Fishing Trips

Fishing Alaska like a local (End)


The following day could have been an outdoor documentary titled Flyfishing With Brown Bears. After making the tundra deathmarch from camp to creek, we hiked downstream of the stretch we had fished before. The route took us along a steep bluff, and I was glad to be atop it. Almost directly below, another sow, this one honey-colored, was teaching her cubs to fish. When she lunged into a deep pool, it was like a fur-covered Volkswagen had struck the water, and we saw the shadows of several huge salmon streak away. The 2-year-old cubs weren’t very attentive, preferring to wrestle with each other on a gravel bar. Eventually, she gave up and led her young up the bluff to browse on willows and forage for ground squirrels. We moved on, glancing over our shoulders, then went down to the stream to fish.

Leslie was designated to watch the bluff, in case the she-bear appeared behind us. We had made only a few casts to a mixed school of chums and sockeyes when a young, muscular boar of some 350 pounds suddenly showed up on the opposite bank.

With the bluff behind us, we had little maneuvering room, so we talked to the boar in low tones and waited for him to walk downstream. He ambled along, gazing into the water just like a fisherman, but then crossed the stream to our side. Time to leave, and we did, fording the stream with linked arms to support each other on the slick rocks and against the strong current.

Farther up, we were able to fish for a while without interruption. And what fishing it was. Leslie caught and released a fat Dolly Varden on a 5-weight outfit, then a 10-pound chum. Marc landed a 15-pounder a few minutes later. Oswald made the prettiest catch of the afternoon–a three-pound rainbow so perfect in its shape, color and markings that it looked the Platonic idea of a rainbow trout.

We wanted to stay at that spot, but it was claimed by another bear. Every move this animal made said that he meant us no harm, that he was concerned with catching salmon. At the same time, through some language I cannot explain, he made it clear that he expected us to leave. It was as if we were poaching the private waters of some powerful lord tolerant enough to overlook our trespass, so long as we got out of his way when he decided to fish. After more fancy footwork, we found a gravel bar we hoped to call our own. Jeannie and I each caught Dolly Varden. Then two kings came swimming slowly upstream. Looking at them, I thought of an old Koyukon Indian riddle: “Wait, I see something. What is it? We come upstream in red canoes.” The “red canoes” are king salmon, and the male resembled a canoe in miniature. He might have gone 40 pounds. I was casting to him, concentrating intently, when Jeannie softly called, “Bear.” I looked to my left, and there, only 30 feet away, was yet another brown. He too went at least 350 pounds, and he had come out of the dense tag alders without a sound.

I was downright upset to be driven away from such a fine salmon, and before I could stop myself, I said, “We’re leaving, Bear, all right? He’s all yours, you son of a bitch.” I know this will sound like a tall tale, but it happened: The bear raised his head and stared at me, as if he’d understood the insult. That’s when I recalled something else I’d read about the Koyukons: They have powerful taboos against speaking ill of certain animals, the bear especially. Considering the circumstances, I figured it was foolish to test the truth of this folk belief. Backing up slowly, I raised my hand in a placating gesture and said, “I’m sorry, Bear. I didn’t mean that. I’m out of here.”

I was rewarded for my apology. At the next spot, a fast, straight run, I caught and released a Dolly of four pounds, then hooked a big king that struck my streamer with authority. This time I was able to mend line downstream and prevent him from running away with my line. When the fish rolled, thrashing with his tail, I saw that he was a good 30 to 35 pounds. Then he got his head, and I had to chase him, praying not to run into the bear I had disparaged. Fifteen minutes later, I had my hand on the fish’s tail, but Oswald stopped me to pose for a photograph. The salmon then wriggled into the deep water, shot downstream, and threw the hook.

“How about we call that a Palm Beach release?” I said.

Toward the end of the day–that is, around 10:00 p.m.–Oswald caught three Dolly Varden for our supper. We cleaned the fish quickly, throwing the entrails into the fastest part of the stream, and double-bagged the meat for the walk home. The trek took an hour, and it was past midnight by the time we’d cooked the fish, cleaned up, and crawled into our tents.

