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Editor Note: Ever thought about going to a big-name lodge by yourself? Taking a flyer on who your roommate will be? Here’s a story about that with a happy ending. Enjoy!
This was not the usual fishing trip with friends and family to Alaska. This time I was traveling all by myself. The prospect left me feeling like the young 17-year-old boy I was in 1974 going off to college for the first time. Indeed, this was to be my first overnight fishing trip going solo. But I had heard so much about Royal Wolf Lodge in Alaska that I just had to go right away before I had some reason why I couldn’t. You know, health reasons, money reasons, time reasons, and so on. I knew going solo meant I would be taking potluck on my choice of a roommate for a week. Would the really cool kids let me eat at their table at dinner?
I actually had buyer’s remorse as the date for my departure neared. Wasn’t my aging back already re¬minding me why I had signed up for surgery in late September? Maybe the whole thing was a mistake?
My thinking all changed as soon as I arrived in Alaska. My flight there from Houston to Anchorage required a stop in Chicago. I arrived in Anchorage at night, but of course the sun was still up when I got to bed at the Homewood Suites near the air¬port. The next morning, I still had to wait for the flight from Anchorage to the lodge, so I did what all reasonable tourists do in a city like Anchorage: I hired a private guide. He showed me the highlights of Anchorage and described the history of the area, including the major 9.2 earthquake back on Good Friday, 1964. Oh, did I forget to mention the tour was all on a Segway? I may have looked like a goofball with my little helmet and very big head, but it was fun, so don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Afterward, I went to the lodge’s private hangar across the street from Anchorage International Airport. The 90-minute flight from Anchorage to the front door of the lodge was wonderful. What’s not to like about Alaskan wilderness, glaciers, and more?
As I write this, I have just re¬turned from Royal Wolf Lodge. It is clearly one of Alaska’s finest fly-out operations. The beautiful lodge is remote and strategically situated on a 120-acre private holding within the heart of Katmai National Park’s fin¬est trout waters. It sits on Novianuk Lake, which feeds the Alagnak River. It is hard to beat the lodge’s location in relation to good fishing water. The week I was there we fished a number of the region’s premier watersheds, including the Moraine, Funnel, Bug Ku, Battle, Branch, Gibraltar, and American, plus a secret water the lodge asked me not to talk about.
Katmai National Park is most famous for Brooks Falls, of course. You have probably seen Brooks Falls featured many times on nature channels. It is the waterfall in Alaska where you see five to ten brown and grizzly bears catching salmon as they try to swim upstream to spawn. The latest count was over 2,200 bears in this four-million-acre park. As you might expect, every day there were multiple encounters with bears. Fortunately, the bears at that time are only interested in salmon. At least that is what the guide said to me while I almost wet my waders on the inside when I made eye contact with a grizzly bear only 20 yards away! Another time, a sow and yearling cub stopped right in front of me and caught some salmon and ate them so close to me I could hear the bones cracking in the fish. As one guide told me, we are not afraid of the bears, but we respect them.
In addition to bears, we also saw tundra swans, ducks, loons (they serenaded us at night), grebes, arctic terns, grouse, ptarmigan, sea birds, and eagles. Then there was the other big game we saw, some streamside, some while our bush pilot was flying low and slow over the tundra, such as caribou, fox, moose, wolverine, and others.
One of the best features of Royal Wolf Lodge is not the usual stuff, such as richly appointed individual cabins, fine food prepared by an executive chef, or even the Finnish sauna and spa with a massage therapist (although that is a very cool feature), it is the fact that the staff has the longest tenure of any lodge in Alaska. Seems the owners of Royal Wolf Lodge, Chris and Linda Bran-ham, are so good to their employees that almost every one of them stays around—they don’t take the better offer for more money by the lodge downriver. That means the lodge is staffed with happy employees who not only have a real passion for their work, but also are very good at what they do. Take the guides, for ex¬ample. Head guide Dave Goodheart is a former host of the TV program Fly Fishing America on ESPN. Another guide, Ryan Davey, filmed the famous Trout Bum Diaries movies. Scott O’Donnell, another guide with 20-plus years of experience, invented Skagit Spey casting. Get my point? These guides are world-famous.
