How often to you get to cross an item off your Bucket List? My items are all fishing related, of course, and Labor Day weekend was something more than just an “epic” adventure. It was more like Ulysses’ travels in The Odyssey and The Iliad. If you are faint of heart beware this is going to be very, very, very long and picture OBESE.
My partner at work, Bob Cassell, is a rabid pilot and sheep hunter…..he flies all over Alaska every year looking for “the big one” in one of his little planes. We had talked about what I would love to fish for here in Alaska and on the top of my list has always been sheefish on the Kobuk River…..over 500 miles north of Anchorage.....above the arctic circle. He did some looking around on one of his hunting trips and we were going to give it a go on Labor Day weekend….weather permitting….which has been a big “if” this summer. We figured allowing for Friday thru Monday we had some wriggle room to get in a day or two of fishing and still get back to work on Tuesday.
Friday morning Bob gives me a call and says to head on over to his house (where his hangar is and the runway) cause the weather looks pretty good. The drive is 45 minutes and it is nice outside:
When I arrive at his house there’s a giant bandaid on his head….right after calling me he whacked his head on a hanging bracket from the wing of his plane. The cut really needs stitches but he won’t put off the trip….tough man (gash is well over an inch long in his scalp and near the bone). Anyone who’s ridden in the back seat of an old piper cub raise his hand? There is not much space back there for a normal human….let alone me…an identical twin for the Pillsbury dough boy. Weight is not so much a problem as volume…so having overpacked I took my second set of warm weather clothes out and everything just fits. This includes the tents strapped to one wing strut and the table and chairs, with my rod case (ahhhhhhhh), strapped to the other wing strut.
We hop in the overstuffed cub, affectionately referred to as Darth Vader, (well, technically, I wedged myself into the backseat) and off we flew into Bob & Brians’ Big Adventure (nice sounding title for a future movie).
The scenery is always a plus up here and I wasn’t disappointed. About 90 minutes into the flight we go through one of the few passes through the Alaska Range…this is the same mountain range which encompasses Denali (Mt. McKinley for you non Alaskans) which is not that far away. Misty Pass was spectacular, deep and we spotted numerous dall sheep along its slopes.
After the pass I was experiencing severe RLS (restless leg syndrome) and we put down at the native village of Telida….population…..4. The elder statesman came out to greet us and regale us with unending stories….we barely escaped with our sanity much later.
From picturesque Telida we had another 2 hour plus ride before gassing up at the booming metropolis of Galena. The countryside is beautiful and as we head farther north the trees are already beginning to change color:
Now Galena has nearly 700 residents…not sure if this big building is the local version of Walmart or what:
Here we are on final to the giant runway (this used to be a US Air Force satellite base with 4 F-15s stationed there…closed in mid 1990s)….funny thing is we land in the dirt next to the runway. Asphalt is hard on the giant, balloon tires we have on Vader. They even have a little, bitty passenger terminal here:
We gassed up at $8 plus per gallon (there was a cute sign in the passenger room saying the local store was now carrying milk for $11.95 a gallon…whoa) and off we headed for the Kobuk River. Another 2 hours of flying (and the worst TB…tired butt….I have ever experienced) and we found the Pah River…and followed it to the Kobuk. We crossed over a massive gold strip mining operation…nasty what it does to the terrain….and at the far end we fly over this very old gold sluice. A reminder of Alaska’s gold mining past and present:
We hit the Kobuk and did a bit of circling scaring hundreds of sheefish and chum salmon over a short stretch of the river. Bob found a good gravel island to call home and we put down and set up camp. I quelled my naturally overwhelming urge to just rig up the rods and hit the river….it was very, very difficult.
Bob let me use his satellite phone to make a call to the little woman where she had a hard time believing we hadn’t crashed or been eaten by large, woodland creatures…almost sounded like she was disappointed:
As we put up the food tent, and posh separate sleeping quarters I noticed something wrong with my duffel bag. In my excitement to get underway not only did my extra set of clothes get left but most of my clothes…period. My bag only contained 4 tee shirts, 1 long sleeved tee shirt, some underwear but plenty of socks. My only pants were the bluejeans I had on and also a military camo gortex parka. Fortuantely, Bob had 1 extra pair of some plush wader pants and that was it…fortunately I don’t get cold very easy.
After stringing the bear fence around the camp and plane (the amazing thing runs on only 2 AA batteries) we geared up for fishing and walked down to the river.
