Expeditions: The Haight and the Ashbury

A trip to Kodiak Island to catch a silver, see a bear, and recollect Old Times.
by John Gierach
From the May/June 2011 Issue

Every location on earth has its unique morning sounds.

Every location on earth has its unique morning sounds. Just before dawn on Uyak Bay on the west coast of Kodiak Island, it’s the steady breathing of the surf, a single muffled splash that could be a fish or maybe a sea otter, the first few herring gulls beginning to wake up. And faintly, from far off across the bay, something that doesn’t really sound like elephants trumpeting, but that’s the closest comparison I can come up with. 

I go back inside, pour a second cup of coffee, and ask John Pearce, the camp manager, what it might be. He says, pleasantly, “I have no idea” while making a visible effort to keep from rolling his eyes. John has been in the sportfishing business for a long time and by now he’d probably thought he’d heard it all. But elephants in Alaska? Jeez!

 

ImageNothing quite convinces an angler that he’s upped the ante like the endless Alaska tundra seen from the window of a 50-year-old float plane.

 

A few minutes later, when the owner, Bruce Kososki, comes in, I ask him the same question. With the coffee pot in one hand and a cup in the other, he frowns for a moment, then brightens and says, “Oh, it must be sea lions.”

Of course, sea lions. I give John a triumphant look, which he ignores, and another day of fishing begins.

***

At about this time the day before, the predawn sounds included recorded announcements and electronic beeping in the Anchorage airport. This could have been any airport in any city, except that businessmen wearing ties and carrying computers were far outnumbered by rough-looking customers carrying cased rifles or fishing rods. It wasn’t always clear who was coming and who was going, except for two men, each with a week’s growth of stubble, checking enormous moose antlers at the oversized baggage counter.

I’d flown in from Denver and was on my way to catch the Era Aviation flight out to the town of Kodiak on Kodiak Island. Once we were in the air, the man across the aisle got out an expensive-looking disk-drag reel and proceeded to tie on a fresh leader. He looked over and gave me a maniacal grin, which I answered with a thumbs-up. We were two strangers going fishing, and although our trips could still go either way, just being in Alaska meant we had upped the ante.

In Kodiak I walked across a parking lot to Island Air Service for the hop across the island to Larson’s Bay, with its dirt airstrip, Russian Orthodox church complete with an onion-shaped steeple, and 39 year-round residents. Then there was a van ride to Kodiak Legends Lodge, where I changed into waders, took another short van ride down to the harbor, and climbed aboard a lovely 1957 de Havilland Beaver floatplane. We were headed to the source of the Dog Salmon River at Frazer Lake, where I would finally get down to business.

At the lake we strung up 6-weight rods and hiked downstream, talking loudly to let any bears know we were coming. Bears don’t like surprises. Nine times out of 10, they’ll just run away when they’re startled, but it’s that tenth time you’re hoping to avoid. For emergencies, the two fly-fishing guides, Chuck Mercer and Trent Deeter, were armed with 12-gauge pumps loaded with rifled slugs. Our pilot, Jay Wattum, was carrying a lever action .45-70 carbine done up for the wet climate in stainless steel with fiberglass stocks. These riot guns were comforting in a way, but you understand that they’re a last resort that you’ll go to great lengths not to depend on.

 

Image A lady silver, fresh from the sea, coming to Kodiak to perpetuate her species.

 

We were there for the rainbows and Dolly Vardens, which were following the spawning sockeye salmon to feed on their dribbled and dislodged eggs. By then the sockeye run was nearing its end, but that hardly mattered. The rainbows and Dollys had been gorging on eggs from one salmon run or another for most of the summer, and were hardwired to pick up anything small, orange, and egg-like drifting in the current. That would include our plastic beads rigged slightly ahead of size-10 barbless hooks and slightly behind a single small splitshot. There are those who wouldn’t consider this a proper fly, and in another context I might agree, but Alaskan fly fishers tend to bypass fine points of style in favor of practicality, and the attitude is contagious.

