Eight-Weights: Alaska Peninsula Summer Trek – Going Off the Grid for Salmon, Trout, Char, Grayling and Pike

Early last Friday morning we put the finishing touches on packing for this summer’s (potentially epic) fishing-centric trek on the upper Alaska Peninsula. Two Salsa Fargo bikes equipped with semi-fat tires, to be loaded with Big Agnes Rattlesnake Mountain Glow tent, down sleeping bags, Alpacka pack rafts, tenkara rods, fly rods, freeze-dried camping food, cookware, compact stove, minimal camera gear, blank writing journals, waders, rain gear, and (for me) just one extra pair of underwear. We then borrowed a pickup truck drove the gear to Chignik Lake’s airstrip and loaded it onto a Lake Clark Cessna headed for Nondalton.

I’ll turn 58 on this trip and I’m a little apprehensive – not as sanguine in my physical endurance and strength as I was in the old days. For the first time in my life, I am aware of physical limitations in a way I’ve never before felt those limitations. But I want to get out there and try this and see if I can handle it. I think I can handle it. If it comes together all right, this trip will set the stage for the next several summers. Fortunately, Barbra has greeted the prospects this summer holds forth with unbridled enthusiasm sufficient to douse my doubts. “Pace yourself,” a friend advised, and although that two-word phrase is anathema to the way I’ve gone about things most of my life, I have to concede that on this series of treks, it’s probably the most prudent recommendation I could receive.

Iliamna Lake is the epicenter of the world’s most prolific Sockeye Salmon nursery.

Nondalton is a perfect starting point. The Newhalen River threads together some of Alaska’s (and by extension, the World’s) most storied fly-fishing waters, including Lake Clark upriver and legendary Iliamna Lake downriver. Along with their nearly innumerable tributaries, the entire watershed constitutes the world’s greatest Sockeye Salmon spawning grounds and nursery. Oh, there are kings, silvers, pinks and chums, char, grayling, white fish and pike, too – and at the right time and place lots of them and large ones. But the keystone species is the Sockeye, and it’s because of these millions of spawning salmon and the ocean-borne nutrients they carry upriver each summer that the watershed is home to some of highest numbers of large rainbow trout found anywhere. Trout 18” and up are common. How far up? The Kvichak River, which flows out of Iliamna and into Bristol Bay, gave up a 23-pounder in 1999, and while there don’t seem to be as many super large trout as in the past, fish well over 20 inches are still abundant, as are large Dolly Varden Char, Arctic Grayling, Northern Pike and Lake Trout. In fact, when I ticked off a list of modestly-sized personal bests for the species we’ll be targeting this summer, our friend Jerry, who talked us into this trek, kind of laughed and replied, “You’re gonna break all those records right here on Six Mile.”

After exploring the Six Mile Lake area, the possibilities are practically limitless. Virtually every lake, stream and river in this part of the Bristol Bay watershed is a world class angling destination. So it’s almost a given that we’re going to catch a lot of fish. And camp, and hike, and pick wild berries, and raft, and swat mosquitoes and see bears and moose and cap an especially good day with a bourbon toast from a small flask a fair distance from anything that looks like civilization.

But it’s not all gonna be blueberry patches and easy trout. We might have to bush-whack into some places, and we won’t use guides or take float planes in to the best water. We’re determined to make the fishing our own, and that will mean fishless stretches at times as we explore, and it might mean tough going at times. That’s the price for getting off the beaten path.

If we each get a few personal bests this summer and have a few fish-after-fish-after-fish days, a few memorable wildlife sightings, a few meals of freshly caught fish… If we learn a few things, experience a few new things…

It’ll be a great summer.

JD

And with that, the staff of CutterLight is off on vacation for blessed weeks on end with no phone service, no computers and no news. Look for accounts of our adventures when we resume publishing toward the end of the summer. 

Ink and Light: “A River Runs through It” and Spring Snow in in the World’s Coldest National Capital

x-snow-dancers-copy-n

Snow Dancers: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – 2016

At over 4,400 feet in altitude, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is the world’s coldest national capital city. Lows of -20° F and lower – sometimes much lower – are common.

She was as beautiful a dancer
as he was a fly caster.
Norman Maclean – A River Runs Through It, 1976

Norman Maclean (1902-1990) was 70 when he began writing A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Rejected by every major publishing firm, the novella and two accompanying short stories were finally accepted by Chicago University Press where Maclean had taught in the Department of English. The book, which was almost instantly recognized as a classic, became the first piece of fiction the CU Press published.

