I’ve been here before. The cobblestoned beach, the verdant mountains in the background, the buzz of mosquitos and the drone of the departing Beaver have been an oft-repeated theme in my life. But what sits in front of me on the shore is a familiar pile of gear that really drives the nostalgia I'm feeling home. To my left. roll-top river bags lean against one another. Some are green, some are blue, some have ancient smudges and scratches, others have barely discernible names and addresses written in what was obviously not “permanent markers.” Next to the rolled-up rafts are three raft frames and oars, four foldable tables and a green Coleman stove. Scattered about are duffles full of tents and tarps, rod tubes, and aluminum and plastic coolers one with the teeth marks from an enthusiastic two year old brown bear. And finally, the white plastic pickle jars that we collected from fast food joints so many years ago. These hold our canned goods, drinks, pasta, peanuts, olive oil and other ursine treats.
Some of the gear is new, most is not and it reveals that we’ve been at this game for over 35 years - whatever that game is - running rivers, exploring wild places, fishing Alaska, adventuring, seeking something... all while floating downstream. From the great Arctic rivers to the sensational Bristol Bay’s drainages, these white pickle jars, rafts and coolers have always signaled an adventure is about to begin. Luckily some of the gear has changed since the early days. Cotton and wool have been replaced by capilene and high tech synthetics. Sticky heavy neoprene waders have thankfully been replaced by Goretex. Heavy hypalon rafts have given way to lighter composites. Fiberglass rods became graphite and now we carry satellite phones and GPS units in addition to topo maps and a compass. Reassuringly, much of the gear is the same - a green Coleman stove, a motley collection of NWRS tie down straps, blue foldable tables and North Face VE-24 tents...and of course, the ubiquitous white plastic pickle boxes.
We’re here to float Alaska’s Bristol Bay’s gem the Goodnews River. In the dry case that holds my maps, compass and GPS, are my campsite notes in a folder I found from a 1993 trip. But I know I have floated the Goodnews before this 1993 trip and a few times after 1993, but I’d have to look at my old journals to know exactly when. We are a motley collection of veterans, some with literally hundreds of river trips all around the world under their wading belts, and newcomers. It is always fun to go with the Alaskan neophytes; they’re excited and a bit nervous about bears. It is fun to watch them as the trip plays out.
I’ve never grown tired of these trips. They are a cleansing experience. The first day is always a bit of a shock... the mosquitos, maybe rain and cold wind, all the work packing, setting up camp, cooking, breaking down camp and packing rafts... then it all seems to fall into place and I start to feel good. I’m refreshed by the toil and rejuvenated by the outdoor living. While some seek luxury and comfort on their vacations, I’ve always sought wild places, the deprivation that goes with them and physical labor. Maybe it’s just as simple as Brian Haberstock said “Let’s get the city stink off of us” or maybe it’s much more complicated.
We began this Goodnews River trip in a light rain. As we made sense of that pile of gear, a young brown bear periodically popped 150 yards away to check our progress. Finally, with rafts built and rods rigged, we shoved off and rowed across a flat mill pond until we eventually picked up the river’s current and started to swing downstream. Sockeye and a few chum were on redds and we started picking up a few chubby dollies and thick grayling on eggs and Battle Creek Specials. After a few hours of floating, we made camp on a gravel bar below the first feeder creek. The coolers and pickle jars provided our seating under the rain tarp for dinner and we slept like champs on the soft moss behind an alder and willow curtain.
Over the next eight days our routine was soon established. Get up only after long time friend, Al Longfellow, had started the coffee water to boil. Eat a hearty breakfast of French toast or pancakes or oatmeal, break camp, load the rafts, then spend the morning looking for appropriate fishing spots - often where sockeye, chums or kings were spawning. Behind their redds, we would find lots of dollies to 25”, a few rainbows and quite a few very full-bodied grayling to 20”.
We would rendezvous in the afternoon for a streamside lunch then spend the rest of the afternoon fishing. We would meet up again at a prearranged campsite where longitude met latitude. Here we would unload rafts, erect rain shelters, build a kitchen and assemble a tent city all before cocktails. With this group, the process was easy. Everyone pitched in and after hitting shore, it was never long before chores were done and we met under the tarps to sip a libation, husk a few salted peanuts and swat a few mosquitos. We enjoyed each other’s company while dinners of pork chops, salmon, spaghetti, dollies or some other delicious entree were being prepared. We ate well and rolled into sleeping bags in the crepuscular light of an Alaskan summer night!
I fished the first two days with Jay Hillerson and the third day with Brian Haberstock. I was rowing the 14’ Sotar with only one fisherman in my raft each day. This was a great opportunity for me to instruct our Alaka neophytes, Jay and Brian, on the ins-and-outs of Alaska fishing technique. With only one angler, I could concentrate on discussing techniques and position the raft absolutely perfectly for maximum fishing opportunities.
