A great first hand account of fishing for salmon and char in Alaska by forum member Tom Cluchey
I left West Virginia with my daughter Lynn, to fly to Alaska in late September 2009. We were traveling as guests of my son in law Brent on a trip he planned for ten years. My daughter and I were there to fish with him for salmon between his moose hunt and waiting period for Brown bear hunting. We flew to Anchorage and stayed overnight at the Millennium Hotel. The Millennium is a venerable old Hotel with a real Alaskan décor. It was full of Alaska’s most famous animals mounted in great glass cases. Everything is of Alaskan heritage. In the morning we were going to catch a flight out to King Salmon on Penn Air.
The nickname among the people who fly Penn Air is “When Air” because you never know when it will arrive or when it will take off or how many extra non scheduled stops it will make before you get where you are going. We boarded a twin engine modern jet to King Salmon. It was a great flight and on time. We were not so lucky the second flight. We boarded a single engine eight passenger Cessna of unknown age. Everything about it was totally preparing us for the wilds of Alaska. Our destination was Pilot Point on the Alaskan Peninsula. We made two non scheduled stops in the bush to drop off supplies to remote locations or to drop other adventurers off. The scenery of lakes and tundra was so beautiful. At one spot I thought I saw a moose. We would land on short runways made of packed pumice and sand.
The remote air fields did not have a tower or a terminal. It was the kind of plane you would expect to find in an Indiana Jones movie. Once we made it to Pilot Point Airport things got stranger for the two people who never flew anything but a commercial airline.
We dragged our luggage from the plane and headed across the air swept airfield parking area to a group of men waiting to board the plane we came in on. The pumice crunched under our feet. It was over cast and the wind was cold and damp. The men greeted us as we traded places and they told us our bush pilot, Rick, would be there soon and we could wait in his old pickup truck parked behind the only building at the airfield to get out of the wind. The old and dirty truck was great for sheltering us while we waited. We didn’t mind the smell in the truck because it sheltered us from the chilly wind.
About an hour later we could see in the horizon a small blue plane. It circled the field once and quickly dropped to the primitive airfield and taxied toward where we were huddled in the truck. The pilot jumped out and went to a 55 gallon drum with a hose on it to gas up his plane. He stepped on one of his balloon tires and then to a strut and shoved the gas nozzle in the fuel port, then began to fuel his plane. He introduced himself as Rick and asked if we were the ones going to Dog Salmon River? We said yes, so he grabbed our luggage and packed into the back of his 3 seat Piper Cub 185. He told us he had the only three seater plane in the area. He helped Lynn into the back seat and I into the plane. I sat in the co-pilot seat and Rick handed me a headset and said watch out for approaching aircraft and ask questions if you have any. The engine quickly restarted and we taxied to the runway to take off.
We rolled down the pumice and sand runway and jumped into the sky to fly the 200 miles to our camp. We flew into a valley of old volcanoes capped in white and followed the river upstream toward a distant glacier. The views from the low flying plane were breathtaking. I snapped as many pictures as I could of the river, small lakes, volcanic mountains, the scrub trees and tundra. The majestic beauty of Alaska and my first impressions will be with me forever. A long way out ahead of us, I thought I could see our destination quickly getting larger. It was a small group of colored shapes surrounded by a sea of green brush, framed on one side by a finger of river. I kept looking for a runway and saw none. Then I could see a strip of land that looked to be cleared of heavy brush and it led into the camp. This was kind of scary but for some reason I didn’t panic and trusted this 50 something part time bush pilot and full time salmon fisherman to bring us down safely. We landed on the cleared strip with a bounce and I said, “Whew “ to myself as I watched the scrub trees flash past each wing tip just a few feet on each side. Rick was confident and seemed to know what his and his planes limits very well. I was proudly surprised how well my daughter Lynn took the trip.
The outfitters, guides, another bush pilot, cook and Brent greeted us with introductions, hearty smiles and welcome to the Dog Salmon River Camp near Ugashik Bay. The camp has 5 rustic cabins, two large storage tents and two smelly outhouses. Brent flew in two weeks earlier to hunt moose. He had downed a large 68 inch rack trophy about 3 days before we got there. The camp is primitive and the utilities are powered by a hand water pump, propane bottles and an electric generator that only runs 14 hours a day. Everything in the in the camp is carried in by small plane or boat. The outfitter employs a pilot with his plane, a cook, as many as 9 guides for basically the whole hunting season. The cook, cooks over a propane stove and serves 3 meals a day to those who are in camp. Out in the bush you use rations hauled in by plane. The planes are the pack mules of the Alaskan interior. The usual plane is a two seat piper cub with very large balloon style tires that allow the pilot to land almost anywhere. The Grizzlies like to eat the balloon tires. Each tire cost 2000 dollars.
