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Book Excerpt: A Career In Bears

Guest and lots of bears.

Editor’s note: Larry Aumiller might just have one of the best jobs in all of Alaska, especially when you consider his office setting and work buddies: the majestic brown bears that call Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary home. The protected land and its ursine residents are so popular, potential visitors must participate in a lottery draw to earn a precious permit to view the bears (Alaska Sporting Journal, February 2014). Aumiller has been the head poobah at McNeil since January 1976, and as you can imagine the veteran bear savant has plenty of stories among 30 years’ worth of his adventures, including on his very first day on the job, when a young and enthusiastic brown bear hijacked his raft and gear before Aumiller yelled loud enough to shoo away the animal. Author Jeff Fair has compiled many of those memories in a new book. The following is an excerpt from In Wild Trust, published by the University of Alaska Press and reprinted with permission from the author. 



Never, ever step between a mother bear and her cubs. This is the cardinal rule in grizzly or brown bear country. Most of the Northern Hemisphere has heard this maxim by now, and all nine of us knew it well, long before we came here.

It is the evening of August 7, 2005, and we are hiking down along the McNeil River – home of the world’s largest concentration of brown bears – in Southwestern Alaska, 100 miles from the nearest digression of the road system. We have left the observation area at McNeil Falls and hope to reach our tents and the cook cabin at the mouth of the river before the incoming tide renders the broad estuary flats uncrossable. As we descend a low bluff toward the flats, however, we encounter a delay. To our left we notice two young brown bear cubs at play. To our right, 50 yards from the cubs, stands their mother, snout deep in a fat chum salmon but with eyes averted in our direction. Our route of travel (proposed) goes right down the middle.

Our guide on this day is Larry Aumiller, manager of the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). Fit, trim, of average height, he’s in his standard uniform: flannel shirt, hip boots, sweat-stained ball cap, beard, and backpack.

Careful and conservative as he is in such situations, he has suggested we pause here. One of his guiding tenets across three decades in this job is to not intrude enough to change a bear’s behavior, and he’d rather not disturb this young family. Aumiller carries a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs, a state requirement, but in 30 years here, he’s never had to shoot a charging bear and he prefers not to spoil that record. The weapon remains lashed to the side of his pack.

So we wait. We make a modicum of noise to subtly reiterate our presence. We watch. One of the cubs rolls over onto its back, unconcerned. Opposite him, the female peers at us, then reinvests her attention in the salmon she is dissecting. She turns her back to us.

Minutes pass. Aumiller scrutinizes the situation. He’s watched this bear, the Spit Bear, tend her yearling cubs all summer and knows that she’s a little less protectively aggressive and more likely to allow them to wander farther away. Finally, he suggests that we move slowly as a tight group down to the beach, then turn hard right and proceed along the base of the bluff, which will take us fairly closely past her but never put us between her and her cubs. An eagle alights on the beach out beyond the mother bear, which moves off to investigate, giving us a little more room. We commit ourselves and make all of 10 yards’ progress before the female moves all the way back, past her fish, to the base of the bluff. We halt. She sits down, back to us again.

Meanwhile, the cubs have moved farther off in the opposite direction. Aumiller takes it all in. “Anyone bring camping gear?” he says. The answer is no, and he knows it. His touch of humor helps calm the tension.

“Any volunteers to test that old maxim about a mother bear and her cubs?” he inquires. None step forward. “Well, let’s see; who can we afford to lose? We have two accountants in the group, don’t we?” Nervous laughter.

Someone brings up the old joke about the slowest runner. Mom rolls us an attentive glance. More long minutes transpire; the tide seeps onto the flats, slowly but perceptibly rising. Aumiller eyes the bear closely, the tide, each one of us.

“OK,” he says, “how about we try breaking the rule this one time?”

He isn’t kidding. He has a strong measure of this bear’s unusual tolerance and has assimilated the cues from her behavior this evening. And, he points out, we’ll still have room to react to her behavior – to retreat if prudent.

It’s Aumiller’s judgment that must prevail, and he offers the group little time for worry: Stay close together, look slow but walk as fast as you can (looking slow) – and off we go, bisecting the bear family and the cardinal rule with ten human spirits and the Aumiller acumen for this specific and unusual case.

Mom reels about immediately to watch us. We proceed (not looking that slow, I’m thinking) into the estuarine shallows toward camp and salvation. She moves, deliberately but unhurried, perpendicular to our course, toward her delinquent cubs. We keep going; she crosses our trail behind us, pauses to sniff and look our way, then ambles on toward her offspring, never once offering an interpretable threat.

Aumiller in the lead, we wade into the deepening estuary. Half a mile later, ascending the shallows back onto hard ground on the other side near camp, he stops and faces us with a grin, offering high fives to each as we pass – a parody of himself and all that he stands for – as though we’d just escaped a certain death. He knows, and we do too from his drollery, that this is not a case of beating the odds. This is a case of knowing the bears. (And of getting back to camp with the cold, incoming tide barely below the tops of our boots.)

Larry Aumiller ready to guide.

IN 1967, THE NEW Alaska State Legislature, driven by major movers, including Clem Tillion, a state senator from a small town across the bay from Homer, and Jay Hammond, created the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, closing to hunting, mining claims, and other development 131 square miles (later expanded to 200 square miles), including the McNeil River and Mikfik Creek, that little creek to the south, which also drains into McNeil Cove, in order to forever preserve this unique congregation of bears. The legislative act presented the sanctuary’s priorities: First and foremost, to protect and maintain this concentration of brown bears; and secondly, to provide for human use, including viewing, research, photography, and so on, in such a manner as not to obstruct the first priority. It should be noted that state sanctuary status is the highest level of protection available through Alaska state wildlife management; the closure was deemed appropriate and necessary in order to protect this rare gathering of brown bears – the largest in the world. The following year the McNeil Sanctuary was declared a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior. There seemed to be little disagreement then about the area’s importance or its precious nature.

Sometime during those same months, ADF&G hired Jim Faro, a sentient biologist and hunting-minded conservationist to work out of King Salmon, some 85 air miles southwest of McNeil Falls, covering a huge region of Southwestern Alaska.