Jay, and then Brian, had some outstanding fishing. I remember many spots where we literally caught a char on every cast. Both Jay and Brian are experienced anglers and excellent casters so they picked up the appropriate streamer and dead-drift techniques quickly. What I love about Alaska is that a good dead-drift or a well-placed cast is often rewarded. Conversely, a dragging drift or sloppy retrieve rarely works. As a result, skills accumulate quickly. A 20 inch twisting char, quintessential grayling or feisty leopard rainbow is often found at the end of your line and is ample incentive for “doing it right.”
I remember one spot where we took numerous char on a peach colored Glowbug and rainbows on a big heavy Dollie Lama streamer. To top it off, we caught a few 18” - 20” grayling on a light Cahill as both the grayling and terns were taking PMDs off the steely windswept slicks. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
On our 3rd day I tried to explain to Brian what “happy water” is. This is my own term for where current breaks occur, sometimes at the tailout of seams or below shelves or hell, I have no idea except that “I know it when I see it.” Here the current is slowed and prey items like eggs or salmon flesh, settle to the bottom. Small fish probably collect in these pockets and bigger predators probably don’t have to work as hard to maintain their position. From these “happy” spots, they also have good access to the faster current where they can dart into it if they see something they want. “happy water” is productive water on any river anywhere in the world. I call it “happy” because the water dances or flips about. Here, it is not driven by steady currents or flat like in an eddy. It piles up a bit. Brian didn’t understand what I was talking about at first, but after we stopped at one spot where “happy water” danced about in the middle of the river between two faster seams, he started to believe me. Here he railed on fat 20” - 25” dollies. Every time I looked up he was into a fish. From that point on and for the rest of the day he looked for “happy water” and usually caught fish in these spots. I was pleased he didn’t think I was making the whole thing up.
Danny Sheldon and I spent the next day together exploring every conceivable spot that could hold a big fish. When floating downstream, we worked together perfectly. I would position the boat and Danny would drag his streamer out of each log jam, eddy, foamy bay or current confluence. Danny is a superb fisherman and put his fly in the spots as if he was reading my mind. This was very rewarding for me and made our rainy, cool day insignificant - the weather gods would have to throw something more at us to ruin our fishing.
On our next day, they sure tried! Rain, high temps in the 40’s and a steady 30 mph wind gusting to 40+ mph made for both tough rowing and difficult fishing conditions. And still Dean Kalmbach - my old buddy from the Seychelles and other Alaskan adventures - and I had a great day. We took at least 25 Dolly Varden in the 20-25 inch range from a seemingly innocuous little 30 yard run. These dollies slammed streamers and sucked in eggs. It was simply outstanding fishing. This spot gave Dean and I a chance to work on his nymphing technique. I had a great time with Dean until my feet went numb. I warmed up by rowing downstream, but we really had no choice. If I stopped rowing, we were blown back upstream, so row it was.
Our weather on this trip was tough - it rained a portion of everyday. We had two brutal days of upstream winds, but what made the trip unusually harsh were the unseasonably cold temps. It seemed more like late September than early August. Fortunately, we never had to break camp in the rain, but we did wear fleece jackets, rain coats, gloves and winter hats most of the time. We heard no complaints and no one quit fishing. Everyone kept pitching in to help with camp chores or with the loading of rafts. This was simply an outstanding group that got along well, fished hard and had a great time.
On our last day, Dean Kalmbach and I fished for silver salmon. I saw a few fresh silvers early and immediately started looking for appropriate spots. We found one seam at the tail end of an island where we hooked dozens of bright, strong silvers and landed at least ten. These silvers were chrome bright, strong jumpers and had just entered fresh water in the last 24 hours as they were still playing host to sea lice. Dean and I found a number of spots holding fresh silvers and Dean took three from one small seam. At the end of the day, Danny hooked at least 10 more bright fish from the beach where we were scheduled to be picked up in the morning.
We spent the evening watching Danny and Brian catch silvers while a young mother brown bear escorted her triplets in a 360 degree circumnavigation of our campsite. What a spectacular way to end a spectacular trip!
Many thanks to Chuck Ash our intrepid leader and owner of Brightwater Alaska (and my good friend for over 33 years!), my buddy Eric Berger (who rowed the other big-boy raft with Chuck),
and our rock star adventurers: Danny Sheldon, Dean Kalmbach, Jay Hillerson, Brian Haberstock and Al Longfellow (and of course, Steve Peskoe, our in absentia moral leader). Thanks for all your hard work, wonderful attitude and great campside chats.
Written by Scott Heywood