Today we hear from Bryan Whiting on what he and his family learned on their trips to Alaska West in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Today’s post is all about strategies for the trip – we’ll have a follow-up post on what they learned about the fishing. As you can see…they learned a lot!
- A non-stop flight is the best choice to Anchorage: it decreases but doesn’t eliminate the chance for lost luggage. It also minimizes flight time and maximizes fun time.
- Fly at night so you have more daylight hours to fish.
- Reserve everything: plane, hotel, cabin, car, camper, guides, camps, lodges, virtually everything you need. Alaska is very busy in the summer and very expensive. You can also save by reserving early, and early means before January 1.
- Make your plane reservations as soon as you know the dates you will be flying. Not only do flights fill fast, if you want to use your “miles” the number of seats available for use by “miles” is even more limited than normal. You may also have to take the night flights because most view them as least desirable, but that is what you want to do anyway. You can sleep on the plane and fish the next day while others are flying in.
- If you need connections from Anchorage to a intermediary town (Bethel, Dillingham, King Salmon, just to name a few) in order to get to your fishing location or camp, making those reservations early is even more crucial because there are fewer flights and the schedule with your camp may be less flexible
- Airlines will accept reservations 330 days ahead. If your dates are set, figure out when 330 days is and contact the airline that day.
- Preweigh your luggage. The limit is 50 pounds and the overweight fee is significant. A lot of the fancy week long luggage carriers one can find in the catalogs weigh around 20 pounds themselves before you put one thing in them. Alaska airlines has customer weigh stations you can utilize before you get to the counter. If you don’t you may be frantically moving items from one luggage piece to another, at the counter, trying to get them all under 50 pounds. This pretty much messes up your highly planned and organized luggage.
- The best luggage ID is a golf course name tag. They are far more durable and noticeable than the typical. You will be surprised at the number of little airline tags that are lost and how many bags look just like yours. All the fly shops and catalogs carry the same brands. Even if you don’t golf, just go to your local course, tell them what you are doing and they will be glad to make you as many as you need.
- Have rollers on any piece of luggage with any size to it at all. If you are trying to carry one or two 50 pound bags, you will be amazed how much longer the security line feels and how much farther it is to the gate compared to your last business trip with a carryon.
- If you don’t want to spend money on specific fishing luggage/bags and actually want to save over 10 pounds, a hard golf club travel case works extraordinarily well. Our first trip we couldn’t afford to buy any new fishing trip type luggage so we used our golf hard travel cases out of necessity. They worked great. They only weight 5 pounds and we packed our stuff in gym bags (small duffles) which when full, were about the same diameter as the case. Each golf case held 3-4 gym bags. We separated items according to when we would need them. Consequently, when we were in Anchorage and fishing on the Kenai before we went to the Alaska West camp we didn’t have to unpack and repack everything each night. When we got to Bethel (which was our intermediary point) and had to transfer our stuff to the small prop plane to fly to the camp (when the hard case would not work well), the air charter company took the gym bags out, threw them in the plane and kept the hard cases in their office awaiting our return. The air charter people liked that approach better than the big fishing luggage because they could stuff the smaller bags in corners, etc. (Just make sure you have an ID tag on each small bag).
- Don’t lock your luggage. TSA will cut off your locks or break them open as they go through checked baggage and your baggage will not be locked. Instead use the plastic zip ties you can buy in any hardware store. TSA will just cut them, do their searching and put on new zip ties. Your luggage will be locked and you will know which bags TSA looked through.
- Don’t put your rods in a separate rod carrier if you are going to check it as baggage and not carry it on. A friend who works for Frontier says the small 4-5 inch diameter of a rod carrier is easily caught in the baggage moving equipment and you might as well put a sign on your carrier which says “thousands of dollars here.” Carry them on or check them in your luggage. Most of the fishing trip luggage is big enough to handle such. The golf travel case worked well for us because it is long and the rod cases slipped right beside the athletic bags. My Frontier friend also said the golf case idea is good because they obviously think it’s a set of clubs and it’s hard for the dishonest types to quickly snatch a whole set of clubs. Also most clubs now have serial numbers which makes them harder for a thief to market compared to a fly rod on ebay.
