My Trip of a Lifetime

My Trip of a Lifetime

Nobody ever wins a trip to Alaska... do they?

  • By: Jason Baumgart

It all started on a whim back in the summer of 2000. As I leafed through my latest issue of FR&R, I came upon a photo of a guy holding a large silver salmon and clutching his fly rod in his mouth. Below this picture was a description of a trivia contest in which the grand prize was an all-expense paid trip to a remote lodge in Alaska. Just for kicks, I logged on to see what it was all about. I enjoyed trying to answer the trivia questions, so I started playing almost every day. I never really thought I had a chance of winning—"nobody ever wins these types of contests"…right?

When the contest ended, I checked the website daily to see who won. They kept saying they had not heard from their winner yet. A week later, I checked my e-mail and found an old, unread e-mail from Matthew Mayo, managing editor of FR&R, telling me that I had won the grand prize! I thought it was a joke, played by my Dad or brother—they both knew I'd been playing the trivia contest religiously for the previous six months. That was a year ago—and here I am today, the trip a wonderful and unforgettable memory.

After it finally became clear that this was for real, the dream started growing. It wasn't too long before my Dad gave in to the temptation and signed up to join me. We spent the winter reading up on the area, tying Spankers, 'Wogs and purple leeches, getting our fly-fishing gear in order and planning and dreaming every chance we had to get together.

