Trout Unlimited Chapter Fishing Trip to Alaska
August 31 - September 7, 2008
A personal account
by Walter Kononenko
Our fishing trip to Alaska came about because of one man, Mike Wilson. For several years now, Mike has been talking
about a trip of a lifetime to Alaska.
In the past, Mike has organized and led yearly fishing trips out West (to the Rockies) for our Southeastern
Montgomery County Trout Unlimited Chapter. The year 2008 would be a milestone year for Mike, he would reach his 60th birthday.
What better way to celebrate for a hardened trout flyfisherman than to go to the best place in the world and that,
of course, would be Alaska. So with enthusiasm and determination, and lots of time spent researching for the best place,
type of trip and fishing available, Mike settled on Rainbow Point Lodge on Lake Iliamna in the southwestern part of Alaska.
Lake Iliamna is the 11th largest freshwater lake in North America and it flows out to the Pacific Ocean at Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay is famous for its unique and tremendous salmon fishery; it's world renowned.
After many conversations with owners, Brad Hughes and Mark Higgens, Mike decided on Rainbow Point Lodge.
We were able to reserve the entire lodge for one week, the first week in September.
An equally enthusiastic group within our TU Chaper with similar ambitions and the realization that an
opportunity like this does not come along often made up the group. That is, a group of friends who fish together
and enjoy life and adventure chasing wild beautiful fish in equally beautiful wild places.
Seven of us went on this trip. It should also be mentioned that without the support and understanding of our wives and
family the Alaskan fishing trip would not have been possible for most of us. We wholeheartedly thank our wives for
their love, support, and understanding.
The TU Chapter members that made the trip were Mike Wilson, Al Kahoun, Dick McKinny, Mike Mulray, Tom Flannery,
Jorge Santiago-Aviles and me, Walter Kononenko.
It should be noted that this trip was to coincide with the sockeye salmon spawning season and would be mainly to
catch the wild Alaskan rainbow trout. The State of Alaska protects these fish and they along with the arctic char
and dolly vardens are all under catch-and-release regulations. The salmon were not under these regulations, but
because of the late spawning of the sockeye salmon, their quality was not suitable for eating. So the bottom line
would be that we would have a wonderful fishing experience catching the world famous rainbow trout and sockeye salmon,
stay at the perfect lodge, fly in floatplanes over spectacular country, raft down fish-filled rivers, see grizzlies and
eagles, and experience wild Alaska at its best. But, we would not bring any fish home from the trip. The trip was
an unquestionable success because of these reasons and the camaraderie of our group and the first class people at
the lodge. What a trip! This indeed was a trip of a lifetime.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
The trip started with everyone getting to the Philadelphia International Airport early
in the morning (4:30 AM) and on time.
We flew United Airlines to Anchorage with a stopover and plane change at O'Hare Airport.
Both flights went smoothly. The flying times were about 2 hours to Chicago and 6 additional hours to Anchorage.
The most memorable sight was flying over the mountains and seeing the rivers of glaciers before landing in Anchorage.
All luggage arrived safely at the luggage ramp and we were greeted by a striking image of a grizzly.
I brought along my Garmin GPS and noted that my house in Pennsylvania was 3367 miles from the Puffin Inn in Anchorage.
We checked out of the Puffin Inn and took 2 taxis over to Iliamna Air Taxi building at the Anchorage Airport.
The Iliamna Air Taxi's plane was a Pilatus A20, an 8 passenger modern flying machine.
We took a group photo in front of the plane.
Our destination on this leg was the village of Iliamna, which is located on the north
shore of Lake Iliamna near the Newhaven River. The clouds were heavy and we did not see much flying to Iliamna.
The flight took 45 minutes.
After landing and gathering our luggage, a pickup truck took us to a small lake next to the Iliamna airport.
On the shore we boarded two floatplanes, one, the larger one, a De Havilland Beaver, and the other a Cessna 206.
