Alaska Part III

Monello

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You didn't think I just stopped after 2 visits, did ya?

So 2006 comes to a close. In 2007 I didn't go to Alaska. I don't remember what I did so I guess it wasn't memorable. 1 event sticks out though. I bought a vehicle but not just any vehicle. I got a road trek. Which is a sort of tricked out van with a toilet, stove and bed. I thought it would come in handy on a lot of fishing trips. A place to catch a nap, maybe go to the bathroom that didn't require a squat in the woods.

But the van didn't get used much, so it was traded in. For a used, nearly new class A RV. So that is what is memorable about my 2007. I also did some research and planning. The plan was to wait until 2008 then drive the RV to Alaska. I could ask for a leave of absence from work for a few months. I had a copy of the Milepost that highlighted attractions along the way from Canada and into Alaska. We picked a few campground along the way. Figured out an itinerary. Then get behind the wheel and start driving. And boy did I ever drive.

The journey began in the sleepy hamlet of Solomons, Maryland. First stop was to Deep Creek Lake state park. Early May is a perfect time to fish the lake. The water is just starting to warm up and the fish are active. We spent 3 days fishing there. We had a mixed bag of walleye, pickerel and rock bass. A few walleye became dinner.

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Next fishing stop was Lake Clinton in Illinois. I got a 3 day NR license and set out to catch a state record fish. I did get my first freshwater drum out of that lake. The fishing out there wasn't too bad but we didn't hit it very hard. Both times about 2 1/2 - 3 hours were spent fishing each day.

I did see this roadside oddity on the way out west. A tree is growing out of the top of a court house building. No telling what you will see rolling down the road.

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More driving and after a few more days on the road we arrive in Fort Peck, Montana. The Missouri river is dammed up creating an enormous lake. There are a few basic campsites in this sparsely populated part of America. Once again I get a 3 day license. We fished the smaller waters around the campsite and caught pike, bass, panfish and walleye. There is a state fish hatchery there that has tours. The interpretive center tells the history of the town had the construction of the dam. I try bison for the first time in 1 of the local restaurants. I also purchased a local cake called kuchen but wasn't thrilled with it. Along the road we spot antelope and ringneck pheasant. The pheasant seem fond of the grass that grow along side the highway.

1 of the other campers was a guy and his family that were moving from Florida back to Alaska. I'm sure you've heard the saying "You can't take it with you", well I'm sure this guy never heard that phrase. I'm sure there is a kitchen sink in there somewhere.

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Now we are off to the border. The anticipation is growing. We cross over at Sweetgrass, Montana. Customs goes through our rig to search for any contraband items. We get a We are still in an area that is relatively flat but off in the distance to the northwest the mountains start coming into sight. The plan is to venture over to Banff NP then go up the Icefields parkway up to Jasper. Gasoline is now sold by the liter and we are having to make rough money conversions on the fly. But for the most part this part of Alberta doesn't feel much different that any US area.

As we travel northwest the scenery begins to change. We are starting to gain elevation. It's gotten a bit cooler. We are now in the area where Canada hosted the winter olympics. Remnants of that time are still visible. Our campsite is wonderful but a bit rustic. There are plenty of critters lazing around. Lots of elk in this area. Most sport ear tags. Since there is no hunting in this area, the animals feel relatively safe. I spot a wolf and manage to get a crappy photograph of it. The park is still trying to emerge from winter's grip. Snow covers the mountain peaks and many lakes are still iced over. You want to take pictures of everything. This area is incredibly gorgeous. The next morning I hear a ruckus outside the RV. Turns out it was an elk bugling. Growing up on the east coast I never heard that before. It was pretty awesome.

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2nd stop in the park is closer to Lake Louise. I thought the first Banff area was picturesque but LL had it beat. The lake was still frozen over hard. Lots of tourists in this area. Even a few daring bus drivers tackled the curvy climb up the mountain. I can see why people flock to this area. In a month or so the lake will open up to boating. The towns are very quaint and walkable. There is something for everyone, not just the nature lovers.

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Mileage wise I'm around halfway there give or take. The RV is performing well even though we struggle with some of the mountain climbs. Since we are running and gunning, at each stop we do just enough to set up camp but make it easy to break down when it's time to head out. We are enjoying Canada but we need to make miles if we are going to arrive in Alaska by the beginning of June.
 
