Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Day six

Day six dawned white and surreal. Fog covered the river and we couldn't see to the far shore from the was quickly apparent that the float planes might not be in our plans today. Being an odd year, no pink salmon ran up this river so the big rainbows were few and far between, and in short order all five boats would be plying the waters looking for rainbows. We made a quick run downriver, threw some huge leeches, and then gave up on the bows. It wasn't that the fish weren't there, it was more that my dad and I just didn't want to work for them. not a ton of fun slinging this stuff in the cold fog.

When I clipped that sucker off my line, I had no idea that a few hours later I would be begging Duane to dig that fly out of his fly box.

Instead of slinging lead and hunting solitary bows...we took it easy. We boated up to a little pocket of water and pulled over. My dad and Duane sat in the boat and chatted about railroading caught a coho.

This prompted my dad to get out his rod and start throwing some flies around, but by the time he did, I landed another. Then short order my dad got in on the action with a fish...I promptly hooked up for the double shot.

The coho were thick, right on the edge of that little seam in the pictures, but after ripping some fish out of there, they closed their mouths. I switched to my six weight, tied on a dry fly and started walking upriver, catching grayling every few casts. My dad followed after with similar success. The grayling in alaska are just insane. I could have quite easily caught grayling all day long but after an hour or two I walked back to the boat and grabbed my seven weight. Duane and my dad were content to chat, but I figured the coho would be ready to go again...and they were.

The day took on a relaxed, vacation like atmosphere. I would casually catch a coho (or grayling!) on the pink leech, then walk a few feet away and catch a bunch of grayling on dry flies for 30 minutes. After a rest...I would catch another coho. In one spot, I landed 10 coho, my dad 4 and Duane one while trying out some casts with my dads switch rod. I never attempted to keep track of the grayling...many.

Sated and relaxed, we decided to head up through the rapids and go for a boat ride to check out the big lake. Zipping along with Jake sitting next to me I was once again struck by the size of Alaska. Miles of terrain unfolded around me, no power lines or lights...just two grizzly bears roaming a flood plain near an incoming creek. Amazing. We motored slowly into a shallow bay, all of my fisherman's instincts going off like alarm bells...with good reason. Standing on the bow of the boat, I could see fish darting away as we rode through the shallows. A few sightings and I was able to turn to Duane and my dad and say excitedly: "Pike!"

A few minutes later, we were re-rigged with the previous monstrous black leech and the heaviest tippet we could muster. I stalked the shallows on foot, booming casts out into the bay...waiting. Then I saw my extremely visible black leech slid through the water a silver bullet shot towards the fly from ten feet away and slammed into the leech. You just have to love pike on the fly.

We hooted and hollered and caught small pike throughout the bay, watching missiles fly towards our leeches from ten to fifteen feet away. At one point a pike engulfed my leech from behind, severing the twenty lb tippet so cleanly that I never felt an ounce of resistance...water wolves indeed. Then, I spotted a monster fish. It was only two rod lengths away, laying in wait like a crocodile. I yelled to my dad and directed his leech right past the jaws of this fish...twice...with no take. Rather than risk a third cast with the same color, I flipped my five inch long pink leech at the monster...gills flared, and I set the hook.

This was a huge fish, but in the shallow water the battle didn't last long. In short order I had the fish wallowing in six inches of water, too big to do more than roll around. My dad and I were stunned. Duane joined us after securing the boat and we took some pictures of what will likely be the largest pike I will ever catch. We taped the fish at 42 inches long...and FAT. What a fish!

The boat ride home was sweet.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Day five

Even in Alaska...there are places that get a ton of fishing pressure. On day five we hit such a river, in the hopes of landing a 30 inch rainbow. In short order I went from being the "world's greatest flyfisherman" to a total novice. The big river crushed me, humbled me, and yet...I loved it.

We fished an area called the braids, and the character here was amazing. This is a massive river that pours out of lake Iliamna and is home to the worlds largest salmon run, but the big river is broken up into so many channels that a guy could easily get lost. There are small channels and big channels and tons of places for a big rainbow to sit and eat salmon eggs. The current is deceptive...running deep and strong so we fished with long leaders, heavy lead and in my case, no indicators. Gone are the wooded edges and tree covered slopes...instead, the braids are a maze of grass and water. Quite simply an amazing place.

We moved along in the boat, looking for ledges and drop offs below sockeye, places the big bows could lurk out of that current and eat the drifting salmon eggs. We found such spots, but I never found my rhythm. dad easily out fished me on this day. I could point out the fact that he was in the back of the boat and therefore the first through every hole (true) or I could point out the fact that our guide Pat like to see my dad out fish me (also true) but dad is a bad ass nymph fisherman. Give him a subsurface fly and put him in a river and he will catch fish. He beat on me pretty good this day (oh yeah...he had an 11 ft switch rod too...last excuse for me!)

One thing about the big river...those trout kick ass. We had one fish leap out of the water and hit the side of the boat from about six feet away...mere inches from actually landing in the boat. Another trout my dad hooked (of course) jumped straight put of the water and was easily higher than our heads as we sat in the boat. I will never forget that leap...a silver, gleaming rainbow so pale they look like salmon flying through the air and crashing back into the clear, cold water. Dad lost that fish but who cares...what a moment.

All in all this was the toughest day of our trip, but I was content. I watched my dad show me how it was done. I stood on the bow of the jet boat as we zoomed around the braids, holding the bow rope and calling out to Pat when I spotted a "holy shit" fish. I saw salmon, chum and sockeye, and I caught some trout and ate a sandwich. Who could complain?

Oh, and back at the lodge, after dinner...I suited back up and whacked the grayling as the sun went down. Another unforgettable day with my dad.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Day four

I wrote this after a day of coho fishing. I was sitting by myself in the main lodge, having just caught another bundle of grayling. I was warm, had a cup of tea and a cookie in front of me and I was very, very happy. Thanks again for such a memorable trip dad.

Silver salmon. Coho. Chromers and sea lice, bucks and hens, kypes and leaps and death rolls. Skated dry flies. Chuck and duck streamers, wakes and bear tracks.

Sick, sick fishing. My shoulders ache from both throwing a heavily weighted pink marabou monstrosity, and from fighting coho in the 10-16 lb range. My dad is already in bed, exhausted from the same. At one point Scott looked over at us and said "is that the fifth or sixth double you guys have had?". We hadn't left the first run yet. Leaping salmon are burned in my mind, similar to the line burn on my fingers. One of my knuckles is bleeding from a solid crack by a spinning reel and the image of fly line ripping off the surface as a salmon races upriver is locked in my mind forever.

But despite numbers of huge coho that defy reason or attempts to pin down, one image series will never be forgotten. Popping dry fly coho.

Late in the day, sated and feeling good I tied on Scott's goofy looking foam and marabou popper. I walked down the middle of a run, quartering the cast downstream and letting the fly swing and wake...popping to create extra disturbance every second or so. After twenty or thirty casts I started laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all...popping what was essentially a bass bug over the tops of dozens of coho that were readily eating a lead eyed streamer. What was I doing? As nice as it was to be throwing something that weighed less than a small person, I had just walked halfway down a run without a hit...ten minutes without hooking a fish felt like an eternity! Fortunately, I kept casting while laughing and on about cast 40 or so it happened. A big boil appeared about 8 ft behind the fly, and then a wake started following. I started saying "oh, oh, oh" over and over again as the bulge of water kept coming, but I kept popping and swinging that fly. After what seemed like a mile of river (and likely took 5 seconds or so which really is a long time) the fish reached the fly and a big black gummed mouth opened up and simply engulfed that popping, goofy ass bass fly. I waited until I felt the weight of the fish and then drove the hook home with a vengeance and the fish exploded in typical coho style.

Just a crazy, inexplicable thing.

Just another day in Alaska.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Quite possibly the most insane day of fishing in my entire life.  There have been times in my fishing life that I felt like a horrible angler (cough, learning to carp fish, cough) and there have been times when I felt I had finally figured this fly rod game out.  On this day and on this river, anyone (and I do mean anyone) would have felt like an all star.  Basically, if you could get your fly into the water, you could catch a fish.  Thinking back, we hooked at least one fish while taking photos and my dad actually attempted three roll casts unsuccessfully...because his fly was stuck in a fish. There were other boats on the river, and I don't recall one instance of looking at a boat without seeing at least one of the two anglers hooked up to a fish.  It was so ridiculous and insane that partway through the day our guide Tyler said to me, " more blind fishing for you.  You need to spot a fish and call your shot the rest of the day."

That barely slowed me down.

Oh, and we are not talking about tiny fish here.   Check out this bow:
The bulk of the fish were arctic char, which had me really excited.  I was hoping to catch a big one and I caught several in the 25 inch range, with my biggest char measuring 26.5 inches long.  Char are awesome fish...they bulldog deep and pull hard and in the heavy current it was a battle to bring a fish to the net.
To top off what was just a crazy, silly, obscene day of fishing...we landed here:
Alaska is simply beautiful, and being there, looking around knowing that no power lines mar the horizon, no concrete pushes aside the grass and no exhaust fumes poison the air is indescribable.  Plus, you get to fish.

The method was the same as our prior day, but different.  Bigger river, more salmon, more current...basically the entire river was a broad, knee to waist deep riffle covered in salmon.  Back at the lodge Pat told me they get about 500,000 spawning sockeye in that river, and most of them spawn in the top half mile or so.  I believe it.  The river was carpeted in salmon, and the rainbow and char were just stacked up eating eggs.
The trick was to cast right on top of the salmon.  You wanted the bead to be too high in the water column to bump or snag a salmon, but drop into position within a foot or two of the salmon's tail.  If you did it right, you hooked a fish.  With so many salmon in the river, you had to steer around them quite a bit...the trout and char were basically everywhere the salmon weren't.  So much life.

We had our first bear sighting as well.  Our poor guide Tyler had been hinting about lunch for quite a while. In fact, I was literally speeding to hook fish quickly so he couldn't pull us to shore...then we saw the bear eating lunch in our spot.  Worked out for me...

The day ended too soon.  Out of nowhere our float plane cruised by overhead, and we zipped up the river to head off to the lodge.  We got back with sore arms and big smiles...

After a huge dinner, I went back out for another bundle of grayling.  

I just reread this post...and first off, my apologies for the general suckiness and lack of direction and structure.  Pretty poor piece of writing but as I reflect on that day, it fits. Day two was a mass of chaos and bent rods, fish being hooked and lines getting twisted.  I kept leaping out of the boat to fight a fish or stalk a big gray shadow I saw just out of range, we took random pictures of random fish...I don't have a clue which fish were the really big ones.  The entire day was a big jumble, much like the crappy post above...I will just leave it at that.  It still makes me smile.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Day two

I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to airplanes and boats...basically I get sick. So on the morning of day two I was stuck with a crazy rush of excitement and a horrible feeling because I had been told this would be our longest flight. We crabbed our way into a headwind and I did my best to avoid puking while staring out the window at the Alaskan wilderness. Eventually, we circled in to land on a tiny lake and as the plane got lower, I could see salmon splashing up a small creek. Sickness forgotten.

We hopped out of the plane, rigged up our six weights and jumped in the small jet boat. Shortly, we were rocketing up river and all I could see were salmon. There were red salmon everywhere...pushing up the ruffles, sprinting from the boat, dead on the bank and half eaten by bears on the shore. Never have I seen such a vivid combination of death and life and future life in one place. I was staggered by it all.

We pulled up on a gravel bar and Brad, our guide for the day put my dad in a spot to blind fish below a riffle. Brad could tell I was stunned and overwhelmed and he patiently explained all that lay before me. As I relaxed, focussed and began to take in the small pieces rather than the whole the rainbow trout appeared as if from nowhere. Grey ghosts flitting in and out of the bright red salmon, white mouths flashing on pale pink eggs. Now and again a brief and violent tussle would occur as the territorial sockeye would bite and snap at the silky smooth rainbows. I was entranced, but as interesting as this activity was, at heart I am a hunter. I could see my targets and it didn't take long for me to slip into predator mode and start targeting some fish. In dad and I were on the fish.

Nymphing is something I have always enjoyed and I have never been one to have an issue fishing with or without an indicator. it came back to me quickly, and my dad has long been a deadly nymph fisherman. We flat out hammered the trout. For the most part, I preferred spotting my targets first, but dad would simply find a good drift below a salmon and hook up in moments. I would peer into the water waiting to spot the grey bows as they darted and fed and then float a fly right into their lane. I set the hook on movement and color, and was rewarded with speed and acrobatics. All day long we saw fish fly through the air and salmon scatter as the line and trout cut through the river. Simply amazing fishing.

Late in the day Brad and my dad stopped for lunch. I stood nearby in a tailout and caught fish after fish while smelling the hot soup and coffee. Brad then took me on top of a thirty foot cliff for a better view of the river and I immediately spotted a large group of suckers near the base of the cliff. True to who I am I got all excited and threw more than a few casts at those elusive suckers...according to Brad I might be his only client ever to try to catch a sucker in Alaska! While standing on the cliff, I did manage to drift an egg pattern in front of a feeding bow and Brad quickly scrambled down the cliff to net the fish.

The day continued in such epic fashion, something that by lunchtime was utterly predictable. I stood in the middle of a long run laughing out loud with my dad above me in the boat. Literally every salmon I could see had a rainbow sitting behind it...and I could see countless salmon.

The flight home didn't seem as long. Maybe it was the tailwind, or the movies playing in my mind...maybe it was just the fishing. We landed at the lodge and stepped inside to a fresh and wonderful salmon dinner. As the crew sat around and told stories of the day I slipped outside and back into my waders. Brad spotted me gearing up and made a joke about me being "hardcore" but the truth was at that moment I had two choices. One, join what truly was a great group of people telling stories and reliving the day...or two, go make some more memories. Easy choice despite the rain and cold waders.

35-40 grayling later I was back inside. My hands cradled a warm cup of tea and my eyes were closed as I listened to the silence of the Alaskan night. My eyes were closed...but I could see plenty.