Story and photos by Stephen Collector
I went to Alaska in late August, for the very first time, hoping to catch silver salmon. A longtime fly fisherman, at 68, I was almost the last of my fishing pals to make the pilgrimage.
In the early morning chill, I boarded a floatplane in Anchorage and headed for Riversong Lodge on the Yentna River, 70 miles into the northern interior. From the co-pilot seat of the de Havilland Otter, I looked out at the illuminated, snow-mantled Alaska Range. It was like something from a fairy tale. We passed over the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet, and I hoped to get a glimpse of Denali, far to the north. As I peered down on the braids of the rain-swollen Susitna River, I had mixed feelings. I was fired up, yet perplexed. Why had it taken me so long to get here?
We dropped below a thick cloud bank and were soon flying at 500 feet above the Yentna, whose bank was full and muddy. The Otter made a river landing, and soon I was greeting the lodge owner and checking into my cabin. I rooted through my duffel and practically leaped into my chest waders, tied my wading boots and assembled my gear.
Several aluminum jonboats were secured to the bank. My guide, Casey Mannes, stowed my gear, and we took off downriver in a light rain. A seal popped up and then disappeared in the gray, glacial murk. A bald eagle flew down the river. It was thrilling to feel the damp air, with the smell of fir, as mist lifted off the river.
“Do you fly-fish?” Casey asked as we slowed and cruised into a tributary called Indian Creek, its margin bordered by dog-eared fir and tall grass. The water was badly off-color, but Casey said it would improve as we went farther upstream.
“There!” he exclaimed, as he began to sight salmon in the stained flow. At first I couldn’t see anything, but as he navigated up another fork, I spotted the occasional boil and jump of a fish. Casey cut the engine and began using a wooden paddle.
“Take this rod,” he said, motioning to one that was already rigged, “and cast to that bank.”
The rod was slow and heavy.
“A little farther out,” he said as the fuchsia articulated streamer fell short.
“Good, now start stripping slowly,” he advised.
I missed a strike. Several casts later, I saw the fly line dart forward, and I raised the tip, tight to a powerful fish. As the fish bore down in the brackish water, I realized that for the past hour, I had lived completely in the moment, one of several reasons I’d wanted to visit Alaska in the first place.
After several runs, I worked the red-tinged buck into Casey’s waiting net. I looked at my surroundings, and it struck me: I was really here, in a wild place more like a foreign country than a state. I handed Casey the rod. “It’s your turn,” I said. “We are going to trade-off fish.”
Casey, a 25-year-old redhead from northern Michigan, had spent the previous year stalking big, technical trout in New Zealand. His face lit up as he leapt to the bow. Maybe fishing was only an excuse for forging new friendships?
On his backcast, I could hear the line hissing out as he powerfully loaded it. He promptly hooked a fish and deftly played it to my waiting net. We steadily caught fish until it was time to head back to the lodge for lunch.
Everything about the river held my attention as we returned: the spindly trees and shrubs along the banks, the river snags and floating logs. It occurred to me that my wife of 40 years, Leigh — my life partner, lover and longtime fishing companion — would adore this. Early in our marriage, she was the only gal my fishing posse welcomed at our secret camp on a huge Wyoming ranch on the North Platte River. As I cleaned raindrops from my glasses, I wished she were in the speeding boat, rather than nursing a torn rotator cuff at home.
Two days later, low clouds clung to the slopes of the Chugach Mountains south of Anchorage as I motored toward my destination, Homer, far to the south. With my camera on the front seat and my head on a swivel, everything in view seemed worthy of a composition. At the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, I scanned the ocean for whales. My phone synched and played “Going up the Country” by Canned Heat. It was a thrill to be behind the wheel.
Our son James, the oldest, had been the catalyst for this adventure. “Dad,” he’d said, “let me ask you a question. When you fish in Montana, do you stay in a lodge?”
After working one summer as a deckhand on Prince William Sound, and being all too familiar with my angling obsession, he’d gifted me a round-trip flight to Alaska. “Rent a car and go out and fish like you are home in the Rockies,” he wisely counseled.
Back in the moment, after passing the night at a guesthouse, I left before daylight for an excursion at sea. Several hours later, I was aboard the anchored 32-foot Albin sportfisher Grand Aleutian,pitching in a beam sea 35 miles outside Homer. The wind had blown for a couple of days. What felt like a piece of lead-weighted plywood was dully throbbing at the end of the braided line in 200 feet of water. At the strike, I knew I was hooked up with something substantial.
Exerting maximum effort, I’d gain a little line, only to lose it as the fish ran. “Reel against the drag,” Capt. David Mayes said, as I realized that trout fishing doesn’t prepare one for this kind of challenge.
