DO IT FOR DOLLARS A DAY
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.
A FEW WORDS OF CAUTION
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.
He and his anglers took off, and now we were truly alone. Our only competition for fishing room would be brown bears. I use the word “competition” loosely. If a bear wanted my fishing spot, I had no intention of contesting him.
Late in the afternoon, we set off toward the creek, following a game trail that led along the face of the ridge, then dropped down into tussock tundra, which is composed of tufts of mud and sedge grasses separated by miniature ditches. Walking on it has been described as “like walking on basketballs.” If you are hiking in waders, it is like walking on basketballs while wearing chain mail. By the time we were halfway to the creek, we were drenched in sweat, which had washed the repellent off our faces. The clouds of mosquitoes and blackflies could not have been happier. As we hopped awkwardly over the tundra, we tripped over fresh bear scat piled like black ant hills.
Finally, we reached the willows and alders that bordered the creek. We did not want to surprise a brown, so we made a lot of noise as we pushed through the brush. The creek bank proved to be a brown bear hiking trail. The freshest set of prints belonged to a sow and two or three yearling cubs. The word “awesome” is overused, but that’s what her tracks were. I set my boot into a print made by one of her hind feet, and estimated she would have worn a Size 25 quintuple-E. The presence of such a huge bear, prepared to defend her cubs with deadly ferocity, created a certain sharpening of the senses that was more stimulating than frightening. We were unarmed, so we did not want things to get too stimulating.
In a previous incarnation, Oswald had been a fishing guide in Alaska and had been through close encounters with hundreds of bears. He gave us our plan of action: Two of us would fish one side of the stream, three the other, and we would watch each other’s backs for approaching bears. If the terrain forced us to work the same side, one person would stand bear watch while the others fished. If a bear came near, we were to face it and begin “talking” to it in normal tones of voice, all the while backing away. There was to be no shouting and no sudden movements, which could excite a bear into charging. If the bear charged regardless, it would probably be a bluff charge, and we were to stand our ground. And if it wasn’t a bluff? Then, Oswald said, the only thing to do would be to fall down, curl up, and cover the back of your neck with your hands. There were no trees to climb, and trying to outrun a brown bear would be as hopeless as trying to fight one with your bare hands; in a 100-yard dash, it is faster than a racehorse.
The tactical instructions, to say nothing of the question in my mind–could I really stand my ground with 500 pounds of muscle, fangs and claws coming at me at 25 miles an hour?–distracted me from my mission. I wanted to catch a king salmon on a fly.