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Dreaming Of Holiday Steelhead

If you’re celebrating Christmas or other holidays this month, we hope you and your loved ones best wishes for a great experience. Here’s a steelhead fishing adventure for you to be thinking of a dream Alaska trip as you celebrate the season

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BY JEFF LUND 

Life is filled with contradictions.

The only ones that make sense to me are the ones that involve fishing. So when I kept setting the hook and missing on an afternoon trout trip in the Alaska Panhandle, I decided to adjust my approach. I wouldn’t set the hook. I’d wait and let the rainbow do more of the work.

I sent my fly into the current, watched the line form a tight arc and then swing across the current.

Bump. Bump. I waited. Bump. Waited. Boom.

After the fish shook, I pulled the tight line through where I had it pinned to the cork and swung my 5-weight to the side. Fish on. You’d think that if a fish bites all you have to do is yank and it’s on, but there’s a lot that can go wrong. The current will ultimately take your fly line downriver at different rates of speed creating a giant U or a W or two between you and the fly. When a fish takes, a hook set will often pull the slack, but not move the fly into the corner of the fish’s mouth. That’s why it’s important to mend the line – to make sure you are as connected to the fly as possible.

 

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SWING KIDS 

This is also why I like to swing flies. Cast it downriver, let the line get tight, then follow the swing as it moves across the current to a true dangle directly downriver from my boots. It’s an easy way to stay connected to the fly.

However, hook sets can be tricky. If you set the hook backward, you’re pulling the fly upriver. Since the fish is facing upriver, you’re likely pulling the fly from its mouth. By waiting a second to make sure the trout takes and turns, you can get a good hookset. You can also get a good set by setting to the side, rather than directly back.

If nothing else, the contradictions in fishing keep it fresh. That’s why people can fish and fish and fish and fish without getting bored – especially with a
fly rod.

You constantly have to think, OK, I need to get this fly under that branch. That means I have to shoot the line under that other branch, have it unravel and drop the fly upriver from where the fish is holding. I have to do this without backcasting too much because there are trees and bushes behind me.

So I have to figure out how to do all of this, and then when it’s time to hook up … do nothing. Just stand there and feel the rod bounce in my hand, and rather than instinctively pull, I have to wait. Pause. Hold. Delay. Then set.

It’s difficult but it works. The next day I caught the biggest fish I ever had in that river, which shall not be named.

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YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE 

Then, of course, there are situations when a half-second matters most. A few days after I mastered patience and was rewarded with some beautiful, fat trout in a small stretch of thin water, I went to a larger river for a weekend of camping in the rain and catching steelhead. At least we hoped as much.

I was using my new favorite steelhead pattern – one that I tied but am sure I did not invent, even though I have never seen it before. It sinks quickly but isn’t too heavy, and is perfect for even water up to midthigh depth. It’s a compact design with no extra material, so every hit can find the hook.

I was fishing a run that was parallel to a downed tree on new water. It was at the edge of my longest roll cast. Because the water was clear and maybe a little low, I didn’t want to get too close and spook anything holding more toward the center.

I was using an indicator and saw it dip but didn’t react. I let the rig swing out, then stripped and cast again. Same spot, no dip. I had missed a strike. The oral coordination of steelhead is often incredible. Their ability to take with such calculated caution causing only a subtle change in the direction of a fly is almost unfair – especially considering once the fish is on, the fight is so violent. I kept throwing to the same spot to make sure I gave that fish another chance, but it had either moved or was onto me.

I moved to the tail end of the run and fished where the top of the tree pointed. I knew the indicator would disappear. I really knew it. I stared through the cold air. My eyes watered, but I dared not blink.

Nothing. Nothing. Bump. Bump. Hook set. Nothing. Too late. Bump. Wait. Overzealous-oh-my-god-that-was-a-steelhead hook set. Way too late. Catch tree branch behind me.

These weren’t those fun little trout in the unnamed creek. These were steelhead in an unnamed river. These demand angling excellence.

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FIGHT ON 

I dialed in and almost tried to guess when the hit would come. I sent the fly to the same spot. I felt a pull so strong I almost dropped the rod. I didn’t have to do anything, which was great because I may have messed it up. The steelhead jumped from the water, but rather than tail walk, it went end over end and did water gymnastics rather than dance. I laughed and kept tension. I was connected to the fish of a thousand casts. Then the line shot back at me. Hookless. Bad knot.

I felt almost sick.

I worked downriver, trying to convince myself I’d get another shot. It was still early in the morning. I had brought a 14-inch rainbow to shore and hooked up with a brute of a steelhead. There were fish around. I just had to stay focused.

I continued to work downriver, covering as much water as I could and making quick sets on every tink.

Near the end of the run, I felt a pull and before the pull stopped, I yanked back. Fish on. I lifted the rod, but the fish stayed down. Solid. Still on. Game on.

I moved it toward the bank, maneuvered so that I was facing it, then dropped like a catcher blocking a pitch in the dirt. I trapped the fish in a few inches of water between the shore and I.