The Beaver is part of the Iliamna Air Taxi fleet and the Cessna belongs to the Rainbow Point Lodge and was piloted by
Brad Hughes, one of the owners of the lodge.
After a short flight we landed in front of the lodge. What a wonderful sight. As the plane docked the guides and staff
greeted us, introduced themselves and took our gear to the lodge.
Guides Tim and Mike were to take the four of us to the Gibralter River
about an hour's ride from the lodge. The day continued to have heavy clouds with some wind and light rain.
We powered out on a lake boat towing one of the smaller fishing aluminum boats.
We went by the native village Kakhonak on the way to the Gibralter River. Once at the river mouth
we tied up the big boat to the shore and the guides untied the smaller boat. The wind and rain started
to get a little stronger. We started to see live, dying and dead sockeye salmon everywhere in the river.
Our guide Tim took turns taking us up river. First Tim took up guide Mike and Mike Mulray and Tom,
then came back to take Jorge and me.
The Gibralter was cold and not clear, due to the heavy overnight rain. Tim rigged up our flyrods
with an orange plastic bead and a bare hook. I took my Sage 5-weight 4-piece rod with a 6-weight floating line.
Jorge had his 8-weight travel rod. We used the nymphing technique by casting upstream to allow a natural drift
for the bead, which represented a floating single sockeye egg. The sockeye were in full spawning mode.
Our target were the rainbow trout feeding off the loose eggs from the sockeyes.
That afternoon both Jorge and I caught about a half-dozen fish each. I caught only one rainbow about 15-inches in length and
this was the largest trout that I ever caught up to now. I also caught about 5 sockeyes,
both male and female, on this bead egg, all beautifully colored deep red with the characteristically
green disfigured jaws for the males. It was amazing to see so many salmon spawning, some chasing one another
while others were slowly dying to become the nourishment for the creatures that make up this Alaskan ecosystem.
With Tim at the wheel Mike jumped out of the boat and tried to push the boat off the sand, but could not do it.
The wind was just too strong. Now Tim turned off the motor, jumped overboard and both guides pushed the boat as
far as they could walk, about 6 feet, allowing Tim to get back into the boat to start the motor. It took a few
moments to get the motor to start, meanwhile the wind was pushing the boat back to the sandbar. At that critical
moment as Tim got control of the boat Mike was pushed under the boat for a few moments. As Tim backed the boat
away from the sand bar Mike popped out of the water on the other side of the boat. We then quickly got Mike into
the boat who was completely wet. It was still cold and windy outside, and fortunately the big boat has a cabin.
The cabin was big enough to shelter the four of us from the wind and the rain. Mike was cold, real cold.
Tim gave him his sweatshirt to keep warm. There were whitecaps on the lake. In about an hour we would
be back at the lodge without further incidents.
What an introduction to Alaska!
Dinner that evening was just perfect. Brad was the chef and Jess was the server. We had an exciting
conversation over an excellent meal.
I also found out that evening that our guide, Tim Pearson, has extraordinary artistic talent. A few of his paintings
and drawings were displayed on the lodge's walls.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
At 8:00 AM we were served a hearty breakfast consisting of eggs, bacon, orange juice and coffee. Tim told us this morning that our group was to do the float, that is, to float down the upper Copper River in 2 rubber rafts. Brad flew Jorge and me in his Cessna up to Fog Lake over some beautiful Alaskan terrain. Earlier Brad flew the two guides, Tim and Mike, then Mike Mulray and Tom Flannery, including the two rafts, two coolers and an air pump and deposited them out the outflow of Fog Lake to the Copper River. The floatplane banked quickly and settled nicely on the lake. Brad taxied up to Tim and the raft and we got out with our gear. Brad then quickly turned around and nicely took off to fly back to the lodge. It was overcast and would rain thoughout the day. It was cold, but not bad because we had the proper clothing and gear.
As Tim quietly rowed the raft down the outlet channel he pointed out a couple of northern pike sitting undisturbed
in the water weeds.
