TWO WEEK, SELF-GUIDED FLY FISHING ADVENTURE IN WILD ALASKA -
I have been very fortunate over the years to have made several late summer fishing tips to Alaska, typically targeting large rainbows. Anyone who knows me can attest to my relative thriftiness, so you know I was NOT staying at first class lodges with daily fly outs, gourmet food, and first class guides. Flea bag motels, tent camping and greasy spoon diners are more my speed. My first few trips in the 1990’s were based out of King Salmon, but a few years ago I was introduced by Bob Harrison to a group of anglers who were doing self-guided trips on various rivers in western Alaska. The stars finally aligned in 2008 and I was able to accompany them. Since that inaugural trip, I have become hooked, and have made it back two more times. (2009 and 2011.) The cost of these 12-day trips is approximately 1/3 what you would pay for a week stay in your typical Alaska lodge.
Member of this years’ trip included Lee McKenna, Jim Colombo, Charlie Thomas, Jerry Gunning and myself, Joe Staller. The river we selected for our 2011 expedition was the Kanektok. One nice thing about this river is that you are into fish from the second you get on the water to nearly the town of Quinhagak, 92-miles later. There is an abundance of Arctic Char/Dolly Varden the whole length, a real plus if you plan to eat fish every other day! As well as Grayling, Silver Salmon and of course big Rainbows. Another benefit is, there are no rapids to worry about.
North to Alaska
I’ve always been able to use frequent flyer miles to fly from Phoenix to Bethel, Alaska. My typical route is Phoenix-Seattle-Anchorage-Bethel. Our preferred outfitter is PaPa Bear’s (www.pbadventures.com), who are headquartered in Bethel. They own two circa 1950 Beaver float planes and a small but comfortable bed and breakfast. We arrived the day before our planned fly out and spent the afternoon packing our gear into dry bags, some of which we had shipped ahead, and buying last minutes supplies in Bethel. The float planes can carry 1,200-pounds each, which is usually enough to get three guys and their gear to the headwaters lake. Pegati Lake is the starting point for the Kanektok River, and is roughly an hour flight from Bethel.
Some anglers run the river in three-man rafts, but our preferred approach is to use one-man Water Master rafts (www.bigskyinflatables.com). They hold a phenomenal amount of gear, are very stable, and pack down to a single bag. They allow the individual angler to stop and fish anywhere they please. However, it is difficult to fish while the raft is moving. I keep 3-rods rigged up and lashed to the boat, and make sure I have easy access to my flies, net and rain gear. A large cooler strapped behind the seat provides a good back rest and is a convenient place to store items you might use during the day. I recommend that every rafter carries a GPS with the river map loaded, and that waypoints are also pre-loaded. Each morning we identify rally points where everyone will meet at a specified time. Most of these Alaskan coastal rivers have sections where the river braids up, so you can’t always count on catching up with those in front of you—they might be in a side channel. In the same vein, we recommend carrying a good extended range two way family band radio and lots of extra batteries. We had 92-miles to cover in twelve days, so we were able to camp two nights in a few places where the fishing was really good.
Think backpacking with a few “luxuries”. We each pack a good quality 3-season tent, a thick sleeping pad, a warm sleeping bag and a fold up chair. Meals are cooked in a screened bug tent (Yes, Virginia, there are mosquitoes in Alaska… ). You know it’s going to rain in Alaska, so don’t skimp on your raingear. I also like to bring a few paperback books to read at night, and a pint or two of my favorite distilled beverages.
