Out There

TWO FRIENDS BRAVE LOGJAMS, BEARS AND BUGS TO FISH VIR­GIN RAIN­BOW WA­TERS IN THE ALASKA BACK­COUN­TRY

Anglers Journal - - FIRST LIGHT - BY JOHN JINISHIAN

The Cessna’s pow­er­ful en­gine yanked the tail rope from my hands as the air­craft leaped for­ward. The plane skimmed across the sur­face of the wa­ter and lifted ma­jes­ti­cally into the late spring breeze. As the drone of the en­gine faded into the dis­tance, we were left alone at a re­mote headwater lake in the south­west Alaska bush. Only an­i­mal tracks lay on the gravel bar be­neath our feet. We were about to row down a river with one recorded de­scent, and that was more than 20 years ago.

There is no per­son I would rather have by my side dur­ing an ex­pe­di­tion like this than Pete Jaacks. My busi­ness part­ner and ad­ven­ture com­pan­ion, he and I forged a friend­ship on a shared pas­sion for ex­plo­ration while work­ing to­gether as wilder­ness fly fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion guides in Alaska

(wildriver­fish.com). Not ev­ery trip is suited for clients, and this was one of them.

We had been plan­ning the “Jun­gle Creek” ex­pe­di­tion for more than a year; it was aptly named for the omi­nous patches of in­tim­i­dat­ing ter­rain that we spot­ted dur­ing scout­ing fly­overs. Satel­lite im­agery re­vealed en­tire sec­tions of river that seemed im­pas­si­ble. The risk was gen­uine, but the po­ten­tial of an un­pres­sured rain­bow trout fish­ery was too tan­ta­liz­ing to pass up.

This trip was our pre­sea­son dose of ex­plo­ration be­fore the sum­mer guide work be­gan. The float plane had set us down in wilder­ness. We had five nights to make it to the pickup point 25 river miles from where we stood. We knew the

river was small and that we would have to thread our boat through a nee­dle of ob­sta­cles. With light­weight be­ing the only way to travel, we chose a small in­flat­able ca­noe. Our meals were freezedried. We packed what we needed and not much more, with the ex­cep­tion of beer and bour­bon ra­tions. Among our war­ranted con­cerns were mos­qui­toes, tough travel and fear of griz­zly bears. Some might won­der why any­one would choose a trip like this, but it was medicine for our minds.

A Strong Start

We hit the gravel beach, ea­ger to be­gin. Our scout­ing re­vealed a trib­u­tary of the headwater lake with the fea­tures of strong rain­bow ter­ri­tory. Cu­rios­ity took con­trol, and we or­ches­trated our drop zone close by, so we had a chance to in­ves­ti­gate. Our raft was in­flated and packed with­out de­lay. We rowed over to the creek mouth and be­gan to trek up­river on foot. Armed with a mouse pat­tern, Pete had got­ten stuck in a patch of quick­sand-like mud and was mo­ments away from turn­ing down­river. I was 50 yards up­stream, mov­ing slowly, my eyes scan­ning the clear wa­ter. My heart skipped a beat when I dis­cov­ered a 2-foot fish sit­ting across the creek, be­hind a fallen branch. The fish was in per­fect am­bush po­si­tion. Rain­bow trout in Alaska feed ag­gres­sively post-spawn, and I was pretty damn sure this fish would eat any fly we put in front of it, but I wanted to watch it eat a mouse fly. I strug­gled to keep my head cool and voice low. I placed my streamer rods into the wil­lows and ges­tured at Pete, urg­ing him to keep com­ing. He cau­tiously worked his way up to where I stood, then saw the fish. “That’s a stud of a fish” were the only words that es­caped his mouth.

He positioned him­self to make a pre­sen­ta­tion with­out spook­ing the rain­bow. He de­liv­ered the fly slightly up­stream, and as soon as it hit the wa­ter, the fish tor­pe­doed out and en­gulfed the mouse. Pete set the hook, and the fish shot back across the river. I watched the waltz of give and take un­til the fish wrapped Pete’s line on a branch midriver. I waded out in haste to free the line, and min­utes later I slid the tro­phy trout into the net. My cam­era fired away as wa­ter dripped off the mag­nif­i­cent leop­ard-spot­ted fish. Hell of a start to the trip.

The Smell Be­fore Rain

We spent nearly 24 hours at the headwater lake, ex­plor­ing the pris­tine land­scape be­fore be­gin­ning the de­scent down the creek. The fish­ing was sim­ply too ex­tra­or­di­nary to leave. At our lake­side camp, we landed more than 20 fish, six of them longer than 20 inches, with the largest more than 25. Th­ese fish were dif­fer­ent from most rain­bows I have en­coun­tered in Alaska. More rem­i­nis­cent of steel­head, th­ese fish were bright sil­ver bul­lets that hit like freight trains, fought hard, ran fast and didn’t give up.

Our at­tempt to ex­plore an ad­ja­cent trib­u­tary was

un­suc­cess­ful. A ter­ri­to­rial pair of Arc­tic terns were in­tent on at­tack­ing us, so we re­sumed our voy­age. The lake fun­neled into a nar­row chan­nel that marked the start­ing line of our down­stream jour­ney.

