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Fly Fishing Alone in Alaska (Part 5)

April 23, 2011

Fly Fishing Alone In Alaska (Part 5)

I had fished for these same King Salmon for up to a week or so, and found that very large rainbow trout had moved in and held in position five yards or so, down stream from the giants of the river. The rainbows did not stay still, but rather, moved about the entire pool in search of spawning salmon, and sculpins, that were large compared to the sculpins found in the lower 48. These were also known as “bullheads”, due to the very large heads and gill plates in proportion to their bodies, which were six to seven inches in length. Some of the sculpins were smaller, a few larger, but, most were under 10 inch’s in length. The rainbows would chase after the sculpins and stir quite a ruckus around the very large spawning beds of the King Salmon. When this would take place, all hell would break out, with Salmon chasing out the rainbows, rainbows chasing after the sculpins, and the sculpins looking for shelter under the bellies of the Kings, it was very similar to a dog, cat, mouse scenario, you would find in a cartoon.


(Big Sculpin eating Bo , Igushik River 1985)

The rainbows were nice sized trout , some reaching sizes of eight pounds or so, with the average around four pounds, all in good shape, fat and healthy, with very prominent red stripes adorning both sides of the silvery trout. The backs of the rainbows were usually the same shade as the bottom of the river, to help then blend in from a birds view from above. The two birds that were attracted to the river for it’s temporary visitors, the salmon and char, were the Eagles and Osprey, which were found all through the river system.

The flies I was now using were not to hook the salmon, but rather the trout, and Charlie and Dolly Varden, who have been following the salmon since they entered  Bristol Bay. Charlie and Dolly are also know as Char, highly prized for their orange flesh and high fat content, these fish are common  part of  a shore lunch. Their size varies from drainage to drainage, I’ve actually caught some very large char in the state of Washington that were over ten pounds while Steelhead fishing. These on the Igushik were smaller, three to seven pounds for the most part; average I’d guess around three to four pounds.

Up to this point , I had not made it all the way up to Lake Amanka, which the river is born, but thought I ‘d better do it soon, because the river was dropping everyday, and I’d heard from a pilot friend it would be difficult at best conditions using a prop, instead, of a jet unit on my engine. After catching some nice rainbows using large sculpin patterns in the main pool that morning, I decided to try and make a run at getting to the Lake.

It was now Mid –July, and I had been fishing all alone since I’d started fishing six weeks earlier, I had not seen anybody the entire time. My only sightings of life were of course all the fish, birds, the Osprey, Eagles, ducks, an occasional falcon, ruff legged hawks, huge Owls, Herron’s , flickers, camp robbers, and many small finches. I would see the occasional bear walking along the river, and I did not have problems with any, with the exception of this day. I would see Moose on a daily basis, feeding in the willows and swampy areas, feeding like cattle, staring, while chewing their cuds.


(Boston Whaler on the Igushik River, with shotgun on the ready)

I had motored up stream further than I had previous, new area, new water, a day of exploration, and found that it was difficult traveling . The reason was that the river was braided up near the top, which made the river very shallow, and the only time I could stay on plane was when the river was in its entirety, or else, I would have to get out and walk the boat through the shallows. Jump back in, go as far as I could, then get out and drag it over the shallows again and again. It was a travel day for the most part, but I really enjoy exploring a new river or, a new section of a river, even though, the pace was slow, and dragging the boat was not something I wanted to do everyday, it was a lot of work. The river looked the same with the Fur, Spruce and Aspens lining the river bank, but the difference, was in the current. It was a faster current up near the top,  just below the Lake. Until I came upon a large flat run that was similar to the run I was spending so much time fishing for the Kings and trout. I did not notice at first, but there was a tower, man made, directly above the river. In the tower was a women, this struck me as being very odd, what was this, I thought? Now, to be fair, here I was, in black neopreams, with a strapped on my side, carrying a 12 gauge pump shotgun, dragging a boat up stream. Then I heard the women say, “That’s far enough”. I introduced myself, and then she knew who I was, “OK, she said, I’ll come down” her name was Beth. This gal was a fish counter, flown in to sit and count fish all day to make sure enough were getting through the nets at the mouth of the river to ensure enough salmon spawning to continue the runs. She told me she had seen me in Dillingham, and she was told that I was OK, and that in fact she would most likely run into me on the river. As Beth and I were speaking, a plane flew over and landed in the Lake, it was her “pick up”, to head back to town. It was pretty late when we said good bye, and I thought I’d better start heading back, I had a long way to go to reach the village. It must have been around 9:00 pm or around there when I started my journey back down stream; it was slow going due to my inability to see due to the glare on the surface of the water that looked like oil.

