I traveled last week to Alaska to fly fish. This was not a normal-sort-of trip for me. I usually drive an hour to the Brazos to fish for perch. But, this was a unique opportunity. I thought of it as the trip of a lifetime and it proved to be nothing less.
Once I got home and regained my senses, I sent an email to a few friends with several pictures. As it turns out, the email gods are currently at war with one another and my email arrived at its destinations in a plethora of irregular and perplexing formats.
So instead of sending my report to a few, I decided to post my reflections here. Enjoy!
And for the curious, only one fish was harmed in the catching. All the others are presumably still eating salmon eggs.
About four months ago I stopped by Backwoods Outfitter on 7th Street to pick up some accessory cord, probably about a $3 purchase. While there, I was visiting with Stephen Woodcock who manages the fly fishing aspect of Backwoods. He told me he had a cancellation for the fly fishing trip to Alaska and asked if I would like to go.
“Liking to go isn’t the question, Stephen.”
“Yes. Yes. I know that. It’s the money and all. But think about it, and if you sign up, you get 15% off anything in the store until you leave for your trip.”
Let’s see: 15% off of $3 worth of cord is…, but I digress.
That evening as Dianne and I were debriefing our day, I told her in jest about stopping at Backwoods and of Stephen’s cancellation for the first week of August. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said I should go. I was speechless. She reported looking for such a trip but not knowing where to begin.
One thing led to another and I departed DFW for Anchorage on August 1st traveling with Stephen and my new buddy, Dave. We laid over the night in Anchorage and on Sunday rendezvoused with another member of our group, Rob. The four of us boarded Alaska Air for an hour flight to Dillingham in the southwest part of the state.
Dillingham is the gateway to the most prolific fishery in the world: Bristol Bay. Guides from Bearclaw Lodge met us at the airport, helped us collect our luggage, and packed us into a van for a thirty-minute ride to the road’s end at Lake Aleknagik. We unloaded into a motor boat for a forty-minute ride to the lodge, accessible only by boat or seaplane.
I'm realizing at this point in my writing that this will be a very long report if I belabor you with all the wonderful moments. Suffice it to say, I had an absolute ball. I was determined to live each moment as if it was my last, and I did with few exceptions. I relished each fish caught, somewhere around 250-300 I’m guessing. Enjoyed each boat ride, maybe five hours total, and tried to relax, shed all expectations, and just be myself with all my new friends.
We sat on the porch at the end of the day and recounted where we had gone, what we had done and seen and experienced. One evening Harper (retired 777 Captain) even read poetry by Robert Service. Maybe it was the volume of wine that he read through and we listened through. I don’t know, but it was a wonderful moment on the deck of Bearclaw. Overall, the trip was spectacular.
I caught more Dolly Varden trout than any other species, although I caught six different types of fish over the course of the week. Rob caught eight species. He also caught the largest fish according to him and his guide. The rest of us aren’t buying it—even though he does have a picture to prove it.
Four to twelve years before I arrived at Bearclaw Lodge to fish Fenno, Ice, and Sunshine Creeks and the Agulowak River, hundreds and thousands of salmon eggs the size of a pencil eraser hatched alevins clinging to their egg sac. The alevin grows into a fry, then a parr, then a smolt, and then into an adult salmon. As an adult, the salmon left the fresh water of the rivers and lakes and headed out to sea where it swam throughout the North Pacific for two thousand miles in constant danger of being eaten by seals and orcas and human beings. (Please don’t feel guilty when you are next at Central Market.)
Sensing an internal signal, the salmon returns to its native waters to spawn. As it makes its reentry it is shaped like a sleek, silver torpedo, but with exposure to the fresh water and in response to the spawning timer, the fish begins to change color, and in the case of the males or bucks, they begin to change shape. From silver, their bodies turn blood red and their heads green. The males’ backs hump like a hunchback and their blunt noses turn into ghastly beaks with crocodile-like teeth. All the proteins in the fishes bodies are diverted into either egg or sperm production.
First in pods, then in pairs, the salmon work their way upstream, and in a process that remains mysterious to our best minds, they spawn within fifty yards of where they came into the world an alevin. And only two weeks after leaving the ocean, hundreds and hundreds of dead salmon line the banks of Alaska’s Bristol Bay fishery. But two to three months after their death, a new hatch of alevin clinging to their yolk sac begin their lives in this grandest of fisheries.
The trout hang out behind the salmon, eat their eggs, and grow fat. The eagles eat the salmon. The bears eat the salmon. The gulls eat their eyes. People eat the salmon, and the earth and humans and water digest the salmon to live. I’ve never been anywhere where the cycle of life was so obvious.
So intent on spawning are the salmon that they don’t eat much, if at all. I hooked several by accident and only a couple who took what I offered on my line. But far and away, I caught trout and more trout—more Dolly Varden than anything, but also Rainbow, even catching one Rainbow on a mouse pattern thrown with my five-weight rod. That was something to behold. What an attacking explosion!
I caught Sockeye and Chum salmon, pike, char, and a funky looking species of trout called, Grayling. It has a wild dorsal fin extending most of the way down its back.
I avoided the bears, or more accurately, they avoided me. I saw where they had been—saw their wet footprints, saw their pee trails, and smelled them in the bushes. These are Brown bears, which are Grizzly bears who live close to water, according to one of the guides. The venerable source, Wikipedia, agrees with him, by the way.
I saw bald eagles, both adult and juvenile. I saw lots of wolf tracks. Apparently they follow along after the bears and clean up the leftovers. And believe me. There are lots of leftovers.
I did not hear the wolves, however. And, I didn't hear but a few loons calling. Both sounds are signatures of northern woods that I dearly love.
The guides were superb. Bearclaw Lodge is a place I would recommend by telling you that if I could scare up the money to do so, I would sign up to go again next week. However, it is now back to the salt mines of Cowtown, grinding out words on paper until I have a book to share and sell. While I don’t know how it will work out, I can’t imagine that the main character in my last two novels, Hank Henderson, will not re-live some of what I experienced in Alaska on the trip of my lifetime.
Enough words. Here are few pictures...
Thanks for reading and looking. Thanks to my dear Dianne for encouraging me to do something I would never have done on my own. (I’m too cheap.) Without her enthusiasm, I would have missed one of my life’s joys to date.