Fly Fishing Mystery Alaska: A Fish Story

Imagine an Alaskan paradise with trout bigger than your leg, bears, and caribou traipsing by camp, and no people–except your good friends. This place exists, we just can't tell you where it is.
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Imagine an Alaskan paradise with trout bigger than your leg, bears, and caribou traipsing by camp, and no people–except your good friends. This place exists, we just can't tell you where it is.

Deep in the mountains of *****st Alaska, the *********** River tumbles from a windswept lake frequented by caribou, grizzly, and the occasional wolf pack. Relentlessly resculpting an ancient path carved through tundra and boreal forest, it courses 100 miles to the ******* Sea, providing habitat for mink, otter, eagles, and–in summer–untold thousands of spawning salmon and the giant rainbows that gorge on their eggs. Join our editor-in-chief for the ultimate float-and-fish adventure.

Even in my wildest daydreams, the fish weren't this big. They measured 12 inches, maybe 14, about the length of my wading boot, but not 20, the size of the rainbow I'd hooked as we careened through the whitewater of the ************* River's ********** Falls, or 22, the size of the Arctic char James had coaxed from a deep pool just below. And they certainly weren't as powerful as the hefty slab of king salmon that's just now bending my fly rod at an alarming angle toward the opposite bank.

Only three days into a 10-day float from the ************* Range to ************, a hardscrabble village chiseled into the permafrost along the ********** coast of Alaska, almost every fish outstrips a fantasy I'd nurtured for 30 years. My forearm shaking from a 20-minute fight, I'm enthralled and mildly disoriented: This place was my personal Atlantis, a mythical spot I never expected to find. Yet here it is, a sprawling wilderness brimming with bears and salmon, unspoiled by the hands of man. The fish are huge, and we're catching so many. It makes no sense–no logical sense–that reality could so far exceed the expectations that a favorite uncle had planted in my head three decades ago while teaching me to fish. But it has, and over the next seven days it will only get better.

Salmon feed and fertilize Alaska. From Ketchikan in the southeast to Bethel in the southwest and around the coast to the North Slope, there's no source of nutrients more important to the state's population and ecosystems than the sockeye (aka red), Chinook (king), coho (silver), pink (humpies), and chum (dog) that return every year to spawn in its rivers.

In the ********* part of Alaska, where the ********** River empties into the Pacific, up to 70 million salmon swim as far as 100 miles inland to lay their eggs. They generally stop feeding once they hit freshwater, which explains why native Alaskans erect their camps and drying racks low on the rivers, to capture fish still thick with ocean fat. It also explains why most salmon species turn red as they spawn: Lacking sustenance, the fish are literally dying as they swim upstream, their bodies shedding pigment, muscle, and–eventually–the very skin off their backs.

On our trip, we see lividly red kings swim by within inches of our legs as we cast across thigh-deep channels, and we marvel at chum that snap at trout to protect their eggs–despite bodies so far molted that strips of flesh hang from them like the rotting undead in a Hollywood zombie flick. On other visits, I've watched gulls perch on the backs of (barely) living silvers and peck away, taking the first bites of a feast that will eventually feed more than 120 species.

The value of fresh salmon flesh to bears, otters, birds, and other fish–especially the roe-dependent trout and char–is obvious. But you don't notice the impact of decaying salmon on the landscape itself until you fly over a river like the ********** in a bush plane. Taking off from a small lake outside *********, our heavily laden De Havilland Beaver bounces through waves of turbulence above gradually thinning spruce forest as we climb towards the ********* Mountains; the trees soon give way to tundra gone brown and red with the colors of early autumn. The only strips of green are alder and willow hugging the banks of the creeks and rivers. The reason: Not every salmon finds a belly. Thousands decompose on beaches or become trapped under submerged logs, releasing nitrogen and phosphorous compounds almost identical to the active ingredients in your Miracle-Gro.

The supply of those compounds has fluctuated wildly over the last century. In 1953, overfishing had reduced runs to such low levels that President Eisenhower declared the state a natural disaster area. Not until the mid-1970s did numbers improve significantly, thanks in part to a hatchery program that exists today largely to increase the commercial harvest.

These days, total salmon numbers flirt with historic highs, but only a portion are truly wild, native stock–undiluted by hatcheries and augmented runs. And in any individual stream, there are other threats: warming water temperatures, increased glacial siltation, and industrial pollution. A current flashpoint is the Pebble Mine, a massive, multibillion-dollar open-pit gold and copper mine proposed for an area near Lake Clark National Park. Critics worry that its location–above the headwaters of two major Bristol Bay tributaries–and potential for toxic runoff could spell disaster for salmon. But private land development might be a more immediate and insidious threat statewide. Conservation groups are tracking hundreds of native allotments that could hit the market in the next decade, each one the potential site of a lodge–with the sewage and boat or plane traffic that entails. One lodge or second home, managed in a sustainable fashion, might have little impact–but several hundred?

