Tikchick Mountains
Tikchick Mountains

North to Alaska

Tales from Cabin 14

“I managed to recover about one hundred yards of line by the time I reached the end of the sand bar, and fortunately the big King decided to take a breather. I personally think it just wanted to make sure I had run out of room before continuing on its way, because no sooner had I stopped, and then it was off again.

Bill, who was leaning up against his airplane, smiled and said, “Having fun yet?”

Seeing the rather hopeless look on my face, he started climbing into the cockpit and yelled, “Get on the back of the pontoon.”

“What the hell for?” I yelled back, as I watched my line continue to disappear.

“Just get on,” he said. “I will start her up, taxi out into the river and we’ll chase it down…”

 

While I am always on the lookout for new fishing experiences, I have to admit that Alaska was not really on my radar screen. I did do some research on the fishing opportunities, but based on what I learned, to be frank, it was not all that attractive.

First off it was a lot more money than most places, particularly when you factored in all the flying you had to do to get there, and at the time, the US/Canadian exchange rate had a significant impact on the price as well. It seemed you had to buy a special tag for just about every species of salmon, and I remember looking at pictures taken along the Kenai River, and although the fish were huge, I had no desire to go fishing with several hundred of my “closest” friends.

 

The other thing that put me off was that most of the lodges appeared to cater exclusively to fly fisherman, and while I do enjoy fly-fishing from time to time, I was not prepared to forego my spinning and casting gear for an entire week. So, while I was not planning a trip to Alaska any time soon, that all changed when I met a guy by the name of Bill Martin at the Toronto Sportsman’s Show.

 

Bill, who operated a place in Alaska called the Royal Coachman Lodge, knew that a group of friends and I went fishing to Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories each year. One afternoon, while I was wandering around at the show, Bill pulled me aside and made a very interesting proposition. “Tell me what the cost of a trip to Great Bear would be, all in and in Canadian dollars, and I will match it,” he said.

 

He certainly got my attention because as I mentioned, a trip to Alaska was usually a lot more money than what we were used to paying. “So are we going to have to fly fish for the entire week?” I asked.

 

“Just bring whatever gear you are comfortable with” he replied. To sweeten the deal Bill said, “Why don’t you come up at the end of August and check it out for your group, and if you pay for your air fare, I will take care of the rest.” Not wanting to give him a chance to change his mind, I booked my flights that same afternoon - Toronto to Minneapolis – Minneapolis to Seattle – Seattle to Anchorage – Anchorage to Dillingham. Like I said, it was a lot of flying.

 

Before I go on a fishing trip, particularly to some place new, I always spend hours going over maps of the area. To my surprise, when looking at the maps of Alaska just about everything had a name attached to it. From the biggest rivers to the smallest creeks and ponds, tiny settlement areas, mountains, hills, airfields– they all had names. On the other hand, if you look at a map of the Northwest Territories, there are precious few place names to be found. Maybe it’s because our American friends always like to know exactly where they are, while we Canadians are just as happy not really knowing, or for that matter caring.

 

Anchorage was an interesting place that had something of a frontier feel to it. One thing I did find a bit odd was that Alaskans really like their stuffed animals. By stuffed animals I do not mean the cute little fuzzy ones that your kids play with – these were the real things, at one time or another anyway.

 

As it turned out, if it flew, walked or swam, most places throughout the city had a stuffed one on display. As I said, there was a certain frontier feel to the place.

 

After checking into the Regal Alaskan Hotel, I found a seat on the patio and ordered a cold one. The patio overlooks Lake Spenard, the world’s busiest floatplane base, and as I watched the planes take off and land every five minutes or so, I began to think about what the week would have in store for me. I would be fishing on the Nyakuk, Nushagak, Holitna, Hoholitna, Kanektok and Kurtluk Rivers for Silver Salmon, wild Rainbow Trout, Pike and Grayling. Nerka, Kulik, and Aleknagik Lakes I was told held large populations of Dolly Varden and Lake Trout and, time permitting, I might get a shot at some Inconnu.

 

Bright and early the next morning, I was on the Mark Air flight for Dillingham where Bill was going to pick me up in his Beaver. We made a short stop in a place called King Salmon to drop some folks off, and while we were on the ground, I could see that the wind was kicking up quite a fuss. No one seemed too concerned, so off we went, and in about forty-five minutes we were on final approach for the strip at Dillingham.

 

Have you ever landed a jet on an aircraft carrier?

 

I haven’t, but it seemed to me that our landing was damn close to what it must be like. As it turned out we were about to land in what had developed into a full- blown gale, so our pilot was bringing us in really “hot” to compensate for the wind. To his credit, he flew us onto the runway with only a couple of bumps. When we got off the plane, the wind was so strong the rain was coming in almost horizontally, and you could barely hear yourself think over the wind noise.

