FIVE DAYS IN JUNE
Written By Barbara Harp, Mackay, Idaho
Well, I’d read all the hype about Alaskan fishing trips. My husband and I had fished British Columbia salt water each summer since 1981 and enjoyed it immensely. What are we doing climbing into this little twin engine plane in Anchorage, Alaska?
Friends had finally convinced us we should give Guth’s Lodge on Iliamna River a try, so here we were. We’re absolutely RABID fishermen, so it wasn’t that hard to talk us into this trip, but we were skeptics. Pretty hard to beat the salmon fishing at Campbell River, B.C.
The trip out was astounding; not just for the fantastic mountain peaks, up close and personal, but for the fact that no one had even mentioned them. It’s like fishing the Snake River in Jackson Hole without mentioning the Tetons, rising up and dominating the landscape. Only here, there are alot MORE Tetons! And, oh, sure, let’s throw in a live volcano smack in the middle while we’re at it.
Norm Guth met us at the airstrip in Pedro Bay, a tiny native community on Iliamna Lake. Iliamna Lake! Ninety miles long, fifty miles wide! Water clear as in the Caribbean. Large enough to have fresh–water seals. Yup, fresh–water seals.
A short jaunt by jet boat, and we arrived at the lodge, situated beautifully on the Iliamna River just above the lake. We were shown to our room, (sumptuous luxury in the middle of no-where!), and served lunch. They knew we came to fish, not dally, so after lunch we headed out to fish rainbow.
DAY 1 — RAINBOW TROUT: Well, we’re from Idaho and we know about rainbow trout, but this was a different experience in a marshy area bordering the lake. With hip boots we stalked the trout, admired the terrain, and worked up a great appetite for some beef pot roast, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, fresh home–made bread, and strawberry–rhubarb pie.
DAY 2 — ARCTIC CHAR: We made a run by jet boat up the Iliamna River. It winds majestically through cottonwoods and willows with mountain slopes on both sides. The water is extremely clear with a ice–blue color. You sight–cast to fish, not unlike bonefishing in Florida. But the river’s a bit high this early in the year. I was busy videoing grizzly tracks on the sand bar when Rodger hooked his first Arctic Char and gave me another video opportunity. He caught and released two fat, grumpy Arctic Char, each weighing in at about six pounds. Our guide tells us the best fishing here will be after the first of July, when the sockeye salmon (known as ‘red salmon’), make their spawning run up the river. You not only have thousands of sockeye salmon passing the lodge each day, but also huge rainbow trout which have learned to follow the sockeye up from the Iliamna Lake to salvage eggs for themselves. The action will pick up considerably in another 10 days or so. But we’re happy with the Char fishing, and a fun run through an obstacle course of timber and boulders on the upper river. There are eight other guests at the lodge, and we look forward to comparing notes in the evening.
DAYS 3 and 4 — CHINOOK SALMON: We fly out of Pedro Bay with Norm in his Cessna Skywagon. Suddenly that twin–engine that brought us here seems pretty darned big, but we knew Norm and Marty from Idaho where they have the very best reputation for flying into the steep and treacherous Middle Fork of the Salmon River country. We feel no qualms (well, almost no qualms) about flying with Norm across the tundra to the Nushagak River 240 miles to the northwest. After leaving the lake and mountains behind, we find ourselves looking down at mile after mile of tundra. The Nushagak runs into Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea. When the Nushagak comes into view, we see boats, tents, and planes. All here because of the chinook salmon run. Let us at ’em!!
By buzzing the camp, we alert Marty Guth to our presence, and he runs a boat up to meet us at the landing strip. Portage Creek is an Inuit community, even smaller (MUCH smaller) than Pedro Bay. I never realized you can smell a salmon run, but we could smell salmon when we hopped out of the plane. We’re DYIN’ to wet a line! And in no time flat we’re trolling right in front of camp (the best hole on the river, we’re told). And in no time flat, I have a strike like you can’t believe. Wow! What a powerful fish. And they don’t give up easily. He tipped the scales at 32 pounds. Now, this was better than we expected, because we’d been told the run consists of mostly teens to twenties, thirty tops. And here’s my first fish, over thirty!
Well, that was the beginning of the best two days of chinook fishing we’ve ever had. And we WORK at chinook fishing each summer. We kept two, both over thirty, and released about 25 others. We started about 2 pm the first day, and ended at noon on the second day, so this was in a 24 hour time period. The smallest was 14 pounds. They were such a blast. One very nearly leaped in the boat, and for two of them, we had to beach the boat to subdue them.
