—From Past President Coy Wylie
Bucket list: places you want to go, experiences you want to have and memories you want to make while you are still standing on this side of the grass. I’ve acquired things all my life. However, at this stage as I look to the hopeful years before me, I crave adventures not possessions. I have enough stuff.
Which is why when Mark Miller called me in early spring of 2017 and asked me if I’d like to go with some fellow RMFers to Alaska, I was immediately interested. I had been many places, but never to the Last Frontier. I’ll admit the idea of going to Alaska has been in my head a long time. I’ve heard stories from friends who have fished there. I’ve seen presentations at our meetings and talked to outfitters at the Denver Fly Show. It was just a matter of time and money.
Mark had put together what everyone thought was a great deal from a fly shop down in Canyon City: five and a half days of fishing and two fly-outs with chef-cooked meals at Intricate Bay Lodge. There were some great reviews on-line and it looked a trip I didn’t want to miss. So in late April I put in my 50% deposit for the week of August 5, 2018.
Our roster called for six fishermen and by the end of the month every spot was full. In addition to Mark and me, Dave Morse, Bobby Bottles, Gil Colemen and Bob Green committed to the trip. Emails began to fly back and forth, questions asked and answered. Anticipation was high but the trip was a year and a half away. We contented ourselves by watching videos and reading books and sharing what we were learning with the group.
In early 2018, we reserved our airline tickets to Anchorage and our small plane flight from Anchorage to the end of the line village of Iliamna. Dave Morse and I decided to extend our trip to tour the Kenai Peninsula when the fishing was done. Of course, I needed some new gear too. Over the course of a year and a half, I acquired a new single-hand eight-weight rod, a two-hand switch rod as well as a new dry bag backpack, reels, lines and other miscellaneous gear. I’ve decided not to add up all that I spent on this trip and content myself with the fact that it was worth it.
Finally the much-anticipated departure day arrived. With a detailed list in hand, I packed, unpacked and repacked my luggage several times. Dave Morse and I were booked on the same flight so we drove to DIA together on a late Saturday afternoon. Dave was so careful with his packing he actually wore his wading boots on the plane so as not to add weight to his bags!
We boarded the plane around 7 p.m. and had a crowded but uneventful flight that arrived in Alaska around 10:30 p.m. with the sun still shining. I was amazed to see the Anchorage airport to full of travelers at that late hour. Our packs, duffle bags and rod tubes were conversation-starters with other fishermen at the baggage claim.
After a quick overnight at a cheap airport hotel, we rendezvoused with the other guys and rode a shuttle to the secondary airport from which we would fly to Iliamna. Our ride was a very comfortable 9-seat prop and we met a single guy from Kentucky and a father and a daughter who would join us at Intricate Bay Lodge for the week.
It was a bit overcast when we left Anchorage but by the time we traveled southwest for an hour, we dropped down to the runway in Illimani in a pea soup fog. Upon entering the small airport lobby, we were made aware that our hosts could not make the flight from the lodge to pick us up until the fog cleared. We were a 20-minute flight from our destination but socked in.
The plan had been to arrive at the lodge late morning, get settled, have lunch and then fish all afternoon. We quickly realized that was not going to happen. We were able to order in some food from the only restaurant in Iliamna and we found a mix-matched set of cards for a long game of spades while we waited.
Around 2 p.m. a guy shows up and tells us he is a friend of Brian, the owner/operator of our lodge. He owned a lodge on the north side of the lake that we could drive to. Intricate Bay is on the south side. He said if the weather didn’t clear, he would take us to his lodge and feed us and put us up until Brian could come and get us. We passed time as he regaled us with stories of his 40 years of outfitting in Alaska.
Finally, about 3:30 we got word that the fog was breaking up and that Brian was organizing a rescue party. Our new friend ferried us to a narrow neck of land by the lake and we watched as three floatplanes landed and cruised up to the rocky shore. Introductions were quickly made, gear loading lines established and within a short time I was sitting in a window seat in a 1954 De Havilland Beaver as we lifted off for the lodge.
After the short hop across the lake, the Beaver landed us at the dock in front of the lodge and the entire staff was waiting to greet us and transport our luggage and gear. We got familiar with the lodge, found our quarters and enjoyed some cold Alaska beer while waiting for dinner. We still had hopes for fishing Sunday evening but the logistics were not on our side. This didn’t stop Mark Miller from snagging a big sockeye by the dock as dusk settled.
On Monday morning the drizzle and foggy weather were back. After a hot breakfast our group of six with two guides boarded two jet boats for a trip up the famous Copper River. Dave, Bob and I were with our guide Monty, a native Wyomingite who has spent many seasons guiding fishing and rafting in Alaska and Chile. Monty looked like a character that could have stepped from the pages of a Louis L’Amour novel.
