Having reached camp towards the in the end of our second day we were left on our own while the guides set up camp. As the sun didn't begin to set until around midnight there was still plenty of time for fishing. A word about our group. There were 9 fisherman in two parties, 5 guides, Mike who ran the camp Rick who made the meals , and of course North who was Pat, the senior guides's dog . More about North later.....
Our local group consisted of 5 people, one of my best and longest friends, John Hayes, who organized the trip. Also along was his son Adam, Dwain Trump, & Marc Kovacs . I've known Adam since he was a little kid, hard to believe he s so grown up ! I had gotten to know Dwain and Mark thru long association with John . Dwain is an avid fisherman and we had a lot of fun snagging salmon in Pulaksi NY and worked well as a team landing them, trout fishing on Penns Creek as well as bass fishing in Northern Va. where they all hail from.
Mark runs one of the oldest small mouth guide services on the Potomac . John started guiding for him a few years back when he semi-retired from his tobacco shop. The other guys we had not met before. When I found out that one of them was a vice president for Intel my hackles rose and I thought to myself, "Oh No ! a dreaded "Orvis Man".
So in my rabidly anti-social manner I just avoided them so we can just forget about them for the rest of the story.
We were camped in a beautiful spot right in the middle of a broad bend of the Aniak river. There were no braids here and the river was quite wide and easy to wade. It had the added bonus of two long major riffles so there was plenty of excellent water to fish without even leaving camp. We were warned by the guides that in the middle of the deeper fast water the Kings were spawning. Which of course meant I had to immediately go and try to catch one.
I borrowed John's 8 weight rod , waded out as far as I could into the rushing water and threw a weighted bunny leach hoping to attract a King. Honestly, spawning salmon are not all that interested in anything other than the opposite sex at this point in their lives. They have quit eating when they leave the ocean.When they are fresh from the sea they strike more out of habit, by the time they get farther up river you really have to piss them off to get a strike.
By this time, Dwain had wandered down to see how I was doing and after a half hour of dogged casting the results were zero.Then I must have finally pissed one off ! The line stopped moving and I struck! It was like hitting a submerged tree until he started moving down river, faster and faster, line ripping out, the reel screaming and within a minute I was running down the beach as fast as I could just to try to keep up with him. All the time yelling to Dwain , "Get the net, get the net!"
Well the net was a ways back in camp and from past experience Dwain knew it would be quite awhile before I could get the fish anywhere near a net. He casually strolled back to camp, picked up the net and John returned with him. By this time, about 10 minutes later, the fish and I were more or less at a standstill . He was in the middle of the river but out of the fastest water. Whenever I tried to move him toward the bank he d run off some line so until help arrived I was content to just hold him.
When John and Dwain arrived, John immediately noticed the extreme arc of the rod and the incredible strain I was exerting just to hold the fish. Then he remembered whose rod I was using.
"Tinsky!, Don't break my rod," he yelled.
To his way of thinking a better solution was to break the line, loose the fish and call it good. I must admit there were moments I was truly worried about the rod as it was making some odd noises from the continual stresses upon it , but like the "Old Man & the Sea" I wanted this King! So John watched me as I tried to hold the fish wincing as his rod creaked and came close to cracking from the strain. As if I didn t have enough pressure already, Jeesch !
Dwain and I were made of sterner stuff and we worked out a plan to continue the fight. Remembering our teamwork in Pulaski, the fish cooperated by making another long run. Rather than chase the fish I held my ground as Dwain went down the river with the net after him. Physics alone forces the fish out of the middle of the river and closer to shore the farther he gets from the fisherman. The difference between here and Pulaski as we had the whole river to do this. In Pulaski the fish would have gone over about 100 other fisherman some who wouldn t get their lines out of the water and we d have to battle their fouling lines as well as the fish!
As he was well into the backing maybe 100 yards down river Dwain caught up to him and after a couple swipes with the net he landed him in shallower, calmer water. By then it was getting pretty dark and we released the fish and called it a night. John happily got his rod back intact and he wouldn t let me touch it the rest of the trip ! <G>
We were all excited by the" titanic struggle" of landing the King and before retiring we sat around a camp fire conveniently provided by Mike. The sun was finally setting and we were all tired and winding down from a full and satisfying day.