Participating in a brown bear research project at McNeil in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was not a job priority for him but rather a personal interest, Faro noticed how human visitors were crowding the bears at the falls, and in fact driving them away. Somewhere there is a photo of a photographer’s blind erected on a large rock in the center of the cascade, ruining shots from both banks of the river and asking for trouble. Trouble in the form of risking the bears’ reputations and his own physiology by encouraging such close proximity to the bears and their food. The private airplanes parked on the beach and the scattered, unmanaged campsites with food to lure in the bears were asking the same. One summer day, an off-season bear guide, there from Kodiak to take photographs, walked up to within 15 feet of a sleeping bear and her cub, startled them awake, and elicited a rush from the mother bear.

He then fatally shot her in the back after she quit the bluff and turned to run away. Faro found it necessary to kill the cub rather than let it starve or be injured by other bears. This he detested. The tide of unregulated tourism was rising, and in his mind this was the last straw. McNeil had been discovered, and its magnetism was tripping up the delicate dance of bears and salmon and fouling the very objectives of sanctuary formation. Faro recognized the value of this wild nexus to the bears and to all walks of Alaskans and wildlife watchers, and pondered the pressure of human stampede it could handle.

McNeil falls with people.

MEANWHILE, ON THE LAST day of summer, 1970, a dull black Volkswagen Bug with a red petrol can on its hip rolled into the city of Anchorage. From the Pentagon on July 11, Aumiller had made it to Fifth Avenue in Anchorage on September 20, all on freedom and a whim. He had selected Anchorage over Fairbanks simply for its reach to the open sea. It just felt good.

Ah, but now what to do? His art degree seemed like an anchor to indoor work, and he hadn’t come all this way to remain indoors. Nonetheless, he took a job in a pet store, enabled by his experience working at animal hospitals all through high school. It was animals, but it was indoors. No good; move on. He reasoned that perhaps he might use his art degree and abilities to teach art – which would provide him with summers off to explore wilder Alaska landscapes.

He went back to school, got a teacher’s certification, and tried that. At the end of one year, he was done with teaching. That, he discovered, was still too much of an indoor occupation. What, he wondered, would he like most to do with just this one summer before him? He made a list, which came to only two goals: work outdoors in the hinterlands, and work with wildlife. The options were suddenly obvious.

He drove to the regional ADF&G office, walked in, and told the receptionist he was looking for summer work; were there any jobs open in the back-of-beyond? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, there were. Two doors down on the left; talk to Darwin Biwer. Aumiller walked out five minutes later with an assignment to King Salmon in Southwestern Alaska to assist on a fisheries research project. (This was May of 1972, when one could still pull such a stunt in the Last Frontier.)

A few days later he was onboard the M/V Kittiwake in Bristol Bay, counting salmon in the gillnets of modern science for the Division of Commercial Fisheries. He spent the better part of two years on the bay and on the Kvichak River counting red salmon on the largest red salmon (also known as sockeye) run in the world. Then he switched to the Division of Sport Fishing and catching and tagging and cataloging Arctic char and rainbow trout on tributaries all around Bristol Bay. Big rainbows in that country, he discovered. Not a bad-paying job for a guy who likes to fish. Throughout those four years he was always working out of King Salmon, where he crossed trails with Jim Faro, who at the time was tagging bears in the area.

One night early in his career there, Aumiller paid a visit to one of the little fishing town’s social clubs (a backcountry Alaska bar) for a bit of community fellowship before going to sea. Sometime around midnight one of the regulars announced that it was “time to see the bear” and the whole place emptied (drinks in hand) out the back door, Aumiller floating with the tide. There before him, in the bed of a pickup in the parking lot, lit by the midnight sun, stood his first-ever brown bear – peeling garbage out of plastic bags and chewing up stale bread, rancid steak bones, and tinfoil with impunity. The crowd encircled the truck and watched for several minutes, enthralled as usual by the presence of the bear, while the bear was drunk on the provenance of free calories.

When refills were called for and the troop trooped back into the social center, Aumiller found himself to be the last one near the truck, watching the bear and forgetting to be afraid – or even thirsty. His trail had just converged with Ursus arctos.

Jim Faro (left) with his supervisor John Vania in 1978.

FARO HAD WATCHED HUMAN disturbance at McNeil grow, until in 1972 he noted, “The bears gave the falls to the people.” In order to uphold the objectives of the sanctuary, he proposed, and in 1973 installed, a permit program to limit the numbers and activities of visitors there.

Faro was a mainstream, company-man kind of biologist, but he was a thoughtful wildlife biologist and a true conservationist with vision. His region offered the largest harvest of brown bears in the state, which steeped him in the bear-killing tradition but also provided the absolute counterpoint to this new set of values. McNeil was a nontraditional, nonconsumptive-use sort of place that offered a lot to those who just wanted to see and appreciate the largest terrestrial predators on Earth, and Faro went out of his way and beyond his agency priority list to conserve this value.

That year and the next, he spent time at McNeil to monitor and oversee visitation, working out of the researchers’ cabin that had been cobbled up near the sea on the south shore of the estuary, 2 miles from the falls. (It would become the tool shed in a later iteration.) In 1975 he hired Walt Cunningham to be stationed there throughout the visiting season to provide education, safety, and enforcement of the basic rules.

The summer went well. Cunningham was a phenomenal field biologist, but he had a new project to start in 1976. Aumiller had been voluntarily helping Faro with some bear tagging around King Salmon and in Katmai National Park, and so Faro had quietly become Aumiller’s mentor and had taken his measure. He knew that Aumiller had no wildlife or science degree, but he recognized savvy, creativity, good judgment, and a close-to-the-ground center of gravity. 

On a late summer day in 1975, they were in Faro’s state truck talking about Walt leaving McNeil, when Faro looked Aumiller in the eye and said, “Are you interested in McNeil?” Meaning the job.

“I don’t know much about the place,” Aumiller answered, hesitant at first. “What kind of job is it? What exactly do you do there?” And finally, within a minute or two, “When do I start?”

Another serendipitous, seat-of-the-pants decision destined for adventure. And from another perspective that even he had yet to perceive, here was a better way than war for Aumiller to serve his country.

