All posts by Andy Walgamott

Prime Time For Face Time At Sportsmen’s Shows

Lessons on picking Alaska guides from someone left for a week in the wild by ‘an unscrupulous pilot.’

QUESTIONS TO ASK, THINGS TO CONSIDER

By Tom Reale

Even if you’ve got friends or relatives living in Alaska, and even if they’re avid hunters and/or fisherpersons, nobody knows everything there is to know about all the guides, transporters, flight services, etc., in the state. So unless you’ve got an “in” with a local, you’re probably going to have to look around for info.

One of the better ways to do this is to go to a sportsman’s show. Lots of Alaska companies and individuals make a point of attending these shows to drum up business, and it’s a good way for you to have a face-to-face meet-up with someone instead of conducting your business by email or phone.

POTENTIAL CLIENTS SPEAK WITH REPRESENTATIVES OF A SOUTHEAST ALASKA LODGE. (O’LOUGHLIN TRADE SHOWS)

That said, we don’t want to destroy any illusions you might have about your fellow man, but not everyone in this business is destined for sainthood.

While out-and-out fraud is rare, there are people whose business and people skills leave something to be desired. As someone who was once left in the Wrangell Mountains for an extra week by an unscrupulous pilot, I’ve learned the hard way to check out operators ahead of time, and to pay attention to warning signs.

One of the most valuable tools you have at your disposal when interviewing prospective businesses is your gut. If the other person is at all evasive about giving direct and informative answers, seems defensive when you ask hard questions, or just gives off a bad vibe for you, walk away. Chances are that there’s someone else operating in the area you’re interested in who you can talk to. Ask around, do your homework, and trust your instincts.

START BY ASKING basic questions:

How long have you been in business?

What’s your background in this field?

Where do you live in the off-season – are you full-time Alaska resident or a seasonal operator?

Find out about all the costs associated with your trip. Can you save money by shipping gear to your location ahead of time to cut down on airline fees?

In the case of remote lodges, does the fee quoted include transportation to the location from the nearest airport or ferry terminal?

For guided hunting and fishing trips, are there fees for processing your fish and game?

What will it cost to ship meat and fish home?

If you’re looking at a multi-species trip, what are the peak seasons for the fish or game you’ll be after?

If you’re planning on something like a deer and ducks combo, or a cast-and-blast hunting and fishing trip, quite often the peak seasons for both species won’t coincide perfectly. You’ll have to decide which is more important to you, and take the chance of getting skunked on your secondary target.

Actually, you’re taking a chance of getting skunked no matter what you’re going after, but that goes without saying.

Ask about the normal weather conditions for the time you’re considering, and also about available daylight. Daylight hours become a real issue the farther north you go and the later in the season you’re looking at.

THEN THERE’S figuring out how many days you’ll actually be hunting or fishing during the trip, says Larry Carroll of Kodiak Adventures Lodge.

“A six-day, six-night trip is not six days of hunting,” he points out. “Most of the time by the time you get to the lodge/camp you will not be able to hunt the first day and sometimes not much on the last day. Ask!”

John Rodriguez of J&J Charters on Prince of Wales Island suggests that you find out the schedule for getting to and from your final destination and work backwards from there when making your ferry and airplane reservations. If you find out you have to spend an extra day’s food and lodging in a port city, it can add considerably to your costs.

FIND OUT HOW MANY people will be in camp when you’re there, and if you’ll be sharing accommodations with people not in your party. This isn’t always a bad thing, but you should know the arrangements before you get there.

Ask if there are other lodges or camps in the area, how close they are, and how many people they usually have in camp.

Ask about facilities for cleaning and butchering your stuff, and ask about freezer space.

Do they have shipping boxes on hand, or do you have to supply coolers or boxes.

Ask about references. It’s best if they’ll give you contact info for people to communicate with – a rave review by “Jim S. of Seattle” on a Web site is worthless.

There’s always the chance that they’ll just hook you up with a buddy who will give a good recommendation, but that’s where your gut instincts will work for you again.

AND FINALLY, ASK about deposits and cancellation and refund policies. Get that in writing before you turn over your hard-earned dough.

The recent economic downturn has hit many operators hard, and that can turn out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you might be able to bargain a bit when it gets down to the bottom line, and an outfit that’s running at less than full capacity might be willing to deal.

On the other hand, if a company has had to reduce staff and maintenance costs, it could mean that the stellar reviews you get from last year might not still be applicable.

If you perform due diligence on your trip, check as many info sources as possible, and trust your instincts, you’ll probably have a great trip.

Keep your expectations reasonable, your sense of humor in place, and have fun!

