Author: Paul Rudershausen
Photography: Cam Luck
The last thing I remember the bush pilot asking me and my fishing buddy Cam before he took off was, ‘do you have a satellite phone!?’ And just like that he was off. His little Cessna almost jumped off the gravel runway, free of our body weight and a pile of gear that suddenly seemed far too bulky for the tiny pack rafts we had brought along. The little plane’s quick departure off the gravel strip and its disappearance over a far ridge line left behind an uneasy but exciting silence. I found myself thinking about bears, whether our bear fence would work, if the rafts would stay puncture-free, if my fly rods would endure the trip without getting snapped.
We had come to a remote river system in western Alaska. It had been a decade since I fished it last. Over those intervening ten years I had dreamed of it often, hoping to get the chance to re-do an arduous trip that demands great physical condition for long distance paddling and hiking over uneven tundra to fish clearwater feeder streams. One also has to be willing to camp frills-free on wet, mosquito-infested tundra. The frequent and intimate close bear encounters on small creeks about eliminates any self-respecting individual from considering doing this trip by themselves. But finding a fishing partner for such a home-cooked adventure is a significant challenge.
Planning these sorts of trips requires a good deal of self-examination. I would quickly get bored on a week-long fishing trip if I was guided and quite frankly I couldn’t afford it. While I am middle aged I have the energy of a 20-something and love to undertake what friends and acquaintances who know me would best describe as ‘unusual’ or ‘arduous’ fishing journeys to remote areas of the continent in search of native fish. But all of this comes at a price. Usually I select places to fish for trout that are so remote and difficult enough to get to that my typical fishing buddies pull the ‘wife’, ‘dog’, and ‘money’ excuses at my mere mention of a home-cooked trip. It’s as if they have their answers rehearsed before I even ask them. Cam had signed on just before I was ready to pull the plug on the idea. I tried to coax him into the trip long before he committed. I couldn’t sweeten my offer with promises of home-cooked meals or hot showers at the end of long days of fly casting. I just promised him that the angling for fish seemingly oversized for the little streams they were holding in would be really good. In retrospect that promise was just enough to get his commitment. I am fortunate that mutual friends didn’t warn him about the very real possibility of soggy food and long walks across the tundra while gratuitously feeding hungry mosquitos than would be anxious for their warm liquid meal courtesy of a couple flatlanders from the lower 48.
The main allure of this place for me is indeed big fish in small water. And sight casting to fish that are not as spooked by the angler as they are getting attacked by dying salmon trying their best to guard their redds. This is the only place I ever fished where I mused whether the anadromous fish that use these little creeks to spawn or the resident fish following them upstream could physically turn to go back downstream if they so desired. On my only other trip to this river basin I had caught a rainbow trout in a creek that a person with an average stride could walk across without getting their feet wet or breaking stride. There’s hundreds of miles of stream water that one could fish on this trip. So long as a stream is wide and deep enough to accommodate spawning salmon, the rainbows and dolly varden will follow. Much of the fishing is akin to fishing mountain meadow streams but for fish more commonly measured in pounds rather than inches. Every bend in a creek looks good. A visitor to this river system has to become resigned to the fact that only a small fraction of the water can be fished in a weeklong trip. Picking and choosing those creeks to fish and those to pass over is the tough part.
Alaska is a harsh climate for a freshwater fish. The growing season is just a few months long, when salmon run their eggs up streams and inadvertently provide one of the main food sources for hungry rainbows and dolly varden trying to offset a year’s worth of energetic demands. The biological manifestations of this harsh environment are slow growth, low densities and delayed maturity for these resident natives. Such attributes make Alaskan populations of rainbows vulnerable to the effects of discard mortality. Proper catch and release methods are a premium asset to insure the health of these stream-bred populations.
On this trip we were early. Me and Cam’s mutual time off had been about a month before the main salmon spawning time. Compared to my only other trip to the basin, which occurred late in the summer, I had gotten the sense that many of the rainbows and dolly varden weren’t in the streams yet but waiting in the main river for the salmon to return. We still managed to catch and release hundreds of fish between us. Some of the rainbows we caught on dry flies, a nice bonus compared to casting egg imitations and those heavy ‘chuck-and-duck’ flies imitating salmon flesh.
Either the advantage or drawback of a home cooked trip (maybe both) is that it re-defines the meaning of adventure. Perhaps my fishing buddies are rightly cautious about my invitations to have them join me on do-it-yourself trips. We had escaped any uncomfortably close encounters with bears or punctured rafts. But on the last day of our 60 mile week-long float trip a fierce headwind sprang up and whipped the river into a fury right where it hits the ocean. Paddling the little featherweight rafts in such a wind was essentially impossible. Just hours before our plane was to pick us up, we found ourselves knee-deep in soft glacial mud on an expansive tidal flat. Our takeout was only a quarter mile away but seemed so distant. We had tried to beat the wind by portaging our gear across the mud flat, but then the tide starting rising halfway across our portage. Suddenly standing waves of muddy windswept saltwater forced us back into our rafts as the tide and wind fought each other. Our only recourse was to paddle downwind, barely making headway against the raging incoming tide. We resorted to an emergency landing on the wrong side of the river as our regularly scheduled plane whizzed overhead and out of sight. We had missed our flight and Cam was due back at work on the far side of the continent in 36 hours. I thought of my bush pilot’s question about a satellite phone.
Somehow, after a boat ride from a commercial salmon fisherman, a car shuttle from a nearby cannery handyman to a deserted gravel runway, and a barely discernable phone call to the pilot that had dropped us off seven days earlier, we were flying back to the little outpost town we had started our journey at a week earlier. And only three hours after being almost trapped in deep sucking mud as a tug-of-war between wind and tide was waged right in front of us. We were flying right back over the same river that had almost trapped us. The mud flat was gone with the flood tide, as if swallowed by the sea.
In the sub-arctic twilight, with the pilot’s Cessna buffeted by 30 knot winds, I felt a sense of relief over our rescue but also sadness that another long-anticipated trip for wild rainbows had already come and gone. We were passing over some of those same little streams that I longed to fish but just lacked the time. And I realized, as I approached my 50th birthday and another inevitable mid-life crisis, that I may never have the opportunity again. I thought of the difficulty of getting to this wonderful corner of the Earth and if I could talk another fishing buddy into such an adventure again while I still had my own physical ability to do it. We didn’t catch all the rainbows that offered at our flies but that’s a good thing. Ultimately the ones that got away will keep my passion burning to return to this remote corner of the Earth…time, health, and adventuresome fishing buddies willing.