Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bristol Bay is for fishing - Alaska part 2

I awoke early the next morning in anticipation of what the Nushagak River would bring. As described previously, we had a fantastic day of hunting and fishing yesterday. Could we have an even better day today? Chad and his sister, Bryn, still had moose tags to fill, and I was not going to miss out on anything. So the three of us snuck out of the cabin and loaded into the 18-foot flat bottom jetboat and headed upriver to see what we could find.

We cruised up the river and picked through the small channels and sloughs that make the Nushagak a moose factory. We starting seeing cows, some with calves, but no bulls. We continued up the river, even further past where Reed had shot the moose the day before, and ended up in small, no-name channel that seemed to have no end. This channel was deep but narrow and full of grass. Chad was constantly dodging grass clumps to avoid sucking grass into the jet pump. Finally, with all of our hands and feet frozen, Chad stopped the boat and we idled into the bank. Chad wasn't sure how much further the channel went on or where it popped out on the main river. On top of it all, we were just below half-full on our gas tank. I was glad when Chad suggested we start working our way back.

We had only made it a couple of bends back down the small channel when we spotted two moose right next to the river, and one was obviously a bull! Chad cut the engine and drifted into the bank. Both Chad and Bryn jumped out with their 30/06 rifles in hand while I grabbed the anchor and secured the boat to the bank. Chad and Bryn were already up ahead of me and were sneaking their way through the tall bear-grass to get a clear shot. I could see Chad raise his rifle and knew he saw the bull; his shot was delayed because a cow moose was directly behind it. He took a few steps closer and raised his rifle again, only to discover that his scope was foggyBoth moose ran back into the woods, clearly uncomfortable with our presence. Chad and Bryn continued in the direction the moose had gone only to find dense woods and no sign of the moose. They appeared out of the woods, and as they were walking towards me I could hear some classic sibling arguing.
“Chad, I had a clear shot but you were in front of me!” 
“Well why didn't you say something?” Chad retorted.
“Oh well,” Bryn said, coming to her senses, “ I'm not sure how we would get two moose back to town with all our gear anyway.” 

We drove back down the river to the cabin and told the rest of the family what had happened over a large breakfast. I, of course, already couldn't wait to do some more fishing! Chad told me we should drive downriver to where a small river comes in. He said the Silvers usually stack up there.
"Sounds awesome to me," I said.
After breakfast we hopped in the boat and cruised down the river to hammer on some fish. We had only been driving a few minutes when Reed cut the engine. "Here we are!"
That was fast, I thought to myself.
We idled into the bank and could see dark shadows scurrying all around the boat.
"This is going to be good," I said in excitement!

Silvers, or Coho Salmon, are perhaps the most aggressive of the five species of pacific salmon. They are so aggressive that they often attack flies on the surface. 
“This is a perfect spot to try your pink pencil popper.” I told Chad, knowing that his topwater fly would stimulate a strike. 

I went with a pink Spillers Diver, determined to get as many species of fish on this fly as possible. Reed put on an egg sucking leech while Bryn stuck with spinners.

Bryn was into a fish in no time, and was thrashing about everywhere, making all kinds of racket.

I bombed out a long cast with my 6wt paired with a Rio Outbound Short line. This line always performs well when casting a big fly.
"I didn't know fly rods could cast that far," Bryn said surprised.
I looked at my reel with probably 25 feet left of fly line and thought to myself, that really wasn't very far. If Erik were here, he would have thrown the whole line!
I began working the fly back towards me. I made it about half way back when out of nowhere a huge wake suddenly appeared in pursuit. Like Jaws after an unsuspecting surfer, the silver salmon exploded on my fly. I set the hook and was reminded how awesome topwater silver fishing could be. I had almost become jaded to silvers when I was guiding on the Kanektok River for Dave Duncan and Sons. Back then, putting two guests into 60 silvers a day was a normal occurrence, but as my reel sang, it reminded me of the rush silvers bring on a fly. I landed the fish and took a shot to show how healthy and feisty this hen fish was.

Chad walked upstream and began working a deeper pool with a pencil popper. With every pop, pop, pop, his popper would create audible splashes. Those splashes, however, were nothing compared to what came next. The silver launched out of the water and flew a foot in the air with the popper in its mouth! It hit the water with a huge splash before Chad set the hook.
"WHOOOOOOOO!” Chad yelled, ecstatic with his catch. This was his first silver on a topwater fly.

All four of us were getting into silvers left and right. Our excitement could be heard far into the woods, where I'm sure the brown bears were frowning with envy. 