FACE TIME

You may be able to meet potential Alaska fishing lodge hosts and hunting camp guides during the upcoming sportsman’s show season around the Northwest. Here are this season’s dates:

JANUARY

Jan. 11-15: Portland Boat Show, Expo Center, Portland; otshows.com

Jan. 20-22: Great Rockies Sport Show, Metra Park, Billings; greatrockiesshow.com

Jan. 20-22: Tri-Cities Sportsmen Show, TRAC Center, Pasco; shuylerproductions.com

Jan. 25-29: Washington Sportsmen’s Show, Western Washington Fairgrounds, Puyallup; otshows.com

Jan. 27-29: Great Rockies Sport Show, Kalispell, Flathead County Fairgrounds; greatrockiesshow.com

Jan. 27-Feb. 5: Seattle Boat Show, CenturyLink Field Event Center/South Lake Union, Seattle; seattleboatshow.com

Jan. 28-Feb. 4: Spokane National Boat Show, Spokane County Fair & Expo Center, Spokane; spokaneboatshow.com

FEBRUARY

Feb. 3-5: Eugene Boat & Sportsmen’s Show, Lane County Fairgrounds, Eugene; exposureshows.com

Feb. 3-5: Great Rockies Sport Show, Montana ExpoPark, Great Falls; greatrockiesshow.com

Feb. 8-12: Pacific Northwest Sportsmen’s Show, Expo Center, Portland; otshows.com

Feb. 17-18: Seattle Sportsmen’s Convention fundraiser, Meydenbauer Center, Bellevue, Wash.; working4wildlife.com

Feb. 17-19: Douglas County Sportsmen’s & Outdoor Recreation Show, Douglas County Fairgrounds, Roseburg, Ore.; exposureshows.com

Feb. 17-19: Central Washington Sportsmen Show, SunDome, Yakima; shuylerproductions.com

Feb. 24-26: Great Rockies Sport Show, Bozeman, Gallatin County Fairgrounds; greatrockiesshow.com

Feb. 24-26: Jackson County Sportsmen’s & Outdoor Recreation Show, Jackson County Expo, Medford; exposureshows.com

MARCH

March 1-4: Idaho Sportsmen’s Show, Expo Idaho, Boise; idahosportsmanshow.com March 2-4: BC Boat & Sportsmen’s Show, and BC Hunting Show, TRADEX, Abbotsford, B.C.; squarefeetevents.ca

March 8-11: Central Oregon Sportsmen’s Show, Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center, Redmond; otshows.com

March 9-10: Northwest Fly Tyer and Fly Fishing Expo, Linn County Expo Center, Albany, Ore.; nwflytyerexpo.com

March 15-18: Big Horn Outdoor Adventure Show, Spokane County Fair & Expo Center, Spokane; wildlifecouncil.com/bighornsubsite/index.html

March 23-25: Inland Northwest Outdoor Show, Clearwater River Casino Events Center, Lewiston; lcvalleychamber.org

APRIL

April 28-29: South Olympic Peninsula Outdoor Recreation & Adven ture Expo, Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds, Elma, Wash.; ghcfairgrounds.com

Alaska Salmon 2011: Not Too Shabby

‘More than a few bright spots, very few total washouts.’
Fishery manager terms estimated return of 160 million a ‘top 20 percent’ year.

By Tom Reale

The 2011 salmon sportfishing season was the usual mixed bag of ups, downs, missed predictions, surprises for biologists, and just general chaos. However, there were more than a few bright spots in the season, and very few total washouts.

In Southeast, salmon fishing for kings and silvers was pretty much in line with projections, with pink salmon being the biggest shortfall. However, since pinks are rarely targeted by sportfishers, this was mostly a commercial fishing problem.

(IMAGE: TERRY WIEST, SALMONUNIVERSITY.COM)

In the Bristol Bay area, Chinook “returns were consistent with expectations, and there weren’t any emergency closures for kings out there, and the runs weren’t as bad as last year,” said Craig Schwanke, fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

The Nushagak sonar counter tallied nearly 60,000 kings for the year, peaking around the third week of June, so compared to other years, a middle-of-the-road return.

Red salmon numbers for the area were better. According to Schwanke, all the escapement goals for sockeyes in the Bristol Bay region were met, although some commercial openings had to be curtailed in order for that to happen.

Silvers in the region were not noteworthy for being either high or low for the year, chums aren’t managed in Bristol Bay, and pink salmon are an even-year occurrence, so there weren’t any humpies to speak of out there.

KINGS WERE PRESENT in catchable though low numbers in the famed Kenai River; ADFG’s Web site says,

“The season finished with very low fishing success rates.”

The 2009, ’10 and ’11 seasons were quite similar in numbers of kings present in the river, and the surveys show a pretty steady decline in return numbers since 2003 when over 55,000 fish were estimated to have passed by the sonar counters.

This is known as the most popular sportfishing venue in Alaska, so when things are bad on the Kenai, it tends to have a ripple effect on businesses on the Kenai Peninsula and throughout Southcentral.

