The storm raging outside is the kind that makes two-person backpacking tents seem awfully tiny. But in true raft-trip style, we’re not bunkered down. Instead, we’re sipping merlot, snacking on baked brie with crackers, and swapping tall tales beneath a sturdy Sierra Designs dome big enough for a dinner table and six folding chairs.
We pepper our guides with questions and learn that the first two days–as the rafts glide through shallow waters with little vegetation–will be quiet. “But then,” says Glenn with a measured voice and a thousand-yard squint, “we could be hitting 40 to 50 fish a day.” We’ll tie pink and orange knitting yarn to our hooks while drifting, and use plastic jewelry beads when we stop to cast. Bill, equal parts fly-fishing shaman and profane jokester, explains that the yarn will mimic a cluster of roe bouncing along the streambed, and the bead a single egg. Later in the trip, a 20-inch rainbow vomits reddish-orange salmon eggs into my hand as I remove its hook–and I’ll change my bead to match the color, to immediate effect.
The morning comes soon, and with it our new daily routine: a leisurely breakfast (pancakes, bacon-egg sandwiches, fresh juice, and coffee), a few casts, onto the river by 10 a.m., drift until 5 or 6 p.m., appetizers followed by a lavish dinner, drinks (boxed wine, single malt scotch, 18-year-old bourbon), cigars, sunset around 11 p.m., and one last look at the grizzly tracks where we pitched the tent. (Bear sign covers every gravel bar, and wolf and caribou tracks are frequent, but we encounter no evidence of human activity in the first week except for two small fire rings.)
The action picks up in the miles below ******** Falls. The big king I catch while riding the bow of Frank’s boat signals that the run is arriving. “The rainbows and Dolly Varden will jockey for space behind the salmon that have stopped and dug pits in the gravel for their eggs,” he explains. “The salmon guard their spots pretty ferociously–you’ll see them take bites out of other fish–but the current washes a lot of eggs downstream.”
After navigating the whitewater of ******** Falls and ******** *****, we hook more fish than the stars of an ESPN bass show. (I can’t credit our technique; in the windy, brushy conditions, every tenth cast finds a bush.) The rainbows explode out of the water with spectacular acrobatics, while the Dolly Varden and grayling seem to prefer the dive-and-dart method. Without exception, they go right back into the water, their hunger pardoned by Glenn’s strict catch-and-release policy.
On day six, we stop for lunch at a heavily braided bend in the river and watch a bald eagle soar back to its nest with a glinting fish gripped in its left talon; the nest, which holds a juvenile bird, must be 10 feet wide. For the river’s full length, the avian life nearly matches its aquatic abundance. We see owls, terns, loons, and harlequins that dive below the water or zip along three feet above its surface. Two mother mergansers guide their combined brood of 12 into a sheltered eddy where they can clamber ashore and hide in the bushes. At another bend, I almost lose my hat to a dive-bombing gull whose downy chick lurches out of its nest and across the smooth cobbles.