At the junction where Fog Lake meets the Copper River we got out and on the first cast Jorge hooked up
with a large rainbow.
At the next stop, along a long riffle, about 100 feet downstream from Jorge's rainbow, I also caught a
nice big rainbow.
The sockeye were everywhere, especially in the riffles. There were still numerous healthly, active and strong sockeyes all around us. They were all in their characteristic red spawning colors. We also saw many dead and dying sockeyes as well. The dead fish were being washed up on rocks and on pebble islands. The seagulls were quietly enjoying the easy meals. We continued to catch the rainbows all day long. We found the rainbows lining up behind the spawning salmon just waiting for the free-floating eggs to come by. I caught a lot of rainbows, many with pretty parr markings, and again I was amazed at their unwillingness to give up.
We continued to be awed by the Alaskan wildlife. We saw a baldheaded eagle fly close overhead and I
tried to photograph him as he flew by. Mike Wilson, Al Kahoun and Dick McKinney saw several
bears and Mike photographed a sow with 3 cubs crossing the Copper River where they were fishing.
When it was time for lunch the shore lunch consisted of grilled cheeseburgers, chips and cold soda and
refreshing water. Not bad in the wilds of Alaska.
The only unfortunate incident this day was the momentary submersion of my new digital camera, a
Canon SX100 camera bought especially for this trip. This happened when I slung the camera on my left wrist
while kneeling down in the water for a water level photograph of Jorge and his nice rainbow with his camera.
I shook off the water and did not use the camera for the rest of the trip.
The camera has since recovered and is working again.
We floated through some beautiful water, along cliffs and over waterfalls, riffles, and over a section
where rocks were colored blue green, hence the name Copper River. When we neared the lower part of the
Copper River, there was guide Bob Cannella from the lodge with 3 aluminum boats each equipped with
30 hp waterjet motors. We transferred out and they ferryed us back to the lodge.
That evening we had another delicious meal of steak, salad, baked potato, string beans and finished up with chocolate
cream pie and coffee. When Dick McKinny mentioned that he was not going to eat his pie, Mike Wilson
without hesitation volunteered to take it off his hands. For the rest of the week Mike was known
as "Double Pie Mike". As you can see, our group was enjoying the moment.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Heavy rain overnight. We headed up the lower Copper River and fished hard all day.
The rain stayed with us most of the day and it was heavy at times. Fishing,
on the other hand, was pretty good. We caught some very nice big rainbows and a bunch of smaller 'bows.
A lot of the smaller 'bows had parr markings on their sides. And these
little guys fought just as hard as their older and heavier relatives.
Occasionally we would catch a rainbow with much lighter color, almost silver without the dark spots on its sides.
Tim explained, that these were 'chromers', which are rainbows locally called just arriving fresh from Lake Iliamna.
Jorge and Tim with a magnificent Alaskan rainbow
Brad Hughes prepared another delicious dinner of ribs, corn and potato salad, followed by pineapple topped
cake and coffee. That evening Dick only gave up half of his dessert to Double Pie Mike.
After dinner we all relaxed in the main room with a fire in the fireplace. Our group enjoyed a good conversation with Brad, Jess, and the guides. We found out that Tim is a very talented artist with an unique way of painting portraits of the wild fish we go after. Tim's paintings or prints were on the walls in the lodge. They were large paintings of trout breaking through dark water chasing a fly. The excitement of the chase comes right at you and also Tim's love for these fish is obvious. Even Jess was proud of Tim's artwork and told us of other paintings Tim has been currently working on. One especially over a two year period, of a brown trout. (See the link in the footnotes at the end of this report for a newspaper article on Tim.) We slept well that night.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
The morning was a clear and beautiful sight. We had the usual excellent breakfast. We then motored out on a mirror-smooth lake.
The fishing for this day was to be superb. Everyone caught lots of fish: small, medium and large rainbows.
Dinner that evening was another wonderful meal of scallops and shrimp followed by chocolate
custard pie. Double Pie Mike was at it again.
