Mike Mercer’s 2023 Hosted Alaska Lodge Trips
Royal Wolf Lodge – August 4-11, 2023
Lava Creek Lodge – August 13-20, 2023

Royal Wolf Lodge:
Flying out of Redding has made our traveling easier in many situations here at The Fly Shop, and my case was no exception. It allowed me to depart Redding at 5pm on August 3 rd and be comfortably checked into my Anchorage hotel by 11pm that evening, after one brief stop and plane change in Seattle. I stayed at the Clarion Suites downtown, as they are only a 15-minute taxi drive from the air charter services both lodges use at Merrill Field. The Clarion had the feel of a hotel that had once been high-end, and was now looking a bit tired. Overall, though, it was mostly clean and with a good bed and all the necessary features. And it was significantly cheaper at $350/night than the newer hotels and those close to the international airport, most of which are currently running in the $500-$600/night range during high season. The Clarion doesn’t have an airport shuttle, so I took a taxi from the international airport, about a 20-minute drive in the late evening.

The Royal Wolf Lodge charter, Lake and Pen Air, left Merrill Field on the 4th at 4 pm, the Caravan stopping off briefly at Port Alsworth (LPA’s home base) before continuing on to Iliamna, arriving at about 5 pm. The 30 minutes prior to landing at Port Alsworth is a spectacularly beautiful flight, flying just above the mountain tops on clear days; I’ve done it a lot over the years and it never gets old.

View of the snow covered mountains while flying to Royal Wolf Lodge

Landing in Iliamna, lodge owner Chad Hewitt and crew were waiting for us (all the week’s guests were on the flight), quickly unloading all our luggage into their trucks and loading anglers into a large van. A 10-minute drive brought us to Chad’s impressive float plane facility on Pikes Lake, where he runs logistics for his six lodges in the area. Everyone gets to fly from Iliamna to the lodge in one of his five meticulously kept Beavers; Chad loves to fly more than just about anyone I know, and it shows in the beautiful condition of his aircraft.

View of the beautiful forest from the cabin window at Royal Wolf Lodge

As many times as I’ve been to Royal Wolf Lodge, I never cease to marvel at the beauty of its setting on a hill, flanked by two lakes on one side (used as launching pads for their floatplanes daily), the Nonvianuk River on the other, and trackless wilderness everywhere. Idling the Beavers to the shore of one of the lakes, we were all helped to the bank on wooden walkways, and shuttled up the hill to the lodge and our cabins for the week in brand new 6-passenger side by side vehicles, a nice touch. Since purchasing the lodge a year ago, Chad and especially his manager, Nate Morris, have made numerous small but significant upgrades to the facility, and are currently building two new lakeside guest chalets which will open two current guest cabins to transition to staff quarters. They’ve also added a number of new jet boats, motors and rafts to the program, which made our boat days even more enjoyable.

After settling into our cabins, we found our way to the main lodge and the awaiting – and amazing – hors d’oeuvres and drinks. Sitting in the comfortable chairs and couches, gazing out the huge windows overlooking the surrounding wilderness, one couldn’t help but feel that “it doesn’t get much better than this”. As everyone moved to the tables for our first of many incredible meals, Nate stood and gave a great, casual, and informative orientation talk that let everyone know what to expect in the coming week. He then called the head guide, Scott O’Donnell, up to give his fishing orientation speech, which he did a great job on, whetting everyone’s angling appetite for what the week would hold for us. He explained that we were at the front end of the sockeye egg drop, so would concentrate on the streams they knew already held lots of big rainbows, and that this list of rivers would probably increase as the week wore on and the salmon spawn increased everywhere. And that, as has always been the style at Royal Wolf, guests can sleep in a bit and enjoy a casual breakfast before flying out between 8-9am. This allows everyone to relax and enjoy their vacation, as well as gain the benefit of a few prime afternoon fishing hours all to themselves after all the other lodges – who are flying guests out in the morning just after daybreak – bring their clients home. We ate the first of our week’s delicious and beautifully-prepared dinners, then retired to our cabins for the night, excited for what the morning would bring.

