This Happened to Us: We Got in a Full-Blown Feud with a Rival Fishing Lodge
With high-paying guests, huge rainbows, and even bigger egos on the line, a feud between fishing guides gives way to a sting by the Alaska State Troopers
THE BEEF GOT REAL when they cut the lines on our boats and sent them drifting down the Alagnak River toward Kvichak Bay. Fortunately for us, the boats didn’t make it very far before spinning out of the main current and jamming up broadside against a beaver lodge.
The two unmanned skiffs were spotted the following morning by our chief pilot, who was flying a load of cargo back from King Salmon. While another pilot might’ve worried if there were any fishing guides to rescue, he recognized the boats and knew we were all back at camp for the day. He also knew about the budding feud between our crew on the Kvichak and a rival lodge here on the Alagnak, but this was a big step up from idle threats and stolen gasoline.
Filling a few of us in around the breakfast table that morning, everyone agreed it wasn’t an accident.
“Those motherfuckers,” said Mike Dragon, a fiery young steelhead guide who carried himself on the water like a pitcher on the mound. “I’ll guarantee you those ropes were cut.”
I shook my head along with the others and looked up from my plate at Nigel. As the senior guide in camp, the old Brit rarely kept his opinions to himself.
“No shit, Sherlock,” he laughed. “You’ve only been egging ’em on for the past two weeks. I just didn’t think the wankers had it in ’em.”
Luckily it was a Sunday, which meant this week’s guests would be leaving soon and we’d have the lodge to ourselves for the afternoon. That would give us plenty of time to get the boats back. And after some discussion that night, we all figured the best payback would be to keep calm, carry on, and continue catching huge rainbows off their dock.
At the green age of 23, I’d been living in a WeatherPort tent for going on 12 weeks, sharing a small camp with the same group of dirtbags, trout bums, divorced dudes, and steelhead junkies. We’d been fishing six days a week, and most “days off” were interrupted by various forms of manual labor. We hadn’t bellied up to a bar, logged on to the internet, or seen a free-range woman in three months. Whiskey could be secured only through questionable means, and cigarettes had long ago replaced bug dope as the most precious commodity in camp.
But at least we had airplanes.
The guides over on the Alagnak, meanwhile, had been grinding it out on the same stretch of river all those weeks. The silvers had shown up, which kick-started some of the best fishing of the season on the lower river. They’d have to share it, though. The planes from fly-out lodges on the Kvichak, Naknek, and other area rivers were already following the salmon. Pretty soon the Alagnak guides would be seeing us pass by in the mornings on our way to their favorite fishing spots.
The Cleaning-Table Honey Hole
The constant pressure to produce is just part of guiding. But when you’re a first-year guide at a fly-out lodge, and you’re landing on a new section of river for the first time, that pressure ratchets up even more. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t let the clients figure out that this was also my first day fishing there. So I sought advice where I could, looking up to the veteran guides to help me figure out the program as quickly as possible.
The week before our boats were sabotaged, Dragon and I landed on the lower Alagnak along with the pilot and four clients. Our two jet boats were tied to a mid-river buoy on the right side of a long straightaway, and we had to tie off the floatplane before loading the boats. This gave us a chance to talk over a game plan for the day.
“You’re gonna follow me upriver until we get to a split,” Dragon explained as he topped off a running can with gas. “Take the river-left channel, and you can lap that long outside bend for most of the morning. Just look for the frogwater and throw tight to the bank. If these guys can fish, we should have our limits by noon. Then we can go trout fishing after lunch.”
I nodded along but was a little surprised by this last bit of intel. I’d heard this spot was all about the silvers, so I thought we’d spend the whole day salmon fishing. I kept this minor concern to myself as our clients stepped aboard and we headed upriver.
By the time we all met up for a shore lunch that afternoon, everything had gone according to plan. Both boats had limits of silvers. After the clients got their fill of fresh-cooked salmon, Dragon pulled me aside to rig rods.
“Just follow me down to the lodge, man. This’ll be a party,” Dragon said. He set up an indicator rig, pegging a small plastic bead an inch or two above the hook. “Remember to start your drifts way above the dock and tell your guys to be ready as soon as their bobbers get close to the cleaning table. I know they’re in there. Yesterday we hooked three over 26.”
