At 4:30 AM, still, three quarters cocked from the night before, I was standing in a river in Alaska with a bent rod and a six-pound rainbow trout pulling the backing off of my reel, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I’d come for redemption.
My one previous trip to Alaska was a disaster and resulted in me selling my spey rod and continuously traveling south to warm saltwater instead of north for salmonids. I was hoping this trip would rekindle the enthusiasm that I had lost a decade earlier. Five minutes into the first-day things were looking good.
I’d been invited on this trip to a Bristol Bay river a few times but could never make it happen. When the opportunity came up this time, I knew I had to jump on it. The timing was right, but more importantly, if you refuse an offer too many times you will not be invited again. That’s how fishing with other people works. It’s universally accepted that if you keep saying no, you’re off the list. I wanted to show up on time, pull my weight, not get too drunk, catch some fish, and be invited back.
We were there for the smolts. The annual migration of baby salmon to the ocean attracts big rainbow trout from throughout the river system and gives them a chance to pack on some pounds.
To harass these fish, I brought with me two 12-foot 6 weight spey rods, one with a scandi line for swinging smolts, the other with a skagit line and sink tips for fishing sculpin and leech patterns a little deeper.
The program is as follows: out the door and up the river early to beat the local guides to the spots, hold down the spots until noon when we go back to the cabin for lunch and a nap, then back on the river at 4pm as the guides are taking their sports back to the lodges, fish until whenever, sleep, repeat. Beers throughout.
To be honest, the next few days were a bit of a blur. The fishing wasn’t lights-out, but we caught some nice fish. Rather than giving you the play-by-play, I’ll give you the notable moments, takeaways, and random thoughts that went through my head and got stuck in there.
“I forgot my batteries. Can we go back and get them?”
“Are you fucking serious? No.”
Spey rods are still cool, and I still suck at it.
I caught my first native rainbow trout, then a bunch more.
There are flounder in freshwater rivers in Alaska.
“How big do you think it is?” “24 or 25.”
Migratory fish are weird. It’s tough to catch them if they aren’t there.
“I broke it casting.” “I broke it putting it in the rod sock.”
We are on a very different program than everyone else on this river.
Some of these fish are magnificent, and some are pretty chewed up.
A 225 tiller outboard is a thing.
The nap schedule on this trip is awesome.
The top rod has to wear the banana suit. I had to wear the banana suit.
“23, but that’s a small one.”
Bull sea lions swim up class 2 rapids by porpoising out of the water.
“How’d you do?”
“Not even a grab.”
I definitely made the worst dinner.
I fished my scandi rod with the same fly pattern the entire time.
Apparently, I suck at wading because I couldn’t even make it to the upper flats like everyone else.
This trip involves more time with dudes sitting around in their underwear than I have previously experienced.
Just like everything else in fly fishing, spey casting gets easier if you do it a lot.
Let me tell you about terns. They’re stupid and annoying. The concept of respect gets respect is lost on them. I got shat upon, their eggs got washed away.
Mosquitos aren’t the only bitey bugs in Alaska. Google white socks.
I’m definitely coming back to Alaska.
That was three days of fishing on the big river. After it became apparent that the fishing wasn’t fantastic, we planned a day to fly out on a floatplane and fish something different. We finally got our weather window on the fourth day, our last full day. I had already spent a lot more money to pull this trip off than I’m used to, and the plane ride would be another few hundred bucks that I could spend on beer at home instead. But, fuck it. I’d come this far, I had to go that extra little bit. That’s how fishing is. If you don’t go around that next bend, you’ll regret it.
The DeHavilland Beaver picked us up on the dock and the guys generously let me have the co-pilot seat because I was the only one who had never done this before. Not gonna lie, it was awesome. We flew over tundra, creeks, enormous lakes, and volcanos.
We set down where a creek dumps into a lake, and one of the first things I saw on the shore were fresh bear tracks about the size of two of my hands.
Our guide, Carson, was strapped and he handed out bear spray to anyone that wanted it. Carson is a young gun, but he’s got it figured out. His quiver of guide jokes is full of old classics, crowd-pleasers, and a few originals that are still in development.
We struck up the river, looking for Arctic char. We walked about a mile with no signs of life and I think we all started to get a little worried. Then we came to a random run, saw a fish roll, and got hooked up on a dry fly. Moments later we were doubled up. The fishing wasn’t amazing, but the experience most definitely was. We found ‘em and we caught ‘em. Again, I offer you the highlights and ramblings of the day.
“Drifting a Thunder Creek under a bobber? OK.”
“There should be fish here.”
“Anyone seen a grayling yet?”
“Let’s sit down and have a beer.”
“Here, try this.”
“That’s a bonefish fly. I’m in.”
I caught my first Arctic char, then several more.
These mountains are not like my mountains.
“You guys are getting old. You had this exact same conversation two days ago, word for word.”
I can see why the skiers in Alaska bitch about the alders.
“They like these long bends.”
“I’ll suck your wake.”
“What’s his name?”
“Oh shit, here comes the plane.”
The guys let me have the front seat on the way home, too. After supper that night we lingered at the table, knowing we wouldn’t do this again. The next morning, I caught a nice fish on the big river right off the bat, then chilled in the boat before it was time to head back to the cabin and ride another plane back to civilization and reality. I kicked my feet up on the gunwale, cracked a beer, shook my fist at the terns, and soaked it all in.
The guys said the fishing was off this year. Their bar was high, though, and the bar didn’t exist for me. I had incredible new experiences with even more incredible new people and caught some great fish along the way. I was rekindled, and it felt good.
For more from Ben and all things HUGE, check out Huge Fly Fisherman on Youtube. Also, be sure to stay posted for more Behind the scenes tips from Ben.