Look close. There! You see Him?
Ok. That’s a nice fish, take your time. Look behind you to see where you can make a back cast. Ok!
When you are ready, make the cast.
This is a common conversation between Tikchik guests and me as we hike just a few of Southwestern Alaska's small streams. Each year as the salmon finish spawning—they start to die off come about September—you will find the river banks lined with dead fish. And the smell? Well I'll spare you that one. It’s not uncommon to find piles of dead salmon hung up on sweepers as well. If you are lucky you might find a big rainbow siting downstream of the flesh pile resting or eating.
Out of respect of the river, I'll refer to it as location X. Location X is a good Beaver flight from Tikchik Narrows Lodge where I am a fifth-year guide. Tikchik Narrows Lodge owns three de Havilland Beavers and a Cessna 206. At Tikchik, we refer to each plane by their tail number. Each plane has a permanent pilot, and between the four of them, there is over one hundred years of flying experience in the Bristol Bay region alone. Having some of the worst weather on record last season, I can tell you that these four pilots rank amongst the best in the world.
As we taxi off the dock I run through my mental gear list one last time. Flies, check, lunches check, ammo got it right here in the front pocket. WAIT! did I pack the lunches?? yeah remember there in the back pack. Right! The pilot reaches down and pulls up the water rudders then pushes the red button with his left thumb on the steering yoke. He speaks into the head set, "697 taking off West, departing Southwest through the narrows." He lets go of the button and then firewalls the engine. The beaver lunges forward and that’s when us guides take our "guide naps." I put on my head phones and turn up my iPod. The next thing you know we are circling the stream looking for fish AND any furry friends. 697 turns and sets up for the landing on a very small tundra pond. With no room for a mistake 697 lands with perfection. We taxi over to the bank and I jump out to turn the plane around so we can tie the tail rope off to the bank, and from the cabin I can hear, “Great flight, 697!” “Yeah!?” “Pretty good!"
Today I am fishing with two Brits, one a beginner and the other an intermediate. Both are great guys that I have fished with earlier in the week on the Agulapak River—the "PAK" as we call it, but I'll save that for the next blog. We unload the plane and I start rigging up the rods. Location X is a narrow stream that is on the more shallow side as far as rivers go. As the guys finish organizing their personal gear, I finish tying on the last fly. My guys are fishing on 7 1/2 foot 12-pound hand-tied leaders. One has a white and ginger double bunny fly and the other a mouse. The double bunny is fished both as flesh and a streamer to finish out the swing. And yes, a mouse! The ‘bows in AK do eat mouse patterns and they work well on overcast days, besides it’s fitting for a flesh story.
As we start out across the tundra, The QUESTION comes up: "So Adam, have you ever had a bear encounter before?" “Yeah, if we do run into a bear, make sure we all stay together and make no sudden movements." Because hiking across the tundra can be difficult, we pace ourselves with short breaks. As we make our way down a small ridge, an unfamiliar feeling comes over me. SPLASH, SPLASH, SPLASH! Then it registers. It’s a bear! With the rest of my crew just behind me I yell out. "HEY BEAR! HEY BIG BEAR!” Silence. "Hey guys there is a bear down there let’s take a break and wait here for a second.”
With tall grass blocking our view of the river, we keep talking LOUD! “There!" As 697 points to the top of the bluff on the far bank, we see the bear disappear out of sight.
"Adam, Mate, that was close! Never saw a bear that close before." Laughter fills the air as we all take deep breaths and pass the water bottle around. Our relief only lasts a few seconds.
"GET THE GUN OUT! STAY TOGETHER!" A water bottle falls to the ground as I swing my head around and reach for the gun. The bear that we thought had moved on is now running right towards us. We huddle up and prepare for the worst. “Stay together as we move back slowly…." With all the hair on my neck standing on end, the group starts to back up.
WOOF, WOOF. "Stay calm guys keep moving back." WOOF, WOOF. Unable to see the bear through the tall grass, we start making our way to higher ground. From a safe vantage point we are able to see that there is not just ONE bear, but FOUR! We had just walked up on momma bear's fishing 101 class. The reality starts to set in. "Let’s just stay here for bit guys, sows with cubs are some of the most unpredictable bears and walking up as uninvited guests for breakfast is never a good idea." All four bears rise to their hind legs; the cubs are just tall enough to see over the grass. We watch as the sow checks on each cub and then with a quick bump of her nose she gets them all moving in the opposite direction, while looking over at us from time to time.
With all the bears out of sight, we finally make our way down to the river. “Ok guys, move slow and fish every bit of water.” We want to stay in the middle of the river casting to the cut bank on a 45 degree downstream angle. After you cast, you want to mend up stream so that the Double Bunny can sink and tumble like real flesh. As the fly drifts past, you start to stack mend your line. It will keep the fly on the bottom and it will allow you to control the speed of your swing. Once the fly is at the end of your swing, start to work it like a streamer moving down stream after each cast. Don't worry about having slack in your line and missing strikes, these fish will not miss.
I make my way over to the mouse rod. “Adam, are you up for the challenge today?" I grin. After the bears this is easy. “Ok, start your cast on the same 45 degree downstream angle and mend right away. You want that mouse to swim slowly across the surface.” “I GOT ONE!” "Ok keep working that mouse, while I go net this other fish; …be back in a sec." As we unhook and release the first fish of the day a big cheer comes from across the stream. “Got one!” “Ok, great job; I am on my way.” “…Damn…." “What happened?” “It got away.” “Ok, cast and drift that again. With the mouse, you have to be patient!" After a second eat and miss, “what happened? I saw him eat it!" "After you see the fish eat say ‘god save the Queen’ and THEN set the hook.” “Ha ha, you crazy yank! You can’t be serious?” “Trust me.” As we watch the mouse swim across the river, I think to myself , “no way that ‘bow will eat a third time.” Just then, a strike. “You are bloody right. You crazy Yank!” “See I'm not that crazy.”
We finish our day with plenty of fish and fun all the while looking back upstream from time to time to make sure we are all alone.
Stay tuned For PAK RATS. It’s BIG AK ‘BOWS on size 24 midges with 6x!
Pro Guide: A.P. Franceschini
Tikchik Narrows Lodge
Head Guide Housatonic River Outfitters