Aug 24, 2016
Sightseeing in Alaska isn't always done from boats
or airplanes. Along the Richardson Highway between
Fairbanks and Valdez, the sun rises over Summit Lake.
TO A CHILD, the world is everything and nothing at the same time.
Growing up in the land of extremes, superlatives and every day magnificence, I must have been numb to the greatness that surrounded me as a youth in Alaska.
I enjoyed baiting a hook and heading down the street to the Badger Slough to fish for northern pike or Arctic grayling -- or even worthless bottom-feeders we called suckers. I couldn't wait for July, so we could load up the camper and trek to Chitina, braving high winds, stinging dust and deadly river currents to hold a long-handled dip net and wait for that elusive 60-pound king salmon to swim into it. Being precariously balanced on the ferry dock at Valdez Harbor with frigid seawater 40 feet below, reeling in a 10-pound tom cod or pan-sized flounder, is among my favorite memories as a boy.
I liked the mountains, the trees, the daylit summer nights and the pitch-black winter days, the aurora borealis and the 20-foot snow drifts. I liked it all, but never having known anything else, I never could truly love it.
Alaska is a land that holds many things for many people. For the adventurer, Alaska has 17 of the 20 highest mountain peaks in North America, including McKinley (now Denali), The Great One. For the nature voyeur, more than half the world's glaciers are in Alaska, and waterfalls are always nearby; mountain vistas and their raging rivers are just as striking. For the animal lover -- or hunter -- there are moose, caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goats, black bears, grizzly bears, musk oxen, foxes and wolves. Also, sea lions, otters, walrus, bald eagles, puffins and hundreds of other bird species are watchable. For the angler, Alaska is second to none: halibut from 30 to 300 pounds, salmon from 8 to 80 pounds, lake trout from 20 to 40 pounds.
But for me, Alaska is all of these, and more. It is a place where the highways are unlittered by obtrusive and offensive billboards; where birch and spruce trees grow within inches of each other 80 feet tall; where the people have such an unyielding pride in their state that everywhere else, from Heaven to Hawaii, is called ``outside;'' where the mountains and the trees and the animals and the fish and the people all seem to meld into one. It is a place I had to leave before I could fully appreciate its wonder and fully understand its meaning.
I've been back twice since leaving as a teen-ager, most recently on a two-week family visit/fishing excursion in mid-June. It was better this time than it was in 1986; it was better in '86 than it was as a kid. Perhaps it is the wisdom of age that reunites me with the place I always loved and still call home.
Introducing my wife of six years and my 9-month-old daughter to members of my family I hadn't seen in 11 years was the priority. We left Tulsa on a Monday morning and arrived in an unseasonably chilly Fairbanks 15 hours later. (Direct flights usually take 11 hours.) We spent most of the first week reuniting and reacquainting. Most of the second week was spent adding to Alaska's third-largest economic supporter: fishing.
For fishing, Alaska couldn't be better. For prime-time trophy fishing, my timing almost couldn't have been worse.
King salmon run best from May to June, but are sparse. Pinks, which are plentiful but smaller, peak from late June to early July. Silver, plentiful and big, hit early in August. Smaller sockeye (red) are the first to return from the ocean in late May and peak in late June.
On our final day in Valdez, June 20, one of the commercial fishermen told me the pinks were seven miles out -- less than a day away. We knew our timing was off, and we had considered stopping at one of the rivers where kings are abundant -- Gulkana, Gakona and Chitina were at the top of the list. But we were not equipped to haul in the giant of the salmon family, either with a pole or with a net.
On the 355-mile trip to Valdez, during a stop at Glennallen, we talked with one angler who, by the looks of his pickup, had just returned from Chitina (pronounced CHIT-na). His blue Ford extended cab was covered in mud and was rigged up with a half-dozen long-handled nets and other necessary equipment. In the bed he had four 10-gallon coolers, and each was packed with unprocessed king salmon.
There is a necessary trait required of all dip-netters who fish the Chitina River. Those who love dip-netting call it guts. Those who hate it call it stupidity.
The Chitina is fed from two mountain ranges, the Chugach and the Wrangell. It runs into the Copper River Basin and empties into the Gulf of Alaska near Cordova. When the kings are running (instinctively returning to their birthplace to spawn and die after three-to-five years in the Pacific Ocean), the river is very cold, extremely swift and completely muddy. Dip-netting requires submerging a two- or three-foot-diameter net on the end of a 12- foot (or longer) pole into the river.
