Do It Yourself - Alaska Float Trip Fishing Q & A
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We talked with Urs Wehrli of www.floaters.ch to get his advice and thoughts on float trip fishing. Urs has been organizing and planning his own Alaska float trips for the past 8 years. Despite living in Switzerland he has managed to do 9 Alaska Float Fishing Trips over the past 8 years and he shares his experiences and advice on his website Floaters.ch. He also makes some fantastic videos of his Alaska Float Trips and even had his 2011 Karluk River Float Trip Video shown at the Kodiak Film Festival. We asked him about some of his best tips & experiences below.
- Photos Above Used with Permission - © Urs Wehrli
Why did you prefer to do float trips on your own?
I like to be on my own with my buddies out there. I like to discover the nature on my own, to feel it 24 hours that days out there. What was it for a great feeling, to meet the first time a bear face to face or sitting next to a bald eagle which was eating his catch. And nobody was whispering in my ear, what I have to do. I had to handle the situations all on my own and was impressed to see, that I was doing the right things, automatically. That showed me, that we still didn't forget how to move on our own in the wild. Every time by flying back home, you have a ton of self-confidence and you are satisfied like not many other times in your life. I guess we are drawn to the feeling what you get when you sail around the world, climb on the top of the Matterhorn, or walk through the Death Valley, etc. For each task you're doing, you get a direct feedback. If you have put up your tent sloppy, you know it the next morning, when your sleeping bag is wet. If you forgot to close the food-box, you will hear the bears having party with your food all night long and you will eat from now on only fish (if you catch some...).
How long is your average float trip?
For a first float, I recommend not to choose a river that is too long. 60-80 miles is doable in 5-7 days. The perfect lengths for me are 7-8 nights for 70 Miles, 11-12 nights for 100 Miles. Depends on the flow currency of the river. I would plan at least one night per each 10 miles. Then you can stay the first night at the drop in point and have a night at the drop off point. On the float you can stay 2-3 times a second night at the same spot and you don't have to pack all the stuff every day. The last river I floated was 100 Miles and we were 9 nights on the river. If the fishing is good, you never have enough time on the river, if the fishing and the weather is bad, you are happy for each day you can go home earlier. Depends a lot on your skills in self-motivation (shut up and enjoy it!!)
Do you map out your trip in detail so that you know about where you will stop each night?
I map out the river in the planning phase to detect critical passages. Google Earth helps a lot, but topo maps gives you the best picture. That helps by the decision which kind of raft we have to take. And I can see, if there are a lot of huge bends which slows water down or passages where it is probably really slow flowing water, like a lake. If you have wind against you on such passages over several miles, you have to plan one or two days extra or you have to organize an outside board motor for the raft. In the worst case, I would switch to another river, based on the details from the map. By my first floats, I had a GPS on me, which helped me to locate us on a topographical map. You need to know, how much distance you have done and how much you still have to do, for planning the next days. If you see, you are in good shape, you can stay another night at the same phenomenal pool. But if you see, you are days behind your plan, you will paddle through the next nights. The Airtaxi will come exactly at the day, you told him. If you are there or not, it's not the problem of the Pilot. A few years ago, I found in the Appstore two really helpful Apps, called Topo Maps and TopoPoint. In both apps you can download at home via WiFi the Topomap on your Iphone, as a local copy (download both, just as backup, if one is not working). The maps are the official topographical maps from U.S.Geological Survey and are for free use in the apps, scale is mostly 1:63,360. If you have downloaded the right map, you can locate yourself at the river and the App shows you where exactly you are on the topo-map, how much distance you have done since the last location and how much distance is to do. You don't need any Mobile-Signal - GPS Locator is included in the most Smartphones.
How do you choose each float trip location so that you know you will have a good fishing experience on a river that is good for float trips?