In late summer/early fall, most Alaska game fish will key on the returning Salmon. If you find a pod of Silvers or Sockeyes, there is likely a mix of Rainbows, Grayling and Dolly Varden sitting just downstream picking up the errant egg. My favorite way to fish for rainbows is with a mouse pattern fished with a floating line. It is not uncommon to catch Dolly Varden and Grayling on the mouse too, and this year Lee McKenna caught a Silver Salmon on a mouse. If they are not looking up, flesh flies, egg sucking leeches and plastic beads are all a good bet. I fish egg sucking leeches and other streamers on sink tip lines. Beads and flesh flies are best fished with a floating line. Lee caught a 24-inch Rainbow on a hot glue egg, I caught a similar size fish on a Morrish mouse, and Charlie caught a couple of large ones on a flesh fly. Grayling will take almost any flys they can get their mouth around, but you can’t beat catching them on dry flies (or mice!). Dolly Varden will also take just about any fly, but they are real suckers for the bead. Most of the gravel bars where we set up camp tended to have a school of Dolly Varden nearby. Very convenient when dinner time came around! Schools of Silvers will often rest in the slack water where a braid returns to the main river. These fish can often be teased to the surface by waking a pink “polliwog” over the school. Polliwogs are typically made from pink foam. If this doesn’t work, swing a streamer or leech on a sink tip line.
If the salmon are running, it’s a good bet that you are going to see some brown, grizzly bears. The good news is that for the most part they are more interested in the salmon and would just as soon avoid people. Come prepared with a good whistle or airhorn (avoid those sad ones from Wal-Mart… ) as well as bear spray or a minimum .44 magnum for those bears that are a bit too curious. Don’t shoot the bears, as it’s illegal unless you are really in danger—the “bang” should convince them to leave. Each night carry all food and toiletries, along with anything else that may have an odor, up the river bank a minimum of 50-yards from your camp. Make plenty of noise if you wander into the brush—you don’t want to surprise a sleeping bear. By taking these precautions, in 20- plus years of rafting the senior members of this group have never had a bear come into camp or mess with the food. On our 2011 trip, we saw 30-bears. Only one bear, a young adult, showed any great interest in us. However, it was easily persuaded to leave by tossing rocks in his direction. It sounds scarier than it actually was.
A little bit of excitement
It’s fun to explore all of the braids/side channels, and these smaller braids with fallen timber as cover tend to hold the rainbows that will chase a mouse. One of the accepted rules is: “braids always come back to the main channel.” Sometimes you will need a bow saw to remove branches lying across these small channels, or you might need to drag your boat through some shallow water, but that’s the worst you normally expect. On day 9 of this year’s trip, just as we left camp we came to a section where the main channel broke into three channels. Jim, the leader of our group took the right braid, Charlie and Jerry went down the main channel and Lee and I went down the left braid. We met up with Charlie and Jerry several times, and Jerry kept commenting that the braid that Jim had taken had not yet come back to the river. It wasn’t until several hours later that we got a radio call that Jim was in trouble. Turns out that the right braid was actually the start of a separate creek that did not reconverge with the main river. Unfortunately for Jim, it turned into a brush choked swamp. As a result, his boat suffered some damage While crashing through the branches and developed a major leak! Yikes! Because we had agreed to meet at river mile 75, Jim was able to make his way downstream to a spot that was within radio range of our agreed upon stopping point. Since everyone had a GPS, he was able to tell us his exact location. We used a satellite phone to call our outfitter, but there was little they could do short of calling the coast guard for a helicopter pick up — I shudder to think what that would have cost us! Lee and myself were able to hike across the tundra to find Jim and get him back to camp just before dark (10:00 p.m.). The next day, we all hiked back and were able to retrieve most of Jim’s gear, with the exception of a large cooler that is still sitting in the Alaskan tundra. Luckily, we were able to patch Jim’s boat and continue with our trip downstream.
Do-it-yourself rafting trips are probably not for everybody. If you absolutely must have daily hot showers, televised college football and seven course gourmet meals, and you are unsure how to go about catching fish in the far north you probably want to go with an experienced outfitter. However, it you love adventure and prospecting on your own for big fish, have some experience in rafting and backpacking, and like to do things on a budget give some serious consideration to a self guided Alaska raft trip.Story and Photos By: Joe Staller | Art Direction By: Gentry Smith | Copyright © 2011