I reached into the water, grabbed the tail, turned it on its side and looked down the flank. Not the prettiest or biggest, but you don’t think about those things in that moment.

You don’t think about the unsuccessful elk trip a month earlier. You don’t think about the bad knot that cost you a fish. You don’t think about those dry spells when you are sure that if you had to live off the land, you’d starve.

You think about that moment and how you made it work. You figured it out.

You won.

This time.

Editor’s note: Jeff Lund is the author of Going Home, a memoir about fishing and hunting in Alaska and California. Go to
JeffLundBooks.com for details.

An Alaskan Holiday Wish List

 

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It’s Dec. 21 everyone. Those who are waiting until (nearly) the end to finish their holiday shopping (like me, but I’m almost done) can find some great ideas for the Alaska sportsman or -woman in their lives from our correspondent, Steve Meyer.

Happy shopping!

By Steve Meyer

Seems like Christmas is an opportunity to stand down from my usual diatribe of things that annoy me, or worse, and instead, allow me talk about something everyone enjoys – presents!

It always surprises me when people have trouble selecting a gift for hunters. If there is an easier demographic to buy for it escapes me. It’s hard to go wrong with ammunition for the recipient’s favorite shooting iron. Even a brick of the lowly .22 Long Rifle rimfire cartridges would be welcome by any hunter/shooter, considering the difficulty in obtaining them these days.

But the proliferation of outdoor gear for the hunter is astonishing and can be tough to make a valid choice, especially if you don’t hunt yourself and have no real working knowledge of the activity and its gear requirements.

Do those on your gift list a favor and talk to their hunting friends. Hunters talk gear constantly and it’s a sure bet they’ll know what your spouse, sibling, parent or buddy is interested in.

When it fails, duplicate it. Being a rather simple lot we hunters like what works; we use it a lot and we wear it out – no matter how good it is – rather quickly, and then an identical replacement will be welcome.

PLAY IT CLOSE TO THE VEST

The candidate that immediately comes to mind for duplication is the down vest, which has to be the staple piece of outdoor apparel that every hunter (or any other person who engages in outdoor recreation) uses practically daily. My favorite is the Eddie Bauer Micro Lite down vest, of which I have two and hope for another this Christmas from camo Santa. This vest is warm far beyond what its weight and appearance suggests, is also as tough as any available and it has the classic good looks of vintage Eddie Bauer outdoor apparel that is at home in the field and the city.

Wool garments are tough to beat for utility and for their general good looks. Beretta has raised the bar in this department with their Wind Barrier wool sweater. The windproof lining not only blocks the wind but makes these comfortable to wear, even without an underlayer.

From October to March when hunting the mountains I wear this sweater with the aforementioned Eddie Bauer vest and never have issues with the cold on days that one would reasonably be outdoors anyway. These sweaters are available in quarter zip or full zip. They’re so good I have four.

BRING ON THE UNDERGARMENTS

Now, no one wants underwear for Christmas except outdoors types, and you just cannot go wrong with a merino wool underlayer. First Lite offers some of the best with tops and bottoms in men’s and women’s sizes in light, medium and heavy weights. After using the tops and bottoms for a year, Christine Cunningham and I have discovered we aren’t leaving the house without them. They are also washable, and if it matters, First Lite offers the only camouflage merino underlayers out there.

Sort of in the underwear department are socks – we also consider these as stocking-stuffer gold – and again, merino wool gets the nod. Darn Tough Socks merino wool socks are guaranteed for life, you can wear them for days on end and they don’t harbor odor – not a small consideration in the confines of a sheep hunting tent.

For hunting pants, First Lite again gets top billing with their lightweight merino wool Kanab hunting pants. They have an acetate lining that keeps them from binding while climbing and provides a wind barrier. They are light, extremely warm, washable, very durable and cut a bit large to allow for underlayers. The only thing that is a little annoying is the very tight cuffs that don’t go over large boots well, but they do keep the cold out, so it’s not a bad trade.

LIST FOR THE LADIES

For a very long time, hunting-related Christmas presents fell in the male bailiwick; not so much anymore. Being the largest growing demographic in the hunting world, female hunters are now at the forefront of hunting and don’t want to wear hand-me-down crap their husbands, brothers, dads or boyfriends cast off to them.

Prois, a female hunting clothing company, has stepped up and is offering some outstanding outerwear designed for the serious female hunter. There are too many products to suggest them all here, but if you want to impress the female hunter in your life, look at their Archtach down jacket. Beautifully styled for the female form, this jacket is about as good looking as it gets and is constructed of quality material, including a down fill that is extremely warm for its weight.

If you are lucky enough to have a wife or girlfriend who would prefer a new gun over a diamond ring but you really want to show her how much you love her, look no further than Syren division of Caesar Guerini. An Italian shotgun maker well known for their beautiful high-performing guns, this company has taken the bull by the horns and created a separate division dedicated to producing shotguns designed from the ground up for women. These guns aren’t cut-off versions of regular male-market guns. They are built to conform to the female with the grip, the length, the weight, the cast in the buttstock and the elegance that a discerning woman hunter/shooter will embrace.

