It was a typical August morning as we arrived at the float plane lake and shuttled our gear to the tarmac, (a large wooden float with a turbine Dehavellin Beaver tied off to it). By typical, I mean either raining or pea-soup fog. Today it was the latter.
Doug Brewer, the owner of Alaska West Air was the pilot for today’s silver salmon safari across to the West Side of Cook Inlet and ultimately Big River Lake.
‘Looks pretty soupy but we can sure get up there and take a look.’
I knew coming from Doug that meant he would make his best effort to check the ceiling and determine if it was safe to even cross the Inlet, let alone land on Big River Lake. As we taxied out to the middle of the Lake and let the awesome aircraft warm up, I asked Doug over the radio how much ceiling they need and why you can only fly so low. He said 500 feet and because you can hit the ground. I tightened my seatbelt.
As we approached the Inlet it was foggy but not bad. We made it across the Inlet in minutes and soon the interrupted views of tidal flats and grass appeared out of the beaded up windows. The fog concealed them well, and it was getting thicker the more we flew inland. Doug tried in several locations to penetrate the thick curtain just offshore, but finally we would turn the plane around and head for our North Kenai base to wait it out. We sat on the tailgate of my pick up and drank coffee for a half an hour before Doug announced things had improved and we would likely have no problem now. How quickly Mother Nature changes her mind here in Alaska.
Doug was right. We hit the East Forelands of the West Side and could see far more than before. In one hour, the fog had retreated enough to give us broken views of the mountains, at the base of which was our destination.
The Lake was perfectly calm as the floats touched the water. We taxied to the floating island where our boat waited for us. The fog was still thick against steep mountain peaks that dominate the backdrop, but it was dissipating fast. Patches of blue were sparkling behind the jagged, snow covered summits.
Time to fish. As the distant drone of the plane faded toward the Inlet and our small 2-stroke outboard whined its way across the lake’s milky green water, the isolation of our surroundings set in. We soon approached the area we planned to fish, and I slowed the motor. Big River Lake is a fairly small Lake that quickly becomes Big River. As the lake drains into the river, it first floods several swamps full of reeds and floating tundra. The maze of channels looks more like the Everglades and this water holds a creature every bit as vicious and hungry as a Florida gator. Without coincidence, the main hole we will fish is called ‘the gator’ and as our boat slowly idles forward I can see today it is loaded with salmon. Wakes of darting silvers roil the backwater channel, sending waves into the weeds. With each parting ripple, our hearts pound harder and we can hardly wait to wet a hook.
As countless silvers roil the calm surface, the first roe-laden hook cartwheels through the misty morning air. With a pronounced splash it lands near a recent boil and before the bait can settle to the bottom it’s inhaled by a silver. For the most part, you can hook a fish on every cast and on every line in the water.
Remarkably the fish are so aggressive that when we fish a bait of eggs below a bobber, one silver will commonly attack the bobber while another takes the bait and the hook. The fish tolerate little intrusion into their murky holes and both spinners and flashy flies will not go uninterrupted. Since the water is only waist deep, a medium retrieve is perfect to keep the fly off the bottom and in most cases the fish will appear behind the fly as a fast moving wake racing to attack. The feisty silvers regularly take a lure right next to the boat. It’s the kind of fishing that will make you giggle like little kid.
It proceeds in this one after another fashion until we’ve released our limit ten times over and have kept only the fish that swallowed the hook and could not be released. We quit with just enough time to clean our beautiful limit, eat lunch and explore the lake’s shoreline for bears, before our return flight appears on the horizon.
Even though I am lucky enough to make this extraordinary trip many times during each season, I always return in awe. The flight alone is spectacular, offering a unique perspective of the surrounding wilderness. For many, this flight to the gator hole is the highlight of their vacation. It makes good on that legendary promise that fishing in Alaska is like no other fishing in the world. It also proves that yes, there are alligators in Alaska.