Bristol Bay Fish Camp
By Bill Hodges
Our annual Alaskan fishing adventure started at the San Mateo Sports show, where Mike Spurlock and Jim Purcell were convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Rainbow Bend Lodge on the Naknek River was THE BEST place to catch King and Sockeye salmon. They put down their money on the spot, then committed me and Scotty McMullin to do the same. And the planning began for a July1-9 trip to the fishing village of King Salmon, on the Alaskan Peninsula.
When Scotty’s wife became ill, we found ourselves seeking a replacement for this fine old chum (aka "the Kitchen Bitch" from our previous trips). His cooking in harsh environments was the stuff of legends, not to mention his campfire stories about Indian lore and such. How does one fill these shoes? Jim’s friend, Ron Gustafson, was to be the lucky 4th, and soon would become known as the "E-Man". More on that later.
Fishing trips to Alaska are planned around where and when the fish arrive. On Lake Jordan and the Naha River near Ketchikan in ’96, August saw the arrival of the Pink ("Humpy") and the Sockeye ("Red") salmon. That’s where we went. On Castle River near Petersberg last year, the Chum ("Dog") and fighting Coho ("Silver") salmon species arrived in August, so that’s when we went. The remaining salmonid is the mighty King ("Chinook"). This year, in early July, we were to find the King of Fish coming up the Naknek River fromBristol Bay, the most fertile salmon grounds in the world.
North to Alaska
We all rendezvoused at the Anchorage airport, after uneventful flights from Portland and San Francisco. The first thing we noticed upon our arrival were the headlines in the Anchorage Daily News: "Lowest Sockeye Run In 20 Years Could Lead To Bristol Bay Disaster". Not a good sign, since the Sockeye salmon far outnumbered the Kings, and we expected most of our fishing to be for the smaller Sockeyes.
To get to King Salmon, AK near Bristol Bay - 350 miles to the southwest - we were required to board a cigar on wings. Most notable about Pennair was how the co-pilot (age about 18-20) encouraged us to pass around the candy basket, like a church collection plate, to our passenger load made up mostly of tough Alaskan males, plus us four city boys. We were met by Diedra O’Neill at the airport. She and her husband Pat did all the selling at the San Mateo Sports Show.
Because of the plane’s size, we were told our heavy duffels were to be sent on the next Alaskan Airlines jet, so we used the hour and a half wait to grocery and liquor-shop, and to obtain our $65 fishing licenses. A forklift unloaded the bags from the 737 cargo/passenger combo jet, then dumped them in a heap behind a fence. The mob was let into the arena and we commenced to find all the missing gear. A 5-mile ride in Diedra’s Suburban led us to her boat on the Naknek, which pulled a mile around the river to the cabins.
Rainbow Bend consisted of several attractive cabins, a sauna-shower-bathroom house, a generator shack and an office/store shed. The toilets looked normal, except to flush, you had to step on a lever which would rotate a hollow, globe-shaped stopper in the bottom, making a nearly silent, yet efficient, flush. Oh, and you needed to use a cup of water from a bucket to flush it all down. There was no running water or electricity unless the generator was on. Between 6 and 10 AM and 6 to 9 PM, we could run this contraption, as long as you followed the instructions to a tee. Altogether, this was a luxury compared to the Forest Service cabins the previous two years….no electricity, no water and an outhouse
Two German men arrived to occupy the cabin next to us. The somewhat cocky spokesman for the twosome made it quite clear they did not fly over the polar ice cap all night to come to these hallowed fishing grounds for the lowly Sockeye. "Nein! Vee only here for zee Kings". They displayed their expertise to us day after day, with their spin-casting gear, bagging the daily limit, including a 40-pound Chinook right out of the shoot. Eventually they took us to their favorite spots, and in the end, we became good friends.
Later during our first afternoon on the Naknek, after about a five-minute ride in our two Johnboats, we went to a place formed around three knee high grassy islands. We’d anchor the boats on the islands and wade out to the fast water. With the help of a guide (part of the first day’s package), we’d practice the "Alaska Flip". You let out about 20 feet of sink-tip line, swing the rod around, up and over your head slowly to get the fly out of the water, then flip it upstream at about the 10 O’clock, then wait for the hit. We could see groups of 10-20 Sockeye all around us a few feet below the surface. We all landed good fish, in the 8-10 lb. range, and saved one for dinner. That night and thereafter, the newly assigned "K.B.", Jim Purcell, prepared a fine meal. But our thoughts were on the King, known to be heading up Big Creek.
A salmon’s life begins in a streambed, and then it heads down a creek to a river and eventually out into the ocean for one to four years to eat lots and get big and strong. It then reverses the exact route up the river and stream to the same grounds it came from, to spawn and die. Of course this is what the Bristol Bay fishing fleet, and all the Bald Eagles we saw, are hoping. Nobody knows how they make their way back, but a "run" of Kings can be very exciting. On the Kenai Peninsula northeast of here, the King run is sometimes 10 feet thick with fish and many miles long! That’s where "combat fishing" came to be, when there’s a fisherman on each elbow. We preferred the isolation of one or two miles of creek for each boat, and we found it on this very long serpentine waterway.