As we jetted up the river we saw hordes of red sockeye salmon preparing for their spawn. Monty beached our boat near a mass of these sex-crazed fish. After a “bear talk” about the realities of our bruin neighbors, he set us up with a bead rig and explained the process of “flossing” salmon. At this stage is seems all they have on their minds is the final orgy, not eating. So you cast across the pod and strip back the rig slowly. The strategy is as their mouths open and close your leader passes through a mouth and you effectively snag them in the mouth. It’s not finesse fishing but it works. In no time Bob, Dave and I were hooked up on big salmon that tested our eight weight rods and reel drag systems.
After a couple of hours of this we joined the other half of our crew who were fishing another spot and ate a shore lunch of fresh salmon with garlic potatoes. The worst part was Dave broke a new rod he had just built for the trip and had to use a loaner.
After lunch we separated again and Monty took us back up river in search of trout. The trout were beginning to stage near the reds waiting for the eggs to drop but this “egg hatch” had not yet really begun. Monty beached the boat on an island and rigged me up with a giant streamer called a Dalai Lama. We walked up to the head of the island and he got me started and then took Bob and Dave down below the boat for some bead fishing.
I had made a few casts and was in the zone stripping that big streamer when I thought I heard someone shouting. It was drizzling rain and I had the hood up on my raincoat and I was focused on fishing so it took a minute for the sounds to register. I glanced down river to where the guide and the other guys were below the boat and to my shock saw a giant grizzly bear standing next to the boat about thirty yards away. He was looking right at me. My heart started pounding and I fought back the panic to toss my rod and run. The problem was I was on a small island with a giant bear and there was no place to run. So I followed the instructions I’d heard that morning and faced the bear and slowly moved away. By away I mean I waded backward through that shin deep water to the bank away from the island. As I began to put distance between me and the bear the bear came closer and by the time I’d crossed to the main bank he was standing right where I had been fishing and kept looking at me. I waved my hands and yelled at him and after a few moments he walked on up the island and crossed to the other side of the river. I was so shocked I didn’t think to get my camera out until he was quite a distance away.
When my pulse returned to normal I continued fishing back down toward the boat and managed to land a couple nice trout on that streamer.
About an hour later, Monty took us to one last spot for the day. Again, I went upstream of the boat while the other guys went downstream. I had not made a half dozen casts when I looked up river and see another big bear about 70 yards away on the opposite bank. Then I noticed two cubs as well. I began to yell, “Bear! Bear!” and as I did she walked into the river and began to swim directly toward me. No one had to tell me to get out of her way so I waded out to the middle of the river and let her have the bank. Even though it was a sow with two cubs, I felt a little safer this time because Monty waded up and stood beside me with his can of bear spray and a .44 magnum. She popped out on the bank and walked right past us, maybe 10 yards away and the cubs followed right behind her as they disappeared into the brush. With an armed guide at my side I had the presence of mind this time to take some pictures and a video of them walking by.
That ended the first day and we jet-boated back to the lodge for a shower, cold beer and a wonderful meal. I had caught sockeye, trout and had been within a few yards of four grizzly bears. Alaska was certainly not disappointing so far.
The next morning the rain and fog were gone. After breakfast, all six of us loaded up on the Beaver, “the F-250 of the bush” and flew to Lake Gibraltar. The guides had flown out earlier and met us on the shore with three inflatable rafts. We loaded up and prepared to float down the “Gib” to where the plane would pick us up near Lake Iliamna.
Mark Miller and I teamed up for the day with a young guide from South Carolina named Hayden. Haden had graduated from college and spent the last several seasons guiding in Saratoga, Wyoming and Alaska. He was a knowledgeable guide and looked a little like Jesus with his long hair and beard!
Two factors provided an amazing day of fishing. First, it was a bluebird day, warm and sunny. Second, Hayden had eagle eyes for spotting big trout. As we made our way down the river in the raft, we’d stop at his favorite spots and sight fish these giant fish.
Our timing was perfect. While the salmon on the Copper the previous day were not dropping many eggs, the Gibraltar was “turned on.” Trout were eating eggs like candy. I don’t know how many Mark and I caught but it was plenty.
One particular rainbow will ever be fixed in my memory. Hayden had pointed out his silvery shape behind a small pod of red salmon. I made as cast a few feet upstream and we watched as he moved to eat my bead. I set the hook and he turned and ran downstream so fast it took a second for me to realize that all my fly line was gone and what was screaming out the end of my rod was chartreuse colored backing! With Hayden’ expert help, we landed that fat boy after an epic struggle. He measured twenty-three inches long and was as big around as a football.
