800 Miles to Empty: An Alaskan Fishing Odyssey

A True Legend
A True Legend
JOHN: Our final day together began at Skilak Lake. At the back side of Skilak is the Swan Refuge, the gateway to a killer stretch of the Kenai. We had launched behind Billy's brother Carl (aka Fat Back), another Troutfitters guide, and a boatload of clients. After a couple of hours casting and drifting, we saw Fat Back motoring back upriver past us, presumably to make another pass at a stretch of river. As we floated by I noticed him making some kind of discreet hand signals in J-Rock's direction. No sooner had Carl motored out of sight around the bend than J-Rock got serious. "Alright, get ready. There's a legend up ahead." Apparently Fat Back had tipped J-Rock off to the location of a magnum rainbow. It was in a spot that traditionally held good fish, and as we approached I flipped my egg into the water and prepared to make the perfect drift through the zone. Sure enough, just as my line got perpendicular to the boat, the indicator vanished. I lifted the rod and the fight was on. What ensued was nearly a half hour of sizzling runs and dogged determination by both the fish and myself. Will and I did the fish-fight tango as he dodged me while I moved all around the boat in an effort to maintain tension on the line and keep the fish from running up to Skilak. J-Rock's rowing mastery was on full display as he kept me in the game. Just when I thought my wrists and forearms couldn't take it anymore, the fish came to net and Will put the brute in the boat. The 'bow measured 28 inches. A legend indeed.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Driving to Seward
Driving to Seward
JOHN: The delays en route didn't leave us much time to visit with two representatives from GMC who were waiting at the airport with a 2007 Denali they were going to let us use during our stay. (If you're doing an Alaska road trip, it should be in a vehicle named for one of the state's most famous landmarks, right?) We were headed to Seward, and it was already 10 p.m. when we hit the road. Our three-hour drive down the Seward Highway was shrouded by drizzle and the dim light of dusk. By the time we reached our hotel, we'd been awake for nearly 24 hours and were due at the docks in less than five hours.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Biggest. Halibut. Ever?
Biggest. Halibut. Ever?
WILL: The next morning we met Wally of Crackerjack Charters (877-224-2606; crackerjackcharters.com), a grizzled sea captain tuned in to halibut like a hound on a blood trail. Despite his expertise, something felt amiss. It was the weather. You could read the forecast in the exaggerated lines on his face. Twenty-knot winds and eight-foot rollers. With those seas in a body of water named Resurrection Bay, it was time to repent. Prayers and Dramamine were in order. The seas beat us like an angry prizefighter. We watched our shipmates hug the railing and let fly the contents of their stomachs. Two of them bemoaned the relative emptiness of their coolers, telling us their wives wouldn't be happy if they returned home without halibut fillets. So at the end of the day I tied on a diamond jig, drenched it with fish attractant and sent it 300 feet down. After a few sharp jerks, I was pulled to my knees by something gargantuan. This was the barn door the fellas needed to save marriages. The fish yanked and I yanked back. My back seared with pain as I tried to keep the pressure on. Waves washed over the gunwale. I was fighting a true sea beast. Primal screams came from my gut, and I vowed not to let the thing get away. This went on for about 20 minutes, without any progress. My histrionics were starting to become awkward for everyone on board when Wally stepped in. "Let me hold the rod," he said. He jerked it a couple of times and turned to me. "You're hung." There I stood, in Resurrection Bay, the world's most humiliated fisherman.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Yellow Eyes for Dinner
Yellow Eyes for Dinner
JOHN: In addition to several mid-size halibut, we caught a bunch of yellow eyes""a type of grouper""and took a few fillets over to the Apollo restaurant, where the cooks prepared them for us. We were surely a sight to behold for all the nice families and older couples who made up the restaurant's clientele. Our faces bore the effects of a day of salt, sun and wind. Our clothing smelled of cut herring and halibut blood. Nonetheless, we settled into the pleather booth, ordered a round of Alaska Ambers and recounted our day on the high seas.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Sockeye Slam
Sockeye Slam
WILL: After dinner, back through the valley we went, following the Kenai River, a body of water that seemed plugged into a 120-volt outlet. The electric blue glowed like a neon sign that read Fish Here. The river led us to the crossroads of Cooper Landing, a collection of a few bars and restaurants, a motel or two, tackle shops and a general store. We parked at Alaska Troutfitters""a flea-market complex of drift boats on trailers, a guide shop and a motel""sometime after midnight, the sun still staring out from behind the mountain rim. I couldn't sleep, though anglers in other rooms challenged the integrity of the building's foundation with a hallelujah chorus of snores. I'm convinced there isn't an outdoorsman in the world with a clear nasal passage. Early the next morning we met our guides, Billy Coulliette and Jason Rand, better known in those parts as J-Rock. John, sipping a cup of coffee and plugging his lip with chew, looked like the only one who'd gotten any shut-eye.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Cooper LandingÂ…9/11/02?