In Upper Cook Inlet, the Deshka River aims for a Chinook escapement between 13,000 and 28,000 fish, and the counters came up with about 19,000, right in the middle of what they aim for, according to Sam Ivey of the Palmer Fish & Game office. The streams on the east side of the Parks Highway in the Mat-Su Valley are a traditional hotbed of activity for Valley and Anchorage anglers, but this year numbers were down, and the Board of Fish decided to try and reduce the catch numbers by cutting off one weekend of fishing and to prohibit overnight fishing. Even with these restrictions, there were still a number of escapement goals that weren’t met in the Talkeetna drainage.

As for why king numbers are lower is anybody’s guess, but the fact that it’s consistent over such an enormous area and length of time points to something going on at sea – climate change, commercial fishing issues, hatchery fish outcompeting natural runs, baitfish problems, long-term ebbs and rises in salmon populations.

Silvers in Upper Cook Inlet provided fair to good fishing, but not anywhere that consistently produced hot fishing. According to Ivey, the reduced numbers of coho salmon in the inlet were an area-wide phenomenon, which probably points to marine survival issues. Whether that’s a function of water conditions, intercept catches by the commercial fleet or any one of a number of other factors, nobody knows, but quick turn-arounds are possible.

“Coho rebound numbers can be spectacular – sometimes it only takes a few coho to make a lot of coho,” Ivey said, so there’s always hope. Stay tuned.

One saving grace for the year was a great chum salmon return. While most people don’t target chums, they can be a great way to enjoy some fishing action while pursuing silvers – catch a few nice chums, release them if you don’t care for them as table fare, and hone your reflexes while you wait for a silver to happen by.

OVERALL THE STATE SAW a return of roughly 160 million salmon. Geron Bruce, deputy director of ADFG’s commercial fisheries division, was quoted in the Anchorage Daily News as saying, “Still, it will rank in the top 20 percent of Alaska’s salmon harvests since statehood. And there’s been pretty good distribution all around the fishing regions. Not like last year when it was really concentrated in Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound, and other areas really had subpar seasons.”

The other nice surprise was the red salmon run in the Kenai River system. The sonar counter near the river mouth counted over 1.6 million fish by the time it was shut down, the sport limit was doubled to six fish per day, and personal use dipnetters had a banner year in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. While the runs in the Russian River never quite lived up to the standard set in the Kenai, overall the numbers in the whole system were quite good.

If you look at the big picture for the year, there were more than a few bright spots, and, as far as sportfishers were concerned, no real disasters to speak of.

The worst you can say about many spots were that the salmon fishing was “average,” but average for Alaska is pretty spectacular for anywhere else.

AS FOR WHAT TO EXPECT for the future, the department will gather all the data from the fish counts and catch numbers over the winter, and try to come up with a good guess as to what to expect for 2012.

If you’re thinking of making the trip next year, monitor the ADFG’s Web site for the latest info, brush up on your technique, and no matter what the projections are, come on up anyway – you’ll be fishing in Alaska! How bad can it be? ASJ

Great 70th Birthday Trip To The Kenai, Seward!

Robin Hendrickson of Chehalis, Wash., surprised his dad, Jerry, this past summer with a special 70th birthday present, a fishing trip of a lifetime to Alaska.

Says Robin’s wife, Amy, who emailed these images, “They rented a motor home in Anchorage and spent two days fishing with owner/guide Ed O’Conner of Advantage Angling on the Kenai where Jerry caught this 65-pound trophy king! Robin also caught a 38-pound king.

“They then traveled to Seward where they spent two days with owner/guide Jim Lee of Swelltime Charters fishing for halibut, lingcod and silvers. Robin came away with this 138-pound halibut! All and all, they came home with seven 50-pound boxes of fish!”

Experienced a great Alaskan sporting journey? Journalize it and send it us at awalgamott@media-inc.com – you just may see it here or elsewhere in the magazine!

Flight Of The Fledglings

Two hunters fly their plane up from Spokane to hunt caribou in Southwest Alaska.

Dodging just about every bullet that fall conditions can throw at them, the men experience a hunt to remember.

By Jim Johnson

Editor’s note: The author originally wrote this just after his trip, then, 32 years afterward, added details he and his hunting partner agreed not to tell their wives.

Vern Ziegler invites me to join him on a hunting trip to Alaska. It’s early October 1977 and he has just purchased a high-performance bush plane called an M5 Lunar Maule Rocket. Vern is a relatively new pilot and I am sure he wants the ultimate challenge – performing as a bush pilot in Alaska.

I jump at the chance, although I have some hang-ups, which I keep to myself. I’m prone to motion sickness and have a fear of heights. But I’m determined not to let this keep me from joining my good friend on his bold adventure. Vern wants a trophy bull caribou for his lake cabin and I want a bull moose rack for my recreation room.

A HARROWING FLIGHT NORTH

On the morning of our departure, I walk into Vern’s Spokane lumber company and everyone acts as though they’ll never see us again. John Estey, Vern’s bookkeeper, shakes his head in disbelief.

