By the time the lake came into view, I could barely sit still with excitement. I had to try to sit still because I was buckled into my seat along with all the cargo flying a fair way above the ground in a small floatplane. The pilot definitely wouldn’t have appreciated my 6’5 190 Lb frame jumping for joy in the close quarters of his Havilland Beaver as we made our approach. As we dropped elevation with our floats getting closer and closer to the water, I could not help but think about what could be swimming around below us, and what this epic trip had in store for me.
Let me give you a little background; my dad and I, along with 6 others were getting flown out to a remote lake in western Alaska to start our two-week, 100-mile float trip down the Kisaralik river. The planes flying us out are small, so we had to take multiple trips. My dad and I flew out first with a large load of gear so we could get a head start on setting up before the others flew in. The view from the Beaver as we approached the lake was nothing short of amazing. The front windows of the plane were engulfed by the deep blues of the lake and the massive, dramatic backdrop of steep mountains almost jetting straight up from the shoreline. The lake looked like something out of a Macbook home screen, and it was a little surreal that I was seeing it for myself. Before I knew it, the floats were touching the water and we were taxiing over to our campsite for the next day or so before we head off down the river. Much of the lake had a very limited shoreline because of the mountains literally going straight up from the water, so our campsite options were pretty much pre-determined. The outfitter that flew us out said the best spot in the whole lake was this little, gravel and tundra peninsula along the southern edge. We unloaded the plane, waved goodbye, and just like that we were alone. Well, not for long at least because we were still waiting on two other flights to come in to drop off the others and the rest of the gear; but as we watched the Beaver’s floats lift off from the surface and disappear over the horizon, we felt alone. So, we made the first choice any responsible angler would make in this situation; we gave each other a high five and decided to do some scouting and see what we were working with. It did not take long to cover our little peninsula, so it quickly became apparent that this spot was dialed. Not only did we have a nice gravel beach, a great supply of soft tundra to put our tents on, 360-degree breathtaking views, but right on the tip of the peninsula, about fifteen feet out was a steep dropoff to the deep blue abyss of Kisaralik Lake. I knew that once we set up camp, this dropoff needed a bit more exploring.
I ended up taking a few casts around the point later that night, but the main focus was definitely geared towards preparing ourselves for the trip ahead of us. I knew that the best shot we had would be the next morning, so I packed my gear up and crawled into my tent for some well-earned rest. My lake trout dreams would just have to marinate for one more night.
The six of us all woke up the next morning still in awe of where we were and what we were doing. Alaska is a dream destination for so many fishermen, and for us to be able to unzip our tents to that blue lake, big mountains, and crisp Alaskan air was truly something special. We milled around for a while, knowing that we still had plenty of time before the last plane with the two others and the rest of our gear was still a few hours out. Naturally, a group of anglers with a bunch of fly rods in the middle of the Alaskan bush does not “mill around” too long before someone starts fishing.
In the blink of an eye, everyone had their waders on and started tying on flies with the hopes of lakers on the other end. I rigged up my 7 weight (aka the Alaskan workhorse) with a sink tip line and a small, pink and white Dolly Llama. I knew lakers like to hang out near the bottom, and I figured to dropoff was pretty steep so I chose something I knew would get me down. The night before I threw around a big black leech with no interest so I decided to switch it up in the morning. A pink and white Dolly should show up alright in the water and is an undeniable Alaskan classic, so I tried not to overthink my choice and fish whatever I tied on with confidence. Everyone spread out along the peninsula, covering as much water as possible, which was quite a bit with 6 capable anglers. Of course, I headed right for the juicy point from the night before and started casting. There really wasn’t a great way of gauging the depth so I cast out and waited longer and longer each time until I could feel the bottom on the retrieve. While this is a great way to lose flies, it worked and I found the bottom in just a couple of tries. Now I was fishing; my fly was in the right spot, coming up from the deep water up to and over this steep dropoff just off the shore. All I needed now was a nice laker to cruise by, and thankfully, one did. Maybe 2 or 3 casts after I found the bottom, my fly line stopped.
Almost everyone who has thrown a fly rod knows the feeling of getting hung up on a log; you’re stripping your fly in and in a split second you just feel a dead weight. It’s not the sharp bumps or snag of a rock, but just a soft but heavy load of dead weight. This is what I felt as I stripped my Llama, except there was one problem, there was not a tree in sight. Without trees, there can be no logs in the lake, right? With that knowledge, I gave a solid strip-set, and thankfully I thought right because the “log” sharted shaking its head and I was tight. Lake trout aren’t known for their incredible fighting abilities, but I was expecting any fish that we had the chance to come in contact with to be in the footlong range, so naturally, I was impressed when whatever I was hooked into did not just shake around and come right in to be landed. Why I expected this lack of size, I do not know. I had zero information to base any expectations on other than the presence of lake trout, but hey; I was not complaining! After a few headshakes, the fish started to run out along the dropoff slowly clearing my extra line. Now that I had it on the reel I was feeling pretty good; as long as I could keep steady pressure on the fish, I felt like I could slowly coax him into the net. Speaking of nets, that was the next thing on my mind. As any responsible fly angler would, I totally forgot to bring a net with me on my expedition out to the dropoff. I could hear people coming my way so I called over for someone to grab a net. Thankfully my dad being the genius he is already had a net with him, so he tossed it to our friend Allie who was already starting to wade out to me. As Allie waded out with the net, the fish made its way up off the dropoff and into shallower water. I caught a flash of color off the fish’s side, and then in slow motion, the fish made its way to the surface and made a slow, dramatic, nerve-wracking roll. There it was, the lake trout I had dreamed about since I heard this trip was a possibility, rolling on the surface just a couple of rods lengths away. I walked backward keeping my rod tip up, keeping steady pressure on the laker, trying my best to guide it towards Allie. Now everyone is standing around us, I can hear cameras clicking and excitement brewing, but I needed to focus on bringing this trout to the net. The fish was now splashing around on the surface, and with one slow, steady sweep of my rod, and one, not so slow and not so steady sweep of the net, there it was; my first lake trout.
I was shaking with excitement as I grasped the tail of this laker with my hand. It was like no other trout I’ve caught before. Yes, obviously it was a different species, but unlike all the other trout I’ve come across, the lake trout had a much looser body. Its stomach was fat and squishy, not firm and fit like many of the rainbows further down the Kisaralik. What significance this detail had, I do not know, but what I do know is as I felt the soft, chubby body of this lake trout glide away from my hands and kick off into the depths of Kisaralik lake, I was unbelievably happy, and could not be any more excited for the two weeks of Alaska fly fishing I had ahead of me.
This was part of a trip led by Science on the Fly, a citizen-science-based project that works toward “cold water, clean rivers, abundant fish, and a bright future!” Learn more about Science on the Fly on their website here.