Guide, Tatiana, getting extra water out of the boat while the float plane takes off

The first day Scott asked if I would like to try the Kvichak with their guide, Tatiana, so I said of course! It was a bit of an exploratory day as it was early for the Kvichak, but there were a few sockeyes around and they expected the big Iliamna Lake fish to be nosing in any day. Tatiana is a Native gal who has spent most of her life in Igiugig and Kokhanok, and she was fascinating to spend the day with, as I got a window into life in the villages. Tati has been guiding the Kvichak for years for a few of the different lodges on the river, and she is great at her job – she knows that river extremely well. She had me wade fishing a few places, but mostly we fished from her anchored jet boat. It was a fun day…I’d only made a few casts at the very first place we anchored just below Igiugig when an unmanned jet boat floated by! Tati knew whose it was, so got on her cell phone and called her sister in the village (how things have changed in the bush), and as we caught and anchored the boat near shore her sister appeared in another jet boat. So I got to meet her, then she brought the boat back up to wherever it belonged. Not 30 minutes later another empty boat floated past, and Tati was incredulous, saying in all her years there she had never seen two “floaters” in the same 6 months, let alone the same day! She called her brother this time, and minutes later he appeared in another boat to capture this second runaway. Tati has no use for local politics, but is active in numerous local conservation efforts, and showed me a few of the things on the river she has been involved in. She also showed me where one of the original villages was located on the river, and some details about it. As well, she has been both a student and instructor in Nanci Morris Lyon’s fly fishing schools for local Native kids. At one point during our day the motor conked out, and it was impressive to see her work on it for 20 minutes and get it up and running again…I was especially happy as we were an hour downriver from where the floatplane was going to pick us up! I caught a handful of nice rainbows on streamers, and while the fishing wasn’t on fire, it was a memorable day.

Guides inflating rafts while anglers gear up

On day two I fished the middle Moraine with guests Dan Conklin from Redding and his friend Mark Neale, and guides Mac and Caleb. The wind was howling, with gusts to 50mph…the flight to Crosswinds Lake was really fast with a tailwind! Landing at the lake, both guides shouldered a 50-pound pack, then clean-and-jerked a 60-pound raft onto their shoulders on top of the backpack!! These guys are beasts!! On top of that they had to walk half a mile across the tundra and then descend a vertical cliff to the river…must be nice to be young. Mac is a big guy and a Hot Shot firefighter, so I could see it wasn’t a huge effort for him; Caleb is a smaller, wiry guy, and I thought he would blow his spine right out of his back! But they both got the job done, and we soon found our way to the riverbank, surrounded by a dozen bears from 20-200 feet away at any given time as the guides inflated the rafts we would use to float the river. It was a fun day for everyone as there were good numbers of fish in that part of the river, including decent numbers of fish between 23-28 inches. Dan and Mark were deadly with the beads and enjoyed good action. A highlight for me was a heavy-bodied, 28” buck that Mac guided me into with a swung streamer. He put me right on the spot, an unassuming-looking tailout that gave me a long, slow swing, using a sculpin he ties himself. Right where he predicted it would happen the line came tight, I struck, and the fish lumbered downriver about 100 yards, an impressive run. The fish’s tail had been a bit beaten up by sockeyes, but otherwise it was a beautiful specimen.

Mike Mercer holding a leopard rainbow trout at Royal Wolf Lodge

At day’s end the guides deflated the rafts and did another vertical death-climb up to the tundra plain above – luckily Pothole Lake is much closer to the river, shortening the overall hike for them. Pothole is too small of a lake for the Beaver to take off with five people and their gear, so they shuttled 3 of the group and gear over to a nearby larger lake, then came back for Mac and I. We all loaded up at the large lake, and it was a short 15- minute flight back to the lodge, where an unbelievable prime rib dinner and a dessert to die for awaited.

