A first trip to Alaska, where everything really is larger than life.
Article by Scott Sadil • Paintings by Bob White
I suspect there’s a similar moment for every first-time visitor to Alaska. No place looms larger in the angler’s imagination, and by the time we finally arrive, we have little defense against the clumsy platitudes of those who came before. The land, the water, the mountains, the fish—it all feels larger than life. “Dude,” you find yourself saying. “We’re fishing Alaska!”
It’s bad enough that in moments of sharpest delight I still sound like a sudsy-eyed surfer. Fortunately, few things vanish faster into the vastness of Alaska than a bark of trite sentiment. In this case, I’m also shielded by a buffer as common in Alaska as facts and fantasies: the growl of a de Havilland Beaver reverberating around a half dozen anglers in wet waders, wet rain jackets, and wet hats, our ears plugged with various devices meant to protect what’s left of our hearing.
Below us spreads the naked truth of Alaska: vast yawning tracts of treeless bush, a palette of iridescent early-summer greens beneath gray seeping skies.
Common—but in no way commonplace. Below us spreads the naked truth of Alaska: vast yawning tracts of treeless bush, a palette of iridescent early-summer greens beneath gray seeping skies. Through one flight of windows bare mountains stare back, their rusty flanks striped white with melting snow. In the opposite direction lies a broad basin of lakes and shallow ponds woven together by meandering creeks. Who can tell which way the water flows? Then the drainage coheres, the creeks and streams fuse and consolidate, and the wild shape of water now stretches and bends seaward, draining the green and empty land.
Empty? Looking down through the mist, I’m struck that this idea of “emptiness” comes from a hasty, self-centered point of view rather than a deeper understanding. Because there’s nothing empty about Alaska. Whatever else Alaska is, it is complete, whole, entirely full. All the pieces are in place. Except, perhaps, where we have dislodged certain crucial elements or crowded ourselves into the picture.
So many pieces, so many parts, all perfectly balanced, all perfectly arranged. Not least of which: all those fish that flood the rivers each summer and go berserk at the sting of a fly.
The camp sits on a windswept knoll, a tidy cluster of Quonset-style tents overlooking a broad reach of tidewater that opens directly to the sea. Guides mob the plane—a furious exchange of gear, hands extended, names shared, claims from the father of the departing group that he and his three young sons caught more fish than they could count.
I’m not quite ready to believe him. I’m paired for the week with Darren Woodcock, on leave from the British military, and we’ve spent the last six hours on the lower Togiak swinging wet flies from johnboats in high water. After some grim work launching 20 feet of T-14 with an old 14-foot 9-weight, all I have to show for it is an open blister on my bottom hand.
Plus, my mood’s been a little sour since yesterday, when I found the perfect place in the boat to set my favorite two-hander so that our guide could step nowhere else but on its tip when he yanked the engine’s starter.
But there’s a Deer Creek on the rack outside the new camp’s kitchen tent that feels just about right. And after coffee and fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, we motor up to the confluence of the Negukthlik and Ungalithluk Rivers, where we find fish stirring.
Better: in only a few casts it’s apparent they’re not just stirring.
It’s pretty straightforward: cast, mend, swing a big bright fly with a small nondescript trailer down through the slots. Chums, mostly. A few sockeye. All of them bright, spirited, strong as desire—just hours from the sea. I find a small king that jumps like a wild steelhead. The salt-scented wind wails. We stop for dinner and then get right back to it, because we’re in Alaska, and fresh salmon are in the river, and you never know what tomorrow will bring.
Tomorrow, in Alaska, has its own special ring. We’re well past midnight and into tomorrow before I check my watch and decide, despite the good light, that maybe the last chum was enough skunk-wash to call it a day.
Of course it’s the guides who make it seem easy. And the longer I’m here, the more I see how these guys have their hands on the heart of the fishing and the landscape itself. That the rest of us enjoy but a brief touch on the pulse of a place called Alaska. That I am a guest at Bristol Bay Lodge entirely from a stroke of unexpected luck and not as a wage-earning subordinate is one more reason I study the guides as closely as the fishing.
These guys live the Life. Some set up camps in June and don’t leave the river until September. They work 10-, 12-, 14-hour days. They live in their waders. Some years it never stops raining. When it does let up, the mosquitos descend.
We meet Eric Mannon on the Middle Fork of the Goodnews River, a 100-mile flight from the lodge. He got a shot of Alaska in his blood during a stint in the Coast Guard and this is his fifth straight year here. In the winter, he guides in Chile.
Eric’s compact, baby-faced, quick to smile, and tough as a terrier. We take a long boat ride upriver, ending in a tributary that squeezes down until we get out and walk. We cast flesh flies and tungsten-headed sculpins, the only patterns Eric fishes until a week from now—the exact same date each year, he claims, that the chum start dropping eggs and the sea-run Dolly Varden arrive. And the big rainbows begin to feed.