John and Dwain were bunking together, I was fortunately alone in a tent as far from John Hayes AKA as "The Thunderer" or "Freight Train Hayes" for his snoring habits. One nite when fishing on the Susquehenna we stayed in a hotel room together, there being no other rooms available. I must admit I knew this as a precondition of the trip and with great forethought brought along a portable CD player, ear phones and Jethro Tull's greatest hits. Little did I realize at the time that there was no continuous play feature on this player and the second the loud Rock'n Roll CD ended his snoring woke me up. I restarted it 8 times that nite. The only one worse than John is his other son Mathew " The Resonator" Hayes .
Matt is known to have caused vibrational structural damage in houses . One Fathers Day, John and I and our sons, went on a small mouth camping/float trip on the Potomac. The first night, I set up a tent for Glenn and myself as far from the others as possible. Matt later he set up his tent relatively near ours and it was too dark to move. The herons were also using that island as a rookery and the screams and cries of their hungry offspring all night long didn t put a dent in the noise coming from Matt tent. The only way I got some sleep that night was when a marathon freight train running maybe 100 yards from the tent would drown Matt out long enough for me to fall asleep. What an unforgettable night that was !!
The next day I was a little worse for the wear from battlin' the King the night before; I skipped early morning fishing and was content to assemble with the group at the dining tent for a scrumptious breakfast. We learned the drill that morning . After breakfast Jad, the leader of the trip, would assign guides and a fishing buddy for the day's fishing. A short time after breakfast we gathered our gear and met at the boat launch and got a reasonably early start.
The first day I was teamed with Dwain; Pat was our guide. I felt very lucky to be with Pat as he turned out to be the best guide for the kind of fishing I enjoyed. He'd ask us what we wanted to fish for and how we wanted to do so. His knowledge of the river was so encyclopedic and he drove us to spots that would allow that type of fishing .
A note here about Alaska fishing and general ecology. In a word it s Salmon. The life cycle of the Salmon is woven into the whole ecosystem. Due to the long cold Winters the rivers and streams are pretty barren of aquatic life. There s hardly any vegetation in the rivers for the lower part of the food chain . Very few crustaceans or insect life which are the primary food sources of trout in the lower 48. Salmon come into the river number in the millions. They are the most important source of food in the river in the form of eggs and later decaying flesh after they die. The bears make their living off them. Gorging on protein rich salmon flesh in order to bank enough fat to get them through the long winters. Resident rainbow trout are dependent on the eggs that they lay and gorge themselves on their remains. Sea run Dolly Varden also come into the rivers to feast on Salmon. The salmon spend 2-3 years in the ocean growing large in the rich marine environment and later bring their bounty back into the rivers and streams. They're basically mobile protein recyclers. Let's say there are 8 million salmon weighing on average 10 pounds each coming into the Antiak each year; that s 80 million pounds of meat they're bringing into the ecosystem! So in Alaska forget your may flies, your caddis, and terrestrials it s all about eggs and flesh.
Pat took us thru our first run. The key was to find some spawning salmon. Find the salmon and you will find the trout. The Kings like to lay in the deeper faster water in the middle of the river. When we came across their reds, out would go the lines. Our rigs consisted of small pink, red, or orange beads suspended with a broken off toothpick about 1/2 inch above a plain hook. Drop it over the side about 10 feet from the boat and all hell broke loose ! I've never caught so many fish in my life . My first fish was a 20" male Dolly Varden or Char. These are arctic trout and are found only in very cold waters. They're andramanous. They hatch in the rivers and eventually work their way into the ocean . They follow the salmon to feast on their eggs and eventually spawn and return to the sea. The salmon only return to the rivers once when they are grown to spawn and then die.
Hello Dolly !
Dwain and I must have taken 10 fish each in the first 100 yard drift. At the end of it, Pat motored up the boat and we went thru again with similar results. Realizing we could probably do this all day long we asked him for something different. He suggested trying for Northern Pike. Neither Dwain or I had ever fished for Pike and we thought we'd give it a try. Pat took us down river until we found a quiet slew off the main river and parked the boat. He told us to wait as he climbed up the embankment and went to look for pike resting in the quiet water. He didn t have to go very far when he said, "Dwain , walk up about 10 yards and cast a bunneyleach across the slew to the bank and slowly strip it in."