Our German friends hit pay dirt on Big Creek, which was the ideal conduit to salmon spawning grounds. Our ill-advised belief was that four reasonably experienced fly fishermen could equal their catch. The trick is to arrive on the bar at low tide, then catch the deep, invisible 20-60-lb. monsters riding the incoming tide. Cast to the opposite bank, let the deep fly drift, and wait for your arm to be ripped off. The Alaska King record is 97 lbs.!
I was congratulated for catching the first two Kings, though not exactly ones for the record books, and Ron landed a plus-20 lb. beauty. It is unfortunate to report in this diary that one of our more experienced and proud fishermen got "skunked" on Kings the entire trip. The other mystery fisherman was exemplary in his mastery of the sport, but, alas, to reveal his identity would leave the other’s reputation in shambles and circling the drain. We would not want his abject humiliation to dampen his hopes for next year’s trip. As a legacy of failure sometimes goes, there’s always a silver lining: we can tease this pathetic and miserable person to our great satisfaction and enjoyment, all year long. Perhaps he’s lucky he doesn’t "do this for a living".
The State bird. Size of a small Buick. There have been many monikers for the famous Alaskan mosquito. Big Creek, and the inside of our cabin at night, proved to be their greatest feeding ground. Deet and Backwoods Off proved effective enough outside in the wilds, and head nets were used a lot on Big Creek, but these critters still found their way to unprotected flesh while we slept. We all suffered from nighttime bites, which left us with whelps to ponder and scratch for weeks to come. Ron’s arms were so swollen by the time he got back to Anchorage; we had to make a fast run to a pharmacy to relieve the pain and swelling.
Our July 4th fly-out to this place on the Brooks River and Brooks Lake was eagerly anticipated. Cecil of C-Air arrived at our dock in his Cessna 180 floatplane for the 30-minute flight to Brooks Lodge. After take-off he spotted several Caribou and Moose below and circled them for a better look. Upon arrival at the Lodge’s gravely shore, we prepared ourselves for bear country. Most folks have seen the still photo of the Grizzly catching the salmon mid-air while standing in the waterfall. That was taken here, in one of the world’s largest concentrations of Brown (Grizzly) bears.
We had to view a video on bear etiquette before venturing out into their presence to watch them and fish among them. Here’s the rules: a) never run - you’ll become prey, b) never look them in the eye - it would be considered a challenge, c) make noises and gestures – to look human, d) back away slowly – hope he/she doesn’t follow, e) if a fish is on your line and he sees it, give it up, f) if attacked, get in fetal position, cover your head, take the pain and play dead - and pray it goes away. Well, we’d certainly want to review these notes while fishing in their water, now wouldn’t we?
After the video, we got our little bear etiquette badges for the Rangers to see, stored our food in the cache atop a 15-ft. tower, and headed across a pontoon bridge for the park trail to Brooks Falls. The half-mile walk to the falls is through bear-infested woods, on a trail with little bear side trails every 20 feet or so. We were reminded about our lower position on the food chain, and told to clap, make noise and yell out "Hey, Bear" every minute or so. Ron was wearing a newly acquired bell his wife bought him. This and the stash of flies, leaders, lines, rods, tools and all sorts of extra equipment landed him the dubious title of "E-Man". With bells a ringin’ as we walked, we were reminded of the story about how to know when you are in bear country. You see a pile of bear "scat", and there are little bells in it!
The sound of Brooks Falls got louder as we approached. Which was good, because Jim and I were getting somewhat winded in our chest waders. We came upon a two-tiered wooded viewing stand with other tourists, and saw a large Brown on the very edge of an 8 foot fall, with his humped back in the air and his head down low, still as a statue, waiting for that poor misguided salmon to leap into his mouth. Soon, that’s exactly what happened, just like the famous picture. Our disposable cameras, indispensable in Alaska, were clicking away. Then another Brown from 10 feet below us wandered onto the scene to take its place next to the statue. When a bear "woofs" at you, watch out. This new arrival was greeted with little warmth, and a staring match ensued which I was pleased not to be a participant in. One final "woof" made the new arrival ease a few feet further away, to begin his own statue routine of absolute concentration.
Downstream, another was standing up at attention, a 10-footer. Beyond him a Bald Eagle landed in the river to nab a Sockeye or Rainbow Trout. It floated like a duck for awhile, then took off. These eagles were constantly in view, either in flight or in a tree. Soon, another Brown walked from our hiking trail into the pool in front of the two bears perched on the falls, then abruptly dived completely under. After about half a minute, his huge head exploded out of the water in a flash of foam and blood. But there was no salmon in his mouth. On the far bank, another Brown caught a salmon and flung it on a rock between the falls, promptly filleting it with teeth and claw. It was devoured in seconds, about a 10-pounder. These bears were hungry and tense, since the salmon run was, as said earlier, way behind schedule and lighter than usual.