Mike Mercer holding a leopard rainbow trout on the Gibraltar RiverDay three found Dan, Paul and I floating the Gibraltar River, a picture-perfect trout stream flowing seven miles between Gibraltar and Iliamna lakes. I have had spectacular fishing here in the past, but a combination of extremely low water and a heavy run of sockeyes had kept most of the big lake rainbows from entering the river yet (a couple of weeks later it began fishing like its old self, I learned). Each boat landed one big rainbow and a smattering of smaller fish for the day, and we enjoyed the beautiful float despite the lack of fish. At day’s end we rowed out into Lake Iliamna (an enormous ocean of a freshwater lake) and were surprised to catch a few fish just casting out blindly! Only in Alaska. Back to the lodge and a hot shower, followed by hors d’ouevres and a cold drink. And after a first course of Bloody Mary shrimp cocktail, bacon-wrapped scallops, and red crab toast…who needs an entrée?!!

Day four began with another amazing breakfast, the usual combination of a main entrée and a variety of other options, some plated and some available at a buffet table. There’s no losing weight at Royal Wolf – their food is delicious and superbly prepared and presented, and there is lots of it. And after each meal there is the infamous cookie jar in a window overlooking the lake…somehow always brimming with the flavor of the day despite my best efforts to empty it. Brothers Dan and Bill Conklin and I floated the Lower Moraine, a different stretch of river than two days earlier. This beat began at Pothole Lake and ended on a long straightaway just upstream of Kukaklek Lake. Not a big numbers day, it was very impressive in terms of the average size of trout…most of those I landed were between 23 and 28 inches, and many I was able to spot in the river before stalking them, and watched as they drifted over to eat my bead. I love visual fishing to big trout!

Dan Conklin with his guide a beautiful leopard rainbow trout

The largest fish of the day for me (a big leopard rainbow fully as large as the sockeyes it was holding behind) actually took twice, with me missing it the first time. It was so exciting to see him commit a second time and come tight, then watch as he exploded out of the water on feeling the hook! Dan had an epic battle with a big rainbow that struck in deep, heavy water and immediately ripped upstream, the fly line making an audible tearing sound as it struggled to keep up with the fish. I was just downstream and from the sheer, uncontrollable power of the run and the way the fish stayed deep I assumed he’d foul-hooked a salmon, so was only mildly interested. It wasn’t until late in the fight that a glimpse of blue in the depths made me catch my breath and I immediately began exhorting Dan to “be careful!” Probably less than helpful, in hindsight, but soon after the guide was lifting the big trout for a picture, so kudos to Dan for not letting my anxiety rattle him! We all had good days, landing big trout that Alaska is famous for, and hooking and losing fish that always seem even larger. I was floating with a guide in training, and it was a blast – he was a superb saltwater guide specializing in tarpon, permit, and bonefish, was likely the best caster on the entire river that day, and had just a fantastic attitude…but he had never fished in fresh water or caught a trout. I was honored to “guide” him into his first ever rainbow trout, a stellar 26-inch specimen that dragged him yelling and screaming in unadulterated joy downriver. Watching him cradle the spotted beauty in calm water, hands shaking with the thrill of this “first” in his life, I realized he was hooked…and also ruined, as probably no-one should ever start their trout career with a fish like that!

Grizzly bears and seagulls looking for salmon to eat

As always on the Moraine, we spent the day always within sight of huge brown bears, intently fishing the river for its thousands of bright red and green sockeye salmon; this never fails to add immeasurably to the experience, a reminder to just how far in the middle of nowhere you truly are.

