Monday, June 18, 2012

Guide's Night Out... The First Char Derby of 2012!

Setting up a lodge in Alaska is no small task. We show up three weeks ahead of time because it takes a full three weeks to get the job done. Starting with a just handful of crew, each week we have more and more manpower. We're now on the home-stretch with a full crew of over 30 staff members, all the camps set up, and lots of time to hit the water.

Gearing up
I picked up our first big load of freight a few days ago. While throwing boxes into the boats down at the landing, I got to thinking about how much food it takes to run an operation like this. I think our first big order was close to 6,000 lbs! My wife is the hostess here at BBL and the one responsible for all food ordering, inventory management, etc. She has had a lot of fun this year with doing some baking of her own, with a breakfast quiche the other morning and a batch of lemon bars that were to die for. I'm serious, we almost had our first guide's wrestling match over the last one.

If only she did this at home!
Last night we got out for our first Char derby and it was nothing shy of epic. Unfortunately, my camera crapped out with a dead battery after photographing the first fish of the night. I'll try and score some pics off the other cameras for posting later today. The mouth of our local river was a powerful and unforgiving scene, with stiff west wind blowing a steady 15-20 creating big caps where the river's heavy current meets the lake. The low sunlight was shining through towering snow-capped peaks, lighting up wind-blown spray like glistening diamonds. The scene was dramatic, almost indescribable with words.

Upon arrival to the river-mouth, we cut engine in the heavy current and started our first drift. Big Joe jumped on the oars, coaching new apprentice-guide, Bobby on casting a heavy sink-tip in the wind. The conditions were challenging- flogging away with big sink tips while trying to not fall out of the boat as it rolled and pitched up and down, side to side. Like always, it took a bit to get into the rhythm, but within a few minutes we had our first big flock of Arctic Terns dive-bombing into crashing waves gorging themselves on a fresh ball of salmon smolts. Like a scene from striper-fishing off Montauk, birds mean bait-balls, and bait-balls equal Char.

Big Joe coaching on Char setups
About three-quarters of the way down our first drift I punched another long cast into the wind. After two or three big mends and feeding it a bunch of slack, I tightened up on the swing and began the retrieve with long hard strips and the occasional pause. About half-way through my retrieve my smolt pattern suffered a crushing blow, and I hooked our first Char of the 2012 season. We hooped and hollered, and another hook-up in one of our other boats resulted in more laughter, screaming and fist-pumping- "Doubuuuuuuul!" My fish stayed deep with hard head-shakes, a good sign of a big Char. Within a couple minutes, we had the fish on the surface and in the net, a solid 9 or 10 pound buck. The fish was chrome-bright, typical for spring-time, and fat with a belly full of smolts. A few quick pictures and we released him to the black water, free to swim and gorge once again.

For the next couple hours, the situation repeated itself. Doubles, triples, yelling, laughing, fist-pumping, and picture-taking. A successful Char-derby is a beautiful thing. Last night's episode was one for the books.

The first Char of the 2012 season!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Life Lessons From Pike Bay

Layla meets Mr. Pike, compliments of Tom K.
We finally had the chance to shake the dust off the fly rods a few nights ago. The 60 degree weather was just too tempting to pass up, and after not being able to fish the night before due to high winds- we were ready to get on the water. The work-days are always long up here, but this time of year we’re feeling the added pressure of trying to get a lodge and three outcamps opened up in time for the arrival of our first guests here in a few weeks.

Until it’s time to train new guides and get to the real test-fishing, the act of boating to a nearby river or down the lake with rods in hand just doesn’t happen. Instead, we find ourselves busy pounding nails and fixing snow-damage, loading and unloading a season’s supply of just about anything you can think of, splitting firewood, or scraping and painting… just to name a few. The days are long, the projects are numerous, and it seems like everywhere you turn you can see something that needs to be done.

The first few days at the lodge are a special time. The first crew inbound includes six veterans who have been with the lodge for many years. Each year, we step off that plane in Dillingham knowing exactly what we’re getting ourselves into, though sometimes we never know what to expect when we first show up at the lodge. We all have a routine that involves a lot of grunt-work as we get the long, painful process started.

Since we don’t have a way to get back to town for a day or so, we find that taking our time and being methodical about the whole process really helps increase the focus on safety. After all- we are in the middle of nowhere, and there’s a lot around here that could kill you in a heartbeat. At least, that’s our excuse for going a bit slower and taking a little more time to enjoy the “calm before the storm.” 