Dwain did as he was told and by the time he had stripped his leach a few times the calm water exploded as a toothy Pike had taken his leach and was immediately gone. Dwain found his heavy monofilament line had been bitten clean through. Pat came back and we both re-rigged this time with wire leaders. We then walked up the fairly narrow slew with Pat on top of the bank siting the Pike. We took turns and shortly had each landed some Pike in the 30 " class. Pretty cool ! Pike, after the initial strike and short runs, are not great fighters and come in pretty readily. Removing the barb less hook with a good pair of pliers is a must as they've got big sharp teeth.
Mark Kovacs with Pike
We spent the remainder of the day learning how to fish Alaska as it was so different from anything we had experienced before. We found that eggs ( beads) were the effective for a large variety of fish. You could catch unlimited amounts of Dollies on them, as well as the occasional Chum salmon and rainbow. There were also Grayling in the river. A gorgeous blue-gray salmoniod, with a large top fin, very easily caught and pushed out of the best runs by more aggressive trout. Not particularly smart or good fighters.The Salmon do not eat eggs. If one bounces into their red they move the offending cuckoos egg out of their nest and often get hooked. We learned that in order to catch rainbows, the better fighter of the two trout in the river, on eggs, it was best to sight fish for them. We'd anchor up in a prime spot and watch the fish stacked up in back of the salmon. Looking until we saw a dark square tail and then we d drift the egg to him. There were so many Dollies in the river that unless you specifically targeted your drift at a rainbow you d inevitably catch one instead as they were there in much greater numbers and were more voracious.
Adam with Male Dolly Varden:
Later that day Pat suggested switching to flesh flies. There are basically a piece of maribou hair in beige or orange-red clustered over a hook to simulate a gob bet of salmon flesh floating in the current. For some reason this kept the Dollies away as they were egg eaters. It also reduced the numbers of fish we were catching. We discovered that flesh flies worked best when floated deep around the frequent log jams and brush piles in the river. Large rainbows would sit protected under these piles and eat the flesh as it drifted down and often got hung up on these obstructions. The results were often spectacular as 20-26" rainbows were sometimes found and these fish could fight! Even with sturdy 7 wt rods and 10 pound tippet these fish could take a long time to bring in . They were incredibly acrobatic launching themselves seven or eight times out of the water during a typical run. Their colors were more striking and vivid than our rainbows. Their silvery sides much brighter and their greens and reds a deeper color. Some were so brightly spotted they appeared leopard-like. Catching one was a phenomenal experience !
A just released Rainbow:
The next day I rode with guide Dan and Mark Kovacs was my fishing buddy. Mark has done a lot of fishing in his lifetime and was the most laid back of all of us. He was a pleasure to be with and we spent a lot of time talking about years gone by and smoking our pipes. At home he doesn't smoke but for this trip he brought a long a corn cob and puffed on it prodigiously. The weather had been incredible up till now, in fact too good, as without rain the rivers was getting low quickly. That day Dan couldn't get us into some of his favorite spots because sandbars were now blocking these spots. Mark and I didn't care much as there was so much good water in places we could easily reach. We drifted thru one stretch called " The Aquarium" as it had so many fish. We hooked Dolly after Dolly with the occasional rainbow mixed in. After lunch we decided we wanted to go after some Kings and Dan knew just the spot.
He brought us about 100 yards below a low riffle and parked the boat. He told us to walk to the top of it. For some reason the Kings congregated at this spot in this low fast water instead of in the middle of the deep water. We carefully walked up the bank to the top of the riffle and sure enough there were hundreds of bright deep red Kings there. Mark went first and soon hooked one. While it didn't fight as well as when they were fresh from the sea it seemed to matter little as it put up quite a battle before Mark released him. We companion ably sat on the bank, lit up our pipes and waited for the "dust to settle" before I took a turn. The results were much the same as I soon hooked into one that ran all over the shallow water like a motor boat. Dan helped corral him with the net and we both had enough King fishing !