Dawn was a gift. I woke to see a cow moose swimming across the lake in the sunrise. The crags and peaks of the Aleutians were violet and rose, and a strong wind was up, the mosquitoes down. I went down to the lake, stripped, and did an arctic push-up, dipping myself quickly in the cold water. Then I stood, naked in the wilderness, letting the wind dry me while I looked at the light-painted snows on the far mountains. Tom McGuane once said that fishing trout streams makes him feel the way you are supposed to feel in church but seldom do. And I certainly saw more of God in that lake and in those mountains than in the grandest of man-made cathedrals, and the big chinooks in the stream and the brown bears had a lot to do with that sense of transcendence.


My tale should end there, but we had a final encounter with a bear. This fellow shambled into our camp that afternoon, after we had fished the lake for pike and packed our gear for Hartley’s arrival in the bushplane. The brown, every ounce of 400 pounds, must have caught the smell of the pancakes we’d cooked for lunch. We made quite a racket, but couldn’t drive him off. Once he came very close to Oswald, who sprayed bear mace–concentrated pepper spray–toward him. It didn’t faze the bear, and I recalled what an old sourdough up in Fairbanks had to say about the stuff: “It’s real good–brown bears like their meat well-seasoned.” Not that he wanted us; wanted to raid our pantry. Oswald and Jeannie thought he would learn bad habits if we let him do that, so every time he moved off to one side, looking for an opening, they moved to block him, hollering, “Bear! Bear! Go away, Bear!” Several yards behind those two brave souls, I took photographs in case their families wanted pictures of their last moments.

Finally, Jeannie started banging a pot with a fork, and that convinced the bear to leave, though he did so at his own leisurely pace. It was as if he were telling us that he was not to be hurried by the likes of us.

I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t been scared during the confrontation, but I would not have had it any other way. The night before, over our fish dinner, Oswald had told us about a U.S. Congressman he had guided on the Brooks River some 10 years ago. They had had a day of spectacular fishing, and several bear encounters. When Oswald asked the politician what he’d thought of his experiences, the man answered that the fishing had been great. Then he added, “But we ought to get rid of these bears. This is a national park. People come here to have fun, and you can’t have fun with all these damned bears around.”

After seeing Alaska, I knew I would have to take up Canadian citizenship if that congressman ever got his way. An America without the grandeur and menace of the brown bear would be a toothless country, not worth living in.

Fishing Trips

Fishing Alaska like a local (P3)


The king, or chinook, is one of nature’s grander creations, and its annual migration from ocean to river spawning ground is among nature’s most mysterious and breathtaking events. Silver with black spots in the sea, kings turn a deep red as they near the end of their mating cycle. Driven by a tyrannical imperative to breed, guided by homing mechanisms scientists have yet to figure out, the salmon navigate hundreds of miles of open ocean into the mouths of Alaskan rivers, then swim upriver by the millions, school after school breaking off to travel up tributaries, and tributaries of tributaries, never resting until they reach the waters where they were born. There they lay and fertilize their eggs. Kings have been found 2000 miles up the Yukon. All Pacific salmon (chinooks, chums, sockeyes, pinks and silvers) make these astonishing journeys, but the kings capture the angler’s imagination because they’re the biggest. They average 20 pounds, but fish of 30 and 40 are not uncommon. Some grow to 60 pounds, and a few approaching 100 pounds have been caught.

The previous week, on the Fish River near Nome, we had caught chums regularly, but the giant chinooks had eluded us. Now I saw them, lying in channels and shallow pools, sometimes in mating pairs, sometimes in pods of four or five, the fish long, heavy-bodied and the color of lobsters as they held in the swift current. I forgot about bears, but had to practice deferred angling gratification before I could rig up. Marc was still a novice flyfisherman, but coming along nicely. Leslie and Jeannie were new to the sport. Oswald was busy taking photos, so I became designated bear-watcher as well as fishing guide, meaning that when someone needed a leader tied on, or a new fly, I was called in.

