Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Van Named Fred (Part 2 of My Alaska Trip)

Here is the second installment of my Alaska Fishing trip.  I have included the same video with this post (at the bottom) that I had in Part 1 since it covers the entire trip.

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

Link to Part 4

Day 2 (Moving Campgrounds)
To say that I was exhausted after staying up nearly all night getting to Alaska and then fishing till sundown at 10:30 PM and eating dinner and reorganizing my gear till well past midnight would be an understatement.  Needless to say, I slept in well past 8:00 AM, had a hardy breakfast of backpacker eggs and bacon (they were dehydrated and actually very good), brewed a cup of coffee (thanks to Starbucks Via), broke camp at Cooper Creek Campground and prepared to move to the Russian River Campground.  You might ask why I didn't just start at the Russian River Campground if that is where I wanted to fish anyway.  Well because the Russian River Campground is so popular, you can only camp there for 3 nights in a row regardless if there are openings (which usually there are not).  I decided that I would reserve the Russian for Thursday through Sunday morning and I camped at Cooper Creek the first night (Wednesday) to get me close to the fishing.

Breakfast of champions!
As I began to leave the Cooper Creek Campground, I noticed that there was a small name tag on the driver window of my Van.  It said "FRED".  Then I looked at my key chain and also noticed it said "FRED".  Well, it seems that my van has a name.  From that point on in my trip, I began to speak to my van as if it was a person in my group of one.  "Come-on Fred, let's get going, the fish aren't going to just jump into my cooler".  There is fishing to be done!

I arrived at the Russian River Campground, but I couldn't check into my camping spot until after 2:00 PM so I just got a parking permit and went fishing in the mean time.  Once I made it down to the fishing area at the confluence, I saw several familiar faces from fishing the day before.  They gave me a hard time for rolling in late (around 9:00 AM) asking if I got enough beauty sleep.  I told them that you don't get this handsome by just rolling out of bed in the early dawn.  I could tell it had been a good morning for everyone as many stringers were full of fish and although the bite was slowing, it was still going well.

Finding a spot to fish along a line of fisherman (and fisherwomen) is a delicate thing here.  Large numbers of people fishing together is called "Combat Fishing" in Alaska and it means that you have to claim a spot and defend it as the fishing pressure is high along the choice areas.  I hung back and waited for an opportunity.  There was a family fishing along a good stretch of the river when the mother decided that she had enough and she would take a seat near some others in her party.  I saw my opportunity and seized it.  One thing that I had noticed the day before was that the people who were most successful fishing all seemed to be wearing polarized sunglasses.  I had not been wearing mine yesterday since I was wearing my glasses.  Today I would not make that mistake.  I stepped up to the fishing spot and stripped out some line from my fly rod.  I gazed into the water and saw several red spawned out salmon moving past me.  There were surely some good "chromer" salmon (this is what Alaskan's call fresh salmon that are still in good shape to eat as they are fresh from the ocean) with them and every once in a while you could see the flash of a tale from one of them.  Today I had everything in order.  There was adequate weight on my line, my fly was trimmed down like others had shown me, and I was confident I knew what I was doing.  After only a couple of casts, BAM!  Fish On!  I hooped as the fish took off and it was immediately obvious that this was a nice "chromer".  After a good fight, he was on the beach and I quickly dispatched him with a rock.  The lady who had been in this spot earlier had returned as I was tending to my fish and she slipped into my spot.  This is actually a combat fishing no no since I was still fishing and only pulled back to take care of my fish.   Instead of approaching this in a confrontational manner, I just asked her if she would like me to take the next slot down instead of the place where I had been fishing before.  She knew that I was politely claiming my spot and said "oh, were you fishing here?   I will move down.".  Southern country charm works every time.   As I made my way back to the line to fish she said with a smile "you know I been fishing in that spot for two hours without a bite and you just walked up and caught a fish, that is really aggravating!".  I had just been lucky and happened to be in the right place at the right time, but it still made me feel like I was getting the hang of this.  Then I was in the middle of a back cast when I saw a salmon swim right up to me.  I was so confused I attempted to change my cast mid swing and ended up hooking my self in the lip (OUCH!).  Luckily the hook didn't penetrate to the barb so removal was easy, but my ego was badly bruised (note to self: be humble).