The true moment of convergence for Aumiller and McNeil and its bears occurred on June 28, 1976, after he had touched down on the spit for that first time, unloaded the plane, and listened as the airplane’s engine faded back into the sky and the quietude of the wilderness (“that most blessed of sounds,” he called it) filled in around his soul. Just before the bears commandeered his raft, and not so much later, the course of his life. 

A few days after his arrival, Aumiller rendezvoused with his first permit-holding visitors. He was boating back downriver from the falls with Faro as the permittees disembarked their seaplane onto the beach at camp. Aumiller swallowed hard.

“They’re all yours,” Faro told him.

“Where’s the manual?” replied Aumiller. Faro smiled. There wasn’t one.

Aumiller would have to depend on his own artful and sensitive savvy, his engaging manner, and a conservation ethic that would reach from the upper McNeil to thousands of human hearts from Alaska and around the world. He never looked back. With the test of a lifetime before him and the passion of one as well, Aumiller had found his wilderness. ASJ

Editor’s note: To purchase In Wild Trust, go to amazon.com/Wild-Trust-Aumillers-Thirty-McNeil/dp/1602233233.

Smaller-Scale Pebble Mine Will Still Face Challenges


Nushagak River photo by Brian Lull.



Expect a lot of reports about the Pebble Mine in the coming future, now that the Environmental Protection Agency granted permission to Pebble Limited Partnership to apply for a federal permit.

With Bristol Bay’s salmon fishing industry vehemently opposing the project altogether, Pebble Limited Partnership has announced its intention to scale down the project to some degree – which probably won’t appease too many opponents of any mining in Bristol Bay – the Alaska Dispatch News reported that even smaller doesn’t mean easier in terms of getting the mine going.

Here’s ADN reporter Alex DeMarban with more:

Officials with Northern Dynasty Minerals, Pebble’s parent company, said Friday they were not ready to release details about the proposal. But in a conference call with investors, they described plans for a smaller project with strong environmental protections.

Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the project, said the company would soon release details about its new plan.

Dennis McLerran, the former EPA regional administrator who led the 2014 Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, said on Friday he believes the mine will never be developed.

One problem is the huge development costs, in part because the site is so remote, while the capital cost of removing precious metals from the low-grade ore is high.

But following news of the settlement Friday, McLerran also said he was concerned that under a Trump administration, Pebble has a chance of advancing toward development by “gaming” the permitting review process with a small-mine concept.

“Then the foot is in the door and the long-term expansion potential is there,” said McLerran, an Obama presidential appointee who resigned from the EPA in December.

But the obstacles and anger over the project will likely keep this plan a difficult one to execute. More from the report:

Heatwole said on Friday it’s “speculation” to examine possible development scenarios until Pebble can present a proposal in the coming weeks.

“This is exactly the process that EPA engaged in with its pre-emptive actions against the project,” he said.

“Today’s focus is on the settlement and getting the project back on the established path for evaluating resource projects,” he said.

Mine opponents from the Bristol Bay region have said even a small mine will devastate the salmon fishery commercial and subsistence fishermen rely on.

“We are not fooled by them and no one should be,” said Alannah Hurley, with United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

A Mule Deer Mystery On The Chena River

Mule deer are common in the Lower 48 but rarely seen in Alaska, which makes the discovery of a dead muley near the Chena River a bit of a mystery. (Yathin S Krishnappa/Wikipedia)

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: 

A mule deer carcass found last week near the highway bridge over the Chena River Flood Control area is getting a close look by the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“The deer was definitely killed in a vehicle collision and died very quickly,” said wildlife veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen. “When it happened is difficult to pin down.”

Turns out, the question of timing could be important.

Mule deer are not indigenous to Alaska, but occasional sightings have been reported in the eastern Interior since at least the 1970s. All have likely immigrated from within the species’ current range in Yukon, Canada. Of concern to Alaska wildlife officials are parasites and diseases mule deer carry that could spread to Alaska’s moose and caribou. Introduction of moose winter tick is Beckmen’s greatest fear.

“This parasite has been detected in over 50 percent of the mule deer examined by wildlife officials in the Whitehorse area and is also found on moose, caribou, and elk in the Yukon,” Beckmen said. “It is a parasite that kills young moose and can devastate moose populations.”

The deer found last week was a buck in good health prior to being struck, said Beckmen who performed a necropsy. Judging by the state of decomposition, the deer might have died a week ago or over the winter and recently thawed.

“There was no hair loss, so if it died anytime from January on, we can say it wasn’t infected with moose winter tick. However, if it died last fall or early winter, there would not be adult ticks or classic hair loss patterns visible yet. We need help from the public to determine when the animal was hit on the bridge.”

Mule deer are larger “cousins” of the Sitka black-tailed deer found in the Southeast Panhandle, Prince William Sound, and Kodiak. Reports of sightings in Interior Alaska have grown more frequent in recent years, suggesting their presence is part of the species’ natural movement. In 2013, three were reported north of Delta Junction. Last year, a fawn was photographed in a North Pole driveway. In addition to winter tick, mule deer may also carry other pathogens potentially fatal to moose and caribou including liver flukes, deer adenovirus and brain worm.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is interested in documenting Interior mule deer sightings. The public is asked to report any sightings of live or dead mule deer immediately to the department or the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.

Email dfg.dwc.vet@alaska.gov to report sick or dead wildlife, or call the Wildlife Health Reporting and Information Line: 907-328-8354. To learn more about wildlife diseases, visit the department’s webpage: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=disease.main.

First Alaska Copper River Salmon Hit Seattle


Copper River sockeye photos by Doug Noon/Wikipedia

As is the annual tradition, Alaska Airlines flew down the first haul of Copper River salmon to Seattle today.

Here’s KOMO News with more:

The first shipment of 22,000 pounds arrived Friday morning on an Alaska Airlines 737 from Cordova, Alaska, marking the start of the summer salmon grilling season. Three more shipments will arrive Friday, bringing about 77,000 pounds to Anchorage and the rest of the United States.

“Our Cargo employees are working around the clock to ensure we deliver the first catch of the coveted wild Copper River salmon to market, often within 24 hours of being pulled from the water,” Jason Berry, Alaska Air Cargo managing director, said in a statement announcing the delivery.

