Fall Alaska Foray

(Click on the photos to view the images full-size)

 

So there we were, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. Andy heaved back on the rod as a large fish peeled off drag, down in the depths. A fierce wind gust threw the canoe sideways and threatened to capsize us. A lifer on the line - a wild leaping fish, now - with a stilletto rain stabbing us in the face and an iron wind scudding us across the whitecapped lake. My numb hands fumbled for the net as the boat swayed and spun around ...

 

But we're getting way ahead of ourselves.

 

It started, as most worthy fishing adventures do, with a mad idea. A rumor had gradually turned into a set of odd facts, the odd facts had then turned into a weird plan, and that weird plan turned – eventually – into a stark raving reality. It went something like this:

 

"Alaska?"

 

"Sure. Let's dirtbag it. We can't afford much."

 

And so it went. The first order of business was to rent a car and get the hell out of Anchorage - as always. A midnight drive to Anchor Point was in order, then a short, cold sleep through a 34-degree night. We were up early in the morning and out on the river. The water was an ugly brown, well over its banks - so fishing was bound to be tough. We fished the Anchor River around the campsite, with Andy hooking two big fish but losing them. We headed for the upper river - but it was also blown out, unwadable and the color of chocolate milk. I fell in a hole while thrashing through the impenetrable alders and almost disappeared completely beneath the earth. Beaten by the land and water, we retreated downriver. Finally, at a spot where we had seen some old duffers fishing earlier in the day, we found a nice pod of active pink salmon.

 

anchor river alaska pink salmon

 

A pair of rough fishes, for sure, and a good start. Pink salmon don't get much respect in Alaska, but they are game fighters and ready biters in the right conditions. These fish were fresh, and fought well for their size. The banks were littered with their dead brethren. Afterward, we headed for the lower river, near the mouth, where there's a fine run just at the last bend in the woods. Below it, the river shoots out onto the grassy flats that lead down to the seashore. There we found a few Dolly Varden, very recently migrated in from the ocean to feast on pink salmon eggs. Dolly fishing is my favorite. We welcomed the game thrash and pull of these shiny fighters like an old friend.

 

anchor river dolly varden fall  anchor river dolly varden fall

 

But then Andy hooked into something big and dark-backed, a scaly torpedo that fought him like a demon, racing up and down the river and leaping over and over. After a hard battle, Andy's first ever native steelhead came to hand.

 

anchor river steelhead alaska

 

What a fish. For all the years we have pursued this fish as an introduced exotic in the Great Lakes, it was incredible to get one in its native land. It was so close to the salt, you could hear the surf. Afterward, we headed back to camp. The Dollies were delicious, cooked on the campfire with a couple of cans of beanie-weenies.

 

 

Rain moved in and stayed doggedly with us. We fished the Upper Anchor for a few days, through some very wet and cold weather. We took a few breaks from the river to fish off the Spit in Homer, but the bites were few and far between. I caught a couple of cool-looking saltwater sculpins and a strangely familiar flatfish. I believe the first sculpin is a small Great Sculpin (Myoxocephalus polyacanthocephalus) and the second one (with the prominent dorsal fin spot) is a Pacific Staghorn Sculpin (Leptocottus armatus). The flatfish, I believe, is a Pacific Halibut.

 

 

But we kept coming back to the Upper Anchor, to the spot we dubbed "Slabrock Hole" and the one we called "The Old Guy's Spot". We caught some Dolly Varden, but had to work for them.

 

anchor river dolly varden alaska

 

Andy fished over a huge coho for over an hour, to no avail. The fish just would not take any of the flies or beads Andy drifted by it. But in the fast-running chute at the head of Slabrock, I hooked into something big and mean. It muscled out into the current and then leaped midstream. I knew I was into a steelhead. After a fierce battle, it was in the net.