JOHN: Our first day with Troutfitters (907-595-1212; aktroutfitters.com) started on the Upper Kenai, at a launch near what is called the Combat Zone. Here anglers stand shoulder to shoulder during the sockeye run and beat the river to a froth as they attempt to catch their daily limit of the prized fish. Knife fights have broken out in the past when one fisherman didn't reel in his line fast enough for a nearby angler who was fighting a salmon, causing the fish to break off. We marveled at the crazed beasts and took off downstream for a less populated stretch of water. Will and I have both lived in New York City since before the attacks of September 11, and it seems that everywhere we go to hunt or fish, someone asks, "Where were you on 9/11?" So it wasn't surprising when Billy and J-Rock brought up the subject soon after we launched their drift boat. What was surprising was the way the conversation progressed. "So, were you guys in New York for 9/11?" J-Rock asked as he lit a Camel. "That was, what, 2002, right?" Billy asked idly between strokes of his oars. Will and I looked at each other, stunned. As far as we're concerned, "September 11" and "2001" go together like "peanut butter" and "jelly." Apparently this isn't the case everywhere. Before either of us could correct Billy, J-Rock was on the spot. "No, man, that was 2001. Remember? That was the day of that killer egg bite." "Oh, that's right, man," said Billy, ashamed he'd forgotten the date of such a legendary day of fishing. Neither of them meant to be insensitive. They're just so consumed with fishing that other things in life happen only as they relate to angling. In Cooper Landing, fishing is life, and nothing else really matters a whole heck of a lot.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Picking the Right Pattern
Picking the Right Pattern
WILL: A fellow named Cooper (obviously) founded Cooper Landing while he was speculating for gold. In search of the shiny stuff, he let millions of salmon eggs float by. Turns out the eggs were the metaphorical gold. Each guide has hundreds of little beads painted to represent the roe in its various stages, and these patterns are protected like nuclear secrets. And for good reason: What the guides get in return are huge fish and repeat customers. All of Billy's guides carry large tackle boxes filled with eggs painted every possible shade of pink and orange, each pattern representing a different phase in the artist's life. The orangish ones are from Billy's avant-garde years. The light pink is when he dabbled in photo-realism. It took Michelangelo just four years to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Billy's crew has spent 15 perfecting the egg.Outdoor Life Online Editor
The One that Got Away
The One that Got Away
JOHN: J-Rock got us started with a beautiful Dolly Varden he handled masterfully and had in the net after just a five-minute fight. I didn't fare as well with the first rainbow I tied into. After a solid 10 minutes of runs into the backing and skillful boat work by Billy in the quick current, the fish came off. A tirade of expletives spewed from my mouth. I don't like to lose fish. Luckily, it wasn't long before a 23-inch Dolly Varden was doing all it could to permanently turn my forearms into triple knots of muscle. That fish eventually succumbed and landed in the net.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Now that's a trout
Now that's a trout
WILL: I don't choke on fish. If a trout breaks off, it's the equipment's fault. While John sulked over his missed opportunity, I watched my indicator nosedive underwater. With a swift jerk, it was fish-on! When the big 'bow first surfaced I didn't see it, but Billy did. "Oh, man, that's a pig!" he yelped. Now, I'm used to flattery from guides trying to stroke your ego. You'd think they were chatting up some girl at a bar the way they go on. So, of course, initially I didn't believe Billy. Then the brute swirled again and everyone uttered a collective "ohhhh!" The 25-inch 'bow teased and ran, but we got her to the net, made a few memories with the camera and sent her back to the river.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Happy Hour
Happy Hour
JOHN: After our first day on the Kenai we headed to Hamilton's, a dark, smoky little bar across the street from Troutfitters. Hamilton's is the kind of place where everyone in town shows up at some point during the night to see how everyone else did that day. After six hours of bull, the bartender had to ask us to leave. We had drunk her out of beer. So we walked out of the bar into the bright midnight sunshine and ambled back to the motel to crash.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Bear Repellent
Bear Repellent
