Ad­ven­tures in the wild state

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Jonathan Young en­joys a “Grand Slam” week on Alaska’s Good­news River

A “Grand Slam” week of fish­ing on the banks of Alaska’s Good­news River is a fish­er­man’s dream, says Jonathan Young

This is an an­nounce­ment from An­chor­age in­ter­na­tional Air­port: Alaska is ob­sessed with fish­ing and hunt­ing. squint­ing from its home at the en­trance to Gate B is a mon­ster hal­ibut caught by Jack Tragis on 11 June 1996 – 9ft 5in from snout to fin and weigh­ing 459lb – while a world-record set­ting moose, shot by Dr Michael Cu­sack in 1973 in Bear Creek, stands in the main hall. And if you want a sou­venir for the loved one, the air­port shop sells seal­skin slip­pers and a se­lec­tion of Arc­tic-fox furs. Even the nearby park­ing tells a story; in­stead of cars there are hun­dreds of pri­vate float­planes bob­bing on their moor­ings.

Most of our fel­low trav­ellers were car­ry­ing rods as hand lug­gage and, like them, we’d trav­elled thou­sands of miles to ex­pe­ri­ence the plen­i­tude of Pa­cific sal­mon. For many years, as a young jour­nal­ist, i’d edited the copy of the great Arthur Oglesby, that ti­tan of fly-fish­ing in the ’70s and ’80s. When he wasn’t pur­su­ing 50-pound At­lantic sal­mon on Nor­way’s Vosso, Oglesby would take par­ties to Alaska’s Bris­tol Bay and i’ve never for­got­ten his tales of mas­sive sal­mon in mack­erel num­bers, a gilded prom­ise of the sort of sport once en­joyed by our 19th-cen­tury fore­bears, bend­ing cane rods in the high­lands. But per­haps oth­ers had. With the open­ing up of Rus­sia’s Kola Penin­sula and the spec­tac­u­lar catches on the Ponoi, such as the 19 rods land­ing more than 1,800 fish in a week at Ryabaga Camp in 2002, fish­er­men looked east, not west.

But that quan­tity of sil­ver re­quires heavy pay­ment in gold and while that’s deemed worth­while by ex­pe­ri­enced an­glers world­wide, the Pa­cific sal­mon give those

shack­led with school fees and mort­gages the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence rod-wrench­ing days at com­par­a­tively low cost, es­pe­cially if they travel to Good­news River Lodge in South­west Alaska. Set on the banks of the Good­news River, flow­ing out of the Ahk­lun Moun­tains into the Bering Sea, a “Grand Slam” week in late July, when it’s pos­si­ble to catch king, chum, pink, sock­eye and coho sal­mon, as well as rain­bow trout, Dolly Var­dens (a sea-go­ing char), Arc­tic char and grayling, costs $5,950. Any­one un­der 16 ac­com­pa­nied by an adult fishes for $3,995.

First, how­ever, you need to get there. Af­ter the usual weedy films and plas­tic-food or­deal of econ­omy class, we ar­rived fi­nally at the last stage, a two-hour char­ter flight to the Lodge. Be­fud­dled by travel, nei­ther my 20-year-old son, Fer­gus, nor I had both­ered to read the small no­tice by the check-in desk un­til, hor­ri­bly, it was too late for re­me­dial ac­tion. The boy al­most gig­gled. “Looks like I’m not go­ing to be the only one who can’t drink on this trip,” he said. “It says as we’re head­ing to a na­tive-land des­ti­na­tion, al­co­hol is banned.” What? I haven’t been “dry” since the lo­cal cider house al­lowed the town’s 14-year-olds a half pint of scrumpy in the back par­lour. A whole week with­out a drink? Un­think­able. But also, it seemed, in­evitable.