I enjoy watching people catch fish almost as much as catching them myself. And it was fun to see Jeannie land a fat grayling, Marc hook a chum, Leslie a big Dolly Varden. We worked upstream, fishing a run or series of pools for 10 or 15 minutes before moving on. The tracks of the big sow and her cubs were on almost every gravel bar. The air grew heavy–sometimes it felt like July in Georgia–and a light drizzle began to fall. We came to a succession of “S” bends, where Oswald, laying his cameras down, caught a female king of some 20 pounds.

I’d earned my turn, so I grabbed an 8-weight Loomis, tied on a bright-red streamer–a variation of the Clouser Minnow–and proceeded upstream. Ahead lay six kings in water less than two feet deep, four of the six lined up as if in tow, the others hugging the far bank. They would lie completely still for a few moments, only their tails lanning, then move slightly upstream or to one side to lie still again.

Oswald offered a lesson on technique. I was to present the streamer about six feet in front of a fish, throwing in an upstream mend to let the fly sink. The rod tip had to be kept low to avoid raising the fly toward the surface. As it swept past the salmon, I was to push the tip downstream, to make sure there was no slack in the line in case the fish struck. If it did, I had to set the hook hard three or four times, because a salmon’s mouth is hard and bony. That was the general method. Then came the fine points: Because the fish kept changing positions, I would have to shorten or lengthen the cast accordingly, two inches here, six inches there, and I might have to make up to 50 casts before a salmon struck, probably out of anger.

And so I began, making short casts (the stream was only 40 feet wide at most). It was precision work, and the tension and concentration were tiring. No matter how I tried, I could not induce a strike. The salmon had sex on their minds, and we all know how distracting that can be. Because I am an idiot writer, I stopped fishing, my attention captured by the mating ritual. Every few minutes the female would turn sideways and cut a redd for her eggs, scooping the gravel with flutters of her tail. Her mate would circle around her and the nest, sometimes touching her with excited tremors running through his body, sometimes lunging to drive off other male suitors. It was fascinating and beautiful and tragic. Soon after mating, the salmon would die. I had seen a spent chum on the Fish River, rolling listlessly in the current, swimming erratically, its colors growing mottled. Its long journey from the sea, its heroic leaps over rapids and up waterfalls, its escapes from nets, hooks and the jaws of bears–all of that was ending in a slow, sad death. Somehow, the salmon seemed to deserve a reward–a kind of piscatorial golden years–after going through so much. But the natural world doesn’t work that way.

I hiked farther upstream and found another school–a mating pair and several other fish–holding in a riffle below an overhanging alder. I had made only a few casts when I saw an explosion of milt in the water as the male fertilized the eggs.

“All right,” I said aloud, “you’ve got that done, now hit this streamer.” He only lay in the water, guarding the redd against the graylings and rainbows that would try to feed on the eggs. The fly drifted past him again, in the same way it had a dozen times before; this time, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, he turned on it and struck. As soon as the barbless hook was set, his dark back rolled out of the water, and he streaked downstream perhaps 20 yards, where he held for a moment. I set the hook twice more, hard, jogging along the rocky bank to get below him. When you’re onto a king, you need to peel line off the reel and let the current take it; feeling pressure from downstream, the fish will run in the opposite direction; then it, instead of the fisherman, has to fight the current.