The fishing slowed down considerably after that as it seemed like the fish just weren't migrating upstream like they had been early in the morning.  After cleaning my fish I went back to FRED (the van) and vacuum sealed this fish and the one from the night before.  Prior to arriving in Alaska I had researched places in the area that process fish and those that provide freezer services.  The charges range from $0.70 per pound to several dollars per pound depending upon what you want them to do (for example they can: clean the fish for you, fillet them, vacuum seal them, freeze them, smoke them, and/or ship them via Fedex).  The books that I read said that, if possible, I should bring a vacuum sealer to cut down on the services I would need to purchase from the fish processors.  Luckily the previous Christmas my Dad had given me a portable Food-saver vacuum sealer that can work on 110 volt or 12 volt, so I was prepared.   With this tool I was able to clean the fish and cut them into fillets and then vacuum seal them myself.  I only needed to freeze the fish and there just happened to be a business a mile or two down the road that just happened to offer this service called the Kenai Cache.  After a quick trip to the Kenai Cache to deposit my fish and pick-up a few more salmon flies, I was back to the campground and ready to check-in to my campground spot.  I wanted to get back to the fishing as soon as possible, so sandwiches were on the menu for lunch.  Food always tastes so good when you are camping.  I don't know if it is because you are outside, or because you are so hungry, but whatever the reason that was the best salami sandwich I have ever had!

Once I made it back to the river it was really late in the afternoon.  I didn't have much luck for most of the evening, but I enjoyed visiting with the other fisherman and fisherwomen about where they were from, how long they had been here fishing, and stories about the area.  As I walked the bank looking for a better spot to fish, the back of my legs just above my ankles were killing me.  My wading boots were digging into my legs for some reason.  I tried to grunt through the pain that afternoon, but I vowed I would fix this somehow when I got back to camp.  I looked a little gimpy as I tried to find a way to walk that didn't inflict pain on my legs.  I finally settled into a spot that looked promising and began doing the Kenai flip by drifting my fly in hopes of intercepting a nice salmon.  My first fish felt different as he took the fly and as I got him in he seemed a little small for a Salmon.  Then I realized it was a really big Dolly Varden.  Theres fish are simillar to Trout and Artic Char.  He was a magnificent fish, but I had to release him because we are only allowed to keep one Dolly Varden per day and that fish mush be under 16 inches.  It was a bonus to have caught him.  As the evening drew on, the fishing picked up.  I landed three very nice and very large sockeye all within an hour.  I ended up leaving the river with time to cook dinner before it was dark (so I could actually get to bed at a decent time).  It was a good feeling having a heavy stringer full of fish as I made my way past other fisherman still casting for their catch.  I headed toward the cleaning tables to transform these fish into beautiful fillets.

The cleaning tables I mentioned are stainless steel tables that have been placed out in the Kenai river to entice fisherman that clean their fish at the river to do so in the deeper water.  This is so the fisherman will throw the remains in the deep areas of the stream instead of the bank as this would attract bears.  I saw another bear that evening.  Just before I arrived at the cleaning tables, he (the bear) had bounded onto the stream bank and grabbed a fish (I don't know if he caught it or if he took another fisherman's fish).  He had retreated into the brush about 30 yards to eat his catch.  I joined a few other fisherman watching him enjoy his meal.  It was a large Black Bears and he really seemed to be savoring his salmon meal.

See the red sign at the bottom describes how you should use the cleaning tables

Once I was back to camp and FRED, I celebrated with fresh salmon over the campfire and ranch style beans.  Then I began to operate on my wading boots.  I took out my multi tool and used the knife blade to remove the back portion of the "high top" area so that it wouldn't rub my leg.  I was concerned that once I did this, the shoes would quickly fall apart, but they held together throughout the trip and were much more pleasant to walk in.

I gathered my gear for the next day, set my alarm for an early start the next morning and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow!

(To Be Continued In The Next Post)

Just in case you didn't see Part 1 of this series, here is the summary video contained in my first post.

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