It was after 6pm but we figured we had a few good hours of fishing time. Fishing the river was much more problematic than it looked from the air. The sheefish prefer deeper, slower stretches which were always on the other side of the river (why? Must be one of Murphys Laws of Remote Fishing). Standard sheefish doctrine said you used large, blue spoons for them. We had to wade quite a ways into the river, which was quite chilly, and then heave a large crocodile spoon across to the other side…..man, that is hard on the index finger with spinning gear….yeoooww. Several casts in and bang, I was fast onto my first sheefish. Was I stoked….after several minutes the fish was beached and the pics started flying:
About 10 minutes later…whack…and a bigger sheefish:
Even though it was a pain wading out so far and deep I was right out there again and a while later hooked my 3rd sheefish…and even though it gave me the only shower I had on the trip I was having the time of my life:
It turned out to be in the 25+ category:
After a few sheefish Bob noticed some smaller fish chasing his big spoon into a shallower back eddy right below us. So he got the light gear and bang…the grayling were on.
(click on video)
I quickly changed rods to so I could get in on some of that action. They are such pretty fish….those dorsal fins are sometimes awesome.
After a few more grayling we decided we better head back to camp for some much needed gourmet dining. Bob set-up the mini gas stove and our chicken avocado fajitas were well on their way to being done.
I changed my wet shirt to one of the tees and put on my parka and we headed back down to the river for about 90 minutes before the light faded.
It wasn’t long before Bob had a nice shee…he took a beach picture and you can see all our rods and the necessary bear rifle…a 45-70….there was also a can of bear spray in my fishing vest pocket.
Another shee cooperated for me:
My next one hit the air three times before relenting and being reeled in:
Took this next one fishing a sinking blue/silver yo-zuri lure I brought:
We switched back to grayling and caught several nice fish.
Then I felt the need to try and catch a few more sheefish and was rewarded with a few very nice ones:
That second one was approaching 30 lbs. Then I caught another in near dark as we waded back up to our island:
Not a bad start for only about 3+ hours….my personal total was 22 grayling and 8 sheefish caught and released….so far the trip was everything I dreamed it would be.
After sitting down in the food tent I savored a nice hot chocolate and Bob had something with a little more octane in it. Then it was time to shed the waders….found my left foot wet due to slow seepage in that foot. Not too bad….a change of socks and a shirt and I was mostly dry for nighty night time. It was time for bed, we were both exhausted, so we crawled in the sleeping bags and that’s the last thing I remember till morning. Funny, Bob didn’t complain about my snoring like my wife always does….told her I’ve never heard it…hehe.
Woke up Saturday morning absolutely stoked for our first full day to fish….YEAH!! Bob cooked some eggs and sausage and we were pounding off to the river again. Bob was dragging behind for silly things like the gun and other rods, etc…..meanwhile I already tagged a couple of sheefish:
As Bob arrived I hooked into a real acrobat:
Bob had a bug up his fanny about the grayling so we caught a mess of the little devils again….even did some flyfishing, which was difficult due to the wind and rain but we managed some grayling on the flyrod also.
Then, mid-morning, after we had molested most of the grayling in the area we decided to get back into the sheefish. We walked about a quarter mile upstream to try a different section. We didn’t find any footprints at all….at least not human ones. The mud was covered with moose, brown bear, black bear and wolf prints.
That last one is a large wolf print next to a bear print…odd traveling companions.
We trudged back out to the middle of the river and within 5 casts had located some more sheefish. After taking a few on the spoon
I decided to start experimenting with other lures….they hopped all over this big, sinking yo-zuri:
After catching a few on it a monster shee…probably in the 40 lbs range…smacked it, jumped twice and took off around a large rock in the river….bummer. Needless to say that was a battle me and the PowerPro lost. I changed to a big Storm, weighted plastic jigging minnow….they liked it too:
Bob and I tagged a nice double next:
Had to add this picture just because it shows my two rods well….not quite finished with some threadwork on the one:
After wading out into the river and catching several sheefish, having to wade back to shore to land them every time, it was getting to be exhausting. Couldn’t even make it to my feet for this one:
Just kind of leaned over for a release pic:
Bob took this amusing picture of the fully equipped remote Alaska fisherman:
It was a bit after noon so we headed back to camp for lunch. We were pretty darn tired and getting quite wet as it had been raining all morning. We drank something hot for lunch and snacked on trail mix and my famous (at least I think it is) smoked Copper River red salmon. After sitting down in my chair in the tent I realized my right boot had been holed high in the shin area as water sloshed down my thighs…..now I was REALLY wet. No matter, what’s a little chill to this kind of fishing….nada. Bob took a little nap and I skipped back down to the river for some grayling action….catching a dozen or so more of the little beasts.