As the stalemate dragged on, a memory of fishing with my father materialized. Once, when I was young, we had awoken early and been picked up by his carpenter, towing a jonboat. We drove a long way to a freshwater pond, where we fished with dough balls on small hooks for bream and sunfish. I don’t recall getting more than a few nibbles, but in my excitement, I remember looking over at my father, a war veteran, and being saddened by his lack of enthusiasm. The term “battle fatigue,” now replaced by post-traumatic stress disorder, wasn’t in my vocabulary. I wouldn’t really understand the extent of the damage until the end of his life, and that day on the jonboat would be my one and only outing with Pop.
My focus returned to the present. The fish I eventually dredged to the surface after a painful tussle revealed itself as a large skate. (Expletive deleted.) I did catch a halibut and more that day, and that night I dined on sautéed halibut cheeks in butter. I’d never tasted anything like it.
A few evenings later, at Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna, I sat down at the bar next to a guy named Ron Fey. After a couple of beers, the last one on me, Ron — wearing a hoodie and a ball cap, and, it turned out, was the owner of Moose Creek Lodge on the banks of the Kenai River — rhetorically asked me about the mighty bear hunters from the lower 48. You know, the guys out fishing with a sidearm.
“I tell all of ’em, ‘Take your .45, put it in a vise and file off the front sight, all the way so it’s smooth,” he said. “That way, once they take a shot at a bear, it won’t hurt so bad when the bear shoves it back up their ass.”
Folks take their hunting seriously in Alaska, especially when it’s for fish. I had my doubts about fishing for salmon in a lake, but at Big River Lakes, I trusted the advice of Bobby Borland, a lifelong sportsman who’d left his Montana home for the wilds of Alaska four decades back. In the early afternoon, I was on a floatplane out of Soldotna with Tom Haugen, who had guided for decades throughout Alaska. The rugged coastal range looked a great deal like the Andes as it rose across the inlet.
Several beached jonboats were against the shore of a large, murky glacial lake. Tom motored 20 minutes up into a shallow arm. There, against the shore, hundreds of silver salmon were schooled up. A long cast with a streamer resulted in a grab and a fish. This was repeated. After about 20 minutes, I realized this wasn’t fishing. This was catching.
I invited Ken Herring, a man from northern Virginia fishing with his brother, up to the bow and handed him my 8-weight. He’d never fly-fished. On his first cast, with Tom’s guidance, he hooked and managed to land a silver without breaking the rod. Tom and I just looked at each other, dumbstruck.
Back in my cabin that evening, I was so tired I could barely function. My euphoria was overtaken by a smarmy self-loathing to go with my aching shoulder.
Another Day, Another Adventure
The Mackenzie boat bobbed down the upper Kenai River, with Grant Reynolds on the oars and his guide friend Oggie Watt and me fishing. Reynolds had guided for a few years in Alaska, having previously guided the Grey Reef section on the North Platte River in Wyoming, where he and Watt had become friends.
“Whoa, what was that?” I asked, hearing the report of a firearm.
“Oh, that’s just someone exercising their right to the Second Amendment,” Reynolds deadpanned.
We were “pegging beads,” dead-drifting a hard-bead pattern that resembles a salmon egg, hoping for the giant rainbows the river is known for. Between the two of us, we caught several nice dolly varden, rainbow and a couple of large sockeye salmon, but no football-sized ’bows. My Alaskan adventure would end several miles downstream at the takeout. Driving away from the boat ramp, I considered my procrastination toward venturing here, to the wilds of the last frontier. I had always told myself that my hesitation was purely economic, reflected monthly in my bank statement. But it wasn’t that simple.
I missed my two sons, now adults with busy lives. If only I’d been able to share this, the ultimate father-son bonding destination, with them. Fishing here had taken me to a place I’d never really experienced in the lower 48. The scale of the landscape, the variety, the size of the fish and the sheer wildness were unprecedented. In the Alaskan wilderness I’d bypassed for decades, maybe for the first time ever, I got to do what I’d always loved, on my own terms.
On my second day here, I spoke with a man named Jim at the dock as I awaited my floatplane back to Anchorage. He was retired Air Force, 79 years old, from Florida. “I love this part of Alaska,” he said, his expression saddened and his eyes misted. “This just might be the last time I ever fish for rainbows, my passion in life.”
I was stunned to see the gregarious mask he’d worn during dinner at the lodge the previous night fall from his face. I knew all too well how he felt. As he boarded the jonboat, he smiled weakly and waved goodbye.
If the reason for my lifelong obsession with fishing was a paternal void, so be it. As a father, I’d learned by my father’s omission. It wasn’t important any longer. My son’s gift had gotten me to Alaska, and Pop, though he’d never know it, had picked up the tab.