Fishing in Alaska

Big fish and bears on the Kenai Peninsula

Gary Lewis / The Bulletin /

When you go to Alaska for the first time, you get a lot of advice. After you have been there on a few trips, you feel qualified to give a little bit. We had givers and receivers on this last trip.

There were 12 of us, on the hunt for halibut and big Alaskan rainbow trout. When a September storm whipped across Cook Inlet, the rivers muddied up and whitecaps kicked to wicked swells on the saltwater.

We made our calls to river guides and switched things up. In the dark of a Saturday morning, we piled into three drift boats at a launch on the Kasilof River and pointed the bows downstream. In our boat we had Winfield Durham, Sam Pyke and Nate Hunemiller, owner of Nate's Baits, with guide Dave Wilson at the oars.

It was not even daylight yet, when Wilson whispered, “Hey, uh, I have a bear tag and there's been a bear coming out on this point all summer, would you guys mind if I, uh ...”

Yes, he had a rifle and, it turned out, he had a moose tag, too. It was possible our fishing trip would turn into a meat-packing trip. I was OK with trading some salmon filets for moose steaks.

After Winfield had landed a steelhead and a coho, I spotted a bull moose in a bog and we slipped in for a look. Wilson beached the boat and soon we had closed the gap to about 80 yards.

The bull was neither big enough nor small enough to be legal, so we backed out and left him to his breakfast.

Our coho limits came pretty fast, and back at the Kenai River Red Lodge I got a phone call from Taylor Thorp. He could take a few of us upstream the next day for a look at a brown bear, if we wanted to make the ride.

With the rivers high and muddy, we spread out and fished all day long. Twelve of us were skunked that day on some of the best water in the world.

With Thorp, we hit the middle Kenai late in the afternoon and motored upstream into wilder environs.

I banded an 8mm Hevi-Bead to a Woolly Bugger and drifted the egg-sucking leech under an indicator. We bounced bugs and beads on gravel bars, while sockeye splashed at the surface and carried on their spawning rituals in the glacial silt, unseen below.

The skunk stayed on the boat, but another smell wafted out of the trees. We followed our noses in, and there, in a corner of a marsh, stood a brown bear up to his knees in the water, a salmon in his mouth.

But that smell was not rotten salmon, we eased closer to see our bear a bit better and spotted a carcass of another bear. When we got out on the bank, we were just 50 yards away from the live bear that was going to feed on the dead one that evening. We left him to his dinner.

Thorp suggested another outing on which we might find a bear. On the next day we went looking for more bruins. We had enough salmon filets in the cooler to make us happy, so a 6-mile hike was not time ill-spent. I carried a fly rod, just in case.

Bear trails crossed the path every 15 yards. On some trails the grass was still standing back up, the scent of the bear in our nostrils.

A bear was in the water when we hit the river. It climbed up and out and vanished in the timber. Silver flashed in dark currents and red and green shapes slid back and forth, while rainbows poached eggs that didn't make it into the gravel.

Lyn Hocker and I were the only ones with rods. Along the shore, we drifted beads and flies and Bill Conklin, without a rod, walked downstream. He came running back, out of breath. He had come face to face with a brown bear cub and its mama.

The pair pushed me off my rock and began to fish right in front of us. Mama bear was about as effective a fisherman as I was. We both went looking for better prospects.

Sockeyes, silvers and rainbows were stacked along the ledges. I hooked one on a bead and a bug and it went airborne time and again until it threw the hook. I didn't hook another one. Upstream, mama bear finally found a fish and the two had a meal.

Back at the lodge, it was the last evening of our trip. I had told the guys that the water was too fast to fish at the house. “Silvers won't hang in that water,” I had said.

Bill Conklin tied on a Kwikfish and went down to the river anyway. He ran the bait next to the bank in the fast water and caught two steelhead. Goes to show, you can't believe everything people tell you.