Tag Archives: Alaska

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Bristol Bay (A Southern Perspective)

Editors Note:  Bristol Bay Alaska is one of the most pristine wild places on this planet. As an angler and an outdoor enthusiast I hope to see this area remain unchanged for a long time to come. Organizations like Trout Unlimited are doing all they can in order to prevent this mining project from ever taking place. Its up to us to let our voice be heard in order to protect this region for future generations.  Take action by clicking HERE.  -JC

The legal term used to describe it was mineral rights.

The way it played out was like this.  A family would have a few acres in East Tennessee or Southeastern Kentucky with maybe one dwelling and a barn.  A representative for a coal company would show up and offer hard cash if the owner would sign over the mineral rights to his property.  In the poverty ridden condition that most of my ancestors lived, a city dude offering a couple of hundred dollars in cash for what might or might not be under the ground seemed like a no brainer.  A no brainer until a group from the company showed up and told these folks they had to leave because they had come to claim not what was on their property, but what was under their property.

DSCN6837Mines bored deep cavernous holes in the hillside to extract the black gold that would become a defining element of my regions contribution to the industrial revolution.  With impunity these companies worked round the clock to pull ton after ton of coal from the land.  Many of these families stayed on in mining camps where they toiled six and sometimes seven days a week raping the land they used to own.

One of the resounding effects the mines had on the region was not in what they pulled from underneath the land; it was the runoff of poisons that they polluted into the streams that flowed from the high country.  Streams that once were a water source and a provider of food ran orange and red; literally everything within them died.  Children were born with defects which were in part generated by mothers who were exposed to a myriad of caustics that invaded their bodies and in turn the bodies of their children as toxic levels of selenium, mercury, and arsenic seeped into the water table.

The financial boon filled the pockets of many, but a very small percentage of them actually lived in the area.  Workers were paid in scrip, which were just tin tokens from which to buy from the company store which inflated the prices thereby increasing their profits as well.

It took decades for this to be turned around, and in the area in which I grew up; its effects remain on a pilfered landscape, and a few streams which have yet to recover.  And it is quite possible that they will never recover.  Sometimes, the impact of industry on a landscape is too great a price to pay; it is too large a burden to risk.

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Bristol Bay Aerial View (Photo Credit: Ben Bulis)

When the subject of the pebble mine in Alaska began to surface, I felt connected.  From an environmental standpoint, I saw here in Tennessee (albeit on a much smaller scale) what could happen there and was angered to the point of action.  Sometimes, and perhaps it could be argued most of the time, the best development or industrial progress is none at all.  There comes a time when we must evaluate financial gain against the strong backdrop of what would be lost.  In most cases what would be lost, is lost forever and triggers a chain of events that will impact much more than the particular region.

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Alaskan WIlderness (Photo Credit: Ben Bulis)

Bristol Bay is a massive area that is primarily wild untouched country.  This area has been home to native Alaskan Tribes for millennia and is considered to be the largest fishery for sockeye salmon on the planet. Hundreds upon hundreds of miles in streams participate in the watershed through the Nushagak and Kvivhak rivers, and smaller streams such as the Napotoli and Stuyhok.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency began a study on the area and how a pebble mine might impact it from an ecological and environmental perspective.  This was of utmost importance to the Alaskan native tribes who have entire cultures built around the lifecycle of the salmon that call the bay home.  The study intended to evaluate the development and mining of this area be its impact while in operation (which was estimated to be between twenty and one hundred years), and the recovery and maintenance of the area after the mine had closed.

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Cockpit View (Photo Credit: Ben Bulis)

Personally, I have yet to visit Alaska, but from a distant perspective, to negatively impact a location where nearly half of the sockeye salmon in the world congregate with numbers going well above thirty million fish moving inshore to spawn is beyond a bad idea, it is criminal.  If you also take into account the other fish species that live there (lake trout, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, grayling, pike), the sheer numbers of fish that would be effected staggers even the broadest of imaginations.  Try to wrap your mind around 200,000 rainbow trout in one watershed!

