Feature Stories

A Quick Bite of Alaska

Author Chuck Heath Jr., with Jimmie Drath

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not the fish they are after.”
-Henry David Thoreau

If you’ve never experienced late season fishing and touring in Alaska you are missing out on something really special.

Last July I received a call from an old college buddy in Idaho, Dave King, asking me if it would be worth flying to Alaska in September to do some fishing. Dave is an avid angler who had never experienced Alaska, but had heard plenty of my fishing adventure stories.

It was a long-time dream of his to get up here and it took about 30 seconds to convince him that if he made the trip he’d never forget it.

Late fall fishing, or “post-tourist season fishing,” is a little known treasure up here (don’t hate me for spilling the beans, fellow Alaska fishermen!). There are still strong runs of silver salmon heading up the Kenai River, and plenty of fat rainbows feeding on their eggs.

Dave is primarily a fly fisherman, so he asked me to line something up where he could utilize his skills. I called my friend, Jimmie Drath, owner of Jimmie Jack Charters (www.jimmiejackcharters.com) and scheduled a full-day Kenai River rainbow fishing trip for September 17th. When I called Dave to let him know it was all lined up, he was ecstatic!

As a manager at a company manufacturing mountain climbing equipment the fall is a busy time for Dave, so he could only get away from work for a couple of days. This being his first trip to Alaska, I wanted to make sure he got a healthy dose of what our magnificent state has to offer in his limited time here.

After he arrived in Anchorage, we headed out to the Matanuska Valley, where I grew up. The fall colors were exploding at the time and the mountains were covered in fresh snow. The backdrop they created blew Dave away, and I’m pretty sure he about wore out the shutter button on his camera!

On the way to the Valley, we stopped by the aptly named Mirror Lake and snapped a few shots of the mountains and foliage reflecting off its perfectly still surface.

Next, we entered the Valley and headed up Hatcher Pass to Independence Mine in the Talkeetna Mountains—in my opinion one of our state’s most beautiful attractions. After taking in the view from the top, we headed down and stopped at the base of the pass where the clear waters of the Little Susitna River gently flow over massive granite boulders that have eroded from the mountains. The bright yellow, orange and red leaves on the cottonwood and birch trees lining the river’s banks accentuated an already beautiful scene.

Leaving the river, we drove across rolling farmland and headed towards Palmer. I asked Dave if he’d ever seen a muskox before, and he admitted that he didn’t even know what a muskox was. An unplanned trip to the Muskox Farm was in order. At the farm we got to see them up close and learn about qiviut, the downy-soft undercoat on the muskox that produces material warmer, softer, and more valuable than cashmere. Click here to subscribe to Last Frontier Magazine!

We left the farm and drove to an overlook high above the Matanuska River where I pointed out many of the Valley’s sites and told him about its history. In the distance, we could just make out a portion of the Knik Glacier. Dave had no experience with glaciers so I decided to give him a closer look.

We drove a few miles southeast and soon arrived at the base of a 900 foot monolith in the Valley’s center called the Butte. The Butte is an anomaly—an extra-tough solid rock protrusion that the glaciers failed to erode away as they carved their way through this valley.

I told Dave that we could hike a quarter of the way up and he’d get a great view of the Knik Glacier. There are two routes up the Butte: a well-maintained northern route, and a steeper, rougher southern route. I chose the southern route because, even though it’s more difficult, it’s a faster and more scenic way to the top.

It was a cool day, but ten minutes into the climb we were already breaking a sweat. Just like I’d told him, the view of the glacier was great a quarter way up, but I had been climbing this mountain since I was a kid and I knew that the real treat was the 360 degree view from the top. I prodded Dave into climbing higher, and half an hour later, we were standing on top. From this vantage point, one can see the entire Valley, the Knik Glacier, the waters of Cook Inlet, and the Chugach, Talkeetna, and Alaska Mountain Ranges. I didn’t have to ask Dave if he was impressed. Watching him furiously click away on his camera answered that question for me.

We descended the Butte, made a stop at the nearby Reindeer Farm—where one can view domesticated caribou close-up, and also stopped at the Pyrah vegetable fields—where you can hand-pick your own vegetables. After that, we headed back to Anchorage.

