Friday, August 2, 2019

Fishing with Grizzly Skins of Alaska

I had clandestinely planned to take our daughter to Alaska to fish for a High School Graduation present early in her junior year. Some parents might have bought their graduate a car, others a pen set but I wanted her to experience a trip that would store some memories of place that hopefully would not loose its value when the warranty ran out. In an environment off the beaten path and in a wildness setting. It would require an outfit that had a sense of humor as we as a team can be pretty lousy fishermen at times. I know a handful of Alaskan guides that would fill the bill, all way beyond competent in every respect but this trip was going to require a special atmosphere. While all three of us would be fishing I wanted just the right mentors for my daughter on this trip. Choosing Grizzly Skins of Alaska run by the Shoemaker family was a no brainier. Having operated Grizzly Skins since the mid 80's I knew we'd be in great hands. 

Both Phil and his wife Rochelle (Rocky) have carved a comfortable lifestyle out of their own little chunk of paradise. Many of my clients have hunted Brown Bears, Moose and fished with them so references weren't required. The other draw card for me was paring my daughter up with Phil's daughter Tia. She and her brother Taj grew up on this real estate, both became registered guides, both fly, and having passed their mid 30's have solid handle on this lifestyle and of the business. While Taj is now running his own flying service out of Kodiak he's only 45 minutes air time away and regularly visits with his wife and daughter as well as to guide hunters and fishermen seasonally. 

The trip up went smoothly, from Salt Lake City to King Salmon via Alaskan Air then further down the peninsula in Modified  4 seat Cub called a Producer to Becharof Lake and into their base of operations.This area borders Katmai National Park and while it didn’t really sink in until we got there, this area supports the greatest concentrations of Brown Bears in the world. The camp was comfortable, flown in and assembled like Lego's, one piece at a time in the 80’s. Not a feat for the timid or those challenged with engineering.

The main house was where we'd eat and gather for the next week while we slept in a couple comfortable Quonset hut with plenty of room for hanging out and drying gear. You dried, or at least attempted to dry a lot of kit over the week.

Ordinarily there is nothing unusual about an outhouse. The very first thing I noticed in this outhouse was the Bear spray which I assume was for seasoning and then the 416 Ruger leaned in the corner, magazine loaded and ready to roll in the event any neighbors showed up unannounced.

                                                                                                      We're definitely not in Kansas anymore

The 1st morning we flew to a creek mouth 10 minutes from the camp that flowed into Becharof lake and as we circled to land you could see the red backs of several thousand Sockeyes stacked up at the creek mouth preparing to enter the creek. We Landed on a gravel bar and began the quarter mile walk to the outlet. We had seen no less than 13 bears flying in the day before in the general area and now spotted a young sow with two cubs right were we had planned to fish. Then we spotted another young boar on the bank not far away along with larger bears further up the lake shore. I was in 7th heaven. Rebecca was probably thinking about safer vacation spots she'd read about but never balked as we walked towards the fishing bears. Lexi was following close behind Tia and Phil as they were both armed, she's a faster study than her parents! The sow and cubs reluctantly gave up the outlet for the time being but reappeared many times over the next 4 hours.

Our hopes were to catch a couple different species of Salmon, some Dolly Varden and perhaps some Grayling during the week and we certainly pulled that off. We caught enough Sockeyes and then some for dinner even picked up a Dolly Varden before we were done for the afternoon.

One of the highlights of the site was standing thigh deep at that river mouth and having 500 to a 1000 salmon boil up around you in a frenzy of crimson and silver urgency ingrained within them since the dawning of their kind.

Bears would show up now and then to try bluff us out of the most popular fishing spots. You became aware of a polite game of diplomacy playing out with the true owners of these surroundings and you always knew who really was the boss. We were guest and behaved politely. When fishing here you learn to remain aware of your surroundings.

What Rocky, Tia and Phil fixed in the evenings and every other meal for the following week was spectacular, fresh Salmon supplemented with Caribou, Moose, fresh salads, and the occasional Salmon Berry pie we were tucked in like ticks.

We made a flight to the Pacific coast one afternoon, a short hop away and landed on a typical gravel bar. But before casting a line spent some time among some cliffs watching Puffins and Murre's flying in and out of their nest on a cliff face above us. The Puffins landings could best be described as controlled crashes and source of lot of laughter. A northern sea otter cruised by just offshore and the ever present rain pelted us as the tide slowly came in. 

Members of the local fishing club had just left the beach so we slipped in under the fence unnoticed 

Soon we stood at the mouth of another spawning stream where Hump Back salmon could be seen leaping in the surf and jostling for position at the creek mouth. The Humpy's aggressively hit our flies and spoons and soon we were in the fish business again. The Humpy's fought hard and when beached some showed sea lice and scars from the journey so far. I looked around once and we had all four rods bent double as Phil filleted another salmon behind us. Cast, hook, release, sweep the background for bears and make another cast. While we were to early for Silvers the Humpy's kept us focused. I find it hard imagine a bigger cousin on the line but hope to find out some day soon.

For grins we'd strapped an original 1903 production Rigby 7x57 onto the strut and flew it with us to the beach. As both Tia and Lexi were read all of Corbett tales endlessly as youngsters, packing adequate ammo and a bunch of youthful memories we turned the Rigby loose more than a few times just to hear it roar. That old rifle still packed some thunder despite being 116 years old. A fine rifle in good game country again. 

The days flew by as they do on any good trip. There was the another bear to run into at very close range, Phil with his pistol drawn my daughter standing at his side wondering what in the heck to do next, Tia edging in a little closer to her dad, both calm but ready. No one panicked, we had the wind in our favor and the boar had other places to go. We were about to pirate his fishing hole and I knew he was politely laid up near by watching and waiting for us to leave. 

                                                              While we fought off the elements Rocky commanded the kitchen and kept us whole. 

The closest fishing to camp involved a 1-1/2 mile hike over the tundra, through a bog, into some alders to another unnamed river. We fished this spot last and were lucky enough to get into some Grayling and quite a few Dolly Varden. Our  most productive fly being a salmon egg pattern drifted behind the Sockeye schools that had just moved into that river system. The largest Dolly was in the 18" to 20” range and they occasionally land bigger Dolly's some close to 30”. My daughter caught one very nice Grayling on a mouse pattern and I caught one Grayling that we killed that when cut open was found to have a complete Vole in its belly. When you swim here it's at your own risk.

           "If it was me I'd try and keep the fly off the opposite bank"

      Summertime and the living is easy 

      Pleasantly aged gentlemen in crumpled hats contemplating the real meaning of the word "Presidential" .

Taj, his wife Kate and their one year old daughter Penelope tipped a wing and flew over our heads as we prepared to hike back to camp. It was good to see Taj again it had been a few year since we'd gotten together at an SCI convention. His daughter clearly in love with her Grampa and stuck to him like Velcro the whole evening. 

The next morning we packed up our kit, ate one last lunch and then said our goodbyes when the weather allowed Taj to fly us back to King Salmon for our trip home. We saw a few bears early on the way out and as the landscape rolled beneath us I felt a sense of complete satisfaction. The trip had been a roaring success on many levels and done with not only a top notch operation but also with good friends. 

           I look at these pictures as I type and can remember every day, each bend in the river and almost every bear. 


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