And as also become a recent tradition, the first fish to arrive will be the subject of an annual “Copper Chef Cook-off” right there at the airport. Three top Seattle chefs will battle “Iron Chef” style, making 3 dishes in 30 minutes to decide whose salmon dish reigns supreme (recipes available here). This year’s not-so-secret ingredient is a 45-pound king salmon. The chefs competing this year includes Executive Chef John Sundstrom of Lark, Executive Chef Stuart Lane of Spinasse and Artusi and Executive Chef David Yeo of Wild Ginger.


Family Fishing Day In Fairbanks Area Saturday


Tanana Lakes Photo courtesy of Fairbanks North Star Borough

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will be hosting Fairbanks Family Fishing Day onSaturday, May 20, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM, at Cushman Lake in the Tanana Lakes Recreation Area.

The lake will be stocked with over 6,500 rainbow trout. Kids under the age of 18 are invited to participate in a derby to win a rod/reel outfit, if they catch a tagged fish. No fishing license is required for residents under the age of 18 and nonresidents under the age of 16. Youth must be accompanied by an adult.

Participants are encouraged to bring their own fishing gear. For those without fishing equipment, there will be a limited number of rods to lend. Non-motorized boats, canoes, and rafts can be used on the lake.

All anglers can sign up at the pavilion for their chance at a door prize.

For more information, call 907 459-7228.

Giving Pike Some Love

The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


When most anglers think of Alaska fishing, they envision huge runs of salmon migrating up crystal-clear gravel streams that shimmer enticingly at the bases of rough-hewn, snow-capped mountains. 

Yet there are those of us who forsake such images. 

We find our piscatorial treasures in mosquito-infested flats, meandering tannin-stained rivers, and marshy oxbow lakes. This is flat-line country, void of a jagged mountain contour that signals a geological heartbeat. Such country is neither for the petite of rod nor tenderness of skin. While some view it as a boreal hell on earth, I see it as a Tolkienian-themed destination for anglers searching for adventure.

The reason is obvious. But once you go, you’ll never be the same when you return.  

For this be dragon country, my friend, and you confront them, one by one, not to slay them, but to do battle, to count coup, and release the fish in order to be victorious. While the quarry is formidable, the battlegrounds are just as challenging. 

It’s a place of survival-scenario nightmares, and rightly so. Miles of black-muck swamps suck moose to their bellies and refuse to let go. A stranded angler can wander the surrounding swamps for weeks and never find civilization. Clouds of mosquitoes would suck him drier than a spouse’s bank account after a divorce. Any survivors would need to dodge the 4,000-plus lightning strikes that pummel the area during midsummer. Smoldering timber from weeks of forest fires create an abstract reality starved of vibrant shapes and colors. The sun becomes a dim flashlight bulb, an impotent orange orb that is neither warm nor bright. In this Land of the Midnight Sun, the forest-fire haze provides neither clues to day or night. 



ONE FISHES ENDLESSLY, BASED on wakefulness to arise and to sleep when fatigued, because time has no meaning here.  

Yet don’t expect to find the winged dragons of myth and legend. The quarry here is the water wolf, or big northern pike. Be not coerced into ambivalence: They are a frightening lot.

Big ones measure 45 inches, the beasts of legend stretching to 50-plus inches, tail not included. A mature pike uses its 700-plus sharp, snaggled teeth to impale, chomp and paralyze prey. They are always watching for an opportunity to quickly cripple and devour fish, ducks, muskrats and birds. To hook and land a fish this size, let alone several, is an angling event of a lifetime.

Water dragons are no pushovers. Mediocre anglers who engage this adversary will lose big. Water dragons exhibit no remorse in pounding the strongest angling combatant into a mincemeat of shame and defeat, an introverted head shaker who questions his angling skill sets. 

I am confident in my quest – but humble in my approach – as we approach the pike oxbow, a wilderness sanctuary where nature and religion are one. All warriors – from the Knights Templar to King Arthur’s Knights – are introspective before battle, a purge of shortcomings, and a bolstering of actions that bring victory. I am no different when I battle big water dragons.

I vow to strike with precision and lightning speed. I dig deep within my psyche to ensure every cast is my best. Distractions are powerless against me as I focus on tying a perfect knot each time. My hand is a hair trigger, ready to unleash a cocked arm that will generate a 7-foot-pound hookset into one of the toughest, strongest jaws in freshwater sportfishing. 

Confidence oozes from my arms like morning dew off barbed wire. I challenge the beast beneath the lily pads and taunt him to come forth to prove he is worthy of the name: water dragon.

I tie on a steel leader and rig my 10-weight fly rod for battle. I take a deep breath, focusing on the dragon’s lair. The cast lands perfectly in a pocket of water surrounded by horsetail reeds. The flashabou pattern flutters enticingly as I twitch it to taunt the dragon I know is holding there. A water drake’s weakness is a love for all that glitters, and I have arrived with a fly box full of temptations.

Then it happens; a maneuvering fin creates a ripple; a larger swirl follows. The brown tea-like water convulses – then swirls to a washtub-sized boil – as the dragon attacks. A bucket-wide toothy maw erupts from the gossamer pondweeds and engulfs a square foot of water that contains my glittery, sacrificial fly. 

I strike hard and grit my teeth. This is no country for old men.

The enraged dragonfish feels the sting of a solid hookset and quiet backwater becomes a tsunami of destruction. The waves obliterate a swath of horsetail reeds, which lie whiplashed and broken in the bubbly, boggy foam. Bottom muck bursts upward like angry underwater thunderheads, as a foot-wide tail churns in thunderous retaliation. My fly reel handle rakes my knuckles into numbing pain that nearly breaks the vice-like grip I have on the rod.   

From its watery realm, 4 feet of water dragon twists and writhes violently, reaching for sky with gills flared in a rage that would send dainty, dry fly trout anglers running for cover. Blurred, violent headshaking atomizes the lake into a spray that floats like a million pieces of cottonwood fluff in the morning air. It’s real time, but I experience it in slow motion, frame-by-frame memory, hoping my endorphin-fueled resolve prevents the dragon from throwing the hook. My legs go numb, and I tighten my grip and pump the rod, a move that angers and awakens the beast. My 10-weight’s beefy spine whips, bounces and bends, like a puny blade of grass battered in a piscatorial typhoon. 