Just after we ate lunch on the shore I was about to lower my waders to take care of some urgent business when I looked up and saw a bear about twenty yards downriver on our side of the bank. I yelled and Hayden walked toward him yelling and waving his arms. I paused my intended activity until the bear retreated into the brush. I was about to walk up there and continue when I saw the bear about fifteen feet in front me looking out through the brush. We all began to yell and he moseyed off up river. I took care of my business on the bank of the river. Modesty be damned.
The next morning we arose early and climbed back into the Beaver for a short trip to a high mountain lake that feeds the Copper River. While the lower river had not turned on two days before, the guides felt certain we would find egg-hungry trout at a higher elevation.
Again our guides had taken an earlier flight and had three rafts ready to go when we landed on the crystal blue alpine lake. Bobby Bottles and I hopped into Monty’s raft and we began our float.
There were no salmon or trout in the uppermost part of the river but there were several rapids. We found out that Monty is something of a rafting legend in Chile where he spends half the year. He was the first guy to raft some world-class rapids down there so we felt pretty safe with him behind the oars. There were two major waterfalls on this section of the river. The first was not a straight drop but a series of falls over massive boulders. The fishermen got out and walked around while the guides rode the rafts down safely.
The second waterfall was a seventy-foot drop straight down. We all got out and portaged all the gear down a trail to the base of the falls. We saw tens of thousands of sockeye staged in a big pool there. Some of them tried in vain to jump up the falls but none would make it. The guides tied the rafts together and lowered them down with a long rope.
With that excitement out of the way it was time to get on the fish. This section of the Copper was definitely turned on. It only took a few minutes until Bobby and I both hooked up. That’s pretty much how the day went, routinely catching trout that averaged about twenty inches in length.
In early afternoon, we stopped at a small island to wade fish. I had only made a cast or two when I hooked up on a nice trout. About that time a big bear appeared on the other side of the island. Like the others we had seen he was more interested in catching salmon that bothering us. I actually took a video of him fishing while I had a big trout on my line! I can’t accurately describe how all this felt. It was truly a fantasy come to life.
Bobby, Monty and I tried to estimate how many rainbows we caught that day. We estimated forty to fifty each. It was ridiculous. At one point as we were drifting I wasn’t even actively fishing but a fish hit my rig as it dangled behind the raft.
We flew back to lodge under a clear blue sky to a wonderful dinner prepared by the chef and his staff and another good night’s sleep with dreams of more to come.
Mark had stated early on that he wanted to pursue some silver salmon since we had hit their run just right. They were swimming up from Bristol Bay every day. The other group at the lodge had flown down to the Kamishak River in nearby Katmai National Park the previous day and had a wonderful day on the silvers. So our group elected to go there next.
We got up at 5:30 a.m. and after a quick breakfast packed into the Beaver to go meet the guides. The wind was howling that morning and it made for a bumpy ride. I was really happy to land on the water in get in a jet boat. We rode the boats another ten to twelve miles up the river to the same spot our friends had fished the day before.
I was the first one rigged up with yet another Dalai Lama streamer. This one was pink and white. The guide, Chase, told me to cast and make a big mend and start stripping. I literally made one strip when he yelled “Hit it!” Bam! Just like that I had fifteen pounds of leaping silver salmon at the end of my fly line. A fish that big will certainly put a bend in an eight weight.
After that, you can’t believe how fast the other guys got their rods assembled! And it was on! Within an hour or so we had limit of silvers. With six guys and three fish each we got to legally keep eighteen.
The guides would release any under ten pounds. We also caught some chums which to my mind is a hideously ugly fish. After a couple hours the salmon school seemed to have passed us in their migration and I was tired of casting that huge streamer. Chase set me up with a bead rig and pointed up stream to some shallow riffles and said if you go up there you’ll catch some Dolly Varden.
Again, first cast and an eighteen inch Dolly was on my line. These are more like trout but didn’t seem to fight as hard. However, they were eager to take my beads. Bobby saw what I was up to and came up and joined me for thirty minutes or so. We caught Dollies on almost every drift.
Meanwhile, the guides cleaned our salmon and got a hot shore lunch ready. After eating the rest of the guys went up for Dollies and I went back with the streamer and caught a couple more small silvers and a big chum, which I released. Because we had our limit and it was a long trip back we left around 2:00 p.m.
We had noticed a bear some distance upstream while we were preparing to eat. The guides said he was there the day before so we ignored him and he ignored us. However, no sooner had we loaded the boats and pushed off from the gravel bar that this big bruiser came out of the brush right behind where we had spent most of the morning. He immediately waded out and picked up one of the big silver carcasses as we fired up the engines and motored away. Obviously he had been very close and knew we would leave soon and he could begin his feast. That’s a thought that will raise the hairs on your neck. Note to self: don’t go into the bushes to relieve yourself; do it on the bank.