Day five dawned with a heavy cloak of fog settled over everything, delaying our morning flights to various rivers, but soon enough we were in the air, flying over miles of trackless wilderness. Today Dan and Bill and I were going to fish a stretch of the upper Little Ku, a small stream forming from the confluence of numerous tiny tributaries, eventually winding its way through tundra and small canyons to where it flows into Kukaklek Lake. The stream’s small stature belies its outsized reputation as one of the most consistent producers of big rainbows in the region, though because it is too small to float, anglers need to be prepared to walk considerable distances during the day. We put down on a small lake near the headwaters and slogged a couple of miles, following our guides Sky and Aidan across what appeared to be an unbroken tundra plain. Just as we were beginning to think we’d been led on a snipe hunt, a narrow, steep little canyon materialized seemingly out of nowhere, and we were scrambling down to the water. A 30-foot cast spans much of the creek this high in the drainage, and there was a lot of life in the diminutive waters. Casting into tiny riffles and rocky runs nearly always produced strikes, and one never knew if it would be a headstrong, prismatic-hued Dolly Varden, or an explosively powerful rainbow that would use every inch of the stream in its effort to rid itself of the offending tether. I was fishing with Aidan, and asked if he would also fish, as he rarely gets a chance to hold the rod during a busy summer. It was a blast to watch him hook and land fish, lost in the experience as he got to ply waters on his own, maybe for the first time.

Aiden & Sky holding a leopard rainbow trout

My last fish of the day was a fat 26-inch rainbow that used every midstream rock, logjam and undercut bank in an effort to rid itself of the hook, but my luck held and I eventually snapped a quick picture of Sky holding the stout warrior. The walk out was longer than the one in – with an even more beautiful landscape – and we were all tired and more than grateful to see the Beaver gliding into our departure lake as we finished the hike. Like some magnificent Groundhog Day, we once again flew home over some of the most beautiful country in North America, seeing bears, a moose, and the occasional caribou; once again soaked our tired muscles in a warm shower; once again ate a meal that would rival anything that most of us could find in our own home towns; once again sat in the great room or out on the deck savoring a favorite nightcap, watching the stars appear in the darkening sky…and once again stumbled through the now chilly night air to our warm and inviting cabins, shortly to drift off while reliving the day’s adventures.

Flying to the sister lodges to view them

On my final day at Royal Wolf I flew out to visit three other of Chad’s lodges in the area – Rainbow River Lodge, Iliamna River Lodge, and The Ridge – all smaller, high-end lodges strategically located in beautiful settings with terrific fly-out fishing options, as well as all having wonderful home water options in the off chance weather precludes flying out. Rainbow River Lodge is his flagship operation, focusing on big rainbows in the Iliamna area, but also close enough to the coast to visit some of the best salmon rivers flowing into the salt. Iliamna River Lodge sits on the lower end of its namesake river, looking across the water at a stunning mountain landscape. While they are a serious fly out fly fishing lodge, they also welcome and accommodate non-anglers, a rarity among such operations. And they can actually drive a vehicle to the coast and an awaiting boat for those wanting to add halibut fishing to the program. The Ridge is perched above the Copper River, accommodating just four anglers a week in a beautiful, Finnish-made chalet. They are also a fly out lodge, while always having access to the Copper River out their front door.

All of these destinations have friendly and capable lodge staff, great guides and wonderful cuisine. It was great to put faces to the different lodges after having corresponded with them for a few years now. Chad has put together an amazing and diverse group of lodges, with a common denominator being the strong management team imbedded within each.

Iliamna River Lodge hot tub and view of the river

Lava Creek Lodge:
After returning to Anchorage from Royal Wolf Lodge and enjoying a few meals – Humpies offers a fantastic halibut fish and chips in a fun and casual lunch setting – I met for dinner with Creighton Smith, a friend and client who also lives in Redding. We met at Simon and Seaforts, which I believe has the best seafood in Anchorage. Creighton has been traveling with The Fly Shop for years, and actually lived in Anchorage for a few years earlier in his life. We had a great dinner and conversation, then went back to the Clarion to get a good night’s sleep before heading to Lava Creek Lodge the following day.