 

anchor river steelhead alaska native

 

I was elated. This was a real tank of a fish, thick as a brick and broad as a clown shoe. I cradled it in the water for a photo, as the law requires for this species. We had both gotten our native steelhead, one upriver and one by the salt. 

 

Fishing a little side-channel, I hooked a powerful fish that jumped four times, flashing red and orange and black. We had not seen any Dolly Varden in their beautiful fall spawning colors, yet, but that was about to change.

 

anchor river dolly varden alaska

anchor river dolly varden september alaska

 

It was just beautiful. One of our main goals was to catch and photograph a spawned-up Dolly varden, and this one was dressed to the nines. But the char were few and far between here, so we headed north to look for other waters. Cooper proved a bust, the Kenai was not our style. So we picked out a likely spot on the Russian River and hiked there. Unfortunately, some other fishermen had beaten us to the punch ...

 

 

Undeterred, we detoured around the hungry brown bears and waded into the river just downstream and around the bend from them. The river was full of salmon, both living ones and others in every state of death and decay. The cloying stench of rotting fish flesh hung over the river like a burial shroud.

 

 

At the tail of a swift run not far from the bears, I hooked something big. I knew it was a coho right away as it snapped its hooked jaws repeatedly, trying to throw the hook. After a gruelling fight, I muscled it into the shallows, where Andy pounced on it quickly, putting the bears to shame.

 

russian river coho silver salmon

 

It was my first native coho. This was an amazing fish. Just a slab of pure, angry muscle with a craggy face full of wicked teeth. I hooked another one later in the day, but it beat me in exciting fashion after being beached multiple times. Andy and I both touched the fish only to have it go berserk and escape each time.

 

 

Then we headed off into the unknown, found a new campsite, and rented a canoe. It was time to pursue our mad plan. When we finally threw the canoe down, we were standing on the banks of a seldom-visited lake in the middle of the trackless pinelands of the Swanson River drainage of Alaska. A narrow, weed-choked path led down to the greenish-stained waters. The road just sort of peters out up here, as if the road-builders thought they were onto something and then halfway through decided that it just wasn’t worth it and went home. Here are some deep, cold lakes – empty hollows created by huge chunks of ice that were left behind when the glaciers receded 13,000 years ago. No aircraft are allowed here, nor any off-road vehicles. Just canoes and dogsleds, boys, and in the winter you’ll be hand-cutting your ice holes so bring a file to keep your spud sharp. Cellular service is mercifully absent. It’s a chunk of Old Alaska, I suppose, left behind by progress and the world’s inexorable slide into rampant mechanization and development. A very unique fish has also been left behind out here; a fish that’s very hard to find south of the Arctic Circle. Their closest cousins are over on Kodiak Island or over on the far side of the Alaska Range. They are Arctic Char: Salvelinus alpinus, the northernmost salmonid among the world’s many and a fish generally reported from the sort of regions where polar bears roam. It’s almost as if a fragile piece of the high arctic somehow broke free from the coast of the Beaufort Sea and slipped down south while nobody was looking. A population of these fish has been surviving here for untold millennia. Here, in certain small, deep potholes, they thrive. At least, thirty feet down they do, way down in the cold dark waters that the rainbows find too chilly.

 

Unfortunately, this lake would not give up its prize easily. We fished for four hours on the calmer north side of this lake, with no strikes. What had started out as a breezy day was rapidly building into a hum-dinger of a windstorm. We let the wind push us back into the main basin to try our luck over the hundred-foot depths of the windswept main lake. Which brings us back to the start of our tale, with a solid hookup in about sixty feet of water.

 

Andy played the fish expertly, drag set loose to remove any possibility of a breakoff. Finally, it emerged from the depths. "It's a char!" I yelled. Then it glided toward the canoe and I swiftly got a net under it. Andy let out a primal whoop. Lifelister achieved!

 

kenai peninsula arctic char native

 

This fish was pretty amazing. A big, robust char of a completely new species. It was very clearly different from the Dolly Varden we had been catching, with its thin caudal peduncle, compact head, and deeply forked tail.