Well, I was a little slow. The salmon took off before I could get into position. He ran in earnest this time, cutting a V-shaped wake, with me running after him as fast as I could in waders, reeling up slack as I ran. I was deep into my backing when he jumped, clearing the water, and my heart caught seeing him suspended for an instant in the somber light of the Alaskan evening. He looked to be 25 pounds, possibly more. Then we were off to the races again. The fish and my line vanished around a bend, and now, alone, I wondered if that sow bear was there with her cubs. That added a certain poignancy to the experience. I came round the bend. No bear. The fish streaked across the mouth of a slough, headed for a willow hanging in the water. He was going to try to cut me off! The water was too deep to run in. Shoving half the rod underwater to keep line and leader free of the willow’s submerged branches, I slogged through a pool to a gravel bank on the far side. Abreast of the salmon, I thumbed the spool, putting maximum pressure on him. For a couple of seconds we were locked in a standoff. He couldn’t run downstream against full drag, but I couldn’t move him. My heart was thundering. Finally, I was able to turn the fish. It took a while to work him to the bank. He thrashed in the shallows, solid-looking, his back almost black, his flanks more burgundy than the bright red they had showed in the water, the kype on his lower jaw jutting as if in defiance. I tailed him, the first chinook I’d ever caught. The experience had been as thrilling as catching my first trout, tarpon or bonefish.

Although the fish was doomed, I decided to release him–not entirely for sportsmanlike motives, either. With so many bears around, it didn’t seem prudent to carry 25 pounds of dead salmon across a mile and a half of tundra. One of the few smart decisions I’ve made in my life. Only a couple of minutes after the revived king swam off, Leslie said in a low, tight voice, “Bear.”

Fifty to 75 yards downstream, the big sow came lumbering along, three yearling cubs in tow. She was the first brown bear Leslie, Marc and I had seen in the wild, and she was charcoal-brown and enormous. We gaped at her as she splashed into the creek to start fishing–she had mouths to feed.

“Okay, here’s what we do,” Oswald instructed. “We cut into these willows at a right angle to her, then we walk upstream a ways, cross, and hike back to camp. We don’t want to get between her and those cubs. We’d be shredded wheat in 10 seconds.”

Fishing Trips

Fishing Alaska like a local (P2)



Should you decide to go to King Salmon and the Katmai region, try the Ponderosa Inn, if you don’t mind a somewhat “urban” setting. For those who wish more traditional lodging, Virgil and Jean Banach operate a bed-and-breakfast on the Naknek River, about a 20-minute drive up a gravel road from King Salmon. They rent two rooms that sleep four people and a cottage that also sleeps four. Rates are $125 per person per day with three meals included, $85 per day without. The Banachs have an arrangement with veteran Alaskan guide Nanci Morris, who will guide a party of two or more anglers for $350 per person per day, fly-out included. A day on the Naknek, which does not require a fly-out, would cost about $200 a day.

A week’s itinerary and per person costs could go like this: two nights at the Banachs’ with meals included: $250. One guided day on the Naknek: $200. One day of guided fly-out fishing to a remote stream or lake: $350. That would familiarize you with an area. You could then fly out to it on your own, for an additional $175 to $190, plus your expenses for food, tackle and supplies. Camp out for three to four days, then return to King Salmon for a final night under a roof: $85. Altogether, expect to lay out about $1500, excluding commercial airfares, which could run an additional $1000. This isn’t cheap, but it is far less than the $6000 to $7000 you would spend for airfares and a week’s stay at a lodge.


Flyfishermen should take an 8- or 9-weight, nine-foot rod for salmon. An intermediate sinking line or sink tip works best in streams, but you might want a full-sink for deep, fast waters such as the Naknek. For Dolly Varden, grayling and rainbows, a 5- or 6-weight outfit is ideal. Spinfishermen can handle salmon on a medium-action rod with 12- to 15-pound-test line. A lighter rig would be suited for trout and Dolly Varden.


Alaska is real wilderness. There are few roads, few trails, and towns and settlements are often separated by vast distances. It is no place for the unfit or the weekend Winnebago camper. If you are thinking of trying a do-it-yourself trip, your outdoor skills and woodsmanship need to be of a high order. You have to be in good condition to walk miles over rough, trackless terrain. You should know how to read a topographic map and how to use a compass, as well as be knowledgeable about first-aid and survival techniques. As for your camping equipment, sleeping bags and other gear–get only the best. Your comfort, your safety, and possibly your life, will depend on it.

