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    Return to Alaska

    Fish Stories Darylc writes "Our first expedition into the Alaskan wilderness in 1998 was a bona fide adventure. Our party of six spent a week rafting one of the wildest rivers in the huge expanse known as Katmai National Park. American Creek, or as it is known by some ? ?Grizzly Creek,? is more of a raging torrent than anything we in the lower forty-eight might call a creek. The pseudonym ?Grizzly Creek? is also perhaps a better description for this 40-mile trip that includes class four rapids and one of the largest brown bear populations in the world. Shortly before our arrival that summer a former Alabama State Senator lost his life to the raging power of this ?creek?.

    It was an excellent trip and we were spared catastrophe from both the rapids and the very large population of bears. We caught rainbows, char, and sockeyes in good numbers but the fishing, excellent though it was, was secondary to the awesome scenery, the wild river ride, and the ever-present brown bears. It was also extremely hard work. While we were all experienced riverboat handlers, the fast current and abundant rocks drained our energy and left us sore. Also, there is nothing in Alaska even remotely resembling flat ground and to say that the time spent sleeping on such ground was fitful is an understatement.

    We wrapped up our Alaskan sojourn with a few days at the Brooks River, where the dry fly fishing was as they say, ?better than it needs to be?. This had been quite an adventure. Not the kind of adventure you have on Saturday?s when you explore a new piece of water near home, but a real wilderness adventure like the kind you see in movies or read about in the tales of Jack London or Robert Service. Alone in the wilderness, raging whitewater, close calls with bears, great fishing, and like MacArthur we vowed to return, and in the summer of 2002 we did just that.

    Three members of our original party, my brother Dexter, my close friend Jim, and myself, along with our friend Woody from North Carolina, planned a return trip to Alaska that would prove to be an even greater adventure than our previous one.

    We opted to forgo the rafting approach this time in favor of camping at fixed locations, our logic being that we could spend more time fishing, and less time rowing. Given our two-week time frame we calculated we could spend four days each at three different locations. Our plan worked well; in fact it exceeded our expectations. We made plans with Van Hartley at Branch River Air in King Salmon to drop us at the headwaters of American Creek, then another location to be determined later, and we would finish up at the Brooks River. We had used Branch River Air on our previous trip and we were very comfortable with their services.

    We spent our first night in Alaska in Anchorage and early the following morning we caught an Alaska Airlines flight to King Salmon and Van had a man at the airport to pick us up when we arrived. Shortly we were exchanging greetings with Van in the small Branch River Air office on the banks of the Naknek River. After exchanging pleasantries Van abruptly announced that he did not want to take us to American Creek. We were a little shocked by this, and somewhat disappointed, as we longed to return to those beautiful mountain headwaters. ?Why not?? I asked tentatively. ?Because it?s not fishing well,? he replied. It turns out that Van was in fact looking out for our interests because we confirmed later, from other sources, that the American was fishing poorly at the time. He suggested that we try Contact Creek in the southwest corner of Katmai, as that was fishing ?fairly well?. I asked him what kind of fish we could expect there and he replied, ?Oh, kings, chums, sockeyes, grayling, rainbows, and char.? Well that didn?t sound too bad and as we found out Contact Creek was fishing a little better than ?fairly well?.

    ?There are about million bears down there right now though,? Van said. ?Where aren?t there any bears?? I jokingly asked. ?Nowhere,? he flatly replied. ?Then let?s go,? I said and within an hour of arriving in King Salmon we were in the DeHavilland Beaver and on our way to Contact Creek.

    Our first view of Contact Creek was a thin line of small trees and brush stretching out in a sinuous line across the vast expanse of tundra. Blue snow capped mountains in the distance, and as far as the eye could see, nothing but wilderness. Our pilot circled over the creek so we could get a good look at it from the air. It flowed fast over rocky gravel bars, clear and blue-green, with little channels that cried out to be fished. Our excitement was tempered as we saw bears here and there on the gravel bars below. ?Hey look, there?s a bear,? someone said. No one commented further on the bears but we all tucked that thought in the back of minds knowing soon we would be sharing that intimate, brushy little stream with the closest thing on this planet to a tyrannosaurus rex.

    We landed on a small lake about two miles from the river where we would set up our camp. There is a feeling and sound that cannot be quite described when the hum of the floatplane dies out and you realize you are truly alone in the wilderness. No phones, no hospitals, no help of any kind except your own resources. Fly-in camping in Alaska is Spartan at best. There are strict limitations on the amount of gear you can take and camping is rugged. This is not a trip for the very young, the very old, or those who do not appreciate the seriousness of such an expedition.