Loading the Pilatus PC-12 charter plane for the flight to Pilot Point

Lava Creek Lodge has arranged for a private charter for their guests from Anchorage, Alaska, directly to Pilot Point, a small village 25 miles north of the lodge. Then the lodge flies anglers from Pilot Point to the lodge in their wheel plane, a short 15-minute flight. The charter service used is Alaska Air Transit, located not far from the LPA charter that Royal Wolf Lodge uses, also at Merrill Field. The flight time from Anchorage to Pilot Point takes just over an hour in a comfortable and speedy Pilatus PC-12, my favorite aircraft for flights from Anchorage to various bush airports. If there is weather you can simply fly above it in the Pilatus, and they are instrument rated for take-offs and landings, a luxury up there. I met with all of the week’s anglers at the charter hangar, and we spoke of how the fishing had been at the lodge the previous week, and wondered aloud how our time would be. Josie was the point person at the air service, and she was great, giving us all warm beanies with the air charter logo and keeping us updated with our flight times. At the appointed time we all loaded into the Pilatus and took off, leaving Anchorage in our rear view mirror. After a quick hour-long flight, we descended into Pilot Point, a tiny, remote, flat tundra village at the edge of the Bering Sea. Owner Phil Byrd met us here as he brought the prior week’s guests out – they assured us they had all enjoyed their stay, which had been focused on trout and dolly fishing, though they had also found good numbers of silvers in one of the fly out rivers towards the end of their stay. Phil had arranged for a pilot friend who lives in Pilot Point to help him fly our group in – the extra plane made quick work of the transfers. The short bush flight is beautiful in a wild, rugged sense, and one recognizes just how remote of a place they will be spending the week. We landed on the gravel strip near the lodge, where the guides waited for us in their “chariots” – specially constructed carts with benches, pulled by quads. A quick ride found us at the lodge, where the guides had already put luggage outside the individual cabins to let everyone know where they would be staying.

Double occupancy cabin at Lava Creek Lodge

Entering the cabin I was pleasantly surprised at the utilitarian comfort of the interior – two comfortable beds with extra blankets and pillow, large sliding screened windows, a clean-operating heater (plenty of heat with no smell), wall hooks to hang clothes, a luggage stand, and a bathroom with a sink/vanity/mirror, flush toilet, on-demand hot water shower, bath towels and another sliding screened window. Cozy and comfortable for two anglers. I need to remember to add to our checklist to bring shampoo, as that was not provided, though there was plenty of soap. After getting organized in my cabin I walked the short dirt path to the main lodge building (Phil plans on having a boardwalk connecting all the cabins with the lodge in 2024). Again, a model of utilitarian comfort – a portion dedicated to relaxing with comfortable couches, chairs and a coffee table for propping feet and serving hors d’oeuvres, a nice little bar for serving drinks against one wall (new this season), a bookshelf loaded with loaner paperbacks, a fly tying nook, and three sets of dining tables and chairs. Chef Betty already had amazing hors d’oeuvres out for us and everyone could serve themselves from the bar’s stock of soda and beer, and soon enough she served our first dinner, a wilderness masterpiece of a three course meal. Considering how remote the lodge is, the food was remarkably good – I had been hearing how amazing Betty’s food was, and she did not disappoint. The breakfasts were plated and included options like Eggs Benedict, biscuits and gravy, French toast, pancakes, Huevos Rancheros, and veggie frittata. The dinners were also plated, and included meals such as prime rib, tri-tip, fish, lasagna and chicken. Her sides were stellar and tasty – twice baked potatoes, fresh steamed vegetables, etc. – and the desserts ranged from merely great, to fantastic. I liked that there was always a salad with each evening meal, typically either a green salad, wedge salad or Caesar salad. Lunches were taken in the field and tasty – I thought having a hot thermos of soup in each boat would have been a nice touch. Phil gave an excellent welcome/orientation speech, and eventually we all found our way back to our cabins. The sunset was gorgeous, and bizarrely bright, almost resembling a fire, or bomb going off on the horizon!

