“Congrats, boys, we made it,” the three of us cheer, spitting flies at each other. These things get into every orifice known to man. I couldn’t cover up enough. Our only option was putting our heads down and getting to work, besides our gear was soaking in salmon decay. Thoughts of my father razzing me about forgetting a mosquito mask, which weighs nothing, rings in my ears. I packed for months, and I leave that at home. The tests come quickly out here. For every magnificent creation Alaska holds, there is an opposing force tapping at your sanity. You can stand gawking for only so long, until the elements take over. I’ve heard certain people are inclined to pay good money for this sort of thing.
“Good thing I brought my mosquito net,” James chuckled patronizingly. Doing without, Will and I enshroud ourselves in every bit of clothing we have, and rather quickly there were three Water Master Rafts floating on Karluk Lake. Once our remaining gear was secure on our vessels, we focus on why we came this far. I couldn’t wait to get a line in the water. Each and every expedition to Alaska has exposed me to the best fishing of my life, and this could be even better. After swatting flies, tying on flies, and volleying tactics back and forth, the three of us tackled this puzzle pretty much the same way. Last year my brother had spent hours in front of his vise, and then presented me with a birthday present consisting of several dozen beautiful steelhead/salmon patterns. These flies are my brother, and scanning over them I feel him over my shoulder. I plucked a peach colored intruder and secure it to my line with confidence. I had two set ups in mind for this trip; a traditional nymphing set up, and a Spey set up loaded with my brother’s creations. I have yet to catch a fish using a traditional spey technique and was determined to do so using my own gear. My cohorts pretty much followed suit. James is the “Bead Master” after guiding the Kenai for so many years, so relying on his goods will happen, but otherwise, I wanted to be self-sufficient, and use the gear I brought.
Man, these bugs are killing me. Several hundred yards from where we are stationed, are thousand-pound grizzly bears, and I am fussing about the bugs. It was dead calm, except for a random Sockeye rolling on the surface. Just a slight breeze would help, anything to move these things away from my face. Feeling the sun warm my back, I row out into the glass trying to distance myself from the stench, searching for a gap in the swarm. Turns out, flies can fly, and all I did was break a chunk of the swarm away from James and Will. I’ve never felt more alive; suspended in gin clear water, hearing the silence, and wondering what lies ahead.
The Gauntlet finally begins with the three of us easing around a shallow bank and gently sliding into the Karluk River. A long shallow bend pushed the current away from us, leaving the opposite bank free for us to park our rafts away from the thick brush. I peel line off my reel and flip a bit of line out as I combat the flies that are now inside my sunglasses. Before I could make a real cast, a brightly colored Dolly Varden brought my rod tight. I can’t see anything; I just felt my line swimming away from me. I look up to see if my buddies happened to partake in my great pleasure, only to see them preoccupied with fish themselves. We hadn’t even floated twenty yards. We claim our spot, and for the next hour we land more fish than the cameras or the insects could keep up with. Every cast, every drift, even casting an imitation mouse pattern landed James a gorgeous Rainbow Trout. Which is always a treat for any fly fisherman. Can we get some kind of breeze? I guess I have to complain about something. Wait a minute, drunk from all this fun, I haven’t even looked around, and bear alley lies between us and our campsite tonight. I still don’t know how I am going to react. This all seems too surreal to me. I’m invading the territory of one of the largest predators on earth trying to do the same thing they are.
Purposely, I let the two, carrying .44 pistols, lead the way around the next bend. With no bears fishing, we park the boats and again land fish on every drift here as well. It sounded like recess at an elementary school as we whooped and hollered with every scooping of the net. “Oh my god We alternate netting, playing, and photographing each other’s prizes, making as much commotion as possible. It never hurts to express yourself in bear country. We knew they were close; I check my bear spray again; this is crazy!
The Karluk is a very shallow river, where I never found water over my waist the entire twenty-two miles. This allows us to stay inside our boats and walk down the middle of the river, avoiding the heavily vegetated banks. Will turned on some music, I fumbled for my whistle, and James led us around the next blind corner.
“Hey bear, HEY BIG BEAR,” shouted James as Will and I stumble in closer to James. Anchored in the middle of the river stood a massive male Kodiak bear with a bright red sockeye salmon hanging from its teeth. He is incredible, one of the planet’s apex predators standing fifty yards away. He could be here faster than I could put my fly rod away. I re-acquainted myself with my can of bear spray strapped to my side, while my heart beat out of my chest. I took video, then didn’t. I wailed on my whistle and took video. Then I didn’t. I didn’t know what to do but make as much noise as I possibly could. This is my first bear encounter, and I’m paying as much attention to my buddies as the bears, and feeding off everyone’s body language. I film some more. We raise hell and make ourselves as large as possible until the big guy catches our scent and bolts across river and up the side of the mountain. Whew, thank god, I can’t believe that thing was actually scared of us.
“Oh my god that was crazy. Man was that thing fast,” I threw out not knowing what else to say.
I forgot to mention, that after walking this river for a while now, I find it extremely slippery. The river bed is coated in spawned-out dead salmon carcasses. I can’t get solid footing anywhere. So running away is not going to happen. I have been stumbling around with every fish so far. This troubles me.
“That was a big boy,” James echoed with a hint of concern.
“Holy crap I guess,” was all I could muster.