    After we had our two small tents set up we broke out the bear defenses. We had bear spray and compressed air horns shipped to Van in King Salmon, as these items cannot be carried on airlines. We also set up a single strand of electric fence around the perimeter of our tents.

    A short word here about bear ?protection?. Guns are not allowed in Katmai National Park, although this does not seem to stop a lot of people from carrying them into the Katmai wilderness. My personal opinion is that a gun is near worthless as bear defense unless you have someone with a large bore rifle always at hand. I?m not sure who in your party would be willing to give up fishing to ride ?shotgun?, but I certainly would not. By the time you decide that you must shoot a bear to protect yourself, you will have about two seconds to decide, draw your gun, shoot, and make a killing shot while you?re shaking like a leaf in a tornado. A gun is a good noisemaker and noise is your best defense. Compressed air horns work very well for putting off bears that are a little too ?friendly?. Pepper spray has a good track record for bear defense but pray to God that you never have to put it to the test, as it is a last resort. For the most part the bears in Katmai are good bears and as long as you don?t step on one or get too close to the cubs you?re probably going to be all right. Make sure you research basic bear etiquette before you go. The bears are a very big part of the thrill and excitement of fishing in Alaska but you must take them very seriously because they can be very dangerous, but then this is real adventure.

    Once camp was setup and our gear organized we started the trek across the tundra to Contact Creek. Tundra is miserable stuff, quite beautiful to look at but full of soft spots and hummocks that bend and move underfoot like soft rubber pencil erasers. For those of you from northern states, it takes about the same amount of effort as walking in knee-deep snow. Our daily trips from camp to the creek were from two to three miles one way. Sleep came easy after daily jaunts that included 5 miles of tundra.

    Once we got to the creek we found our way through the thick brush, filled with bear sign, and stepped out onto a gravel bar at the creek?s edge. What greeted our eyes would raise the pulse of even the most jaded fly fisher. There were fish everywhere! There were big red kings, chums, some early chrome sockeyes, and between and behind the salmon were smaller dark shapes that proved to be rainbows, char, and grayling.

    Most fly patterns would produce fish and dry flies would raise a lot of grayling but with the huge numbers of salmon in the river it quickly became apparent, much to our dismay that egg patterns would rule on this river. Now there is nothing wrong with egg patterns, but being from the Great Lakes we get more than our share of fishing glo-bugs and beads. But the fish came so fast and furious that we soon forgot our snobbish fly preferences and fell into drifting egg patterns with split shot. We caught big char on nearly every cast. Here and there we would hook a rainbow or grayling along with the occasional salmon. We did not intentionally fish to the salmon but there were so many of them that it was impossible to keep the fly away from them completely.

    We had been fishing only a few minutes when the first bear arrived. I?ve become fairly comfortable with the bears in Alaska but I must admit my heart beats faster whenever they are near and I quickly remembered how much I love seeing these magnificent animals. Contact Creek is small and when a bear comes along everyone stops fishing and moves to the opposite side of the creek. This still leaves you close enough to hear their breathing and anyone that says this doesn?t give them an adrenalin rush has either been in Alaska a very long time or is a liar. That bear was the first of what proved to be an almost incessant parade of bears during our four-day stay at Contact Creek.

    We became particularly fond of a very large sow with two first-year cubs that looked remarkably like the teddy bear you had as a small child. She was a well-behaved bear and never ran us out of the pools we were fishing. She would come by and look in the pool but would always wait until we left before she would come in and ?fish?. I have seen far worse behavior from humans on the streams back home!

    For four days we caught fish until our arms ached. We almost depleted our stocks of egg patterns. We re-named the creek to ?Catch Creek?, since you couldn?t actually ?fish? it, you could only drop your fly into the water and ?catch? something. It was at times, too good. We had a few exciting moments from the bears but it proved to be a very good place to start our trip. We ate hearty meals of char and bathed in the ice-cold lake.

    When the plane arrived to pick us up, we were bone tired, bearded, and certainly didn?t look as spiffy as we did when we arrived. Our pilot Dave, asked, ?Well, where are we off to?? ?What does Van suggest?? we asked. ?Well there?s the Little Ku, or Headwaters Creek, or you could go back to town,? he said. ?Town!? I exclaimed, ?Town sucks.? ?You got that right,? Dave replied. ?But some guys are ready to call it quits after a few days out here.? As tired as we were, town was certainly not on our agenda so we loaded up the Beaver and headed for the Little Ku at the far northern end of Katmai.

    It was a marvelous plane ride as we flew up the center of Katmai from the south to the north. An added treat was flying over the canyon stretches of the American that we had rafted four years earlier. Memories of that awesome trip replayed in our minds and it seemed hard to believe we had actually passed down those white waters now far below us.