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Monello

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Being destination oriented, there wasn't much time to linger in the Canadian Rockies. This area deserves to be better explored. But I had places to go. So with Jasper National Park disappearing in the rear view mirror, we trudge towards mile marker 0. The ALCAN highway doesn't actually begin until you arrive at the city of Dawson Creek, BC. Spanning roughly 1,390 miles or 2,235 KM the road is a recent engineering marvel. It was built in under a year in response the the attack on Pearl Harbor, HI.

From this point, until we arrive in Alaska, large towns will be few and far between. They are replaced by small towns and little villages. Some stops are nothing more than a few convenience businesses for travelers. Perhaps some place to get a night's sleep, refuel your vehicle and get a hot cooked meal. We scan the distant views for signs of wildlife. Solidly in the mountains, the panoramas don't disappoint. Often times the road follows a winding river or parallels the railroad tracks. Other than rocks, mountains, trees and the occasional other vehicle, there really isn't much to see. But at the same time it's stunning to take all of it in.

In the town of Grand Prairie, I see an enormous pile of logs destined to become some sort of finished wood product.

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Finally on the ALCAN. This part of the road is in good shape. Take a quick look around Dawson Creek then push forward. A stop for lunch and a leg stretch at Summit lake finds the lake still covered in ice. It's interesting how some bodies of water are ice free while others close by are still frozen fairly solid.

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The road is now all sorts of different types of material. Much of it is tar and chip. There are many frost heaves which are often marked with red flags on both sides of the road to give drivers a heads up of their presence. 35 to 40 MPH is the best speed for this type of road. We overnight in a provincial park campground on the banks of Lake Muncho with it's turquoise blue water. This color of water will become quite familiar to us for the next several months.

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The next stop has to be my favorite destination along this route. Laird River Hot Springs Provincial Park is a great place to soak travel weary muscles. The temperature of the water is around 108 degrees. There are cement benches in the water that you can sit on and enjoy a few lazy moments in blissful warmth. Wooden boardwalks take you right into the water. There is a both house close by. Well worth the few dollars it costs to get into the park.

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Departing Liard the next destination is Watson Lake, Yukon with it's famous signpost forest. The town of Danville, IL was the first sign erected there. Currently there are over 100,000 signs and the number increases every year. You may even find a sign for your home town.

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Whitehorse is the next large town along the route. For as far north as the city is located, it's quite large. It has a bunch of amenities. There is a sternwheel ship that you can tour.
This town also deserves to be explored further but we are burning daylight and itching to get to the border again.

Up in the distance the guard house for the US Canadian border becomes visible. It's a good feeling to finally cross over into Alaska. There is a sense of accomplishment on some level. There is still quite of bit of driving to do. It won't end until we reach the town of Fairbanks and finally get to stay in 1 place for a while. After a few weeks of being on the road and driving long stretches daily, the idea of just getting to spread out for a few days is quite inviting.

Goodbye loonies and kilometers, hello dollars and miles......
 
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It feels good to finally arrive in Alaska. First stop is the town of Tok. We resupply then head out on the route towards Fairbanks. I wanted to get up to Fairbanks to try my luck for some pike that I heard are found in that area. I could have gone left and went directly towards Anchorage. I was only in Fairbanks one other time while I was on travel. We just overnighted and I really didn't see much of the area.

The ride to Fairbanks is full of anticipation. Mountains are visible in the distance. Roads in this area are few and far between. Many of the turnoffs are to destinations for outdoor recreation opportunities. Alaskans sure have plenty of options when it comes to hunting & fishing. We make camp at Eielson Air Force Base. We are the first campers of the season. The campground is still getting the kinks out after a long winter.

A service member's wife, who is originally from Georgia, told us how brutal her first Alaskan winter experience was. She mentioned how she was astonished how the car tires would take a few miles of driving before the regained their round shape. It seems the tires 'freeze' on the bottom where they make contact with the ground. As you drive and your tire rotates the flat part of the wheel bumps as you roll along. Locally they refer to this as square tire. They also plug their engines into a block heater overnight.

