800 Miles to Empty
A pair of brashOL editors spent a week fishing some of the most legendary waters in southernAlaska. Here’s their story...
A pair of brashOL editors spent a week fishing some of the most legendary waters in southernAlaska. Here’s their story in their own words.
WILL: At 36,000feet, we left behind our intention of being men on a fishing adventure andturned into idiots. The jet was pointed toward Alaska. Empty beer cans sat onour tray tables. It was June 21, the longest day of the year in the NorthernHemisphere. For days we would chase fish under the watchful eye of an eternalsun. So, why not fish as long as possible, in as many places as possible, withas little sleep as possible? It was a premise sure to produce good stories, butit was also pretty stupid. Our physical and mental condition was alreadyquestionable. Delays had turned into cancellations and a rerouting throughAtlanta. We were worn thin and still had four hours before landing inAnchorage.
JOHN: The delaysen route didn’t leave us much time to visit with two representatives from GMCwho were waiting at the airport with a 2007 Denali they were going to let ususe during our stay. (If you’re doing an Alaska road trip, it should be in avehicle named for one of the state’s most famous landmarks, right?)
We were headed toSeward, and it was already 10 p.m. when we hit the road. Our three-hour drivedown the Seward Highway was shrouded by drizzle and the dim light of dusk. Bythe time we reached our hotel, we’d been awake for nearly 24 hours and were dueat the docks in less than five hours.
WILL: The nextmorning we met Wally of Crackerjack Charters (877-224-2606;crackerjackcharters.com), a grizzled sea captain tuned in to halibut like ahound on a blood trail. Despite his expertise, something felt amiss. It was theweather. 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 waternamed Resurrection Bay, it was time to repent. Prayers and Dramamine were inorder. The seas beat us like an angry prizefighter. We watched our shipmateshug the railing and let fly the contents of their stomachs.
Two of thembemoaned the relative emptiness of their coolers, telling us their wiveswouldn’t be happy if they returned home without halibut fillets. So at the endof the day I tied on a diamond jig, drenched it with fish attractant and sentit 300 feet down.
After a few sharpjerks, I was pulled to my knees by something gargantuan. This was the barn doorthe fellas needed to bring home. The fish yanked and I yanked back. My backseared with pain as I tried to keep the pressure on. Waves washed over thegunwale. I was fighting a true sea beast. Primal screams came from my gut, andI vowed not to let the thing get away.
This went on forabout 20 minutes, without any progress. My histrionics were starting to becomeawkward for everyone on board when Wally stepped in.
“Let me holdthe rod,” he said. He jerked it a couple of times and turned to me.”You’re hung.”
There I stood, inResurrection Bay, the world’s most humiliated fisherman.
JOHN: In additionto several mid-size halibut, we caught a bunch of yellow eyes–a type ofgrouper–and took a few fillets over to the Apollo restaurant, where the cooksprepared them for us.
We were surely asight to behold for all the nice families and older couples who made up therestaurant’s clientele. Our faces bore the effects of a day of salt, sun andwind. Our clothing smelled of cut herring and halibut blood. Nonetheless, wesettled into the pleather booth, ordered a round of Alaska Ambers and recountedour day on the high seas.
WILL: Afterdinner, back through the valley we went, following the Kenai River, a body ofwater that seemed plugged into a 120-volt outlet. The electric blue glowed likea neon sign that read FISH HERE. The river led us to the crossroads of CooperLanding, a collection of a few bars and restaurants, a motel or two, tackleshops and a general store.
We parked atAlaska Troutfitters–a flea-market complex of drift boats on trailers, a guideshop and a motel–sometime after midnight, the sun still staring out from behindthe mountain rim. I couldn’t sleep, though anglers in other rooms challengedthe 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 nasalpassage.
Early the nextmorning we met our guides, Billy Coulliette and Jason Rand, better known inthose parts as J-Rock. John, sipping a cup of coffee and plugging his lip withchew, looked like the only one who’d gotten any shut-eye.
JOHN: Our firstday with Troutfitters (907-595-1212; aktroutfitters.com) started on the UpperKenai, at a launch near what is called the Combat Zone. Here anglers standshoulder to shoulder during the sockeye run and beat the river to a froth asthey attempt to catch their daily limit of the prized fish. Knife fights havebroken out in the past when one fisherman didn’t reel in his line fast enoughfor 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 populatedstretch of water.
Will and I haveboth lived in New York City since before the attacks of September 11, and itseems that everywhere we go to hunt or fish, someone asks, “Where were youon 9/11?” So it wasn’t surprising when Billy and J-Rock brought up thesubject soon after we launched their drift boat. What was surprising was theway the conversation progressed.
“So, were youguys 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 lookedat 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 ofus 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’sright, man,” said Billy, ashamed he’d forgotten the date of such alegendary day of fishing.
Neither of themmeant to be insensitive. They’re just so consumed with fishing that otherthings 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.
WILL: A fellownamed Cooper (obviously) founded Cooper Landing while he was speculating forgold. 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 oflittle beads painted to represent the roe in its various stages, and thesepatterns are protected like nuclear secrets. And for good reason: What theguides get in return are huge fish and repeat customers.
All of Billy’sguides carry large tackle boxes filled with eggs painted every possible shadeof pink and orange, each pattern representing a different phase in the artist’slife. The orangish ones are from Billy’s avant-garde years. The light pink iswhen he dabbled in photo-realism. It took Michelangelo just four years tocomplete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Billy’s crew has spent 15perfecting the egg.