This wasn’t the main event for anyone. I’d come in mid September hoping for silver salmon, the one species of Pacific salmon I’d never caught. Dick Matzke and his two sons had come to winch halibut out of 300 feet of salt water and shoot Sitka blacktail deer. This side trip was just the kind of harmless showmanship some lodges like to engage in on the first day. By the time most of us have finally gotten where we wanted to be in Alaska, we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time schlepping from one airplane to the next without a decent meal or much more than a catnap. Enthusiasm can still trump exhaustion, but at this point it’s a delicate balance, and catching a whole bunch of beautiful fish without much effort is the surest way to tip the collective mood into positive territory. 

After lunch we hiked back to the plane for the short flight down to the mouth of the river to look for silver salmon. (Rivers that rise on islands aren’t long, because they don’t have room to be. No place on Kodiak is more than 15 miles from the sea.) After we’d banked downriver and over the tidal flat where the Dog entered a small bay, Jay asked over the headphones, “Did you see all the silvers in those first two pools?

“No,” I replied. “I was watching the bear.”

“Yeah, the bear’s a good sign” he said. “He’s lookin’ for salmon just like we are.”

By the time I’d spotted this big adult, he was already trotting away from the racket of the plane. His brown fur rippled like silk in the thin sunlight, and as he glanced at us over his shoulder he looked more annoyed than scared.

Jay beached the plane at the edge of an alluvial fan several hundred yards from shore, checked the tide chart, and announced that we had to be back by 4:20. Otherwise, the outgoing tide would strand us until tomorrow.

“Can you remember that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “but I don’t have a watch.”

“That’s cool,” he said. “Somebody’ll have one.”

In the days to come, I’d learn that “That’s cool” was Jay’s automatic response to just about everything. Like some other bush pilots I’d met, Jay could seem like a wingnut on the ground, but it was either an act or some kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing, because in the air there was no one you’d rather have at the controls.

We waded ashore, and Chuck checked me out at the top of the second long pool. He said most of the fish would be lying in the deeper current near the far bank about a 50-foot cast away. He pointed, and on cue a large salmon rolled. “Cast down and across, give the fly a minute to sink, and strip it back in short jerks,” he said.

On my third cast the fly stopped as if it had been slammed in a door, and the fish ran downstream and then back up with startling speed, porpoising and rapping my knuckles with the reel handle. There was the usual moment of panic. The fish seemed too big. The 8-weight rod seemed too small. A few minutes later, I had my first silver salmon on the beach: a 12-pound buck, thick and deep with a grotesquely undershot kype that was the very face of grim determination. He was still within sight of salt water, but already his flanks were beginning to flush pink. I’d come on this trip hoping to see a Kodiak bear and catch a silver salmon, and both had happened in the space of 20 minutes. It seemed almost too easy.

The next fish was a chrome-bright female of about 10 pounds that had a more trout-like face and fought no less ferociously for being two pounds lighter. There were some others after that, and then everyone was reeling in and wading back out toward the plane. I had no idea what time it was, but there was no outgoing current on the flat, so we’d beaten the tide and wouldn’t have to spend the night. I glanced over my shoulder for the charging bear my imagination had been concocting all afternoon, but there was just beach grass and driftwood.

***

One rainy morning we flew out to the Karluk River, skirting a high rock cliff shrouded in mist like a Chinese watercolor, and then turning south along the Shelikof Strait. We landed on a wide tidal lagoon on the lower river amid no less than a thousand herring gulls, every last one alternately picking at a salmon carcass and screaming at the top of its lungs. The riverbank was littered with dead salmon: mostly spawned out sockeyes—some nearly whole, others just gull-picked skeletons—as well as what was left of some larger silvers that had been recently eaten by bears. The river itself was a thin stew of decomposing fish parts, bear and bird crap, and shed gull feathers. It smelled, not unpleasantly, like an alley behind a sushi restaurant.

