Big Fish and Lasting Memories

Published 2010-08-20
Sockeye Salmon on Lake Creek

21 years ago in April, while my mother was in labor with me, my dad was out fly fishing the Missouri River. Perhaps I was born to fish. When I turned 21, I held my dad to a ten year 21st birthday promise – we’d go to Alaska for a fishing trip.

Fairweather Range near Juneau from 36,000 ft cruising altitude

Growing up, my hunting and fishing buddies were my Dad, Paul, and my Dad’s two friends, Phil and Denny. Every summer Phil, Denny, and my Dad, would go on a fly fishing trip into Yellowstone Park. I was never invited. They said that when I turned 21 I’d be of age to join them on such a trip.

Recently, in the first week of August, I found myself along with Phil, Denny and my Dad, in Alaska in pursuit of big fish and an unforgettable experience.

We started our trip in the small town of Hope, on the Resurrection River, catching Humpies on fly rods. Humpy is the nickname for a pink salmon. The Humpies were running hard. We had no problem hooking and inadvertently snagging dozens of these fish with our fly rods. Male pink salmon have enormous hump backs, hence the name. Their humps make them very susceptible to being snagged on the drift.

Phil landing a Humpy on the Resurrection River near Hope, Alaska

After a successful day in Hope we drove down to Seward where we’d spend the next three nights. Our first day in Seward started at 5:30 in the morning. I dropped the guys off at the marina for an all day halibut and salmon deep sea fishing trip with Captain Larry. I was more than happy not to join them in the ocean due to a traumatic deep sea fishing charter out of Homer, about 10 years ago. The charter with Captain Larry ended up being a bust. The seas were too rough to get out into the open ocean where the halibut were. The guys caught rock fish and ling cod in the bay – none of which they could keep. The additional coolers we had packed became excess baggage.

Over the next two days, the rain in Seward permeated my rain coat. It was time to ditch the coast and move inland. We spent the next two days on the Russian and Kenai rivers fishing for Sockeyes. Here I learned the slap, jerk and pull method of fishing. This involves slapping the water with your split shot weighted line, drifting the line down stream near the fishes mouth, and pulling hard hoping to snag one in the mouth. Sockeye salmon, when they are moving up the rivers to spawn are in their last stages of life and don’t have eating on their mind. To catch and legally keep one of these fish you have to snag them in the mouth – literally!

My dad, Paul, drifting an egg pattern on the Russian River

The fly fishing I have grown accustom to is very aesthetic and pure. Snagging fish, at first glance, seems like a cheap and lame way to fish. After attempting to snag sockeyes in the mouth for two days straight, I realized that it takes a lot of talent – which I lacked. There were about 100 people fishing the confluence of the Russian and Kenai River, and distinguishing a local from an out-of-state fisherman was easy. Locals had their three fish limit – which were all snagged in the mouth – in less than an hour. In the two days we were there I only snagged two fish in the mouth. I have a new found respect for this kind of fishing.

Phil attempting to land a big Sockeye after forgetting to set his drag

Next stop on the trip was the largest float plane sea base in the world, Lake Hood. From there, we took a Dehavilland DHC-2 Beaver 80 miles northwest of Anchorage and into Black Eagle Lodge on Bulchitna Lake. We spent the next three days, from 6am to 10pm, fly fishing nearby Lake Creek.

Mystery Ranch proto on the shore of Lake Creek

As predicted, a large wave of Humpies was moving up the river. Sockeyes, Kings, Rainbows, Grayling, Chum, and Silvers were also in the river. Our goal of filling coolers with sockeyes and silvers was nearly impossible with the amount of pinks. Every time we hooked a pink we’d intentionally try to lose the fish. I eventually gave in. Why fight it?

Denny with a Pink Salmon on Lake Creek

Between the four of us, we caught eight different species of fish on Lake Creek: pinks, kings, silvers, sockeyes, chums, dolly varden, rainbows, and grayling. Oddly enough, I snagged my first ever grayling – a five incher!

Rainbow Trout on Lake Creek

On the last evening, while sitting on the deck of the lodge after a rowdy dinner, someone asked what the most memorable part of the trip was. Phil said, “The mountains on the flight into Anchorage, and the hundreds of different species of mushrooms.” (Phil is a botanist)

A poisionous Fly Agaric mushroom over the Russian River

Denny said, “Sitting on the deck hanging out with you guys.” My dad said, “Bonding with my son and the freshly caught sockeye we had for dinner in Seward.” I said, well, I can’t say, because certain memories are meant to stay in Alaska. As the saying goes, “What happens on the trip stays on the trip.”

Certain aspects of Alaska were different than I had expected and prepared for. The two spray bottles of Deet never left their packaging and the only mosquito that stuck me was in the Old Seward Cemetery. He must have been excited to see “live” meat.

Daisy in the Old Seward Cemetery

The .44 lever action never left its case.

Tracks of a sow with three cubs

The most productive fly was a bright red hook – the pinks hit it like it was bacon.

Phil with a Sockeye Salmon

Further, Phil caught fish with berries on a hook that had come from a brown bears intestinal tract. I wonder what we could call that fly pattern?

Wild cranberry bear scat

On our last day, as Denny was leaving the hotel for an early flight his parting remarks to me, or “Pearls of Wisdom” as he would put it, were this: Steve, when you’re our age I hope you have two great friends, like your Dad and Phil, to share these kinds of memories with.

Three stooges sniffing mushrooms, which really did smell like licorice

In large part, this trip wasn’t about the fishing. It was about bonding and sharing what is now a memory with three other people that have helped to shape my life. I shot my first big game animal with help from Denny. I’ve learned from Phil that size doesn’t matter as he can drop goose after goose with his 28 gauge shot gun. As for my dad, in addition to what I’ve learned, I’ve been able to share and experience so many great things with him. Whether it be hunting pheasants, aiding a drunk woman on the Missouri who locked her keys in the car during a winter storm, or looking into his wide eyes while a cow elk came trotting down the trail on which he was lying – my dad has been there for it all. Fly fishing Alaska, for my 21st, was yet another adventure to add to the memory books.