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 freeze-dried. 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 during 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.)
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.