When I started fishing there were five bears in sight on the far bank: two adults spread out upstream and a big sow with twin cubs downstream. While we were there, two younger males moseyed around the bend downstream, gave us long, disgusted looks as Trent and Chuck walked toward them yelling, “Hey bear! Hey bear!” and then waded casually across the river to the far side

Casting along 50 yards of river, I landed several nice-sized sockeyes of five or six pounds. These weren’t the fish I was after, but they’re so bizarre-looking that they’re always fun to catch. When a sockeye enters freshwater and begins to mature sexually, its jaws lengthen and enlarge, its teeth grow big and snarly, and its now-deformed head turns a sickly green. Meanwhile, the body swells into a tall hump and turns bright red. Compared to its silvery streamlined ocean form, a spawning sockeye looks like a werewolf in a Santa Claus suit, and is always worth a photo to show the folks back home.

The silvers were lying deeper than the sockeyes in the slow current, and it was possible to target them after a fashion by giving the weighted streamer a little more time to sink. These were bright fish fresh from the salt that would make two or three long, fast runs before they tired enough for the bulldogging end game.

At first I thought it was just my imagination when, after a couple of hours, the current seemed to slow down. By the time it stopped altogether and then began flowing in the opposite direction, I’d figured out on my own that the tide was coming in. The fishing shut off abruptly, and as I continued to cast without a strike, a particularly gruesome dead sockeye that had drifted past 15 minutes earlier bobbed by going the other way.

On the flight back we made a detour to scout for more silvers. First we flew up the Zacher River without spotting any salmon, so we banked over a low saddle and flew down another smaller stream toward Brown’s Lagoon. It was just a boggy trickle at first, but it took on more volume until, a half mile from the mouth, it widened into a single long bend pool with a dark stripe down the outside that Chuck said was a pod of maybe a hundred silvers.

Back at the lodge, the crew was busy cleaning halibut, the largest about 80 pounds, and on the porch outside the mudroom I nearly tripped over the caped-out head of a nice blacktail buck. It had been a good day all around.

That evening, a friend of the owner’s, a commercial fisherman named Pete, came to dinner. When we were introduced, we looked at each other suspiciously and Pete asked, “Do we know each other?” I said I thought maybe we did, but I couldn’t quite place him either.

We eyeballed each other all through the meal, and afterwards went out on the porch in a light drizzle to pick this thing apart. It took an hour of comparing lifetimes, but we decided we could only have known each other in passing in San Francisco in the summer of 1964, which would also account for our fuzzy memories. Maybe we ran into each other at parties or concerts, or the City Lights Bookstore, or the Coexistence Bagel Shop or even at the corner of Haight and Ashbury itself. And here we were 46 years later in Alaska, two survivors, alive and well and each chasing salmon in our own way and for our own reasons. It was heavy, man.

The next morning, Trent, Chuck, and I were dropped off at Brown’s Lagoon by a party of saltwater fishermen from the lodge with the promise that they’d pick us up in the afternoon. We hiked upstream through a narrow canyon that was steep sided and slippery with mud and kelp at low tide. At the top of this cut we broke out into a pretty valley ringed with low, forested mountains half hidden in clouds and followed the little river upstream to the pool full of salmon we’d seen from the air.

As we strolled around the last bend, we came face to face with a large bear at a range of about 30 yards. I yelled, “Bear!” more or less pointlessly, and the crack in my voice made it a two-syllable word. The bear, bless his heart, turned around and trotted off upstream.

We walked on up to the pool where I caught two bright silvers on a handful of casts, one from the bottom of the run, the other from the top. Then we sat on the bank to rest the water. We’d already decided this was the best strategy. There might be the odd salmon somewhere upstream, but aerial recognizance had suggested that this was the only honey hole.

This turned out to be a sublime afternoon of fishing. I’d catch two big, hot salmon; then we’d relax on the bank for the better part of an hour talking about the things fishermen talk about. I learned that Chuck and Trent had known each other back in Montana, and that Trent was the older of the two at a venerable 31. Chuck didn’t volunteer his age, but Trent said he was as young as his baby face made him look, and not a bad-looking kid, really, except for that great big head. Chuck smiled patiently, apparently having endured this baby-faced, bigheaded business all season.

