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How To Arrange Your
Own Floatfishing Trip
Editor Note: Angling Report subscribers consistently provide the best material we publish, as witness this report on how to arrange a self-guided floatfishing trip in Alaska. It’s by subscriber Donald Childress, who has floatfished in Alaska 15 times over the last 25 years. Many of those were trips he put together himself. Enjoy!
My first Alaska float trip was a guided expedition on the Kanektok River. It opened my eyes to the wonderment of wilderness fly fishing. The remoteness of such a trip, I learned, adds to the inherent excitement and adventurous feeling that comes from fly fishing for salmon and large trout. That’s not to say I was completely happy with the trip. As a guided, group outing, it necessarily catered to the needs of the least mobile folks in the group. I accepted that, but it left me with the feeling that a self-arranged float trip would be a lot more enjoyable. For example, we made camp every evening in a place where everyone could get around easily, not necessarily where the fishing was best. Also, as customers, we had no input into decisions as to where to camp, the food to eat, or how long to fish, etc. A control freak; I found this hard to take.
During the trip I took it upon myself to learn everything possible about floating, camping and fishing, knowing that I wanted to do this on my own with a chosen group of friends. Some basics I learned; always go with enough folks to fill at least two boats, this is for safety in case something happens to one of the rafts. Two or three anglers for each raft works well. More than six people on the trip increases the odds of incompatibility and encroachment on the desirable fishing spots, plus food selection becomes more difficult. Pick a river that you have researched well (more on that later), rafts with rowing frames work better than paddle rafts so passengers can fish while the raft is moving. Educate yourself on camp hygiene and bear protection—this is very important.
The first issue with trip planning is when and where to go. For the when, early season is usually considered to be June and early July, mid-season July- August, and late season to be late August-September-October. If you want King salmon, then you would go early season. The upside is large fish that take a fly aggressively, but the down side is the crowds are greater and the biting insects are much more prevalent. Late season is when the trout are larger from consuming salmon eggs and flesh all summer, silver salmon are available for dinner and the irritating insects are much more manageable.
After fishing all the seasons, I prefer the late September to early October period when the trout are feeding aggressively, are larger, and, when in Southwest AK, the silvers are available for a fresh salmon dinner most evenings. The weather in late fall can be delightful or misty rain to downright ugly. Good rain gear is essential for any Alaskan trip. Donned in waders and good hooded rain gear, you will stay warm, dry, and fishing comfortably all day.
My goal in choosing a river is to find one that is within my boatmanship capabilities (most tundra rivers are low gradient and easy), not overly impacted with lodges, and are known to have decent trout fishing. Most of my trips target rainbows and silvers, although I have also fished for sheefish and pike; char an grayling are also available in most rivers. Broadly speaking the Kuskokwim drainage is the furthest north for rainbows as they are largely unavailable north of the Arctic circle.
Some of the books that give good information on rivers, camping, floating and fishing that I have used are; Alaska Fishing by Rene Limeres and Gunnar Pederson, Flyfishers Guide to Alaska by Scott Haugen, Floating Alaska by Don Crane and Alaska Atlas, ‘topo maps of the entire state’. These are worthwhile reads for first time floaters on Alaskan rivers.
Once you decide on a potential river, the Internet will guide you to an outfitter that will service the area in question. A phone call will get you information on rivers in the area that are appropriate for your abilities and desires. Most also will rent you the rafts, tents, cooking and eating utensils, stoves and other gear that are too bulky for modern airline travel. Renting a satellite phone is a good safety measure, and a GPS is handy to tell where you are on the river since it is most important for you to meet your pick-up appointment on time. An interesting phenomenon is when the plane drops you off, usually at a lake, then takes off and the engine noise dies, the sound of silence is totally overpowering as is the feeling of isolation and total wilderness.
Food of course is an important issue. It is important to make a day-by-day and meal-by-meal menu from which you make a shopping list for the group. For most trips I go a day early and shop at the Anchorage Costco for food supplies. A week’s supply usually comes to about $200 per person, including box wine, which tastes pretty good in the wilderness. For the last couple of trips, we have also sent a couple of boxes of nonperishable items by mail to the outfitter to hold for us. The savings over Alaska prices is usually more than the cost of shipping. Also, the savings in Anchorage is significant over buying supplies in your exit village.
Some of the rivers I have floated include the Kanektok, Good News, Aniak, Kiseralik, Kobuk, Talchulitna, Alexander Creek, Deshka, Moose Creek and Lake Creek. My current favorites will have to remain a secret, but I am always looking for new waters and adventures.
Since my favorite trips are float trips, setting up camp each evening is very important. Usually there is enough driftwood for a fire, the center of an evening’s cooking and camaraderie. When unsure of the driftwood at a camping site, I have occasionally collected wood during the day’s float, but that is rare.
Besides camping at a good fishing site, there are a couple of other important issues. You will want to camp on a gravel bar out in the open for two reasons; the breeze will blow away the bugs (spend ten minutes in the sheltered trees and you will understand), and if a bear happens to investigate your camp during the night you will hear it coming and be prepared. The guides that I have talked to seem to prefer a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs as a bear deterrent, so that is what I took on my early trips. Due to airline baggage restrictions, now I obtain some firecrackers as the noise and flash near a bear will send it running. I have used this technique on two different occasions. Unless the weather is crystal clear, I set up a cook tent using a tarp that I bring. I will often use the oars for two or three of the lean-to type tent poles. I also bring a larger tarp that can be set up over the tents if the rain is severe. The most important bear safety feature is to keep a clean campsite; don’t leave dirty dishes, put all food away and don’t clean your dinner salmon near your campsite.
It is important to know in advance where the problems on the river might be. Your outfitter/pilot will be able to advise you. If possible, ask to fly over the river on the way to the drop off so you can see major tributaries, log jams, etc. To mark those spots as waypoints on a GPS is ideal.
Weather is always an issue, but with proper raingear and wearing your chest high waders from the time you get up until you go to bed, you can stay comfortable. The tarps will also keep the non-fishing hours manageable.
In the fall, egg patterns and flesh flies are my go-to flies for trout and char; using a 6- or 7-weight rod. The largest trout I have taken was 30 inches, but we catch many in the 24-27-inch range. I also take along a few dry flies to fish for grayling. When unsure what species I will be fishing for, I use a bright orange woolly bugger, since almost everything will eat that. For silver salmon I use a rabbit hair leach pattern, size 2, in various colors but usually start with cerise or magenta. I use a 7- or 8-weight rod for the salmon. If you go in early summer to target Kings take lots of insect spray and a 10-weight rod with appropriate flies. Black rabbit hair leach patterns work well too.
Some of the camping items that are indispensable include; a camp shovel, hatchet, small hand saw, collapsible water bucket, plenty for rope for tent poles, water filter system, emergency kit, bear deterrent (bear spray and firecrackers), tarp for cooking area, weather proof camera and a Leatherman type tool.
My dental background compels me to remind you to brush your teeth before bed no matter how tired you may be, and enjoy the adventure!