We were setting up camp when we discovered that we were not quite as alone as we’d thought. Six fishermen led by a young cowboy-hatted guide came trudging in from the direction of the creek. A float plane landed to take them back to their lodge near King Salmon. I broke off from the housekeeping drudgery to gather a little fishing intelligence from the guide. He was as forthcoming as a White House official testifying before a Senate investigating committee. All I learned was that there were fish in the creek.

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Fishing Trips

Fishing Alaska like a local (P1)

The Alaskan wilderness is a fisherman’s paradise, one not solely reserved for wealthy individuals. By learning to fish as the locals do, without guides, such fishing expeditions do not have to be expensive. All it takes is the desire to camp out and explore remote areas by raft and foot.

It was a gray afternoon in early July, and there were five of us fishing a remote salmon stream on the Alaskan peninsula, somewhere inside Katmai National Park. The reasons for our being there were in the water–king and chum salmon in numbers too great for a census, along with grayling, Dolly Varden and big rainbows. What was better, we had the stream all to ourselves, a fish-to-fishers ratio we found suitable because we sought solitude as well as fish. We were also trying to determine if it was possible for out-of-state sportsmen to fish Alaska on a budget, without compromising on the quality of the fishing or the experience.

Most anglers dream of catching salmon and trout in Alaskan wilderness streams; many never fulfill that dream because they think such an adventure is reserved for the rich. Not true, if you fish the way Alaskans do, without a guide, camping out and exploring remote streams and rivers on your own, by raft, on foot, or a little of both. That’s what we did and it worked.

Our base in King Salmon was the Ponderosa Inn. To get the cast of characters out of the way, our group included Tony Oswald, a professional photographer and flyfishing instructor; his friend from Colorado, Jeannie Chandler; my wife, Leslie; my 22-year-old son, Marc; and me. The Ponderosa was low on aesthetics and luxuries but high in affordability. A double room, with comfortable beds, enough space for gear, and plenty of hot water, went for $200 a night with three meals included. The food was not for devotees of cuisine minceur: bacon, eggs, sausages and pancakes for breakfast, pot roast for lunch, steak or roast beef at dinner, and the dining-room sign that said “All You Can Eat” had no fine-print clauses carefully hidden at the bottom.
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Fishing Trips

Wood maestro keeps Calif. boats fishing; strong season brings boats to Alaska yard

David Peterson specializes in repairing and rebuilding older wooden commercial fishing boats in boatyards around Eureka, Calif. He’s one of the reasons a lot of older wooden boats are still working the waters off the northern California coast.

Take the last two boats he recently finished. The 35-foot Terron came out of the Anderson & Cristofani boatyard at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. The Albatross is a 40-foot double-ender built in Seattle. Both were launched in 1927.

Peterson, 61, says he’s been working on the Terron “throughout my life, doing a little on it every year.” Prior to the work that was just completed, the Terron had been hauled, and Peterson and his crew “sistered a bunch of ribs, put in new cockpit floor boards and refurbished the stern area.” That included replacing stanchions and covering boards for most of the boat.

For the work just completed, six ribs were replaced on the port side, about even with the pilothouse. “It was just age,” says Peterson. “Ninety-year-old oak, it held up real well considering.” The area was then refastened and caulked.

The Albatross got a new deck. He pulled out bad planking, replaced it with new cedar planks. And then he planed the planking down “nice and flat,” says Peterson. He then refastened it with galvanized nails and covered it with a 3/8-inch layer of Hydrotek marine plywood, which was fastened down with self-tapping stainless-steel taper-head screws. Both layers of the Hydrotek were covered with Henry’s 208 roof patch. A layer of fiberglass saturated in epoxy went over the Hydrotek to make the deck watertight. He made the surface non-skid by adding 20-grit sandblasting sand to the epoxy and then a coat of 235 marine primer.

“That’s my standard-issue deck fix,” says Peterson.

What Peterson won’t do on a commercial fishing boat is pull up all the old deck planking and replace it with new planks. “I tell them, ‘No, I’m not going to do that for you.’ I don’t let people make mistakes with their own boats anymore.”

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