The next day our troubles with low water hit home. A couple of the boats were down as they were sucking up so much gravel in the jet motors that the seals were wearing out prematurely. There were only 3 boats available that day as one was dispatched back to the lodge for parts and another wouldn't run at all. By this time I needed a break ! I was whooped from all the traveling and fishing until midnight every nite and getting up early and doing it all over again. John also volunteered to stay in camp and the two of us had a leisurely morning . John and I have been friends for 25 years and as I'm living now in Montana, we don't get to spend as much time together as we used to . That morning we did a lot of catching up. After our own personal lunch by Chef Rick, we decided to fish the water in front of the camp. I had been doing this at night but it was much different as you could now see where you were walking in the river with good light. I found I could wade out , if careful, almost to the other bank which is where I found a ton of fish. I patrolled that spot all afternoon picking off one fish after another, what fun!.
That evening , not being so tired, I did a little exploring below camp. I went down river past where Dwain and I landed the big King. I must admit I was nervous about this as I was well out of site of the camp and there were bear sign everywhere! I don't think I stayed away all that long, enough to have been out in bear country by myself without a gun. Fortunately, I didn t see any !
The next day another boat was down and parts for the first had to be ordered from Anchorage. As John and I had stayed in camp the day before we went out with Jad who was the General Manager of the outfit. Talking with Jad during the day I found we had some water in common. He had started as a guide on the Upper Delaware River one of my favorite haunts. As the main channel was now all but impassable, Jad decided to go down river and look at one of the side channels as a possible way back to the lodge. Jad is an amazing driver! The things and water he could get thru in that boat were simply breathtaking and amazing. We headed down the river and took the right fork off the main impassably low channel. About half way down and across the channel , a large tree was blocking our path. The river was running hard into the bank but the tree had created this tiny eddy which Jad could pull into and hold the boat and survey the situation. That was fine until the steering linkage broke and the current pushed us into the tree and wedged us in.
There was no getting out of the boat in that current. One false step and you d be swept under the tree. Things looked a little sticky but it didn t faze Jad a bit. He got out what passed for a tool kit and found some plastic wire ties after he couldn t find a bolt and washer to fit the linkage, and tied it together. He gunned the boat but even with 90 horses under it s hood we were still stuck as the water was coming hard against us with the bow wedged in the tree. Not a problem for Jad, out came the chain saw and precariously balancing on the rocking boat he cut his way free. Gunning the engine again and the powerful boat pushed us back up river. Jad safely anchored the boat upstream and while John and I did some fishing he went back and cut a small passage thru the tree and the way back to the lodge was open. Necessity is the Mother of Invention in Alaska!
John & I relaxing after escaping the tree and certain DOOM! :
The next couple days passed pleasantly. We had long warm days filled with sunshine and plenty of water to fish. Some of the younger adventurous guys went on all day hikes down forks of the river impassable at their entrance by boat to be picked up later in the evening and ferried home. The results were spectacular as some of these braids hadn't been fished in years. I was content to fish out of the boat with Dan or Pat guiding and pick off the different species of fish. When going with Pat we had a fourth passenger, his dog North. What an incredible dog he was! His position was in the very bow of the boat, nose into the wind as we went screaming down the twisted river at high speed. He never lost his balance, though his long claws gave him little purchase on the aluminum boat. When we stopped to fish, North ran off to explore. When we were going to move Pat would call him back though sometimes he wouldn t come. Off we d go in the boat and somehow he always found us later, sometimes miles downstream. We d see him running the banks after us or swimming the river. The first time he did this I thought it was a wolf chasing us. I think the dog had the most fun of all! His nickname was Stinky. You didn t really want to sit directly down wind of him as he had a penchant for finding the rankest dead salmon or other unmentionable things to roll in.
All good things have to end and the last day of the trip finally came around. We packed up all our gear for the now difficult trip down river. We were only down one boat at this point and after the arduous chore of dragging the boats thru the lowest stretch of the river we were able to make good time. For this part of the trip we were three to a boat. Somehow I would up with "Orvis Man" and one of his buddies. About 1/2 way down we stopped for a shore lunch. Dan told us to go out and catch it. A challenge was in the air.
