This unique year of 2020 has had its challenges, sure, but it has actually given us a great opportunity for more time to learn a new skill! Our summer in Denali has been a lovely summer, and I’ll be writing about that soon as the season winds down (already?!). The biggest difference in this season from my previous two seasons at Denali Backcountry Lodge, of course, is the number of guests — directly related to COVID & travel restrictions. Our lower guest count has allowed us to give a more personalized experience for each guest, making very strong connections with each person. It also inherently means as hiking guides, we don’t have as many guests going on our guided hikes, so we don’t hike every day like in a standard season. The downfall: I feel like an unfit slug. The perk: I’m not tired each day, so I have energy for new hobbies!
This buggy, rainy, cold summer hasn’t been ideal for overnight camping trips for us (fair weather campers in our old age, ha!). With our weekends not filled with backcountry excursions, Steve began looking into activities closer to home. With a few experienced fly fishers as co-workers (looking at you Dennis, Sea Bass, & Justin!), we had excellent sources of information to get us started. Steve took the initiative to start learning and researching fly fishing. So began the YouTube watching (major source of information and entertainment: Mad River Outfitters), chats with coworkers & guests, and practice rounds. Our lodge has fly fishing equipment for guests to use, so during quiet days when guests weren’t fishing, Steve would borrow boots and a rod and take to the stream to practice the latest skills he’d learned.
After he got the basics down, he encouraged me to join him to learn as well. He shared the information he had learned, and I practiced my casting at Wonder Lake, where the chances of snagging a tree was much lower. He notes this is a good opportunity for us to learn a new skill which would add to our resume for future jobs. The more skills we have, the more job opportunities there are.
After a couple weeks and many hours of research by Steve, we bought our own rods & flies to not put added wear on the lodge equipment. We hit the creek and lake during our hours off of work to fine tune new skills and concepts. Now, nearing the end of the work season, Olivia worked hard to give each guide a 4-day weekend, butting up two weekends back to back. This gave us our first chance to really test out our new skills and gear.
We packed up all our new fishing gear and camping equipment and left straight after work on Thursday, getting a jump on the weekend ahead. Some of our friends were having a salmon fishing day on Friday, a little friendly competition forming, I believe. But we opted to not jump into the more challenging salmon fishing straight away, and instead headed back to Fairbanks to buy a few more pieces of equipment, then begin the road trip from the North.
Starting the day with a bit of car maintenance, then a shopping spree at Sportsman’s Warehouse, we set out down the highway toward Delta Junction to catch the Richardson Highway south to Paxson. Along the way, we assessed each creek and lake we passed by to decide if it’d be a good fishing spot. We had some recommendations from friends and guests of places to head to, but we had a couple days to spend, so a few side trips wouldn’t be a bad thing. This was part of the learning process to understand fish habitat and our limitations of access. Most lake fishing tends to be best on boat, so we decided to stick to the streams. But many of the streams in Alaska are glacial streams, meaning they are too silty to support fish. We had to find the clear streams that were big enough to have food and shelter for fish, but not too big & slow. Quite a limited range.
But most of the adventure of finding the right streams is enjoying the scenery of the place we’re living and recreating in. The Richardson Highway from Delta Junction to Paxson was so beautiful. Also a perk of less tourists is less crowded roadways, allowing us to meander through the mountains and pause at potential creeks for assessment. It was such a nice change of pace to see Alaska from a different road than the roads we travel on most frequently. It’s a big darn state, with lots to see. Each valley you come into offers a new vantage point of yet another sweeping vista. Not a bad place to play, live, and work. ❤
After passing on a few lakes and creeks that had potential, we opted to head on to Tangle Lakes, where a trio of local ladies who visited the lodge recommended we try out. Tangle Lakes is located about 20 miles west of Paxson on the Denali Highway, which is the only paved section of this ‘highway’. We later learned this weekend was the beginning of caribou hunting weekend, which explained why the Tangle Lakes campground was completely full when we arrived. But fortunately, we decided it wasn’t a campground we wanted tent in with the open tundra and the ample amount of quads & side-by-sides from the hunters seemed less than ideal to have as neighbors, so we continued along to find a new spot.