Even popped my first chum salmon with the spinner (panther martin) I was using:
About this time Bob shows up and suggests we try a stretch up river a ways. Hiking up to the end of our island and upstream helped to warm up my legs. As we came around the point of the island, looking upstream we first saw what Bob called “The Rock Garden”:
On the way to the RG we tried a few stretches of water with no success. But as we got up to the first large rocks in the river we started to find sheefish again. The first rocks made me sit in waist deep current and fight it as I fished:
Bob found the fish first:
Then he returned the favor as I hooked my first afternoon fish behind a big rock:
Having been using the spoons almost exclusively…and getting low on supply I decided to use a #6 Vibrax….man they loved the thing. Standing in that heavy water I managed to catch 9 sheefish in 14 casts….unbelievable. This sucker here was a real horse:
Several minutes later I hear a groan from Bob and look upstream to see what’s causing his distress……
Being an astute rod maker for nearly 3 decades it was apparent to me….and I informed Bob of such…..that this rod no longer had a proper “bend” in it…or maybe the bend was too acute. Anyways….made me very happy I had slipped in another mid size spinning rod that he could use.
With this obviously superior rod in his hands Bob immediately scored again:
Bob found a nice stretch right above the rocks where we were in water not so deep and heavy(didn’t have to constantly fight the current) and had a perfect sheefish hole to cast too…even if we did have to wade three quarters of the way across the river. Here we began an unreal period of just slaying the sheefish. For the next 3 hours we wrestled in somewhere around 60 sheefish from this one area….all from 12 to 35 lbs At one point Bob had my camera and told me he was taking video and to start casting…within 3 cranks of the reel handle I was onto a sheefish, then without stopping the video I nailed two more in a row after the first one. He stopped videoing but the streak didn’t stop until 7 in a row.
This was better than I could have imagined….and I imagine a lot. After losing my only blue bodied vibrax I tried a very gaudy yellow/chartreuse bladed one and it was absolutely the bomb.
Bob and I had several double hookups…it was about as wide open as you can get:
Here’s a shee thinking it’s a tarpon and looking like it’s seriously after the flying spoon:
One of the sheefish even mentioned a sore tooth…so I took a look:
Here I demonstrate proper back exercises while standing in deep water with a sheefish on:
After doing this for 4 or so hours we decided to work our way back to camp. Bob had already moved from sheefishing to casting for grayling in a little backwater behind us. I finally succumbed to my aching shoulders after my 53rd sheefish….yep, 53….wow. We fished a smaller backbraid of the river on the way back and caught a couple dozen grayling in there. My camera was fogging up internally at this point due to getting wet so I couldn’t get any pics for a while. We got back to camp and settled in for another fabulous meal at the Kobuk Kafe…..fresh pan fried grayling, smoked salmon with pesto, noodles and all sorts of good stuff. I was absolutely soaking wet inside my waders and wasn’t about to take them off…even though I wasn’t sure my feet were still at the end of my legs….cause I wasn’t sure about being done for the evening.
After dinner Bob did some reading but being the Rabid Fish Whisperer I am, I was back down at the river to catch some more grayling. The camera was still on the fritz but I think enough pictures had been taken. I finally wandered back to camp….my fish count for the day was 53 sheefish, 52 grayling and 1 chum salmon….106 fish….holy cow. At this point taking off the waders was needed….they were partially filled with water….and I was soaking wet. Dragged those off and put on my only pair of dry pants, my last dry shirt and dry socks and underwear…..it was a bit cool walking around in a short sleeve tee shirt but, hey, it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure. I wasn’t looking forward to getting in them tomorrow. Slumber never felt so good.
Had an amusing episode about 4 in the morning….its pitch dark…hopefully the bear fence has kept the wolves at bay….but I really….REALLY had the need to make my bladder gladder by making it flatter. As I agonized over the thought of getting up an out of the bag to relieve myself, Bob opens his eyes and says “I gotta go too”. So we had a little male bonding moment sprinting out of the tent…..relieving ourselves and sprinting back into the sleeping bags back to warmth and blessed sleep.