Beth and the pilot flew over, dipped a wing to say good night, and they headed back to Dillingham, while I had a good two more hours of travel before I would be back to my digs in the village. I was dragging my boat through one section of the river that was very shallow, when I heard a deep, loud, powerful grunt. I knew the sound immediately, it was a large grizzly, male, a loner, looking for a meal, or maybe I was in his fishing spot. I dropped the rope of my boat; I took the safety off the 12 gauge pump, filled with five shells with 500 grain slugs. I took a step forward toward the bushes where the grunt had come, making sure I had good footing in the river, the last thing I wanted to do is slip at a time like this. I was ready, at these moments, one needs the whole world to be focused on just these few seconds, and I was ready. The bushes were no further than 40 yards away, maybe closer, I could see him walking parallel with the river bank just a few yards into the alders and aspens, looking over to check me out, size me up, he was trying to decide what to do. I yelled over to him, “Hey Bear move on! Get out of here! I don’t want to kill you, get out! Go On!” He was pacing, back and forth, I had not moved the entire time, and I was holding my ground. His pacing had increased in speed, he was nervous, I was thinking he would most likely try a false charge, I was ready, if he kept coming I’d have to unload on him, I didn’t want to, but there was no question , I would kill him.  The big male stood up to get a better look over the alders, he was a good sized grizzly, 7-8 footer, tall but lean, pretty bear, very light colored , almost yellow in places. As he stood up, I moved toward him yelling, “Get out of here, get bear,  go on!” Just then he charged, he was fast, I had him beaded and ready to shoot him, the light colored bear was splashing through the shallows, the sun was at a side angle, making the light difficult at best, I knew I was going to have to wait until he was very close. He stopped around twenty yards from me in the river, I didn’t move the entire time, he turned and headed back into the alders He was breaking branches on tress as he quickly retreated into the forest. I heard him grunt a few times more, and then he was gone. I got in my boat, and decided to float down until I was in Familiar River, where I could then fly out on plane, I knew the middle section so well by now I could do it in the dark.


(Mark Daly pulling the Whaler thru the shallows, 1985, Igushik River Alaska)

On my trip home that evening I saw two other bears, both that ran when they heard me running the boat on plane. I thought how the appearance of the bears had now thrown yet another element into Fly Fishing alone in Alaska. I fished on many rivers all over Alaska, I never did have to kill any bears, and I had some who made false charges at me, but always stopped, and moved away. Most of the bears I saw, usually were curious to what I was doing , they would sit in the grass and watch me Fly Fish, but , I never did have to, not one time had to shoot a bear.

On the way home, I noticed I was getting very low on gas, this took place down in the marshy area of the river, and I stopped to see if I had remembered to bring the second tank. Luckily it was there buried under all the gear. I couldn’t hook up the second tank fast enough; the mosquitoes were terrible in the marsh at this time of night. Then, of course being alone, the question arose, what would be worse, being out of gas and stuck out in the Mosquitoes all night, or if that bear had decided to attack?  My answer was, neither, I wanted to go home, get a cold beer, eat some red salmon and rice, and sleep in my own bed!

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