After our first afternoon and evening we ran the boat up to the bank to find sirloin steaks on the barbie and the wonderful smells of fresh coffee. Now, that would be the perfect ending to a lovely day, right? Wrong! In Alaska you have almost total daylight this time of the year. It never did get totally dark, so we were right back out there until 11 pm. Talk about getting your money’s worth. We fished til we could fish no more.
We slept that night in a tent with sleeping bags. Hardly the comfy living we’d grown to love back at the lodge! The Nushagak country is completely native–owned, and fishing lodges lease a piece of ground for their camp. So all camps are temporary affairs used through the one–month run of chinook. That’s quite all right with us, we’d live on salmon alone for a week for fishing like this. We were exhausted and slept like logs. After breakfast we hit the beach running, and caught another six fish, the largest 28 pounds. This is Disneyland for fishermen, no doubt about it! But because the weather was acting a little bit unsettled, we opted to fly out about 1 pm (it was our choice), because we wanted to fish HALIBUT!
I watched for caribou horns on the way back, because I’d seen a beautiful set in a neighboring camp, and did spot two nice big sets (for all the good it did me) on the way back. Also spotted a small group of caribou. By now we’re climbing in these little planes with enthusiasm, not dread, and Marty even let me wear the co-pilot’s earphones, so I could hear what other pilots were transmitting about fishing, caribou, etc. What a blast. I was surprised at how beautiful the tundra is, with it’s thousands of lakes, small stands of fir, and dips and swells. Throw in an occassional clear river winding to the sea, and this trip to Nushagak in itself was worth coming to Alaska.
DAY 5 — HALIBUT: By running up the Iliamna by jet boat to the Pile Bay bridge, we accessed the only 14 miles of road in this entire country. It was built during World War II to ship materials from salt water (Cook Inlet) to Lake Iliamna. From there it could be moved by barge to it’s final destination. Guth’s keep a 4–wheel-–drive Suburban at the bridge, so we unload from the jet boat, jump in the Suburban, and set out across a major mountain range, along a river that (of course!) has a sockeye run, past a lake loaded with fat Dolly Varden, over an adventurous pass, and down to ‘Williamsport’.
Now, Williamsport is about the dinkiest ‘port’ I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty. It consists of one storage shed, a front-end loader, a DC–9 Cat, and, sitting there on a trailer, is the magnificent ‘REEL FAST’, a 40–foot jet boat sporting twin V–8 engines, latest GPS, radar, and fish finders! This puppy sleeps six and has a full galley. Well, it’s one fantastic boat, and built to Guth specifications.
We’re on the water and fishing within the hour. After fishing B.C. saltwater for seventeen years, I’m shocked at the complete solitude we enjoy here, and yes, frankly, I find myself almost edgy with the lack of fellow boaters. I get over that pretty darned quick when the halibut are located. It could have been a better day fishing, I’m sure, because I personally had two hits that about yanked me right out of my chair. I KNOW there’s hundred-pounders plus out there, but my largest and the largest for the day, was a mere 30 pounds. We caught a total of five.
Rising from the sea just off the mainland was a huge perfectly shaped volcano — SMOKING, yet it had snow on it’s flanks and was absolutely a show–stopper. Anywhere else it would be a National Park in it’s own right, but here it’s hardly noticed.
A glossy whiskey–brown bull moose greeted us as we jetted back down the Iliamna to the lodge. The brown bears will be more prevalent when the sockeye salmon come in; we regret not seeing one, but we have to save SOMETHING for the next trip. Oh, sure. There’ll be a next trip. To not experience the Nushagak one more time, to not have one more try at setting the hook on that Williamsport monster, is unthinkable.
To those of you contemplating a trip north for fishing, I recommend Guth’s. Not just because we caught fish. Guth’s gave us absolutely the best personal treatment, we weren’t just a part of the herd, run ’em in, run ’em out. They know you want fish, and they don’t skimp in their efforts to put you where you need to be to get those fish. The food? Outta sight! And, geeze, they didn’t even MENTION fresh–water seals, Alaskan brown bears, moose, volcanoes, beautiful tundra landscapes and bird’s eye views of glaciers.
Well, we’re back home now, and thinking every evening about the action happening on the Nushagak, wondering what the tide’s doing at Williamsport. The memories will last a lifetime, but we’re going back for another dose of memories! Look for us on the Nushagak in 2000!
4644 U.S. Highway 93
Mackay, Idaho 83251
Written July 2, 1998 — Experienced June 23–28, 1998