Sunset at Lava Creek Lodge

I was paired with Creighton for the fishing week, and on day one we had Tommy for our guide, making the 45-minute run to the top of the home river, the Cinder, to hunt for trout and dollies. It was a chilly but pleasant drive, and I was amazed at the variety of birds we saw – all kinds of waterfowl, shorebirds, bald eagles, Sandhill Cranes…even a pair of belted kingfishers and a bunch of magpies, neither of which I expected this far out on the Peninsula. When we reached the terminal upstream point beyond which the boats could not run due to rocky bottoms – the Beavertail prop motors are great in the mud and nearly as fast as a jet boat, but not durable if hitting rocks – Tommy pulled us over to the bank to rig up near a huge area of salmon redds filled with pink salmon and a few spawning kings and chums. Creighton started with a bead rig, and Tommy had me put on a smallish marabou streamer – an RK Special – and instructed me to cover water quickly with it, making long casts and fast-stripping it back. Creighton was immediately into dollies, about every third cast, and I quickly landed a really large dolly that Tommy said was the biggest he had seen so far on the Cinder. Shortly after, Creighton hooked a powerful fish that took him for a ride, and minutes later we had our first big Cinder River rainbow in the net, a gorgeously spotted leopard rainbow with a pronounced red stripe. The day continued like this as we slowly worked our way downriver, using the boat to hop from one salmon spawning area to the next. Just before lunch Creighton tried skating a mouse and caught a chunky rainbow – at times this can be really productive, but the water temperatures were in the 45-degree range this day and the trout just weren’t looking up very consistently. As we sat in the anchored boat eating lunch, Creighton pointed and asked, “What’s that?” Tommy looked for a second, saw what Creighton was seeing, and exclaimed, “That’s a wolf!” So cool, as we watched the predator lope up the open beach for about a hundred yards, at one point directly across the river from us. I videoed it all. After lunch Creighton went back to the bead and continued to slay the dollies, and I switched to my favorite lead-eyed flesh streamer and swung it through any runs I could find that had adequate water speed and depth, and spawning salmon.

Mike Mercer holding a rainbow trout at Lava Creek Lodge

Tommy looped a couple feet of tungsten to the end of my floating line to keep the fly deep throughout the swing, and I landed a few more big rainbows before we called it a day. We loved the experience up there – absolutely pristine and you knew there was no-one else fishing the water, and you would be the only two on miles of stream for the day.

Day two we fished with Andrew, just arrived from The Fly Shop where he works in our retail department. This was his first experience in Alaska but he is a great angler and picked up the routine quickly. We were on the Cinder again, this time on the lower river where most of the salmon fishing takes place. The silvers had only just begun to show – I hooked and lost a couple of salmon in the famous Moon Pool swinging a pink Hareball Leech – but we covered a lot of water and finally tracked down a pod of fish holding in a small side channel run. I caught a couple, and then Creighton waded in and put the hurt on them, probably hooking every fish in the small school, a mix of silvers and chums. A good day – having to work hard for the fish made it seem more special.

Day three saw extremely heavy winds, gusting to 50mph, so Creighton and I opted to sit it out at the lodge, relaxing, reading, and eating. Lots of eating…A few others went out, but conditions were brutal and most called it a day at lunch. The hardcore award this day went to Mark Myers and his college-aged daughter, Natalie; they stuck it out all day, and though they looked pretty beat up at dinner they had actually enjoyed some good fishing, trying to find water somewhat protected from the wind. They landed rainbows, dollies and a few salmon – nice work!

Day four we drew Tommy on the upper Cinder again, which we were excited about, wanting another shot at those rainbows. We jumped around even more this day to hit a bunch of water that was new for us, and it was a blast. I caught a couple of really nice rainbows on my flesh streamer in a little bank run that had a beaver dam on the bank halfway down…when Tommy had Creighton follow me down with a mouse I was skeptical, figuring I had hooked all the rainbows that were likely there. Tommy insisted there had been a fish that lived right off the beaver house, and sure enough, as Creighton skated his rodent off the face of it a beautiful rainbow came up…and missed it! We all collectively groaned, but undaunted, Tommy said to keep throwing it in there. Sure enough, a couple of more misses later the trout finally committed and Creighton had the experience he had been looking for. Nothing quite like a mouse grab!