Wisconsin Wildlife Services Removes 100’s of Beaver Dams Each Year, Many by Explosives

beaver dam blown up

This video (see link below) showing a beaver dam being blasted sky high by Wisconsin Wildlife Services in the name of “improving habitat for trout” left us speechless. This particular detonation took place on the upper reaches of Wisconsin’s Wolf River, a National Scenic River. We’re interested to know what readers think of this strategy for managing wildlife and natural resources.

Beaver ponds such as this one in British Columbia represent biologically rich, exceptionally diverse, constantly changing micro-habitats within the larger forest.The many snags (dead trees) in this pond represent feeding opportunities for woodpeckers as well as potential cavity nesting sites for a variety pf species of birds and mammals. Eventually, this pond will become silted in, the beavers will leave, and a beaver meadow will replace the pond. These meadows, free from the shade of the forest canopy and with a bed of thick, fertile soil create places where unique species of flowers and other plants thrive. Black bears are among the many animals that visit these meadows to graze on the grasses and berries that may not exist elsewhere in the forest. The meadow itself will eventually be replaced by mature hardwood forest. So it has been in North America for thousands and thousands of years, with trout, beavers, bears and berries co-evolving.

The setting is a small stream in a Wisconsin forest. The water has been dammed by beavers. Because the pool of water created by the beavers may become too warm for healthy brook trout populations and because beaver dams can block the migration of these native trout, fishermen complained. Enter the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the United States Forest Service, the Wisconsin Wildlife Services and several pounds of explosives. Although government officials occasionally remove beaver dams in order to prevent flooding of roads, make no mistake, most of these dam removals in Wisconsin are for one reason and one reason only: “The purpose of our work is to create a free-flowing stream for the benefit of the trout to be able to migrate up and down.”

See video at: http://www.nbcnews.com/video/government-blasts-away-beaver-dams-475081283719

In a recent three-year period, Wisconsin Wildlife Services removed over 2,000 beaver dams. According to the NBC News report cited above, government officials in Wisconsin use explosives on about 150 dams annually. The beavers are trapped and the dams are destroyed in order to …”(maintain)… one of the natural resources we’ve got for the public to enjoy, trout fishing…”

Barbra and I watched this video and listened to these comments with our jaws hanging open. Speechless. After about two minutes, the video came to an end.

“Wow,” was all we could manage to articulate at first. And then again, “Wow.”

For the past day, we’ve been researching this issue as thoroughly as we’re able to, reaching out to Trout Unlimited groups in Wisconsin and kicking our own thoughts around between each other. We haven’t reached any conclusions. But we do have a few observations.

If… if… the chief or only goal of environmental stewardship were to improve brook trout habitat, Wisconsin’s beaver management strategy might deserve a round of applause. Brook trout thrive in cold, free-flowing streams that feature clean, silt-free rock and gravel bottoms. Temperatures in beaver ponds can hit 70 degrees or more under the summer sun, near the upper limits of what these native char can tolerate and well above their preferred temperature range of 55 – 65 degrees Fahrenheit (12 – 18 degrees C). And because brook trout have very specific requirements for successful spawning – small, clean gravel where upwelling from springs occurs – it’s critical that they be able to access these areas during the fall spawning season.

So just blow up the beaver dams, right?

Not so fast.

moose in beaver pond n

After a long winter in Alaska, this young moose finds a meal in the upper reaches of a north country beaver pond.

Beaver ponds represent dynamic, ever-changing micro-habitats that foster some of the greatest species diversity in the forests where they are found. We’re for biodiversity. As much as we enjoy trout fishing, we would never wish that our desire to catch a particular species of fish be placed above the overall health of an ecosystem.

During the life of the beaver pond, it can provide vital habitat for all kinds of animals. As trees are drowned, they become snags. (One Wisconsin DNR report stated simply that “beaver dams kill trees” – an example of how a statement can be both completely true and completely misleading. Dead trees are part of every healthy forest.) Pileated woodpeckers and other woodpeckers utilize these snags as forage bases and nesting sites. The cavities woodpeckers create in turn become nesting sites for flying squirrels, owls, wood ducks, and host of other mammals and birds. Meanwhile, these ponds become important stop-over or seasonal habitat for a variety of waterfowl and often attract shore nesting species. Tree swallows, flycatchers and similar passerines thrive in the edge habitat created by the beavers’ activity. Again, the snags provide nesting sites, and the cleared airspace above the insect-rich pond creates excellent feeding opportunities for insect eating birds as well as for bats.

The pond itself becomes one the most biologically rich systems in the forest – perhaps the most biologically rich. Everything from burrowing mayflies to dragonflies and damselflies to a variety of aquatic beetles inhabit these waters. Amphibians such as newts, salamanders, toads and frogs depend on these these ponds as well, which provide vital nurseries for their young. Aquatic and semi-aquatic snakes take advantage of the smorgasbord, and in turn may provide a meal for a hawk. Deer, moose, turkeys and grouse are among the frequent visitors to the edge habitat found along the shores of beaver ponds.