Perhaps it was this feeling that called us to the lake, or maybe it was the casual discussion of fresh pike as table-fare for the next night. Whatever the reason, I still find it a bit strange. The three of us that piled into the boat have guided for Bristol Bay Lodge for many years. The other two chumlies, Tom and Tyler, each work at and help run outcamps on some of the most coveted fly-water in the world.

We all started at the lodge, innocent rookies racing around chasing pike in the spring while the water was too high to venture up the heavy current of our nearby river. In a strange but comical way, you could almost compare it to three professional backcountry skiers deciding to head up to their local mountain to spend a few hours shredding the bunny hill. To us, pike fishing has been old-hat for many years.

For some reason, we decided last night would be a good night to introduce my English Setter pup, Layla, to Mr. Pike. Since our guide-boats are still hibernating next to the hangar, we piled into the Auburn, an all-welded aluminum V-hull which to me resembles an old battleship or ice-breaker. A couple hard yanks on the pull-cord and the two-stroke Yamaha jet fired with a sweet hum, filling my head with wonderful memories from past years. A light haze drifted from the motor as the engine warmed itself, with the pungent odor of outboard exhaust in the air. A quick ten minute cruise had us in the heart of Pike Bay, a long, shallow inlet surrounded by willows. The bear grass covering the shoreline was still brown and matted by the long, harsh Alaskan winter. I cut the engine and jumped on the oars.

The silence of a beautiful June evening was indescribable. My mind wandered and I recalled a wonderful conversation I had with a guest from the UK several years back. Phil enlightened me one day by helping me develop an appreciation for the silence we get in the Alaskan wilderness. For about five minutes, he wouldn’t let me talk, didn’t say a word, and didn’t fish at all, we just sat there in the boat listening to silence. A bit awkward at first, after several minutes I felt a wonderful sensation come over me and I couldn’t help but smile. Phil noticed my grin right away and proclaimed, “That’s why I come to Alaska.” He was right- it was amazing. Who would have thought I would be the one who needed to unwind and take it all in? I guess after being so wound up from guiding day in and day out, it was just the nature of the beast. I still thank Phil for sharing that special moment.

Tom and Tyler with a "dinner-fish"
I rowed over to a nearby weed-bed and Tyler and Tom started fishing. It didn’t take long for us to get into our first fish. Most of the pike in this lake are smaller in size, but it’s all about watching the take. Tom was fishing black, Tyler chartreuse. The two went back and forth, busting each other’s chops as fishing buddies usually do, pointing out casting errors and missed fish, each proclaiming one color is far better than the other. After landing (and missing) several pike each, I decided I would be on Tom’s side and favor the black fly, mostly because he was taking the brunt of Tyler’s comical trash-talking. We fished hard and laughed harder, like excited kids at a summer fishing hole for the first time.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that life will humble a person with age.  I always thought this would come more from making mistakes, falling down and getting back up, taking a wrong-turn in the path of life, and so on. It’s amazing to me how life humbles a person in a more subtle approach than I ever thought possible. The story of Phil and learning to appreciate the silence of the wilderness was an example of this. As I sat there with my two fellow guides laughing until my sides hurt, I realized this was another one of life’s subtle humbling moments.

My angling experience, like life in general, has been a great journey. A decade ago, I had my first Pike Bay experience as a rookie guide. Somewhere along the line came a fascination with species other than Pike, including Kings, Silvers, Chums, and so on. I even found myself a dedicated “trout-snob” for several years. Guiding and fishing other rivers on our program seemed to cause me to lose any desire to experience Pike Bay, and beyond using it as a training tool for young guides becoming accustomed to running a jet-boat for the first time, I really haven’t had any interest in being there at all. For one reason or another, I felt a calling to return to Pike Bay. The pike are still there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

It's good to be back...

We stumbled down the awkward stairs off the Pen-Air Saab and onto the asphalt tarmac. This year’s opening crew of six has a combined 78 years of experience at Bristol Bay Lodge, meaning as a group- we’ve stepped onto that pavement with pretty much the same emotions running through our heads 78 times.

Most years, Dillingham greets us with temps in the 40s and gray skies. We often laugh and shake our heads as the cold rain pounds us in the face on the walk into the airport. Someone always proclaims-“It’s like we never left,” referring to the autumn weather encountered the year prior as we walked the opposite direction, heading for home.

This year, the typical, “here we go again” or “what the hell are we doing here” facial expressions are different. After the usual handshakes and hugs, excited conversations fade to silence and confusion. We find ourselves looking left, right, and up towards the sky, expecting the mirage to dissolve into a reality of grey drizzle. But today the mirage is real. It’s almost 70 degrees without a cloud in the sky.

