One Wild Ride: Fishing Alaska By ATV

Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
By Kirk Deeter Day 1. Wednesday. What Have I Gotten Myself Into?
It was an offer I could not refuse. After all, when you get a writing assignment that involves fishing in the Alaskan wilderness, you have to jump at it, no matter what the catch, right? Well, this story did come with a catch ... actually, four catches. And on the first day in Alaska, I realized I might be in deep trouble. The plan was for me to join an entourage from Field & Stream's sister publication QUAD Off-Road Magazine on a week-long expedition. It was supposed to be a whirlwind "groundstorming" tour, where we'll sample ATV adventures along the coast near Homer, and then bushwhack deep into the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage, sampling the fishing along the way. Sounded great ... but catch number one was that none of the other guys flyfished. And, while we'd be in the hands of expert ATV guide Tim Cook of Alaska ATV Adventures (who more than knew the lay of the land), I'd be the de-facto fishing guide. Tim's job was to find the water and steer us around the bears. My job was to find the fish and get them in the net. Which would have been cool, if not for catch two. Namely, I had only been to Alaska once before, and that was in the early season (June), two years earlier. I'd never seen an Alaskan coho anywhere but on a dinner platter, let alone cast at one. What the heck. I figured I could fudge my expertise, ask some buddies for advice, bum a few flies, and learn on the job. In the worst case, I'd hope for a silver or two to commit suicide by eating one of my borrowed streamers, and everything would be hunky-dory. Then came catch number three. Within hours of landing in Anchorage (I came in a day before the rest of the crew in order to score some last minute gear and advice from my friends at the Worldwide Angler flyshop), I learned that the local fishing report was bleak. Record level rains had been pounding south-central Alaska for weeks without interruption, and most of the rivers from Talkeetna down to the Kenai Peninsula were blown-out, brown torrents of glacial crud and debris. I thumbed through the Anchorage Daily News and noticed the pictures of washed-out highways and floating houses and began to curse my editor. Yet, despite all of that, the thing that had me popping Maalox was catch number four. I wasn't sure I could ride a quad with these guys. I was going to be ATV-ing backcountry trails with the pros (and I mean pros -- Yamaha rider Pat Brown was asked to tag along with us). I had ridden quads before ... slowly, on easy trails. But truth is, I had more "seat time" in the dentist's chair than on top of a four-stroke, liquid-cooled offroad machine. So on day one, I wasn't sure which I feared more: Being crushed under the weight of fishing expectations from America's oldest outdoor magazine, or literally being crushed under 600 pounds of steaming machinery on some isolated Alaskan mountainside. I found a little restaurant on the shore of Lake Spenard, ordered a sandwich, and decided I'd kill time as I waited for the rest of the team to arrive by watching the float planes land and take off on the lake. The last time I was in Alaska I had flown on float planes like these to amazing fishing locations that had blown my mind. I couldn't help but wish like hell I could climb on board one of them and zoom away. I decided to describe this feeling in the lead paragraph of the magazine story. Eventually, I made peace with the "four catches." If we did pull this off on ATVs, we would discover a vast, wide-open realm of outdoor opportunity, between the combat fishing zones near the roadways, and the expensive fly-out lodges in the bush. I decided I was along for the ride. But I was certain it would be "One Wild Ride."
Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Day 2. Thursday. A Change in Plans.