 

I found out a bit later, that the Air Alaska flight scheduled to come in right behind us had decided to do the smart thing, and head back to Anchorage. Unlike ours, the Air Alaska pilot obviously never saw Top Gun.

 

My first trip was a rather short one, because I got stuck in Dillingham with a group of oil guys from Texas for two and one half days until the weather cleared. I have to admit we did have loads of fun. They were great bunch, and the highlight of our enforced confinement was sitting in the tiny bar at the Bristol Inn, watching the Dallas Cowboy’s home opener. They truly lived and died with each play, and even the locals, who were in the bar for what they thought was going to be a quiet drink, really got into it.

 

The weather finally cleared, and much to my surprise, I saw that beautiful snow capped mountains framed pretty much all of Dillingham. To this day I like to think that our pilot knew those mountains were there.

 

Bill ran what can only be described as a first class operation. The lodge, which holds only twelve guests, was located on the Nuyakuk River at the foot of the Tikchik rapids, which were framed by the snow-capped Tikchik Mountains. Each room had a well stocked bar, and plenty of fresh fruit together with other snacks. We were served great home cooked meals, and each guest was sent out with a “box” lunch every day that would have easily fed a family of four.

 

Hot coffee and juice were delivered to your room each morning before the bell rang for breakfast, and to top things off, there was outstanding fishing for native Rainbow Trout and Grayling right outside of your front door. Because fishing was primarily on rivers and streams, each group of six guests had a Beaver and pilot/guide assigned to them, so they could find the best fishing for the species of their choice.

 

Although we only fished for four days because of our late start, I sent a very positive report back to the guys, and we decided it was indeed time to go “North to Alaska.” We booked the first week in July, because that was when the big King Salmon make their appearance.

 

Our landing in Dillingham the following July was not nearly as much fun as my previous one had been. The weather was perfect, and Bill was at the airport to meet us when we landed. After a short ride over to Shannon’s Pond, where Bill had his plane docked, we quickly loaded up and were off to the lodge.

 

The very next morning we, or should I say my friend Rodney, got his first “Alaskan” fishing lesson. Rodney likes his equipment, and at Great Bear he just hauls his two or three hundred pounds of gear down to the dock and throws it in the boat – no big deal.

 

At Bill’s place, because you are packing six guys and some gear into a Beaver, space and weight is at a premium.

 

“What’s all that?” said Bill, while eyeing Rodney’s rather impressive pile of bags.

 

“Tackle and a few other things,” Rodney said in response.

 

“Well, it’s not going on my airplane,” said Bill.

 

This was not good. There they stood, toe to toe, two really big and determined guys just glaring at each other. Although the situation had all the makings of a full- blown “Mexican stand off,” cooler heads prevailed, and we managed to get on our way after persuading Rodney to do some serious culling. He was just going to have to make do with about fifty, rather than the 300 lures he had planned to take along for the day.

 

We flew around for about forty-five minutes, and then landed next to a sand bar on the Nuyakuk River, where we were going to try our luck for some King Salmon. Being a “keener,” I was first out of the plane, and was casting my pixie into the fast water long before the rest of them were even rigged up.

 

On the second cast my lure stopped dead. “Damn it,” I muttered. “I’m already snagged.” That was until my “snag” started moving upstream. Watching my line move slowly up stream, what I can best describe as a rather large red submarine, then rolled on the surface of the water.

 

Moment’s later, my “submarine” started heading down stream towards the Gulf of Alaska – and it was in a very big hurry. I stood and watched as well over 150 yards of line peeled off my Ambassadeur 6500, hoping the fish would stop sooner, rather than later. The problem was that no one had told the fish, and because the Gulf was a lot further away than the fifty yards of line remaining on my reel, I knew I was in trouble.

 

I was now just moments from being spooled, so I had no choice but to start running after the fish, stumbling along and reeling in as fast as I could. I managed to recover about one hundred yards of line by the time I reached the end of the sand bar and fortunately the big King decided to take a breather. I personally think it just wanted to make sure I had run out of room before continuing on its way, because no sooner had I stopped, and then it was off again. Bill, who was leaning up against his airplane, smiled and said, “Having fun yet?”

 

Seeing the rather hopeless look on my face, he started climbing into the cockpit and yelled, “Get on the back of the pontoon.”

 

“What the hell for?” I yelled back, as I watched my line continue to disappear.

 

“Just get on,” he said. “I will start her up, taxi out into the river and we’ll chase it down.”

 

Well, when in Rome. I had no sooner settled onto the pontoon when I heard that tell tale “snap,” so I yelled up to Bill, “Don’t bother, it’s all over.”

 

Bill climbed down from the cockpit, and as he walked past muttered, “There’s bigger ones.”

 

“Next time I bring a gun,” I replied.