He wasn’t wrong. On our first drift past the cleaning table on the edge of their dock, one of my clients hooked and lost a fat 24-inch rainbow while his guys doubled up in front of us. As we motored back above the lodge and started another drift, I saw a man walking down to the lodge’s dock. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was saying, only that he was shouting. When one of Dragon’s guys hooked another trout and they followed it downstream, he got even louder. And by the time our boat drifted past, the man was seething.
“I keep telling him to stay off our dock!” he yelled at me. “You guys think you’re cool coming here and hooking our pet fish, huh? Well, tell your buddy the next time y’all pull this shit, we’re turning your boats into submarines!”
A Shot Across the Bow
That evening, Dragon explained that the man on the dock was the lodge’s camp hand—a jack-of-all-trades laborer who had apparently designated himself as head of security. Dragon also broke down the basic science behind the cleaning-table honey hole.
A lodge hosting eight anglers at a time might keep up to 40 fish a day during peak sockeye season, or 240 fish per week. Just like every other fishing lodge in Alaska, the spot we’d drifted past that afternoon had killed and cleaned God knows how many salmon over the course of the summer. All those fish carcasses had been dropped from the dock’s cleaning table, and every big rainbow trout in this section of river had moved in to feast on the thousands of salmon eggs and other trimmings. Like junkyard dogs with distended bellies, these meat eaters would grab any little egg-shaped item that floated past the trough.
Hooking these big rainbows was automatic if you had the right drift, and we couldn’t blame the rival guides for wanting to keep their “pets” all to themselves. But they didn’t own those fish, and they damn sure didn’t own the river.
All their little rope-cutting stunt did was make us want to fish that dock even harder. After rescuing our boats the following week, Dragon and I repeated the same program with a fresh group of clients. And if the surly old camp hand had known that one of Dragon’s guys was a federal judge from California, he might have just let it slide. Instead, he marched down there with a 1911 in his hand. When Dragon’s boat drifted past, he fired a shot high and across the bow.
The judge did not appreciate this little 10mm salute. In fact, the relatively large man went borderline hysterical. Shellshocked, he demanded that we all return to the lodge at once.
“You must notify…the authorities…right away,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “That man could have killed me!”
We did just as we were told.
The Alaska State Trooper who showed up at our lodge on the Kvichak River the next day was in his mid-20s and seemed to fit right in with our crew. He also knew his way around a fly rod. Given the circumstance, this made him perfect for the role his boss had assigned him as an undercover cop.
By the time we dressed him in rain gear, a bucket hat, and an old fly-fishing vest, the trooper was the spitting image of a dorky client. He looked like a youth soccer coach who’d been swallowed by an Orvis catalog and puked back up whole.
“Just keep doing what you’ve been doing, and we’ll see how these guys respond,” the trooper instructed as he and Dragon shoved off the buoy on the lower Alagnak.
Standing by himself in the front of Dragon’s boat, the disguised trooper whipped his rod back and forth, making clumsy attempts at an overhead cast. A few of the rival guides were already waiting on the dock. As the boat approached, the jeering began.
“Check out this tool!” one of them shouted. “He can’t even get it out of the boat!”
Dragon’s boat eased downriver while the trooper suddenly made a perfect roll cast. A few seconds later the bobber dipped, the trooper set, and down the river they went.
As Dragon ran back up for another drift, the trooper told him to work even closer to the dock this time. By then, the trigger-happy camp hand had come down from the lodge to join the peanut gallery.
“How many times do we have to tell you assholes to stay away from here?” he yelled. “We already showed you what’ll happen, and next time, I’ll aim for your fucking head!”
These were apparently the magic words the trooper had been waiting for. By the time Dragon pulled up to the dock, he’d set down his rod and shed his disguise to reveal his uniform.
“Now, fellas,” the trooper said, calmly reaching for his ticket book as Dragon tied off the boat. “Can one of you please tell me who the owner of this lodge is? I’d sure like to speak with him.”
The guides on the dock were, finally, speechless.
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