THE ANCIENT NATIVE AMERICANS of the Pacific Northwest believed the fish gods know one’s heart. For over a century, the water dragon’s reputation has been undeservingly sullied by the bombastic legions of rainbow trout and salmon anglers who blaspheme pike as unworthy of their efforts. Perhaps what happened next is what a trophy water dragon demands in return for being caught.

I bow to the fish to ease tension on the leader. My act of fealty shows respect and honor to the dragon, as well as puts slack in the line. Hopefully, my action makes me worthy enough in body and spirit to win the battle. 

After 14 minutes of a back-and-forth slugfest, where the hope of landing the fish was lost several times, I subdue the dragon onto its side and ease it to the boat. A sinister, primordially intelligent eye tracks my outreached hand. 

I reciprocate the honor of this battlefield concession with a thought. 

Religion aside, Darwinian-minded scientists say fossil records show ol’ Esox has remained virtually unchanged for over 60 million years. I had just battled over 4 feet of an evolutionary wonder, and soaked in the biological adaptations of this perfectly marvelous killing machine.  

While I had won the battle, I would not kill this fish.  

The 49-incher continues to eye me with precise calculation as I ease needle-nose pliers to release the barbless fly in the corner of its mouth, a harmless coup to show I won. The dragon jaws jerk up and snap tight as a bank vault on my gloved hand, and won’t open.  The response makes my victory even more satisfying. This is no ordinary predator, but a fish with heart, one worthy of the quest as the Holy Grail of pike anglers the world over. Mean. Indefatigable. Proud. 

After extricating my punctured glove and hand, I release a much-wiser water dragon to fight again another day, and doctor my hand with antiseptic salve so it can do the same.  

Fishing for big northern pike is exciting, drag-down dirty fun, and one of my top three Alaska sportfish species to catch. On three separate trips to Alaska’s Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, I’ve caught pike over 45 inches. This claim is no big deal for some but a lifelong dream for others. On a week-long trip, friend Larry Suiter and I caught 247 pike in five days, with four reaching 47 inches, a 48-incher, 48.7-incher and 49-incher. That’s roughly 50 pike a day per boat. While I didn’t catch that elusive 55-incher the occasional – and lucky – angler catches, I’m not disappointed. I’ll be preparing to find and battle a record-breaking 59-inch pike on my next quest.

PIKE TRULY EPITOMIZE SURVIVAL of the fittest. Its temperament, build and traits make it the perfect predator that has embraced the Darwinian ethic of survival of the fittest. 

Historically, Canada has been the hot spot for large northern pike in North America. That honor is now being bestowed on select pike stocks located in Alaska riversheds with prime habitat and salmon and forage fish populations. Some of the best include Minto Flats and the Innoko, Mulchatna and Nowitna Rivers.

In these food-rich waters of Western Alaska, northern pike grow far larger and more numerous than previously believed. Research conducted by fisheries biologist Brendan Scanlon with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirms that select western and interior rivers provide healthy pike fisheries that few people currently enjoy. I suspect biologists will keep discovering how large the river-based northern pike population is in Western Alaska. I recall my conversation with Scanlon when I first planned an expedition pike fishing trip to the region.

“Low fishing pressure, abundant food supply and ample and various types of water systems found in the tributaries of the Yukon River contribute to growing the large size and numbers of pike,” he says. “On average, a 40-inch pike is about 20 years old.”

For instance, his research has shown Innoko River pike can appear anywhere at any time, their migratory habits perhaps a key to their continued growth and proliferation.

“Pike will move out of the main rivers and spawn, and perhaps move a few miles to spend the summer feeding in a slough or lake,” Scanlon adds. “Others decide to head elsewhere.”

Elsewhere can be a long swim. One 30-inch fish traveled over 243 miles in eight months. A 42-inch fish moved 34 miles in one month, overwintered in the Yukon River and was found in the original tagging location the following spring, a distance of over 90 miles. 

The vast interconnectivity of Yukon River oxbows, lakes and sloughs allows these migrations to take place and, in effect, grow large, healthy populations of pike that have been little studied – or fished – until now.

I’m convinced pike in the Yukon-Kuskokwim drainages are more numerous and larger than elsewhere in North America.

WHILE FISHING FOR THESE monsters from moose camps to float trips, there is water here that has received little if any fishing pressure. Indeed, some remote waters have never been fished because of sheer number and difficulty of access. Lodges that specialize in pike boast that their clients catch and release from 500 to 1,000 or more pike a week, which is about right, as during our trip, we caught about 250 pike over 36 inches, which is saying a lot. 

In such areas, wildlife is abundant and relatively unafraid of people. During our journeys into these remote sloughs, black bears ignored us as they tried to fish for pike in the shallows. Moose remained and fed in lakes at our approach, requiring us to change course to prevent a possible aggressive charge.

The problem with exploring new waters is that sometimes a big-fish location turns up dry. One day we spent an entire morning catching hammer-handle fish, pike less than 20 inches. 

I remember one trip, where we motored and push-poled our way up the channel to the remote tundra lake. It was wilderness like I’ve experienced in the Amazon or Southeast Asia. No planes flew over, no other boats or signs of people were in sight. Baitfish scurried across the surface, indicating a feeding frenzy was taking place. A moose remained in the lake and was intent on chewing water plants. Mosquitoes blackened the back of our jackets and covered our waders as densely as chocolate sprinkles on an ice cream sundae. 

After my fishing partner Larry released a mammoth pike of 45 inches, we couldn’t keep the smaller 20- to 30-inchers off our flies and lures. We pulled anchor and continued downriver, where we had no big pike action. We decided to change our tactics.

Catching dragonfish on topwaters is exceptional fun and worthy of another feature, but even this action paled in comparison to the sheefish we found ambushing migrating salmon fry at a river mouth. Big sheefish to 30 pounds hammered our lures and flies on nearly every cast. There were no wakes telegraphing an impending strike. The fish often jumped completely out of the water, grabbing the lure or fly on the way down. It was a gift from the water dragons and a suitable way to end this particular quest. 