 

arctic char kenai peninsula native 

 

I love it when a plan comes together. Andy got a well-deserved high-five for this amazing accomplishment. Unfortunately, it didn't come together for me personally, as the wind storm had become a gale. We gamely tried another drift across the lake, but with furious waves crashing over the gunnels and our spoons racing far too quickly through the water, we gave up, exhausted, and threw ourselves down on the bank. 

 

 

After returning the canoe, we ate this magnificent fish for dinner. As we gorged on delicious arctic char meat, we pondered how the last time we were in Alaska, Andy had caught a round whitefish, while I had come up blank for that species. We had eaten that fish, too. We decided that we need a T-Shirt that says "Eat Your Lifers". Almost nobody would understand what it means.

 

 

The next morning was perfectly calm, of course. But the lake is unfishable from shore, and we had no canoe. With that, we said goodbye to Alaska. We did try for Alaska Blackfish in some of the Anchorage Lakes, with no catches aside from a sole stocker rainbow. We had no blackfish sightings at all. Strange. Another mystery to solve, I guess.

 

There's always next time.

 

 

Species List: 
Char, Arctic
Dolly Varden
Halibut, Pacific
Salmon, Coho
Salmon, Pink
Sculpin, Great
Sculpin, Pacific Staghorn
Trout, Rainbow

Comments

Goldenfishberg's picture

There is something special about the Alaskan wilderness, and I think you two found that special something out there within the pines and waters. An epic tale and some really sepcial lifers. EAT YOUR LIFERS is a fantastic methodology and certainly would be a fanstacic t-shirt. 

Susquehannock's picture

That would be a good shirt to wear at the roundup.

Dr Flathead's picture

Man,  really would dig a trip like that.  Dirtbag and all.  In fact, I prefer the dirtbag style half assed planned out trips, personally.  Too much planning and comfort can lead to dissapointment and or higher expectations anyways, right?  Great looking action and territory there in Alaska.  Nice report!

Mike B's picture

Gawd, Alaska is just too rad. You're report demonstrates that well Corey. Gotta get there again.

andy's picture

"Dirtbag Trip" needs to go in the glossary.  Folks should take pride in dirtbagging.  I would define it as an extended fishing trip in which you just go with the bare minimum, camping cheap or for free in a tent or vehicle and scraping by with supplies from local general stores, eating fish for dinner most nights.  Essential camping, fishing and clothing supplies are all that you need.  El Cheapo.  

 

That arctic char, cooked over coals from a nearby spruce tree that conveniently fell by our firepit, was a top wilderness meal.  You gotta admit this looks tasty...

 

Outdoors4life's picture

Great trip guys!

I love the little planning and going with the flow trips. I just had one myself and they are very rewarding.

Deftik's picture

Nice trip guys, must be nice to break away from technology!

RoughFish's picture

Extremely jealous...... everything about this whole write up is beautiful. Looks surreal..... beautiful spawning char.

Cast_and_Blast's picture

Congrats Guys!  That looks like a fun trip.  Thanks for the report.

Eli's picture

Looks like a great trip to me. Love the shore-caught halibut. Love your shirt idea, also. Mike and I definitely ate our lifer dollies when we were in that part of the world.

Hengelaar's picture

Beautiful country and story and fish. Love the salty side foray, too.

Man, I'd love to see that part of the world sometime.

And Bears!

Graceclaw's picture

Ha, that's funny. I ate my lifer burbot, and it was delicious. Very much worth almost slicing my hand open trying to skin the darn thing.

Man, that spawning Dolly is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing the fruits of your madcap trip with us!

Seth K.'s picture

Great report, lots of fish I hope to encounter someday. Especially those Dollys. An "Eat Your Lifers" shirt would get smiles from roughfishers, confused looks from most people, and shocked reactions from birdwatchers :)