I think I wore Dave out that first day, but knowing his trip was short, I was determined to squeeze in as much as possible.

We awoke the next morning, packed up our gear, and headed south on the Seward Highway toward the Kenai Peninsula. My oldest son, Kier, also an experienced fly fisherman, accompanied us.

As we began the drive south, Dave was raving about the beauty and ruggedness he’d experienced the day before. I smiled to myself, knowing that the drive down the Seward Highway would also amaze him.

Potter Marsh was our first stop. Located a few minutes south of Anchorage, the marsh is a world class bird refuge. From April thru September, a tremendous variety of birds, including trumpeter swans, canvasback ducks, red-necked grebes, and northern harriers spend time at the marsh in the midst of their migrations. As a bonus, moose, muskrats, spawning salmon, and bald eagles are often seen here. A gorgeous 1550 foot long boardwalk puts you right in the middle of the action. It’s no wonder birders and professional photographers come from all over the world to experience it.

South of the marsh, the highway parallels the waters of Turnagain Arm, an extension of Cook Inlet. The arm’s name goes all the way back to Captain James Cook’s early exploration of Alaska. In search of the Northwest Passage, Cook ordered his sailing master, William Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame), to sail up the arm. When he reached the end, he realized it was a dead end, and in frustration wrote “turn again” on a map.

The highway along the arm is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful drives on the planet. Bordered by 5000-6000 foot peaks on both sides, and possessing the second highest tides in North America, the arm is dynamic. It never gets old because you never see the same thing twice.

I told Dave to keep his eyes on the water. This was the time of year beluga whales are often seen swimming up the arm. Measuring up to 18 feet and weighingThe slough at Dot's Fish Camp as much as 3,500 pounds, the white whales chase salmon and hooligan on the way to their spawning grounds. Occasionally, orcas are spotted going after the whales.

Just six and a half miles out of Anchorage, Dave shouted, “Whale!” Sure enough, white humps began to appear just off the shore to our right. I pulled into a viewing area, ironically called Beluga Point, and we got out to take a better look. Eight whales swam close enough to shore that we easily heard them spouting. The waters of Turnagain Arm are filled with glacial silt and the whales rely completely on sonar to navigate. It’s always a thrill to see them that close.

A few miles farther south we saw our next animals, Dall sheep, just a hundred feet or so up along the cliffs to our left. The sheep come all the way down to the highway to lick the ocean’s salt spray coating the rocks.

Just south of the ski resort town of Girdwood, we spotted a group of kite surfers bouncing off the arm’s waters. Kite surfing is a relatively new sport in Alaska, but it’s growing quickly in popularity. Turnagain Arm has been famous for years in the windsurfing community, but in 2004, people began to strap boards to their feet and harness themselves to oversize kites. The arm has fairly consistent winds, and as long as it’s not blowing too hard and the arm is ice-free, you’ll see diehards catching air. Drysuits protect them when the water is dangerously cold, but the arm is no place for people who don’t know what they’re doing. The tides are ferocious, ripping in and out at speeds up to 8 miles per hour, and the thick mudflats made up of glacial silt can, and have, trapped and killed people. The kite surfers say it’s all worth the risk, providing them the opportunity to experience silent flight, and those in the tight-knit surfing community claim it’s a welcoming brotherhood like no other.

Dave was getting a full Alaskan experience but we weren’t done yet. We had a long way to go and there were still some things I wanted him to see. As we neared the end of the arm, alpine glaciers began to come into view. Forty-seven miles south of Anchorage, we passed the old settlement of Portage. The town of Portage was destroyed by the mighty 1964 earthquake. The ground sank by as much as six feet, and salt water flooded the area. All that remains now are a few dilapidated buildings, and a few dead, limbless birch trees.

Rounding the end of the arm, we began our ascent of Turnagain Pass, a mountain route on the northeastern part of the Kenai Peninsula. I am very familiar with this area, having lived and gold mined along a creek on top of the pass in the mid-1990s. We stopped at one of my old gold claims and walked down a moss-covered path to an overlook where we got a great view of the blue-gray waters of Six Mile Creek, cutting through a steep canyon. Some of my best memories are from countless hours spent beneath those waters dredging for gold.

