, and that they fished out of boats. I was going to get one shot at this Alaska fishing so I wanted a guide to help get out of the foothills of the learning curve. Imagine showing up on Pool 2 without any idea where to look or what to do. Some Lodges aren’t located on good water. Every morning you walk down to the dock and get back on a float plane, where they fly you off to a hot spot somewhere. That’s great as long as the weather is good enough for flying. If it isn’t, you could be spending a lot of money to sit in the lodge and play cribbage. We finally decided on Wilderness Place Lodge (http://www.wildernessplacelodge.com/), located about 80 miles North of Anchorage on Lake Creek. It met all of our requirements and Lake Creek is well known for its Salmon runs and Rainbow trout. This operation offered clean, comfortable private cabins, good fishing, and the references were all very positive. They also have a high percentage of repeat customers. As it turned out we couldn’t have made a better choice. The people were great, especially our hard working guide Matt.
I’ve been fly fishing most of my life but I’d never been on a Salmon river in Alaska. It was time to hit the books. I ended up buying three books: “The Flyfishers Guide to Alaska” by Scott Haugen, “Flyfishing Alaska”, and “Flies for Alaska” both written by Anthony Route. With this information I had an idea of what kind of flies I would need, how to present them to the fish, and what the rivers were like in Alaska. I also joined the group on Alaskaflyfish.net and met some people who were very helpful. I spent a lot of time tying flies. I ended up with many more flies than I could possibly have ever needed, but that’s fishing, right?
Then my wife surprised me and announced that she was going to learn how to fly fish too. I pointed out that a heavy spinning rod is a great tool for these fish, and that they hit spinners very well. But she was insistent, so we began working on her casting. That was us down at Simley Park working on our casting.
Next up was investing in waders and wading shoes. It’s not trivial finding a pair of waders and wading shoes that fit correctly. It’s ten times harder finding waders and shoes that fit a woman! We spent a lot of time trying stuff out until we found decent gear for her to use.
We also had to learn how to wade and fish in moving water. The North Shore was the place for this. We fished North Shore streams for the last few years and it was great practice. In the process we fell in love with the Baptism, the Cascade, the Temperance, and other small rivers up there.
Once we had all that under control, we had to figure out how to pack for a fishing trip without running into problems with the TSA as well as meeting the size and weight limitations of the float planes. Normally I travel light: a spare pair of jeans, a couple of socks, a T-shirt, sixteen rods, eight tackle boxes. Just the essentials, right? This time I had to really think about what I absolutely needed and take nothing else. That’s easier said than done. We finally decided on two 8 weight fly rods, my 6 weight, and my wife’s 5 weight. To make transportation easier we used four piece rods. We also invested in Scientific Angler’s Steelhead Taper fly lines. These lines worked very well in this application.
Imagine a small lake with docks all around the shore, and NO boats anywhere! Instead every dock has a float plane tied up next to it. It was something to see. The next morning we left from that very lake on a DeHaviland Otter for a 35 minute flight to the lodge.
Lake Creek offers all five species of Pacific Salmon as well as Rainbow trout and Grayling. My goal was to 1) Catch a big Silver Salmon, 2) Catch a big Rainbow, and 3) Catch a Grayling. The fishing is done by wading or from the boat, depending on the circumstances. The boats are fourteen foot G3 Jon Boats, powered by 4 stroke Yamaha jet motors. They look like a regular outboard with the skeg broken off, and there’s a nozzle on the back instead of a propeller. It was tremendous fun tearing along in a foot of water, winding our way between the rocks and trees.
The first two days were a little slow. There were a lot of Pinks and Sockeyes in the river but only a few Chum and Silvers. The Sockeyes really don’t bite. Most of them are caught by a form a snagging, and while this is perfectly legal in Alaska I didn’t have any interest in that. It was amazing to look down onto the water and see 50 or 75 BIG Sockeyes milling around. After a while it really gets on your nerves. All those big fish and they just won’t bite. Our guide calls it “Sockeye Psychosis”.
We caught enough Pink Salmon to keep it interesting. These fish aren’t held in high regard, however catching Pink Salmon is much better than catching nothing and they do run all over the river and jump a lot. It was great fun, especially on a 6 weight.
The second evening we decided to look for some Rainbow Trout action. We headed up river to a place called “The Rock Garden”. It was amazing to stand in the bow of the boat and see thirty to fifty pound King Salmon on their spawning redds. These fish were bright red, they looked like fire hydrants. The Rainbows were behind the redds looking for eggs. Most of the people fishing through here were using some sort of an egg imitation or a small plastic bead. Taking a hint from LenH, I decided to adopt the “stranger” theory and throw something completely different. I dug out a Sculpin imitation I tied up using zonker strip, lamb’s wool, and pheasant feathers from a bird my son-in-law shot last fall.
The Rainbows would not leave it alone!