One down, thirty-nine to go. James never put his rod down and quickly reminded us that we came here to fish. I compartmentalize and we press forward creeping around the next bend settling on some fantastic looking water that was unoccupied. At this point going anywhere near the bank is out of the question. I am positioning myself between the two .44’s and not concerned about my angling techniques. My heafor good measured is on a swivel, and all of a sudden, I feel very small, insignificant, and obtrusive. I am invading this wild and pristine place, disrupting the fish and menacing the bears. Who am I to think I can just walk in here and expect safe passage from these beasts? I was intimidated, and for a moment, I felt a bit selfish. Alaska does that to you, it humbles you. For every bit of magic you experience, a host of antagonists will feed on your weaknesses.
Reality creeps back in as I fixate on James spreading cream cheese over a Best Western bagel, and I notice there aren’t any flies in my ears, and there is nothing crawling up my nose. A cool breeze has delicately whisked our little irritants away, and a bagel on the side of the river made everything seem all right. It was mid-afternoon and time was irrelevant as we navigated four miles of the greatest fishing we have put our hands to. Admittedly, I had trouble soaking in the serenity of it all. Every bend had a least two enormous mounds of flesh and teeth. The bears were hypnotic and served me a cocktail of exhilaration and fear only I myself could build tolerance to. I was fulfilling a lifetime desire, while an unknown anxiety surged through my veins. I find it difficult to focus on fishing.
“Don’t look them in the eye,” Will instructed me, as one young boar became a bit too curious.
Those several hours wading through the Kodiak gauntlet are a blur. I blew my whistle wearing my voice thin, as we chase the world’s apex predators out of our fishing holes into the thickets beyond the banks. There was a silence around the next several bends and we started to sense solitude again. Back to fish on the brain and I wanted to finally land my first Silver Salmon, so we regrouped.
“Whew, that was intense,” I exhale, wiping the sweat from my brow. Dodging all these bears distracted me from how wonderful it was outside. The sun warmed my face.
“No kidding. There were some big boys in there,” Will added sipping from his Nalgene bottle. “Let’s catch some fish,” James announced, splashing downstream accompanied by several loud “HEY BEARS’,” for good measure.
Within minutes the circus began again. We swap duties making sure every wild fish was netted, photographed and enjoyed by all. Watching Will raise the net capturing my first Silver, while James was filming the entire escapade, made this a lifetime catch. I’ll never forget that fish. Massive brown bears have slowly dissipated from my thoughts as I experience a time of angling unimaginable. We stumble and slip through fish after fish finessing a long s-curve which eventually settled into a long straightaway. Trailing the scene, I hear;
“HEY BEAR, HEY BIG BEAR!” barks James at a gigantic brown blob encapsulating a car size boulder. It looked like a chocolate covered cupcake taking a nap. By this time, tone of voice was paramount. The experience of today’s events has armed us with our own alarm system. Making noise, as opposed to actual confrontation, elicits an entirely different response. We froze, and the hairs on my neck stood up.
The blob slides backwards off the rock, raises its nose catching a whiff, and scampers through the brush before I could get out another “HEY BEAR.”
“We need to start thinking about settling in for the night,” James remarks navigating us through Kodiak Island via the “Onx App” on his phone. Night time, I had forgotten about the dark, and speaking of bedding down in this madness, I haven’t seen a tree, a twig, or anything combustible. The banks are fenced with grass and shrubs smothered in dead fish carcasses. Our river narrows, settling us into a stagnant, smooth slick a football field in length. Then appeared the only gravel bar I recall seeing all day. Swinging one of my brother’s creations downstream, I hook into an angry chromed out silver heading directly towards Will and James who are unloading gear.
“Fish on,” I yell making sure everything hears me. “Need a net?” Will propositioned as I ease my way towards him. What a way to end the first day. As Will scoops the net, the angry one jumps, shakes its head, and throws my brother’s work of art back at me.
“Well that was fun, Hey Bear!” I shouted reeling in my line looking over my shoulder. “I think this is our spot,” announces James, with no argument from us.
“What a day,” we utter in unison. Setting up camp was a thing of beauty and would be repeated many times over the next four days. Everyone took care of themselves and at the same time we all took care of each other. Nothing had to be said. No orders given, no frustration, just a world class camp on Kodiak Island. We managed to scrounge some wood and nestle close to a semi hot fire. Every piece of flammable material contains moisture, and carrying sticks in one hand while holding bear spray in the other seemed ridiculous. So, we snacked on cheese and crackers while the fifteen minutes elapsed on the transformation of our freeze-dried lasagna. As the mountains shoulder the last of our burnt orange sky and the stars illuminate like fire flies, we crawl out of our waders and into our tents. Contrary to advertisement, there is not a lot of room for two people in a two-person tent. Nonetheless, I was willing to sacrifice if it kept me closer to Will’s .44 mag. I’m exhausted and mentally drained. I spend the next hour, nestled in my sleeping bag, staring at the “Marmot” logo at my feet completely blown away by what I just experienced. Hopefully the bears are snoring. Hopefully I don’t have to pee.
Jeremie Loble is head of production Water Master Rafts in Stevensville, MT. He has been building rafts since 2000. He is a graduate from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in Business Management. He divides his time between his addiction to fish, and raising his two daughters. Born and raised in Montana, Jeremie has devoted over forty years towards angling, hunting, and conservation. His goals each angling season include: fishing a new body of water, catching a new species, putting in more angling days than the previous year, and most importantly, go fishing with someone new.