The long term economic impact would be catastrophic as entire communities who, through commercial fishing and tourism, find their subsistence would find themselves with a dwindling fish population and a constantly growing demand as well as the ever upward costs of living.  There are families who have been in an economic relationship with Bristol Bay for hundreds of years.  To fish its waters for sustenance and financial gain is all they know.  To remove or reduce it would be to (in effect) kill entire villages.

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Alaska’s Wild Waters (Photo Credit: Save Bristol Bay)

The E.P.A. assessment states that up to 94 miles of streams would be completely lost because of their location in relation to the mine footprint.  94 miles!  Can you imagine how many fish would just vanish forever?

The E.P.A. report goes on to state that reduced food resources would result in the death of many streams outside the footprint due to the loss of organic material, a reduction in winter fish habitat and by nature of design, reduce or remove vital spawning areas.

The blow that would be dealt to creatures such as the storied brown bear, or the bald eagle would also be irreparable.  A reduction in food, a reduction in habitat, and once again a reduction in the local economy and way of life.

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Sockeye School (Photo Credit: Save Bristol Bay)

When do we say enough?  When do we finally realize that once a fragile thread like Bristol Bay is severed, it is highly likely that it will not be mendable?  When do we stand and say that not only is it a bad idea for the wildlife, it is a bad idea for the people?  When do we stop and take a position that does not approve in any shape, form, or fashion the potential health risks involved in a huge mining operation?  When do we finally realize that clean water impacts every person on this planet, and that wild places need to remain wild places?

Hopefully, that time is now.

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Alaska’s Unknown Floating Fishing Lodges

(Warning:  Cute kid fishing pics contained herein.)

The dream:  Alaskan fly-out lodge.   The problem:  Dream exceeding budget.  The solution:  A cruise ship.

Seems highly unlikely, right? Swapping a cruise ship for a floatplane.  But it works…  Even though a cruise ship won’t immerse you in Alaska’s remotest fishing, it will get you places a road won’t go.  And the scenery may be even more spectacular.  Better yet, the whole family can come along for about the same price.

With that in mind, my daughter Kerri and I hopped on the Norwegian Sun, a cruise ship traveling from Vancouver up the Inside Passage into Alaskan waters.  The first port of call was Ketchikan, where we took in a lumberjack show.  No fishing was on the agenda but the town’s main drag was a salmon river.  The downtown shops overlooked glides and riffles instead of concrete and traffic.  Handrails ran alongside the wooden sidewalks; if you leaned over the rail, you could see pink salmon running upstream.  The whole place was a great, big fly-fishing appetizer.

KetchikanThe next stop was Juneau.  Kerri stayed on board at the ship’s daycare.  With all the activities they had planned, she wouldn’t miss me one bit.  I hiked off the boat and down the street to the local fly shop, where I met up with Luke Woodruff, my guide for the day.  About an hour, Luke anchored his boat where a small stream poured into the salt.  We were relatively close to Juneau but could have been anywhere along Alaska’s wild coastline.

We waded the beach, sharing the water with hordes of pink salmon.  They were very eager; my rod was almost constantly bent by a four or five pound pink.  Although pink salmon, or humpies, register lower than cohos or kings on the desirability scale, the fun factor of any 4 or 5 pound salmonid should not be overlooked!

Father n daughter pinksFor a change of pace, Luke suggested hiking up the stream and trying for some cutthroats.  Five minutes down the path, a mother brown bear and her cub ambled into view, about 50 yards away.  We looked at each other and reversed direction without a word.  Our pace was definitely brisk on the way back to the beach.  A few furtive, over-the-shoulder glances confirmed that the bears were not following.  Although Luke carried a 12 gauge shotgun with slugs, I was quite relieved that he never even took it off his shoulder.

The next stop for the cruise ship was Skagway; both Kerri and I headed off the boat.  But this time for the mountains instead of a salmon river. Some rock climbing – guided and beginner friendly – was on the agenda.  After Skagway, the ship headed up the Tracy Arm for some serious scenic fiord cruising and iceberg spotting.

