ALASKA – FALL 2017
“Fishing trip”… a phrase that paints it with a pretty broad brushstroke.
For the average fly fisherman, it can describe anything from a day on a local trout stream to an excursion to some remote location, halfway around the world for an exotic saltwater species. What drives us to expend resources and devote our precious time can’t simply be summarized by saying we went to catch a fish. In my mind, that target fish is the point we go but not necessarily the “reason”. I think many would agree that a fishing trip serves multiple purposes, not the least of which is to “recharge our batteries”. Whether it’s the peace and quiet of being alone on that little brookie trickle deep in the forest or racing across the flats in a skiff with your best fishing buddy, to a distant mangrove creek in search of that “double-digit” bonefish, the fish becomes secondary to the experience.
First and most important, if you haven’t been there and have been considering it, don’t put it off any longer. An Alaska fishing trip needs to be at the top of your list. Now, when I use the term “fishing trip”, I’m not talking about those trips to the crowded, flossing rivers we’ve heard about. If you want to really appreciate the wildness of our 49th state, a trip to a remote fishing lodge is what you’re looking for.
This is the ninth consecutive year International Angler has been booking trips with The Royal Coachman Lodge (RCL) and the Copper River Lodge (CRL). We have first rights to the final week of the season for both lodges before they close down for the winter. That’s not by accident. By this time, most of the salmon runs have waned and the arctic char and wild rainbow trout have been feasting on salmon eggs and the flesh from dying salmon for the last few months. These fish are at maximum density due to their recent protein bonanza diet . The trouts’ heads appear to be out of proportion to their bodies. Envision a football with a little trout tail on one end and a little trout head on the other.
This year’s trip, as in previous years, was offered as a split trip… three days at the RCL, followed by three days at the CRL. The operations at both locations are similar, in that every accommodation is made to make your stay comfortable, enjoyable and successful. It all starts with the people. All of the staff, guides, pilots, everyone involved contributes to making your stay the best possible experience. To give you an idea of the level of service, a couple dinner entrees featured grilled lamb chops and baked halibut cheeks. My mouth is still watering.
The state of Alaska limits the number of permits to most of the surrounding river systems so it’s not unusual to be the only anglers in sight, for MANY miles. The RCL keeps boats and motors stashed in a number of remote locations that are only accessible via floatplane and the guides are some of the best in Alaska. Here’s where the real fun starts. Every day is a new adventure, starting with a plane ride from the dock that might last from anywhere between 20 minutes to close to an hour, depending on today’s destination. The guides are experienced and in-tune with what’s fishing, so that destination is based upon sound decision making. And with so many options, you won’t be disappointed. Mornings start with coffee at about 6:30AM, followed by a hearty breakfast served in the main lodge at about 8AM. Wader up, grab your gear and meet your guide and pilot at the dock, located in front of the lodge on the home river. The RCL is located on a remote point on the Nuyakuk River, in the Wood Tikchik State Park, Alaska’s largest state park. The CRL is located on its namesake, Copper River near its mouth to giant Lake Iliamna. The primary difference between the lodges, from a logistical standpoint is that each day you’ll depart the RCL, a floatplane as your taxi, and fly out to a river that you and your guide have decided upon for the day. At the CRL, you’ll travel to various sections of the home river by boat, with flyouts to Fog Lake as an ala carte option.
During our stay at RCL, I got to sample a bit of the fast and furious dry fly for grayling action on the Nuyakuk River just upstream of the lodge, big arctic char and rainbows on the Agulapak River, coho salmon, fresh from the sea in the Kulakuk River and jumbo rainbows from the Kvichak River. Just a tiny slice of what’s available. So many fish, so little time. At the end of each day of angling, we would be swept back to our awaiting floatplane, pile in and head back to the lodge. Shortly after take-off from our day on the Kulakuk, as we banked out over the edge of the ocean, I was peering out the side window down onto the rolling tundra and there stood a sow grizzly with triplet cubs. Something you just don’t see everyday. Just another piece of what makes this trip so special. Throughout the week, we saw caribou, moose, otters, mink, eagles… lots of eagles, and more. Though it would be very difficult for me to put my finger on the highlight of the trip, I would have to say that being (what I consider) in close proximity to Alaskan grizzlies, as right up there near the top. During the peak of the salmon runs, all sorts of wild creatures are drawn to the rivers… including Griz. According to the guides, a typical day during the peak salmon spawning periods can provide 30-40 bear sightings. A little unnerving when you’re standing along the bank, catching one fish after another and suddenly you snap back to reality as one of those lumbering hulks appears within a stone’s-throw and ambles past. I don’t care how many times the guide says “ he won’t bother you, he’s focused on the salmon”. The fact that the high grass growing along the riverbanks (on both sides), for the entire length of the river is trampled down and littered with salmon skeletons and bear droppings, gives you the sense that there probably isn’t a sqaure inch of river that hasn’t been visited by Ursus Arctos Horribilis.
Everything relies on the returning masses of salmon. Not only the mammals, birds and fish that dine on the eggs and flesh of those salmonids, but even the surrounding ecosystem is heavily dependent upon their existence. Studies have found the DNA from salmon in the fiber of the spruce trees that line these pristine waterways. Nothing goes to waste.
Of all of the folks present at the lodges during that week, I was one of the few first-timers to visit Alaska. I think what can be drawn from that is the fact that all who have made the trek to this great northern wilderness have returned, and in most cases repeatedly. Some have sampled the earlier season fishing, with outstanding results casting dry flies to the big rainbows, while others fish during the peak salmon migrations. As noted earlier, the big rainbows are the primary targets late in the year, and fishing is either done with egg patterns or more likely, big streamers. The majority of these rainbows are in the 16″-20″ range, though many rainbows were caught in that incredible 22″-27″ range! Being a newbie with the two-handed rod, I thought this would be a great opportunity to focus my efforts on swinging streamers with the 11’ switch rod. The guides were more than happy to put me in great locations and coach me with the appropriate casting techniques and terminal tackle. This style of presentation was deadly and these wild rainbows responded with viscous strikes on the big minnow or flesh streamer patterns. On more than one occasion, I’d hook, briefly battle and lose a cartwheeling rainbow, only to have another one chase down the streamer and blast it within seconds of losing the first fish. Then have the whole scenario repeat itself! Talk about hot fish!
Looking back on different snapshots in my memory, one of the recurring images I see is when all the anglers would return to the lodge each evening for appetizers and a cold beverage, grinning from ear to ear and shaking their heads in amazement with what they had experienced that day. I can say with certainty that everyone enjoyed themselves immensely and will return.
So back to the original question… “What was the best part of the trip?”
Was it the people, the accommodations and meals? The fishing variety, floatplane rides, the wildlife encounters? Or the sheer immensity of Alaska?
Well, I don’t believe I’ve gathered enough intel yet. I guess that will require additional research trips.