We waited for the plane, eye­ing up our fel­low pas­sen­gers’ hand lug­gage that we sus­pected car­ried liq­uid sup­plies. When she ar­rived, she was a beauty, a Su­per DC-3, Num­ber N30TN, that had orig­i­nally en­tered ser­vice with the United States Air Force on 10 Jan­uary 1941 and had then had a lively life, twice be­ing seized for drug run­ning by the US Drug En­force­ment Agency and used as a crop sprayer be­fore be­ing sold to Transnorth­ern Avi­a­tion in 2003. Stretch­ing lux­u­ri­ously in the sparse seat­ing, we watched Alaska’s moun­tains and glaciers roll by un­til a feath­erlight land­ing in Good­news Bay vil­lage, fol­lowed by a brisk boat trip up­river to Good­news Lodge.

We were shown to our digs for the week, a homely hut akin to a posh poly­tun­nel fit­ted with an in­dus­trial-look­ing heater. Af­ter a brief lunch of sal­mon and a glug of cof­fee, we set off for an af­ter­noon’s fish­ing.

At Good­news you’re is­sued daily with a dif­fer­ent guide, so there’s the chance to learn some­thing new each day. This also avoids the per­son­al­ity clashes that oc­ca­sion­ally oc­cur (I shall never for­get the or­deal of be­ing stuck for a week with “Pedrito the Bas­tard” on an­other ex­pe­di­tion). Our guide for the af­ter­noon was Jan Ste­wart, a lo­cal man from the Yup’ik peo­ple who own the land. We climbed into his boat, moored 60 yards from our hut. “Hope you’re ready for a long boat ride,” he warned,

gun­ning up the big out­board be­fore cut­ting the engine 90 sec­onds later and land­ing us 250 yards from the camp. He al­most smiled and we de­cided we liked Ste­wart a lot; he had our sense of hu­mour.

He steered Fer­gus to a junc­tion pool 30 yards into the river and within a minute his 9-wt rod was bowed by some­thing strong, one of the six chum he caught in the next two hours, to­gether with a pink. Most of the fish were fresh, the camp be­ing a short run from the sea, and I could hardly con­cen­trate on my own fish­ing for the sound of sup­pressed yells and Ste­wart’s traipse out to net an­other fish. “Still not con­nected, Dad?” came the boy’s “en­cour­ag­ing” cry as I ques­tioned the wis­dom of bring­ing him and the lack of gin-and-tonic so­lace at the end of the ses­sion.

But this is why I’d brought the boy out here. Up to now his fish­ing was lim­ited to stocked trout and the odd pollock and wrasse. I wanted him to learn not only how to cast prop­erly but also how to play sal­mon, some­thing that’s not learnt eas­ily or quickly nowa­days on Scot­tish fish. Fi­nally, I con­nected with a sock­eye, which turned out to be foul-hooked and, as Ste­wart told me with a grin, “doesn’t count”.

We re­turned to the Lodge for a shower, sup­per and our brief­ing by the camp’s owner, Mike Gor­ton. Like the rest of his team, Gor­ton isn’t merely keen on fish­ing, it’s a re­li­gion that pulls Amer­i­can out­doors­men to a near­monas­tic ex­is­tence in the coun­try’s wild places. He started guid­ing in Alaska in 1987 be­fore work­ing at the Good­news River Lodge for seven years, even­tu­ally buy­ing it with the help of a friend in 1996. His evan­gel­i­cal creed is to “re­vive and rekin­dle the faith that en­no­bles the hu­man spirit” by re­turn­ing peo­ple to the sim­ple joys of fish­ing they once ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore be­ing sub­mersed by the cares of modern life.

His ethos at­tracts fish­er­men through­out the world. The Bri­tish mostly come in June armed with spey rods to tackle the king sal­mon (though the guides think they would fare far bet­ter with sin­gle-handed 10-wts) that av­er­age 20lb-25lb but can reach more than 40lb. The dis­ci­ples of the coho or sil­ver sal­mon ar­rive in mid-au­gust when, ac­cord­ing to our guides, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble not to cast a fly and catch one, with a daily catch per rod of 50 fish, av­er­ag­ing 10lb-15lb, be­ing the norm. Sport is so in­tense that reg­u­lars pay for their slots even if they can­not make them that year so as not to lose their place.