Patience is required since the salmon swim in schools: you may get nothing for two hours, or you may bag your limit in 10 minutes. Often during the peak season the weather is cold, windy and prone to dust storms. The conditions can be miserable, but the rewards can be great. (Unfortunately, dip-netting is not permitted by non-residents.) Only 15 salmon per year -- and only four kings -- may be taken by dip-net by one person, 30 for a household.
Said one anti-netter, "I'd rather go to jail than have to go dip-netting. It's the hardest work I've ever done.''
Most consider dip-netting a safari-like adventure, to be experienced, even by the heartiest Sourdough, only occasionally. The preference in the Interior for taking kings is at the Gulkana River, which comes down from mountains in the southern Alaska Range and feeds into the Copper River. According to Alaska Fish and Game statistics, more than 5,000 kings were taken out of the Gulkana last year.
The majority of the Gulkana kings (weighing between 20 and 40 pounds) are taken by guided boats (one service was guaranteeing five fish caught, of which only one can be kept), but there are plenty of shore-fishing opportunities. Nearby in the Klutina River, kings are bigger, but the river is one of the fastest-moving in the state and a guide is almost necessary.
Those looking for a sure thing would be wiser to wait for the more prolific pinks and silvers to get to Valdez. Allison Point is one of the hottest roadside fisheries in the state for tourists, located just across the bay (a five- minute drive) from downtown Valdez.
Larry Hodges, who has lived in Alaska for 30 years, owns the ``world-famous'' Hook, Line and Sinker, a bait and tackle shop in Valdez. He confirmed Allison Point as the area's best salmon fishing.
Hodges said the pinks and silvers swim in such tight schools that they will bite and nip at the fins and tails of other salmon when they come too close. That's why bright-colored and shiny Pixie lures work best. For now, that is.
"I've just had a custom lure made,'' Hodges said, ``and I think we're going to knock Pixie dead.''
Valdez is also a popular spot for halibut fishing. Considered the tastiest of Alaskan fish, the halibut is strictly deep-water. A boat is a necessity, and a 12-hour charter out into the Prince William Sound averages $150 or so. Halibut 50 to 100 pounds are common in the sound, but the world's top halibut spot is actually several hundred miles to the east off the Kenai Peninsula.
Three spots in particular -- Seward, Homer and Kenai, produce not only record-sized halibut but salmon as well. The state records for king (97-pound, 4-ounce), silver (26-0) and sockeye salmon (16-0) and halibut (440-0) were taken on or near the peninsula.
While there were no opportunities for salmon, I was able to take on some good freshwater fishing at various sites around the Interior.
Arctic grayling, with its distinct fan-like dorsal fin, is the most plentiful and easily caught of Alaska's freshwater species. An aggressive feeder, the grayling will bite on almost anything, from lures to flies to bait. Currently around most of the interior, however, grayling are on a catch-and-release order because of a low population.
Rainbow or steelhead trout, ranging from six inches to three- foot lunkers, are also prolific around the Interior's sloughs, rivers and lakes. Other favorite species include the larger lake trout, Arctic char, land-locked silver salmon, burbot and the northern pike.
Just around Fairbanks and North Pole alone there are a dozen prime spots for taking most of these species, with the exception of pike, which are more plentiful further north. Bank fishing can return a respectable catch from the Badger Slough, Chena Lakes, Moose Creek, Piledriver Slough or the Weigh Station Ponds, all within a 10-minute drive of North Pole.
Within Fairbanks, action is a little slower on the banks of the Chena and Tanana Rivers, but with a small boat, a day's catch is just a few hours away.
Farther south along the Richardson Highway, the rapidly moving Salcha River deals its share of freshwater fish when the banks are not lined with salmon fishermen.
Bountiful lakes along the Richardson include Harding Lake (which also boasts a first-class recreation area), Birch Lake and Quartz Lake. Quartz is home to some of the larger rainbow and silver salmon on the interior, but they're nowhere near the banks.
Likewise with beautiful Summit and Paxson Lakes, where a small boat can reap big trout. These are the interior's best road-access trout fishing opportunities.
The Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks stocks more than 70 lakes and sloughs within 150 miles of Fairbanks. More than 10,000 rainbow trout each year are stocked into Piledriver Slough alone.
From the time I left Alaska to when I returned, six years had passed. This time it was 11. I will return again, and hopefully the passage of time will not have eroded as quickly.
My oldest brother suggested a return possibly next year, perhaps the next, this time with our fourth brother, who lives in Claremore. My mind's eye opens wider, seeing endless trees, snow-capped mountains, a moose in the back yard ... and lots of big fish.
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