Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Alaska!


It was just light when I woke and I can't say when I’ve last slept so soundly in a tent. Chris, Scott and myself were camped on a gravel bar alongside a little stream that we didn’t know the name of, and even if we had it wouldn’t have mattered – about all we knew of our whereabouts was that we were in Alaska.



Our plans had changed after I’d already strapped myself into the front seat of the Beaver floatplane – the pilot offered us a different route on a different river, one that hadn’t been fished for a while. Apparently the water we’d planned to float had seen a few other anglers in the past weeks, as if we’d have noticed. But when you get suggestions from folks who make a living in that country and seem to have your interest at heart, well… the decision was unanimous and quick.

When someone talks about fishing in Alaska it can mean a lot of different things. Halibut in deep water comes to mind -- and you can drive to all sorts of rivers and lakes for salmon and trout, or you can hike or backpack to them. You can go into the bigger rivers with powerboats and you can fly into camps outfitted with jetboats. Or, as we did, you can be dropped off in remote country to fly fish and raft your way down towards the ocean.












This was an unguided, un-outfitted DIY trip and we had maps of our original route but all we knew about our new course was to go downstream. That choice added a new twist to the adventure. With the maps we’d have had at least an idea of where we were. Now every inch of the river was ours to discover. My old GPS would give us an idea of how far we’d travel in a day, but with no mapping feature it could only indicate our progress in straight lines. On the twisting river there was certainly some guessing to be done.





Rick landed his beautiful plane on a little lake and we unloaded our gear and the deflated raft. Then he gave me the coordinates of the pickup point and was gone. It didn’t take long to start pumping the raft, but we took a little time to realize that we were, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. If all went well we’d travel and fish some 60 to 70 river miles and see our pilot again in nine days.












We inflated the raft while spawning sockeye salmon splashed near. It was a sight to see, bright red fish by the hundreds, and a sight we’d soon become accustomed to. We pushed off and entered the stream, more of a creek than river, and were soon out of the raft pushing and pulling over shallow riffles. I think we walked as much as we floated those first couple of days, but the bankside runs were full of fish and when Scott landed the first large rainbow trout we knew we were in for something good. By the time we found our first campsite we’d already seen a huge racked caribou and our first bear. The bear was making his way up the river as we floated down and it took a minute of our yelling and waving for it to notice us. I tried for my camera when the bear stood up on its hind legs to better check us out, but dropped and ran off before I could get a photo. As we continued downriver we watched it meandering up the hill in the distance. More caribou near camp and fish for supper, Dolly Varden char, which are beautifully colored and the first “dollies” I’d ever seen.



We knew we had to travel a distance each day, but it was hard to pass up the runs and holes that harbored so many fish. We’d pull the loaded raft onto a gravel bar and wander downstream fly casting and catching rainbows, dollies, grayling, and an occasional red salmon.





The “reds” were far up from the ocean and mostly spawning or spawned and not about to take a fly, but a few were fresh enough to bite and put up a good fight. I’d only seen photos of the bright red salmon with hooked jaws on green heads until then and I could hardly comprehend standing in the river amongst them.
  
There were bear tracks everywhere along the shoreline and covering the gravel bars. It was nearly impossible to find a tent site that didn’t have bear prints on it, and before long we only took notice of the largest tracks. We didn’t see that many bears, actually, but enough for some neat photos. We had a bear gun, but it was mostly cased in the bottom of the raft or in Chris’s tent. The bears were more interested in the fish and really caused us no trouble, but you couldn’t forget about them and more than once I laid a reassuring hand on the bear spray hanging from my belt.











The farther downstream we travelled the bigger the fish became. On the third day we switched from our 6 weight rods to 9’s and 10’s. I’m not sure we ever took photos of the biggest fish. It’s hard to quit casting to mess with the camera but we tried to shoot what should be memorable catches. When we first started our float we kept in fairly close contact, always ready to net a fish for each other. As the days went on we would spread out quite a distance, often out of sight of each other or the raft, and when someone hooked a fish he was often on his own. And someone was always hooking a fish! I got pretty good at beaching big fish.


When we hit the silver salmon the game changed. We’d still hook dollies, rainbows and grayling, but the silvers got all our attention. They’d strike a fly and it was “game on” as they’d spin your reel and strip your fly line in seconds. They’d fly out of the river in heartstopping jumps, shaking violently to throw the hook before taking another long powerful run and all you could do was watch your line cut water. It was amazing!

Have you ever had a great dinner and said, “I could get used to this?” Well, we actually did get used to having a delicious salmon dinner, cooked over a driftwood fire, night after night. Gotta thank Chris for doing the cooking, as well as putting this outstanding trip together. This kind of thing requires some planning.



Our routine was pretty simple, we’d break camp after a hearty breakfast, add some air to the raft (yeah, it leaked a bit) load our gear and head downstream. Sometimes we’d get only a few yards before stopping to wade fish, sometimes we’d go farther. We began to realize there were times we’d have to pass good fishing to make some distance, and the wind became a factor, always blowing upriver from the ocean. Mid-day we’d stop for lunch and a rest. Then we’d float and fish until around 7, when we’d look for a camp. We’d find a bar with a few good tent sites, set up our tents, gather firewood, and get a supper cooking. One beer each, and a sip or two of bourbon around the fire. Next thing you knew it was 11 o’clock and getting dark. I’d fall asleep listening to the river flowing and salmon jumping.

This was not a leisurely vacation trip. In and out of the raft many times a day to pull through shallows or wade fish tires a guy out in the best way. Pitching and breaking camp daily along with camp chores in the open northern air makes for good sleep. Good gear is very important. Waterproof and warm. We pretty much lived in our waders all day. It often rained at night with a few showers during the day, just enough to keep rain gear on or handy. The weather was cool, the water cold. I packed my sleeping bag into a waterproof compression sack that went into a waterproof duffle. And while we each were having a great time with lots of laughing and joking, we all knew we were in serious country with one exit and little chance of quick rescue if needed. I believe the only casualty was one of my reels that a silver put the hurt to, destroying the drag and bearing.













The fishing was tremendous, I don’t know who caught the most but it wasn’t me. Still, I can’t remember all the fish I caught. I’d tied flies for what I hoped would cover every situation, and I only needed a few patterns, but it’s good to have the bases covered. I did try to use most of my “Alaska specific” flies for a few casts anyway, just ‘cause I had ‘em. And if I’d caught a nice fish on the wrong fly it would have been OK, too. We caught so many silvers on streamers that we started wogging them on the surface and just kept catching, in the most excited way. There’s nothing like seeing a big salmon waking behind a big pink deerhair pollywog being stripped in!


On the ninth day we found the pickup point near where our river converged with two others, creating a landing zone large enough and deep enough for a floatplane to land. We were there 90 minutes early and caught more salmon while we waited for Rick. Each of us agreed it would be hard to convey to the folks back home just what kind of adventure we’d experienced. Photos help, but you really had to be there. I’m glad I was. I can’t imagine seeing such vast country, or fishing opportunities, like that again. Except in Alaska.

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