Land of the “Midnight Sun”.
I’d heard about it, and knew I’d see it on this trip, but even so I was amazed by how surreal it felt when the sun only set in the West about 2AM, it never really got dark, just sort of ‘dusky’, and then the sun rose again in the east about 4AM, a scant two hours later.
Most of us used eye shades to sleep, although I’m not sure that the effect of tromping the river fishing all day from morning until 10 or 11PM (combined with a libation or two) wouldn’t have been enough to knock us out anyway! Everything moved later in the day, because you literally had to force yourself to go to bed at midnight (or later, for some) because the sun was still shining brightly!
For you history buffs, here’s a pic of our native guide Glen holding a Wooly Mammoth tusk that he and some others found one of the nights when they went for a walk along the beach at about 1AM. A couple of us older types had gone to bed, but these brave souls headed out to look for artifacts and bears.
I was pretty astounded to learn that it’s pretty common to find these mammoth bones in this area, because they existed in large numbers up until the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. The bones, teeth and tusks are buried basically, and migrate out of the permafrost along the coastal areas due to wind and wave action. The natives collect them (although no actual digging is permitted) and sell them to craftsmen who do quite lovely carvings from the ivory that remains inside. The boys figured this tusk would be worth $3000 or more depending on the quality of the remaining ivory. One other night a mammoth tooth about the size of a grapefruit was found too.
Alaska was connected to Asia across the Bering Strait by a dry land bridge back then too, as the glaciers formed during the ice age lowered the sea levels by about 300 feet. So apparently there was a lot of human and animal migration to North America, although there’s still some debate in scientific circles about whether that migration was the sole source of native people for North America.
In 1867 the US purchased the Alaska territory from Czarist Russia for $7.2 million. The Russians had tried unsuccessfully to colonize and exploit the area since 1725, and evidence of their presence still abounds there today. Right beside the lodge, for example, are the remains of two Russian fishing cabins that date back to around 1800.
Speaking of bears, they were always on our mind everywhere we went. Thankfully we saw none during the day while fishing, but we always took guns and/or flash bangers when we ventured away from camp. As well, Jerry brought two of his dogs with us, called them his “bear” dogs, because they would both charge after any bear that showed up and be our first line of defense. Plus bears don’t like dogs, and generally keep their distance when one is around. The group that found the tusk also encountered two large grizzlies on the beach, and between the dogs and firing a couple of flashbangs at them the bears never got closer than about 200 yards.
Then one night the guides took us for a boat ride 8 miles back down the coast to see this:
They had spotted a dead walrus on the beach, and figured (correctly) that the bears would come down for a free feast at night. We crept the boat close in to about 50 yards, and watched this bear eat dinner. It was a smaller bear, likely one in decline, but good enough for us ! The pic is a bit fuzzy because of shooting from a bobbing boat.
Back to fishing.
After day one, we had a better idea of what was happening. There were lots of Char in the river, but they would only once in a while hit the salmon flies. There were the beginnings of the King run, but we would only get maybe two or three a day each. Some were smaller, “jacks” under 20”. These are immature Kings that often come in with the bigger ones. Most of the ones we hooked were 7-12 pounds, but believe me they were awesome on fly rods, being totally fresh from the sea. The best one caught was 20 pounds, but I was not there so did not get a pic. The one in this pic was 18 pounds:
We also had Pinks in the river, but they also were just starting. Most ranged 3-5 pounds, and were loads of fun. Here’s one I caught:
The Pinks got more numerous daily, and by the end of the week I was getting 6 or 8 a day. Jerry said that pretty soon there would be so many Pinks in the river,that they would interfere with catching Kings (by hitting the flies all the time, of course). The way around that was to fish colours the Pinks don’t like, such as green and blue, and by fishing various egg patterns which for some reason the Kings hit at times but the Pinks do not.
Here are a couple of pics of the last major run up the river near where Jerry’s property ends. It’s just called “The Cliffs”, and you can see why. The first one is looking up river, and the second is of me looking down river from the Cliffs. That any good?? You can see the two dogs on the bank, both half-Husky.
As for the Char, I was a bit frustrated that they were not hitting more. Then the third day I noticed something I had not been expecting at all, a major mayfly hatch going on, and the Char were going nuts. Big flies too, maybe size 10 or so. Looked like Hendricksons I thought, tannish-gray wings, reddish-brown body. But here’s the rub. There were lots of duns floating totally unmolested down the river while the Char were splashing about everywhere. A couple of fish actually jumped right out of the water chasing an emerging dun that broke right through the surface. Emerger time !
Before I left home I had tied up this new fly that I’d been playing with:
I made 4 of them in size 10, knowing from previous trips that the fish up north tend to like bigger flies. This one is all I have left, but it has caught numerous char and so is a bit ragged.
Basically I’ve been intrigued for a while now with the propensity of trout to hit the Klinkhamer patterns under the surface, but wanted to design a fly that not only would float and get attention on the surface, but would fish well as an emerger for a variety of mayfly and caddis life stages. So I came up with this fly (which I now call the Paydirt Emerger), by losing the parachute post and hackle, adding a wing of CDC, and hackling the standard way with Brown and Grizzley mixed. The tail and body are pheasant tail, and the rib is gold wire.
Well, I decided to try it on the Char, and immediately got 3 fish on 4 drifts fishing it under water with a sink-tip line! Truly fine stuff. And that carried on for the rest of the week for me, getting Char almost at will. The other guys wanted some of the action too, so I doled out my supply carefully. I also found that they would hit some of my other more traditional emergers, but most of those were a bit too small. On the last day, some huge caddis began hatching, size 8’s maybe, along with the mayflies. It was a trout fly fisherman’s heaven, and I was right in the middle of it!
So my routine was to fish for salmon first, then when the action slowed down as it did from time to time, add on some 3X tippet and fish the Paydirt for Char until it was time to go back to salmon. Think I had any fun?
Last pic was taken about 2AM looking west over the Bering Sea toward Siberia 200 miles away just as the sun was trying to set. It was not that dark really, the lens just made it look that way. On the left is that old Russian cabin I mentioned earlier, and you can also see a tower of caribou antlers that was made out of antlers collected on the tundra after the herds move through every couple of years or so.
One thing I know for sure……it’ll be hard for me to do better than this trip for some time to come!