This past August I had the fishing adventure of a lifetime. Fishing Alaska ! This had been a dream of mine for a long time. To fish virgin waters that few people had ever fished. Over the years I had spoken to several friends who had made the trip and decided to go on a guided trip out of the Aniak Lodge in the landlocked town of Aniak, 318 air miles NW of Anchorage.
While I was prepared for a fairly rustic experience our trip verged on luxurious and could hardly have been called "camping". Yes, there were tents and sleeping bags; tho they had wood floors were 8' tall with tables and a carpet ! While still in Aniak at the lodge we stayed in well appointed cabins and ate gormet meals made by a chef. Little did I suspect that he was going to follow us to "camp" and continue his fabulous cooking.
Inside Tent: Fish Camp
We had timed our trip for the height of the Silver (Coho) Salmon run. These fish typically run from 6-12 pounds are excellent fighters that jump and tail walk across the water and take long runs of line.
The fish were a little late that year, or we were a little early depending on one s point of view.... When we got there they were just entering Aniak which is a tributary of the Kuskokwim River. The lodge sat right above the Kuskokwim, which is Alaska s second largest river and drains into Bristol Bay. Fortunately, the salmon were coming up in approx 25 yard wide seam of clear water along the bank which came from the Aniak a few miles upstream. Our first fishing was on the bank with lots of townspeople throwing spinning rods, bait all sorts of stuff. It was a carnival atmosphere. Little kids running around dragging salmon and proudly showing them off. Fisherman cutting up fish on cleaning stands, birds wheeling overhead, dogs barking for the offal. Hardly pristine wilderness fishing but it was fun :).
A 100 yeard walk down the beach took you away for all of that. That afternoon all I caught were Chum or Dog salmon. Kind of mottled ugly beasts but they still fought well. As their name implies, these salmon were priomarily valued as dog food and not kept for the table.
Towards evening I hooked my first Silver and what an unexpected treat that was! Not prepared for jumping and acrobatics; I of stood dumbfounded probably with my mouth hanging open as this large fish took to the air and made all kids of slack in my line and artfully threw the hook. Live and learn. The next time I was prepared and handled it better. That night I brought 4 silvers home to eventually be sent back to Wolf Creek; tho that s another story....
That night I was so excited I couldn t sleep and the next morning I was on the beach as the sun was just begining to light the sky. Rick , the chef, had coffee ready, what a guy ! I mostly caught Chum slamon but did get a couple silvers to bring back. I patrolled miles of shoreline looking for good spots. I was using a 7 wt flyrod with a purple bunny leach . hard to belive this contraption could possibly catch a fish but it worked admirably the whole trip. I was beat by 8 :00 and headed back for a quick breakfast before running back to the beach. Everyone else was taking it easy, eating slowly and having conversations as I bolted my food and ran off. I vaugely heard them say something about leaving for up river later......
I was a long way up the beach when I saw my friend John Hayes waving to me from one of the jet boats and pointing back to the lodge. Ignoring him, I continued fishing.... A little later a whole flotilla of jet boats with our party headed up river. I figured it was time to go and only went 100 yards when a boat pulled over and landed and picked me up. The guide looked a little pissed as they had been looking for me. I thought, " O well, this is a fishing trip, your supposed to be fishing right?" Little did I know how much fishing there was to be, this was nothing yet.
Up the river we went, in a real fast boat, I mean fast ! A 16' metal boat with a 90 horse jet motor really flies. We motored thru some good looking water at the mouth of the Aniak, I was twitiching to stop. I did get to fish it on the way back and it was tremendous. The Aniak looked to be some pretty miserable water. It was a slow moving deep meandering river with mud banks. I thought this is where were going ?? It looked like great carp water~
We stopped a few miles up river where a tributary cut its way thru the mud . The guide, Pat stopped the boat and said throw over towards the bank by that log. This didnt look any different than any other spot to me but he was the guide. Well sure enough the first cast raised a nice silver! I thought maybe this wont be so bad. My partner and I pulled 6 fish out of that little spot, two we kept for a shore lunch. We flew on for what seemd like hours my hat and glasses plastered to my face as the boat pushed thru the air. The character of the river began to change as we went upstream. The water got smaller and faster, the river began to split into braids . The mud banks were gone replaced by forest. Looking better I thought.Soon I was getting anxious again as we were passing thru some great water tho the best was yet to come.
We met the other four boats about an hour from camp. We brought out our salmon , a fire was started under a grill. Potatoes and onions and other veggies were cut up and wrapped with the filleted fresh salmon in foil and about 30 minutes later we had one delicious lunch. Wild salmon fresh from the sea mmmmm. Of course I went fishing and sadly the Silvers had not come up this far yet but it was still fun catching the chum which were somewhat fresh at this stage. Farther up and into the spawn they resembled swimming zombies. Beat up flesh hanging off them as they decayed while still alive . Swimming corpses......
Just before camp in the skinniest part or the river which passed between three or four sandbars we came to a halt . Rick the Chef, had been patiently plugging along behind us in a boat overladen with provisions and we had to wait for him and help push/drag him thru this spot. Not wasting an oportunity I went up river to fish. The guide called out a premonition, " Dont go out of sight"
I thought to myself what does he think I am, a green horn, a baby??? After all I m an experienced Montana fisherman, not some Orvis man from the city....
I got away from the noise of the boats and people milling around and was just a little out of sight when I happened to look down at the sandy bank around me and observantly noticed some mighty large fresh bear prints with claws tracks longer than my fingers and some freshly ripped up salmon. Hmmm , I thought as I slowly edged back IN sight of everyone else. I decided the fishing was just as good as where they could see me and I could see them.
A quick note about the bears. For one, there were lots of them ! They were Brown Bears which is the same family and temperment as the Grizzly; the only real difference is that Brown Bears have access to salmon and consequently get a lot bigger ! Moving around streams I couldn t help but notice trails in the brush, I figured at first they were deer trail sbut using my honed & heightened woods sense and deduction I soon realized these were bear trails as they were pretty wide and it certainly wasn t deer shit I was stepping around ! Luckily we didn t encounter many bears, the noise of the boats engines as we moved aroud the river kept them away. We did do some hiking on bear trails into braids the boats couldn t get into but always with a guide with a locked and loaded hunting rifle. I pretty much stayed in sight....
About an hour later we made it to camp. What an exillerating ride it was. The river got much smaller and braided. There were lots of trees in the water pushed down by ice floes in winter. It was a tactical obstical course running the boats in 6 inches of water , zigging and zagging around partially submerged trees at 45 mph ! These guides knew the river like the backs of their hands and some of them could run it at night without lights which to me is beyond belief.
To be continued
Alaska Part Two