Most of the line of women’s guns from Syren are of the over/under variety, including field-grade guns and various competitive trap, skeet and sporting clays versions. They recently introduced an autoloader that isn’t quite as pretty as the others, yet it is a remarkably well-built and reliable shotgun for the female waterfowler.

With that and with the risk of offending someone, Merry Christmas to all and best wishes for the coming year.

The Breach Continues Its Message

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Our friend Mark Titus, whose wild salmon film The Breach, was featured in the magazine, filed this update:

Season of Salmon – Season of Lights

The winter rains have come and with them the salmon.  Kids marvel at the return of late-fall Chum and Coho into our urban creeks and streams.  All of us do.  When you watch these large fish in small water attempting to fulfill their life’s mission and truly think about what they’ve gone through to get here, it borders on the mystical.   Life finds a way.

 

I want to thank you for your continued support and encouragement of this film that somehow found its way into the world.  I’ve had quite a few queries lately on where folks can get it to give as a gift or to watch it over the holidays.  Well, you can access The Breachin all its current formats right now through our very own website by clicking right here:  SHARE THE BREACH

 

We’re going to have some exciting news to report in the next newsletter (the last of 2015, before the holidays.)  Here’s a peek:  First, The Breach is partnering with several esteemed organizations doing vital work for wild salmon, sustainable food and the planet.  We’re going to have the opportunity to push the film out through their channels while simultaneously raising funds for their important work.  Second, we’ve got a new streamlined, news-packed website heading your way before the holidays – complete with a page to get some cool Wild Salmon/Breach gear.  Stay tuned.

 

The Time is Now

Wild Salmon have been all over the news lately.  The work to protect them for future generations is more urgent now than it’s ever been:

 

Bristol Bay

After President Obama visited Bristol Bay this September, the corporation behind the proposed Pebble Mine ratcheted up their efforts to stall and derail the EPA from protecting Bristol Bay.  They are spending millions in lobbying efforts, commercials and hiring outside consultants to testify to Congress on their behalf. 

You can watch all three hours of this testimony right here:  TESTIMONY

 

 

If you’d like a taste of what’s at stake in Bristol Bay, watch this stunning drone footage over Lake Illiamna, filmed this last summer by Jason Ching of the University of Washington – click here:  WATCH

 

Genetically Engineered Salmon

You may have heard about this in the news.  Weeks ago, the United States FDA approved a corporation’s version of genetically engineered farmed salmon for US markets.  Under current laws, these so-called “Frankenfish” would not be required to be labeled as genetically modified when sold to consumers.  Representatives Don Young from Alaska and Peter DeFazio from Oregon have introduced House Bill HR 913 – the “Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act.”  If you feel this is an important issue, please write your legislators and tell them.  You can read an Op-Ed about this by Representatives Young and DeFazio right here:  READ NOW

 

Now the Good News – Medals of Freedom

Two vitally important characters in The Breach and titanic heroes to the people, waters and salmon of the Pacific Northwest were awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor.  Bill Ruckelshaus, first head of the EPA was awarded the medal by the president in person – and members of Billy Frank Jr.’s family accepted the posthumous award on his behalf.  Deep admiration and sincere congratulations to these two men and their families.  You can read about it right here:  HEROES

 

We keep our Facebook feed up-to-date regularly with wild salmon news.  You can like our page and follow along by clicking right here:  FACEBOOK

 

Coming Up

News about upcoming screenings and new ways The Breach will be shared across the country are coming up in a special message  just before the holidays.  For now, enjoy this time with your friends and family as we wind toward the winter solstice and the promise of new life in the streams and creeks wild salmon call home.  And remember to #eatwildsavewild by insisting on wild salmon at your local markets and restaurants.  It makes a huge difference.

 

Thank you again for your passion and support.  I’d especially like to thank David James Duncan again for his powerful words at the bottom of this page.  I thought them appropriate to pass along to you now in this season of salmon…season of lights…

 

In Wildness,

 

Mark

 

From David James Duncan…

 

The Breach sings the wild salmon like Whitman once sang the folk life and burgeoning streets of America’s cities. The Breach roars the truth that when our thousand rivers and rills are stripped of their salmon, we are all bankrupted – tribes, towns, animals, trees, flowers, all facing a horrendous desolation and dearth and theft of the shared sacred. When our rivers are stripped by ignorance, greed, and apathy, our culture is robbed, our children are robbed, all humanity is robbed of a compass bearing, a great holiness, an ancient craft that Christ Himself practiced. As the father of three kids to whom I’d love to pass down the faith that all beings are holy, I find the silence of salmonless rivers very hard to bear. So, as The Breach so beautifully suggests, let us find the loss unbearable, stand up together, and stop those who would steal away this great gift.  This film shows us the way to keep the Gift coming.

 

www.thebreachfilm.com

The Search For Alaska’s ‘Poor Man’s Lobster’

 

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The following appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal 

BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES

Ice fishing after sunset on Alaskan lakes has typically been an uneventful experience for me. Trying to tease a bite out of a trout or char while vertically jigging in the dark seems random at best, and usually unproductive.