Day five we were scheduled to fly to the Muddy River (clear flowing, but with some muddy banks), a nearby stream that another group had slayed the silvers in the day before. Phil landed his floatplane on a small lake, we put ashore with our gear and guide, Mike, and walked about 100 yards over to the smallish river.

Creighton Smith with a nice silver salmon at Lava Creek LodgeThe lodge has a boat and motor stashed there, which Mike bailed rainwater from the night before out of, then loaded Creighton and I in and headed downriver. We had traveled about 10 minutes when the river suddenly widened, and I realized we had hit the tidal plain. Pulling the boat onto a shallow sandbar, Mike pointed out a seal far downriver, and voiced his hope that it wouldn’t come nearer as that would spook the fish. The fishing here was unlike most coho fishing I’ve done in the past, as there was a slightly deep channel against the bank but the rest of the river was only inches deep. Mike explained that here the game was to wait for fish to come up onto the shallow flat and slowly push upriver, their backs sometimes nearly in the air. It didn’t take long to spot the first nervous water caused by a small school of fish moving up, and I was struck by how similar this was to bonefishing…except the water here was cold and the fish were all 6-10 pounds! I led the first group of fish by ten feet with my cast – my fly immediately sinking to the bottom with little current to affect it – and as they neared my streamer I began a slow retrieve. Immediately a wake pulled off from the pack and began tracking the streamer, and suddenly the line came tight, the water absolutely exploded…and then the fish was off. I realized I’d been holding my breath through the whole event, and when I let it out and looked around I saw Mike in the distance pump his fist – he’d watched the whole thing play out, and was excited for my first “flats” silver, even if it had given me the slip! For the next couple of hours we stalked fish on this huge flat, sometimes hooking and landing them and sometimes spooking them, but always the anticipation of the next group of fish driving us hungrily along. The visual aspect of the fishing was tremendous, and added a whole new level of excitement to the game.

At one point I was fighting a fish and heard a violent splashing behind me – turning my head I realized that a huge seal had somehow slipped in behind me – just 50 feet away! – and was completely exposed on the shallow flat, crashing after the school of salmon from which I’d hooked my fish. Mike called us back to the boat at this point, and said the seal would ruin the fishing for a while, so it was time for Plan B. We boated back upstream for about 20 minutes, to where the Muddy flows out of a lake…as we parked the boat at the outflow I noted numerous fish rolling. Creighton began in the channel just downstream of the lake and was almost immediately hooked up. I had changed to a Pink Pollywog surface popper and it took a couple of more casts, but I was soon tight to a fish, as well. We spent a few hours in this hundred yards of water, and there was seldom much time between hookups…Mike earned his keep just unhooking fish! Eventually we’d had enough – it was pretty ridiculous action – and Mike boated us back down to the place we’d started the fishing day. On the way we saw a disturbance in the water, and Creighton asked if it was a seal.  Squinting downriver, Mike hesitated, and then said, “That’s a wolf!” Sure enough, a huge wolf was swimming in the river, trying unsuccessfully to clamber up the steep muddy bank. We held back and watched for a minute before I thought to pull out my phone and video the event, catching the wolf finally getting a purchase and scrambling up the bank and away into the high grass. We speculated it must have been chasing a caribou that forded the river (we’d seen one earlier), and then couldn’t find a way out of the river. Impressive to be so close to the big beast, in such a raw and wild place. Pulling over at the same place we started the day, we immediately saw singles and small groups of silvers shouldering their way up through the shallows, and it was game on once again!