Untitled-1The final port of call was Wrangell – another chance to fish! This time Kerri joined me and guide Marlin Benedict had his jetboat waiting just down the pier. We headed up the silty lower reaches of the Stikine River to a deep pool in a clearwater tributary.

Once again, the pink salmon were thick. We could see schools swimming by underneath the boat.  Often, the take was visual and I watched a humpy inhale my streamer.

Double header (1)Kerri – who was nine at the time – used a spinning rod and the pinks kept it under strain.  Marlin enthusiastically netted Kerri’s fish and that process intrigued her immensely. To be honest, after four or five salmon, she actually convinced Marlin to use the rod and let her control the net. In the spirit of true customer service, with perhaps just a hint of sheepishness, Marlin hooked fish after fish, and let Kerri net them.

Kerri nets oneOn the trip back downriver, Marlin revealed another facet of his repertoire.  He allowed the boat to drift slowly downstream and we looked for the hulking shapes of king salmon amongst the pods of pinks.  It was a unique and unexpected opportunity for sight fishing watching for big, dark outlines and making a cast.

With time running out, I actually connected with a king.  Kerri cheered, the reel buzzed, and my backing made a rare but welcome appearance. There were a couple tense moments involving some tree branches but eventually about 15 pounds of chinook were brought on board for a quick photo.

King salmonAfter that,  it was full throttle all the way back to the Norwegian Sun.  There were no more stops scheduled so we enjoyed the ship’s amenities for a full day and a couple evenings all the way back to Vancouver.

Being a full size cruise ship, there were a lot of amenities – far more than most fishing lodges.  Come to think of it, a cruise ship actually makes a pretty good Alaskan fishing lodge…

Grayling Beached

Tundra Trout

Editors Note: To catch lake trout in the summer, you generally need very deep water and very heavy jigs – maybe even down riggers.  But not necessarily..

Myself, Dad, and our friend Ben squeezed into what used to be a 10 seater Cessna.  Today it was a 5 seater with a lot of gear and supplies.  Even though there was no flight attendant, the food service promised to be superb; a big cooler sat in the middle of the plane – full of sandwiches, chips, cookies, soda pop, and maybe even the odd beer.

We were flying from Thompson, in northern Manitoba, to Keith Sharp’s Arctic Outposts in southern Nunavut.  The word southern is a relative term because the Canadian territory of Nunavut stretches to the north pole.  There were no trees at our destination, just Arctic tundra.  And even though it was mid-August, the water would be frigid and the lake trout would be shallow.  Did I mention that the lakers would also be ravenous? They only enjoy about 3 ice-free months each year.

I thought the cooler stuffed full of food would be the highlight of the flight but it turned out to be the caribou.  Shortly after crossing the treeline, the pilot was scheduled to land at an old air strip at an abandoned fishing lodge.  There was a fuel cache there; he needed to top up and maintain his emergency reserve.

However, a herd of caribou was lounging on the gravel air strip.  “No problem,” said the pilot.  He had obviously dealt with this before.  “We’ll just give’em a bit of a buzz.”  He lowered the plane to about one hundred feet and roared past.  Lazily, the caribou ignored us.

With the next pass, I’m pretty sure I heard an antler the plane’s underbelly.  The caribou bolted onto the tundra and the pilot landed.  He filled up the plane and the rest of us cracked open a beer and toasted the caribou.

Caribou SwimmingWe also got our first look at the tundra. The bareness of the landscape actually shocked me.  Pictures and video didn’t prepare me for the reality of all that nothingness.  As far as the eye could see, there were no trees – not even shrubs.  Nothing, except for the odd boulder  – and that herd of lazy caribou – was higher than your ankle.