Soon we crank up his single-engine plane and head north towards Anchorage. I try to relax as the little craft reaches cruising altitude, but just outside of Fort St. John, B.C., we encounter a bad storm and begin to ice up. It’s a terrifying situation. We find ourselves flying in a solid gray freezing mist with zero visibility. I can’t help but think about the possibility of colliding with another aircraft in the cloud bank.
Vern radios Fort St. John and tells them we are icing up and asks for a radar fix. The reply is, “Sorry, sir, we don’t have radar, you are on your own; good luck.”

(JIM JOHNSON)

Vern glances at me with a look of disbelief as this has never happened to him before.

It just so happens that an employee at my Spokane wholesale shop is taking flying lessons. I borrowed his textbook and read it from cover to cover as Vern has some health problems and if anything were to happen to him, I want some knowledge on how to fly this thing. We are in a most serious situation, for sure – the ice buildup will soon render the plane too heavy to fly. What we need to do is lose altitude and find some warmer air currents to shed the ice, but we don’t want to crash into a mountain in the process.

Vern asks me to take over the controls and sternly instructs me to use the instruments to keep the wings level.

“Trust the gauge, not your instincts,” he firmly commands. Now we are encased to the point we can’t even see out. I’m at the controls leaning hard to one side because my senses are telling me we are in a steep bank, but I hold fast to the instruments and keep it from going vertical.

Vern is scanning a map looking for any high peaks in the area. I say a little prayer, “Please, God, don’t let us kill ourselves the very first day out.”

True, we won’t be around to face the embarrassment, but still don’t want to confirm to the others our stupidity.

(JIM JOHNSON)

We have no choice but to lose altitude. I rejoice as we break out of the clouds and see the ground. The ice dissipates almost immediately – bullet No. 1 dodged.

Moments later we pass over two bull moose, either of which would look just dandy on my recreation room wall.

But this is still Canada, and with dusk we arrive at Watson Lake, just over the Yukon Territory border from British Columbia.

THROUGH THE STORM

The next morning finds me at the controls flying while Vern sleeps. He gave me strict orders not to try and land the plane while he is sleeping, a stunt I tried on another occasion. Not a good idea, for certain, but that’s another story.

By now I am keenly aware of the sound of the plane’s engine. I can’t keep myself from listening for the slightest irregularity. We are putting a lot of trust in this small plane and its single man-made motor.

Then it is my turn to doze and everything is going along fine until I hear the engine cough and quit. I sit up, eyes bulging, terrified, but Vern just grins at me as he switches tanks. She starts running again.

“You scared the hell out of me,” I shout, “don’t do that!”

He replies, “Sorry.”

That afternoon reveals breathtaking scenery but also some severe turbulence. We can see a cloud formation being whipped across a high mountain plateau and we are tossed, jostled and bounced around big time. It gets so bad the door on Vern’s side pops open, and when he can’t get it closed, I reach over his shoulder and try to hold it shut.

Then the door on my side pops open! My arms feel like they are being jerked out of the sockets as I struggle to hold onto the flopping doors – they’re trying to depart from their hinges.

Then we hit an updraft so intense that Vern virtually turns off the power and he informs me we are flying much faster than the design speed of the aircraft.

“Hold on!” he shouts. “When we top out, hope the wings don’t rip off!”

Then we come to an abrupt stop – ca-wham! We smash our heads on the ceiling, despite having our seatbelts fastened. The good news is, we still have wings and our little plane holds together.

Shortly after we land in Burwash, Yukon, a gravel strip in the middle of nowhere. But they do have gas, which is hand pumped out of 55-gallon drums. Having dodged another bulllet, we regain our composure and head on.

Later that afternoon a snow storm forces us down. We land in the backyard of a little service station, motel and restaurant combination called Tahneta. Tahneta is just a wide spot on the Alaska highway about 100 miles short of Anchorage. We spend the night here.

(JIM JOHNSON)

The next morning we find our plane completely covered with ice and snow. Using windshield scrapers, it takes an hour to get it so it will fly. To navigate to Anchorage, the service station owner suggests we fly down the highway to the second canyon to our left. There we will be able to fly down the canyon under the fog.

“This will take you directly into Anchorage,” he says, and he’s right. A 45-minute flight finds us talking with our friends, Ted and Monne Forsi, formerly from Spokane.

INTO CARIBOU COUNTRY

Ted decides to join us on our hunt, and so the next day we are off with Ted in his little red Super Cub followed by Vern and me in the Maule. We fly west out of Anchorage through the famous Merrill Pass and its spectacular scenery – stone walls close enough you feel you can reach out and touch them. There are blue and turquoise ice glaciers, chaparral with the magical profusion of fall colors and rugged majestic snow-capped peaks, but the wreckage of planes lying quiet on the rocks below reminds us of the perils of mountain flying.

I have been frantically taking pictures so as to preserve the experience, but upon completing a 36-exposure roll, wouldn’t you know, I find the camera to be malfunctioning. Probably from all the bashing it took from the storms. It’s a problem I’m sure I’ll fight for the rest of the trip.

We continue to fly west and see several moose including a splendid bull with an antler spread that would go well over 60 inches. Nice, but unfortunately no place to land.

