At 6:15 a.m. it’s still twilight on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Indigo clings to everything: Redoubt Volcano’s ice-bitten crags across Kachemak Bay, and the evergreen hills and marsh grasses hemming nearby Deep Creek. Layers of clouds loll over the chilly August morning. A promising day for fly fishing, but not for comfort.
I’m dressed in several layers, plus hip boots. But the chill of air and creek quickly penetrates it all. Then it starts sprinkling. I can’t stop shivering.
Translucent indigo clings to Redoubt Volcano and Deep Creek on a chilly Alaska morning.
Justin, a 20-something guide with a hey-dude grin, asks for our licenses, then says, “Here’s your casting lesson.” I’m still rummaging for my license when the quickie “lesson” ends. Then Justin vanishes to eat.
Tom, a fly fishing fanatic celebrating his 60th birthday, strides upstream to begin his silver salmon quest in solitude. My husband and I wade into Deep Creek near a tangle of deadfall, where Dale repeatedly snags his hook.
This is only my third time fly fishing, and it shows. Justin reappears, forces my arm around like a puppet for 30 seconds, and disappears again. I only recall that he used a lot of slack, tightening it as he cast. When I try to duplicate this, the slack fouls.
This is only my third time fly fishing, and it shows.
Dale’s casts flow in a hypnotic, circular ribbon, which I ask him to teach me. He shows me how to snap the fly behind me and fling it toward the opposite bank. I grin blissfully at the “zzzzth” of a strong cast slicing the air, and almost forget we’re here to catch fish.
Dale’s casts flow in a hypnotic, circular ribbon.
Then I snag my hook on a rock. “I can’t see where the pink thingy went.”
“You mean your fly?” Dale asks.
If we giggle any harder, we’ll need an outhouse.
Justin said the 8:00 high tide would carry silvers our way. Guess someone forgot to tell the fish. So he hunts for a better spot. “I found fish!” he yells. We follow him to the sandy banks near the creek’s mouth.
Within minutes, Tom calls, “Fish on!” Silvers put up a more energetic, leaping, dancing fight than other salmon. This one’s no exception… but Tom wins.
Silvers put up a more energetic, leaping, dancing fight than other salmon.
Dale gets several bites, but they all splash free.
Then I get a bite, but my line is too slack and wraps around the grip. If the fish yanks now, I could lose a finger. So I let the fish go. After that, I decide to tighten my slack.
“Fish on!” Tom shouts again. This one drags him downstream before he lands it.
That does it! I want one. I cast harder, aiming for a few fish holding steady against the current. When my fly starts hitting the mark, I stop feeling cold and start feeling optimistic.
Then Justin hooks one and tries to hand me his rod. I don’t want his hand-me-down! I’ve caught a silver before, and the idea holds no mystique for me. I explain, “We’re not as interested in bringing home a salmon as we are in getting better at fly fishing.”
So he tries to hand his rod to Dale. “No, man! I don’t want your fish!”
Then Justin hooks another salmon and insists I reel it in.
Now that our guide has stolen my high, I feel the wind picking up. We call it quits while we still feel good about today, and the chance to try someplace new tomorrow.
The next day’s tide is sleeping-in, so we don’t have to hit the Kasiloff River until 9:30. This time we’ll fish bait. I paid Soldotna B&B Lodge for a 2-day/3-night package called “Fly Fisherman’s Fast One,” so what’s with the bait? John, a seasoned, 30-something guide with longish hair and a soul-patch, explains that salmon prefer bait to flies at this point in the season. I wish the B&B had warned us; I would have scheduled this trip earlier. But it’s a sunny day, and I’m disposed to get over it.
John, Tom, Dale, and I hop in a boat with Olga, a Russian hottie wearing a fluorescent green hoody, orange nails, and flowered rain boots – the sort little girls wear with dresses. I clamber into the boat in hip boots: beauty contest loser.
Olga barely speaks to us all day. Instead she holds lengthy Russian conversations on her cell phone, listens to her iPod, smokes, and all but ignores John’s instructions to let out line or reel it in. She says she works on Wall Street, lives in Reading, Pennsylvania, and visits Alaska every year: none of which makes sense, unless she’s an Amish stockbroker on a manhunt. Dale speculates that the Russian doll and Alaskan guide might have a little somethin’ somethin’ going on.
Where was I? Oh yes: trolling. We glide down the glistening, glacial, blue-green river, between banks lined with pine, birch, and aspen. It’s a relaxing float for us, but a workout for John, who rows like mad to haul us into a current thick with silvers. Dale catches two in quick succession. John asks Olga if she wants to try Dale’s spot. She declines. “OK, but don’t blame me if you don’t catch anything!”
Dale catches two silver salmon in quick succession.
I take over Dale’s rod, and hook the monster fish of the day: a silver around 16 pounds, fat with eggs, and requiring all my strength to crank the reel. She runs away, charges the boat, and runs again – flipping and rolling. As I pull her close to the boat, John says, “You’ve got it!” and lowers a net. I lift, she rolls, and I almost fall backward as the line snaps. She takes off, dragging a plug and two hooks, while I stare at a question mark of broken line, stunned.
I burst into laughter. “I was sure that fish was mine!”
“That was 25 pound test!” John shakes his head, dumbfounded. When the salmon rolled she must have wrapped the line around the second hook and sliced it.
“I was sure that fish was mine!”
For the next hour: nothing. Maybe all the other fish are gathered around Big Mama Fish as she tells the story of how she got away.
We pull out at a side creek to cast flies instead. John teaches me roll casting: a diagonal, whipping motion with a sudden, satisfying snap. I’m not bad for a beginner, but the salmon aren’t impressed.
Soon we’re back to staring at rod tips, waiting… waiting…
Soon we’re back to staring at rod tips, waiting… waiting…
“Fish on! Right front!” John’s shout wakes me, and I scramble to pull my rod from the holder. This silver’s nowhere near the size of the one that got away, but it’s still respectable, maybe 12 pounds. After a brief struggle, my catch is clattering in the fish box. (Sorry, vegetarians.)
A bad fishing trip in Alaska? Not bloody likely!
So we did less fly fishing than I hoped. But a bad fishing trip in Alaska? Not bloody likely! We’re going home to a freezer filled with salmon. And at about $100 a pound, we’ll make up any story we like. Maybe I’ll tell people how, at day’s end, I landed a fish that was dragging a plug and two hooks that all looked very familiar.
IF YOU GO
If you’d like a guide who specializes in women’s fly fishing trips, I highly recommend checking out Women’s Flyfishing, run by Alaska’s premier woman fly fisher, Cecilia “Pudge” Kleinkauf.” She gave me my first fly fishing lesson, and is still the best fishing instructor I’ve ever had.
We chose Southcentral Alaska so that we could also visit family and friends, but Southeast Alaska is my favorite part of the state. There are many beautiful wilderness lodges on the Panhandle that offer fishing, including Adlersheim Wilderness Lodge or Whale’s Eye Lodge in Juneau, and Chinook Shores in Ketchikan.
If you’re looking for a convenient side trip near Anchorage, Soldotna B&B Lodge is a cozy place for couples, with reasonably priced charters. But make clear to them exactly what kind of fishing you want before you make reservations.