Bristol Bay, By Beaver

Bristol Bay, By Beaver

'Commuter' fishing in Alaska's Southwestern wilderness

  • By: Paul Guernsey
When pilot and Crystal Creek Lodge owner Dan Michaels banked my side of the floatplane toward the lake just below us, I could tell we were in exactly the right spot for a spectacular fishing day. I could see hundreds of bright red sockeye salmon rolling and jostling as they pressed toward the mouth of the small creek in Katmai National Park where we planned to fish. With any luck, once we landed the plane and hiked a few hundred yards upstream, we would find quite a few big rainbow trout crashing the red salmon spawning celebration.In this part of Alaska, the entire natural system is fueled by the five Pacific salmon species, which provide a banquet for everything from brown bears and eagles to willow ptarmigan. In the case of the predators and scavengers that eat fish and fish eggs, the full-belly benefit is, of course, a direct one. But a host of other organisms in this complex web of subarctic relationships receive their salmon dividend in an indirect fashion. The grouse-like, tundra-dwelling ptarmigan, for instance, grow fat on a bountiful blueberry crop that has been well fertilized by the scat of salmon-fed brown bears. The whole thing is both an elegant scientific equation (fish=bears=blueberries=ptarmigan=arctic foxes) and a living work of art, and it just takes your breath away. But as far as most anglers are concerned, the most beautiful part of the picture is the one that includes gamefish-the rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, arctic char and grayling that gather as closely as they dare to the tails of spawning salmon, waiting to grab the protein-rich salmon eggs they somehow know will soon come bouncing their way. In addition to salmon eggs, the rainbows and other finned opportunists also feed on decaying scraps of the salmon themselves-though much of the salmon they eat is so fresh it practically quivers, having only moments before been dropped into the water by bears dining untidily just upstream. The bears-large, solitary males; peaceable families of three or four or five; lone, unpredictable juveniles-turn this kind of fishing into an adventure you can't get anywhere else. They also present the challenge of getting in some good fishing while at the same time staying safe. We spotted several bears snorkeling in the mouth of our Katmai stream, so after Dan had taxied the plane to a narrow beach, the six of us-Dan himself, plus four clients and two guides-scooted around them on a well-worn bear trail and entered the creek a short distance upstream. While the Glo-Bug egg pattern is one of the most popular Alaskan flies, Dan and his crew prefer a simple costume-jewelry bead, painted any one of a number of effective colors, and threaded onto the leader. The bare hook hangs about four inches below it-an adaptation Dan says makes it more likely the fish will be mouth-hooked, rather than wounded in the gills, as often happens when they greedily inhale a Glo-Bug. Of course, owing to the high concentration of free-floating salmon "trimmings" in a stream like this, Dan, along with our guides, brothers Ryan and Brendan Friel, were also well supplied with different variations on the "flesh fly," that most infamous of Alaska patterns. Through the course of the day, they had us fishing either the egg or the flesh, and often both at the same time, with the bead up the leader and the larger, rabbit-strip fly tied to the tippet. They also occasionally varied the color of the bead and this, oddly enough, often seemed to make a difference. In any case, the four clients-Michael and Conner, a father and son from West Virginia, and Tony, my Aussie fishing partner and I-caught rainbows almost to our hearts' content. I say "almost" only because when the day was over, I found it impossible to make myself stop fishing. Under the guise of checking my leader, Ryan finally cut my fly off to get me to go back to the airplane. In small pools, behind writhing pods of goldfish-color sockeyes, we caught rainbow after rainbow from 16 to about 23 inches. At one point, five bears who were killing sockeye after sockeye in the pool just above us prevented us from spreading out along the stream-but that didn't stop us from catching just as many fish. We merely set up a "conga line" with the man at the head of our pool hooking a fish and then guiding it downriver so the next angler could move into his spot. It was rarely more than a minute or two before the second fisherman had a fish on as well, and then the third guy would take the point position. There seemed to be two, or even three, fish on at all times, and nobody had to do much standing around. It was just one of those special angling days, and the bears only mildly cramped our style. Once, a young bear decided he wanted our pool; following a prolonged negotiation during which he remained quite insistent, we finally let him have it. Then, when he was finished with it a half-hour later, we reclaimed the hotspot. Another time, while I was preoccupied with taking photographs, Ryan yelled that a bear was on the bank directly behind me. I moved quickly to the center