After retracing our way back up the trail, we headed out on our own to the headwaters of the Brooks River, coming off the lake. The half mile walk was made in close quarters, with many "Hey, Bears", and an occasional toss of a limb in the brush to scare those up front. Beyond this river’s rapids, we decided to dry fly fish for large rainbows. With a beautiful Adams I had tied at home, I caught a dandy "Bow", 24 inches long. Jim caught a monster that snapped the end of his rod off, but he continued to knock ‘em dead anyway – what a pro. We all had a productive day, ever watchful for a bear attack from the nearby brush. It was pretty much a given that, if approached by a Grizzly, we’d run like hell. Forget the damned video, all you have to do is out-run your Buddy, right?
Mama and Baby Bear
After the mile walk back to the Brooks Lodge and lunch from the cache, we went lake fishing. Mike explored the banks of the river and Jim and I waded to a sandy island about 100 yards from the pontoon bridge and the first viewing stand. After awhile, we heard quite a commotion. A large mama bear and her cub were perched in the middle of the bridge, looking for a salmon to leap on. The crowd of tourists was therefore cut off from the lodge, and the dozen or so floatplanes waiting to take them back.
Two things happened in rapid order. First, the mama bear stood up and stared right at Jim and me…a long stare, like "why fret the salmon when there’s food on that thar’ island over there". She then jumped in the water and started our way! We didn’t exactly start to panic, but we were planning our options pretty quickly, and decided there really weren’t any. She’d cut us off before wading back to the lodge, or drive us across a rapid into the bush…a nice little killing ground. Believe me, the cameras and VCR’s in that crowd in the stands were trained on our expressions.
Just as we thought it was time to make a move, we heard the crowd yell to the other end of the bridge. "Go back! Go back! Don’t get on the bridge." They were yelling at young Master Mike Spurlock emerging from the already bear-infested bush at the river’s edge, about to get on the bridge. Just as he realized what was going on, the baby bear wandered into the bush, and mama took off after him, removing the threat. Whew!
The flight back to Rainbow Bend on the Naknek was uneventful, and fishing along this river and Big Creek on the days that followed was fun. However, I got skunked on a day of Mike’s biggest successes…and his one big scare, not counting the bear. He was upstream from me and the boat about 50 yards, and really hammering the daylights out of the Sockeyes. Using an orange smelt pattern, he was murder. He’d haul one in every 5th cast or so, and no matter what I did to copy him, I was skunked. The whole day I was ribbed for this.
I went back to the boat to pout, and soon he walked up calmly asking, "Hey Bill, you got any pliers with wire cutters?" Though Jim Purcell tried hard to convince us to buy his miracle, 100-in-one tool from his fly shop in Santa Rosa, no, I did NOT have any cutters. "Why?", I asked. He held up his bloody thumb with a large salmon hook curved beautifully though the end and out the other side. In a great deal of pain, he headed us upstream a few miles to Ron and Jim’s expected position, and there they were. We figured the "E-Man" or Jim would certainly be able to help. Among the two of them were probably a half dozen instruments that would do the trick. After the surgery, I applied Neosporin and Band-Aids from my first aid kit, gave him a stiff swig of bourbon, and all was right with the world. But the Sockeyes had their revenge.
Mike, Ron and Jim stayed behind to fish two rather unproductive days, and I hopped the jet to Anchorage with our two German buddies on July 7. Since Alaska is part of my sales territory with Lab Corp, I had many appointments to see during the last three days of the week. Historically, I was particularly interested in the Good Friday earthquake back in 1964, which nearly destroyed many parts of Anchorage, and some of the surrounding towns. Seward and Valdez were wiped out by the tidal wave that followed the quake.
The guys were due in town Thursday night for dinner with me, and I agreed to pick them up at the airport and take them to their B & B. That morning at 11:40, while sitting in a clients waiting room, I felt the building shake violently. The cars out in the lot were all rocking together, and it was hard to assume the obvious. Another guy there said, "Ah, it’s just a quake. Probably a 5. Happens all the time". Had this old-timer not been there, I might have panicked, but this 42 second 6.5 quake had no aftershocks and everyone got back to what they were doing. The 1964 quake, the largest ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, was a 9.2 that lasted for 4 ½ minutes! This was the largest quake to hit Anchorage in 13 years, I was told. The guys were about as far away from the epicenter as I, and never felt it!
We had a delicious dinner that night at the Sourdough Mining Company after tending to Ron’s terminal case of mosquito-bitten arms, and reminisced about another memorable fish camp. I have been the designated organizer for the next trip, and am leaning toward the British Columbia backcountry, unless, of course, I meet someone at the Portland Sports Show. We’ll see.
West Linn, OR