I went to the tackle shop in Fairbanks and got directions to a spot where we had a good chance of catching some grayling. And off we go. The water is right where they said it should be. Just 2 other people are there. There are visible beaver dams. The shoreline is punctuated with a few openings that allow us to get close enough to cast. I'm using a small white grub on a spinning pole. The grub was the recommended lure of choice for this spot. It doesn't take long before I tie into my first fish.

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It's a nice beginning to what I hope is a summer of amazing fishing. I manage a few more. A beaver feels somewhat threatened by our presence and makes his displeasure known by a few solid tail raps on the water.

The following day has us launch the boat in 1 of the pit ponds on base. The signs warn of consuming any of the fish as they have tested positive for heavy metals in their flesh. I'm mostly a catch and release angler anyway. I manage to get a single pike while my partner outfishes me 5 to 1.

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Locally the town of North Pole is a stop to sightsee. There's a Santa's village complete with reindeer. I learned that reindeer are just domesticated caribou.

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A few more days in camp then we leave for our eventual destination of Anchorage. We stop in the town of Healy for the night. Healy is where the stampede trail starts. For those who saw the movie Into The Wild, Chris Mccandless took the stampede trail out into the Alaskan wilderness. He eventually perishes in the woods as he's unable to ford across the river that has swollen with snow melt water. The bus where he lived has become a sort of shrine for people that connect with Mccandless.

A quick stop in Anchorage has us topping off with all sorts of things that we think we will need for the next few months. You can find just about anything you need here. It will most likely cost more than what you are use to.

No fishing this stop. Just a gas and go. Next stop will be to Alaska's playground, the Kenai Peninsula.
 
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We arrive at our campsite in the little hamlet of Ninilchik, Alaska. Scenic View RV park. It certainly lives up to its name. It's on a bluff overlooking Cool Inlet. On clear days you can spot 5 volcanoes across the way. The hosts were very accomodating. Today the campground has a different owner.

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The plan is to use the campground as a base while we fish our way around the local area. Homer is a bit away but it also offers some shore saltwater angling opportunities. Prior to driving up I read about a guy that is able to catch halibut from the shore. He uses a surf pole to get his bait out as far as possible. I want to try my luck for halibut since the only other option is going on a party or charter boat.

It's the 8th of June. The weather is a bit chilly as we make our way down to the Homer spit. It's always better to overdress and then remove layers as necessary. Using shrimp for bait I catch a flounder. The flounder then becomes bait. I don't keep any but there are people catching them by the 5 gallon bucket full. It only takes a minute or so to hook up. It's actually too easy. I also get some Irish lords and a few pollock. The pollock are what they use to make fast food fish sandwiches. I filet 2 but they are full of nasty worms.

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Next I try my luck at the lagoon. Salmon are released as fry into the lagoon then head out to sea. When it's time for them to spawn they return to the lagoon. Since the lagoon is man made there is no freshwater discharge into it. On high tide the water level rises and fills the lagoon. The salmon go into the lagoon in search of their natal stream. When the tide falls the lagoon becomes more or less a giant stocked pond. Anglers use lures and egg sacks to catch the salmon. Many fish aren't actually caught so much as they are lined in the mouth with a hook. Snagging is illegal but many fishermen adopt a sort of slow sweeping motion when reeling in. I don't have success so we went and checked out a few more possible fishing spots.

1 thing about the salt water in Alaska is they have some incredible tide swings. This region is 2nd only to the Bay of Fundy in tide swing. It's important to know the time of the tides otherwise bad things can happen. We came by this boat that became stuck on a rock in the river mouth. If he had come in 15 minutes sooner he probably could have avoided this fate. Lesson learned. He will have to wait for the next tide to float him back out.

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Alaska is the land of a lot of eccentricity. Many folks who aren't comfortable in urban/suburban areas feel at home in a place where conformity isn't highly prized. Alaskans have an attitude of you do your thing and I'll do mine. They don't care what you do until what you do impacts them. So you see a lot of artsy type people and see things that make you shake your head Sort of like this person that has staked a claim to a bit of beachfront.