Sunday morning began with a wonderful breakfast of something….don’t remember….wait it’s coming back to me….I had grapenuts….mmmmm. Originally we had wanted to do a flyout or two to other local areas but so far the weather had prevented that from happening. This morning the ceiling was a bit higher and we decided to head downstream to one of the rivers which dumped into the Kobuk (the Mackalokadosha or something….everything has weird names up here). Our camp looked really tiny from the air:
As we took off you can see our “Rock Garden” area above the island:
It was about a 15 minute ride with naturally spectacular flora:
You’ll have to excuse the foggy plane windows as I had a wet shirt wrapped around the heater hose in an effort to get something dry to wear on the flight out tomorrow. We found a great gravel bar to land on right near the confluence of the strangely named river. Here’s how the bush pilot does it….he does a low and slow right over the landing site to check for unseen bumps, holes, etc
…then comes around and makes the landing.
After putting down I had to sandwich myself out of the back…usually pulling one leg out first… if only I could have hung that leg out while flying I would have been much happier.
This confluence area looked great for sheefish….the 2 rivers joined, there was a set of shallow riffles then a drop into a deep, slow, long hole. We both were chucking the giant #6 Vibraxes and Bob soon had a sheefish (turned out to be the only one at this spot). I kept getting hits but they were light….then I hooked up and brought in a grayling with really big eyes:
Not sure how he got his little mouth around that giant spinner. I proceeded to catch several grayling on the monster spinner so I switched out to lighter gear and a smaller spinner. The grayling were everywhere here…and very dark colored compared to those around where we were camping.
We fished upriver about a half mile but with no success. It was odd finding a nice cabin up here in the middle of nowhere:
After tiring of catching nothing we moved back down to the riffles to catch some more grayling before heading back to camp. We were kind of shocked when 2 big river boats came flying by us….turned out to be a group of locals setting up a moose hunting camp just upriver from where we were….geez, and just when you thought you had the river to yourself…..haha.
We proceeded to catch a herd more grayling at the riffle….some getting close to 3 lbs. (anything over 2 lbs is considered trophy size).
This last one had absolutely beautiful colors and the largest dorsal fin of any we caught:
Even caught me one of the modern, art deco looking chum salmon:
The clouds started dropping back down again so we decided to hoof it back to camp. We sandwiched back into to Darth (you know, if someone could have just squeezed in a little oil we would have known how sardines feel in those tiny cans). On the way back we spotted a moose rummaging in the river:
Got a nice pic of camp and our “landing strip” coming back:
but instead of putting down there we decided to fish the Rock Garden again , and being lazy, we just cruised past our camp and put it down on a gravel bar near the RG.
Yes…the sheefish were still hunkered down in numbers in this section of the river and the catching, and releasing, began almost immediately.
Another of several doubles:
After several sheefish on the big vibrax I decided to try and catch them with everything big I had in my vest. My first was a 30 year old Rapala Jawbreaker (it had several yellowfin tuna to its credit) but all I got with it was sheefish giving me “the fin”. So they had some minute degree of selectivity. But other than that I caught one on just about all the small supply of gear I was carrying.
A big bass crankbait:
A deep running rapala minnow lure:
My biggest shee came after Bob went back to the plane to fish for grayling. She was close to 40lbs:
Bob picked up another one and had to get a nice pic in front of Vader:
A little digression here…we were told spoons were one of the only consistent sheefish lures…..hahaha….FishMythBusters says NOT…here’s what I caught them on:
I think it’s safe to assume if it looks like any kind of substantial meal sheefish will probably try to eat it….now back to the rest of the story.
We tired of the sheefish a little quicker….I was only at 18….and went over to fish grayling in the shallower water behind us. After many Bob decided to take Vader back to camp and I would video his takeoff. As he taxied down the gravel bar a thought deep in the premature senility of my aging brain began to form….now I gotta walk a mile back to camp. Further it dawned on me both the rifle and bear spray were in the airplane…oh great. The only thing going for me was having not bathed in 3 days so I pretty much smelled as bad as the bears. Anyway….I videoed the take off:
Then I slowly fished my way back to camp….catching 25 or 30 more grayling. During most of the time this yearling bald eagle was screeching like a banshee….never did figure out what his problem was:
Camp crept into view without any danger from me becoming bruin poop. Although as I walked down the front of our little island I noticed the water was a few inches higher from yesterday….remember this—it becomes significant tomorrow. Sat down with Bob to a delicious meal of angel hair pasta with left over breakfast sausage in it (and pretty much anything else we could find) and steaming hot Tang (yes, the same stuff the astronauts guzzled in space). I’m not sure if it was due to an airtight wader fit or those fajitas from the first night but I seemed to have BWS….balloon wader syndrome:
It was starting to get a bit dark already but, of course, I had the itch to do a bit more fishing before calling it a day. So I slithered back down to the river and started hammering the grayling again….really laid a beatin on them:
Halfway into the river I was startled to hear a wolf howl on our island….that wacky Bob….he is amazing at certain animal sounds. I didn’t get that worried as wolves were probably not going to wade into waist deep water to try and eat me (although they had a great incentive as my flesh is well marbled). Found another batch of grayling to molest:
As it got darker Bob showed up and we decided to catch a couple of sheefish each to take home. That took a long time…..about 8 casts for 4 sheefish….including a couple of very nice ones.