I was so excited to fish and with not much daylight time left, I got my gear and went to the river only 25 yards away. I tied on a purple egg sucking leach salmon fly and about six casts later I was fighting a 32 inch silver salmon. Then I hooked and landed several arctic char before dark. Dinner was the climax to a great day. Conversation at dinner was full of fish, grizzlies, and moose stories from the guides.
On day 3, I woke up at 4:00 am to relieve myself. I stepped out of the bunkhouse and I was shocked to see the sky was clear as I was looking at more stars than ever. I felt I could just reach out and touch them. Breakfast was served just after daybreak at 8:00 am every morning in the main lodge. The main lodge is a one room cabin that housed the kitchen, dining table, a bed for the outfitter, a bed for the cook and a bed for the bush pilot. The temperature and weather are a constant concern. I had all the recommended clothing, socks and boots, and rain gear, but when its 30 degrees, with a wind at 15 to 20 mph and raining, it’s hard to go out of the warm cabin. But, day 3 was a nice day with temps in the 40’s and a mild wind. All three of us headed for the River at about 10:00 am. I am a diehard fly fisherman, but Lynn and Brent used spin gear. We were soon catching beautiful salmon one after another. The char still confuse me, because I cannot tell the difference between an Arctic Char and a Dolly Varden Char. The two books of authority; an Alaskan DNR published fisherman license guide and a tourists fishing guide contradict each other. I really don’t believe anyone really knows which fish is which. I do know they are both beautiful with pink spots on a greenish hued skin.I caught 25 char and three silver salmon the first day. It was quite a bit easier to catch them with a spinner on a spinning rod. I loved watching my daughter Lynn, hook, fish, fight, and land these magnificent salmonoids.
The weather can change on a dime. It can be sun shining one minute, but then a wind and rain would blow into the valley from the direction of the glacier for a couple of hours and then stop and have the warm sun shining again. It’s not all about the fish or the weather, but just everything in Alaska. The scenery is the best you’ll ever see. The snow capped mountains blending into dark gray barren middle and then to a shrub green base all mounted on a gentle yellow mantle caused by changing leaf color as winter closes on the valley. Being in Alaska is being aware of all your senses. You feel your survival depends on using all your senses of smell, vision, and sound. You know that you must be aware of your surroundings and follow basic rules of life.
Dinner time is the social hour in the camp. The guides tell their tails of grizzly hunts that scare you and the long stalks for moose and sheep. The camp guides are eager to learn what is happening around the world from us, because when you’re that deep inside Alaska you are truly isolated from drama of the outside world. Phones don’t work, radios don’t work, only expensive satellite phone communication works. We had pizza and chicken wings for dinner. The outfitter really takes care of camp comforts. After dinner, Lynn and Brent and I climbed a rise behind the camp with our binoculars to try to catch a glimpse of bear or moose or wolves before dark. Back at the lodge the stories continue until about 10:00 pm when lights go out. The night was beautiful with the stars so close I felt I could touch the Big Dipper. If you pause long enough to enjoy the sky you will see a shooting star or two. Shooting stars seem to happen with regularity in Alaska.
Day 4, I awoke at 7:00 am and couldn’t stay in my sleeping bag any longer. The nights were too long for me. When lights go out at 10:00 pm it’s a long time to 8:00 am for activity and breakfast. I went into the main lodge and talked to the cook while he prepared for breakfast. The temperature was 28 degrees and I was cold. My bunkhouse had no heat except a propane portable heater. I did not run it long because I thought the fumes might put me to sleep forever. After breakfast with everyone, I went back to the River to fly fish. The fish were mostly char that ran from 16 to 24 inches in length.
The Silver Salmon were not as plentiful as the char because the huge spawning run was being held up by the low water conditions. Most of the Silvers could not get up the river and were being held up in Ugashik Bay. After Lynn and I left Alaska, Brent stayed to get his Brown Bear and told us a typhoon rain and wind came in and the river flooded the Valley. The River became red with Silver Salmon and the bears became bolder. They would ravage the camp including the plane’s balloon tires. The outfitter had to install an electric perimeter wire to keep the bears out at night. The fishing was great. This time we kept enough fish to eat for dinner. Wow, they are good to eat. All other fish we caught were returned to the river .