We point the plane south towards the Alaskan Peninsula where we have hunted moose before. The immensity of this unpeopled, snow-clad, windswept land has me spellbound. Late afternoon finds us flying over the flat marshy wetlands of the peninsula. We begin to spot herds of caribou ranging from five to 50 per herd, and including some huge bulls.

It is getting dark when we find a sand dune that appears to be large enough to land on. We buzz the area first, then Ted sets the Cub in. Vern follows and he’s just made his first honest-to-goodness Alaskan bush pilot landing. It is a thrilling and satisfying experience for both of us!

There’s a large bull moose feeding across from us as we set up camp for the night, but Alaskan law states you can’t fly and hunt on the same day, and of course the next day he is gone.

HUNTING FOR BULLS

Before leaving camp, Ted has the presence of mind to erect a pole with a red flag on a nearby knoll. We will be able to spot it from a long distance. We then trek off through the spongy wet tundra in hopes the caribou are still in the area. The marsh land is thick with swans, ducks and geese. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of all are the ptarmigan. They’re turning white for the ensuing winter. I walk into one flock of close to 100 huddled in a sheltered brush pocket.

They seem to cry, “It’s a bear, it’s a bear. Where? Where? Look out! Look out!!”

It’s a foreign but delightful sound to my ears – I would give anything for a tape recorder.

Meanwhile, Ted spots a couple of caribou and then a large herd. Apparently we are still in the midst of the migration, good news We make a stalk on a small group only to find there is nothing worth taking. We encounter another bunch of about 40 which are 700 yards to our right. We glass them and observe a good bull in the bunch. The problem is, they have also spotted us. We try to get within good shooting range but they keep drifting away. It’s almost like antelope hunting. We reluctantly change direction. It is hard to leave that massive male to go after another herd not knowing what it might contain.

We start around one of the hundreds of small lakes that surround us, then decide to sit for a moment and have a quick snack to restore strength. The bulgy tundra is like hiking in a plowed field and we’re expending much energy. As we sit eating, a large band of caribou appear on the other side of the lake just out of shooting range. They also have spotted us. Antlers glistening, they start to run in that beautiful, high-stepping, noble manner characteristic of caribou. Hoping to head them off, we race for a knoll trying to gain the necessary 200 to 300 yards to get within shooting range. There are several good bulls in the group. But they are better equipped and easily out-do us. We catch our breath and watch as they join the herd with the big bull we had given up on.

We’re frustrated, but it is mid-day and with all these caribou together the temptation is just too much. We start back after them, getting to within about 450 yards, but we can get no closer.

Vern and I have an agreement. On a previous hunt I had shot a large caribou, so he is to have his pick of the caribou and I the moose. While Vern gets a rest for his .300 Weatherby, I watch through field glasses as a stately bull racks his horns in the willow brush. In the meantime, Ted has picked out the bull of his choice.

Vern squeezes off a couple of shots and puts his bull down. I switch and watch Ted harvest his bull.

Then Vern yells, “Jimmy John, give me some help! He’s back on his feet and getting away!” I drop my binoculars and grab my rifle. By now they’re on the run.

“Which one?” I holler as Vern shoots again.

“Fourth from the rear!” he replies.

I pull up one … two … three … and four – sure enough, a bull! I pull out in front and a body width above, then turn her loose. I can hear the splat of the bullet as it hits meat; and watch through the scope as the bull stumbles and goes down facing me. Wow, more than a little proud, what a spectacular shot I just made.

Vern hollers, “Don’t stop shooting, he’s going to get away!”

I realize I’ve made a big mistake. The bull I shot isn’t the same impressive bull Vern has been working on. But before I can regroup, Vern puts his animal away for keeps and we have three caribou on the ground.

What happened, unbeknownst to me, was they split into two groups and I picked the wrong bunch. With it went my chance to shoot a moose – I will be forced to use my moose tag on the caribou. That is legal, but certainly not what I traveled all the way to Alaska to accomplish, disappointing for sure.

(JIM JOHNSON)

WHICH WAY WAS CAMP?

Now wouldn’t you know, it never fails, a storm is brewing as we hurriedly bone and sack the meat. It’s “nerves” time again as we are all aware of the problems we could encounter finding our camp if the gale cuts off our visibility in that flat tract of desolate, monotonous, wet land. The hunt has taken us 2 to 3 miles from our planes and campsite – and remember, there was no GPS in those days.

We struggle with our heavy loads as we start back, but by now the wind is howling so severely we are getting concerned it will upset and wreck our airplanes. We stumble along for about an hour, resting frequently. A migration of 40 to 50 caribou pass close in front of us, including several bulls bigger than the ones Ted and I are carrying.

We’re also watching out for our camp flag, which should be close enough to see by now, but is nowhere in sight. What’s going on, for heaven’s sake? Are we lost? The thought of spending a wet night out here without fire or shelter in this raging storm is frightening, Nothing in this country will burn, and of course, there is a disagreement as to the direction of camp. Vern and I think one way and Ted another. That apprehensive, sick, lost feeling sets deep into the pit of my stomach.