I could tell Bryn was itching to try this fly fishing stuff. I tied on an egg sucking leech and we brought her up to the deeper pool where Chad had already caught several fish on topwater.
"Topwater flies just single out the most aggressive silvers in the pool. Wait until you give them a sub surface fly." I said.
After explaining some fly casting basics and giving her a few pointers, Bryn began casting. Within minutes she was throwing the fly out to where the fish were.
"Ok now strip, pause, strip, pause, strip..." I instructed her.
Bryn began stripping the fly back in and I saw her line zip off to the left a couple feet.
"You got one!" I yelled.
She set the hook and the silver sprung into action. The fish ran up and down the pool, but Bryn wasn't going to let this one get away. She played the fish until it was tired, then hoisted up her trophy for the camera.
Bryn continued fly fishing that spot while I also continued working my topwater fly. There was a small island in front of us with slack water behind it. A silver porpoised six feet behind the island and revealed its position. I made my cast and began popping. Two pops were all I got before all hell broke loose. The silver exploded on my fly and immediately took off downstream. Silvers are know for their acrobatics, but sometimes they make screaming runs. This fish decided it was done with this whole idea of spawning and wanted to go back to the ocean. I was beginning to regret using my 6 wt, when the fish slowed down and I began working my line back in. Most people use an 8 wt for silvers but a heavy 6 wt is awfully fun.

I finally worked the fish in and admired him before he took off.

In the midst of my excitement, I hadn't realized Reed and I had been doubled up. He hollered to someone to take a picture of his fish. I ran over and took a picture of a classic male Coho salmon.
We continued to hammer the silvers all afternoon. I knew we would be coming back to this spot in the days to come.
We were all having so much fun that we lost track of the time. My stomach growled and I looked at my watch. It was already 7:00 p.m., and baby back ribs had been slow cooking back at the cabin over the campfire all day. At that moment I swore I could smell them... It was time to head back to the cabin.

Despite having all caught over a dozen silvers, it wasn't easy to pull Chad, Bryn and Reed away from their spots. We headed back to the cabin and enjoyed the delicious barbequed baby back ribs while sharing our most exciting silver moments of the day. Chad mentioned doing some northern pike fishing the next day. Explosive topwater takes? Could this trip get any better?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Alaska Moose Hunt

For those of you who know me, I have a hard time balancing fly fishing with hunting time. Both are deep passions of mine. That’s why when my friend, Chad, from Alaska, suggested I come up for a moose hunting trip and a fishing trip to celebrate his upcoming marriage, I couldn’t pass it up. After all, I was his best man… and what better bachelor party than on the river hunting and fishing!

Convincing my boss, John, to let me take a week off was no more difficult than normal.

"Are you ever really here, Ryan?" John would say, rolling his eyes.

After a long evening of airports and plane rides, I landed in Anchorage. Our plan was to get a few things ready and fly to Dillingham the next day. Dillingham sits at the mouth of the Nushagak River in Bristol Bay. It would take two and half hours by boat to get from Dillingham to the families cabin. Our ticket to Dillingham was for 5:30p.m. With such a late flight we were concerned we might not have enough daylight to get up to the cabin. We tried to catch an earlier flight but were unsuccessful. We landed in Dillingham at 6:30 and met up with Chad's parents, Rick and Allie, and his brother and sister, Reed and Bryn. They would also be joining us on the trip.

We landed in Dillingham to find nearly everything was ready for our trip upriver. We left the house and quickly launched the boats in the harbor by 7:30p.m. We were off to the mighty Nushagak River.

The family's chocolate lab, Marco, was just as excited to tag along as we were.

It took about an hour to get to where the shores started closing in on us and the water to take shape into a river. The sun was quickly setting and we were on a race against daylight. Further and further we went up the river. The Nushagak is heavily "braided", meaning it splits into many smaller channels. Reed was driving and taking all the "shortcuts." I was very impressed at Reed's navigational skills through all these channels, a skill I imagine took years of experience driving on this river to acquire.

We came around a corner and spotted the first moose: a cow with two calves. We slowed down and she simply watched us as we drove by. We proceeded to see another eight or so moose in the next few miles - a good omen to the beginning of a moose hunt.

The sun was nearly set and mist began to rise from areas of the water. I could feel the temperature dropping and I was starting to get concerned. I asked Chad how much further.

"Oh probably another 15-20 minutes. We’ll definitely be cutting it close." He said.

I had faith that Reed wouldn't get us lost or beach the boat on a bar so I decided to stop worrying. With just barely a sliver of light left in the sky we came around the corner to the welcoming sight of a cabin with windows aglow. After unloading the boat, a warm cup of hot chocolate hit the spot. We readied the boat for the morning's hunt and went to bed.

6:00 a.m. came quickly, but I was ready. When it comes to getting up early for hunting or fishing, I have no problem. One beep of that alarm and I spring out of bed in anticipation. I am a duck hunter after all, and those of you who have been duck hunting know it's an early sport.
By 6:45 we shoved off the shore and headed up river. Chad's family has been hunting this river for many years and knew where to find moose. Rick was driving the boat up to a series of channels and sloughs that typically hold moose. The sunrise was gorgeous, and of course, no picture could do it justice.

We came around the corner and spotted the first moose: a cow with a calf. We slowed to make sure there were no bulls nearby and continued up the river. Chad's family is part Aleut, the indigenous people to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. As such, they are permitted to "subsistence" hunt the Nushagak River. This means an earlier season than the general season, and the ability to take any sized bull, as opposed to spikes or 50 + inch bulls. So essentially we were looking for any moose that had antlers.