- You can save some money on your car rental if you do so away from the airport. Several of the name rental companies also have offices proximate to the airport hotels and also downtown. Most of the hotels have 24 hour shuttles that can pick you up. Then if there is a rental car office nearby you can either walk, or in some case they will come get you. Not only is the rental fee somewhat less expensive away from the airport, you also avoid all the airport facility and use taxes which can add up fast.
- The independent car rental offices are even one notch cheaper, but can be harder to reserve ahead of time and their offices tend to be open less hours.
- One the days we were in Anchorage we found it handy to stay in one of the many hotels within 5 minutes of the airport. There is quite a variety in both style and cost. If you are a little late because of traffic or whatever, from going to the baseball game, going to the Alaska Heritage Museum, the Saturday market or some other activity downtown, it’s not a big deal. If you are late to your flight out to your fishing camp or home, that is not so good. You are on vacation. Eliminate the possibility of the stress associated with the airport. Most have 24 hour shuttles which will take you 5 minutes to get to the airport.
- If you intend to bring salmon home from your camp/lodge there are two ways to go: your own cooler or their waxed boxes. Your cooler should have wheels and it will keep salmon frozen for at least 48 hours, usually enough time for you to get back home. Three caveats regarding the cooler: 1- it will seem like a hassle hauling it around on the way in; 2- make sure it isn’t so big that when filled with frozen salmon it weighs over 50 pounds; 3- bring straps to secure the lid(s) or you may get home with an empty cooler. The boxes supplied by camps/lodges/guides hold exactly 50 pounds, are waxed, are reasonably durable and they will tape them closed. The only drawbacks: salmon on the edges will begin defrosting in 12 hours and TSA may open your box and not retape it. Our solution: on our second trip we brought straps for the boxes and took old neoprene waders which we didn’t use anymore, cut them up and duct taped the pieces into the exact shape and size of the inside of the box. Everything was solidly frozen when we pulled into our home 24 hours later. If you haven’t been there before, ask them the dimensions of their boxes.
- Buy your fishing licenses online before you leave. It’s more fun to fish than look for a place to buy a license.
- Bring more batteries than you think you will need for your camera.
- Predetermine some pictures you want to take. On our first trip we were so engrossed in fishing and absorbing the newness of Alaska we didn’t get a lot of the pictures we would have liked. The second trip we made a list of certain pictures we wanted and our photo album CD is a great representation of our trip.
- Bring an extra camera.
- Leave your briefcase at home. Whatever “need” you are meeting by this trip, doing quality work isn’t one of them. Creating wonderful memories and returning refreshed and raring to do great work can be.
- If you can make the time, decide to see the real Alaska whether it be a commercial fishing town, a native village, or something off the typical tourist path.
- If you buy souvenirs buy something from “native” Alaska. This can be hard to determine. There are State of Alaska certified native made items which carry small silver symbol. Be careful because some items will have a symbol which is very similar to the authentic one. You can buy everything from Alaska trinkets made in Taiwan to Alaskan items made by natives who may have never been to Anchorage. I actually bought my wife a necklace made from Wooly Mammoth ivory and saw a coat made from Wolly Mammoth hide.
- Have a weight of rod which is sufficient for the size of fish you are going to pursue. Your ego in this regard will only succeed in getting our favorite eastern water 3 weight broken into four pieces by a 30+” rainbow; your favorite western water 6 weight trashed by a silver salmon. Again refer to the Alaska West web site.
- Bring a spare rod if you can afford it, borrow it and have room for it. Even experts break rods in Alaska.
- The popular fast action rod may not be the best choice for you especially in the higher weights. Casting a stiff, 9 or 10 weight with a 500 grain sink tip for 10 hours a day for a week can be extremely tiring especially if your daily rod at home is a more flexible 5 weight throwing dry flies. At the Alaska West camp a significant percentage of the group asked to borrow one of the camp’s medium to medium fast rods during the trip. The fact they could feel the flex helped them cast heavier lines and flies farther and with less effort.