By this time the Silvers had come up river this far. What a treat! We spotted some in a riffle off the lee of an island where we parked the boat. "Orvis Man" ran out into the riffle and started his normal routine of casting. Long, long casts, to exactly the same spot, never moving the whole time, flailing the water. Knowing something about Salmon fishing from my Pulaski days of combat fishing I stationed my self just off the island and fished into the seam delineated by the faster main current of the river and the slower deeper back eddy created by the island . Throwing towards the bank in the seam I had a nice one on immediately. Without thinking my old reflexes took over. As soon as he was hooked I pulled him out of the seam and the faster water into the deeper slow water and fought him there. Quickly dragging him into the shallows and unto the bank. This was serious! As after all, this was lunch. I got two in, enough for Dan to start cleaning and cooking when" Orvis Man" finally got a brave dumb one on. It took off on him into the current as he bravely stood his ground as yard after yard of line ran out.....In the meantime I had hooked and landed 3 more fish when he Finally got the poor tuckered out salmon in and carried it to shore. He noticed my stack of five fish, his mouth dropped open as I smartly told him," It's all in the casting....."
A pipe after a great lunch !
After a great lunch we headed way down river intending to fish for She Fish, a big bright silvery beast that was found in one hole in the slow turgid water. I hadn't caught one yet. After lunch I managed to get out of "Orvis Man's" boat and back with my friends. I guess we lolly-gagged a little catching silvers in the fast clear water and got behind the main group. By this time, we had to get back and Pat decided to spend the rest of our time in the She fish hole and later at the juncture of the Aniak and the Kuskokwim. The She fish hole was totally quiet and neither Dwain or I hooked one. Later we found out that one of the boats with the"other party" in had rapaciously pulled ten She Fish out of there and totally destroyed the fishing for anyone else. No one likes a fishing pig....
However, the mouth of the river was just incredible! Because the water was low and there were lot s of sandbars and little islands we could get out of the boats and walk for what seemed like miles. My style of fishing. I was of two minds here. This was a good opportunity to collect five more Salmon to be added to the five I had caught before we left for the fishing camp. The limit was ten and I wanted to bring home some frozen fish. Also I wanted to try catching Silvers on top of the water, much like dry fly fishing or popping for bass. Salmon fresh from the ocean will sometimes chase something skittering along the surface of the water, but takes are uncommon.
Luckily, there were plenty of pods of Silvers clustered around the mouth and I was able to pick up five keepers within the first 45 minutes. I switched over to a purple "tadpole", an ungainly top water fly that was stripped and jerked across the surface to elicit a strike. I cast blindly for a while without a strike and realized that while blind casting may work underwater it was ineffective on top. I took a walk down some sandbars in the middle of the river until I could spot some deeper channels running between them. From my vantage point I could spot Silvers slowly swimming up the channel.. I cast in front of a pod and as they came up to my fly I started stripping madly. Sure enough, one came up and slashed it, but didn t take it. Still it was exciting to be able to see him rise and swipe at the fly. Rather than cast, I waited for the next group to come up and followed the same procedure. This time one came up and took the fly ! A quick raise of the rod tip secured the hook and the battle was on ! He took to the air numerous times trying to throw the offending hook but keeping just enough tension on the line I was able to weather these jumps and eventually bring him in when he tired.
I walked all over the mouth sight fishing, usually rewarded with a real strike or slash for my patience. It was so much fun! Around an hour later, Pat whistled us back to the boat. Our limit caught, our unforgettable fishing on the Aniak over.
Chef Rick saved the best dinner for last. An incredible sea food repast. Huge Shrimp, Alaskan King Crab, fresh vegetables, baked bread, and home made pie. What a way to end the trip! That night the five of us contentedly gathered on the porch after dinner for an evening smoke and watched the sun set over the river, reminicising over good times had and large fish caught. We still had another part of the trip in front of us. The next morning we flew back to Anchorage said goodbye to Adam who had to get home and the following morning took a flight to Homer where we met John's brother Bill who ferried us across Ketchemak Bay in his boat to his hand built home perched upon a cliff in Halibut Cove. This part of the trip will be concluded in Part Three.
Alaska Part One