I OFTEN END A week of pike fishing with fly boxes depleted, leaders chewed to shreds and hands red and callused from the nonstop action. It takes me weeks to block out the pike fishing anthem I play over and over again in the MP3 player of my mind while fighting these fish: The legendary John Mellencamp, the everyman’s philosopher, might be referring to pike fishing, as well as relationships, when he sings, “Come on baby, make it hurt so good.” 

Nothing else needs to be said.

Fishing for water dragons in Alaska’s no-man’s-land  – of swamp, mosquitoes and forest fire smoke that often blocks out sunlight to twilight levels – is as close to fishing “the dark ages” as you can get. But with trophy pike action like this, please leave me in the dark indefinitely. Just be sure to stockpile enough flies, plugs and wire leaders for me until the lights come back on. ASJ

Editor’s note: Chris Batin is editor of The Alaska Angler, and author of numerous award-winning books on Alaska fishing and hunting, including Advanced Alaska Fly Fishing, and The Alaska Hatch DVD, which shows step-by-step instructions on tying five of Alaska’s most-effective fly patterns and details on how to fish them for salmon, trout and pike. Alaska Sporting Journal readers can receive free shipping when ordering any DVD or book by ordering online at AlaskaAngler.com, with promo code ASJ57.

The Breach Director On Speaking Out Against Pebble Mine

The Breach director Mark Titus (left) hopes those opppsing the Pebble Mine will let their concerns be voiced. (THE BREACH)

The following is courtesy of our friend Mark Titus, director of the fabulous documentary, The Breach:

There’s a lot been happening behind the scenes with The Breach.  And we are about to launch a major new endeavor for a new version of the film update the story and highlight the perilous times we are in for wild salmon.

The timing couldn’t be more critical.

As you likely know, last Friday, May 12, It was announced that President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt struck a backroom deal with a foreign mining company that wants to build an open pit mine near some of our nation’s most precious waters.

This announcement could remove proposed protections for Bristol Bay, Alaska – the most featured segment for wild salmon in The Breach.  Bristol Bay provides 14,000 American jobs and 1.5 billion dollars to the American economy with the 30 – 60 million wild sockeye salmon that return there each summer.

Please – take 3 minutes to of your day and call EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt to tell him compromising an irreplaceable ecosystem, our food supply, the last greatest sockeye salmon run on the earth and our grandchildren’s future is unnaceptable.

The Office of Scott Pruitt:  202.564.4700

And watch The Breach FOR FREE for the next 48 hours through this link here:


Lastly, please spread the word and pass this along.  Our wild salmon depend on us.

In solidarity,


PS – A significant announcement about a new version of The Breach coming soon.

Stan’s The (Yukon) Man In Tanana

Stan Zuray drives up river from his fish camp to his home in Tanana.

The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:



It took a tiny dot on the Alaska map – in one of the state’s most isolated communities – for Stan Zuray to escape his loneliness and despair.

Consider the irony dripping from his story when you learn Zuray’s first home is New England’s center of the universe – Boston and its five million or so metropolitan residents. Now 67, Zuray grew up with loving parents and a loyal circle of friends who he went to Red Sox baseball games with, partied with and, at times, raised hell with.

Yet he was miserable, lost and in danger of self-destructing there. So now you can understand a bit more why he’s spent the last 40 years living the rugged yet simple life in Tanana, home to the trappers and subsistence hunters who are featured on Discovery Channel’s series Yukon Men.

Unlike the chaos and buzz of Boston, Tanana’s population hovers around 200 or so, and even for Alaska it’s about as far off the beaten path as one could ask for. Boston seemed to unearth a path that Zuray feared treading down.

“People all over, but a lot of my friends were gone; people had died, others joined the service,” says Zuray, who spent his early and young adult years in the turbulent 1960s. “I had older friends in jail and friends getting jobs and starting careers while getting married.”

In a phone interview, he admitted that escaping the torture he seemed to be enduring was the only way to find peace. 

“I found myself alone and with no future where I wanted to live,” Zuray says. “I just wanted something else for myself. I wanted something, something better. I was definitely lost.”

Finding his way took him way out of the way.

ZURAY’S SOUTH BOSTON HOME, Dorchester, is not only the city’s largest neighborhood, it’s also a big part of Beantown’s rich history. On March 4, 1776, George Washington-commanded Continental Army troops drove away the British from the Dorchester Heights area of Boston for good, helping pave the way
to independence. 

Dorchester eventually became one of the city’s most diverse areas. Its famous residents include a wide range of celebrity – from actor Mark Wahlberg and his brother Donnie’s boy band New Kids on the Block, to one of the country’s most infamous gangsters, Whitey Bulger. 

Stan Zuray was just another son of Dorchester growing up. He didn’t lack a supportive family, so there was no broken home to shake free from. 

“My parents were really good hard-working parents, and you know how it is when you’re a little kid: They took you to the beach and other places, and it was good,” Zuray says. “But when you get a little bit older and become a teenager, you start rebelling and doing things without your parents and getting in trouble.”

That was during the 1960s, when two of the Massachusetts Kennedy brothers – John’s and Robert’s parents Joseph and Rose have ties to Dorchester – were assassinated and the Vietnam War escalated. Zuray wasn’t a war protester, but he was nonetheless defiant during those days. His friends were just as mischievous and only got into more trouble as they aged. 

Zuray’s inner circle included guys significantly older than he was, providing more opportunities and access to the wrong side of the tracks. 

“There were times when I was in trouble with the law; it wasn’t anything major,” he says. “But the thing is, I always say the trouble that a teenager gets into and up to the age of 21 is one thing. But the 21 to 30 years of age, that’s the kind of stuff that puts people in jail. That’s where I was heading. That’s where my older buddies were. I had a lot of friends over 10 years older than me. And they had gotten into that type of trouble. You just saw that life ahead of you. And it wasn’t what I wanted.”

His parents had also changed young Stan’s life for the better. Just south of the urban sprawl of Dorchester is Blue Hills Reservation, a 7,000-acre outdoor playground of hiking trails and flora and fauna, a perfect place for a city kid to get away. Young Stan was mesmerized and preordained to bolt the concrete jungles of Boston. 