- Your everyday trout reel probably isn’t going to cut it. On our first day in Alaska, my 25+ year old Orvis CFO reel, which I had used to catch trout up into the 15-20 lb. category in Colorado, literally blew up as a 6 pound pink salmon took off on a 100 yard run. It wasn’t the reel’s fault. It was mine. I didn’t realize the difference between a Rocky Mountain trout and a salmon. I was asking it to do something which it wasn’t designed to do. You need a high quality drag that not only won’t overheat and quit working during a 200 yard run from a silver or king salmon, but will handle that all day long. It has to be a reel that has the capacity for 200 yards of backing and will handle the centrifugal forces generated as this 200 yards screams off your reel. Alaska taught me to appreciate a quality reel and also taught me how to use one to my benefit in playing larger trout back home.
- Even if you have a salt water resistant reel, if you fish in the ocean, in the tidewater affected part of the river, or even close, rinse your reel at the end of the day. The guides at our camp said, rinse it off and then even leave it outside in the rain as you sleep to get an even deeper cleaning. Most reels don’t require lubrication and so the rain doesn’t hurt the drag. If it does require lubrication, doing so right at the start of the day is the best time anyway.
- Leave your trout sized pliers, hemostats or whatever you call your hook removal tool at home. They are too small, too fragile and consequently too hard on you and the fish when you are handling a size 2 hook embedded in the mouth of a silver salmon. Get a good pair of the heavy duty “Abel or Ross” type pliers with a sheath you can put on your wader belt. You won’t regret it. It’s all I use now. I found it easier to use, easier to hang on to as well as fulfill a number of other uses even back home.
- Get a hook sharpener and use it often.
- Use heavier leaders and tippet than you anticipated. At home we use 5x, 6x and maybe 4x with a streamer. I bought 2x and 3x for our first trip. The result: two lost flies on the first two 10 pound silver salmon we hooked. Thankfully, the Alaska West guide was well prepared with 0x and 15 lb. test Maxima leader. Salmon are so much stronger than a similar size trout. It felt quite strange using 0x tippet for rainbows, but they were not leader shy at all.
- Use a WF floating line for all your fishing, except kings and sometimes then depending on the river. Most brands now have Steelhead or Salmon tapers custom designed for what you need to do. Because Kings travel in the deepest, fastest part of the river, you will need a floating head with a 30 foot sink tip in a variety of weights.
- Practice casting this weighted sink tip. It’s much more difficult to get up and going out of the water, harder to keep control of in your backcast and get moving forward in the direction you desire. The good news is that when you do, the weight will shoot your line as far as you will need.
- On our first trip we each brought our vest from home. On the second trip we brought none. You don’t need 10 boxes of 100 different flies. On any given day you will only need basic salmon patterns, or a few bead eggs, flesh flies and mouse patterns for rainbows and a couple of dry flies/nymphs for grayling. Add to that a couple spools of tippet, an extra leader, a couple indicators, 10 split shot and you are good to go. On our second trip we either used a small fanny pack attached to our wader belt or just the pockets in our rain jackets. That was plenty of space. The guides at Alaska West are going to have plenty of anything you need anyway. It’s just nice to have some flies so you can rerig yourself and don’t have to wait for the guide who may be 200 yards upstream with your partner or cooking lunch.
- The warm capilene or underarmour type socks are worth the money.
- Bring at least two pairs of wader underwear. Your fellow fishermen will appreciate it. You can even rinse them in the river or I found the best way was to hang them in the rain overnight. The rain did a great job washing and refreshing them.
- Wash/renew your Gore-tex waders; replace your felt soles if needed. It’s easier to do at home than in Alaska. Also bring a wader patch kit. Also bring a few small balloons. They take no room and can serve as a great indicator as well as an “on the river patch” for a hole in your waders.
- If you are going to be in a boat to travel or fish, bring a small dry bag for extra clothes, camera, rain jacket, lunch etc.