At the end of July and early Au­gust the pinks pre­dom­i­nate. Weigh­ing

around 4lb-6lb, they have a two-year life­cy­cle with most of the fish re­turn­ing in even­num­bered years, such as 2016.

Ab­sorb­ing these facts, Fer­gus and I met the other guests, who in­cluded New York lawyer Gregg Ru­bin and his son, Winick, and the ex­tended Haaker fam­ily, who have a thriv­ing busi­ness sell­ing street sweep­ers and sewage trucks in Cal­i­for­nia. Like us, they could barely wait to fin­ish sup­per be­fore chuck­ing an­other line in the river out­side the Lodge.

Morn­ings start early at Good­news, with a 7am cooked break­fast. Hav­ing packed your “piece” for the day, it’s then on to the boats at 8am, with the op­tion of re­turn­ing to camp for a hot bowl of soup at lunchtime.

Our guide on the first full day was Will Sch­mitt, who taught Fer­gus to dou­ble-haul cast and wa­ter-load the line suc­cess­fully, both es­sen­tial skills for this type of fish­ing. All the guides were pa­tient in­struc­tors who took time to show a rel­a­tive novice the finer tech­niques; this alone was worth the trip.

In the mean­time, I kept at it, man­ag­ing to catch four out of the five sal­mon species, in­clud­ing a sock­eye (that rarely take the fly) and a “jack” chi­nook, which only take the ti­tle of “king” when they’re 20lb-plus. In to­tal, we ended up land­ing 10 fish be­fore head­ing back, wolf­ing down sup­per and crash­ing out at 10.30pm, when the camp gen­er­a­tor is switched off. Our week co­in­cided with a good run of chums, which don’t re­ally de­serve their dis­mis­sive name. In fact, it seems to be de­rived from the term “tzum”, mean­ing striped, from the lo­cal pid­gin lan­guage Chi­nook Jar­gon.

That seems more apt for a hand­some, bru­tally pow­er­ful fish that we landed in num­bers on the sec­ond day, spent with guide Steve Brown; a 12-pounder falling to Fer­gus’ rod, to­gether with his first coho, a mag­nif­i­cent 15-pounder still fes­tooned with long-tailed sea lice, and an­other 25 fish, mostly a mix of chums and pinks. Brown shared our ap­pre­ci­a­tion of these bull­dogs of the sea, say­ing, “if they grew as big as kings you’d hardly be able to get them in the boat”.

Our new friends, Gregg and Winick, agreed and the im­me­di­ately styled “Friends of Chum” were able to re­new their bat­tle the next day. Gregg and Winick landed 46, with a lit­tle help from a spin­ning rod, while Fer­gus and I man­aged 24 with our next guide, Johnny Napoli­tano, in­clud­ing my 15-pounder chum, a ze­bra-marked pugilist that Napoli­tano said was “the big­gest I’ve had on the boat this sea­son”, and a cou­ple of co­hos for Fer­gus, one a 12-pounder and es­pe­cially glad­den­ing for him since I’d had no sil­vers that day.

Hav­ing caught a short­ish-life­time’s worth of fish it was time to ex­per­i­ment. Steve Cratty was the cool dude of the Lodge, sport­ing shades and shirts that were more “Glasto fest”

than Alaskan west. EX-US Army, he’d found a home among the itin­er­ant world of pro­fes­sional guides and was de­ter­mined to forge a rep­u­ta­tion as a tech­ni­cal in­struc­tor. But the first three hours did not go well. The chum run was lit­er­ally dy­ing out, the early spawn­ers now drift­ing past dead or as half-de­cayed zom­bies, while the re­plen­ish­ing in­flux of sil­vers had yet to hap­pen. In three hours, Fer­gus had four pinks and I had one; won­der­ful num­bers on a Scot­tish river but dis­ap­point­ing on what one of the guides had pro­nounced proudly to be “the sal­mon cap­i­tal of the world”.