Day 1: Anticipation is a wonderful thing…

The day finally came to board our flights, a day early (just in case), me from Dalton, Massachusetts and Dad from Binghamton, New York. We met up in Chicago and traveled on together to Anchorage and Cordova. We arrived in Cordova at 8:30 in the morning. That evening we met up with Steve Ranney, who runs the Orca Adventure Lodge in Cordova, as well as several fly-in camps. Our plan was to spend the week at Steve's Katalla River camp with a couple of fly-out days so we could also experience other locations. Steve explained that it had been raining steadily for the past two weeks and all the rivers on that part of the Alaskan coast were flooded-including our destination, the Katalla River. Bad news! But you never can tell where your fortune may lie. Steve suggested that we delay our trip to Katalla camp by a day (the rivers clear amazingly quickly once it stops raining) and join up with four other guys staying at the Orca Lodge who had arranged a saltwater day trip with Luke Borer, jet-boat captain and top-shelf fishing guide. They had planned to fish for silver salmon in the morning-and do some baitfishing for sharks in the afternoon. Sharks in Alaska? We agreed in a flash. Day 2: We left early the next morning and headed out across Orca Bay to a place called Hell's Hole. There were broken clouds but it had stopped raining. We couldn't imagine why it was called Hell's Hole as the surroundings were beautiful-snow-capped mountains to the north and the wide expanse of Prince William Sound to the south. Luke beached the boat at the mouth of the river and we hiked upstream about a quarter mile and started to fish. We could see great numbers of silver salmon moving around just under the surface, making wakes as they sped along, many of them jumping and thrashing on the surface. And so, here at Hell's Hole, we started our week of the most amazing, world-class salmon fishing we had ever imagined. In the past, while fishing with a small group of friends, it was always exciting hooking up two fish at once. But imagine six! Within a few minutes, our four partners for the day (Tom, Gary, Jimmy and Steve), my Dad and I, all had one on-all jumping and flashing at the same time-fantastic. The fishing was great at Hell's Hole, but after a few hours we moved on up the bay to the Gravina River. This, too, was a fairly small, clear river. We fished the mouth as the tide came in and again our group caught dozens of silvers. Dad and I almost lost our cameras to that fast-rising tide, and spent a half hour drying and wiping them down. I would have loved to stay longer to explore, but it was time to move on again. We lost count of how many we caught that morning, but what a start to the week."Doesn't get any better than this," we said. How wrong we were. By now it was early afternoon, and time to fish for sharks. On our boat ride out that morning, Luke had pointed out some sharks in the distance that were thrashing about catching salmon, so we were primed for action. We motored out to Luke's favorite spot and rigged up. At last, all was set and the bait tossed overboard. No more than 30 seconds elapsed before I had one on. The next two minutes were a frenzied blur as the shark took off and the jet boat flew in pursuit. This shark actually cleared the water once at the onset of the battle. It put up a great fight, but I finally got it to the boat where, after taking some photos, we set it free. Luke estimated that shark at about nine feet, and 650 pounds. The excitement of the giant fish and the scenery of the Sound made for an unforgettable afternoon. Day 3: By the next morning the rivers had dropped to fishable levels, and we departed for the Katalla River camp. The trip down the coast was spectacular. The Sheridan Glacier loomed off to the north as Cordova receded from sight. We crossed the wide Copper River Delta, and continued on with the Pacific Ocean to our right and the Chugach Mountains on our left. Below us we saw brilliant white trumpeter swans swimming on the many streams and ponds, several moose and our first glimpse of a brown bear. Soon the Katalla River came into view. Steve circled once and set his sights on the seemingly too-small airstrip scratched out of the trees. Lucky, the camp boss, greeted the plane and put our gear in the four-wheeler and hauled it up to the camp. Our fishing guide for the week was Dave Salmon (no kidding-his name was Salmon-so we knew he had to be good). Steve greeted Dave with the words,"These guys had a fantastic day yesterday, so the bar is set pretty high.""No problem," said Dave. We came to learn that he, too, was right. The camp was nestled back in the trees several hundred yards from the river, and was close enough to the ocean so that we could hear the pounding of the surf. We quickly got settled in and hit the river about noon. The plan was to take the skiff upriver a little ways, beach it, and explore the river on foot, fishing as we went. The tide (about 12 to 15 feet at the mouth of the river) was low, so there was a lot of riverbank showing. The first thing that forced itself to our attention was that there were bear tracks on almost every bit of bank. The second realization was that all of these tracks had been made since the last high tide. No doubt about it-we were not alone. As it turned out we saw, and shared the river with, brown bears every day-some from a distance and some closer than we might have chosen. We knew that the river belonged to the bears and we were merely uninvited visitors for the week. For their well-being and our safety, we gladly respected their space and yielded the right of way. The Katalla River is best described as"intimate"-the perfect size for wade fishing, which we did exclusively. It was crossable in many places when the tide was low. We caught numerous fish this first day and explored the various runs and bends in the river, getting a feel for it all. We realized with the first few fish we caught that they seemed stronger and fought much harder than the fish we caught at Hell's Hole and the Gravina River. We weren't sure why, but they thrashed, jumped and ran up or downriver many times before being landed on the shore. The first two days on the Katalla River were action packed, but there were not as many fish in this river as the others we had fished the day before. This changed quickly though. During our second evening we saw many wakes made by incoming fish as they cruised upriver past camp. We were anxious to learn what tomorrow would bring on the river. Day 4: Our third day on the Katalla was amazing. There were several times more fish in the river that day than there had been just the day before. We were right in the middle of a heavy run of silvers-our timing could not have been better. We fished half the day at the first bend in the river without moving-there was no point in moving on. At times, we all experienced a fish with every cast. Dad settled into a spot where a tiny creek trickled in on the far bank. He landed well over a dozen fresh silvers within a couple hours. I wandered about at a large bend of the river using Techno-Wogs (a surface popper) and excitedly watched the surface action of these ravenous fish. Finally we moved upriver and spread out over other holes and bends. We ended the day on a long, deep stretch that hundreds of silvers had settled into. The day was sunny and the water was clear. We could see our flies land in the water and then watch them with every strip of the retrieve. We could see fish race towards them from all directions-some to veer off at the last second and always one to devour it. It was difficult to not set the hook too early as we anticipated the strikes! We caught more fish than we could keep track of that day. By the afternoon, we found ourselves savoring the strike and initial runs and jumps and then actually throwing slack line, allowing these great, wild, fighting beauties to escape our barbless hooks and continue their journey. Days 5-6: Steve came by midweek to pick us up and fly us to the famous Tsiu River for a day of fishing there. Once again, the trip down the coast was a scenic wonder. The Bering Glacier, with its 37-mile-wide front, could be seen flowing down from the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness area towards the sea. The Tsiu River, as it nears the sea, flows through a wide, barren expanse of sand and debris. It parallels the beach for about three miles before finally turning and flowing into the Pacific. Steve landed the plane on the broad stretch of sand between ocean and river. Several other planes were parked along the river, their passengers already thigh deep with fish on. It didn't take us long to get into the water ourselves and get a taste of the action. There were lots of people spread out along a couple miles of river and numerous four-wheelers scooting along. This was a totally different scene than the Katalla, but the fish were literally minutes from the ocean and plentiful. We had a great day. Day 7: On our last day of fishing, Steve flew us out to the Martin River and Lakes for a day of trout fishing. Despite the constant wind and driving rain, we each managed to catch more than our share of Dolly Varden and char-most in the 18- to 24-inch class. Our guide for the day, Ben, assured us that the surrounding scenery was as great as the fishing but, unfortunately, we could see very little of it because of the weather. Finally, the week was over and our time was up. We reflected on the week during our long flight home. It truly was a trip of a lifetime. It combined great scenery, expert guides, friendly people and, of course, incredible salmon fishing. I would like thank some of the people who made all this happen: Tom Ackerman of Classic Connections who co-sponsored the trip and made the arrangements; the crew at Fly Rod& Reel for their co-sponsorship, participation and organization of the event; Steve Ranney, of Orca Adventure Lodge, who also co-sponsored the trip, for his strategic planning of our week and his fine accommodations; and thanks to all of the guides and friends we met along the way. Finally, special thanks goes to my dad for coming along with me to share the memories of the"Trip of a Lifetime."