In another hour, we landed on a gravel air strip built by Keith Sharp, our outfitter for the trip. Again, there was nothing higher than your ankle all the way out to the horizon.  The air strip serviced his main facility, Ferguson Lake Lodge.  Although Ferguson Lake had top notch fishing, we transferred our gear over to a float plane destined for a much smaller outpost on the Kazan River near Yathkyed Lake

After twenty minutes in the air, the plane drifted into the dock at our home base for the next 6 days.  It looked like a big, ugly plywood box but it held bunks, a fridge, and a propane stove.  Most importantly, it was right on the Kazan River and there was a boat with an outboard parked at the dock.

The fishing for the next six days was amazing.   The Kazan River at that particular place is more like a narrow lake.  Our box – or cabin – sat right on a severely necked down portion, where the current quickened and swirled.  A few miles downstream, there was a large set of rapids.  We didn’t have a guide; there was absolutely no need.  The rapids held fish, and so did the eddies and riffles beside the cabin.   Both lake trout and arctic grayling…

Lake trout smashed streamers at the base of the rapids and in the deeper eddies beside the cabin.  As long as it was at least 5 inches long, the lakers liked it.  My favourite patterns were purple or grey Deceivers.  I liked to think that purple imitated a grayling and grey imitated a sucker but the lakers were likely more starving than cerebral.  A floating line was all that was needed.

Since three guys in a fishing boat can be a bit of a disaster, we generally just waded.  And there was no bush to crash through alongside the river!  The boat was mostly for transportation.

Regardless, we put on neoprene waders right after breakfast and didn’t take’em off until supper.   There was a good reason for the lakers being so shallow, and a layer of neoprene felt good in the water and out.   Forget about breathability! When it rained, out came the old-fashioned yellow rubber rain suits.

Wading along the shallow riffles beside the cabin, or beside glides and pockets within the rapids, was prime for Arctic grayling. They gobbled down any dry fly or nymph.

A few lakers terrorized these spots and several unfortunate grayling linked angler and trout in tugs-of-war.  Sometimes the trout won; sometimes they didn’t.

The trout that lost these tugs-of-war were not good losers. They were definitely fired up; we learned pretty quick to have a big streamer handy so they could vent their frustration.

The sheer size of the lake trout made them fun to catch.   Most were 6 to 10 pounds but a few heavyweights were closer to 20.   All of them put a saltwater size bend in a beefy 10 weight and a few even exposed the backing. They were thugs that smashed your fly and brawled among the boulders on the bottom. They definitely didn’t like skinny water; just before landing they invariably flew into a thrashing, twisting rage.

The grayling were just as fun to catch, but for different reasons. Although most topped out 14 to 18 inches, their big dorsal fin, purple hue, and aerial tendency made them consummate entertainers on the end of a 6 weight.

In many ways the tundra is fly fishing utopia; there are no backcast-hungry trees, for example.  But the wind tends to howl with no respite from it.  Truth be told, we sometimes used conventional gear to cut through the wind and reach juicy holding water far from the bank.   Any thigh-high boulder became prime real estate during lunch breaks, and all three of us would try to tuck in behind it.

The wildlife was another reason to brave the wind. We saw cranes, geese, article fox, caribou – even a muskox and a grizzly. The caribou were pretty camera friendly but the muskox and grizzly looked way too grumpy to stalk with a camera.

If you’re looking for a technical, match-the-hatch experience, the tundra might not be your place. But the fun factor is huge and so is the adventure quotient.  It’s the kind of place that makes you think you’re first person to walk on it. I think it should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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Note:  This article is based on a trip to the Yathkyed Lake camp of Keith Sharpe’s Arctic Outposts. However, in the accompanying photos, there are shots from different trips to Keith’s Kaminuriak South and Corbett Inlet camps.  Unfortunately, Keith is no longer in the fishing trip business but a quick search of the web yielded one lodge which would likely offer a similar experience:  Tukto Lodge (www.arcticfishing.com).   There are also outfitters who offer guided wilderness canoe trips down the Kazan River.  One of these is Wanapitei Canoe (www.wanapiteicanoe.com/trips.asp?ID=19).