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Fishing isn't exactly red hot so far but I'm catching a few. Still plenty of summer to go. Gasoline is over $4 a gallon, so rolling down the road can get expensive. But I've come all this way so I can't let that influence me too much. A group of us from the campground are going to go out for a half day halibut charter. Every year they manage to catch several butts going 200 pounds plus. Maybe 1 of us will be that lucky angler.
 
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Some of us from the campground head out of Homer on a halibut party boat. We chose this boat for 2 reasons. The price and the duration. Many halibut trips are 3 hours ride out to the fishing spot, fish for 6 hours then a 3 hour return trip back. Our trip was only a 6 hour trip total. Plus the price was half when compared to the full day trip. Some people weren't comfortable going on the longer trip. If the seas get rough, half a day on the water can be agony. We didn't have a very rough day but it wasn't glass seas either. When targeting halibut in Alaska there is always the hope of landing the big one. Since the boat ride out wasn't that long we ended up in an area that is known as a chicken patch. Lots of smaller sized halibut were caught. Everyone got a limit of 2 fish but hardly anything nearing 20 pounds. So no bragging board pictures of the trip. Just 1 of me wrestling my 4 pound lead weight off the bottom to check on my bait.

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On the 11th of June I headed by myself to the Russian river. Even though the Russian river is famous for its sockeye salmon run, I wanted to try for some of the rainbow trout that live in the river. In the past I've hooked trout while salmon fishing but I never targeted trout in moving water except for 2 other times. Most of my trout fishing in the lower 48 is on lakes and rarely moving water. But I read where some anglers have banner days for trout on this river. In the end I only ended up hooking 1 fish. It was a bruiser and snapped my tippet before I had a chance to get the fish under control. I did encounter my first bear where I wasn't protected by a vehicle. I wanted to try and get a picture. I also didn't want to end up being 1 of those people that become famous for doing something incredibly risky. I got as close as I thought was prudent then took a few pictures of the bear. They didn't come out very good but at least you can see that it's a bear. A few days later fish and game will require that no anglers in this area put any backpacks on the banks or leave any stringers unattended. The bears became so brazen that they were stealing backpacks Yogi bear style.

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Back at the campground someone mentions that there are a lot of bald eagles on the beach at Deep Creek state recreation area. It sounds like a great idea so we drive over. The beach is full of eagles. Both mature and immature birds. They seem to be there mostly feeding on scraps of fish that was up on the beach. They are quite graceful fliers. I count about 75 eagles. In addition to being graceful the appear to be quite powerful. Here's the best picture I have of them.

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Deep creek is also where fishermen are able to launch their boats directly from the beach using a tractor service. Launching from there saves the additional drive down to Homer. Your trailer is chained to the tractor then the drive you past the surf and off you go. It's a bit pricey to launch this way. The current cost is $73 per launch.

I have a friend that comes up to join us for a few days. He likes to eat trout so we grab the boat and head over to Jerome lake to try our luck. It's a little cool that day so we dress for the weather. We use the wind to our advantage and let it push us along as we cast lures out from both sides of the boat. Most drifts we get 2-3 fish. When we get close the the far bank we motor back from where we started and try it again. Lee keeps a few on the stringer, a mix of rainbows and dolly varden. It's a fun time with not much down time between strikes. Even though this lake is right on the road system, it doesn't appear to get much pressure. Most people that fish here only fish from the bank.

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We do some sightseeing of the towns of Ninilchik and Kenai. There is quite a bit of Russian influence in the area. We also observe the locals dipnetting salmon. Since were aren't residents we can't dip net. When dip netting you take a long handled net and hold it in the current. Any salmon you net are your to keep up to a maximum of 25. Any netted salmon must have a part of their tail cut to indicate a netted fish and to distinguish it from a hooked fish.

The month of June is coming to a close. But there is a lot more summer still ahead. Some days I have so many choices to make on where to go fishing that it seems to cause analysis paralysis. I guess that's a good thing. I can go online and check the salmon sonar counts for the local rivers. Often when salmon fishing timing is paramount. You should have been here yesterday is a common refrain in the land of the midnight sun.
 

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I fish a few of the lakes that are listed on the fish and game website. Arc lake was a body of water that I passed by multiple times. I finally launch the boat in there and target the invasive pike with spinners. I only manage to get 2 fish. I read that the fish were illegally stocked then they killed off all the other species until just pike were left. The 2 I got weren't very big. A few years later fish and game poisoned the lake to kill all the pike, It has since been stocked with rainbows and grayling.