One of many jobs he took as a teenager and into his early 20s was as a commercial fisherman.

“I did fish out of Scituate (a fishing community south of Boston) on a dragger (trawler). That was a job and it was outdoors and the kind of thing that I liked,” Zuray says. “But I don’t think there was anything I was doing like I’m doing up in Alaska. I just liked the outdoors.”

“I loved fishing; even as a little kid I’d always asked to go fishing. And you’d see things in magazines and read about people moving into the woods here or there. But you had no concept of what it is like. It wasn’t like I could put my mind on it and say, ‘Well, I’m going there.’ I didn’t know what ‘there’ was. I mean, I grew up in Dorchester. You had a one-track mind, but there was that thing. And in my mind, I gravitated to it.”

And the Blue Hills Reservation and a Massachusetts fishing boat gig was a good start to get out of the dark cloud hovering over him on the streets of Dorchester. Going west and north seemed like the most logical way out. 

Albert Kangas learns how to listen for spring water using a stethoscope from Stan Zuray.

IT’S A LONG WAY from the troubles of New England to the junction of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, where one of the storylines that Yukon Men has followed is the trappers’ vehement opposition to a road. While providing the villagers an easier opportunity to get to the outside world, it’s a treacherous path with limited parking because of surrounding private property, and the terminus on the Yukon just upstream of Tanana is described as only a “turnaround.”

While Zuray left all the necessities behind in Boston – the rest of those featured on the show like Charlie Wright, James Roberts and Courtney Agnes grew up in Alaska – he can understand the argument of why a road in and out of town is a reasonable idea.

“To get a snowmachine into Tanana, it’s about $800 by airplane, because they double freight them and charge you twice as much because it’s a big thing. And that’s a big deal. If the road was open, you can drive on in and get there in about four hours to the big city and get on back,” he says. “Just getting a vehicle into town can cost $1,500.”

But it’s the idea that anyone else with a sense of adventure can come into town that’s put Tananans at odds with each other. For Zuray, who prefers to take advantage of the salmon that run in Tanana’s confluence of rivers – the Yukon and Tanana – and the moose that congregate around the area, anyone else having access to the same fish and game decreases his harvesting odds.

Charlie Wright and James Roberts have spotted a moose in the distance and prepare to take shots.

Courtney Agnes points to where she thinks she sees moose tracks.

(In one episode from this season, Wright and Roberts were hunting in the final hours of moose season when they regrettably stumbled upon the remains of a slaughtered bull. The animal’s horns were cut off and much of the meat left behind. “This is not the work of Tanana people,” a morose Wright said.) 

“There are a lot of people in the village who do the trapping, hunting and fishing lifestyles, and others who don’t do it as much. But the ones who do, they’re the ones who are going to be impacted by people coming in and taking over fishing spots and traplines,” Zuray says. “There are other people who just want to use their trucks and go to town and aren’t as concerned about it.”

But despite their protests and pleas and the challenges that are portrayed on the show as critical to surviving the winter, this is the life Zuray and his cohorts have chosen. And while so many cable TV shows depict “life in Alaska,” many are questioned for their authenticity and honesty, so Zuray hopes his experiences provide a glimpse of “reality” about how difficult it is to fend for yourself in a place like Tanana. 

“I do think the show showcases the lifestyle. Often hunting, trapping and fishing traditions get portrayed negatively, and I feel if given a chance to see some of the good sides of it, people would think better of it,” he says. “Yukon Men reached a nationwide audience with that message and I’m thankful for that.”

Albert Zangas waits to see if Stan Zuray is able to hear a new source of spring water.

IF ZURAY WAS GOING to find his happy place, it was going to be through adventure and the challenges a homesteader would take on. So he left Boston for good in the early 1970s. 

“It was a long process to go from Dorchester to the West Coast, and then to (British Columbia) in Canada and the progression into the woods, and then eventually to Alaska and the Tozitna River (his cabin there has been featured frequently on YukonMen) and where I started living,” he says. 

“And now I’ve been living around there for the last 40-something years. When I got there I realized that’s what I wanted. Once I was there I thought, ‘This is it,’ and something I’ve wanted for a long time, from when I was a little kid in a vacant lot catching snakes at 8 years old.”

As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy at first. (“Those early years in Alaska were the toughest,” he recalls.) Even for someone as resourceful and in his element fishing, hunting and foraging for food, life in Alaska was full of challenges, setbacks and near misses. 

But being in an area surrounded by Natives who knew a lot about the subsistence way was invaluable (Stan’s wife Kathleen is also an Alaskan Native). 

“I didn’t know what I was doing, although I had some experiences and had been around some people and found myself trying to copy them,” Zuray says.

“You’re around Native people who made some stuff out of the woods: The drills they drilled the wood with; the moose hide and webbing. But when it came to doing it from scratch with no help at all, it was hard and you’d make mistakes. We made a lot of mistakes, which I really wouldn’t trade for anything. But it caused us a lot of difficulty and do a lot of things that were pretty crude.”

Now some of his best friends aren’t his cronies in Boston but of the four-legged variety. In the sixth season premiere episode, Zuray is preparing to leave his riverside salmon camp, 40 miles from Tanana. He chops up chunks of chum salmon, throws them into a pot for cooking so he can feed his dogs, not just companions but also a lifeline for transportation in an area where fuel for snowmachines can be scarce.

“Short of family, these dogs are the most important thing; they’ve been my life for 40-something years,” Zuray says on the show. “When I moved here, I recognized dogs are a pretty necessary part of surviving out here.” 

Say what you want about his lifestyle choice so far away from the hustle and bustle of Boston and the plank walk he seemed to be taking there. But there was never a case of buyer’s remorse from Zuray betting on Alaska. 