The lodge can hold more than 14 guests, but they only take 12 at a time. Considering they have a staff of 16, you can be assured of personalized service. Their single and duplex cabins overlooking their private lake feature heat, running water, private bathrooms with showers, lights, comfortable beds with quality linens, and electric power (for people with CPAPs, they can give you power 24/7 if needed). They even have a satellite phone and Internet you can use for a small fee. Breakfast and dinner are excellent gourmet meals served in the main lodge by a master chef. Lunches are served streamside by the guide and always include a wonderful soup or stew kept in a thermos. Adult beverages and hors d’oeuvres are served at 6:30 PM, and then dinner is served an hour later.
To be clear, I was not interested in king salmon, silver salmon, sock¬eye salmon, chum salmon, Dolly Var¬den, arctic char, lake trout, northern pike, or even grayling, which are all found in these waters of the greater Iliana/Katmai region of Bristol Bay. Been there done that. All I wanted to catch were the good old wild fish we call rainbow trout, what my Latin friends call Oncorhynchus mykiss. Each day, I would catch over 20 rain¬bow trout, all over 15 inches, some over 20 inches. My largest was 27 inches long with a girth of 16 inches. A lodge mate caught one a little bigger on the Kvichak River at Lake Iliamna near a small village called Igiugig, Alaska. We caught almost all our fish on a small plastic egg pattern. As you know, trout follow the salmon and then eat their eggs as they float down the river. Thus, you “match the hatch” with a small, pink,
egg-type fly. Get this: We never used a net, even for the big ones. All were expertly handled and released by our guides, who lined the fish in and gently removed the barbless hook. In simple words, the guides “kept them wet,” which greatly improved the survival rate. I really appreciated the way the guides protected their business partners, the rainbow trout.
One day, in addition to some grayling, I did catch three forms of char: a lake trout, a Dolly Varden, and an arctic char. That’s worthy of note, I think, even though they were not the fish I was targeting. Also, since we were fishing all around migrating sockeye salmon, occasionally one of them would bite, prompting me to say to the guide, “It is the wrong color (red).” At that point, he would simply line the fish in and gently release it while saving the fly.
An important feature of the lodge was its use of Helio Courier float¬planes that don’t need as much take-off and landing area as conventional floatplanes. This allowed us to fish areas in Alaska where few, or no, others have ventured. Typically, once the plane left us at a new river or stream, we didn’t fly back to the lodge until late afternoon, giving us eight to nine hours of world-class fly fishing. Each day we would go with a different guide, one that had experience on the water we would be fishing. We never fished the same water twice; each day was a new experience. Most days we fished wadeable streams and rivers. The means of transport over the course of the trip included a jet boat on big water and rafts on the smaller rivers.
On our last day we hiked over an hour and a half through mud, muck, and heavy tundra and brush to get to a very remote river called –– (the place is a lodge secret). How do I describe tundra? Imagine three-inch-high shag carpeting thrown over a giant memory foam mattress. Now, hike on that with your waders, jacket, and fishing gear for 90 minutes. Mind you, I am not complaining. As I learned in college, those things worth obtaining are often hardest to obtain. This water was no exception to that rule. That day we sight-cast all day to giant rainbow trout gorging on salmon eggs. Each one put on a great show once hooked. When I landed them, four or five eggs would come spilling out of their mouth.
The only negative thing I should mention is the arrogant micromanagement I received from one of the guides. It made me realize what my son put up with when it happened to him on a previous fishing adventure in Colorado. As a fishing buddy put it, you know you are in trouble when your guide says, “That cast is perfect. Now do it again but 15 feet further.” My favorite is: “Sometimes fish are so aggressive they even take a fly with a bad presentation.” For sure, too much attention from your guide can suck the fun right out of a good fish¬ing day.
As regards my worry about traveling by myself, which I mentioned at the outset of this report, Henry Winkler got it right in his book, I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River. As he put it, fly fishermen are good folk. I wound up making some new friends at the lodge. Plus, the owners treated me like family from day one. It was not awkward at all to be there alone. Enjoy!—Jim Aylsworth.
Postscript: Aylsworth gives the cost of his trip, including the round-trip flight from Anchorage to the lodge, as about $9,000, plus tips. He says he booked his trip through The Fly Shop in Redding, California, www.theflyshop.com.