Today we find only a trout here, a grayling there. We head downstream, Eric at times on the oars and at times walking us downriver, stern-first. I shoot casts into the bank, stripping the olive sculpin through likely lies, while Darren swings the big flesh fly, which I’ve dubbed Dirty Underwear, both of us picking up fish now and then.
When we set off downriver in earnest, with Eric at the engine sweeping from pool to pool with the flair of a motocross rider, it occurs to me that he’s having a hell of a lot of fun for the week before the fishing really turns on.
Still, he’s in and out of the river all day—and as the afternoon progresses a steady light rain turns into a steady soaking rain under a ceiling of clouds that drops to our rod tips. Back at camp for our midafternoon flight out, we discover by radio that the planes can’t fly. Jason, the cook, has already started the next group’s dinner: shrimp, which I’ve been allergic to since I could first vote.
“We’ll get a sockeye,” says Eric.
We find a pod holding along a high grassy bank. I get one, then another—but they’re both chum salmon, which nobody eats except the locals’ dogs. Darren hooks several fish, a couple of them clearly sockeyes, but they disappear from his line. I think such fish probably weren’t fair-hooked in the first place, a reasonable assumption for a species that spends most of its life in the ocean feeding on plankton.
Eric doesn’t think that’s any excuse.
We motor upstream and find salmon milling about in a deep slough off the main current, the kind of holding water where fish congregate before deciding, for whatever reason, to push upriver. In this kind of water there are usually two different casting angles, one from out in the fast current, the other from the slack water inside the slough. Either way, you’re trying to present the fly to fish moving through the well-defined seam, a cast that tightens your line and swings the fly toward the nose of a fish and, hopefully, into its mouth.
While Darren and I try to figure out the length and angle of our casts, Eric scrambles up the bank on the far side of the slough with his own rod. It’s getting on toward dinnertime. He casts his fly into the middle of the slough, waits for the fly to sink, and then rears back and sets the hook.
As soon as his line’s tight and the sockeye thrashing on the surface, he sets down his rod and grabs hold of the line. What we have here, I think, is a guide taking care of business. Still, it’s no cakewalk. Eric ends up 50 yards downstream before he wrestles the sockeye to the bank. The landing looks a lot like something you hope never to catch your child doing.
Eric hauls the fish by the gills through the slough as though trudging through snow.
“Dinner,” he says.
I look at Darren and then back at Eric.
“Which fly did it take?”
Things feel a lot different the morning we head up a tributary just above tidewater with Matt Janik guiding and Steve Laurent, the manager of Bristol Bay Lodge, shooting photos. We’re hunting for kings in a small, slow-moving
tundra stream that meanders through slick oxbows with cutbanks reminiscent of a Montana trout stream, a good place to throw hoppers for big browns. Finding a 25-pound salmon here seems other-
worldly. Hooking one would be like a fistfight in a phone booth.
I’ve already put a couple of kings in the net elsewhere, so Darren leads the way through the first hole. Something pulls his line tight and lets go. Soon afterwards, the same thing happens to me. I’m still not convinced these are the fish Matt and Steve are talking about. Alaska or not, I know which way the wind blows.
We move down the pool. With one eye on Darren up ahead, I keep adjusting my cast to get the deep drift Steve said I need.
“If we get one out of here,” I say, lapsing into surfer-talk. “I’m going to be blown away.”
“We will,” says Steve.
The water’s so small that these guys claim to know right where the kings hold after shuffling upstream on each new tide. They describe the lies with the precision of a good auto mechanic talking about a part that needs replacing.
I can’t help myself. I start to believe them, too.
Then on a swing into some still water inside the current in a tailout, my line suddenly pauses, straightens, and I’m tight to a big fish with very little room for either of us to run.
“You got him?” calls Matt, leaving Darren downstream.
“I got something,” I answer, making for high ground.
Good guides, of course, love this stuff as much as any of us do. Maybe more. Later that day I listen to a gentleman from Toronto describe the fish of the season on a nearby tributary, a king that taped 47 inches with a girth of 32. The formulas call that a 50-pound king. He had to follow it around four full bends, holding his rod high above the bear grass and brush on the stream’s inside corners.
But his guide, Tyler, made the biggest impression on him.
“He was so excited, I thought he was going to piss his waders. I don’t think he could have forgiven me had we lost the fish.”
I’m curious how these guides end up in Alaska, where they come from, if they recognize how lucky they are to be parked on a wilderness salmon river all season, some of them year after year.