Silt prevented by the dam from moving downstream eventually creates a rich bed of mud which in turn fosters the growth of aquatic vegetation. This vegetation may provide a meal for a moose or a migrating duck, a nursery for the young of certain fish species, a place for a tiger salamander to attach its eggs, or an ambush post for a predacious diving beetle. What’s best for trout is not necessarily best for the countless other species that depend on the habitat created by beaver ponds. Healthy stream and forest systems feature a variety of habitats.

One of several stunning flowers we photographed last summer along the shores of a beaver pond.

Moreover, because these dams cause water to pool, some of that water percolates down into subterranean aquifers. This should be an important consideration in a state that is rapidly pumping its aquifers dry. The particular stream in question, the upper reaches of the Wolf River, becomes vital lake sturgeon spawning habitat further down river. As the underground aquifers beaver dams contribute to resurface in the form of springs further downstream, these springs cool the main river, which helps ensure that lake sturgeon spawn successfully. Take away the beaver dams upstream, and you take away a piece of a complex system which countless species have evolved to thrive in.

Eventually these ponds become overly silted, increasingly shallow and the beavers move on. Over time, the dams break up, the stream cuts a familiar channel, often finds a rock bed again. What’s left behind is a beaver meadow – a place with thick, rich soil capable of supporting an incredible variety of trees, flowers and grasses. For the overall health of the forest, it’s a good thing that these dams retain forest soil. Butterflies take advantage of the abundance of flowers, deer and bears come for the grass, and the snags – the trees that died when they became flooded – continue to provide nesting sites for a variety of animals till the day they fall to the earth and become nursery logs.

It’s important to keep one other fact in mind. Salvalinus fontinalis, the native char most fishermen refer to as the brook trout, has been co-evolving with beavers and beaver dams for longer than humans have been on the North American continent. This sudden need to “manage” wildlife is an outcome of an ongoing series of humankind’s mismanagement of this planet.

All this being said, it may appear that we’ve made up our minds on this issue.

We haven’t.

Between the absence of sufficient natural predation and insufficient economic incentive for more beavers to be trapped for their pelts, we understand that it is entirely possible that Wisconsin’s beaver population is out of balance. This would seem to present three options:

  1. Reintroduce predators and foster the growth of their numbers. Predators? That would be wolves. The problem with that strategy is that wolves historically have been more interested in ungulates such as deer and moose (and even in voles and mice) than in beavers. Prior to European settlement, the population of beavers in North America is estimated to have been between 60 and 400 million. There were lots of wolves back then, too. They apparently weren’t eating many beavers.
  2. Continue the present strategy. Where beaver dams appear to be negatively impacting brook trout habitat, kill the animals and tear out their dams. If the dams can’t be broken up by hand, employ explosives.
  3. Do nothing. Let it go. Enjoy the biodiversity beaver ponds foster. If the natural activity of beavers temporarily (or permanently) makes a stream unsuitable for brook trout, rest assured that the habitat is probably becoming just right for other species. Find another stream to fish, or tie up some Clousers and go bass fishing.
  4. And if anyone is really concerned about rising temperatures in streams, maybe consider getting rid of your air conditioner, installing double-paned windows in your house, and locating in a place where you can leave your car at home and walk to work, to the grocery store, and to your friends’ homes.

We’re sure there’s more to the beaver situation in Wisconsin than we currently realize. We’d love to hear what others think. Thanks for reading.

Sincerely,

Jack & Barbra

Fishing and Camping along Oregon’s Deschutes River

Edged by a thin strip of green, the Deschutes River is born in mountains southwest of Bend. Brookies – aggressive and abundant – dominate the headwaters where it flows out of Little Lava Lake. When the river hits Crane Prairie Reservoir, rainbows (and largemouth bass) dominate. Once the river drops into canyon country north of Bend, redbands come into their own. Although canyon trout typically don’t run large, there’s a good chance you’ll have the water to yourselves, as we did. Further downstream, steelhead attract attention from fly fishermen who spend hours swinging flies in hopes of that one, elusive, electrifying grab. (Click on any of the photos for a larger view.)

In June of 2009, Maia and I spent a week camped along the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon where we were enrolled in an Orvis Fly Fishing School – an experience we highly recommend to any parent-son/daughter, husband-wife or fishing partner team looking to boost their skills and knowledge. (We’d love to take one of their saltwater fly fishing or wing shooting schools in the future.)