First of all you have to decide which kind of fish is your target. And you have to know, on a float-trip it is impossible to freeze salmon for taking home and keep it frozen for many days. If you want to keep salmon, catch them in the last miles of the river. You have to catch the salmon at the last 2-3 days of the float and you can cool the fish in the river. The most stress-less fishing is, if you don't plan to take fish out of the river. Go after the float a few days onto the Kenai Peninsula and catch Salmon and Halibut there. You will have there a great fishing, fish processing from the pro's and you can enjoy the float trip without thinking about your catch-rates during the time on the river. For choosing the right river, you need a portion of luck and a good feeling by doing research in google. Most people go too early on a river for a specific kind of salmon. I'm doing an example: you read on the website from a lodge, which is located on the river or next to it, that the best fishing for silvers is in last week of August. You check the fish counts from Alaska Department of Fish & Game from that river you see there the same, but the next week are still fish coming into the river. So you think you have to be the last week of August on the river, if you want to catch Cohos. That's completely wrong! The lodges are mostly located in the last third part of the river and they fish from there a few miles up and down the river. The Count Stations from Alaska Department of Fish & Game are as well down where the river drops into the ocean. As you know, salmons rises up the river, what means the week later, the Cohos are further up the river. And what is also not written on the lodges website: they shot down the operation the first of September. In this case, I would plan to start the float somewhere 3rd of September. At this time I will be alone on the river, and will have cohos from the first river miles on. And if I decided not to take fish from the river for processing, I'll be completely relaxed, if I don't catch the last days fresh cohos. But what's for sure: if the Cohos started late to get in to the river, I'm still at the right time on the river.
What was your worst/most difficult float trip experience?
There is not really a bad moment. I made a few mistakes by choosing not the right persons on a float (you will get to know your friends from new). Since then, I know what the guides has a hard job. Bad weather or fishing over several days can press down the general humor and the mood of the group. Therefore you need people on the group, which can motivate each other and are willing to be flexible. They have to change perhaps their fishing methods to catch other species of fish. With the wrong people, you can get into a bad feeling for the whole group and that we have at home on work enough - you're here on holidays, you booked outdoor, so shut up and enjoy whatever you get!!
Did you have to get any permits to do your Alaska float trips?
You need just the official fishing license from the State of Alaska. And a King-Stamp, if you want catch Kings/Chinooks. Some rivers, or part of it, are under control from native cooperations, and you need a land permit to get out of the river and walk on the ground. The local Airtaxi-Operator knows that all and will tell you, where you can get them.
What species of fish did you catch while in Alaska?
Depending to the time of the year, you can catch all five species of Pacific Salmon. May/June/July you can catch Kings, Sockeyes. Later you will catch Pinks, Chums and Cohos. Early or late in the year, you can catch Steelheads. Rainbow, Graylings, Dolly Varden/Arctic Chars and Lake Trouts you can catch during the whole year. In some rivers/lakes you can catch Northern Pike, Pearch, Namyacush and Sheefish. In brackish water, sometimes you catch with your fly a small halibut.
How did you get to the starting point of your float trip in Alaska and who picked you up at the end?
I arranged a bush-pilot to drop us of and then pick us up at a pre-arranged place & date/time.
Starting point is mostly a lake where the Airplane can land on it. Pickup is mostly a big large bend, a lagoon or direct by the river delta into the ocean. The Pilot will give you the coordinates where he will put you out and pick you up. He also can give you also a lot more informations from the river you want to float. Most Airtaxi-Operators will give you actual informations about the salmon-run, weather, river conditions and advise you of an alternate option in case of bad situations.
How do you transport all of your gear while traveling internationally?
As a European, it is hard to bring my own boat or campingstuff with me. In Anchorage, there are several outfitters, where you can rent all the gear you need. My outfitter offers additionally to buy and pack the food previously, following our shopping list. Before we arrive in Anchorage, all the gear and food is already sent via cheap cargo to the Airtaxi-Operator. When we arrive in Anchorage from Europe, we stay mostly one night in Anchorage, buy at this day fresh food like bread, meat, fruits, fishing tackle and take that all in our luggage on us to the Airtaxi the next day. By coming back from the float, we send the Camp- and Boatgear again as Cargo back to Anchorage.
Have you ever had an injury or emergency while on a float trip?