It’s probably a dumb question. That evening, Matt’s out casting his two-hander with me after hours when he puts it in perspective. A lefty, he’s got an easy time of it tonight as the onshore wind helps his D-loop hold its shape.
“Not bad,” he says, “for a guy from the west side of Milwaukee.”
I remember to thank him—again—for netting the morning’s tundra stream king.
Despite the rugged autonomy and laissez-faire ethics of the outcamp guides, there’s a military precision to the Bristol Bay operation, especially the movement of clients and equipment in and out of the lodge. Planes take off and land within a tight predictable window. Meals follow a close schedule. I hate to lose sight of my gear, especially when I think of the creative ways it has vanished in the past, but it’s not long before I’m handing over my dry bags and rod case with the confidence of a Hollywood star sauntering onto the set.
Of course, an operation like this is all about the service. I’m just not that used to coming off the dock in rain gear and sopping waders and having a cute gal in a gazebo ask me what I want to drink.
On the Agulowak, artist Bob White orchestrates a streamside lunch while Darren and I tease out a couple of rainbows and a small Dolly Varden from a soft pool cushioned up against the heavy current. Downstream, we’ve already yanked out a dozen or more dime-bright sockeye, some pushing 10 pounds, so this is—what?—exactly what you do in Alaska when waiting for the next thing to happen.
Bob gets our full attention when he unwraps two slabs of salmon that’ve been baking in aluminum foil over an open fire, and finishes deep-frying a pile of potato slices in a black skillet, the same place he prepared his Guide Pie—cored apple slices covered in batter and seasoned with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The gentleman from Toronto and his 20-something daughter are along for the day as well. The sky’s blue, the shade’s deep, our appetites are sharp. If I’ve had a better camp lunch, I can’t recall it.
Is this decadence or just good sense? You have to eat sometime. Through the scripted schedule and regimented comings and goings, I’m beginning to relinquish a sense of responsibility for anything but my casts. A kind of blurriness settles over features outside the range of fly line and fly. Focused on the water, the fish, my loop, I often forget I’m beyond the reach of roads, cell phones, and my 800 friends on Facebook.
The next day we return to the Togiak, where big kings are suddenly showing, all of them caught on eggs and gyrating plugs dangled behind boats backing down into the holes. When it turns out Darren and I will be fishing alone in separate boats, I break out the beast of a two-hander again, with its 650-grain Skagit head and boat-length of tungsten dredging cable. But without another rod to contend with, I can launch casts from the bow that pull against the reel as though I’d pitched a crab pot. Maybe we can make this work after all.
Eric, a kid who spent the off-season as a construction laborer at the South Pole, sets up the boat so that my casts almost touch the bank and then slide into the deep trough running along the river’s edge. He glances my way every time the big Intruder nicks the bottom. You get that look from your guide, you pay attention.
They feel it, too.
It wasn’t a big king. But we both felt we’d done something nobody else in the group did all week, and when Eric puts me on a sliver of bank inside a heavy run, we get that edgy confidence that makes us believe we might just pull out anything.
Out of the boat, my feet on solid ground, I can make the rod and heavy head do exactly what they’re designed to do. All I need to focus on is a slow setup, the path of the rod tip, a high firm stop.
“If he’s there, he’s going to eat it,” says Eric.
I always wonder why sometimes it just gets suddenly easy. Pretty casts. Straight leader. A big fly landing far out in a big river. Big bright fish swimming straight out of the sea. Anything’s possible, you think.
I guess, more than anything else, that’s what Alaska really is.
Scott Sadil makes his home in HoodRiver, Oregon, where he’s torn between fish north and fish south, a writing life and eating.
> If You Go
• Four decades of service have established Bristol Bay Lodge as one of the premier destinations in the angling world. Perched above scenic Lake Aleknagik at the edge of the Wood-Tikchik State Park, the lodge prides itself on providing guests with every creature comfort without compromising a genuine wilderness experience.
• Over each week of fishing, guests target different species and different water through the lodge’s network of outpost camps, each only a short plane ride from the lodge yet seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
• There’s a good chance you’ll find several of the five species of Pacific salmon, as well as Dolly Varden and sea-run char, grayling, and resident rainbows. The lodge maintains a fully equipped fly and tackle shop, and will supply any gear you need. Conceivably, you could show up with nothing more than your waterproof wading jacket and a change or two of long underwear.
• Getting to Bristol Bay Lodge means getting to Dillingham, Alaska, a 300-mile flight from Anchorage. Lodge staff drives you to the shore of Lake Aleknagik, where you’re ferried to the lodge. For more information, see their web page at www.bristolbaylodge.com. Or contact manager Steve Laurent (October–May) at 1-509-964-2269 or (June-September) at 1-907-743-0326. Or email him at [email protected].