Tumalo State Park proved to be an excellent location for our headquarters. Tent friendly, it was both quiet and conveniently close to Bend and the region’s excellent fly fishing. In addition to the Deschutes Canyon, we also explored the nearby Metolius River, Lava Lake, Little Lava Lake and the Upper Deschutes.

Fishing an elk hair caddis, Maia coaxed a pair of the Deschute’s redband trout from this canyon pool.

The redbands of the canyon are not large, but numbers are good, the water is beautiful and the setting is dramatic.

The float tube launch on Lava Lake seems to lay out a path to Mount Bachelor, one of Oregon’s premier ski destinations.

As Maia and I were preparing to launch our float tubes on Lava Lake, a fly fisherman who appeared to be in his 70’s was just coming in. “Wanna see what I’ll be having for breakfast?” he asked with a playful grin. He then pulled from a wet canvas creel a fat, 18 inch rainbow. The silvery fish had undoubtedly been stocked as a fingerling and grown heavy on a diet rich with scuds and aquatic insects. “Been coming here for decades,” he said. “Fishing’s still good, and you can’t beat the setting.” Since we were after a trout or two for dinner that night, we were heartened by his success. And sure enough, in addition to a couple of smaller trout, a rainbow just shy of two pounds fell to an bead head olive wooly bugger in the short time we spent on the lake.

After a dinner of salad, pan-friend New York strip steak, freshly caught trout and multi-colored Peruvian potatoes, we relaxed in front of our campfire enjoying a finger or two of Scotch, reminiscing about the day’s fishing, about the fishing we’d had other days going all the way back to afternoons spent float fishing for bluegills and bass on our home river in Japan when Maia was only three, and dreaming about trips we’d take in the future…

Until I lived in Oregon, I’d never seen garter snakes hunt fish. This one was working the margins of Lava Lake.

We had read about Hosmer Lake’s unique (and quite challenging) Atlantic Salmon and Brook Trout fishing. Kicking around in our float tubes in water only slightly less clear than air, we could see fish – big ones – nearly 20 feet deep. The white edges on their fins gave the brookies away; the others, we surmised, must be the salmon. The fish were beyond us on this particular day, but what a lovely piece of water. Excellent nature watching, too – birds, otters, wild flowers along the shore, and, of course, the fish in aquarium-like conditions.

In the week we spent sampling the fishing near Bend, we barely scratched the surface. In addition to miles of river, there are several lakes accessible by vehicle and numerous  hike-in fisheries. Area campground fees range from reasonable to downright cheap, and Bend itself is a cool city of about 80,000 that merits time set aside for exploration.

There is a Lake…

At a remote lake we discovered by chance, the trout are not as long as your leg. Lots and lots (and lots) of 14 to 18 inchers though.

Weighing in at about 15 pounds (including flippers), Super Cat pontoons inflate quickly, can be worn like backpacks, and fish comfortably.

The walk in to remote waters is part of the adventure. On this particular hike, there were wildflowers, game tracks, berries, and a well-camouflaged covey of grouse perched in spruce trees.

Each summer, Maia, Barbra and I make it a point to meet up somewhere to fish, cook together, catch up with each other’s lives, and enjoy good wine and beer and stories. The fishing is secondary, but catching is definitely more fun than not catching. This is the kind of lake where you lose count of the fish turned, hooked or landed and settle into a gentle rhythm of casting, kicking and intense line watching, vigilant for the slightest twitch.

It is a beautiful and rare thing these days to fish a lake – no matter how remote – free from even a solitary scrap of litter. Such was the case on this lake. There was a hiking trail, and part of it traversed a log and board walk over a marshy area, but it was clear that those who know about this lake care about it. Save for a few mountain goats high up on a slope overlooking the lake, a pair of ospreys occasionally circling overhead and a small family of loons, we had the pristine water to ourselves.

On many remote (and not so remote) lakes, a size 8 or 10 bead head nymph dressed in olive, brown or black and jazzed up with something that sparkles is a killing pattern, and such was the case on this day. Lush beds of weeks were visible in the clear water. That’s where the insects were, and of course, the trout.

With a healthy population of trout and several size classes represented, we kept four smaller fish for dinner back at our campsite on a different lake. Evidence of a diet rich with scuds (freshwater shrimp), their flesh was as red as sockeye salmon flesh.

It’s difficult to improve on salt, ground pepper, and glowing charcoal when cooking just-caught fish. Accompanied with freshly picked sweet corn, roasted potatoes and a bottle of Chardonnay enjoyed around a campfire as the evening sky grew dark, our conversation was punctuated by an occasional pop from the fire and loons calling back and forth across the lake.