Daylight was fading, and we were anxious to get to the Kenai River. Another 20 miles south, we veered right off the Seward Highway and onto the Sterling Highway. We continued south and eventually turned left at milepost 78. We were headed to our rental cabin at Dot’s Fish Camp, along the Kenai River. Established in 1954, Dot’s has three cabins available for rent. Ranging from $40-80 per night, you can’t beat the price! As a bonus, they have their own boat launch, and we’d made arrangements with our fishing guide to pick us up there the following morning.

It was evening by the time we settled in. The temperature dropped into the low 30s, but our cabin was equipped with a propane heater and stove. Not too much roughing it here! We went to bed early and got a good night’s sleep.

Morning arrived, and we were greeted by a light frost on the ground and a wisp of fog over the water. At eight o’clock, Jimmie and his dad, Jim Sr., pulled their boat up to the launch and we loaded up.

If you’ve never fished with a high-quality, professional guide service, you’re missing out. I don’t use a guide very often, but it sure is nice to be spoiled once in a while. Jimmie’s outfit is one of the best in Alaska, with over 10,000 happy customers who agree. We had booked a day trip, but you have the option of booking trips as long as seven days, and fishing for a variety of species, including ocean halibut and lingcod. Jimmie owns a lodge and a few cabins along the shores of Cook Inlet, not far from the Kenai River. I was fortunate enough to stay there with my wife last year, and with a gourmet cook and exceptional accommodations, it was a real treat.

We motored up the glacial fed, milky green river for a few miles, and finally prepared to fish. The great thing about being out on the water so late in the season, besides the obvious beauty of the fall colors, is there are very few other boats or fishermen present. It really is a serene paradise.

If you’re a fly fishing purist with visions of A River Runs Through It in your mind, put those thoughts to bed. This river is unique. Yes, we were using fly rods, but the rainbows don’t typically feed on surface insects. They tend to stay deep and feed on the rich spawn that drift by. Surfacing for a mosquito is a waste of time!

There are various methods of fishing for Kenai rainbows. You can fish from shore or a boat, and use artificial lures, flies, spinners, or plugs. We fished with an artificial single egg, set two inches above a single hook at the end of a ten foot leader, attached to forward weighted floating line. Split shot is used to keep the egg near the bottom. The idea is to simulate a lone salmon egg floating gently downstream. Jimmie recommends using a heavier, 6 or 7 weight rod because it’s always possible to hook into a larger salmon.unnamed

Experienced guides like Jimmie and his father know this river extremely well and can take you where the fishing is best. They also provide everything you need and it’s all first class equipment: G-Loomis and Sage rods equipped with high-end Shimano reels. We cast our lines upstream, Jimmie cut the motor, and we began the first of many quarter-mile drifts. Minutes into our second drift, Kier yelled out, “Fish on!” He set the hook and the fish immediately took flight, cartwheeling many times through the air. After a few slack line runs, the fish began to tire and Kier pulled him close to the boat where Jimmie netted him with a rubber mesh net designed to avoid harming the fish. Because this is not a stocked river, Jimmie has a strict catch and release policy. His philosophy is to set them free and let ‘em fatten up. It’ll be more challenging bringing them in next season, and more fun, too!

The fishing was great! We averaged one to two fish per drift, including two fish over 25 inches. The time flew by, and after countless fish, it was finally time to head back to camp. At day’s end, I thought about an old Will Rogers quote: “If all politicians fished instead of speaking publicly, we’d be at peace in the world.” Mr. Rogers hit the nail on the head with that one.

By the time we arrived at the boat launch, Dave’s face was fatigued from smiling so much. He happily tipped Jimmie, and with his Kenai River appetite whetted, he vowed to come back. Next time, to fish for the river’s mightiest fish, the monster King Salmon!

Not a bad couple of days for his first trip to Alaska!

Chuck Heath, Jr. was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, but has resided in Alaska since the age of two. He spent his early years hunting, fishing, and trapping around the state, as well as staying very active in sports and church activities. He graduated from the University of Idaho, where he was a member of the Vandal’s football team, with a Bachelor of Science degree. He returned to Alaska and began a long teaching career which afforded him time in the summers to gold mine, explore Alaska and write.

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