- Invest in quality raingear. If you don’t fish in the rain you won’t be fishing many days in Alaska. One of the best pieces of advice I received, from our local fly shop, before our first trip was raingear. He knew I was a golfer and told me “your waterproof golf rain jacket isn’t going to cut it in Alaska. You will soaked in an hour.” The golf jacket was great for a sunny day or a sprinkle, but when it started to rain you need the full bore waterproof fishing jacket. You will need a good cap to keep the rain out of your eyes or off your glasses. Most hats won’t fit under the hood of your raincoat. A good pair of fingerless fishing gloves are also a great investment. I know it’s summer, but it can be quite cold in Alaska and the water is always cold. In addition the gloves will save you blisters if you aren’t used to casting and playing fish 10 hours a day for a week. They are also great when grabbing branches, rocks as you bushwhack to a more remote spot. With good raingear, it got to the point where the rain didn’t bother us or affect our fishing at all. In fact, we didn’t even notice it. Besides, the fishing was always better in the rain. Back home, after going to Alaska, I find myself not shying away from but rather welcoming the rain because the fishing will be great and there will be fewer people on the local rivers.
- Your waders will handle the lower half of your body while fishing, but do bring a pair of golf rain pants or something similar. In the time it takes to walk 150 yards from the terminal to a small plane, from the plane to a boat, sit in the boat for a 30 minute ride to camp, or even walk 50 yards to the dining tent, you can be soaked to the skin in Alaska. If you plan to not let the weather keep you from enjoying any of those non-fishing activities previously mentioned you will need the waterproof pants.
- Put your rain gear inside the top of your luggage. Again, if it’s pouring as you move from terminal to plane, plane to boat, boat to camp or whatever transportation is being utilized, you want to be able to access it quickly and easily.
- If you are going into a lodge/camp for a week, fish for a day or two around Anchorage before you go in. It will let you relax and decompress after a long plane trip; it will get you focused; it will let you adjust your fishing technique; it will provide early success. If the airline has lost some or all your luggage you have some time for them to find it and get it to you before you go into the camp.
- If you plan to do any of the non-fishing activities mentioned in the “questions to ask yourself” section, it’s best to do those before you go in. If you wait until after your main trip, you will just be so tired from all the fish you have been catching and the hours you have been fishing you won’t be able to enjoy these other activities as much as you should.
- Be honest with your guide about your fishing skills. This will assure he doesn’t ask you to do something on Day 1 you cannot do. He would be glad teach you a skill you don’t possess, so you enjoy that experience later on. Control your ego, he is going to know the truth in one cast anyway.
- Give a camera to your guide and tell him to take all the pictures he wants. He isn’t fishing and he is working in Alaska every day so he isn’t so occupied with the nature of Alaska. In addition, he will notice things beyond in obvious which will make great pictures.
- Don’t be hesitant about telling the guide what you want to do, where you want to go. They all want to please, but they aren’t mind readers. The good ones will ask, so be honest when they do. Don’t hesitate to tell them if your desires change during the day.
- Learn and respect the native culture. They were here before us, they live here now and in many cases we fish here at their pleasure.
- Let yourself sleep. The days are so long and the fishing so good it can be tempting to fish until midnight. Remember you have another day tomorrow and you want to be able to experience and enjoy it fully. If you want to fish extra late, make it the last night before you go home. Then you can sleep on the plane.
- Don’t be overly focused on just the fishing. Activate all your senses and use them during the trip to help you recall it. Remembering some of these sensations and images can be more vivid and memorable than photographs. For us a few examples were:
– the sight of our first silver salmon as it jumped three feet into the air;
– the feel of the rain in our face as we went upriver in the jet boat;
– the sound of our sons when they hooked their first salmon in Alaska;
– the smell of decomposing salmon;
– the feel of air conditioned wind from a glacier;
– the sight of the visible wake of silver salmon as they moved up river, and the sight of that wake changing direction toward my fly;
– the feel of a silver salmon strike;
– the taste of shore cooked salmon which 15 minutes before was swimming in the river;
– the sound of a bear eating a salmon;
– the sight of a monster rainbow that broad jumped a huge snag and was gone;
– the feel of the cold water as I inadvertently stepped into a king salmon spawning bed and realized they were three feet deep;
– the satisfaction of finally catching the rainbow which had refused five previous flies.