Fortunately not. Everybody which is coming with me, knows, that he has to watch his self. I tell the guys every time before we start the float: "keep an eye on your self and the buddy next to you! Each time before you jump from rock to rock or out of the raft or using a knife, or holding a gun or walking in to the woods, think about your plan and your next step! I can't drive you quickly to the next hospital where they fix you, while your wife holds your hand and tells you "good boy!". If you get injured, we have to improvise, till at least we floated down the river to the pickup point. Last time we had a satphone with us, because we were only two persons in the group. If one of us breaks a leg or an arm, we were been really screwed and we would be happy, if we could do an emergency call. But normally when we are at least 3 people, we don't have a sat phone on us.
What about bears?
Meet them as your friends and be happy, if you can get their acquaintance. They are so impressive animals. Just sit down and watch them. You will forget the fishing, the river, the weather, everything around you - you will just enjoy their presence and their respect to you. If you are walking in unclear terrain, let the bears know, that you are here. Sing, speak loud. As soon you have seen a bear, you can decide what to do. Depending on his reaction about your presence. If he is doing that what he was doing before, fishing for example, you can sit down and watch him. If the bears gets interested in you, show him, that this would be a bad idea. Scream at him, throw a stone at him and make you big by holding your arms in the air. The bear will stop and turn back. At that moment, you slowly go back from where you came. If you meet bears on the river, while you're floating, jump out of the boat and take a break. Let the bears know that you're here and walk slowly down river. The bears will step back and let you pass.
What was your best day of fishing on a float trip?
I don't have a best day but one of the stories which we tell us each time we are sitting in a float plane, flying to the drop off point, is following one: As we flew to the Karluk in 2009 the first time, the pilot followed the river upstream. We were three persons. One of us was really afraid and nervous about the bears on the River. As we were flying following the river, he loudly let us know, that he can see several bears fishing in the river. The other guy and me calmed him down and told him, that he misinterpreted the big brown stones in the river. No wonder, he didn't carried his glasses! He calmed down, but my friend and I knew: we will have a problem; the river under us was full of bears. After we landed, we walked to the outlet of the Karluk Lake and there were around 10 bears fishing in the river. The guy freaked out: "how will we float down the river with the raft? Doing Slalom through them, or what?". But we saw the next day, that the bears stepped out of the water, as soon we came with the raft and waited till we have passed them. After passing them, they stepped back in the river and started from new their job. Since then applies: every bear is primary a big brown stone, till he moves.
What is your most memorable catch?
Hard to say by all that fish but for sure some of the Kings on the fly running behind them, while the backing of your flyline rips off your hand, I will never forget. Or that grayling in a slow bend of the river, which rised up on my dryfly in the midnight sun. Or that small rainbow trout, which is chasing the mouse several times, but the mouse was too big for this tiny buddy. You will earn so much memories, you will be overwhelmed the first days with impressions, feelings, moments.
Which was your favorite float trip?
Same like the catches - hard to say. Each river had his own character and was an adventure on its own. I floated two times the Karluk River on Kodiak, Starting October. That was a complete new experience because of the bears and the cold weather. We had from the first miles permanently bears around us. Sometimes, there where ten bears fishing with us at the same spot. During a day, by floating down the river, we met over twenty bears at the same day. During the nights we had 14 grad Fahrenheit. In the morning, we had to thaw first the toothpaste in the underpants (which wakes you really up!) and put the waders and shoes into the river, because they were completely frozen. During the nights we could hear the bears walking around our tents and sniffing at our stuff. We never had a problem with them. They were curious, but never aggressive. Every time very respectfull, as we were with them. Keep the comfort distance for the bear and you, and you will never have a problem with a bear. That was really an awesome experience. On top we caught per day 10-20 Steelheads and Monster-Cohos in the Karluk - that was heaven on earth, done by myself J. But I will also never forget the Cohos on the Kanektok River, which was catchable with Surface-Streamer (Wigglers). That was top! Every float, every river, every fish is unique and gives you a lifetime memory.
Anything else you'd like to share?
One last thing: without my wife, I couldn't do and enjoy such trips. She is taking care the whole time of the kids, manages all the stuff at home and supports me before, during and after such a trip with her patience, strength and love. This keeps the horizon free for enjoying without any bad feelings such an adventure!