There are, however, certain creatures of the night that exist below lakes’ frozen lids that are eager to feed. These freakish-looking fish become active when the sun goes down.

Ice anglers searching for action during frigid winter nights can certainly find some by targeting the only freshwater cod found in North America: burbot. These weird flat-headed fish become increasingly active after dark, migrating to shallow water to forage for a meal. They’re enthusiastic and opportunistic feeders and will chomp down on just about anything natural or unnatural attached to a hook.

Alaskan sourdoughs familiar with catching the unusual fish shaped like serpents easily overlook their strange appearance for their flavor on the table. Sampling the fish’s delicate mild white meat willl provide instant understanding of why burbot are considered among Alaska’s most tasty freshwater species. Most people compare the flavor to that of a popular and delicious crustacean, hence the reason why the burbot is often referred to as a “poor man’s lobster.”

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MY FIRST EXPERIENCE ice fishing for burbot was several years ago with my longtime friend and fishing partner Chris Cox. We planned our outing at a popular roadside location along the Glenn Highway, and it did not disappoint.

After a short trek, we set up our portable ice fishing shelter on the snow-covered lake and waited for sundown. The spot we picked was the perfect choice: It featured  2-foot depths on a large flat section of lakebed. Like clockwork, our rod tips began twitching just after sunset. We enticed strikes using several types of ¼-ounce plastic and marabou jigs in various bright colors. Although most of the fish went under 2 pounds, we experienced a fun frenzy in the darkness. Turning the light switch off at sunset seemed to be like ringing a dinner bell for the fish; they showed up in force and could not resist our offerings.

Indeed, ice fishing for burbot is far from complicated. Fish can be easily located and are not difficult or challenging to bring to the surface with a rod and reel. Active fish can be found searching for food at depths of 2 to 5 feet during periods of darkness. Drill a hole through the ice, present your bait with some tantalizing jigging and wait for the bite.

Although this fishing is not technically difficult, there are a few aspects I learned over my winter burbot trips that helped add to my catch rate.

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INCREASING THE ODDS of hooking up with a burbot is directly related to water depth and the structure on the bottom of a body of water. If you know what the bottom looks like, you can set up over locations that will provide the best potential. A bathymetric map of a lake you’re planning on fishing will help prepare you for knowing where to go before drilling out a single hole.

Bathymetric maps are charts depicting an accurate, measurable description and visual presentation of the underwater terrain. The Department of Fish and Game is a good resource for the special maps and has many lakes available online (adfg.alaska.gov) to view and print. The maps won’t guarantee you catch fish, but they will provide a better insight to know where the shallow areas adjacent to deep drop-offs are at and where burbot can usually be found.

Another tool I use to find the actual depth of water is my fishing sonar, or a fish finder. My electronics allow me to see through the ice, without drilling a hole, and know accurate depth. The device can be a big time saver, especially if you are fishing a remote lake which may not have any charting information available.

I have used various types of lures and bait to catch burbot. I have never found burbot to be finicky; normally, if they are present, they will bite. Burbot are known to be aggressive predators; their wide jaws and small rows of teeth are designed for snatching prey and swallowing it whole. They depend on their sensitive lateral line and two large open nostrils to sense vibrations and smell when roaming the bottom for something to eat.

Indeed, your presentation should be kept near the bottom. I like to be about 3 inches off the lake floor, and I use irregular twitch-pause patterns to try and attract the fish. Shiny jigs, spoons, and glow-in-the-dark plastics are popular for attracting fish by sight.

Some anglers are more confident in teasing a burbot’s sense of smell and simply use a baited hook. Cut whitefish, herring and lamprey eel are commonly used baits and can be very effective. Make sure to change your bait consistently to provide a good scent. Bait can become waterlogged after soaking too long, decreasing the odds of stimulating hungry fish.

Maximizing your presentation can help your cause. My recommendation is to try using a combination of something flashy and smelly – a bright-colored lure tipped with a chunk of whitefish is a good bet. Call it a dual threat to encourage a bite.

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SINCE BURBOT ARE well-distributed in a large portion of Alaska, opportunities to catch them are reasonable. Healthy populations can be found in the lakes of the upper Tanana, upper Copper, and upper Susitna River drainages. A few lakes located alongside the Glenn Highway also have good possibilities and are manageable drives
from Anchorage.

Catching these odd fish out from under the ice is a fun adventure for me. It’s an opportunity to get outside during the long winter season and provide a harvest to enjoy.

Burbot are certainly more than just a good source of protein; they also represent another part of what makes Alaska so unique.Ice fishermen like myself rejoice in knowing that when daylight dims, the fishing does not have to end in the Great Land. ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on Dennis Musgraves’ Alaska fishing adventures, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com.

Powering The ‘Workhorse Of The Arctic’

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The following story appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal 

Story and photos by Paul D. Atkins

The only thing you could see was the hood above the icy cold water. I was still hanging onto the handlebars as thesnowmachine’s track settled on the hard ice below, which brought me to a complete standstill. My snow pants and boots were full of water and I was in panic mode, wondering if this was the end for yours truly.