of the stream and turned, shaking with adrenalin, to face the bank. But the bear had already disappeared. In this region, each river or stream provides great trout fishing only during those brief periods when spawning salmon are in residence. Since the different species-sockeyes (or "red" salmon), cohos (silvers), Chinooks (kings), pinks ("humpies") and chum, or "dog" salmon-spawn during different, though sometimes overlapping-parts of the summer, and different runs of the same species are also staggered, one stream in the area can provide red-hot trout fishing while another remains ice-cold. It pays, therefore, to be able to skip around from stream to stream in a fairly broad area in order to find the hotspots. Of course the easiest way to do this is by flying. Dan and his wife, Lori, who is also a pilot, operate three floatplanes in order to fly their clients out to the best possible fishing in the Bristol Bay area. Their fleet includes two impeccably maintained DeHavilland Beavers, both of which are older than I am, as well as a Cessna (172?). This means that, even when Crystal Creek Lodge has nearly a full house (there were 14 people in the lodge the week I was there) everybody who wants to fish can fly out to a prime piece of silver-salmon or trout water. As added insurance, Dan and Lori lease the exclusive fishing rights on several stretches of prime wilderness stream from the local Inuit tribes. The most memorable day of my week at Crystal Creek this past August took place on one of these leases, the Negukthlik River. Dan landed the Beaver on a shallow pond, and then, accompanied once more by the Friel brothers, Don, Dave Al and I walked half an hour to a bend in this slow-moving creek. I had asked earlier about fishing with a deerhair mouse pattern, and Brendan gleefully tied one to the end of my leader. "Hit the far bank, and strip back across the current as fast as you can," he instructed. "If you see a fish coming after it, don't stop; just keep stripping." On my second cast, an ominous bulge appeared behind the mouse. As the wake closed on my huge fly I stripped even faster, and the six grown men gathered on the bank behind me began to scream like teenagers at a horror movie, almost as if urging the mouse to swim faster and save itself. The fish slashed and missed-but I hooked and landed him on the next thrilling retrieve. He measured 24 inches. My next fish on the mouse measured 26 inches-and Al, a World War II veteran who had done almost no fly-fishing in his long and eventful life, caught a nearly identical one, also on the mouse. When the mice quit drawing attention from the rainbows, the guides switched me to "steak 'n eggs"-the trusty flesh-fly-and-bead combination-and I hooked an even larger fish that forced me to race 100 yards downstream, tripping and falling several times as I ran, before the hook finally pulled out. That would have been, I think, my largest-ever rainbow trout. After a while we hiked across the spongy tundra to a different stretch of the same river, and fished behind spawning king salmon where we caught caught rainbows and Dolly Vardens for the rest of the day. I spent a day on the famous Agulukpak River-widely viewed as one of the top 10 rainbow trout rivers in the world-only to find that there were few sockeyes and therefore few rainbows to be had. The guides had actually known we were about a week early for the hot Agulukpak angling-but heavy morning fog had left the 'Pak as one of the few fishing options we had that day. In any case, we did get a few hard-earned rainbows along with red salmon or two, and the experience served to remind me that in Alaska, more so than almost anywhere else, timing is everything. The next day's fishing more than made up for this slow day, however. Crystal Creek lodge has a number of pairs of jet boats strategically stashed across its expansive fishing territory, and Brendan and I used one to fish the big water of the Nushagak River. We'd jet to the top of a promising run, pound likely spots as we drift through them, then fire up the boat to head back upriver and do it all over again. Brendan told me that trout tended to gather around snags in the river, the better to glean scraps of salmon that caught in the drowned branches. He suggested that I pass my flies as close as I could to any snag I spotted during the long drifts. It was the right advice, and we ended up catching plenty of rainbows up to about 23 inches, as well as some nice grayling and some beautiful little Dolly Vardens. My one (minor) disappointment of the week had to do with the silver salmon fishing. My turn to fish the Egegik River for silvers came early in the week-and though we saw plenty of fish moving along the beaches, they didn't seem to be in a taking mood. During the last two days of the week, however, they apparently switched on, and the anglers lucky enough to be on the Egegik then caught them by the dozen. However, my last day at Crystal Creek provided me with an experience that more than made up for not catching the quantity of cohos I had hoped for. With Lori at the controls, Tony and I, along with the "other" Friel brother, Ryan, flew out in the lodge's Cessna to the upper Goodnews River