We stagger on, Ted protesting the direction. Vern is out in front and trips and goes face down in about a foot of icy, cold, tundra water. It fills his hip boots and saturates his clothes. The 100-pound load pins him as he labors to regain his feet. Ted and I rush to help him up. Now exposure could come into play. We push on hoping to find camp before dark. Then I think I spot something through my binoculars. Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Have I seen a spot of red?

I stop Vern and Ted. “I may have gotten a glimpse of the plane,” I excitedly state.

We all sit down and stare through our field glasses, seeing nothing but gray. Then, when a gust of wind clears things long enough for us to see it, we spot the red tip of our airplane’s wing sticking out from behind a sand dune knoll a half a mile off to our left. It turns out that the wind has blown down our flag.

With food and shelter within our grasp, we can relax. We arrive to find our planes upright and undamaged by the turbulence, good news as we have dodged another bullet.

Even so, while Vern and I have a lifetime of hunting and packing out meat behind us, with our 40th birthdays behind us, we admit to each other that our days of strenuous big game hunting like this are numbered.

The next morning Vern and Ted fly meat and antlers into King Salmon for shipment back to Anchorage while I tear down camp and place it conspicuously to attract their attention on the return flight. I know there is little danger of them not being able to find me, but with them four long hours overdue, it is a welcome sight when two little planes appear out of the storm clouds – from the opposite direction of what I expected. They eventually admit that they lost me out here in this vast, desolate, tundra. Nice going, guys!

(JIM JOHNSON)

DODGING MORE BULLETS

The hunting is now over and it is time to fly back to Anchorage. A storm is worsening and as we taxi to the end of the sand dune, the added weight of me and camp sinks the tires into the sand and suddenly the strip looks pitifully short. Vern guns the engine waiting for a gust of wind to give us some added lift. It’s nerves time again!

“How much of the dune did I use when I flew the meat out?” he asks. “All of it,” I reply. “That’s what I was afraid of,” he says.

When we feel a gust of wind, Vern pours the juice to her. We come to the end of the gravel and, oh my gosh, we’re not airborne! No turning back now, though. Vern keeps the pedal to the metal, we’re at full throttle, son-of-a-b, we are skipping and splashing through the wet tundra! I have my feet clear up on the dash trying to help her get off the ground. I just know we’re going to flip and crash, but finally we make another bounce and take off.

“Thought we bought the farm that time,” Vern says. “So did I,” I reply.

Another bullet dodged.

Bright and early the next morning in Anchorage we say goodbye to Ted and Monne and head back for Spokane. The few short days we have been gone have changed the landscape we just flew over from fiery autumn colors to a desolate winter vista – colorless, black, gray, white, harsh, rugged, and lonely. It is awesome, but frightening and ghostlike.

Entrusting our lives to that single engine, I again find myself intently listening to her every breath. I am impressed with Vern and his absolute faith in it. The functions and use of the instrument panel are all very familiar now. Visible is the Alaska highway winding through the ice and snow below, a friendly and welcome sight.

But there is a nasty snowstorm brewing up. Vern radios ahead and finds some military helicopters have gotten through, so we push on into the teeth of the storm, all the time losing visibility. As it worsens, we drop down closer and closer to the highway. No turning back, we are committed. It gets so bad we are flying right down above the icy black top. Scary time again! We are on the edge of our seats!

“Don’t lose sight of the highway,” Vern orders, “or we are dead!”

At that exact moment it occurs to both of us: What if a pilot is doing the same thing, except coming from the other direction? As if driving a car, Vern moves over to our side of the road. He has no more than made the maneuver when another plane appears out of the gray blizzard clouds and flashes by on our left.

It’s gone in the blink of an eye. It happens so fast that it is hard to believe. My stomach does flip flops. We narrowly missed a head-on collision. With both planes traveling at 100-plus miles per hour, we would have disintegrated.

After another agonizing 100 miles of snowstorm and seat-of-your-pants flying, we break out of the weather, relieved to have dodged two more bullets!

As darkness approaches, Vern decides to press on for Spokane. It’s another new experience for me, night flying in a single engine aircraft, over a vast uninhabited wilderness with no moon to light our way – it’s as black as inside your hat. Now again, we’re putting all our trust in that little engine. At least in the daylight, with a good glide pattern, we would have half a chance to put her down without killing ourselves. But if she quits at night we’re dead meat.

It’s not my favorite thing to do, so I am more than happy when after hours of pitch black flying, the lights of civilization start to appear.

SAFE AND SOUND    

We are now close to home – lights from Wilbur, Davenport  and Reardon burn bright through the clear night air, and then we spot the blinking green light that guides us into Spokane’s Geiger Field. We land and I get out and kiss the ground.

Then again, after all we have been through, I feel bullet-proof, like a cat with nine lives.