Day 5, we got up at about 7:45 am to a cold, wet, and breezy day. We sat in the lodge until 11:00 am. We struck out at 11:00 am up stream on the River to search for a larger concentration of salmon. I caught silver at the boat then marched 3 miles upstream over the rocks in hip boots. Hip boots are all that are necessary because the water in the river runs about 3 feet deep except in the pools. I am beginning to feel soreness in my lower back muscles and a weakness in my legs. We headed for an area called by the camp, Treadways Alley, because the brush forms a tunnel over the River so that a bear could easily surprise you. We did not enter the, Treadways Alley. I should mention here that we did not fish alone and Brent would carry an elephant gun at all times for protection from the ever dangerous Brown Bear. We caught a couple of Silver Salmon and about 50 Char. We got back to the lodge for dinner and an evening of more stories.
Day 6, we woke up to a temperature of 38 degrees windy and rain. Snow on the mountain peaks was increasing and you could see the blowing snow whirling on the mountains at 30 mph. I didn’t leave the lodge until 1:00 pm. Caught 10 char for dinner and quit for the day. Lynn and Brent and one of the guides, went to pick cranberries and blue berries from hills above the lodge.
The cook turned them into pies, so we had salmon and dessert, a blueberry pie and a cranberry pie. The food was great the whole trip food was great the whole trip
Day 7, we went down stream today fishing all the way. Plenty of char. Brent took Lynn to climb a hill that stood in the middle of the river valley. They wanted to view the valley from a high point. I tried to keep track of them with binoculars as they climbed the rugged terrain. After an hour they were out of my view about half way up. I fished and rested while I waited for their return. Finally I sat down in a blow- down to rest. Lynn and Brent, unbeknown to me were viewing me with their binoculars and taking pictures of a large moose that came out of the brush behind me and moved up stream as it skirted my position. It passed within a 100 feet of me and I didn’t see it until it was about 200 yards up stream. They were laughing out loud to each other as they recorded the happening. They never made it to the top of the hill, because the terrain is so rough. When they came back to my location they were still laughing that I didn’t see it, but the moose was watching me. Fittingly we had moose meat stew over rice for dinner. The moose meat came from Brent’s kill from two weeks earlier. It tasted great, but I have to admit that the stew was much better than the moose meat steak I ate a few days ago. The lights were turned off at 10:00 pm which is too early because when the lights are out you don’t have much choice but to sleep or drink or read under a lantern. It’s cold and damp much of the time and it was wearing on me. It won’t be daylight until 8:00 am was wearing on me. It won’t be daylight until 8am.
Day 8, fishing was good, I hooked several and landed 3 silvers and twenty char. The bigger silvers run about 36 inches and maybe 15 lbs. When you hook one on an 8 wt fly rod you are locked in for about 15 to 20 minutes of heavy duty action. If you try what I did and force a beaching you will break your rod. These salmon including the char are very strong and hardy fish. They are not nearly as sensitive as trout are too rough handling. The fight of the char is not as great. The char makes a couple of very good runs and then goes into a spin movement like a crocodile with a fat pig in its mouth. The char can put several wraps of line around him and give you a headache untangling it.
Again I have to tell how really tough these fish are. Nothing survives in Alaska if it’s not tough.
Day 9, and Lynn and I were ready to go home to West Virginia. We were to leave at noon to make a connecting flight at Pilot Point. The pilots Rick (Con Air), Gary Reynolds (camp bush pilot) and one other in to help with the bear hunts decided to go duck hunting on the coast. I had time to fish once more. I went for the silvers and hook one quickly and he got off. Then I caught a Dolly, I think, and released it. I went down stream a little and caught silver and another char. I went back up stream near the camp and hooked a big silver and after about 15 minutes of fighting it I got anxious and tried to horse it and broke my backup rod, a 7 wt. I went back to camp and got a fly rod from Brent. I started to fish again with a pink bunny and hooked big silver. Now it was time to leave, because the pilots were starting to return, so I grabbed the line to pull him in and the line broke and he slipped away into the deep glacial green pool.
Rick (Con Air) didn’t show up until 1:45 from the duck hunt, the time we were supposed to be at Pilot Point. Lynn and I loaded up, said our goodbye’s, hugged Brent Jackson, Lynn’s husband and climbed into the plane with the funny tires. We are off to Pilot Point, population 70. As we rolled down the make shift airfield the wing tips of the Piper 185 wing tips flashed by the scrub trees, 10 feet of clearance on each side. One more bounce and we are in the air just 50 feet before the end of the runway. We are headed out of the Dog Salmon River of Ugashik Bay. We did make a second connection out of Pilot Point and on to King Salmon and eventually Anchorage.
My adventure of a life time was over and I will be forever thankful for the opportunity to visit the wilds of Alaska. Was it fun, no, I looked at it more as a great adventure in an unforgiving land of beauty and danger. I loved being there with my daughter and her husband Brent. For me it was all about the people, the fish and a land of magnificent beauty and a land of magnificent beauty.