Mike Mercers Alaska Trip, 2008

Hoodoo Lodge – Fishing Chinooks on the swung fly

Waiting on the Anchorage International tarmac, engines on the PenAir commuter plane beginning to whine in the cramped cabin, the guy in the window seat next to me starts getting agitated.

“Hey!” he exclaims, craning his head to look backwards and down towards where the ground crew is noisily closing up the baggage compartment. We all look expectantly at him, already knowing what’s to come.

“Hey, stewardess –they just took my bag off the plane! They’re bringing it back inside!”
The stewardess’s sympathetic gaze follows his finger as it jabs accusatorily out the window, her head nodding wearily. This is obviously not her first rodeo.

“I’m so sorry, sir. Yes, I see your bag. But don’t worry”, she assures soothingly, “we’ll have that bag on the next flight out later today, and will bring it to wherever you are.”

I watch as the man accepts her placations, protruding eyeballs sinking slowly back into their sockets, aware that he really has no options. The engines, having reached full screaming rpm’s for the mandatory several seconds, now relax to a more normal level, and begin to push us down the runway. Ahh, another Alaskan adventure begins! (Full disclosure: I spoke to the man later that week, and PenAir did indeed make good on their assurances, delivering his bag, as promised. Life in the Bush works at a different pace than back home, but it does work.)

Two smooth and uneventful flying hours later, the plane descends into a landscape straight from the pages of National Geographic; the isolated burg of Cold Bay a tiny and insignificant stain on the enormous green canvas of the Alaskan Peninsula, dwarfed in the shadow of an endless chain of towering stratovolcanoes – the legendary Pacific Ring of Fire. If there really were an Indiana Jones, at this moment I think I’d have just a hint of what it is he feels, setting down in a strange and primitive land. Walking off the airplane, I can immediately feel the wilderness, it is so omnipresent – a hint of salt air off the Bering Sea wafts across my face, reminding me of just where it is I’m at. I’ve come all this way to fish for ocean-bright king salmon at the brand new Hoodoo Lodge, on a river that was sport-fished for the first time, ever, the previous year. Even in Alaska, finding a “new” stream is almost unheard of, and from the snippets of fishing reports I’d received from those first adventurous anglers, this one had remarkable potential. I was pumped!

A few hours later, intrepid lodge owner Rod Schuh is flying us the 45 minutes from town to his uber-remote fishing operation on the banks of the Sapsuk River. Droning over the miles-wide tundra strip separating ocean from mountains, the latter garners all our attention; ancient glacial rivers snake their moraine paths out of massive hanging valleys; smaller clearwater streams cascade from the flanks of tundra-carpeted promontories. I know we’re all wondering the same thing – are there fish in any of these rivers? As if reading our thoughts, Rod’s voice crackles through the headphones. “No-one has ever really fished any of these rivers, but there are rumors. A bear-hunting friend told me they were walking up that stream below us one fall, and it was full of giant trout…so I’m guessing it gets a steelhead run. That next one coming up gets a huge run of some kind of salmon every July – I can see ‘em from the air when I fly over, thousands of them, and they’re pretty big. If we have time, I’d like to take a day and fly you out here in the Super Cub – with its tundra tires, I can land it pretty much anywhere, and we can check out some rivers that’ve never been fished. Hell, half of ‘em don’t even have names,” he grinned over at me. I wonder briefly what housing costs are like in Cold Bay, and how it is I’m going to convince my teenage daughters they’re going to love the slower pace of life in the Bush.

And suddenly, there it is. As yet another river drifts into focus below, the strange sight of a man-made structure surprises us, its fresh wood walls glowing amber in the afternoon sun. Rod drops elevation as he circles the lodge, then settles into the narrow river channel, wingtips seeming closer to either bank than they really are. Throttling back, we glide up to the dock and the waiting crew, and we’re actually here.