A month later, as I put on a program for the Spokane County Sportsman Association on our trip, one old pilot gentleman in the audience pipes up and sums it up by saying, “You fledglings had quite a time!”

Epic Days On The Nush

I don’t know what shocked me more: the fact that the Nushagak served up a big, fat, ditch-dead-smelly skunk to a trio of Pugetropolis anglers and then over 100 Chinook.

Then again, when you read those events occurred on the famed Alaska salmon fishing river within three days of each other, your brow and jaw do a dance that contorts your face and you find yourself really glad there’s not a Web cam trained on you.

In this case, it was a tale of epic and uncharacteristic fishing days by Terry Wiest of SteelheadUniversity.com and Alaska Sporting Journal photographic contributor that had my face going two ways at once.

Wiest was up on the Nush at Jake’s Salmon Camp for five days in June 2011, came back over the weekend, sent me some stunning fish-fighting-under-the-midnight-sun images and posted a few others on his Facebook page.

Looked like a cool trip, I thought — hardcore angler and his buddies got out in the bush, caught some fish, had a good time, right on.

And then early that afternoon Terry emailed me a fuller accounting of the escapade, and that’s when my face started doing funny things.

My first reaction was, Preposterous!

But then I did a wee bit of fact-checking and thought, well … there weren’t that many fish around, but then there was a huuuuuge spike on the sonar just upstream of where he was fishing.

And Terry insisted it was true (editor’s note, July 1, 2011: Bob Toman’s camp was reporting good fishing as well) and since he’s never steered me wrong, I’m posting an edited version of his tale here (look for the full one on SteelieU, and see his FB page for photos and a video).

Nushagak River – June 19 – 23, 2011

Jake’s Nushagak Camp – Steelhead University

By Terry Wiest

Anticipation was high this year as we ventured on our third annual Steelhead University/Jake’s Nushagak Camp trip. The kings were starting to trickle in, and Alaska Fish and Game announced no commercial opener for kings or sockeye until after the escapement had been reached. This was fantastic after last year’s commercial slaughter in which they caught over 40,000 kings as bycatch during the sockeye harvest.

HEADING INTO THE BUSH. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
JAKE’S SALMON CAMP, FROM THE PLANE. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)

We had a dozen fishermen in our group this year and would be joined by another 18, bringing the camp to full capacity. I would be fishing with my friends Terry Fors and Jeff Norwood, which would give us a solid hardcore lineup looking to put our knowledge to test against what has been known as Alaska’s great king salmon run.

Day 1: Yes Virginia, even in Alaska you can find a skunk!

Day one was unbelievable – and I mean I still can’t believe it. A big SKUNK!!!

What the heck was this? I have many adjectives to describe this and I’m sure many were thinking worse, but zilch on the Nushagak?

This was not due to lack of trying or anything to do with our guide (which happened to be No. 1 guide and camp manager Swanny). Something not to be proud to be a part of, we handed Swanny his first EVER skunking on the Nush.

We decided to check out the sonar station at Portage Creek which is just a couple miles upriver from Jake’s. Now this explains it – 66 fish came through in the last 24 hours. We thought, oh my god, what are we in for?

Last year was a down year due to the commercial overfishing, but there were at least several hundred coming though each day.

Day 2: Could it be a repeat?

Maybe day two would be better, we hoped. It was — but barely. Even with another top guide, Brian, we avoided another skunk with two fish.

Not much to say here except things have to get better. They said there’s fish in Bristol Bay, but they’re not moving upriver for some reason. Today’s sonar count was a pitiful 122 fish. Again, this is very uncharacteristic for this time of the run and things aren’t feeling very good.

Day 3: Captain Fred puts us on a few fish

I finally get to fish with the old man of the river, Captain Fred. Many call him grumpy or simply Old Man, I call him my friend.

CAPTAIN, NEE, “PROFESSOR” FRED, THE GUIDE. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)

We had some great stories to swap back and forth which made the time between fish seem to fly by, but old Fred’s a smart cookie and wasn’t about to let us have a bad day. Finally a respectable day on the Nush, but far from fantastic. The fish seemed very small compared to the last few years, but hey, we were getting fish. Our daily total for the three of us was 26 fish to the boat. Not bad considering only 981 passed through the sonar station.

Day 4: Captain Fred becomes Professor Fred: A legend is made

We were supposed to fish with Eli, the owner of Jake’s, but due to a medication reaction, Eli was in no shape to take us out. We would have gladly taken the boat out ourselves, but Swanny asked if we minded fishing with Fred again. Are you kidding? Fred’s great – let’s get this show on the road.

STANDARD DRILL IS TO TROLL A SIZE 7 WORDEN’S OR R&B LURES’ INLINE UV SPINNER WITH A PAUTZKE’S SPAWN SACK DOWNRIVER. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)

Day 4 started out with an absolute bang – a triple to start the day.

As we came down through the tailout, Fred asked if we wanted to pick up and return to the top.