Luckily, I made it out of the overflow (water on top of ice) and built a fire to warm up, easing the pain of what could have been a very bad situation. As I tried to dry out, the two guys I was with wrestled my machine from its slushy grave, all the while reminding me of what I should have done and the fact that I was wasting valuable hunting time.

That experience happened 20 years ago, but it’s still a constant reminder of what not to do when you’re riding in the far north.

The first snowmachine I ever saw, I rode. It was an awkward experience, to say the least, and something that I wasn’t comfortable with, especially as a newbie from the Lower 48. I buried it more times than I can remember, and instances like above happened more often than I can remember. It wasn’t until years later that I learned to ride one and came to realize the importance and significance of these incredible machines, especially to the people of rural Alaska.

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SNOWMACHINES, OR “SNO-GOS” as they’re sometimes called locally, are truly the workhorses of Arctic. Getting around without one can prove to be difficult, especially when most of the year the land is covered in snow and ice.

Starting in October, when the first cold spell hits and the snow begins to fall, a frenzy of snowmachine activity begins. Covers are pulled from machines and inspections start taking place in yards and garages around town. Tracks are inspected, grease guns emptied and new sparkplugs take the place of old ones. It’s time to get ready.

People rely on snowmachines for all sorts of reasons: For many living in rural Alaska, it’s their only mode of transportation. They don’t drive a car or truck, or even a 4-wheel-drive – just a snowmachine waiting to make its appearance once the white stuff starts to fly. All brands are represented too, and in all sizes. There is everything from the really big machines made for hauling freight and long trekking to the smallest, which can be seen loaded down with kids circling backyards all over town. It’s a great time and creates a new appreciation and a sense of celebration that only the cold dark months can allow.

I have seen my share of snowmachines over the years, but I’m still a novice when it comes to most. Here in the Arctic, being able to ride one is only part of the sno-go experience; to truly understand one you must know how your machine works and be able to fix it when and if the time comes – and believe me, that time will come.

Most hardcore snowmobiles that push the limits in the backcountry – where things can go wrong in a hurry – are truly some of the best mechanics when it comes to this endeavor. They have to be, especially when you’re miles from home in subzero weather and your machine breaks down. Being able to fix the problem and get back home before you freeze to death will give you a better appreciation for what you can and cannot do. Some guys go solo, which is even more demanding and the danger levels are a bit higher, while others choose to travel in bands, hoping that somebody in the group has experience. I belong to the latter group, and have good reason to be so.

 

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A FEW YEARS ago I was traveling north through miles and miles of snow-infested tundra with a hunting friend of mine. Our goal was to make camp that evening in hopes of taking a few wolves. If we were lucky, we’d also take home a sheep or two.

It was a 100 miles from town and would take us all day to get there if things ran smoothly. Everything was going well until we ran out of snow. The temperatures fell below zero and we were miles from any marked trail, so we did something dumb and tried to push through it. We shouldn’t have.

My machine immediately overheated, frying everything inside. It was scary, to say the least, but luckily there were two of us and we were able to limp back home on one sled. That was a long night, but we made it.

It was three months before I could get back up there and get my machine and gear, worrying the whole time if it would even still be there upon
my return.

My machine was old back then, but even the newest machines can have problems. Some of the old timers still swear that the older sleds are better, while the new generation only want the latest and the greatest.

One thing is for sure: snowmachines have evolved over time, especially in the last 10 years. Refinements include everything from four-stroke engines to super-wide tracks to digital controls with built-in global tracking systems that are the norm now. How did we ever do without them?

If you’re new to the snow-going world, deciding on a specific brand of machine to buy can become as important as selecting a soul mate and, at times, may be even more so. It’s a hot topic among those who love trekking through the snow on the back of one. When you do, it will forever seal you to a particular camp.

Much like the Ford versus Chevy debate, choosing what is best depends on what you like. There are many brands to choose from and many places throughout Alaska to buy one. Skidoo, Polaris and Arctic Cat are the more popular selections in the Arctic, each with their own pluses and minuses. Size is also important, and depending on what you plan to do with it, ultimately should dictate
your decision.

There are many places throughout Alaska that offer rentals as well. It’s a growing business and in some of the bigger communities it has become quite popular. Rentals can run anywhere from $100 a day to more, depending on the village you’re in. Most who rent are visitors or tourists who want to experience what gliding across the tundra or digging through deep powder
is like.

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MANY YEARS AGO I drew a muskox tag in a community other than my own. I didn’t have a way to get my machine there other than pay to have it flown in by aircraft; that was not a feasible solution due to the expense. I checked around and found a place that had a couple of older machines that I
could borrow.

At first glance I could see that these were early models, though they appeared to be in decent shape. But after 20 miles on the trail I could see that they weren’t. I did get my ox, but getting it back became a problem and we ended up having to call for help. We were fortunately found by a couple of true blue backcountry guys who knew snow and were riding machines built for the Arctic.  It was an incredible experience and made me realize just how important having the right snowmachine at the right time is, especially if you live in the Last Frontier. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an author and outdoor writer from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a regular contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.