WILL: Fortunately we had plenty of time to shake the hangover the next day as we waited in line to fish the upper Russian River, a sockeye spawning ground. The Russian River Campground can accommodate only a limited number of vehicles, so you arrive early, queue up and hope to get in before dinnertime. After 45 minutes of waiting, we pulled into a spot at the head of the Russian River Falls Trail and suited up. Our guide, Mike, checked the rounds in his sidearm. The splashing of salmon up the river signals a buffet for grizzlies. Just a few weeks before, Mike had been approached by a bear. His life was spared, but the bruin took a few practice casts with his fly rods and left them shattered on the bank. Mike, a Wisconsin native in his mid 20s, had been guiding in Alaska for just two seasons. Despite his limited experience, he acted like a veteran. Everything was understated. Are you worried about bears? "Eh," he'd answer. Show him a seven-pound trout: "Not a bad fish." We liked him. He put the gun in his belt. "Thirty-eight?" I asked. "Nope. Forty-four. Thirty-eight wouldn't do much." Truth be told, neither would a .44, but like a home-security system for the lonesome housewife, this was our peace of mind. Off we went down the trail, just over two miles to the falls. Salmon stacked up like books on a shelf, nudging each other upstream""a scene straight out of a nature documentary. We intended to lure savage rainbows with yarn flies and egg patterns, and we were equipped with six-weights to do just that. But the sockeyes were just begging to be caught. Six-weight rods are as stout as dry spaghetti when it comes to spawning sockeyes, but we weren't about to let thousands of fish go untouched. Mike stood on the shore nervously waiting for more of his precious rods to be broken, not by bears, but by a far more destructive force: salmon-hungry magazine editors.Outdoor Life Online Editor
A True Legend
A True Legend
JOHN: Our final day together began at Skilak Lake. At the back side of Skilak is the Swan Refuge, the gateway to a killer stretch of the Kenai. We had launched behind Billy's brother Carl (aka Fat Back), another Troutfitters guide, and a boatload of clients. After a couple of hours casting and drifting, we saw Fat Back motoring back upriver past us, presumably to make another pass at a stretch of river. As we floated by I noticed him making some kind of discreet hand signals in J-Rock's direction. No sooner had Carl motored out of sight around the bend than J-Rock got serious. "Alright, get ready. There's a legend up ahead." Apparently Fat Back had tipped J-Rock off to the location of a magnum rainbow. It was in a spot that traditionally held good fish, and as we approached I flipped my egg into the water and prepared to make the perfect drift through the zone. Sure enough, just as my line got perpendicular to the boat, the indicator vanished. I lifted the rod and the fight was on. What ensued was nearly a half hour of sizzling runs and dogged determination by both the fish and myself. Will and I did the fish-fight tango as he dodged me while I moved all around the boat in an effort to maintain tension on the line and keep the fish from running up to Skilak. J-Rock's rowing mastery was on full display as he kept me in the game. Just when I thought my wrists and forearms couldn't take it anymore, the fish came to net and Will put the brute in the boat. The 'bow measured 28 inches. A legend indeed.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Great Alaskan Bush Company
Great Alaskan Bush Company
WILL: I had to catch a flight to Denver, so John dropped me off at the airport before heading to Talkeetna for some king salmon fishing""but not before a stop at the Great Alaska Bush Company. If you are unfamiliar with the Bush Co., let's put it this way: It has nothing to do with horticulture. We were watching SportsCenter at the bar when the screens went dark, as did all the lights in the joint. It was a blackout. After 20 minutes, it was apparent the power wasn't coming back on soon, so we took off.Outdoor Life Online Editor
The King and I
The King and I
JOHN: After parting ways with Will at the terminal, I picked my way through downtown Anchorage, trying to find Highway 1 north to Talkeetna. This was not as easy at it should have been. People flooded the streets as they hit the stores to stock up on provisions. Traffic laws were abandoned outright. Apparently, without traffic lights, everyone completely forgets how to drive. When I finally made it to Talkeetna, I slept for three hours before meeting Bob Chlupach of Denali Anglers (907-733-1505; www.alaska.net/~valser/fish ak.htm). I would fish with Bob for two days on the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers. The fishing was slower than what Will and I had experienced on the Kenai Peninsula""lots of back trolling and tossing big plugs on spinning tackle. But I managed to land a 40-pound king on the second day, so I had some meat to bring home. It was a good way to close out what had been a week of ever-present daylight, perpetual exhaustion and some of the best damn fishing adventures two guys could possibly ask for.Outdoor Life Online Editor
The King and I
The King and I
JOHN: After parting ways with Will at the terminal, I picked my way through downtown Anchorage, trying to find Highway 1 north to Talkeetna. This was not as easy at it should have been. People flooded the streets as they hit the stores to stock up on provisions. Traffic laws were abandoned outright. Apparently, without traffic lights, everyone completely forgets how to drive. When I finally made it to Talkeetna, I slept for three hours before meeting Bob Chlupach of Denali Anglers (907-733-1505; www.alaska.net/~valser/fish ak.htm). I would fish with Bob for two days on the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers. The fishing was slower than what Will and I had experienced on the Kenai Peninsula""lots of back trolling and tossing big plugs on spinning tackle. But I managed to land a 40-pound king on the second day, so I had some meat to bring home. It was a good way to close out what had been a week of ever-present daylight, perpetual exhaustion and some of the best damn fishing adventures two guys could possibly ask for.Outdoor Life Online Editor

Lack of sleep, treacherous seas, monster trout and the constant threat of grizzly attacks. A road trip for the ages