I know I wrote my last post under the premise that once it was completed, I actually had some good stuff to share, then proceeded to write nothing. But, I actually do have two other adventures that I’ve been meaning to put on paper. Both from out West – one fishing, one hunting.
After leaving my job in July, Samantha and I took August to bounce out to Alaska and see why all these educational channel reality TV shows have been popping up. (Side note: I’m guilty of liking pretty much all of them – Building Alaska on DIY Network being my latest jam.) However, we were hoping to do that in a place where we could lose a sense of what reality actually held (for me anyway). To that end, we decided to head straight to the Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park to target some fatty rainbows at the tail end of the sockeye run. Svintos and Little Miss Svinny (hehe) showed me pictures from their own Brooks trip the prior summer and I’d been jealous ever since. Although Brooks is probably not known for its seclusion from people, once the salmon run has slowed, the bear congregation largely subsides, and that generally causes the human guests to dwindle as well.
After our flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, we jumped a little float plane out to Brooks. High winds forced us to land on the Upper Brooks Lake, rather than the typical Lower Brooks Lake, giving us a quick glimpse of the headwaters we’d be fishing before heading down to camp (located on Lowers Brooks Lake).
When we arrived the ranger checking in the day’s new park guests (8 of us) announced to everyone that there had not been a bear seen at Brooks Falls or around camp in 7 days. While it felt like someone had let the air out of the rest of the room, Manth and I were still stoked. Less fishing pressure for us.
Once we’d received our mandatory Bear Encounter Training, we got ourselves settled in.
After making our collective appetites’ presence felt at the lodge’s dinner buffet, we decided to take advantage of the long Alaskan day to do some recon. I checked in with the lodge’s outfitter to see if he had any intel – he wasn’t particularly helpful but said the guides had mostly been throwing streamers. No egg patterns yet. Meh. We decided to check out the Brooks River ourselves and even jaunted over to see the famed Brooks Falls, although there were no other guests (bear or human) present. We game planned to get to bed, destroy the breakfast buffet, rent some waders, then teach Manth how to fly fish (i.e., unleash the beast).
With bellies uncomfortably full and waders in hand, we got to the top of the river without another angler in sight. I was pumped – we’d have all this beautiful trout water to our own. I made the ill-advised decision to scope out potential starting points before tying anything on. Convinced that I’d found the money spot, I sat down on a log 25 yards away but by the time I had my fly box out, there was already another group (led by a fly-in guide) in my prized spot. It gave me a greater appreciation for how the bear world handles these situations (Death! Death! Death!).
I quickly got flies tied on and hopped in the mix. It was a few minutes before I got to fish my spot but Manth felt understandably uncomfortable learning to throw a fly amongst the crowd. After changing around my fly a few times, I landed a few little rainbows and was just happy to be on the board. At that point, I had gotten my eyes trained to identifying the trout versus the various colored spawning salmon still lurking around. I spotted what, at the time, I thought was a big rainbow laid up on a green algal bed and I started throwing at him. I switched over to a streamer based on the outfitters intel and placed it perfectly in the fish’s field of vision. Not interested. I fed him again and saw him strike at it but no hook up. I sat there and threw everything I had at this same fish for another solid 30 minutes. In hindsight, I should have moved on but for whatever reason I couldn’t let that fish go. FINALLY, he took my offering and I landed my first satisfying-sized Alaskan rainbow.
However, in the process, I had completely exhausted Manth’s patience as she sat on the bank in her waders, watching me hopelessly throw at this fish. Fortunately, I find patience and stomach space are directly proportional to one another (when one is full, the other is too) so I offered up an early lunch before heading back out to try her luck. After lunch, we decided to start at the opposite end of Brooks River, which is the end closer to camp, to avoid the upper river anglers. There, we started Manth on the arduous, frustrating process of learning to cast. She actually picked it up pretty quickly so we both started working the banks.
As we moved up the river, we became focused on a number of massive rainbows hanging in deeper pools along the far bank. Almost without realizing, two anglers moved quickly from upstream and also began throwing at these fish. Their guide was directing the action and telling them what to do. Manth was livid and couldn’t figure out what was going on. I understood the situation but I was also a little peeved. When the angler hooked a big rainbow that Manth had had her eye on, which then proceeded to literally run between her feet, she stormed passed the angler, while he giggled out his half apology. She took a few minutes to let off steam, then announced she was going to practice her cast upstream and away from these clowns… me included. I tried to keep her in my periphery, but she moved upstream faster than I and soon was out of eyesight and around a bend about 150 yards away. After a couple minutes of not being able to see her, I got uneasy with the thought of leaving her alone in the heart of bear country. At almost that exact moment, I saw her come running, or as close as one can get to running in knee-deep water, back into view. My first thought was that the Bear Training had been a total failure on us, but then I noticed she looked like she was trailing an outrigger on one side.