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Miss Kansas Misfires On Bear Hunt

Photos courtesy of Theresa Vail via American Shooting Journal

Photos courtesy of Theresa Vail via American Shooting Journal

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In February 2014 our sister magazine, American Shooting Journal (it was still known as Western Shooting Journal then), profiled Theresa Vail, an avid hunter who just happened to be a beauty queen (she was 2013’s Miss Kansas and competed in the ensuing Miss America pageant, where she created a buzz for her tattoos.

Vail eventually scored an Outdoor Channel show, Limitless With Theresa Vail. But when she filmed an Alaska bear hunt (which was never aired by the network), Vail made a mistake during the hunt and she and her guides attempted to cover it up. 

Here’s Fox News with more:

“This May, during an Alaskan guided bear hunt, I unintentionally harvested a second bear while attempting a follow up shot,” Vail said in a statement. “I then followed poor advice and allowed the second bear to be improperly tagged. A few days later, the film crew and I reported the incident and have since fully cooperated with the proper authorities.

“I am deeply sorry for my mistakes.”

Alaska State Troopers say 25-year-old Vail, star of “Limitless with Theresa Vail,” and two hunting guides have been charged with misdemeanors.

Troopers say master guide Michael Wade Renfro and assistant guide Joseph Andrew Miller conspired to cover up the violation up by obtaining a second bear tag and submitting the wrong information to game authorities.

We’ll have a little more about the incident in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal, along with an update on the Alaska hunting incidents of another TV show host, Clark Dixon.

USA Hockey’s Alaskan Adventurer

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The following story appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal. Photos courtesy of Zoe Hickel, the NWHL and Andre Ringuette/USA Hockey

By Chris Cocoles

SO WHAT DEFINES a girl’s early years growing up Alaskan with parents who were ski racers, plus a hockey coach mom and the family’s collective love of the outdoors?

Let’s ask budding hockey star and Anchorage native Zoe Hickel’s mother, Cristy, for perspective.

“A backpack, file drawer for naps, ski hill or penalty box is where they grew up,” Cristy Hickel says of 23-year-old hockey forward Zoe and her younger sister, Tori, also a standout hockey player.

“While I was training for hockey trying to make the 1998 Women’s Olympic team, I would leave the girls in the (ice rink) penalty box with a blanket, Tupperware (container) of Cheerios and a box of apple juice. I would come to check on them and they would be batting at the Cheerios like hockey pucks and they filled all the holes with apple juice. Never a welcome cleanup.”

Being around a game that’s a big deal in consistently frozen Alaska made it a no-brainer for Zoe not only playing but eventually excelling at the highest levels. In the past year, she finished her distinguished college career at NCAA Division I school Minnesota Duluth, won a gold medal with Team USA at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Sweden, and began a professional career in the first year of the National Women’s Hockey League.

Through it all, she’s never forgotten her Alaska roots and her love for just about anything else that involves being outside.

“I think that growing up in Alaska, there’s so much that we’re exposed to such a young age, in terms of the climate and learning how to be comfortable,” ZoeHickel says from the East Coast, where she plays for the NWHL’s Boston Pride. “The way I was raised, I was definitely put in situations where I was really happy that I had things available at such a young age. I grew up enjoying things like skiing, hiking, camping, fishing, biking, hunting – all the kind of stuff that we’re are lucky to have in Alaska.”

Zoe Hickel (right) training with her sister, Tori, who plays college hockey for Northeastern University.

Zoe Hickel (right) training with her sister, Tori, who plays college hockey for Northeastern University.

Hickel is a forward for the Boston Pride in the first-year National Women's Hockey League

Hickel is a forward for the Boston Pride in the first-year National Women’s Hockey League

Playing for Team USA last year at the IIHF Women's World Championships in Sweden

Playing for Team USA last year at the IIHF Women’s World Championships in Sweden

AS WE GET older, it’s difficult to recall that we were, at one time or another, rascals as little kids. Zoe Hickel was downright fearless.

Her mom and biological dad, Lex Patten, were both scholarship athletes on the University of Alaska Anchorage ski team, so it’s not surprising that young Zoewas donning skis herself at 2 years old. A year later she was riding the lifts at Hilltop Ski Area in Anchorage by herself.

So she was a bit of a daredevil, huh?

“When she was around 3 years old, we were at a birthday party at the Service High swimming pool. I was sitting there and watching the kids, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Zoe sprinting to the high dive,” Cristy Hickel says.

Mom assumed her daughter was being a little defiant and “testing me,” so Cristy was subtle in seeing how far the kid was willing to take the dare. Pretending to ignore but watching her little girl like a hawk, Cristy Hickel was floored when Zoe, who already knew how to swim, raced up the ladder toward the top of the 3-meter (almost 10-foot) diving board.

“She will see the end and turn around so I should go help her,” Cristy thought.