So Cratty de­cided to change tac­tics. In­stead of swing­ing streamer flies in the tidal wa­ter for the yet-to-ar­rive sil­vers we headed up­stream to fish dry fly. Well, al­most dry fly. Though it’s not un­known to catch At­lantics on the top in Ice­land, es­pe­cially with a rif­fled hitch fly, it’s not of­ten we wit­ness the ac­tual take with sal­mon. But Pacifics be­lie their name and can be goaded into ex­plo­sive ac­tion with a Gur­gler fly, a sim­ple con­fec­tion con­sist­ing mainly of a dou­bled-backed strip of foam. Sit­ting high on the wa­ter, with a pro­trud­ing top lip, when stripped through the wa­ter fast it cre­ates a wake, a splash and the dis­tinc­tive noise that gives it its name.

Cratty zapped up­stream to a back­wa­ter where the fish lie be­fore push­ing on to their spawn­ing grounds, and through the vod­ka­clear wa­ter we could see hun­dreds of pinks among the co­horts of red sock­eye, while down­stream there was the fre­quent ripple of a fresh pod of sil­vers mov­ing up. Chuck­ing our Gur­glers across the wa­ter, Fer­gus and I started strip­ping fast and within sec­onds we had fish fol­low­ing, their bow waves rip­pling the sur­face be­fore they grabbed the fly. We man­aged to land 20 on the Gur­gler, in­clud­ing a hefty sil­ver that leapt like an Olympic floor gym­nast.

The ex­pe­ri­ence had been what our cousins would de­scribe as “awe­some” and it seems the pair of us had passed some sort of test as our next guide, Eric Leininger, of­fered to lend us his per­sonal rods fit­ted with Rio shoot­ing­head fly­lines that make it easy to boom out a long chuck; but not be­fore he’d checked us out with the other guides who’d as­sured him, “Yeah, they’re ok, they can fish.”

We added an­other 12 to the tally, plus an­other 12 caught on a bank pat­terned with bear foot­prints, mak­ing a grand to­tal of 127 fish be­tween us for six-and-a-half days’ fish­ing. Does the tally mat­ter? Not re­ally. Num­bers don’t re­veal the joy of be­ing in a pris­tine wilder­ness, with lit­tle trace of man out­side the camp. No lit­ter, no build­ing, no noise ex­cept the com­pan­ion­able croak­ing of ravens and the heavy thump of jump­ing sal­mon. Nor can fig­ures tally the plea­sure of new friends and of shar­ing a whole week with your son. But the catch sta­tis­tics do show why the long jour­ney to Alaska be­comes a pil­grim­age for all those who love end­less wild places and wild fish.

Left: some vis­i­tors pre­fer spey rods but guides favour sin­gle-han­ders. Be­low: a sea-fresh chum

Guides Jan Ste­wart (above) and Will Sch­mitt with the writer. The guides change daily

Above: a moose and calf cross the river within sight of the camp. Be­low: the camp’s huts nes­tled next to the Good­news River

Above: a land un­spoilt by man. Right: Fer­gus Young with one of our 127 fish for the week

above left: per­fect­ing cast­ing skills. above: a coho (sil­ver) caught on the gur­gler. Be­low: the ex­ten­sive good­news river sys­tem

head­ing to alaska

con­tact

The writer’s trip was has­sle-free and or­gan­ised by Fron­tiers Travel, Ken­net Cot­tage, Kemps­ford, Glouces­ter­shire GL7 4EQ.

Tel: 0845 299 6212 or 01285 700322. Email: info@fron­tier­strvl.co.uk www.fron­tier­strvl.co.uk

tips

We let the Lodge pro­vide us with waders, wad­ing boots and all the fish­ing tackle, which worked per­fectly.

You do need a wad­ing jacket, some warm lay­ers, strip­ping gloves and mos­quito spray, but the beasts weren’t as fe­ro­cious as the midges found on the south-west coast of Scot­land.

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