Fishing Alaska: The Alaskan Sampler Plate...Part I
I just recently returned from my first fishing trip to Alaska.
If you have ever dreamed of heading to the last frontier, but have continuously put it off because of this reason or that---STOP PUTTING IT OFF!!
I myself, found reason after reason to delay one of my "dream trips" until I could no longer stand it any longer.
"Damn the time constraints and load up the Visa card boys--were headin' to Alaska!!"
What I expected was a : 'you should have been here in the seventies', "spawned out" fishing destination--but what I found was a place I can't wait to return to.
The Kenai peninsula-which to a lot of fishermen is a place that is overfished and to easily accesible-was just fine to me. Eleven different types of fish, from fourteen inch Grayling to seventy pound Halibut found it's way on to my fishing rod, and considering I only had one week to fish in Alaska, I would say the only way I could have experienced more fish ...would be to order the Alaskan sampler plate at the Red Lobster!!
Each and every day seemed to get better and better.
Lets take a look at my own personal Alaskan Sampler Plate....
We started with a nice little three mile hike complete with float tube "necklace" and blister inducing wading boots to Fuller Lakes. We were after Grayling, which would serve as a nice little appetizer of fourteen inch "dancers" on our five weight fly rods. The three mile hike would also help to take a little of the "starch" out my overly stimulated fishing gland-which was "swollen" with anticipation of fish filled waters. Evidently, they don't believe in switchbacks in Alaska, because the trail seemed to go straight up, and when we got to the end of the trail-the sweat I wrung out of my shirt made me wonder why I even bothered to bring waders!!
When we got to the lake, a small five acre lake, it was shrouded in fog and I could only trust that Clayton - our friend, pseudo-guide, and part time mountain goat - had led us to a five acre lake, since you could only see about twenty five yards in front of you.
Nonetheless, tubes were filled and we set off into the fog like ghost ships disappearing into the great unknown. It might as well have been the start of a trans-Atlantic journey for all I knew, because as soon as Clayton paddled thirty yards out--Greg and I were on our own with nothing but the occasional splash of a hooked Grayling to act as a sound beacon to guide our way.
Eventually, after kicking around in my float tube for a half hour, I found a nice twelve inch Grayling. Then another and another...until I giggled happily as the hooked Grayling danced around me. My "giggles in the mist" attracted Greg and Clayton and after twenty or thirty fish, we decided to leave Fuller lake. Thank goodness Clayton and Greg knew how to get back to the starting point on the lake, otherwise I might still be up at Fuller Lake, living on Grayling sushi.
I never did actually see that lake-and I hope it wasn't an abirition--cause I sure had fun!!
Fuller lake was the perfect warm up, so to speak, and after a brief rest at Camp Yuppie Fisher, we were ready for a little "Sockeye Swinging".
Now, before you think that this is some sort of kinky Alaskan male-female-fish menage - a - trois, or the latest winter solstice - blues busting dance craze, understand that the Sockeye Swing is a technique of catching Sockeye Salmon on a fly.
Or - snagging them in the mouth - as the local guides like to refer to the techniques rather unique use of fly, 3/8 oz weight, and nervous "shoulder twitch"!!
Boy--it sure catches a lotta fish.
Keep in mind, in Alaska--snagging a Salmon anywhere in front of the gill plate is considered a fair hooked fish-- and before you get on your purist high horse--also consider that over a million and one-half Sockeye will return on the Kenai alone this year!!
Viva la Sockeye Swing!
As with most Salmon, the Sockeye really isn't interested in eating when it hits the river, so the only way to really catch them is to drift something into there mouths. (Although a friend of mine tells me that later in the spawn they will get angry and hit just about anything.)
The only downside was the continuous fighting of six to ten pound fish on fly rods, which is not much of a downside as far as I am concerned.
We also released all but three Salmon, and they were not sporting the bright red color yet.
I could have quit fishing now and been satisfied with the trip, but we were just getting started.
The next day was one of the best - and most underrated trips - on the Kenai peninsula.
The upper Kenai for trout.
Allen, a first year Alaskan fishing guide, and the son of Clayton, was going to be our guide that day.
The first thing I noticed about Allen was that he was walking around with nail polish. It was the evening before our trip and Allen slipped into the "guides fish hut", where they tie flies and ready their gear for the following days floats and trips. Now, the fact that Allen was carrying a bottle of Revlon "creamsicle shaded" teflon coated "nail enhancement" might not be of concern to you--but all I could think was that it must be tough being a first year guide in Alaska!! I had already heard the term"fish - bitch" bandied about in guide circles, and thought the worst for poor Allen.
If he showed up in stilletto heels and mascara in the morning--I WAS OUT!!
My curiosity got the best of me and I took a peak into the fish hut,(O. K. - so I'm a sicko!) and was releaved to see Allen painting "fishbeads" with the nail polish. In fact, the whole bench was covered with various shades and colors of choice-and each guide had their own personal favorite shade that they used to seduce FISH!
Whew, what a relief!!
Early morning found us on the upper Kenai, floating in 20 foot Willie Drift boats(Made right here in my hometown.) with four fishermen, and Allen at the helm. I checked out Allens fingernails-just to be sure - and felt comfortable that the beads were the only things being painted! The fishbeads are supposed to simulate single Salmon eggs floating downstream, and the nail polish gives them a "milky" look-much like real eggs look like as they float downstream.