    When we got to the Little Ku, Dave landed us on a small pond about a mile or so from the river. Once again we would have to negotiate that miserable tundra to get to the river but at least the distance was only half of what it had been at Contact Creek. The tundra here had an added bonus ? blueberries. Blueberries as far as you could see. We more or less ?grazed? our way to the river and back each day and it was a rare time when we could not spot feeding bears in all directions from our camp.

    Of course once camp was set up we made for the river. We stopped on a bluff over looking the river valley and as we did, two bald eagles drifted out over the valley like pterodactyls and we could see the bushes along the river shaking from the passage of bears. ?Well guys,? I said, ?welcome to Jurassic Park?. And we headed down into thick brush surrounding the river.

    The Little Ku is slightly larger than Contact Creek but otherwise similar. There were numerous pods of fresh sockeyes and the rainbows had just begun to accumulate behind the pods of salmon. The Little Ku would prove to be a little more challenge than Contact Creek and we would not be catching fish on nearly every cast. In fact, we would have to work hard for these fish. Egg patterns were not producing well but much to our delight we found the hot fly to be the mouse! We fished deer hair mice almost exclusively and caught only about a dozen fish a day each. But they were really nice fish. Big rainbows and char to twenty-eight inches. The majority of the fish were rainbows in excess of twenty inches. They would charge the deer hair mouse patterns making big ?V? wakes and boils behind the fly finally exploding in a savage strike that would give your arms a good jolt. Those of you that have fished mice for trout know what I?m talking about; the rest of you really need to give it a try. We ran into a couple parties of guided day-trippers during our stay there. They were all fishing egg patterns with limited results. They seemed impressed by our success with the mouse.

    There weren?t as many bears on the Little Ku as there had been at Contact Creek but we still encountered them several times a day and had some very exciting moments. One afternoon my brother and I were fishing mice downstream and we split, each taking the opposites sides of a small island. As I came to the far end of the island I saw my brother quickly wading across the stream. He had a very serious look about him. ?Blow your horn,? he yelled. ?NOW?! We both started blowing our air horns and I saw some bears making an exit up the far bank. ?What happened?? I asked. He told me a sow and two second-year cubs had come up on the gravel bar where he was fishing. Upon seeing my brother, one of the cubs decided he would run right up to him, obviously thinking my brother would he would make a good playmate. Not only was this cub far to large to ?play? with, my brother felt momma bear would certainly not approve. It gave us a both a pretty good thrill.

    At the end of each day we would kill a few sockeyes and clean them quickly at the rivers edge. Fresh sockeye is a real treat. On our last day we had just finished cleaning fish and were about to leave when Woody decided he wanted to catch another sockeye from the large pool where we had just secured our supper. ?Come on?, we urged, ?we need to get out of here?. Now Woody is one determined hillbilly, and he had decided he wanted to catch one more salmon. The rest of us started moving downstream toward a spot where we could climb out of the valley without crashing through too much of the bear infested brush. Suddenly were heard Woody yell, ?You might want to run!? At the far end of the gravel bar was huge bear and he was running at us full-bore! Now they say you should never run from a bear, but right at that moment we wanted to put as much distance as possible between us and the remains of our fish cleaning efforts and we all made surprisingly good time in the heavy current. The bear stopped where we had cleaned the fish and claimed some leftovers. We breathed a sigh of relief and made our way up the bluff only to run smack into a ground nest of bees! We got out of there with only a few bee stings and made our way to the top of the valley. As we looked back we saw several more bears arrive at our fish cleaning station. Then we saw a bear that made our blood run cold. A huge bear that came on three legs with a front leg that was badly broken. He had what appeared to be arthritic hips and he obviously walked with great pain. Even from the top of the bluff we could count his ribs. He had a desperately hungry look. We felt very sorry for the old boy but we thanked God that we had not met this bear close up during the four days we had fished the Little Ku.

    Dave arrived the next morning that had broken clear and bright. A weather pattern that was to endure for the rest of our trip and set the stage for the greatest dry fly fishing we could ever imagine. As the Beaver floated up to the beach, Dave stepped out on to the floats and said, ?Word has it, you guys have been fishing the mouse.? Even here in the remote Alaskan wilderness the word was out and our reputation preceded us. We were feeling cocky now. The warm sun helped greatly to relieve our tired muscles and the thought of a hot shower at the Brooks River visitor center loomed large in our thoughts. We lifted off the unnamed pond and left the Little Ku behind and we each left a little piece of our hearts there in the wild and wonderful place.