Friday, September 5, 2008
Again another excellent breakfast.
Today our group, with guides Mike and Tim, would fly up to Fog Lake in Brad's Cessna floatplane and float down the Copper River the second time. What a treat!
We had unbelievable fishing on the upper Copper River. All of us caught numerous rainbows. We all lost numerous rainbows many right before the net or jumping right out of our hands. These trout are amazing! So strong, fast and never give up, from little guys to big bruisers.
I caught another 24-incher, several in the 22 - 23-inch range, 8 to 10 in the 18 - 22 range and over a dozen little guys, both with parr marks and chromers. We fished two or three unbelievable runs where the sockeyes were spawning on the upper Copper River. The rainbows were found laying always a short distance behind the spawning pairs of sockeyes. Floating a bead egg down with the current without any drag would inevitably hook up with a rainbow trout. As usual, we had our hot shore lunch with the two rafts coming together. After relaxing and enjoying the moment we went back to fishing.
The highlight of the day was the surprise sighting of a grizzly bear coming up to Tom maybe 30 feet away
on the opposite bank. Mike
Mulray caught sight of the bear and brought him to our attention. Our guide Tim immediately called out
Tom's name and caught the attention of both Tom and the grizzly. Upon hearing the noise the grizzly stood
up on his hind legs to survey the situation and at the same time, Tom saw the bear. What an awesome sight -
the size and huge head! Luckily the grizzly quickly turned and disappeared into the bush and Tom came
running toward us a little shaken. That was a close call!
Tim quickly added that we had nothing to fear from this grizzly because they are afraid of people. Also this was
a young 'teenager' bear.
Tim calmly told us that these grizzlies are really wild and at this time of year they are mainly
interested in eating salmon. During all these days along the Copper River we have been seeing bear
signs and scat everywhere so it was only a matter of time before we would see one or two along the stream.
Both Tim and Mike carry pepper spray, but that's only good for close distance and with the wind at your back.
Tim has never used the spray in all the time he has been guiding. These are wild bears. It was interesting
to hear Tim say that this bear is safe or that bear he didn't like because the way the grizzly was looking
at us. Our guides did not carry guns.
I have a lot of respect for our guides, for their fishing knowledge as well
as their safety concern and responsibility for their clients.
Let's hope that the Alaskan people and their state and local governments have enough sense not to allow such a large
open pit mine in this sensitive area; it would be an accident waiting to happen.
Today the salmon and the trout and the Bristol Bay ecosystem is a national treasure and should be protected for future generations. It will be short-sighted to allow short-term profit to spoil this national treasure for America's future generations. However the mood was pessimistic, as Dick McKinney keeps saying ... "Money talks and bullshit walks". It's greed - pure and simple greed - that drives the Pebble Mine. Short-term gain and to hell with the future!
Double Pie Mike gathered our collective tip money for the guides and for Jess, our server and housekeeper. We took another group photo with guides Tim and Mike. A nice photo of Jess was also taken.
Saturday September 6, 2006. Last day fishing and return home.
At ~ 8 AM the usual great breakfast.
We all felt that the week's vacation was coming to a close. The day was starting out with threatening scattered nimbus clouds.
Weather reports indicated that a cold front was coming in late afternoom. All of us, in four boats with our respective guides
went out for the last day's fishing. We made the usual run to the Copper River at 20 miles/hour. Our boat was the first one
from our lodge on the river. This morning we were to see 3 grizzlies. Tim quickly saw two from a distance coming in on the lower Copper River.
We were not ready to photograph them for they quickly disappeared into the bush. Then right on the river on a clear bank we went
by one medium-sized grizzly and while trying to zoom in on him, I could not locate the bear on the camera fast enough with the end result
of a missed photo. At least we did see the bears this morning and this is because our boat was the first one on the river.