Most of the lakes I fished I had the water all to myself. Some had homes on them with docks. Others were surrounded by nature. A few places I researched didn't have any where to launch a boat unless you knew someone that owned land that butted up against the water. Fishing those places is a stark contrast to the combat fishing environment found on the rivers when the salmon are running.

Speaking of salmon, the 2nd run of red salmon continues. The reds are the best tasting salmon in my opinion. Nothing like a meal of fresh caught sockeye salmon filet. Reds smoke well. I'm especially fond of smoked sockeye bellies. They have a good bit of fat in them so it helps keep the flesh nice and moist.

Red salmon are caught by a method called lining or flossing. They don't actually eat in the freshwater. They cruise fairly close to the bank. You just toss out some line and let it drift down then repeat. Using the right amount of weight the current is able to move the hook, line & weight down stream. When the salmon are thick the line will eventually find its way into their mouth. When the fish move upstream the hook finds it's way into the side of their mouth. Some people use too much weight so the line doesn't flow easily. Not enough weight and your line will move too fast or be too high in the water column. In combat fishing situations many anglers will help out a novice.

On the Kenai river many of the banks are protected so once you get to the water you have to wade past the line of anglers to find a free spot. When you hook up you call out fish on. Most others will quickly reel in to avoid getting tangled with you. Since this is a meat fishery it's discouraged for you to try to take all day and play your fish. A few people lose their temper in this sort of setting. It's not for everyone. It helps to just go with the flow, pun intended.

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In this picture you can see how close everyone fishes. If you do it right, your drift should end just to the right of the angler down current from you. New anglers will walk in the small section of water between the anglers and the bank.

1 day I saw a short kid walking behind me to find a spot to fish. The cold river water was right about even with the opening in his waders. With the snow melt I guess the water never gets above 50 degrees. Later when we were getting ready to leave I see the same kid walking to go home. He's got a huge smile on his face as he's proudly holding a salmon. And he's soaking wet from the mid chest all the way down. His wader contained a few gallons of water. I'm not sure how he was able to keep fishing. I bet when he hooked that fish he forgot how cold he was.

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The spot that we chose to fish, someone put up a makeshift cleaning station. I certainly appreciated using it. You are encouraged to return the fish carcass to the river since the salmon fry use the nutrients for growing when they hatch. In spots with a lot of bears it prevents them from scavenging for an easy meal.

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A nice limit of reds
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Some days when I would catch a limit quickly, I'd do some catch and release. Reds are great fighters and you aren't always guaranteed you will land what you hook. They aren't easy to net and if you miss with the net expect them to rocket off to the next county.

Lastly here's a photo of dipnetters near the mouth of the Kenai river. It's quite an event. Entire families will fish to fill their freezers for the year. Tents are set up so you can catch a nap when the action is slow.

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Monello

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Sorry I never got around to finishing this up. Hopefully soon.

The problem is I have maxed out of attaching pictures, so it will be text only from here on out.
 

Monello

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Late July I had a couple of friends from back home fly up to spend some time visiting with us. We toured Ninilchik, Homer, Soldotna & Kenai. While the guys went halibut fishing, the ladies went on a boat ride to Seldovia. Our halibut trip out of Homer didn't yield anything. From my unscientific observation, it seems that larger butts are taken on the boats out of Seward when compared to Homer.

So we went back to the river for some more late run reds. We had decent luck. It's fun watching someone to hook into their first sockeye salmon. They are incredible fighters given their size. Then we said goodbye to our guests, getting back to hard core fishing.

The first week of August had us launching our little boat at the ramp at Eagle Rock. It's a short run out to the river where there is a decent current. The pinks are thick there.

Here's a short video of some of the rising pinks.

The shore anglers with waders occasionally will catch a pink. They are just short of the thick mass of fish. They catch a few of the fish that run on the outer limit of the current.

The bonus is that occasionally we will hook a silver while culling through all the pinks. I did keep a limit of pinks to smoke. I love smoked reds but I wanted to see how well the pinks did in the smoker. Here's a link to my forum post for my method of smoking salmon.

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