A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Juneau: 10°/32°/Partly cloudy
Off-the-road fishing doesn't have to break the bank
It was a gift of 10 hours of flying lessons, bestowed upon me by my plane-happy father, that first introduced me to the wonder and freedom of the sky. Unfortunately it also added an untold number of gray hairs to my flight instructor's head and probably took years off the poor man's life. But it really wasn't my fault. I later found out that apparently bad flying was genetic and that my father's brief flirtation with aviation ended just as quickly as my own. Still, the man was just crazy for airplanes, and as a kid he'd take me to visit airports and on the way occupy me by turning our old Pontiac into a floatplane, whisking us away to some secluded location in the northern latitudes - no doubt, on our way to go fishing, an activity we regularly took part in and were much better at than flying.
It was my father's description of those far-off lands - distant lakes and wild rivers surrounded by unimaginable peaks and swaths of undisturbed old-growth timber - that melded into a dream that I eventually followed north to Alaska. Yet from the moment I arrived and saw the vast number of lakes and streams that were beyond the road system, I immediately found myself wishing I'd put just a little bit more effort into learning to fly an airplane.
Fortunately we have plenty of pilots in Alaska. In fact, with 8,550 flyers - that's one in every 78 residents - we have the highest number of pilots per capita of any state. And because flying is such a simple fact of life in Alaska, it's easy to find oneself on a secluded stretch of water far from the infamous combat zones that have bloomed along our roadside salmon streams. A day trip to fantastic fishing, or a weekend retreat at a U.S. Forest Service cabin, is only a short flight away and in many cases is really quite affordable and won't tax the average angler's budget.
That's why when my father comes to visit we always plan an excursion with one of our local flight services. Our first was a quick getaway to a small lake nestled within the mountains northeast of Seward. It's difficult to forget what it was like watching my father climb into the co-pilot's seat, feeling the spirit of adventure rise in each of us as we taxied to the runway and took off to soar among the jagged spires and cloud-draped peaks of the Chugach National Forest; all the world's problems immediately were rendered insignificant from so far aloft.
And that was only the beginning. In what seemed a matter of minutes we were delivered to a wilderness worthy of Jack London. Left to our own devices on Paradise Lake, an appropriately named piece of water where there were no clocks or calendars, only giant stands of Sitka spruce and retreating glaciers, to quietly mark the passing of time.
While there is something slightly selfish in wanting to have a place like this all to oneself, there is also something magical in witnessing nature's ongoing saga, an ancient ritual that occurs day in and day out, whether we are there or not. It all became apparent in our first hours on Paradise Lake, watching a sow black bear with a trio of cubs in tow amble over a distant snowfield, or watching the scattered haze of newly hatched insects cloud the placid face of the lake, their progress more than occasionally interrupted by the sip of a hungry grayling - fish that leave an undulating circle of rings, like an expanding target that all-to-soon prompts us to grab our fly rods and join in, suddenly participants rather than casual observers.
In the years since, we would spread our wings, taking off out of Anchorage to try our luck against monstrous northern pike, enticed to the surface with mouse patterns and a variety of bass poppers. Later we would fly out of Soldotna across the swirling waters of Cook Inlet to fish a body of water known for its beauty and abundant population of large lake trout, and then from Kodiak, to the island's surrounding streams, to tackle the mighty chinook and the feisty silver salmon. Each trip provided enough memories to fuel all our future dreams and before we even touched down had us wetting our lips at the prospect of our next adventure.
Selecting a Flying Service
With so many flight services available, and prices that change from year to year, it pays to do a little research.
Begin by selecting an established company with a good safety record. After deciding what you want to fish for (with salmon, of course, this depends upon the time of year) ask each company where it flies for that particular species. Then, before you book the trip, do a little more research and ask a few more questions. For instance, is this spot accessible only by air? You don't want to be flown into an area expecting solitude, only to find out there's a trail you could have taken. Find out the last time someone was there and how they did. If it's part of a National Forest or National Wildlife Refuge, check specifics by visiting that agency's office or Web site, or check the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Web site and see if there are any recent statistics on that area. Finally, just as you would with any guide service, ask your flight service for references from previous customers, especially those who have visited the spot you are planning to go.
The larger companies that operate out of Anchorage, such as Rust's Flying Service, offer a variety of options. Day fishing usually begins at about $250 and includes all the gear you will need. They also offer river float trips, guided and unguided fishing, as well as a large number of "outpost" cabins and tent camps throughout Southcentral.
Occasionally, a short drive can mean a less expensive flight. To fish the streams of Western Cook Inlet, for instance, it's might be worth the angler's time to drive to the Kenai-Soldotna area and fly from there. On our trip to Paradise Lake we left from Seward, and it only cost about $165 each.
With many floatplane services you are booking the plane itself, the cost determined by your destination. In this case, you are flying at a set rate, so the more members in your party the less each pays. You must be careful, however, that your total weight does not exceed a certain limit or the price goes up due to increased fuel consumption. Most of the flight services out of Kodiak operate this way, although they make available what are called "seat fares," which is basically the same as flying standby. This is a good way to reach some excellent salmon fishing on rivers like the Karluk and the Ayakulik, although because of the distance involved the price of these seats usually begins at about $325 round trip.
Fly-out fishermen may also want to look into public-use cabins. Many of the National Wildlife Refuges, along with Alaska State Parks and the National Forest Service, maintain cabins throughout the state. Some advanced planning is required. Reservations for cabins need to be made early and coordinated with air travel, but this is an inexpensive way to extend your stay in some very special places.
Whether flying into the wilds for a day, a weekend or a week, it's well worth the planning and effort, not only for the fabulous fishing but for the simple pleasure of taking to the air and sharing a bird's-eye view of this magnificent land.
Freelance writer Dave Atcheson lives in Sterling. He is the author of "Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula."