Breta and I were visiting my old medical school roommate, Claude Galphin, and his wife Ginny at their home in Beaufort last summer. Over a wonderful meal and a bottle of wine, we were discussing Claude’s second love, fly fishing. He has traveled all over the U.S. and fished saltwater and mountain streams for about a decade.
Our conversation veered slightly to talking about bucket list things to do. He instantly said that fly fishing the streams of Bristol Bay, Alaska, before the proposed copper mine destroys it was the one thing he had always wanted to do. He just didn’t know anyone that wanted to go with him. I blurted out,” I’ll go!” I think I surprised all of us. I have never been fly fishing.
Claude is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and if it took someone to volunteer in order for him to achieve a dream, I was willing to do it, but I didn’t know if he took me seriously at the time. All doubts were erased about a month later when I got an email asking me to help pick out a trip to one of several fishing lodges on the tributaries of Bristol Bay. When all was said and done, I deferred to Claude and he to other experienced fly fishers, and Tikchik Narrows lodge was selected.
Tikchik Narrows is an old lodge that sits on 17 acres of the only privately owned land in a vast National Wildlife refuge and park. The closest road is about 60 miles away. The only access is by float plane. It was a long trip, and as suggested by the lodge, we spent the first night in Anchorage before getting up the next morning to catch a charter flight to Dillingham, a one hour truck ride to a remote lake, where we finally loaded our gear on a 1952 de Havilland Beaver float plane for the final leg to the lodge. Our return trip was all done in one day (26 hours for me) and I wouldn’t recommend that to any of you entertaining a similar journey.
I sort of dozed off but awoke when I heard the moan of the big rotary engine throttle back. I looked out the right window and saw our home for the week. The lodge was an assortment of buildings on a tiny island in the middle of a narrow stretch of water between two lakes. After storing our gear in a cabin, we went to the lodge dining room for drinks and to get acquainted with the staff and fellow clients. We were briefed on what to expect for the rest of the week. Each night after dinner, we were assigned our guide and pilot for the next day, and though it didn’t get dark until midnight, we were advised to close the curtains and get some sleep. We found we would need it as breakfast was at 6 a.m., the planes would leave the dock at 7:30 a.m. and we would be wading or fishing from a jon boat all day until our return before 6 p.m. for dinner that night.
Basically, the way the whole thing works is that there were six groups of four people. Tikchik has about 10 different locations that they can fly into. At each of these locations, there are three guides that have set up camps that they maintain for the three-month fishing season. As each group flies a float plane into these streams early in the morning, the guides ready the boats for a day of fishing. Sometimes, depending on the size of the stream and the number of jon boats available, only two groups will fish. Other times, six fishermen and a pilot will load up the de Havilland Beaver with what I consider a very heavy load and fly through mountain passes that make you want to close your eyes.
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Once in the boat, the guides will often simply walk it down the streams with the two fishermen casting flies on both ends. Other times, we would get out and wade the rock bars, casting into eddies behind rapids or in pools behind spawning salmon. The rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and grayling set up just downstream of the salmon and gulp down eggs. The salmon don’t like this very much, and there are often 20- and 30-pound fish jumping out of the water or chasing the smaller predators between your legs. Speaking of predators, we only saw one bear on the streams while fishing. There were nearly always big brown bear tracks and wolf tracks on the sandbars. Some were very fresh as demonstrated by slowly springing grass in the impressions or freshly eaten salmon, but we never felt at risk while in the streams.
Many people ask what we caught or how many fish. The answer is maybe 100 fish per day between Claude and me. I can remember on one stream when Claude caught 20 Dollys on 20 consecutive casts in one hole. What we caught depended on which stream we flew out to fish. Depending on what the other groups were doing and our preferences, we would be sent to a different stream each day. One day, we would catch a mixture of trout, Dollys and grayling. The next day, it would be almost exclusively Dolly Varden, the next almost all 2-foot-long rainbow trout. I kept eyeing the beautiful mount of a 40-inch Northern Pike on the wall of the lodge. On the next to last day of fishing, a Thursday, I told Claude to go ahead and fly out -- I wanted to fish the lake for pike.
Claude, being the courteous friend that he is, elected to stay behind with me. Our guide Aaron was assigned to take us out into the lake the next morning. It was good not to be in waders and I felt a little more secure floundering around in the boat without them on. This was new fishing for Claude as he had never had a spinning rod in his hand before. On the third cast with a large spoon, I hooked a 34-inch pike. The strike was vicious. I told the guys my bucket list for the week was complete and they laughed. We moved between the two lakes and caught a couple of dozen pikes. Claude even hooked a couple on flies.
On the last cast I made before we were to motor back to the lodge for lunch, my rod was almost snatched out of my hand. A few minutes later, we landed a 40-inch northern pike. My trip was complete! As an aside, it was good that Claude got to practice with the spinning rod because the next day we flew to the coast and used them almost exclusively to catch a limit of silver salmon.
After lunch, we trolled for lake trout with little success but had time to talk and get to know Aaron better. He had some stories about growing up in Minnesota and was really interested in some of my African hunting tales. We ended the afternoon in the narrow straight between the two lakes where the water picks up a lot of velocity as it flows over a huge slab of rock. There we caught arctic grayling with nearly every cast. It was ridiculous.
As I mentioned, the last day of fishing took us to the very lower end of the Nushe River where the silver salmon had just accumulated for the swim upstream that would end their life cycles. When salmon enter the stream to spawn, their digestive tracts shut down and deteriorate. They can’t eat even if they want to. The only way to catch them is to elicit a predatory reflex strike by pumping a flashy spoon right in front of their snouts. As wave after wave of silvers passed by, we would cast our spin rigs out and flutter them across shallow water. The strikes would come in clusters. The spawn was just starting and it took us a couple of hours to catch our limit. Those fish were about 10 pounds each and could really fight. It was fun, and these were the only fish of the whole trip that we were allowed to keep and bring home. There is an old saying that a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work. I am inclined to agree with this sentiment. We, however, didn’t have a bad day fishing. Every day was a new experience for me, and every day brought more caught fish than I have caught in a good year at home.
The trip home began Saturday at 8 a.m. when we were kicked out of our cabins to make room for an incoming group of corporate people. We sat in the lodge and settled our accounts for a couple of hours. At 11 a.m., we were loaded on the float planes for the hour-long trip to a lake above Dillingham, where we caught a 45-minute ride to the Dillingham airport where we sat for two hours to catch our hour-and-a-half charter flight to Anchorage, where we sat for 5 hours for our 7 hour flight to Atlanta, where we sat for 4 hours for our flight to Columbia. I think you get the picture. I didn’t bring any fish home with me because they weren’t guaranteed to make the 26-hour trip without thawing. My wife throws food out if I stop between the grocery store and home, so I knew better than to pay the $200 for an extra bag. If you spend an extra night in Anchorage and have the fish refrozen for the trip to Atlanta, it would work well, but then, that is another $500 for hotel, meal and baggage fee, so we just came home without the fish.
I can’t thank Claude enough for encouraging me to go on this trip with him. Time has changed a lot of things, but it’s wonderful to know 50 years later, you can resume a relationship with a childhood friend as if those years haven’t passed. We are different people than we were when we went to grammar, junior high, high school, college and medical school together. We have both established practices, had families and grandchildren since then. The bond that brought us together a lifetime ago is still stronger than time, and this trip was perhaps the time of our lives.
Dr. John Rheney has been writing an outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.