There were many small pull-off spots along the road, many which were too rocky for a tent, and the tundra too brushy to traverse. But we found one area just passed an ideal little fishing creek which had a couple suitable spots to pitch our tent among the safety of the blueberry bushes, away from the vehicles & RVs passing by. We watched the sun set into a chilly night in the upper 30s with no sign of the Northern Lights, then we were up to watch the sun rise on a chilly morning as our neighbors prepared to venture out on their caribou hunt.
We waited for the sun to warm us up before setting off on our first fishing foray after second breakfast. We were all decked out with our new fishing bags, new “shorty” waders and boots for Steve, and excitement for the fish ahead.
The bites were instant! We literally walked into the creek and casted our lines and bam – fish on! Steve’s first catch was a 69″ 135# whopper! 😆 An early lesson in fishing together, but not too together!
Arctic grayling are such a great fish to learn with. The sailfish of the north! They are small enough to handle easily, both on and off the line. They aren’t the pickiest eaters from what I understand, so there is a little more leniency with fly selection. Don’t get me wrong, you still have to know what you’re doing to read the stream and find the most productive areas where they’ll be living.
Steve did a great job understanding where to find the fish and put to use all the techniques learned in his videos and lessons. In our first 3-hour morning session, I caught 5 fish and Steve caught 13! Steve loved putting his new net to use and has learned to present the fish better than I have. (Please excuse my amateur fish holding techniques, one step at a time. But I promise all my fish swam off when released, none were injured from being held poorly.)
During our morning round, we let everything go right away, snapping just a few photos. I enjoying taking breaks often to not get tired, neither physically or mentally. I know fly fishing isn’t exactly a physically demanding sport, but as with starting any new activity, it can wear on you. Also, snacks are important. And also, why recreate in a beautiful, peaceful, remote location if I don’t stop to enjoy the serenity.
Lunch grumblings is what finally convinced Steve to take a break from reeling in all the fish. A nice doze in the sun while our waders and shoes dried off a bit was a welcomed break back at our campsite. We decided to keep a few of our afternoon catches if they were big enough to cook up for dinner. We tried upstream of the road for the beginning of the afternoon session. I immediately caught a couple fish in a small pool. While taking a photo with one of my larger catches, my line was floating in the water while I selfied. I then felt a little tug on the line as I put the big guy back, and sure enough, the smallest guy of the day had clearly fell for my dubious scheme of zero effort casting.
Steve ventured back down stream to catch 8 more fish in our shorter afternoon stint, bringing his daily total to 21! He kept a couple in a make-shift live well to keep fresh for our evening meal. But by the time we called it quits for the day, I was too tired to bother with filleting and cooking, so back into the creek they went to live another day.
My daily total ended at 9 fish, 2 flies, 2 bobbers, and a whole lot of discarded line. The fish all went back into the stream, but the trash came out with us. Leave it cleaner than how you found it.
It was mid-afternoon at this point, so we headed out to seek out a new destination for the evening. The weather started to cloud up even more as we traversed across the very unkempt, bumpy Denali Highway, back to civilization in Cantwell. We decided with our success of the day and the weather going downhill, we’d probably spend the next day as a road trip day instead of fishing. We camped at Byers Lake State Park, as that is near a creek many friends like fishing at. That way, if the weather cleared up on Sunday, we were there to fish.
But, we ended up instead doing some gear shopping in Wasilla and Talkeetna, finally making it to the little town I’ve heard so much about. To compliment my new fly fishing gear, I now have 3 pairs of fly earrings: 1st bought on the PCT in ’18; 2nd pair being handmade this year by my Secret Santa, Dennis, adorned with local flowers; and my 3rd pair purchased from a local artisan in Talkeetna, tied in with jawbones. I dig the style fly fishing has brought to my wardrobe 😄
Now, with a weekend of fishing under our belt, we’re busy planning our road trip back to Illinois after our season ends in September. We plan to hit up quite a few fishing spots throughout the western US. I’m busy planning logistics, while Steve is studying the ins and outs of successful trout & salmon fishing, as we’ll be leaving our little graylings behind in Alaska. Stay tuned for those tall fishing tales!
Before season ends, I’ll fill you all in on our “Year of the Bear, Kantishna 2020” season here in Denali! Who gets eaten and who lives to tell the tale? *dun dun dun!*