    We settled down on Naknek Lake and coasted up to the Brooks River visitor center. Brooks River is a short river about one mile long connecting Brooks Lake with Naknek Lake with the famous Brooks Falls dividing the river into two parts. Giant snow capped peaks surround the area and it looks like a scene from Tolkien?s Middle Earth. It certainly is among the most beautiful places I have every seen. It is an extremely popular bear-watching site and a regular feature on television documentaries. When we were there in 1998 we shared the river with some real nice folks from National Geographic who were there filming a feature on sockeyes and bears. The vast majority of people come to Brooks to see the bears, but a few of us come for the fantastic fishing.

    We completed our registration at the visitor center along with the requisite bear etiquette training, which after having just spent eight days in the bush living with the bears seems a little foolish, but they do it for good reasons and we graciously comply with their requirements. We set up the tents and headed for the shower. Hot running water is certainly the definitive element of civilization. After luxuriating in the shower we made for the lodge and drank ice-cold beer and partook of the hot buffet. The fresh fish we had eaten for the past eight days had been fantastic, but variety is the spice of life and we ate like pigs. The days in the bush did not entirely melt away but we felt infinitely more refreshed and ready for a little dry fly fishing on the upper river.

    It?s about a half-mile hike on a level gravel service road to the upper Brooks River. After a week of walking on tundra it seemed as easy as the people mover slide-walks found at big airports. The view of Brooks Lake and the head of the river are breathtaking and soon we were working our way downstream casting small dry flies and hooking fish everywhere. Brooks River averages about knee-deep and runs gin clear. You can spot the large rainbows almost everywhere. Fish as large as twenty-six inches and more will lie in shallow water barely deep enough to cover them. They are not hard fish to catch but they are not quite suicidal either. You must present a drag free drift and some fish will make you change flies a few times before you can raise them. But even if you are a poor caster, you will do well. If you are a good caster, you will do great.

    We fished the upper river every morning after breakfast until the late afternoon. We averaged thirty to forty fish apiece each day. We could have caught more if we had wanted to be more aggressive but this place seems to plead you to slow down and take life easy. The rainbows we caught averaged better than twenty inches, primarily because you can see the fish so well that you are not much inclined to cast to a sixteen-inch fish when you can readily see fish over twenty inches. We all landed rainbows as large as twenty-six inches, with twenty-four inch fish not at all uncommon.

    In the evenings, after indulging ourselves in the wonderful buffet at the lodge, we would fish the lower river below the falls. Here we would fish dry flies for huge rainbows and grayling, and occasionally we would fish the mouse just to see the big explosive strikes. After the evening fishing we would sit around the fire place in the lodge and visit with the many fascinating people from all over the world that were there to see the bears. Most would spend a large portion of their day at a viewing platform that overlooks the falls providing great opportunities to film the bears catching salmon as they leap the falls.

    I have been to the Brooks River on two occasions now, spending a total of seven days fishing and every day there I have spent in glorious sunshine. The dry fly fishing is certainly the best I have ever experienced, both in the size of the fish caught and the esthetics of the river and scenery. Even the bears seem to have better than usual behavior, which is less than can be said for the black flies. All in all, the bugs in Alaska are not any worse than they are in northern Michigan, which is bad enough. The bugs never bothered us during the day while we were fishing, but sometimes in the evening they would live up to their reputation.

    On our final day Dave coasted up to the beach near our campsite and picked us up for the ride back to King Salmon and ultimately Anchorage and home some three thousand miles away. We were all fairly quiet on the ride back, not wanting to disturb our final minutes in this paradise called Katmai. Each of us reflected on our time in the wilderness, the fish, the bears, the moose, and the caribou that had shared the past two weeks with us. Alaska makes you feel more alive than you ever did before but thankfully some of that stays with you and you can take it home with you, it changes you somehow.

    Back in King Salmon we squared up with Van and said our goodbyes. We gave Dave a nice tip and thanked him for his wonderful service. Before we left Branch River Air and headed to the airport, I said to Dave, ?That was a pretty good joke back at Contact Creek when you suggested we could return to town.? ?Well,? he said. ?Now that I know you?re not Sallys, I won?t suggest it next time.? I?m sure the phrase ?Sally? is an archaic Alaskan term used to refer to someone who is not ?man? enough to hack the Alaskan wilderness. I?ve met a number of women from that country and they are as tough and aggressive in the wilderness as any man could be, but evidently the phrase has stuck.

    On the flight back to Anchorage we watched Katmai fall behind us and we all knew that we would return. Alaska is like a jar of peanuts, you can?t just eat one or two. Yes, we will be back, after all we?re not Sallys.

    Daryl Crowley


    Posted on Saturday, November 13 @ 08:07:29 UTC by admin

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