The Rolling Lodge

Fishing the last frontier.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The four of them looked downright gnarly. they had that tired, ragged look you get from not having a dry place to stand or sleep for days on end. finally the weather had lifted and the local streams were clearing.

"It just wouldn't stop raining," the tall one dressed in fatigues said. "The first river was completely unfishable. We got on another stream-same thing. In three days, we had maybe three fish."

The moldy anglers had finally stumbled onto a gravel-bar camp where clear creek runs into the Talkeetna River in south-central Alaska. There, they had been able to dry their gear and were now catching fish like madmen.

I had been in Alaska as long as these guys, but I had eaten well and was rested and dry.

Most important, I had lost count of the salmon. I had caught. I was actually having the fishing trip of a lifetime. Why? Because I had a different plan.

Rather than trust my luck to a float trip, fixed cabin, or fly-in lodge, my strategy was to live out of a Lance truck camper mounted on a Chevy Duramax Diesel HD 4x4 truck. The rig gave my partner (Field & Stream Editor Slaton L. White) and me the freedom of moving whenever and wherever conditions dictated. In a week of fighting the same daily rain patterns that had confounded the soggy Utahans, we had found fish every day but one.

Don't get me wrong. I love float trips and wilderness camping, and I've spent plenty of time in Alaska doing both. But salmon (like any migratory species) don't use personal digital assistants to chart their days. Realistically, the fish are not always where they're supposed to be. Then, there's the weather. Though the last two weeks in August is the best time to chase silvers, chums, and sockeyes, rain is an ever present challenge, sometimes making the river systems frightfully unstable.

An angler operating out of a "rolling lodge" can roll with the punches. You'll spend more time fishing and still enjoy a comfortable camp.

The Plan
As we headed north out of Anchorage, Slaton grabbed my well-creased map. "What's the plan?" he asked.

I looked at him and replied, "There is no plan. We are gypsies. We go wherever the fish go." Past experience and current fishing reports pulled from the Web indicated we should head north, up the Parks Highway into the Susitna drainage. "There's a good tackle shop in Wasilla; we'll stop there and ask what's up."

Slaton stared out the windshield.

"Trust me," I said.

"The last time you said that we hiked three hours in our waders for one fish."

When I got to the counter of the Three Rivers Fly Shop in Wasilla, I questioned the counterman, Scott. "We have two weeks in Alaska; where should we fish?"

Scott looked at me as if cabbages had sprouted from my ears. "You mean you're here for two weeks and you have no idea where you're going to fish?" Then he broke into a grin. "Man, that's the way to fish this state. You never know where the fish are and what conditions the rivers are in. Let me mark some spots on the map for you. Do you have a 4x4?"

I said, "Yes, yes we do," and shot Slaton an I-told-you-so grin.

Alaska is so big that anglers who want drive-in fishing are stunned when they finally look at a map and size up the possibilities. Should you head south to the Kenai? North along the big Susitna? East over the Glen Highway to the Copper River? Unlike in the Lower 48, there is good fishing to be found along the roads in Alaska. And it's public! As for maps, the DeLorme Alaska Atlas & Gazetteer (www.delorme.com) is a great place to start. Once in Alaska, you can also pick up copies of the Parks Highway maps, available at sporting-goods stores.

Even for the well-mapped, the fishing opportunities are staggering. We decided that the Kenai peninsula would be too crowded, so we headed north. Highway 3 to Deli is crisscrossed with creeks and rivers, all potential places to fish.

Montana Creek
Less than two hours later, I turned off Highway 3 onto Montana Creek Road. In another half mile the camper was parked, in a campsite, beside Montana Creek. I hopped out, walked to the bank, and started counting chums and silvers by the dozens. "So, a camping spot off the highway, silvers, chums, and pinks, and no one else around. What do you think?" I asked.

Slaton, still rebounding from a long flight, wasn't willing to concede yet. He walked over to the creek's edge and stared at the water. "You sure fish are in here?"

"Put on your glasses, big guy," I said. "Look just to the left of that large rock."

A few seconds later, I heard, "Wow, you're not kidding! There are fish everywhere."

He raced back to the RV. Waders, boots, and vests came flying out the back door of the camper while I set up the rods. I decided to use the so-called Michigan rig, a.k.a. the chunk-and-dunk, a flyfishing setup devised by steelhead anglers on the Pere Marquette. Here, I used two 9-foot 9-weight rods with large-arbor reels and 3-weight level shooting line. I tagged the lines with a 6-foot piece of 15-pound mono to a small three-way swivel, then another 5 feet of 10-pound tippet. With a few inches of the 10-pound line fixed to the swivel, I added three No. 7 split shot. A chartreuse Woolly Bugger completed each rig.

Ten minutes later Slaton was casting 25 feet away from the left side of a rock at a precise 45-degree angle, making sure that the fly drifted right on the bottom in front of the fish. On the third cast I heard a grunt from Slaton and a splash from a fish. He had hooked his first silver, an amazingly polite chromer. At only 6 pounds, the salmon hadn't gotten close to the backing. Slaton was all smiles when he landed the fish. Around 9 p.m. a light rain started to fall. By then we had muscled several 10-pound-plus angry chums that had ripped line, and also several pinks. But we had both come up short on silvers. I climbed up on the bank and started to spot for Slaton.

