Thursday, August 1, 2013

Four On Top

My Ride is Here
A hole opened up in the riffle and sucked in the fluorescent orange "flesh mouse" as it skittered across the surface. The source of the hole was a 20-inch sea-run char that had followed the chum salmon up King Salmon River and then up the narrow tributary Contact Creek. My journey to Contact wasn't nearly as taxing, but it had its moments.

Will the fog lift?
A heavy fog welcomed the sunrise at Naknek River Camp. Jim Johnson confidently predicted that planes would be flying by 10 a.m., and he was right. However the wait was nearly unbearable. I had been told that Contact Creek would be unlike any river I had fished before and I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the remote creek that could only be reached via float plane. A half dozen planes flew over the dock on the Naknek as I waited not so patiently before our Cessna banked and landed. Our guide Kodie, two other sports and I piled into the planes fuselage, which was tinier than a MiniCooper, and after a thorough safety briefing we were flying over the Alaska tundra.

The pilot wasn't certain we could get through the pass to get to Contact. We flew at a few thousand feet and the mountains were shrouded behind white and gray clouds. Below small ponds left by snow melt dotted the landscape. In those spots where the pond water had drained out dark green ovals remained, giving the impression of an over-sized golf green. They looked about the right size for Paul Bunyan.

The cloud cover lifted enough for the pilot to drop us off after a smooth landing on a small

Hiking to Contact Creek

We are not alone

pond about a 15 minute walk from Contact Creek. Unfortunately the pond was too small for the plane to take off with three passengers so our exit would require an hour hike to a larger lake on the other side of the Creek. But that hike wasn't on my mind as I followed Kodie down the spongy hill overlooking the creek. As I climbed down to the river plain my first step landed next to a large bear print -- a reminder that we weren't the only ones interested in the fish that swam in the clear water of Contact Creek.

Sea run char
Char eagerly eat plastic beads that mimic salmon eggs and they put up a spirited fight. The fish are relatives to the Brook Trout that once were so prevalent in the Midwest, although they lack the brookies colorful dots that are each hand painted by God. In their stead are orange brush strokes on the side of their silver bodies. After about 20 minutes of hooking and landing char non-stop on beads I was ready for something different and that's when Kodie brought out the articulated "flesh mouse" which looked more like a gaudy Christmas ornament than it did a trout fly. He instructed me to skate it across a riffle and then raise the rod tip and give it an extra shake.

Incredulous, I gave it a try and on the first good swing the hole opened and the fight was on. I hooked and landed a few more char this way and even hooked an old, decaying chum salmon. Landing a chum on a 5-weight rod takes some doing but the creature eventually came to shore.
Flesh Mouse Fly

As we moved upstream the char thinned out some and there were more rainbows present. Kodie encouraged me to tie on a mouse pattern and cast it under the branches hanging over the far bank. A strong leopard rainbow interrupted my retrieve of the mouse and shortly thereafter I had landed my first Contact Creek trout. Leopard rainbows are remarkable fish. Their green backs are covered in black splotches that give them their name. The tell-tale pink stripe of a rainbow is brighter and sharper than on a standard rainbow. Rainbow trout are so prevalent across the globe that they've been called a synthetic fish. There is nothing synthetic about these leopards. They are pure, wild fish. They fight like it. They jump like it. And they look like it. I feel fortunate to have touched just one, and blessed to have landed several.

The mouse fishing was fast and furious before a brown bear eager to fish our hole pushed us back downstream. One doesn't try to argue with a brown bear over who had first dibs on prime fishing water.

Leopard Rainbow

Snorkeling for Salmon
Andy had hooked and landed a grayling on a caddis fly and that inspired me to change up once again in hopes of landing my fourth different kind of fish on a top-water fly. Time was running short as we had to make the long hike to our rendezvous with the float plane. I had seen a few grayling holding on the edge of a giant S curve in the river on the way upstream and I hiked to that stretch to give it a try. I could see a few red king salmon and many more chum swimming in the hole, but no grayling were on my side. I cast a yellow stimulator dry fly to the top of the "S" and watched it drift back to me without disruption. A fish rose in the slow water near the far bank and my optimism grew. Kodie was trying to hook a King in the run above the big "S" and we shouted back and forth about our relative ineffectiveness. Finally a large, dark grayling rose to the surface and slowly inhaled my fly -- Kodie later would remark that grayling are perfect fish for new or elderly fly fishermen because they rise so slowly the angler has plenty of time to respond. I called to him eager to get the grayling in the net to complete my four-fish day. The grayling pulled hard and stayed deep and long before I got a good look at him he wiggled his way off the barbless hook. I knew that we had less than 15 minutes of fishing time left, so I quickly dried off the fly and cast it back upstream. Thankfully the fish -- or at least one of similar appearance -- hit the fly again and quickly came to the net. Unlike the grayling I had caught earlier on the trip, this one was black and purple and was much larger and thicker than its golden brethren. It's sail-like dorsal fin extended toward the now blue sky as Kodie held the fish in the net.

The dry fly grand slam was complete: char, chum, rainbow and grayling. Contact Creek was indeed unlike any place I've ever fished; and likely unlike any place I will ever fish again.

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