We landed sev­eral fish at the lake’s out­flow be­fore con­tin­u­ing down­river. The me­an­der­ing bends shielded our vi­sion, but hik­ing up riverside bluffs let us scout down­river. Our first hike re­sulted in panic when I re­al­ized my rain­coat was not on the ca­noe’s bow, where I had left it. On day two of six, my mind flashed to the im­age of me wear­ing an ex­tra-large garbage bag in a se­ries of down­pours, and I be­gan run­ning down­river. Af­ter 75 yards, I found the black Gore-tex “boat” caught in a branch be­side the river. That was the only time it rained all week, but had I lost my coat, you can bet the skies would have opened up.

The river was a dif­fer­ent beast than the lake. Its clear wa­ter cre­ated a neu­tral bat­tle­field in our hunt for trout. We could see most of the fish we tar­geted, and they could see us. We had to be stealthy or they would spook. We took the sun and shad­ows into ac­count. We crawled on our hands and knees to get into po­si­tion, made tricky bow and ar­row casts, and spooked our fair share of fish. The top five miles of the river were chock-full of fish, but most were rel­a­tively small. Streamer fish­ing was re­mark­able, and at one point my five casts were re­warded with five fish. The large lake fish had spoiled us, and we ques­tioned if we would see any large fish for the re­main­der of the trip.

The tight, jun­gle-like veg­e­ta­tion was a par­adise for mos­qui­toes. They were re­lent­less dur-

ing the even­ing, and we hid be­hind the fire’s smoke screen, pray­ing the wind would pick up. Thoughts of more omi­nous preda­tors also loomed. Big bear tracks and sun-bleached fish bones lit­tered the gravel bars, re­mind­ing us we weren’t alone. We knew that tak­ing this trip dur­ing the fall would have been in­san­ity. We fig­ured that most bears were still in the moun­tains, but the last thing we wanted was to sur­prise a big bruin. We sang, yelled and loudly quoted our fa­vorite movies as we moved down the river. (In ad­di­tion to bear spray, Pete car­ried a .45-70 Gov­ern­ment ri­fle, and I brought a .44 Mag­num.)

Tough Go­ing

The head­wa­ters held few haz­ards, but we knew a tough road lay ahead. Af­ter the up­per stretches, the river chal­lenged us. Travel grew stren­u­ous, and our pace slowed as we en­coun­tered downed trees, logjams and over­hang­ing branches. Some ar­eas were not nav­i­ga­ble. We had to get cre­ative, break­ing up jams and snags, and car­ry­ing the boat through, over and around block­ages. We lined the raft down treach­er­ous chan­nels and used hand­saws to cut through dead­locked veg­e­ta­tion.

The work was dif­fi­cult. We poured sweat into our waders late into the day, but the re­wards were ev­ery­where. The same woody de­bris that lit­tered the river and hin­dered nav­i­ga­tion pro­vided pris­tine rain­bow habi­tat. The start of tough go­ing marked the re­turn of big fish.

We were catch­ing 30 to 50 fish per day, all rain­bows, and most days we caught six or eight fish longer than 20 inches. We fished only mouse flies and stream­ers. This was the healthy, un­spoiled fish­ery we’d sought. We fished late into the even­ing. It was just days be­fore the sum­mer sol­stice, and the land of the mid­night sun pro­vided nearly 20 hours of day­light. Our motto: Fish hard and make camp late. This was not a client trip, and there was no need to at­tend to crea­ture com­forts.

We’d as­sumed that the spring trip would pro­vide us chances to tar­get res­i­dent species, but we were sur­prised not to catch any Arc­tic char or grayling. On our fi­nal day, we merged with a river that dwarfed the creek, and we couldn’t re­sist the urge to fish the con­flu­ence. I swung a streamer on the edge of the seam. On my first drift, a 22-inch foot­ball rain­bow en­gulfed my fly, went sky­ward and of­fered a good fight. I re­leased the fish, and on the very next drift a bright sil­ver fish crushed the streamer and bull­dogged against me.

This fish fought dif­fer­ently. It flexed my 7-weight rod to the cork and stayed in the cur­rent. I worked the fish into the eddy that the col­lid­ing rivers cre­ated, guided it into my hand, re­moved the streamer from its mouth and re­leased it. That jack king salmon was the ic­ing on the cake.

We con­tin­ued down­stream to the GPS co­or­di­nates for our pickup and broke down our gear. The hum of the float­plane came into earshot. We’d trav­eled only 25 miles, but we’d worked for ev­ery inch of it. I felt a sense of peace, know­ing that Pete and I had prob­a­bly been the only peo­ple to fish some of those spots.

Would I do it again? Yes, but there’s so much un­ex­plored wa­ter out there. Pete and I al­ready have our eyes set on the next ad­ven­ture.

John Jinishian plays a mouse-eat­ing bow. The men made it a point to fish hard and camp late.

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