 

For the rest of the week we flew all over the area and fished for pike in the Holitna River, more Kings along the Nushagak, Rainbow and Grayling in the Nuyakuk and Dolly Varden and Lake Trout in Chauekuktuli Lake. The fishing and the scenery were excellent, regardless of where Bill took us.

 

We were having dinner on the evening of July 1 or Canada Day back home, when suddenly Bill burst into the dinning room carrying a homemade Canadian flag of sorts, a bottle of Champagne, and singing what sounded like some of the words to Oh Canada to the tune of When Irish Eyes are Smiling. We all sat there in stunned silence, but after the initial shock wore off, we attempted to join in because we didn’t want Bill to think that we didn’t appreciate the effort. After a great deal of laughter, and comments about Bill’s rousing rendition of our National Anthem, we pulled him aside, and tactfully explained that our flag did not have any stars on it.

 

On our second last day, Bill sat down beside my buddy Kenny and I while we were shovelling in our breakfast and asked if we would be interested in spending a couple of days at his Kanektok River camp. He explained that we would be fishing for King’s and “Leopard” Rainbow, a sub species of Rainbow unique to that part of the State. It sounded good to us, and besides, you normally had to pay some additional money over and above the standard weekly rate if you wanted to spend time at the Kanektok Camp.

 

As it turned out, Bill’s offer was not completely altruistic, in that the State Senator from Alaska, and a certain Senior Senator from one of the southern US states – who the guys that stayed back ended up referring to as Foghorn Leg horn – were on their way to do a little fishing and talking - so Bill needed our cabin.

 

Kenny and I loaded our gear into Bill’s plane, leaving the others in our group to contend with the various matters of “state” back at the main lodge. We then embarked on what to this day, is the most remarkable flight I have ever been on.

 

Our flight to the Kanektok took us through the Wood River and Ahklun Mountain Ranges, and the forty-five minute ride simply took my breath away. Bill would gently take his plane over the crest of a snow-capped mountain, and then slowly drop us down into the valley below. It felt like we were literally floating – weightlessly in space. As we wound our way through a series of mountain passes, at times it seemed like we could reach out and touch the sides of the mountain. The entire experience was surreal, so much so that neither Kenny nor I said a single word to each other throughout the entire flight, nor did we take a single picture.

 

Once we landed at the camp, we were introduced to our guide, John Hickey. He immediately threw our gear into a flat bottomed “john” boat rigged with a fifty horsepower jet prop, explaining that the King’s were still quite a ways down stream, so we would be doing a bit of travelling. “Ok you two, listen carefully”, he said. “We are going to be travelling about ten miles down stream, and if at any time I say get down, don’t look at me like I just sprouted a horn or something, just get on the floor and stay there until I tell you otherwise.”

 

And so began “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.”

 

We were cruising along, enjoying the scenery when John started making a series of abrupt sharp turns. One moment we were in fairly deep water and the next you could clearly see bottom. We were moving in and out of what appeared to be the main river channel, when suddenly John yelled, “get down!” Being obedient types, we just stared back at him contrary to his earlier instructions, but when we saw that we were headed for what looked like a solid wall of brush at full throttle, we hit the deck in a hurry.

 

The boat slammed into the wall of brush making a distinct crunching sound, and venturing to take a quick peek we could see that we were travelling through a “brush” tunnel of sorts at full speed, in what I swear was not more than six inches of water.

 

John repeated this performance several more times on the way down, and to this day, I do not know how he managed to avoid being thrown out of the boat while careening through those brush mazes. Once we arrived I don’t recall catching a single fish, but it didn’t really matter after a ride like that. The trip back was like a walk in the park by comparison, as we had a smooth straight run the entire way. John later explained that water levels can change every few hours because of the ocean tides at the rivers mouth, and when they did, so did your route.

 

In the evening we enjoyed a wonderful candlelight supper consisting of hot fresh garlic bread, homemade spaghetti and meatballs and plenty of very good red wine. Sleep came easily that night.

 

The next morning we waded along a small stream that ran off of the main river and fly-fished the pools, and bank undercuts for “Leopard” Rainbow. They look very much like regular Rainbows, except that they are covered from nose to tail with tiny black spots. While we managed to catch a few fish, I enjoyed walking quietly through the stream and casting under John’s watchful eye, just as much – if not more.

 

When we were all reunited at the Dillingham airport, and while waiting for our flight back to Anchorage, I got to chatting with one of the locals who was on his way “outside” to visit some family. “Where have you guys been fishing?” he asked. Drawing on my vast knowledge and expertise that I had acquired while poring over my maps and charts - and of course wanting to impress, I replied, “We spent some of the week on Aleknagik, Nerka and Kulik Lakes.”

 

“Oh, you mean Lakes one, two and three, how was it?”

 

The first thing I did when I got back home was to dig out all of those maps and charts I mentioned earlier, because you never know when you might need something to help spark up the fireplace.

 

 

 

Last modified onWednesday, 11 January 2012 16:53
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