Though brand-new and still missing a few cosmetic touches (they’ll be in place by the start of the following season, Rod assures me, and knowing him, I’d bet the farm on it), the lodge is warm and inviting. The two-story high windows give us incredible views of the surrounding country as we relax in the great room with cold drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and you can cut the anticipation with a knife. There are the obligatory dozens of standard questions – “How many fish are in the river?”, “How big have the fish been running?”, “What flies have the fish been eating?”, “Do the fish really still have sea lice?”, and my personal favorite, “Can we catch fish off the dock?” Rod and crew patiently address them all, then stuff us with obscene amounts of food and send us waddling off to our rooms. Late that night, snug in my comfortable bed, I listen to the wind gently buffet the lodge, and dream about giant king salmon.

The next morning dawned clear and sunny, literally the first such weather they’d seen in a month. Everyone kind of walked around in an awed daze, staring at the surrounding scenery – we learned it was the first opportunity they’d had to see the nearest volcano in its magnificent entirety, and it was breathtaking. Even the guides couldn’t get enough! We soon discovered there was a price to be paid for all the bright light, however…despite the rave reviews of the previous week’s guests (whom we’d met in the airport at Cold Bay) and stories of crazy numbers of daily hookups, we struggled. At the end of the day quite a few kings had been landed in total, but clearly the action was much slower than in the prior 3 weeks. Rod, to his credit, announced at dinner that if the fishing didn’t improve the following day, he would have the guides fish us deep into the night, as the sun would be much lower then despite the nearly 24-hour daylight, making the photo-sensitive kings “happy” and more willing to grab. Clearly, both he and the guides were dumbfounded at the sluggish pace of the day, as they had not experienced a slow day in the season up to this point.

As it turned out, the offer was never necessary, as the rest of the week was always at least partly cloudy, and the fishing improved dramatically. Double digit daily hookups became more commonplace, and even those catching “only” 3-6 day were impressed with the size, brightness, and brute strength of these magnificent gamefish. Averaging about 20 pounds and nickel-bright from the sea, there was no “turning the heads” of these monsters – you just put as much pressure on as you dared, and hung on. The largest fish landed our week were in the mid-thirties, and several others in the same size category were hooked and lost. I had one such beast grab, cartwheel into the air, and promptly spool me going downstream…I loved it! One beautiful stretch provided me with 4 kings (and 3 other good grabs that I missed), a 28-inch steelhead kelt, three dolly varden, and a rainbow trout of about 20 inches…all in one 90-minute span.

By the end of the week, I could honestly say it was the best king fishing I had ever experienced; small, clear water (50-60 foot casts, on average) with miles of fish-holding runs and pools. Though from a “numbers landed” standpoint our week was the slowest of the six-week season (other weeks routinely saw 10-20 fish hookups per rod, per day!), by any other standard, the fishing was exceptional. The river was always in great shape, and it was obvious there were kings in every good piece of holding water. The fish were very aggressive to a swung fly, hammering the large streamers and leeches we threw with abandon. In the days following our stay – the final two weeks of the Chinook season – there were days registered by the little on-site Alaska Fish and Game weir of nearly 500 kings per day! Outrageous quantities for the size of the stream, and our anglers those weeks reaped the benefits, often hooking absurd numbers of fish.

The final night at the lodge we slouched around the table, gazing out the windows at the cloud-veiled mountaintops, mowing through copious portions of prime rib and fresh king crab legs, and thinking about all we had experienced. I recalled the two-day float from the headwaters lake, catching bunches of ravenous dollies at the top, seeing a gorgeous sow grizzly with three cubs, and finding a fossil-encrusted rock as I sat eating lunch on a gravel bar where no other human had ever walked. I remembered the feel of a 25-pound king climbing onto a purple and pink Sleech as it swung across a nondescript tailout, and the surprise on the guide’s face – “You hooked that fish where??” And I saw in my mind’s eye the symmetrical perfection of every fish I’d landed; their gunmetal cheeks, corpulent bodies checkered with tiny chrome scales, translucent tails wider than the width of my hand. It’s rare that a destination delivers an experience better than advertised, and Hoodoo Lodge had proven to be just such an exception. I would be back.

As I write this, the king salmon season for 2009 is already over half full, and remaining spots are evaporating quickly – the word is out on Hoodoo Lodge