My wife Jody and I have been saving for some time to take a trip to Alaska once we reach 60 years old. As Jody started planning our self guided road trip earlier this year, my only request was to fit in a fly-in fishing lodge trip, if the budget would allow.
Jody has never shown much interest in fishing herself in our 45 plus years of dating and marriage, other than polite interest when I would occasionally pick up a rod or to help me introduce our two daughters to fishing during family week-end camping trips. Even so, she happily agreed to include such a trip. We settled on Wilderness Place Lodge on Lake Creek, 40 minutes northwest of Anchorage by sea plane. Wilderness Place Lodge prides itself in being a full service lodge, but we had no idea what full service would mean when it came to our two day visit. After the quick sea plane flight, landing on the Yetna River, we unloaded and meet our guide, Austin. Austin is a handsome, bright eyed 25 yr old Colorado native whose enthusiasm makes him instantly likeable. We would find out later that this is his first year as a guide in Alaska, although he had been guiding on Colorado rivers since he was a teen. As Austin expertly glides the flat bottom jet boat over the water up the river, weaving around tree ruminants, we float up to the front of the creek side lodge. Just as we touch the dock, two bald eagles take flight from across the creek just over our heads.
After meeting the enthusiastic staff, and ate lunch, we heard spirited stories about the previous nights gathering around the fire pit. Then it was Noah’s (the head guide/lodge manager) turn to assure us that the staff was there to fulfill our needs. Boy he wasn’t kidding; it was hard to go more than 15 minutes before some staff member was checking if we needed anything, anything at all. Noah explains the different fishing opportunities as we walk by the creek, all the time rainbow trout are feeding along the bank.
Everyone’s expectations are different in life and the same is true at a fishing lodge. I’d have to say that the majority of folks who come to Wilderness Place Lodge want to catch the biggest and most fish and compete for bragging rights. I must admit that in years gone by I would be in that group; but this time I just wanted Jody and me to build a memory. Actually, Jody had not planned on fishing at all. Her expectation was to spend alone time with nature and a book. But once she saw the creek, the trout jumping, and the beautiful surroundings, she decided to at least buy her fishing license.
After a quick fitting of waders and boots, provided by the lodge, and a quick lesson by Austin showing Jody how to handle a fly rod, it’s off to wading the creek right in front of our cabin. While Austin was giving Jody some in- water instructions, I was getting reacquainted with a lodge provided fly rod, which I hadn’t held in at least 25 years. As I look up creek and see Jody just beaming as she gets the fly to drift with the current, I see a swirl in the water just ahead. I land a wet fly nearby and strike, fish on, my first native rainbow. Although I’m sure I will remember that moment longer than that fish will, I think he will also remember it. You see, after photos and a quick skillful release by Austin, the fish stayed near the surface while it caught his breath and about that time Jody yells, “look up”, as an eagle circles low overhead. Austin says, “Watch this”. The eagle make another quick circle, quickly diving to the water, talons out, and picks the fish out of the water, who is somehow able to wiggle himself free. All this about 30 feet in front of us. After a few more fish, it’s time to rest and relax in the Adirondack chairs by the freshly mowed creek bank and then to the lodge for gourmet hor-dorves and dinner. While other more die hard fishermen go in search of another King Salmon after dinner, Jody and I relax while watching five bald eagles soar overhead, listening to them talk to each other in their own language, seeing the trout continue to play and watching two beaver do their thing up creek. At some point Jody says, “you know fly fishing is fun, what kind of fishing are we doing tomorrow.”
Up at 5:00 in the boat by 5:30; fog is laying on the river as Austin slides the boat into a promising spot along the river bank, just in time for the 6 am legal fishing time. Lures in the water at 6:00, problem is Jody is struggling to understand how to close the bail on the reel to stop the line feed. When the bail is finally closed, actually only a few seconds, Jody says, something’s wrong, is it suppose to feel like this, I think I’ve got a fish.” Austin and I have a momentary chuckle and then notice the bent rod. Jody has a fish on at 6:01. Thankfully, it was a relatively small King Salmon, about 10 lbs, because Jody was having to learn quickly how to hold the rod, when to crank, when to let the fish have line, how to bring the fish to the net. Somewhere in mid-battle, Jody, who is rarely excited, yells “I’m going to be like Aunt Bee.” Referring to an episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Aunt Bee is trying to impress Opie while fishing but instead she throws her rod in the water and squeals when she sees the fish on her hook. Other fishermen in other boats have been watching, probably laughing and then celebrating with us as the fish is netted, photos taken and fish released. Now it's time for the three of us to celebrate the moment, take a breath, have some coffee, and relive the last few minutes. As we watch a mommy duck with 10 little ones paddle across the rivers swift current, expertly bobbing and weaving to avoid the boats, until they all reach the opposite shore, a warm breakfast is delivered by boat from the lodge. As we admire the beauty of the fog lifting off the river – wham- Jody has another fish on, this one is obviously bigger. As she gets it under control, I gently reach over her shoulder and cradle the rod in my hand, just in case the fish is able to pull the rod from her hands, or she turns into Aunt Bee again. Needing no help, Jody slides this one into the net like a pro. By now, Jody is feeling sorry for me and apologizing for having caught everything, making at least some effort not to rub it in. And would you believe it, in what seems like just enough time to recover, Jody is barely able to hold onto the rod when her third fish almost doubles the rod. In the few seconds it took to get in the fighting position and Austin and I prepare to help, the fish makes a mighty run down river and is gone. A short battle won by a worthy opponent, everything’s good.