I kept looking around nervously and finally said I was worried that the bear was back in the trees behind us, stewing about being run out of the only pool with salmon and maybe even working up a grudge about it. Trent said he’d been thinking the same thing, but that he was more concerned because when he’d talked to his girlfriend by satellite phone last night, she’d used the “M” word. That would be marriage, not money.

I ended up landing six big silvers, the largest weighing somewhere in the high teens, and one lonely little pink salmon that had shown up late for the party. All his potential rivals and mates were already spawned out and dead on the bank, their bones picked clean by birds and their skulls leering vacantly at the sky. I felt sort of sorry for him.

On the last pass through the pool, the hot pink streamer I’d been fishing all week had finally stopped working, and Chuck suggested I try a different pattern: basically the same lead-eyed, rabbit-fur-and-tinsel number, except in purple. I asked him what the two patterns were called. He said he didn’t know, and this being Alaska and all, they might not even have names. Then he added, “Tell you what: Let’s call the pink one the Haight and the purple one the Ashbury for old time’s sake.”

Image Your basic Alaska silver, kyped up and pinkened to catch the eye of the ladies.

 

My biggest silver came on the last day, which is a nice way for it to happen. We were back on the Karluk, and I tied into a salmon that ran so far and fast that at first I thought I’d foul-hooked a big sockeye. Trent and Chuck thought the same thing until we saw it was a large male silver with the fly fairly in its jaw, at which point things got serious for a few minutes. When we finally got the fish on the beach, Chuck called it at “Less than twenty pounds, but not too much less,” and one of the bigger silvers he’d seen.

I don’t always quit on a good fish, but it was late on the last day and my forearm ached from playing salmon, so I reeled in and found a rock to sit on. Once in a great while fishing can seem like a possible route to the virtues of clarity and restraint. Or maybe there are just times when enough is enough. In any case, I wanted to let this last one sink in, not as a set of weights and measures or a number on the way to the final score, but as a singular, flesh-and-blood fish with a life of its own.

_________________________

John Gierach spent his first few weeks back in Colorado fishing in a wrist brace, having pulled a tendon landing too many big salmon on Kodiak. He got surprisingly little sympathy from friends.


If You Go

Kodiak Legends Lodge is located in the village of Larsen Bay on Kodiak Island, 250 miles south of Anchorage and 60 miles southwest of the town of Kodiak. Along with just about everything else on Kodiak, it’s accessible only by boat or plane.

The lodge is 5,000 square feet with five suites, four single rooms, and a separate two-room cabin with its own kitchen. The dining room features a view of Uyak Bay and a full-body mount of a Kodiak bear. The lodge has wireless Internet access and a big-screen TV, which some will consider an advantage.

At one time or another through the season, you can fish for all five species of Pacific salmon—reds, silvers, pinks, dogs, and kings—as well as steelhead, rainbow trout, and Dolly Vardens. Saltwater species include halibut, rockfish, lingcod, black seabass, and salmon sharks. In the fall, there are hunts for Sitka blacktails and waterfowl, plus cast-and-blast combinations.

The lodge will supply waders and boots as well as good-quality rods, reels, and terminal tackle for both fresh- and saltwater fishing. Most will probably want to bring at least some of their own tackle, but you could actually arrive with nothing but clothes and a toothbrush.

The climate on Kodiak is milder than some imagine for that part of the world, but the weather can change quickly and drastically and it does get wet. You’ll want to bring some warm clothes, waterproof boots, and rain gear. Bugs can also be thick on warm, calm days, so you may want to include a head net and insect repellent.

The lodge is open from June through October. The cost ranges from $4,500 to $6,000, depending on floatplane hours. For more information, contact Kodiak legends Lodge toll free at 1-877-563-4111. or visit their website at www.kodiaklegendslodge.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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