JOHN: J-Rock gotus started with a beautiful Dolly Varden he handled masterfully and had in thenet after just a five-minute fight. I didn’t fare as well with the firstrainbow I tied into. After a solid 10 minutes of runs into the backing andskillful boat work by Billy in the quick current, the fish came off. A tiradeof expletives spewed from my mouth. I don’t like to lose fish. Luckily, itwasn’t long before a 23-inch Dolly Varden was doing all it could to permanentlyturn my forearms into triple knots of muscle. That fish eventually succumbedand landed in the net.
WILL: I don’tchoke on fish. If a trout breaks off, it’s the equipment’s fault. While Johnsulked over his missed opportunity, I watched my indicator nosedive underwater.With a swift jerk, it was fish-on!
When the big ‘bowfirst surfaced I didn’t see it, but Billy did. “Oh, man, that’s a pig!”he yelped.
Now, I’m used toflattery from guides trying to stroke your ego. You’d think they were chattingup some girl at a bar the way they go on. So, of course, initially I didn’tbelieve Billy.
Then the bruteswirled 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 thecamera and sent her back to the river.
JOHN: After ourfirst day on the Kenai we headed to Hamilton’s, a dark, smoky little bar acrossthe street from Troutfitters. Hamilton’s is the kind of place where everyone intown shows up at some point during the night to see how everyone else did thatday. After six hours of bull, the bartender had to ask us to leave. We haddrunk her out of beer. So we walked out of the bar into the bright midnightsunshine and ambled back to the motel to crash.
WILL: Fortunatelywe had plenty of time to shake the hangover the next day as we waited in lineto fish the upper Russian River, a sockeye spawning ground. The Russian RiverCampground can accommodate only a limited number of vehicles, so you arriveearly, queue up and hope to get in before dinnertime.
After 45 minutesof waiting, we pulled into a spot at the head of the Russian River Falls Trailand suited up. Our guide, Mike, checked the rounds in his sidearm. Thesplashing of salmon up the river signals a buffet for grizzlies. Just a fewweeks before, Mike had been approached by a bear. His life was spared, but thebruin took a few practice casts with his fly rods and left them shattered onthe bank.
Mike, a Wisconsinnative in his mid 20s, had been guiding in Alaska for just two seasons. Despitehis limited experience, he acted like a veteran. Everything was understated.Are you worried about bears? “Eh,” he’d answer. Show him a seven-poundtrout: “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 lonesomehousewife, this was our peace of mind. Off we went down the trail, just overtwo miles to the falls.
Salmon stacked uplike books on a shelf, nudging each other upstream–a scene straight out of anature documentary. We intended to lure savage rainbows with yarn flies and eggpatterns, and we were equipped with six-weights to do just that. But thesockeyes were just begging to be caught. Six-weight rods are as stout as dryspaghetti when it comes to spawning sockeyes, but we weren’t about to letthousands of fish go untouched. Mike stood on the shore nervously waiting formore of his precious rods to be broken, not by bears, but by a far moredestructive force: salmon-hungry magazine editors.
A TRUELEGEND…DARKNESS AT LAST
JOHN: Our finalday together began at Skilak Lake. At the back side of Skilak is the SwanRefuge, the gateway to a killer stretch of the Kenai. We had launched behindBilly’s brother Carl (aka Fat Back), another Troutfitters guide, and a boatloadof clients. After a couple of hours casting and drifting, we saw Fat Backmotoring back upriver past us, presumably to make another pass at a stretch ofriver. As we floated by I noticed him making some kind of discreet hand signalsin J-Rock’s direction.
No sooner hadCarl motored out of sight around the bend than J-Rock got serious.”Alright, get ready. There’s a legend up ahead.” Apparently Fat Backhad tipped J-Rock off to the location of a magnum rainbow. It was in a spotthat traditionally held good fish, and as we approached I flipped my egg intothe 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 liftedthe rod and the fight was on. What ensued was nearly a half hour of sizzlingruns and dogged determination by both the fish and myself. Will and I did thefish-fight tango as he dodged me while I moved all around the boat in an effortto 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. Justwhen I thought my wrists and forearms couldn’t take it anymore, the fish cameto net and Will put the brute in the boat. The ‘bow measured 28 inches. Alegend indeed.
WILL: I had tocatch a flight to Denver, so John dropped me off at the airport before headingto Talkeetna for some king salmon fishing–but not before a stop at the GreatAlaska Bush Company. If you are unfamiliar with the Bush Co., let’s put it thisway: It has nothing to do with horticulture. We were watching SportsCenter atthe bar when the screens went dark, as did all the lights in the joint. It wasa blackout. After 20 minutes, it was apparent the power wasn’t coming back onsoon, so we took off.
GOING ITALONE…THE KING AND I
JOHN: Afterparting ways with Will at the terminal, I picked my way through downtownAnchorage, trying to find Highway 1 north to Talkeetna. This was not as easy atit should have been. People flooded the streets as they hit the stores to stockup on provisions. Traffic laws were abandoned outright. Apparently, withouttraffic lights, everyone completely forgets how to drive.
When I finallymade it to Talkeetna, I slept for three hours before meeting Bob Chlupach ofDenali Anglers (907-733-1505; www.alaska.net/~valser/fishak.htm). I would fishwith Bob for two days on the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers. The fishing wasslower than what Will and I had experienced on the Kenai Peninsula–lots of backtrolling and tossing big plugs on spinning tackle. But I managed to land a40-pound king on the second day, so I had some meat to bring home. It was agood way to close out what had been a week of ever-present daylight, perpetualexhaustion and some of the best damn fishing adventures two guys could possiblyask for.