"Try a little farther downstream and 5 feet farther out," I said. Slaton made a perfect cast and got a huge strike. The big silver blew straight out of the water, thrashed once, and parted the tippet. It was all over in less than 10 seconds.

"That one would have gone 16 pounds, easy," I said.

Slaton just shook his head. "He wasn't very polite. I hardly got to look at him. But man, what power!"

We fished a little while longer in twilight, finally calling it an evening around 11.

"Time to eat and then sleep," I said as we walked up the bank.

"Gee, I don't know if I have the strength to walk back." Slaton laughed. "Think you could park the rig any farther away?"

I may have been the experienced salmon fisherman, but Slaton was the wizard of RV camping. In a few minutes we were both out of the rain in a bone-dry-and warm-shelter getting ready for dinner. With a full galley, it didn't take him long to make a pot of hot, filling chili. Shortly thereafter, we hit the rack (spring mattresses, no less!) and were sleeping like the dead.

I woke around seven and said to the lump under the sleeping bag across the alcove, "It rained all night. I am dry, well rested, and there is a stream full of fish just a few yards away. Life is good."

After a hot breakfast, we marched downriver in the rain a few hundred yards to a classic deep hole with a clear, shallow flat below. We could see fish stationed out on the gravel, so we carefully sight-fished to silvers and chums. We also slammed them at the top of the deep pool. Around noon, we noticed that the river was finally rising and turning dirty. It was time to look for a new spot.

Clear Creek
After four days of continuous rain, the sky began to lighten. At last, we could shed our rain gear! Our plan was to fish Clear Creek, a tributary of the Talkeetna River. We booked a ride in a jet boat for seven the following morning through Mahay's Riverboat Service (www. mahaysriverboat.com). Then we headed over to the immaculately groomed campsites at Talkeetna River Adventures.

In the morning, after a 15-minute ride upstream, we were dropped off on a large gravel bar where Clear Creek runs into the Talkeetna. The larger river is glacier-fed and is the color of a caf¿¿ latte. Clear Creek was high and slightly off color, but we still found it easy to sight-fish.

The gravel bar was thick with silvers and chums, and they hit just about anything we threw at them. After a couple of hours of nonstop action, we hoisted our backpacks and hiked upstream about a mile. At this point we had the river virtually to ourselves, and we found two holes that were loaded with fresh chums and the occasional silver. Basically, we fished until our arms fell off, enjoying the hard-running salmon.

We stayed until evening and were picked up by Mahay's at the gravel bar. We probably played more than 120 salmon during the day. Some anglers pay $3,000 to $6,000 a week at a lodge for this kind of fishing, assuming the fish are in and the river isn't a wreck from rain.

Here, we spent $45 apiece. I don't know about you, but to me that's the bargain of the century.

Twilight on the Talkeetna
Before we left for Clear Creek, I had marinated flank steaks in red wine and butter. Back at camp, I fired up a gas grill and slapped on the steaks.

Though the sun set around 10 o'clock, the light lingered until well after 11. We enjoyed the splendor of an Alaskan sunset as rising fish splashed in the river below. Finally, stars began to appear, the first we had seen in a week. They held the promise of another day in paradise.ighten. At last, we could shed our rain gear! Our plan was to fish Clear Creek, a tributary of the Talkeetna River. We booked a ride in a jet boat for seven the following morning through Mahay's Riverboat Service (www. mahaysriverboat.com). Then we headed over to the immaculately groomed campsites at Talkeetna River Adventures.

In the morning, after a 15-minute ride upstream, we were dropped off on a large gravel bar where Clear Creek runs into the Talkeetna. The larger river is glacier-fed and is the color of a caf¿¿ latte. Clear Creek was high and slightly off color, but we still found it easy to sight-fish.

The gravel bar was thick with silvers and chums, and they hit just about anything we threw at them. After a couple of hours of nonstop action, we hoisted our backpacks and hiked upstream about a mile. At this point we had the river virtually to ourselves, and we found two holes that were loaded with fresh chums and the occasional silver. Basically, we fished until our arms fell off, enjoying the hard-running salmon.

We stayed until evening and were picked up by Mahay's at the gravel bar. We probably played more than 120 salmon during the day. Some anglers pay $3,000 to $6,000 a week at a lodge for this kind of fishing, assuming the fish are in and the river isn't a wreck from rain.

Here, we spent $45 apiece. I don't know about you, but to me that's the bargain of the century.

Twilight on the Talkeetna
Before we left for Clear Creek, I had marinated flank steaks in red wine and butter. Back at camp, I fired up a gas grill and slapped on the steaks.

Though the sun set around 10 o'clock, the light lingered until well after 11. We enjoyed the splendor of an Alaskan sunset as rising fish splashed in the river below. Finally, stars began to appear, the first we had seen in a week. They held the promise of another day in paradise.