Mom be damned, little Zoe kept climbing, plunged off the high board into the pool below, and before the shock of seeing a 3-yard-old submerged in the deep end of the pool, she surfaced, smiled and dogpaddled back to the edge.

“Typical Zoe,” Cristy says.

Zoe and Tori, now a senior defense-
man for the Northeastern University Huskies women’s hockey team, got exposed to the playground surrounding their Anchorage home fairly quickly. Cristy eventually married Vern Hickel, who became Zoe’s legal father through adoption when she was 8 (but she would later reconnect with Patten and hunted moose with him in September). Fishing and hunting were regular pastimes, though skiing was just as important.

“One of the favorite things I remember getting to do with my mom: we lived so close to Flattop (Mountain), since I was unable even to walk she was bringing me up on her backpack. We’d go off and have picnics with our dogs and friends and families,” Zoe says. “Honestly, I grew up on that mountain.”

Zoe’s first encounter with a king salmon on the Kenai came at age 8.

“The fish was bigger than I was,” Zoe recalls.

It weighed around 50 pounds and she cried while reeling, her arms burning during the fight. But this was one determined young angler. As Cristy says, “It was her fish.”

“She was hooked on bringing home the meat after that.”

Zoe Hickel 6 Zoe 5

MALMO, SWEDEN - APRIL 3: USA's Zoe Hickel #36 looks on as Russia's Valeria Tarakanova #1 tracks the puck during semifinal round action at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

MALMO, SWEDEN – APRIL 3: USA’s Zoe Hickel #36 looks on as Russia’s Valeria Tarakanova #1 tracks the puck during semifinal round action at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

THE ALASKAN WAY of do-it-yourself fascinated young Zoe Hickel. Vern took her on a hunt for big game (caribou) when she was 12.

“It was pretty cool. We flew out to my dad’s place, which is up in the Talkeetna area with a nice little camp set up. And we spotted the (caribou) and hunted the thing down 3 miles up the mountain. And it was a double shovel,” she says. “We weren’t able to get everything down because it was too much for all of us to do. So we hid the head and the antlers and the bears got to it. They buried it somewhere. We couldn’t even find it. I was so bummed because it was my first big game kill.”

Fishing and hunting became the new normal for young Zoe because “it was a product of my surroundings,” she says.

It helped that hers and Tori’s mom was as gung-ho about staying active as the kids. Mama Hickel is a tireless worker and has coached junior hockey teams in Alaska for years.

”We loved to hike, and one of our favorites was to take a quick road trip late at night to Seward, sleep in the Suburban, climb Mount Marathon, eat an ice cream and drive back to town singing songs with the dogs,” Cristy Hickel says. “When Zoe was 8 she insisted she could run the (Mount Marathon Race) and, well, since she’s a boss, she did – and continued to race it 10 more years. She won her age group one year and was part of the ‘goat girl’ junior team that won it six years in a row with her sister.”

And remember that “product of your surroundings” thing that Zoe grew up in? Look no further than Mom, who made sure her kids were going to stay active.

“I was raised a traveling outdoor kid and I wanted to be sure my daughters grew up confident, strong and able to cope with the ups and downs of life,” Cristy Hickel says. “Zoe has an easy confident manner that comes from years of ‘being a boss,’ as I call it.”

Zoe 7 Zoe Hickel 10 Zoe Hickel 11

AT SOME POINT, Zoe was going to have to make a decision: skiing or hockey? Did she aspire to be the next Cammi Granato, a Hockey Hall of Famer and captain of the U.S. team that won the gold medal in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, the first year women’s hockey was a medal sport? Or perhaps Picabo Street, who captured alpine skiing gold in the super-G during the same games?

“I was on skis before I ever started playing hockey. I loved ski racing growing up too and I was pretty competitive with that until a certain age, when I was about 13,” she says. “I grew up on skis and had both parents who were good ski racers. I was lucky to have parents who coached in that field, and then introduced me to hockey. I just fell in love with it.”

Hickel was clearly skilled in both sports, and given Alaska’s small population and growing up with fewer girls who played the sport than do now, she regularly skated with boys. While she looked up to iconic U.S. women’s hockey players like Granato, Angela Ruggiero, Julie Chu and Jenny Schmidgall-Potter, Hickel was particularly enthralled with a National Hockey League star, Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk.

“I can’t say I can handle a hockey stick like he can! I wish. He’s amazing, so I just really like his style of play and his ability – just a lot of things I like about him,” Hickel says.

When she wasn’t helping Cristy coach various teams in Alaska, Zoe was excelling enough on hockey rinks in and around Alaska to get the chance to head east as a teenager and attend the prestigious North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vt.

A scholarship to play for the Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Bulldogs followed, where Hickel eventually became team co-captain and scored 46 career goals. She got her first taste of Team USA competition on the Under-18 teams in 2010, and she made the cut for the 2015 World Championships and has a great chance to be a member of the USA Hockey squad at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“It was amazing to just be part of that group and be in this player pool with these girls who are so dedicated and of course having the same stuff I’ve been striving for, for a long time. When I finally got my chance, I guess you can say I made the most of my opportunity that I had,” Hickel says.