“Oh, there were times when you had to do things that you were sad about. But again, I can’t say that I would trade it because it might have changed the outcome. And it was never something where you said, ‘I may as well leave here and go back to the city,’ or something like that,” he says. “Because what I had gone through in the city, you never want to repeat that. Nothing that I did was ever worth giving up what I saw as potentially a good lifestyle. So you just kept working at going through the hard times with patience. You just keep trying again.” ASJ

Editor’s note: New episodes of Yukon Men appear on Friday nights on the Discovery Channel (check your local listings). For more, go to discovery.com/tv-shows/yukonmen. Like Stan Zuray at facebook.com/stanzuray and follow on Twitter (@stanzuray). Look for an exceprt of Stan’s new book, Carry On: Stan Zuray’s Journey From Boston Greaser To Alaska Homesteader, in the June issue 

Stan Zuray is busy at his fish camp preparing food for his dogs.


Q&A With Stan Zuray

Stan Zuray on … 

Racing in the Iditarod in 1982 (it was Zuray’s only entry in the race, where he set a record finish by a rookie that wasn’t broken for 10 years):

“In those years I was just a trapper with a very limited amount of worn-out dogs out on the trapline, barely keeping them alive and feeding them. And I was out on the trapline when a plane landed close to me and it was a friend of mine. He lived about 40 miles away and his wife had landed and said, ‘Get into town sometime and talk to my husband. He wants to sponsor you in the Iditarod race,’ and that’s how it all started. It was a humble and meager start, but we ended up doing really fantastic and was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

How hard the training was for he and his also inexperienced dogs:

“Most people at that point have one or two years of experience of training and assembling dogs just prior to the race. And even the professionals have been training all winter up until that point and had full kennels, at least 50-dog kennels and maybe 100-dog kennels. And I’ve got seven dogs on my trapline. So I had to gather up another seven dogs somewhere and get them in shape. It wasn’t like I had access to a lot of dogs, but the dogs that I had were so tough. And I guess it was the bush skills that I had were so hardened that I was able to get in the race and figure it out. I didn’t know about the Iditarod and it was a 16-day race. And at the end I found myself right up with the leaders. There was a time I was actually in the lead, then fell back and had a little bit of difficulty but finished in ninth place. That was the only time I’d ever raced it, and I’ve been out in the woods ever since.” 

Why meeting his now wife, Kathleen, changed him:

“Kathleen brought stability to my life. The family we raised gave both of us a real purpose in life. We live healthy and bring up the kids in a subsistence lifestyle.” 

When being creative to solve problems is a necessity:

“In the city, if you are not creative or mechanical, then money can solve your problems. But in a place like Tanana, there is usually no one to hire to do things for you, even if you could afford it. If one wants things in life, one better get figuring out how to make it work.”

The dwindling amount of big game available around Tanana for subsistence hunting:

“I think it has always been hard. Many parts of Interior Alaska have way less game per acre than more heavily populated states such as Vermont and Pennsylvania. The cold and barren areas make for hard hunting at times. Outsiders hunting in our traditional subsistence areas don’t make it easier.”

His love for Boston sports teams and reacting to the New England Patriots’ remarkable comeback win in Super Bowl LI over the Atlanta Falcons:

“All summer and in some of winter I am away from the village where there is TV (available). People usually tell me how the Boston teams are doing and my heart is always with them, of course. But I don’t get to watch as much as I’d like. I did watch the Patriots game and saw the whole thing; it was absolutely incredible. They made everyone proud to be from Boston that day. I know our executive producer at Paper Route Productions is a huge Red Sox and Bruins fan. He even went to a Red Sox game with my brother a couple years ago.” ASJ 

EPA Green Lights Company’s Pebble Project Plans Toward Next Step




The Environnmental Protection Agency provided a green light for the Pebble Limited Partnership mining operation to apply for a federal permit and its proposed copper and gold mine in salmon-rich Bristol Bay.

Here’s the Alaska Dispatch News with more:

The Environmental Protection Agency has settled an ongoing lawsuit with the Pebble Limited Partnership and says the company can apply for a federal permit for its proposed massive gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Friday’s settlement announcement marks the end of a legal battle ongoing since 2014 between the mine company and the EPA. But salmon fishermen and Native groups in the Bristol Bay region have been fighting the proposed gold, copper and molybdenum mine for more than a decade, and significant funding partners pulled out of the project in 2013. The area’s deposits are some of the largest in the world, but it also rests among tributaries for the world’s largest salmon run.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said early Friday that the agency is committed to allowing the process to move forward, but isn’t prejudging the outcome.

“We understand how much the community cares about this issue, with passionate advocates on all sides,” Pruitt said. “The agreement will not guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome, but will provide Pebble a fair process for their permit application and help steer EPA away from costly and time-consuming litigation. We are committed to listening to all voices as this process unfolds.”

Ron Thiessen, president of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the sole current owner of the Pebble Limited Partnership, said the mine company is now planning a “smaller project design at Pebble than previously considered, and one that incorporates significant environmental safeguards.”

Despite Pruitt’s and Thiessen’s comments, social media reaction was expectedly toxic:




Join Deadliest Catch Skippers And F/V Brenna Crew In Seattle

Deadliest Catch Capt. Sean Dwyer with his sister, Breanna (far left) and mom, Jenny. (F/V BRENNA A)

The following is from our former ASJ cover subject and Deadliest Catch crab boat skipper Sean Dwyer of the F/V Brenna A:

Will you be in Seattle on Saturday, May 20? Along with fellow captains featured on the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, my family and I will be at Fremont Mischief Distillery for the Captains, Casks and Cocktails Storm Tossed Fundraiser Party from 12-3pm. There will be live music, barbecue, plenty of whiskey, and live auction items like a drag race pit crew experience, a private summer party at Mischief Distillery for you and your friends, lunch with me on the deck of the F/V Brenna A and a whole lot more!

Deadliest Catch fans can purchase and donate un-aged whiskey at the event, to fill their favorite Captain’s barrel; hopefully that Captain is me, and if it is, the barrel gets loaded onto the F/V Brenna A just before we head to Alaska and the Bering Sea in June. Participants can track the journey online and get updates on how the whiskey is aging. If you can’t make it on the 20th, you can still participate and help me fill our barrel by ordering your own bottle.

The proceeds from the F/V Brenna A barrels will be going to the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI). My family and I support the work of ALS TDI in memory of my father and expert fisherman, Pat Dwyer.

Tickets are available online and don’t forget to share the event with your friends on Facebook.

I hope to see you there!

Captain Sean Dwyer