With a smile on all our faces, it’s time to head to the lodge (remember it’s about the experience, not the most fish) for lunch where Jody decides to sit by the creek with nature and a book and I want to go after more rainbow. I’m far from being an experienced angler with a fly rod, but Austin and I wade up creek, rod in hand, with a dry fly that Austin had made, tied to the leader. “Put the fly right there under that bush and let’s see if anybody is hungry,” says Austin. On my second cast – fish on. The rainbow is strong, darting through the water faster than I can believe, jumping at least to the top of our heads, giving me the experience I had always dreamt about.
That same scene continued for the next 2 hours! Austin is pointing out the “good water” as we moved from spot to spot on the beautiful creek. With the wisdom of a good guide, he let me set the pace, instructing only when it was needed. Until, on my last fish I did it all. I saw the good water, put the fly there, watched as the trout rose for a snack, set the hook and landed him after a spirited fight. This was my biggest fish so far, photo and release. As we move to the next spot, I can’t imagine how it could get any better, so I tell Austin “I’m ready to go back, my dream has come true”. As we return to the lodge, Jody greets us. I have a lump in my throat as I try to explain just how great it was. (I get that same lump in my throat as I type this, reliving the moment.)
With my early return, we have time to relax in the center of the camp around the unlit fire pit. Jason, the owner of the lodge, comes over and offers to start a fire although it’s not really needed. Always someone with questions, I ask Jason how he happened to own a fishing lodge in Alaska. That turned into a very interesting story and then as if he had been a tour guide in a past life he began to rattle off informative facts about Alaska, both local and beyond. After another gourmet meal and more time with the eagles and beavers, Jody and I retire to the comfort of the cabin where I have apparently suddenly learned to snore with the best of them. Jody finally gives up on trying to sleep and at 3 am takes a book out by the creek where she easily reads with no artificial lighting, you see it’s just a few days before summer solstice so it never really gets dark. Keeping her company were the sounds of the eagles and the beaver slapping their tails on the water as they work the creek.
It’s our last day, it’s 5am and I’m up and ready to go King fishing. Jody has finally gotten a little sleep and as I give her a peck on the cheek to get her up, she looks up and says, “I’ve got my fish, you go get yours.” Off Austin and I go. Arriving at the spot of Jody’s triumph, we discover the water doesn’t look as fishable today. Searching for the perfect spot for me, the normally cheerful Austin gets grumpy when we discover a few boats have blocked one of the creeks making it impossible for anyone else to fish there. Finally our third choice is available. We anchor up and wait for the 6 am lure drop.
By now, Austin and I have bonded so as we discuss life and what really matters the most, it happens. One second we are talking, the next we are in blissful panic. Keep a tight hold on the rod as the King Salmon peels off line, try to keep him from swimming under the tree hanging in the water, get the anchor up, start the motor, hold on as the fish pulls the boat and us down the creek. Although I know Austin is one of the new guides at the lodge, I would find out later that Jody and I are his second group to take out in Alaska. With youthful enthusiasm he is EXCITED and it’s thrilling to watch. He was so excited and wanted so much to see me get my fish, at one point in the fight, I told him (as if talking to the son I never had) “I’ve got this fish, just relax and we’ll enjoy this together.” Just like the day before with the rainbow, my dream had come true, except to return to the lodge and show off my trophy to Jody who I discover is still asleep. So I quietly step into the cabin, give her another peck on the cheek and say, “I got my fish.”
After breakfast in the lodge, a relaxing shower, and more relaxing creek side, Jody, Austin and I are off to the sea plane. As we board and say good-bye to our new young friend and climb above the river and trees, the pilot ask, “How was your visit to the lodge” to which I had only one word. “Perfect”. And it was. Until - about an hour down the road from Anchorage in the rental car, Jody breaks the silence when she says, “Is there anywhere near home where we can go fly fishing.” I smile and think, “More perfect”.
- Perry Holbrook, Asheville, NC