These grizzlies are wild and they are hunted in this area so their instinct is to avoid humans. I believe that our guide
Tim never had to use the pepper spray in a dangerous situation on the Copper River, but it was interesting how quickly
Tim was able to 'read' the bears whether the bear would be a threat or not.
We drifted the egg bead all morning catching a few small rainbows. I hooked into and brought in my last
large rainbow, a heavy 20-incher, and photographed him for prosperity. Things started to slow down so
Tim suggested we change techniques, so we switched from nymphing to drifting a leech streamer.
Jorge was quite familiar with the method and was successfully hooking up with a few rainbows, the last one was quite large. Took photos.
Walt's last rainbow caught on the Copper River
Our TU Chapter showing the banner.
Left to right: Jorge Santiago-Aviles, Tom Flannery, Mike Mulray, Dick McKinny, Mike Wilson, Walt Kononenko and Al Kahoun.
Iliamna Air Taxi picked us up in the 4-passenger De Havilland Beaver piloted by a grizzly bushpilot, a big no-nonsense pilot. He expertly piloted the Beaver into the village of Iliamna's landing lake. The airport pickup was waiting there and took us to the airport. Our group was put on an earlier flight to Anchorage because of the anticipated bad weather. We immediately boarded Iliamna Air Taxi's bigger plane, the Pilatus A12 and flew over to Anchorage without any problems. The clouds were building and we flew in the rain, but the flight was pretty smooth. We felt very safe in the Pilatus.
We landed in Anchorage at Iliamna Air Taxi's area and took a taxi to the main terminal. There we checked in with Delta Airlines and went through airport security without any problems. Our second group of four people arrived right when we were starting to board the plane, just in the nick of time. Mike Wilson mentioned that flying over from Iliamna was a little rougher than our flight. Anyway, we were all together on the plane with our luggage and were flying back home. The Delta flight from Anchorage was to take us to Atlanta first, a 6 hour flight. The Delta flight left at 7:50 PM and arrived in Atlanta after 6 AM Atlanta time. We had dinner and frequent beverages and a smooth flight. From Atlanta we took a Delta connecting flight to Cincinatti, then finally a Delta Connection flight to Philadelphia. All flights were smooth, just a long tiring trip home. Our group and our luggage arrived safely to Philadelphia. We were glad to be back home.
Just a few words about Jess. Jess was the only female at the lodge. Jess is Tim's girlfriend.
Jess was an important asset to the lodge providing a congenial atmosphere in a rough wild place.
Her presence gave the place a family feeling and kept the men on their best behavior.
She is indeed a delightful young lady. It was a pleasure interacting with her. Everyone of our group
felt the same way about her. She is also an artist in her own way. Jess makes jewery on a small scale.
She has been making earrings, bracelets and pendants with a flyfishing theme consisting of beads,
wire and feathers. Very unique and quite attractive.
Brad Hughes is the local man in charge of Rainbow Point Lodge. He is one of the owners, the chef and the pilot of the lodge's float plane. As noted in my account above, the general apperance, the organization and the guides of the whole operation are superb. The meals were first rate. The server Jess was delightful, and the many conversations after dinner were enjoyable. We slept well. We had the comforts of home. Brad's lodge and people have left a memorable impression on us. A place we certainly would love to return to someday.
Brad Hughes plane is a Cesna 206 floatplane, built in 1958. Everything inside the plane has been updated with the current technology. It felt confortable and safe. A wonderful experience flying in and landing very smoothly on the water. Brad would not take his plane up in questionable and bad weather.
What else can I say. It was a great trip. For me it was a trip of a lifetime. We saw wild Alaska, fought with formidable trophy rainbows, stayed at the lodge perfectly suited for our group and in the process had plenty of fun with adventure thrown in and all of us returned safely to civilization. This Alaskan experience could not have happened to a nicer group of friends.
Tim Pearson's website and an article about
Tim from his home paper with additional links to his paintings and drawings.
In TU book "America's 100 Best Trout Streams" by John Ross has a nice description on Copper River and its rainbows.
October 31, 2008