“It’s fun that you’ve looked up to these girls and then get to play with them. And a lot of these girls I’ve played against or played with in the past, and women’s hockey is a smaller circle. Most of the time, at some point we’ve crossed paths. So you get at that level and it’s such a dynamic atmosphere to be involved with girls at that level.”

Zoe was such a rink rat Cristy recruited her to help her coaching duties. Considering she was jumping off the high dive at 3, teaching little sis Tori to ski at 4 and started coaching with Cristy at 9, what took her so long to start coaching herself?

“We’ve butted heads here and there, and I know it’s really hard to have a parent as a coach,” Zoe says of her mom, who’s become nationally respected as a teacher of the game. “But I have a lot of respect for her and we were able to have that kind of relationship where I was able to learn so much from her and what she was able to pass onto me.”

The influence was reflected during her senior year at UMD, when Hickel was a finalist for the NCAA’s Hockey Humanitarian Award, which honored the five men’s or women’s players vying to win the college game’s “finest citizen” award. Hickel’s nomination was due to various charitable endeavors – including coaching Alaska’s All-Star Girls Hockey teams, volunteering in Anchorage’s SPYDER (Sports Programs for Youth Development, Education and Recreation) nonprofit organization and running the SHARK (Strong, Healthy, Active, Responsible Kids) program in Duluth, Minn., to promote youngsters staying active.

“Despite the material shiny things,” Cristy says, “I would like to think of Zoe as a successful young lady who is a contributor to our youth and community.”

Zoe Hickel 7

MALMO, SWEDEN - APRIL 4: USA's Stephanie Anderson #18 and Zoe Hickel #36 celebrating with the Championship trophy after a 7-5 gold medal game win over Canada at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

MALMO, SWEDEN – APRIL 4: USA’s Stephanie Anderson #18 and Zoe Hickel #36 celebrating with the Championship trophy after a 7-5 gold medal game win over Canada at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

HICKEL’S HOCKEY CAREER is just getting started playing in Boston – one of four teams in the new league – with American stars such as Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker, plus another Anchorage resident, Jordan Smelker (who played with Hickel on Team USA’s Four Nations Cup championship team last month). She is also on staff as a volunteer assistant coach for the Merrimack College (North Andover, Mass.) women’s hockey team.

Zoe is so much fun to watch – she’s as dynamic and skilled as they come, as well as a stand-up teammate,” Pride general manager Haley Moore said.

Adds Cristy Hickel, “She skates with a natural grace and athleticism that is more like most boys than what I normally observe (from female players). Zoehas journeyed along the way coaching and being coached, and as such has become a student of her sport.”

But hockey is only part of what defines her. Her hectic 2015 also included a summer back home fishing and hunting in Alaska, where her busy childhood as a ski bunny, puck head and dedicated outdoors junkie was molded.

Cristy Hickel calls her oldest daughter “an ambassador for Alaska because she loves the land and the people who make up our community.”

“It’s huge for kids to understand all of those skills (I learned) when they’re young, especially living in Alaska,” Zoe says. “I think that’s great.” ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on Zoe Hickel, follow her on Twitter (@ZoeHickel) and go to nwhl.co/teams/boston-pride.

 

 

Police: No Foul Play In Juneau Mayor’s Death

 Juneau Mayor Greg Fisk's death is a mystery for now. (Greg Fisk for Mayor via Facebook)

Juneau Mayor Greg Fisk’s death is a mystery for now. (Greg Fisk for Mayor via Facebook)

 

Juneau-area invesigators in the death of mayor-elect Greg Fisk determined he passed away of natural causes.

From the Associated Press:

The police chief in Alaska’s capital city defended his department’s response after the newly elected mayor was found dead at home, bruised and bloodied, and speculation ran rampant as to the cause of his death.

But on Wednesday, preliminary autopsy results indicated that Stephen “Greg” Fisk, 70, died of natural causes and that the injuries he sustained were consistent with falling or stumbling into objects.

The speculation was fueled — and the attention surrounding the case grew — when police did not immediately rule out foul play in the death of Fisk, who went by Greg. Police deferred until autopsy results came back.

Sometimes, it’s obvious at the scene that a person died of natural causes. “In this case, we just can’t confirm that yet or rule anything out,” police spokeswoman Erann Kalwara had said Tuesday.

Fisk’s death made national headlines this week and garnered notice far outside Juneau’s remote location.

During a news conference, police chief Bryce Johnson said Fisk had a history of heart problems. He said it’s believed that Fisk had some issues with his heart and fell.

 

The Remarkable Moment When A Steelhead Hatches

From our sister magazine California Sportsman:

Steelhead hatching at Quilcene National Fish Hatchery. Source: US Fish and Wildlife

Of course, winter is on its way, and for those who live outside the state,  it actually gets cold in California. But the chilly weather that showed up around the Thanksgiving holiday also means that steelhead anglers will soon be flocking to Northern California rivers. Look for our steelhead preview in the January issue, but for now, check out this fascinating look at a steelie hatch, thanks to our friends at the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service