“Just another minute, Fred,” we said, “this looks like good water.”

Fred had explained that it was snaggy in the past, but that he did notice a new sandbar formed on the side. I think all that sand created a trench and we hit the slot perfect – fish on, fish on. A double and we’re at five fish the first drift.

KINGS RANGED IN SIZE FROM 8 TO 30 POUNDS, AVERAGING IN THE TEENS. WIEST ET AL FOUGHT THEM ON FETHA STYX’S SM-904-2 HOMEWATER RODS, DAIWA LUNA 300 REELS, AND 25-POUND MAXIMA HIGH VIZ. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)

We matched our daily total from the day before in four hours of fishing so we went in for lunch. Of course we tried talking Fred into skipping lunch, but he didn’t think Eli would appreciate that.

After lunch, back to the same drift and it was lights out! Now we were getting at least one fish a drift and most drifts between three and five fish. Doubles were the norm and several triples. The boats from other camps that were back bouncing just kept shaking their heads in disbelief — we were on fire!

JEFF NORWOOD WITH A PAIR OF NUSHAGAK KINGS. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)
TERRY FORYS HOLDS ONTO THE ROD. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)

As the 90-fish mark approached, we were all aware of how close we were to that legendary 100-fish mark — but also well aware of how little time we had left to achieve this milestone.

“Don’t worry, Fred, Eli said not to come in until we get 100.”

“We still have over an hour left, Fred, Eli said 7:00 was fine since you got us out late.”

We tried every excuse, but Fred just smiled. We had a 6:00 deadline.

At 5:45, we finished a drift with a triple, putting us at 99!

Are you kidding me!?

“Fire ‘er up, Fred, and let’s hit it.”

Luckily Fred didn’t hesitate and we were back up to the top of the hole.

Immediately we got a double – 100 and 101. Number 102 came just minutes after.

Fred said, “OK boys, one last drag through our new snag hole and we have to reel them up.”

Woo hoo – we end the day with a triple and count that as 105!

That hole is now known as the Double TJ hole (Terry, Terry, Jeff).

More importantly, Steelhead University graduated Fred to the title of Professor! We’re going to make you a legend, Fred.

Getting back to shore, rumors were already flying. Although Fred could barely move we worked him so hard, he was grinning from ear to ear. Yeah, buddy!

Oh, by the way, 2,238 fish past the sonar today. We expected much higher numbers with the catch we had, but at least it’s a good number.

We also landed over 70 kings from shore this night and numerous chrome bright chum — the Nush at its finest.

WHAT’S THERE TO DO ON THE NUSH AFTER A HARD DAY OF CATCHING AND RELEASING CHINOOK FROM THE BOAT? CATCHING AND RELEASING THEM FROM THE BANK ! WIEST AND OTHERS LANDED NUMEROUS CHINOOK AND THIS BRIGHT CHUM FROM THE BEACH USING A SPIN-N-GLO AND SPAWN SACK WITH A 1-OUNCE WEIGHT ON A FOOT-LONG DROP LINE. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)

And how’d Day 5 go? Well, you’ll have to dial up Wiest’s Web site to find out, but let’s just say, book me for 2012, Eli and Swanny!!!!

FIGHTING ANOTHER ONE UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN. (TERRY WIEST, STEELHEADUNIVERSITY.COM)

SnoCo Angler Lands 76-pd. Kenai King

The fishing hole wasn’t paying off and the guide was getting antsy.

“‘Let’s reel in and go to a different spot, this spot sucks,'” John Nordin of Lake Stevens, Wash., recalls him saying while fishing on the Kenai River in mid-July 2010.

So Nordin, who runs an investment company, began bringing in his K-16 with a sardine wrap.

But he didn’t get far.

Ten cranks in and something big grabbed the plug.

Something way, way, way bigger than any of the salmon Nordin had previously fought on the Snohomish, or the 33-pound king he once landed at Sekiu.

It took him 30 minutes and a half mile of water to wrestle the huge fish to the boat.

“That fish kicked my butt,” he told the Lake Stevens Journal. “My heart was pumping so hard, I didn’t want to loose it. I was drained at the end, I couldn’t believe it. I did everything my guide said to do.”

JOHN NORDIN’S MONSTER KENAI KING. (JOHN NORDIN)

He was fishing with Fenton Brothers Guided Sportfishing.

Once the king was in the boat, he had it weighed on a riverside scale. It pegged the monster at 76 pounds, he says.

It also was 53 1/2 inches long and 34 inches around.

“They say it was the biggest this year,” says Nordin.

He attributes the hookup to “a little extra wiggle” in the plug as he reeled it in.

A taxidermist took the skin for a mount.

It was Nordin’s first trip up north, a weeklong fishfest that also saw he and former classmates of his from Lake Stevens High School catch sockeye until their arms ached, lots of rainbows and several other large Kenai kings.

But none the size of Nordin’s.

“It sets the bar for the guys to beat next year,” he says.

Yeah, we’d say so!