At the suggestion of the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that has preserved more than 6 million wild acres since 1985, I've traveled here to see what's at stake–and to catch (then release) as many monster fish as I can hook. Three childhood friends and longtime hiking partners have joined me. James, Gerry, Steve, and I will float one of the world's most pristine rivers on three-person rafts packed with basecamping tents, beer, steaks, a deluxe kitchen setup–even a shower with propane-heated water.
If the accoutrements are deluxe, our guides are an embarrassment of riches. Glenn *******, a 30-year veteran of Alaska land management and the former manager of the ******* ********* ********* Refuge, will lead us. Rowing the other rafts are Frank *** and Bill *****, who together represent another 60 years of wildlife and wilderness experience.

Of course, such riches don't come cheap: It will cost us $7,000 apiece to visit paradise, which includes a $4,500 donation to the Conservation Fund. That's a steep ticket for guys with kids and mortgages and a penchant for budget travel, but soon after the De Havilland drops us at a sheltered inlet on ********** Lake, we start to taste the benefits.

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.

Just when it can't get any better, it does. In the wildest version of my dream, I would catch 20 rainbows while casting long, graceful parabolas–like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It. In the real-life version, circa 2009, I'm neither elegant nor ruggedly handsome, but in one day I land more than a hundred fish, most big enough to feed two hungry adults. The light, the water, the 10-to-2 flick of the wrist–it all comes together in a died-and-gone-to-heaven kind of way. After thousands of casts, I can spot each silver belly from 25 feet away, and I can drop a bead where the current will deliver it within inches of an unsuspecting mouth. After a week on the river, I'm in the zone.

Working various braids, I nab a few salmon, and lots of energetic trout, but the Dolly Vardens are the prettiest fish I've ever seen. One looks like an outtake from Monet's Haystacks: A russet stripe from gill to tail, blending to ribbons of red and sunset orange dotted with pink freckles just above the milky-white belly. During the entire day, my reverie is interrupted only once–not by food, or fatigue, but by Frank, shouting above the wind to point out a mother grizzly and two very blond cubs sprinting across the river 60 yards upstream, spray flying from their haunches.

My daydream–the one where trout and salmon fight over my lure along a remote Alaska river–was born in childhood, at the knee of an uncle who taught me to bait a hook, troll for pike, and clean a perch. A giant Swede with bad hearing and a booming laugh, Uncle Carl told stories worthy of Twain, including whoppers about the fish he'd caught while working construction up north during the Great Depression. My imagination took flight on his tales, and gained steam as I pursued my own wilderness adventures–with and without a fly rod. Only recently have I come to appreciate the gift he'd given me.

Out of deference to the Conservation Fund–and the ********** River itself–that sense of wonder is all I'm passing on. This spot deserves its anonymity, and that's why I've blacked out every clue to its location. "There ought to be a few places on this planet," Glenn insists, "that never get discovered, that remain as untouched as they've ever been. Places that are still intact, that have the same wildlife in the same balance they started with–places like the ********** should see humans rarely, and then only briefly."

Fortunately, this is Alaska, so there are a dozen undiscovered paradises to exceed every dream. "You could live in Anchorage, paddle a different river every month, and never repeat yourself," Frank tells me as we sip Guinness in the sun one afternoon. "And I promise that somewhere along the way, on some isolated stretch of water, you'll find a spot that belongs to you and no one else."

The fishing gets tougher in the last two days as the river swells with rainfall. But the salmon, which are arriving fresh from the sea, are at full strength; the battles get longer and more entertaining. James and Steve hook silvers that fight like hornets and nearly tangle. A submarine hammers my bead, flashes a long crimson side, and strips line with an angry whine; I give chase in my hip waders, running downstream with the agility of a wounded musk ox.

On our last night out, we dig into our first salmon dinner. Glenn has baked thick steaks carved from the silvers in foil with herbs and butter, and we wonder how we'll ever be able to eat store-bought again. After dinner, we lick fish grease from our fingers, too stuffed to get up and wash, too tired to worry much about bears.

The next morning, a boat takes us back to ********, and we clean up for our flight to Anchorage. "We're spoiled now," Gerry muses as we shave off 10 days of stubble. "We should hand in our rods–there's no way it can ever get better than this." He's joking, I think, but he has a point: Try to replicate any great adventure, and you risk ruining the memory.

Yet he's wrong, too. Gazing at a map of Alaska tacked across the lodge's living room wall, I recall what Frank said–and count hundreds of rivers and mountains where new plans will take root. Gerry sidles over, then James and Steve, and soon we're plotting another adventure. And in that moment, standing there with my oldest friends, fresh from the best trip of our lives, I realize that what I love about Alaska is that it's big enough, and wild enough, to nourish the fantasies that sustain people like us. I don't know when we'll enjoy another trip as extraordinary as the ********** River, but I know it's possible. And if it takes another 30 years? So be it. I'm perfectly happy to daydream.

Jonathan Dorn lives in *****, CO.