Our last fishing day was very special, getting to experience the lodge’s small fly out namesake stream, Lava Creek. We accessed its headwaters with Phil’s bush plane on tundra tires, landing on a lava cinder blow right at the base of the majestic Alaska Peninsula mountain range that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. A bit surreal, both because of the magnificent scenery and the realization that only a few people get to see this country each season. A bit like flying into Narnia, it is incredibly wild, and untouched. Our guide, Jacob, let us know the week before had actually been tough fishing here, so he and Phil decided to fish us in the uppermost of the three beats, upstream of where they’d been. Good choice, as it turns out. Hiking a short distance to the stream, I was immediately enamored with its smallish size, beautiful and colorful rocky bed, and the mix of bright red sockeyes and tank-like kings finning in its shallowed riffles. I really wanted to concentrate on rainbows – the guides had told me they were pretty spread out, but were all beautiful big fish – so put on my articulated flesh and began swinging through the deeper runs and pools. Creighton wanted to experience both rainbows and the creek’s notoriously larger dollies, so had Jacob rig him with a bead. Creighton was immediately into dollies, and plenty of them. And they were great fish, as promised, many in the 18-20-inch range, thick and powerful, with an occasional fish running even larger. It was incredible how many dollies were crammed in beneath the spawning salmon – it seemed there was never a moment when Creighton’s rod wasn’t doubled over! As expected, it took a while for me to find my first rainbow, but it was worth the wait; a beautiful 20-plus-inch stud of a fish, powerful and thick through the shoulders, that almost seemed to bristle with indignation as I finally brought it to hand. The day continued like this over a couple miles of the creek – Creighton catching more big dollies than anyone has the right to, and me finding a few big rainbows, scattered occasionally throughout the stream like glorious, colorful, finned Easter eggs. Pausing for lunch near a particularly long and enticing pool, we were surprised to notice what was obviously a couple of nice fish rising consistently and aggressively to a solid mayfly hatch. One we clearly saw was a rainbow, and the other we couldn’t be sure of. Creighton took the time to re-rig with a longer leader and dry fly that Jacob produced, waded in above the fish, and began making downstream cast-and-feed presentations. We were all surprised to find the fish selective, and a couple of fly changes later we had yet to fool either fish. Just as we were about to give up, Creighton made one more cast, and one of the fish finally rose and took the dry, taking off on a powerful, head-shaking run. Several minutes later Jacob cradled a big dolly in the net as we reveled in the fish’s size and beauty…and on a dry, about the last thing we had expected to experience! Eventually Jacob let us know the day was drawing to a close, and that we had about 30 minutes left to fish. Coming to a big, sweeping pool, deep for the creek and filled with rock ledges and drowned tree branches, I took a break and watched my fishing partner work the water. He landed several chunky dollies, and then came tight to what at first seemed a submerged log…but then it began to move. The fight was long and never spectacular, more like watching someone playing a beaver on a trout rod. The fish stayed deep and more than once found underwater obstructions, but luck was with us and each time the line would eventually pop free. Jacob was hopping back and forth, trying to get a glimpse of the fish, never quite sure if it was a trout or huge dolly until the moment it finally slid into his net, a beast of a rainbow. Jacob allowed the fish to swim in the net, fully underwater, and we all marveled at its length, and remarkable girth. Thinking it might be the largest trout he’d had a client land in the creek yet that season, he produced a tape measure and we all watched as it stretched to a full 25 inches.

Jacob declared it was indeed the largest so far this season, and I noted his fingers were shaking ever so slightly as he removed the hook and held the fish in the current. As it finally kicked free we all high-fived, and then took a quiet moment to take in just exactly where we were, and how incredibly special the day had been. Flying back to the lodge we looked down at miles of creeks and streams winding through tundra hills, many of which had never before seen a fly. And possibly many would not in my lifetime, a thought that brought a warm glow (and, if I’m honest, a desire to return and explore them one day soon!). Alaska is still one of my favorite places on the angling map, more than 40 years after first journeying to this great land.

At trip’s end I spent my final Anchorage night at the Puffin Inn, as it is close to the Ted Stevens International Airport I would be flying out of the following day. I did so with a bit of trepidation, as it has a notorious reputation as being a bit seedy, but it had been the only place left with available rooms when I’d put together my trip earlier in the summer (note to self – book Alaska hotels six months early, on next trip). To my relief the second-story room was surprisingly well-kept, if a bit worn around the edges, and everything worked. They even had a decent breakfast buffet the next morning, after which I took a taxi to the airport and reversed my earlier route, arriving home to Redding in the early afternoon.