The last flight is on a DeHavilland Beaver, as our three planes are still in the hangar waiting to come out of hibernation. After arriving at the lodge, the crew follows through with the norm, spending the rest of the day and well into the night slaving away opening the can of worms that is a 40 year old fly fishing lodge in a remote part of Alaska. Everyone is smiling. We’re completely exhausted and covered from head to toe in dirt and diesel, but we’re all smiling- it’s good to be back.

My final project for the day is to get a head start on cleaning out my mouse-infested cabin so I can sleep without having to worry about dying from the Hantavirus. I begin to sort through my heaping pile of junk, but my eyes are drawn upwards towards the breathtaking scene in front of me. The midnight sun casts long shadows on the shoreline in front of the lodge. Snow-capped peaks are lit up with an orange glow above and below the horizon, mirrored on glass. Although I’ve seen it more times than I can count, the image is almost surreal, as if it were a painting. It’s good to be back.

Tonight, we’re exhausted once again after a full day of opening up the lodge. We’ve got power and water to the main lodge and a good start on emptying a hangar filled with boats and planes. Bob Dylan is belting his famous lyrics from my computer as I sit here in my chair, much dirtier than yesterday and now reeking of diesel fuel. The 70 degree sunshine has faded into an all too familiar scene. Crashing waves break the silence and last night’s beautiful peaks are invisible through gray rain-fog. It’s good to be back.

Friday, June 1, 2012

North to Alaska... A Review on the Slap-n-Tickle

Being a nomadic angler certainly has its ups and downs. A true devotion to hunting fish involves a lot of time spent traveling, whether on the road or in the air. This notion of going where the fish are also involves a TON of prep-work in order to be successful and see positive end results. With a little faith, all the research, planning, budgeting, and other aspects of the pre-trip will lead to success in the end, hopefully surpassing one's expectations. 

Recent prep-work has taken up much of my time as we get ready for another season in Alaska. This will be my 12th season guiding up north, and it really has been an incredible journey thus far. I will do my best to post updates several times a week from the lodge. I'm looking forward to another amazing season in AK!

One of Alaska's most beautiful offerings...
I've decided to put together a little review on one of my patterns available through Idylwilde, the Slap-n-Tickle. Believe it or not, it's more than just a snazzy name (don't ask)... and I have been successfully fishing this pattern since I created it several years ago.

McDonough's Slap-n-Tickle (olive)
If you've fished trout in western Alaska, chances are you've thrown a sculpin imitation a time or two. Sculpins are a primary food source for trout, char, dollies, and grayling on many tundra streams across southwest Alaska. Spending many seasons guiding on rivers across the Bristol Bay region has allowed me to study sculpins in great detail in their natural habitat.

A few years ago, I set out to create the perfect "dude-friendly" sculpin. That is, a pattern that not only fishes well, but produces results when fished by beginner to novice level anglers. A good sculpin pattern can be broken down into four main traits: profile, weight, movement, and size.

McDonough's Slap-n-Tickle (tan)
When looking at a natural sculpin, the most apparent features are its profile- an oversized head and flared gill plates. The Slap-n-Tickle is tied with Laser Yarn, a material that holds its shape in the water and doesn't detract from the fly's ability to readily sink. Laser Yarn is also very easy for anglers to cast once it gets waterlogged, making these sculpins fishable on a 5 or 6 wt. rod. The red soft hackle fibers breath like natural gills, and a decade of guiding in Alaska has taught me that 9 times out of 10, sculpin patterns tied with a hint of red outperform those without.

The two tungsten rattle beads add sound and vibration, knocking against each other as the angler strips the fly. They also add a good amount of weight to get the fly down quickly. Sculpins need to sink immediately because the fish-zones we target are generally pretty small. If the fly moves a foot or two as clients mend it in attempt to get it down, more often than not it's fishing out of the zone completely. This fly sinks very quickly and requires very little mending, mostly for presentation.

The combination of bunny, polar chenille, soft-hackle, and grizzly maribou allows the fly to swim and breathe naturally without completely collapsing in the current. The stinger-hook prevents short-strikes and missed hook sets, making the day more enjoyable for the angler, and the guide.

Happy angler, Happy guide. A nice leopard on the Slap-n-Tickle.
The Slap-n-Tickle mimics a fairly large sculpin and doesn't require an 8 wt. to throw. Fish it on a 5 to 7 wt rod, slap it in next to the bank or around structure with a light mend just to get the head pointed at an upstream angle. Pause briefly to let it sink a bit, then use short, erratic strips with a low rod tip and hold on tight. Fish crush this fly all throughout the retrieve, but I've been amazed at how often it gets eaten "on the mend" as it's sinking. A good guide bug is one that almost fishes on its own, the Slap-n-Tickle falls into this category for me.