They have very lean, white, delicate flesh…quite tasty. I quickly filleted the 4 fish and we trekked back to camp. Another cup of hot tang and I was ready to change out of those miserable wet, cold waders and into anything dry around. Bed was absolutely wonderful. Bob had made a satphone call out and the weather was supposed to be clearing come tomorrow….so we could get back home….theoretically.
We both woke about 7am and as Bob got out of the tent he called back for me to get up we needed to close shop in a big hurry. Turns out, overnight, the Kobuk had risen several inches and our nice runway was now a flowing stream…oops.
As I scurried to start getting things torn down Bob was off pacing another direction. He came back and declared the state of emergency temporarily over. He had figured another way we could take off….of course, it required removing some bushes, a few more bumps, etc.. but it was doable. So we ate breakfast and closed down the Kobuk Kafe and pretty much closed down everything and started getting it back on the plane.
Everything was packed in short order….even the idiot in the back seat:
We taxied down our “new” runway, turned around and off we went:
The clouds were still hanging pretty low:
But it was supposed to improve as the day progressed. We followed the Pah River again to the south:
We had 20 to 25 minutes under our belt when the low pass we needed to go through was fogged in….bummer. This necessitated our turning around, going back to the Kobuk, where we found a random bar to land on:
And we just had to sit and wait for the weather to pass….hoping it would. After an hour and half, or so, Bob decided we could give it another shot as the clouds were lifting. One thing about flying with Bob, he knows his planes inside and out, and the weather and doesn’t take chances. Up here that results in a lot of unpleasant endings. So we taxied back around and did our last takeoff from the Kobuk:
Goodbye to the Kobuk…….for now:
We made it through our pass then we were on to Galena. Never got tired of watching the scenery up or back (although my butt got tired):
The blue green stuff is lichen growing up here and Bob tells me the caribou love it….well there is no accounting for taste. We had a bit of a head wind going against us and due to our initial turnback Bob thought we should stop by one of the villages to get a few gallons of gas so we had plenty of reserve getting to Galena. So we lined up and landed at Huslia International Airport…..population 300. No one was at the airport so Bob hoofed it into town (that took an hour) while I made sure no one made off with Darth. He returned on the back of an ATV with the gas…..the local didn’t really want payment for the gas but he was very excited about getting a fresh sheefish on the exchange.
Put in the gas and onto Galena. On the way we spotted a mama moose with her little mooselet:
We gassed up at Galena again…I won’t bore you with any more pictures as you saw everything relevant earlier in this dissertation. All told the gassing up and down ran about $520….not bad for such an adventure.
To the air again and only 2 and half hours from home. The rivers up here really wind around a lot. They put the “Me” in “meander”:
You’ll all be depressed to know at this point my camera was flashing low battery and I was about to run out of juice. I managed one great picture of the north face of Denali as we approached the Alaska Range:
Then the camera was dead……but the ride wasn’t. We got to Misty Pass and the wind was just howling through the pass and its many cross valleys….making for some very dangerous winds. It got my attention as we were bumping along then hit an updraft and yanked the plane sideways….in my mind not to far off of completely sidewise. Oh I was really awake now….could even feel my butt. Bob has a great understanding of flying especially in Alaska and fortunately read the clouds well enough to keep us out of the worst of it. I casually asked him how often he was in weather like this…..couldn’t really hear the reply but I could read his lips….”Never”. But we were committed and after 30-40 minutes of big bumps we were out of the pass back into smooth air…..immediately I lost feeling in my tookus again.
Another quiet hour to home. We were on final to Bob’s gravel landing strip, not far off the runway when an imbecile in a Cessna cut right in front of us….no more than 150 to 200 feet ahead…..then just flew over the runway….what a…..well never mind.
We made it down, unpacked, called my wife who was sure I had died and then made the very satisfied ride home.
Mercifully….we are at end…..thank goodness.