Around another corner we spotted a cow in the river. She quickly climbed on shore and disappeared into the woods. Rick was cruising through a network of channels on his way up to the sloughs. It was exciting not knowing what was going to be around the next corner. We continued to spot cows and calves, but no bulls. Further and further upriver we went, and it is safe to say I had not the slightest clue where we were or how I would get back if something happened.

We rounded the bend of the small channel pictured, and we could see far back into a slough. Standing on both sides of the slough were two bulls. Rick quickly slowed and turned into the slough and aimed for the bank. He cut the engine and we drifted in. Chad and Reed grabbed their guns and got out of the boat. The bull on our side of the bank was looking our direction and getting nervous. With the helpful cover of a few birch and spruce trees, Chad and Reed began to slowly walk toward the moose. The bull on the other side of the slough had disappeared, and the bull on our side had faded several yards back into the trees. Reed and Chad continued to creep toward the moose, hoping to get a close and clear shot. Finally, a clear shot presented itself for Reed, and he took it. The bull took one step and collapsed. We waited a few minutes and Reed decided to approach the moose and shoot it again if it wasn't dead, not wanting it to suffer. Closer inspection revealed the big bull was already dead. It's always a nice feeling when you make a good shot and the animal doesn't suffer. We approached the large, majestic moose and stood there for a minute to admire this great animal.

We field dressed the bull and began loading the meat into the boat. I broke out a bag full of latex gloves and offered them to the seasoned butchers around me. All I got were disappointed looks and "no thanks."

I had brought these on other big game hunts and they had been well received and appreciated. It was obvious to these guys I was not a real Alaskan.
Reed was working near the groin of the moose as I offered him some gloves.
He looked up at me and said, "ain't no shame in touching a moose's pecker!"
We all laughed and shook our heads and continued field dressing.

I hauled a hind quarter to the boat and barely made it there before I collapsed. I've put a whole dressed whitetail doe on my back and carried it several miles, and I'm sure this quarter of moose weighed more than that deer. With the boat ready and loaded we headed back to camp and hung the meat to cool.


With hands washed and a delicious breakfast in our bellies, it was time to go fishing! At least that's all that was on my mind... I'd told Chad and his brother how effective fly fishing can be for silver salmon, and I was eager to demonstrate. They were both very interested, and had fly rods and flies that I had gotten them.
"Just take us to some fish and I'll show you how to catch them on the fly rod," I told them, with perhaps a little too much confidence.
We had driven past a spot with some porpoising silvers on our way back to the cabin with the moose. So that's where we headed first. The spot we started fishing had a faster current than I was used to, and a strong downstream wind made fishing from the boat especially difficult. We ran up to the top of the run and began drifting between an island and the main shore. I spotted a submerged clump of grass and made my cast directly behind it. Strip, strip, strip, the My Little Pony fly pranced in the water beautifully, moving just like a wounded squid. I watched my fly intently as it drifted into the slack water created by the clump of grass.  Strip, strip, strip. The fly suddenly disappeared into the mouth of a silver salmon. I set the hook and the fish quickly reminded me how strong a bright Coho Salmon can be. The fish immediately ran upstream, making my drag sing. Then it decided to head straight for the boat, forcing me to strip all that line back in, only for it to turn around and take it all back out in a matter of seconds. The fish then flew out of the water spinning and twirling like a gymnast going for a gold medal in the Olympics.

"Man I love silvers!" I shouted with joy.
The fish eventually played out and I was able to take a photo of the beautiful colors on its cheek before releasing it.

As I was releasing my fish, Reed hooked into one on a spinner. With his rod doubled over and a huge grin on his face, he yelled," Got one!"

Reed's fish flew out of the water near the boat as if it was trying to get us wet. A quick battle and he had the fish in, unhooked, and released before I could get a shot. It was obvious Reed had caught hundreds of these things before.

With mild success from the boat we decided to try fishing from the shore. I knew fly fishing would be a bit easier this way for Chad and Reed. Chad walked a bit upstream from me and began casting. I was focused on untangling my fly line in the tall bear grass when I was startled by a loud splash, marking the classic battle with a silver salmon.
"Woooooo!" Chad hollered in excitement.
Chad's fish was running all over the place and flying out of the water. Chad had his hands full with this fish and was loving every minute of it. After a long fight he was finally able to grasp the fish's tail and get a picture.

The next couple of hours were full of great silver salmon fishing. Silvers were had by all of us and even a few "doubles" took place.
The silver action slowed a bit and we started catching Arctic Grayling. Although a beautiful fish, perhaps this was a sign it was time to head back.
With sore arms and growling stomachs, we hopped back into the boat and headed back to the cabin. The morning had begun with a successful moose hunt and by evening we were sore from catching silvers. We went to bed early that night hoping the next day would be as bountiful as this one. This is what Alaska is all about.