Big fish & bear country
Wild adventures on Alaska’s Kodiak Island
TWO of my fishing pals decided to take a walk on the wild side, accompanying me on a filming trip to Kodiak Island off the Alaskan coast. Mike Cornall (aged 79) and David Brady (72) are both well-travelled but they wanted somewhere that offers great fishing and the chance to come face to face with the world’s largest bears – don’t be alarmed because they’re not as dangerous as you might think! The Kodiak coastal brown bears can reach 12 feet in height when stood on their hind legs, but they’re completely nonconfrontational due to a rich food supply! Hugely impressive, the bear’s prime diet includes berries and grasses together with the massive numbers of migrating Pacific salmon for which Kodiak is equally famous. Our remit was to catch those fresh-run, bright silver coho salmon and to view these magnificent bears in their natural habitat, often at very close quarters!
Hot summer impact
Coastal Alaska had enjoyed a long, hot and dry summer which did impact on the salmon runs and the number of bears targeting them. The coastal Pacific sea temperatures were higher than normal and water levels in the streams and rivers well below average. Normally we’d have access to five miles of river but, with such low water, we could only fish one mile of river from the estuary access point. While salmon were running up to spawn, numbers were also well down on previous years. A lot of the Kodiak brown bears were concentrating their feeding requirements on the huge volumes of sedge grasses and berries. They’d return to the river estuaries and pools a few weeks later as the autumn rains came and river levels would rise, bringing in vast numbers of late-run salmon. That said, my two fly fishers, who’d yet to catch a salmon from previous trips in Europe, would land and release more than 100 silver salmon in just six days. That did not include a number of beautifully-marked char (dolly varden), rainbow trout and the occasional steelhead – all caught on fly.
To reach the remote fishing camps run by Dick and Sam Rohrer, we had to fly to Kodiak City via Seattle and Anchorage (easy flight connections with Virgin/Delta and an excellent daily service). After a quality overnight stopover we’d fly into these remote camps by helicopter and floatplane, an adventure in itself. I use the word ‘camp’ and not ‘lodge’ as accommodation is comfortable, clean, warm and basic. There is no running water and the toilet is a ‘long drop non-flush affair’. Perfectly acceptable in the true outback wilderness of this stunninglyscenic and pristine location. Our cook, Jeannie, provided excellent meals, many of which used local produce.
Our guide for Sam’s Camp was a most knowledgeable character called Hiram Newcomer, who we also named ‘mountain man’. Hiram had a great sense of humour and has guided this remote area for 40 years. He knows every productive pool and glide on this beautiful river, which was exclusively ours apart from the occasional rafter and eight Kodiak brown bears that appeared each day at various locations along the riverbank. With Hiram by our side we felt totally at peace with the bears and there was no fear factor, just 100 percent respect, which worked both ways. On a number of days we’d approach a favoured pool only to
“My two fly fishers would catch and release more than 100 silver salmon in just six days.”
find a family of bears in it. We would respectively wait our turn and when they moved away, up or down river, we started to cast. It would not take long before Mike or David was into a strong, hard-fighting coho salmon. The salmon were holding in the deeper pools while the char and rainbows frequented the shallower riffles and glides. We were given clear instructions to remain calm if and when a bear turned up on the bank in front or behind us and that, if we were playing a fish, to immediately lower the rod in order that the salmon would not splash. Bears are highly tuned into smell and sound and the splash of a salmon is an immediate attraction!
On one occasion a mother and cub approached us just as David was releasing his salmon and Mike was playing one too. We followed Hiram’s instructions and, as the bears approached to within 15 yards, Hiram walked towards them talking in a calm but firm voice. They actually obeyed his request to turn round and walk away. It was most reassuring to know that we all followed the same script and it was all recorded on film in glorious 4K (the film clip will be released on my YouTube Channel in December).
While the fishing was tougher than the previous year, it was still excellent by our standards. Sure we had to work at it, get the cast right, change flies frequently, and move from pool to pool. But with effort came the reward of superb, hard-fighting, fresh-run salmon, properly hooked, and weighing in the region of 10 to 18lb. Some days my fishing pals would share a catch of three or four salmon and other days they would catch and release many, many more (we simply lost count).
We had a six night camp stay with a night in Kodiak City at the start and end of our trip. In addition we also stayed overnight in Anchorage, which is a great gateway to exploring the incredible state of Alaska. Durations can be flexible and itineraries bespoke to clients’ requirements. I am heading back yet again next August with a small group of friends who have the same wish as David and Mike – to catch salmon and trout/char and to get up close and personal with the amazing wildlife of Kodiak Island. The camp’s capacity is only four to six clients, it is as exclusive as that. Irrespective of weather or water levels, I’ve never been disappointed.
“With effort came the reward of superb hardfighting salmon, properly hooked and weighing in the region of 10-18lb.”
on the menu! A Kodiak coastal brown bear: We’re not
Mike plays a coho two miles from the sea on Sam’s Creek.