We put in above the Russian River, and the plan was to drift down through "The Canyon" all the way to Skilak Lake. I guess the theory is that the big trout in Skilak see the Salmon heading through the lake, and follow them like kids follow an ice cream truck in summer. Whatever the reason - there are some big Rainbows and Dolly Vardens in the river. Although we could have used several different methods-we used the single egg on seven weight fly rods and it didn't take long before all of us were catching 20 inch - or better - trout. None of us caught any of the "mythical" 36 inch monsters, but everyone caught quality fish--and plenty of them. Greg landed a nice 25 inch Rainbow and I had landed a beautiful 24 inch Dolly.
The canyon was a blast and even though we didn't catch as many fish as we had caught in the morning, the fish were all quality. Of course, the real thrill came when we were false charged(if you can call it false) by a big sow Brown bear(see Grizzly) who was protecting her cub. All this happened while I had a nice 23 inch rainbow on.(see brown spots in waders!!)
We also each caught a few more Sockeye as we took a break from trout fishing and did some more "swinging". In fact, Greg started catching so many Sockeye-even with his fly gear - that we started to call him "Sockeye Greg"! We also chided him that he was cutting into our trout time, everytime it took him more than five minutes to land his fish!!
The trip ended with a motoring across Skilak lake-which is a "wide spot in the road" on the Kenai river. Skilak, along with Kenai lake help to make the Kenai river what it is--an incredible fishery.
The trip was all catch and release--so when we returned to "Camp Yuppie Fisher" the only thing we had take with us was our bear story and any hygenic fall out from the experience.
So, if you are keeping score-that's four differnet species of fish in two days!!
That trip ended Allens' work week, and like any overworked - underpaid guide, he started his "days off" by...going fishing!!We all went to Quartz creek that evening and fished for more BIG Dolly Vardens on a little spawning tributary of the upper Kenai. I was fishing a new technique-called "cast and look back over your shoulder", which I had just developed since seeing more Brown Bear tracks on the sand bar I was fishing on. After this mornings encounter, I was happy to move further downstream and let any bears in the vicinity have this sand bar for there watering and feeding hole. Clayton also mentioned that he saw some wolf tracks, which was beginning to make me feel like a buffet item at the "all you can eat" Wildlife Diner.
At this point, something should be said about the famed "long days" of the Alaskan summers. Even in mid August the summer days are still very long with dark not coming until after 10:00 p. m - so it is not uncommon to fish until dark. This makes for a lot of red eyed fishermen and guides, and might have something to do with the "crankiness" of some of the sleep deprived fishermen--and the endless string of espresso stands that you almost could jump from roof to roof and never touch ground in Alaska.
That might be a slight exaggeration--but there are ALOT of espresso stands.
Day three on the Alaskan sampler, required a drive and another semi - short hike. I could tell you where-but then I would have to send you to Afghanistan and place you in an underground tunnel where you would never be found or seen again.
It was a special place and actually can be figured out if you do some research, but we had the whole place to ourselves, and I am not quite ready to give up the name of this "sanctuary"!!We wound up waist deep in saltwater fishing for Pink Salmon--lovingly referred to as "humpys" in Alaska. You can quickly understand where they get their nickname after seeing the "quasimodo" hump(speaking of sanctuary) that bulges from their back as they ready themselves for the spawning run up creeks and rivers. I'm not exactly sure why they get all grotesque like that--I'm just glad our spawning rituals don't result in such an obvious display of transformation!!
This day was truly a saltwater fly fishing dream. Seven weight rods, and a fly we cleverly named "Pink Floyd", which might give you a hint as to which color it was, and fish stacked up like cord wood waiting to head up out of the saltwater into freshwater. You could see the fins protruding up out of the water and this was the closest thing to "bonefishing" that I have ever done.
Moving into the "herd" and casting out about forty to fifty feet, then stripping slowly back would yield fish after fish after fish....until we were actually exhausted from hooking and landing "humpys". AND these fellars would take the fly!!!Then the "humpys" would move and you would follow their dorsals until you were casting into group again.
There were more Pinks then "extras" in a remake of Ben Hur!!
Numerous times all three of us(Greg, Clayton and I) would have "triples" on and we literally quit because our arms were getting sore!
We even had our own "Pink Floyd" parody by the end as we sang: "all in all.. it's just a ..nother fish on the pole..." do do do do.....
On our way out of saltwater flyfishing nirvana, we stopped to view the Pinks and Chum Salmon that had already made it into freshwater and were beginning to bury eggs. We even spotted a wayward Sockeye which looked about as out of place as a "Jay-Z" fan at a "Yanni" concert. I hoped at least one more wayward Sockeye of the opposite sex would wander up that stream, otherwise the big moment in that Salmons existence was going to go unfulfilled.
We headed back for "Camp Yuppie Fisher" and decided to take the evening off from fishing.
Instead, we hiked to the Russian River Falls, where we watched another "fisherman" catching fish in a more native Alaskan way. Actually, it was a "fisherwomen" and she would just swim back and forth at the falls picking out Sockeye like an informed consumer at a local fish market.
Finally selecting her "catch o' the day" by burying her head in the water and pulling out a nice "catch" by her teeth. Then she would sit back and eat her catch like a giant sushi popsicle, tossing it aside half eaten while a watchful sea gull waited like a hungry bus boy about to swoop up some leftovers.
This time we were viewing the Brown bear from a safe distance on top of an overlook and didn't really feel any danger since Salmon probably taste better than Sal-MAN.
So, day three results--five different fish species, three different bear experiences, and three sore shoulders!!
End of part 1
A. J. Klott
Author, writer of fishing humor, and "fly tack" peddler. A. J. writes about the people, characters and modern day events that surround the fishing world. His first book is due out in December of 2005.