31 August 2010

North, to Alaska, North for Coho Fishing

Alaska, beautiful, majestic, immense, and home of many fish species.  I love going to Alaska--driving, flying, boating, it doesn't matter the method of transportation; I just love going to Alaska!  As always, like the majority of our trips, our purpose was to catch fish, and Coho was the target, Coho coming from the Pacific Ocean and Norton Sound headed home to the Unalakleet and North Rivers, and for one week, we called the Unalakleet River Lodge our camp home.  We needed one hotel, two planes, and a boat to arrive at the URL, but every leg of the trip was worth the journey, except we missed breakfast at Gwennie's in Anchorage, which was a brothel back in the 1920s.  We left Dallas on Saturday, arrived at Anchorage and the Millennium Hotel Saturday evening, and yes, the sun still shone as we finished supper at 10pm.  We left Anchorage on Sunday, arriving at Unalakleet that afternoon, boated up the Unalakleet River to the lodge, took the tour and became acquainted with the staff and our guide, dined on a fine meal, and rigged our rods for five days of glorious fishing.

For Cody, this trip was about adding to the freezer; for me, it was about adding to my species list.  Missions accomplished with lots of flare and fun.  Like most places this spring, the Unalakleet was blown out, so we only fished a few spots before trekking to the North River.  Lowell, our guide, put us on salmon early; however, on Day 1, I brought the 6# and 4#, accidentally leaving the 8# in the room--mistake, but not devastating.  On his fourth cast, Cody caught a pretty male who still had sea lice on his body.  My 6#, newly completed, hooked up with many salmon, but it was about an hour-and-a-half before I landed my first salmon on a pretty pink and purple fly I had tied.  Now, up until this trip, I only practiced catch-and-release fishing.  I knew the salmon were going to die, but catch-and-keep fishing was new to me.  No, I didn't listen as Lowell knocked the bucks senseless, nor did I watch as he sliced their gill plate to bleed them.  Lowell was very efficient and humane, but this fishing was a guilty pleasure.  The goal for everyone was to catch their limits early in the week, so the fish could be processed and packed for the flight home.  While we were at Unalakleet, the limit was four Cohos per person per day. 

We continued to fish for Coho as we worked our way up the North to a nice little cove.  There we fished for Chum.  Those fish are ones Picasso would have appreciated.  Lowell told us about a guest who was holding the fish, posing for a picture, when the Chum turned its head towards his bicep and clamped down.  While the guy had on layered clothing, the fish took a piece out of his arm.  Needless to say, I did not hold any of the Chum I caught.  I let the boys hold them. 

Moving farther up the cove, I fell in love.  The Coho and Chum were great fighters, but the Grayling and Dolly Varden captured my attention.  I loved watching Cody fishing mouse patterns.  The fly would hit the water, and 15 yards away, the Grayling would react, stealthily swimming along the bottom, and then, darting quickly to the fly.  Several were just hit and runs, but then, after about the fourth or fifth hit, it was GraylingOn!  What a fish--colors, fins, fight on a 4# rod with a dry fly.  For the day, I only caught one Grayling on a size 12 Elk Hair Caddis, but it was great fun!  While Cody fished for Grayling, I fished upstream for Dolly Vardens.  If I ever go back to Unalakleet, forget the Coho and Chum, I want large Dollies on the end of my line!  Overall, both Cody and I had a four species first day!

With the exception of Thursday, the weather was menacingly cold, high of 40 degrees, and constantly overcast.  At the dinner table, other guests shared how each day they layer dressed more than the previous day's clothing.  Tuesday, we were one Coho shy of our limit before lunch, so Lowell brought us back to the lodge for lunch so he could clean and process our fish for traveling, and it was really nice to warm up in front of the fire while having lunch.  I almost boycotted going back out, but I didn't.  The Dollies and Grayling awaited.  We fished the mouths of several small creeks, whose colors were bright red due to the spawning salmon packing the creeks.  The salmon aren't feeding; in fact, once the salmon hit fresh water, they never eat again, and apoptosis, cell death, begins to occur.  The salmon are returning to spawn, and bite the fly because they feel it is a predator who will eat their eggs.  Fishing the mouths of the creeks took lots of patience and several days, but Cody finally caught a brilliant red spawning buck.  I chose to fish the faster water for Dollies and was not disappointed.

The coldest day was Wednesday, and we started the day at Butch's Cove.  The Dollies I love so much decided they liked my flies, and I caught the biggest Dolly of our trip.  The day was pretty rough, though, and I refused to wade at times.  I just could not warm up or feel my feet.  Cody waded and caught Coho and Chum, while I stayed with the boat, catching Grayling and Dollies.

Two days, Lowell took us up the North several miles.  Thursday, the sun shone and temps warmed, so we fished for Coho, not to keep, just to catch and release.  These bucks and hens were nearing their spawning grounds, and Cody and I had several Coho doubles.  That day, the sun's light added a brilliance to the landscape.  Matt even stayed up past midnight to capture one of the most beautiful sunsets of his life.

Friday was our last day of fishing, and we wanted to end the week like we began it--catching four species for the day.  Lowell had taken us to another creek, which we waded.  Grayling thrived there.  We fished it earlier in the week, but when we returned, Friday afternoon, we saw a King Salmon.  He was rather red, but still had plenty of fight left in him.  I asked Cody if he would fish for the King, but Cody said Lowell would probably despise it.  Lowell told Cody to cast for him, but the King was really chummy.  (King Salmon make their runs back to the freshwater in late, late May and June; Pink Salmon runs happen in July, and August is the Coho Salmon run.)  The Grayling gave the King a wide berth, but would encroach upon his space.  For a while, I had been casting to a Grayling upstream of the King.  I finally got that Grayling to take my fly, and as I am bringing him in, the King honed in on the Grayling's splashing and targeted the Grayling.  I began fervently fussing at the Grayling to not fight, but Cody and Lowell kept trying to talk me in to letting the King get the Grayling.  I refused, though, and landed the Grayling, snapped his photo, and let him go, unharmed.  We motored down to Butch's Cove so Cody could catch a Dolly.  Ultimately, we caught Chum and Dolly, so it was--another four species day.

Even though we fished all day, wading a good part of the day and fought the cold, because the meals were divine, we could have gained weight.  At Unalakleet River Lodge, the last dinner is always Norton Sound crab.  It was the best crab I had ever eaten, and it was all we could eat, too.  Before heading home on Saturday, we had New Orleans style beignets, and they were to die for.  We learned how to make a maple glaze for our salmon.  We bid our good-byes, enjoyed the boat ride down river to Unalakleet and the airport.  We left a cold Anchorage, Alaska on a Saturday (snow would be falling within two weeks) and arrived home Sunday morning to temps in the upper 80s.  We brought home three boxes of salmon, collectively weighing over 50 pounds and can't wait to eat and share our fish.

In 1805, the Corps of Discovery grew tired of the salmon when they camped at the mouth of the Columbia and resorted to eating horses just so they could eat red meat.  I don't think I could ever tire of salmon, and I guess we have 50 pounds to answer the question. 

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