In the next two hours I caught 30 Rainbows up to 24 inches long. It was a simple wet fly swing. A quartering downstream cast and just let the fly swing down behind the boat. As soon as the line would straighten out, Bam! I should mention we were doing this in broad daylight at about 10 PM local time. It really never got dark up there. You’d fish for 18 hours in a day, day after day, until you were walking around like a zombie. It was wonderful! That same night I threw some dry flies along the back and caught some small Grayling. They weren’t big and they didn’t offer a tremendous fight, but they are pretty exotic fish to a Minnesota boy.
The next morning we were looking for Salmon again, in a shoreline eddy. The idea is that the fish travel upstream and then rest in an eddy or behind an obstruction, or along a current seam. If you can catch Walleyes on the Mississippi, you already know where these fish can be found. The trick was to keep the fly right on the bottom. The fish would NOT come up for it. This meant using heavily weighted flies (think great big lead dumbbell eyes) and sinking tips. It doesn’t make for the prettiest casting but it is effective.
I threw my fly up between two bushes and mended my line to get the fly to sink down under the overhanging branches when suddenly the line tightened up. A big Chum Salmon! Like the Pinks, these fish aren’t high on the list of desired fish in Alaska either.
Those people are wrong.
Chum Salmon fight hard! This fish chugged back and forth along side the boat for about 5 minutes, and then it decided to run about 150 feet down river and sulk there. The fly line was gone and I was well into the backing with this fish. It took quite a while to work him back to the boat when he decided to take off and head up river and sit there for a while.
By now my arms were throbbing. It was like a Rainy River Sturgeon, except this fish ran around so fast you could hear the line cutting through the water. Eventually he made it into the net where we got a quick picture and a good release.
That was the turning point. That afternoon a fresh group of Silver Salmon showed up in the river mouth and the fishing picked up noticeably. Even the Pinks were biting more aggressively. We had good lucking using Chartreuse Clouser Minnows and heavy pink Wooly buggers.
That evening I caught my first Silver Salmon. They are great jumpers, coming WAY out of the water. We kept a few Silvers and released many Pinks. We even caught a few incidental Rainbows on our garish Salmon flies.
That evening I had an interesting encounter with a big Sockeye Salmon.
I was swinging a weighted fly through an eddy when I picked up a piece of line. Now I hate to see loose fishing line in the water, as it can potentially injure ducks, otters, or any number of creatures. The guide said “Keep fishing, I’ll get it”. When he pulled on the line, this big Sockeye came up on the other end about fifty feet away! This was Fireline, so he dropped it like it was a poisonous snake. That fish would have cut his fingers off. The fish was obviously foul hooked in the back and was dragging this line and a big sinker around. Ten minutes later I snagged the line again. The guide snuck over, and being careful to keep the line slack he cut my fly off and blood-knotted my leader to the Fireline. He stepped back and said “All yours!” When I tightened the fish jumped like a Porpoise and took off down river. The fight would have been tough enough as it was, but with him snagged in the back it was a real contest. We eventually did land him and successfully revive him. It was a real pleasure to watch him swim away.
Over the next couple of days we caught many more fish and I learned a lot. Unfortunately, we sometimes learn by making mistakes.
I missed several opportunities at big Silver Salmon because of mistakes I made. The biggest problem was how I was setting the hook and applying pressure to the fish. Now I’m a warm water guy. We fish for fish that are actually trying to eat something. They grab it, crush it, and start to swallow it. You set the hook, and hope the hook isn’t too deep. When Salmon enter fresh water rivers they stop eating. They will grab a fly, but that isn’t the same as eating it. You have to think about which was the river is flowing because the fish are always facing up river. Then you set the hook to the side, sweeping the rod low to the water towards the fishes tail. During the fight you have to keep applying pressure behind the fish.
I lost one big Silver Salmon right at the net because I was trying to pull him over the net. I’ve done that same maneuver a million times in warm water but it was a mistake on a Salmon River! The evening before we left I told the guide that I had one fish in mind. I didn’t care about numbers of fish, I wanted to catch a big Silver Salmon. And time was running out as we were leaving in the morning. We tried a few spots and caught some smaller fish, when I suggested we try this deeper slot where the clear water from Lake Creek was next to the glacially silted water of the Yetna river. I was using this big pink and white rabbit fur fly called a Dahli Lama.
Well, sometimes dreams come true. The fish hit solidly and for once I set the hook the correct way for once and kept the right pressure on. This was a big Silver, over 10 pounds and chrome bright. He jumped, and jumped, and ran, and jumped, and then started coming towards the boat. He got one look at us and then he kicked in the afterburners! That run went almost 100 feet and it happened so fast the fly line burned my fingers. Yes, I had a matching set of blisters on my right hand!
It was a magical moment when that fish came to the net. A beautiful, dime bright 30 inch Salmon.
It was a very sad moment when we boarded the float plane for the trip back to Anchorage as I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to visit Alaska again. It was truly the trip of a lifetime!