I high stepped my way up the river to meet her and, as we closed the gap, I could see what was causing the bend in her rod. It was a big bull dolly varden.
Once she’d caught her breath, she told me that she was just practicing her cast in some rapids below the falls when all of a sudden she felt something at the end of her line. It took a minute to register that it was a fish and her initial joy turned to panic as she realized my quick tutorial hadn’t yet covered this step. Anyway, she was stoked about that fish and I honestly think it entirely redeemed fly fishing for her. Hoping to end on a high note and keep that fresh in her mind, we decided to call it a day and hit the dinner buffet.
After dinner, we hung around to have a couple drinks and play some Yahtzee (aka, the Game of Kings) at the lodge. Completely by luck, the only bear of our trip decided to stroll by the lodge and try his hand at fishing during that same period. Along with the dozen other guests hanging around the lodge, we ran out to catch a glimpse (and some pictures) of the activity. When in Rome…
The next morning we opted for a long hike to check out the “high country” before getting back on the river.
Obligatory gluttonous lunch concluded, I ran over to the small shop on-premise to check out their fly selection. Since watching Eastern Rises years ago, I’d always wanted to “skate” mouse patterns to big rising rainbows. The shop had some large, pink mouse-ish patterns, so I had to give them a shot. As if to encourage me further, I heard a guy saying that mouse patterns never work. It was the same guy who told me to fish streamers. Either he isn’t doing it right, or he was trying not to let the secret out…
I tied the same fly on for Manth and let her loose with the secret. A couple minutes later, she hooked up. The fish ran hard a couple times and we both held our breath the entire time hoping she wouldn’t lose that fish…
Little did I know that it would give her bragging rights over me for the remainder of the trip (and beyond).
We didn’t have anything to measure with though, so I’m still calling it inconclusive. Anyhow, no longer satisfied with catching mediocre rainbows, we threw the mouse pattern for large trout the remainder of the evening.
Stoked about our success, we headed back out after dinner and figured we could get ~3 hours in before “sunset”. Over the next few hours, a few hookups but no landed fish only increased my resolve.
Stupidly, I hadn’t been watching the clock closely as Manth pointed out it was almost 9:45. I realized we were on an unknown stretch of water that I estimated was halfway between the Upper Lake and the Falls. It would have taken us a long time to back track upstream and I certainly didn’t want to do it in the dark. I thought there must be a trail to bypass the Falls so we headed downstream.
After a couple belly button-high pools, I made the call to hoof it back on land and risk the bear factor over the swimming (at best) factor. At this point, it was about 10:15 and we were quickly losing light. The trail (maybe game, maybe human, maybe both) we were hiking started to part from the river and I was growing increasingly worried. I knew the general direction we had to push in order to hit a road, but I also was not excited to go traipsing through any pockets that didn’t receive frequent human traffic in this area. We stayed on the trail and saw the Falls viewing platform about 50 yards away. While that was somewhat relieving, there was still head-high grass and a minefield of bear wallows between us and that platform.
Singing as loudly and menacingly as I could, we started across the tall grass. I’m pretty sure I was either singing something from Aladdin (the scariest Disney cartoon I can think of) or the Thunder Song from Ted. Not being able to see where I was going, I accidentally stepped directly into a huge wallow and onto a long, dead branch at its edge. The combination of the wallow and the branch rustling the grass around me caused me to nearly shit myself, but I quickly gathered what was left of my composure and continued on… “Prince Ali, glorious he, Ali Ababwa!” At last, with waders wet from what I hoped was just swass, we got to the platform. Man, there’s no better feeling than the moment when you finally get to laugh about a situation that previously has your butt cheeks perma-clenched, ya know?
On the darkish walk back (~11:00), we decided to just fish the lower section of the river in the morning before flying out of camp. The next morning I landed one more decent rainbow, albeit not as large as Manth’s and that was it. All in all, we had a great time. Most importantly, we headed out of camp with a newly minted fly fisher(wo)man. From there, we went down to SE Alaska to kayak, camp and enjoy the beautiful Alaska summer for another 4-5 days before returning east.