in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. As the three of us fished our way up the river, there was plenty of bear sign-including some that strongly suggested the bruins were eating far too many blueberries than was healthy for them-but no actual bears, which was just fine with all of us. Just in case, however, Ryan was carrying a .44 magnum loaded with hollowpoints. Catching Dollies and some very strong arctic char, and casting unsuccessfully to a few lake trout we spotted, we worked our way along the river until we came to a broad pool Ryan told us was called the Pancake Hole. It was here that I switched from a 6-weight floating line to a new sinking-tip line I had been anxious to try-and I was immediately impressed with it. In fact, I bragged about it so much that Tony wanted to "have a go" with it, so we traded rods for a few minutes. Only then did I discover that his was a 4-weight. "You only brought a 4-weight?" I said. "Sure," said Tony. "Ryan said we'd find mostly Dolly Varden and char in here." I looked at Ryan, and he confirmed that, for some reason, few rainbows and no cohos ever seemed to make their way into this stream. I walked to the head of the pool, made a single cast-and was immediately hooked to a coho which, on Tony's little 4-weight, felt like a couple of motorized cinder blocks. "I've never seen a silver in here before," Ryan marveled. The silver torpedoed around the pool; finally, I got all the slack line onto the reel, and reached for the crank handle, only to discover that it was on the "wrong" side. "Is this some kind of Australian thing?" I asked Tony, who was watching me with a smile on his face. "Or is it just you?" A moment later I discovered that the tiny reel-a brand I did not recognize-also had no drag at all. "It doesn't have a drag," I said. "No, it doesn't," Tony confirmed. To my surprise, however, I was finally able to work that coho close enough to the bank for Ryan to sneak in behind it with the net. Victory, in the form of a 12-pound, 4-weight coho, was ours. The next day, Crystal Creek's passenger van drove us all to the airport in Dillingham, effectively expelling us from paradise. Crystal Creek Lodge Crystal Creek Lodge is first-class all the way. An hour's drive from Dillingham (itself a 340-mile flight from Anchorage), it is located on the shore of a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. The modern, spacious 10,000-square-foot lodge building is decorated throughout with attractive mounts of fish and game animals, and it contains 14 guest rooms, each with private bath. The food is wonderful, there's a comfortable, fully stocked bar, and guests are allowed free use the fly-tying bench along with the meeting room and whirlpool bath. Twice a week, lodge guests are invited to shoot a round of sporting clays on a course set up along the lakeshore. If you're traveling with someone who does not fly-fish, the lodge can set them up with spin-fishing gear. There's also quite a few interesting things for non-angling spouses-and arm-sore anglers who want a break-to do, including hikes, beachcombing, wildlife viewing, visits to Inuit villages and kayaking in the Wood-Tikchik State Park. For further information, contact the lodge at 907-357-3153; fax --1946, www.alaskaonthefly.com, e-mail info@alaskaonthefly.com. While I was at Crystal Creek, George Hickox invited me to spend part of a morning hunting the tundra for willow ptarmigan. George is one of the country's top dog trainers, as well as a columnist for FR&R's sister publication, Shooting Sportsman. He loves ptarmigan so much that he spends a good part of each summer at Crystal Creek, hunting with dedicated wingshooters, as well as with anglers who just want to squeeze in a little bit of hunting. Occasionally, he'll even go out on the tundra with a wingshooting novice. Due to my complete lack of wingshooting experience-I'm a turkey hunter, and not much of one, at that-I was at first hesitant to accept George's invitation. But he suggested that I might feel more confident after shooting a few rounds of sporting clays on the lodge's course. So I gave it a shot, and surprised myself by actually breaking a few clays. When I finally felt prepared, we flew out into the wilderness, and George turned loose his superbly trained English pointer, Julie. (Julie is just one of several dogs George brings to the lodge.) I would have been happy just watching the amazing Julie do her thing. But she found so many birds for me that it wouldn't have been right not to try to shoot at some of them. In fact, I ended up killing four-and missed at least twice that number. At one point, the dog was about 1,000 yards away from us when she locked up on point; she stayed stock-still until I moved past her to flush the bird and, even after I shot she did not move a muscle until George told her to resume hunting. All in all it was a wonderful experience-and with George's calm guidance I was not the least bit nervous. Thanks, George. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. For further information on wingshooting out of Crystal Creek Lodge, contact George Hickox's company, Grouse Wing, Inc., at 570-537-3647; fax --3648, www.georgehickox.com.