The last day. We were tired but oh so very happy. And we saved the best for last. Bobby, Dave, Bob and I flew to Katmai National Park. It was the most beautiful clear morning of the week.
Our two guides, Evan and Chandler, both young college graduates who wanted to do some more guiding before settling into a desk job rode with us in the Beaver. Our pilot, Troy or “T-Bird” was a character. Though an excellent pilot he loved to tease us with lines like, “Well boys, we cheated death again.” He landed us on a beautiful lake on the tundra; much different than the conifer-covered mountains we’d seen most of the week. The two rafts were deflated and strapped to the plane’s floats. The guys used a portable generator and an air pump to get them inflated quickly.
We carried the gear and the guides drug the rafts about a third of a mile across the tundra from the lake to the river. As we walked in the early morning sun, we could see at least a dozen bears on the tundra a hundred yards or more away. They seemed as docile as cattle, the cubs wrestling and playing.
As we came to the river, we were even more amazed. There were bears everywhere. Giant boars whose rear ends were as big as the hips of a grown horse, sows with two or three cubs, some were fishing and some were napping on the banks. As we launched the rafts we floated right past a large male on a shoal in the middle of the river ripping apart a fresh sockeye.
We didn’t have long to gaze at the bears because it seemed almost as soon as we got our rigs in the water we were into fish. Bob and I were in the raft piloted by Chandler and we had a double on our first casts.
The fishing was just amazing in that upper section. We caught multiple big rainbows in the twenty-plus inch class. We lost as many as we netted because they were so strong and there were places we couldn’t shore the boat because of rough water or the presence of bears. In fact, our primary criteria in selecting a spot to wade fish were no bears within seventy-five yards. Whether from the raft or on the banks, the fishing was unbelievable. It seems like a dream now that we could catch so many big, big trout in one river on the same day.
Late that morning I hooked a big fish that had so much fight Chandler beached the raft so he could have a better chance at netting him. When we finally landed him, we measured him at twenty-four inches, a huge meat-eating rainbow! Chandler noticed that Bobby was playing what was obviously also a big fish a few dozen yards downstream and said we should go down and get a double fish photo. I was sure I had Bobby beat this time. But would you know it, when they put the tape on his fish it was twenty-six inches! It didn’t matter though and that picture of us together with trophy rainbows is one of my favorites.
After lunch a front blew in and the fishing died down. Oh, we caught some more in the afternoon but it was nothing like the morning. We had to work hard for them.
Just before we got to the spot where we would meet T-Bird and the Beaver, Chandler decided he wanted me to try a flesh fly. This is a fly that mimics a chunk of rotting salmon flesh. He tied it on for me and as we went floated around a bend I made a cast into a deep channel. Boom! I didn’t set the hook. I didn’t do anything but hang on to my rod. A huge rainbow had hit that flesh fly and launched himself again and again into the air. I swear the drag on my real was smoking as he took me into my backing. Chandler beached the raft and I got on the bank. They had encouraged me to fish my six weight instead of the eight weight I’d been using all week and I tell you that fish was almost too much for the six weight. I could barely move him. I opted for the tactic of just using my feet to back up in order to get him closer to the bank. Bob was yelling, “It’s a big fish! Don’t lose him!” and this made me all the more nervous! But Chandler was an excellent net man and he finally grabbed my trophy.
That rainbow was the largest trout I caught all week and the last. He taped at just over twenty-five inches and I couldn’t put both hands around his girth. He was truly the largest trout I’ve ever caught and may well always hold that record.
After returning to the lodge, we showered and put on fresh clothes. We ate a magnificent dinner of king crab. The guides, pilots and the whole staff showed up for an end of the week party. I can’t say enough about these fine folks and how they did everything they could to make our week perfect. I highly recommend Intricate Bay Lodge to anyone considering Alaska and I’m planning to go back in the near future.
We packed almost everything that night so we could get an early start on our return trip to Anchorage. The floatplanes shuttled us back to the airport in Iliamna where caught our air taxi to Anchorage. Honestly I think we were all exhausted. We would have fished more if we could have but we didn’t need to. We were completely sated and we had the memories of a lifetime.
The other fellows made their connections to return to Colorado but Dave and I had planned another four days of sight-seeing so we picked up our rental car and drove down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward and then up and around to Homer and then back to Anchorage. We saw glaciers, wildlife and ate the finest seafood I’ve ever tasted. However, all that was just desert after the most amazing week of fishing I could ever imagine.
So mark that off the bucket list. Was it expensive? Hell yes. Was it worth it? You bet. It was worth every penny. To me it was a priceless experience and the adventure of a lifetime.
Submitted by Coy Wiley
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