Friday, April 27, 2012

The idea here is to catch each of Alaska's game fish on a fly tied by myself. Here's how it started

I had dabbled in fly fishing when I was a kid, for sunfish and other species. I vaguely remember receiving a fly tying kit for Christmas or a Birthday too, but that was it for a while. The interest was always there though, in the background, waiting.

In the summer of 2010 my wife Angel and I were invited on a fly fishing float trip for grayling with our good friends, Bob and Kathleen Hook. We floated the upper Chena River (pronounced "Cheena", we locals are always irritated when people pronounce OUR stuff wrong) and had a wonderful time. The weather was great, the company was better and the fishing was super. I am sure we caught over a hundred fish and as I remember some of them were pretty nice fish. At the end of the day Bob and Kathleen gave me the rod that they had loaned me for the day and I was hooked.

In August of 2011 a friend of mine, Mike Bracken and I floated the Salmon Fork of the Black River for seven days. It's a remote tributary of the Porcupine on the Arctic Circle with it's origin near the Canadian border. We floated for seven days and never saw another human being, no cars, no phones and the only airplanes we saw were the two that were at 35,000 feet.

My buddy Joe Mattie, dropped us off in his float plane on the Salmon Fork of the Black, my old trapline.

This is the start of the trip, the river, our set up, the beautiful weather. That's me.
We had a great time, we fished with mostly spinning gear but I brought my fly rod along and gave it a try later in the trip. Within minutes, the first fish was hooked, a sheefish.
After a while we were catching so many fish we cut some of the hooks off of the lures and crimped the barbs down. All of the fish were released until we needed some for a meal. There was no way to save them, and really, you can only eat so many. Can you see the beginnings of a fly fisherman starting to emerge?

In the early part of the trip we caught sheefish and grayling. By the end of the first day we came to a place where a high bank was being eroded by the river. An ice lens from the last ice age is visible in the bank and remnants of fauna from the Pleistocene age can be found along the river.
That's my buddy Mike checking out the ice lens. We found a piece of a mammoth tooth, and some steppe bison and mammoth bone pieces.

In the days to come we saw lots of wildlife, we never heard an un-natural sound that we didn't make and we kind-of by second nature went into semi-stealth mode. We spoke, but quietly, we made no un-necessary noises. We floated up on game that didn't know we were there, and we were in a bright blue boat.
In all, we were within 100 to 15 yards of 11 black bears and one grizzly, we saw swans, moose, coyotes and lots of birds of prey, bald and golden eagles, osprey, perigrin falcons, and owls and hawks of all kinds.

We fished our way down the river, keeping only the last few fish we caught before making camp, or the ones that got injured. We took steps to harm them less and make fishing more challenging. Mike was fishing without setting the hook. There were very few places along the river you could not catch a fish.
One of the pike that got injured, he's not big, but he's enough for two people.

In many things, not just hunting or fishing, when you first start out, more is better. If photography is your hobby the more pictures you can take the better, after a while, when you've taken enough, you look for better shots, some that no one else has taken yet, something different, something better. There comes a time when quantity is no longer the point, but quality and the pursuit of it has the emphasis. When I had gotten enough grouse to eat with a shotgun, I began to shoot them with a pistol. When I had killed enough deer with a rifle I started to hunt with a bow. I have had more fun hunting with a bow and not killing as much, than I did when I killed more with a rifle. I hunted more with a bow and I hunted more skillfully. The quality of the hunt was better.

Fly fishing is the same, I don't have to catch 100 fish a day, though you still can in fly fishing. I can get more satisfaction from fishing with a fly that I tied, especially if it's a pattern that I developed.

I got a fly tying kit for Christmas again, some forty years after my first one, so now, I can extend this pursuit through the winter months. I will show you some of my patterns and how they came to be.

Sometime along the way I decided I should catch each of Alaska's game fish on a fly that I tied. The list includes the salt water species, as well as fresh, the ones commonly sought by fly fisherman and some that may never have been caught on a fly. It will be a challenge to be sure.


  1. Hey, I'm a college friend of Robb. I live near Chicago. I'm having a lot of trouble finding on the map where your fishing spots are. If you could add the name of the nearest little town, that would give me a place to start. Thanks! Good luck on your mission. - Amy

    1. Hi Amy, The location is a biiiig secret ;) Just teasing,the Chena river flows through Fairbanks, we started our float trip 32 miles east of Fairbanks, floated all day and pulled out at a point 28 miles east of Fairbanks.
      When we floated the Salmon Fork we pulled out at a village called Chalkyitsik, it is on the Arctic Circle about 120 miles west of the Canadian border, we started our float about 30 miles from the border. Nice to talk to you, Mark

  2. Should one of those say "west" of Fairbanks? I spent all day on a river once and only got 4 miles, but there wasn't much water in it, and there was beer involved. :) But 60 miles seems like a lot. Are you zipping along that fast?

    Thanks for the detailed locations. I'm trying to get a feel for the topography and an idea of the vastness of the place, but Google Street View has not done a good job up there. Alaska has always intrigued me, but I hate snow!

    Impressive shots of the wildlife. I love the bear peeking out of the grass. And the 3 bears in a row remind me of the Grateful Dead dancing bears. Someone here just got killed by a swan. I don't mean to make light of his death, but I guess that's how we roll south of the Canadian border.

    Carry on...

    1. They were both on the east side of Fairbanks, we traveled about 20 river miles, that brought us to a point on the road 4 miles away from where we started.
      Swans are big, I'm not sure how one could kill you, these ones here just fly away from you, maybe it was defending a nest.