I eventually met up with the crew -" John "Doogie" Howell, editor of quad, Keith Mulligan, our photographer extraordinaire, videographer Glenn Milligan, replete with his Yankees baseball cap and Brooklyn accent, Pat Brown, pro quad rider, Steve Nessl, from Yamaha, who had deftly arranged for three new Grizzlies and two Rhinos to be waiting at the Anchorage dealership for us, and Tim Cook of Alaska ATV Adventures. The rain persisted, and as we sloshed around, trying to wrangle the machines on Tim's custom trailer and truck, he suggested an alteration to the plan. Now Tim was smart enough to know the weather deal ... and he'd been working contingencies for the past few days. He said we'd head south first, toward the coast, and hope it clears north. We'd take our chances on silver salmon running right out of the ocean at Cook Inlet, down by the Anchor River near Homer. I liked his candor. He wasn't a flyfisherman (he became one, for sure, and a darn good one at that), but he was smart enough to ask people who were where we should go. "You show me clear water, Tim, and I'll show you the fish ... promise," I said. I was full of shit, of course, but nobody else knew. We drove the Seward Highway south, past Soldotna, and then on toward Homer. Later that evening, Tim suggested we pull over at the "Skye's the Limit Fishing Camp" right off the highway. After some quick negotiations, he got us two cabins with bunk beds on a bluff overlooking the beach. It was pouring and now blowing 30 knots. After stashing our gear, we drove into Homer to find the "Salty Dawg" (a landmark bar) at the end of the spit. The bar-talk revolved around talk of big fish, but the locals knew it would be tough. I shrunk in the corner against the wall. Nobody got to sleep before 1 a.m. I sorted through my flies before crashing for the night, then stepped outside the cabin to see the skies clearing to a wide blanket of radiant stars. I thought then that we might just have a chance.
Field & Stream Online Editors
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Day 3 -" Friday. "Wake up, it's clear!"
When we climbed out of the cabins early the next morning, we were stunned to see blue skies, the Iliamna volcano and massive snowcapped peaks towering past the cobalt expanse of Cook Inlet. All of us paused to soak in the views. We decided to pass on breakfast, and head right toward the beach and the water. Steve gave me a crash course on the new Grizzly. And I couldn't help but revel in its power and fluidity as I turned easy circles in the parking lot, waiting for the other guys to load up. We drove from the camp down a steep, muddy trail to the beach, and then began zooming up the dark volcanic strand. It was a three-mile ride to the fishing spot. Along the way, Pat and Steve started "playing" ... jumping rocks, doing wheelies, flirting with the waves. I decided then that if ever I had less than four wheels on the ground at any one point, it would be a serious problem. Still, I couldn't help but admire the grace of the experienced riders. Soon enough, though, it would be my turn to show them my game.
Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
John "Doogie" Howell, of QUAD Magazine, hams it up with a dead salmon. We pulled to a stop next to the creek, maybe a ¼ mile from the ocean inlet. The creek here paralleled the beach. It's only about 100 feet wide, and the water was brown – tannic. Tim said that was more a product of the wader seeping from the blueberry bogs and alders on the hills above than the rain. I checked the water visibility with the rod tip … about three feet. It seemed good enough for fish to see flies, but not good enough for us to spot the fish. We had to wait and watch for them to roll. "They're in here," Tim said. "And they're fresh, right in off the last tide, probably." Finally, we spotted a roller, and I ran up the bank with Doogie, flipped a cast with an 8-weight rod, rigged with a gaudy pink streamer, and bang, we were in business … thank goodness. I handed Doogie the rod. He didn't expect that kind of pull. This flyfishing stuff had some adrenaline factor also … Doogie whooped it up and laughed as a beefy silver first tailwalked, then ripped line across the creek. Doogie landed it.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
"Whew!" I thought, wiping the sweat off my brow. At least we're on the board. As it turned out, the fishing was tricky most of the day. Tim and I caught a couple more big silvers. I positioned Pat and Keith below a riffle with bead flies and they started hooking Dolly Varden. We kept one silver, and grilled it with an impromptu peach-salsa. Sitting in a wood-heated hot-tub overlooking the inlet, eating salmon on crackers, I thought that this might not be that tough of an assignment after all.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
The author holds a nice silver (coho) salmon Day 4 – Saturday. We Slayed 'Em.
We woke up early that next morning to find it raining again. But that was good news as far as the fishing was concerned. I had been wondering in my bunk the night before why we hadn't hooked and landed more silvers, and I decided that, with the sunny day, I should have been pulling big olive and black streamers instead of the bright pink stuff. Now, with the clouds and wind, the pink stuff will work. Tim, Keith, and I shared one of the cabins. The boys in the other cabin weren't awake when we went over to look through the window and check on them, and they didn't look like they'd be awake any time soon. "What do you want to do?" Tim asked. "Well, we should let Quad sleep in … but Field & Stream is going to work … sorry Keith, you're shooting for both," I said. "This morning you're Field & Stream, and we fish in the rain." My hunch played out perfectly. After ripping back down the beach, we set up in the same spot. The fish were rolling like crazy. There had to have been 10 times as many as the day before -- big, fresh, unmarked fish that ran in on the night tide. We started swinging those pink streamers, specifically some "Strung Out Rockstars" which my friend Derek Fergus had developed. Bam. Bam. The fish knocked the snot out of them. I was feeling dialed-in. We caught dollies (Dolly Varden trout) and humpies (pink salmon) also.
Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
The others soon caught up to us, and Pat was instantly "en fuego." He landed three big silvers, then a beautiful steelhead, which we immediately released. I was running in circles, Tim would hook a fish, we'd net it, then I'd look over my shoulder, and Doogie would be bent, hanging on to another big silver. They were naturals. I was impressed. "We're in -¿em now, boys!" I smiled. We soon landed a limit of beautiful cohos, and sped off to a fish packer near Homer to drop them off for processing, freezing, and shipping back home. Then we decided to drive back north to Anchorage, where we'd say goodbye to Pat and Steve, recollect ourselves, and transition from the salmon game to the trout and grayling game ... and the serious mountain riding. I hoped we'd find more clear water. Half the story was in the bag.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
GEAR: For silver salmon, we used the Orvis Zero Gravity, 8-weight rod; a disc drag reel by Hatch Outdoors, strung with a Scientific Angler's Quad Tip line (the interchangeable tip allowed us to switch between slow-sinking tips and floating heads). For leaders we used straight Maxima, stepped down from 20-pound test to 12-pound test, using blood knots to connect the sections. The crew wore Cabela's Dry-Plus waders, with built in boots (which proved invaluable in both fishing and riding situations). I wore Cloudveil 8X waders.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Day 5 – Sunday. Transition Day.
We left Anchorage late in the morning, after stoking up on a good night's sleep and a big breakfast. We headed north on the Glenn Highway, in the shadows of the rugged Talkeetna Range. Stopping to look at the glaciers along the highway, we saw several Dall Sheep perched on a rocky outcropping, as well as more bald eagles than we could count.
Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Eventually, we made our way to the Sheep Mountain Lodge, where we set up in the bunkhouse (the lodge was packed with German tourists). That night, we made a short drive to small lake near the highway to catch rainbows. By now Doogie, Tim, Keith, and Glenn were more comfortable with the act of flycasting, though the lighter gear took some getting used to (we were now using G. Loomis StreamDance #4 and #5 rods, with corresponding SA floating lines, and dry flies like Royal Wulffs, Elk Hair Caddis, and Humpies). We found a dozen or so smallish fish, but the scenery, there in the shadow of Gunsight Mountain, was amazing. The guys enjoyed watching the trout take dries. It was a whole different world, fishing-wise. I parked my quad near the lake and stood on the gear rack as if it were a casting platform on a flats boat. Throwing long, lacy loops over a glassy pond, I was in my element … until thoughts of the tough ride in the mountain trails crept into the back of my mind.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Day 6. Monday. I Ate It … But Survived.
This was supposed to be a hard riding day, with a little fishing mixed in. The boys had warned me to strap my helmet on tight. We enjoyed a breakfast of sourdough pancakes at Sheep Mountain Lodge, then were entertained by the sight of lodge ownder Zach Steer training his sled dogs … how? Zach (who runs the Iditarod) hitched his team to a quad, put it in neutral, and had the dogs tow him up the trail. It dawned on me then that certain things have played a central role in opening the Alaskan frontier – first the dogsled, later the bush plane. Maybe it is not much of a stretch to imagine that the quad could play a similar role. After all, I was experiencing wild adventures the likes of which I hadn't imagined a scant few days earlier. When we hit the trail, I realized this would be a hard-core ride – maybe not by Doogie's standards, but certainly by mine. It's important to note that we made a point to ride responsibly, on established trails, rather than plowing over the tundra. Our rides focused on hunting and mining trails.
Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
This one led us to a small gold mine in a steep valley carved by Alfred Creek. At the mine we met "Bones," who was authentic Alaska to the core. He lives out there with his small dog, "Snooks," among the bears, caribou, and wolves, sifting through the creek wash for flakes of gold. He showed us about $4000 worth of flakes he'd found in the past week or so.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
We had brought Bones a case of beer, which he threw in the "refrigerator" chest he keeps cool with running creek water. In return, he taught us how to pan for gold. Keith and Doogie seemed most focused on the panning, and they pulled a good dozen or so flakes from the silt. I'm sure Keith would have stayed all day, but we decided to push on toward Flume Creek, which Bones said would be clear, and full of grayling.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
As we switched back and forth across the river, pressing downstream, we were unaware that a storm to the north was dumping more and more water into Alfred Creek. It got dicey. In fact, at one point, Keith got caught by the current when his wheels rolled up on a rock, and the water flipped him -" and his quad. Fortunately, he was okay, but the quad was locked up and wouldn't start. I sat on the riverbank and pressed my hand inside a fresh grizzly bear track as Tim and Doogie worked on the machine. I wanted to be "out there" but this wasn't what I had bargained for. Thank god, Doogie and Tim figured out how to start the quad, and we began limping our way back home. Right when I thought we had the finish line in sight, my worst fears were realized. We came to a small sandy bluff, and each of the others climbed it, no problem. But then it was my turn. I put my quad in low, and started up the grade, but I let loose on the throttle, and the machine flipped back over me. As I was going over, I remembered Glenn's advice to jump away from the quad if ever I felt it going over. I made it most of the way out, but got my legs pinned. "I'm okay!" I shouted as those guys rushed down the hill and lifted the quad off me. It was a total rookie mistake. Totally my fault. I was embarrassed to have inflicted a bit of cosmetic damage on the Grizzly. But they insisted I climb right back on, which I did. And we made it back, a bit battered and bruised, and having never found our grayling … but a heck of a lot wiser for the experience.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Day 7 – Grayling and the "Raptor's Roost"
Since we missed the fishing on Day 6, we decided to really hammer out a long day, on this, our last day of the adventure. We rode out another hunting trail near the Syncline Mountains, and Tim found us an anonymous little feeder creek on the valley floor. He stood watch for bears with his shotgun, as Doogie, Keith and I traded casts at little grayling. They ate dry flies, virtually on every cast. The water was crystal clear, so we could see them hiding along the creek banks. They weren't the largest fish, maybe 12-inchers, but they acted as if they hadn't ever seen flies before. To me, that's the "essence" of fly fishing, every bit as enjoyable as wrestling with the big salmon – total solitude, pristine environment, and delicate casts with dry flies. And that we had tasted both ends of the fly fishing spectrum in such a short timeframe -- all from quads --was a real awakening for me.
Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
We could have landed a hundred fish that day, but we decided to press on. Tim had a special place in mind he wanted to show us. He called it Raptor's Roost. We rode 40 miles round-trip, through bogs, and mud, and across rivers, eventually climbing 2,500 vertical feet to a perch where we looked down on a brilliant double-rainbow.Keith Mulligan
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
Alaska Salmon Fishing by ATV
My personal highlight of the whole trip was that ride. Funny to think that the angler would go to Alaska and have the riding be a highlight. I'd venture to guess the riders probably were keen on the fishing. They let me drive the Rhino with Glenn. The Rhino looks like a golf cart on steroids, but it was all business on this ride. I had a blast. We pulled off the trail at dark, and as we loaded the quads for the last time on Tim's trailer, I saw the Northern Lights for the first time in my life. It was my 40th birthday. Pretty cool. In all, this was one of the best adventures I have ever been a part of. Maybe because it exceeded expectations, maybe because we pulled off the fishing in tough conditions … probably because I did it all and lived to write the story. To be honest, I wasn't exactly a quad loving guy before, and the thought of being in the "promised land" with a bunch of newbie flyfishers didn't exactly have me enthralled. I thought it would be a long trip for an "almost" type of fishing adventure. I was wrong. It reinforced in my mind that the true essence of fishing is becoming less about the fish, and more about the journey – in this case, literally, the ride. We saw loons, eagles, sheep, caribou, moose, hawks, silver salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, pink salmon, grayling, sea lions, whales, and more. I learned some tricks on the fishing side, and learned a ton about riding quads. And I made a handful of good friends. When all is said and done, that's what a perfect Alaska adventure is all about, isn't it?Keith Mulligan