By Steve McGrath

Have you ever heard the cliché, “variety is the spice of life?” I grew up with it being used on an almost daily basis, though I still believe it was just a ploy by my mother to get me to eat more vegetables. After hearing it so often, I swore that it would be erased from not only my memory, but from any future references in my life. I broke my own promise after visiting Alaska this past summer.
Like most of you reading this article, I have long since had Alaska in my sights.

Another nice halibut catch from Anchor Point.

I had finally reached a point in my life that I could afford the time and money to enjoy a sportsman’s dream. As I looked into going north, I realized just how many choices there are, but I had specifics in mind. A friend of mine had just gone up the year before and even though he had an excellent time, retrospect left him with a few regrets. He wanted to see more of what Alaska had to offer; salmon, char, trout and of course the tasty halibut. After hearing his advice and running into another friend who had just returned from Alaska, the choice was easy.

The setting could not have been any better; a warm week (by Alaska standards) spent with good friends and of course, more quality fishing than I could have ever hoped for! The lodge we based our fishing adventures out of was the Gone Fishin’ Lodge in Soldotna, situated right on the famous Kenai River and just minutes from numerous other great fishing spots.  The accommodations were just right, with plenty of room to spread out and a great common area to swap tall tales from the day with others in the lodge. Lodge guests were from all over the country, but were there with one single focus, fishing and fun.

Guide Gary Chamberlain and Steve McGrath with the author's near 19 lb silver salmon caught on the Kenai River.

Part of the experience for us was the journey in getting there. We flew in to Anchorage, then rented a car for the three-hour drive through some of the prettiest country I have ever seen. Sure there is a small airport near Soldotna, but we would have missed seeing tall mountains, miles of rivers and a myriad of wildlife. The setting could not be more picturesque, every turn bringing a new vista.

We wasted no time upon arrival to Soldotna in getting our fishing licenses, checking in at the lodge, then changing into our waders to go out for a couple of hours on the river. One of the guys in our group had been in that area before and had a few local places in mind. We had brought our own fly rods for opportunities like this and within minutes after stringing up the rods, we were in to fish. The pink salmon run heavy on the even numbered years and that was quickly made apparent by all three of us hooking into “humpies.” The pink salmon is certainly not the largest of the salmon family, but they sure fight like they are. We were using eight weight fly rods with sinking lines and bright pink flies to lure the salmon in. All the talk and hype of Alaska finally became a reality, with sore arms and big grins a couple hours later. That scene would repeat itself every day of the trip after we finished our guided trips with the staff at the Gone Fishin’ Lodge.

Ralph Crystal and Steve McGrath. Nothing quite like hooking into an aerobatic silver salmon with a fly rod, during a fly out trip to the Kustitan River.

Our first booked outing of the trip came early the next morning as we left the lodge at 5 AM headed towards Seward. It was billed as a “mixed bag” trip, with the possibilities of silver salmon, lingcod, rockfish and halibut. Many of the charters that morning were cancelling because of reported rough seas.  Our captain met us and left the decision up to us by saying “I can handle rough seas, my boat can handle them too, how about you guys?” We agreed to go along for the ride and hopefully wet a line. What we found as we got out of Resurrection Bay was pretty calm water and hardly any other boats. The trip out was a scenic highlight reel with views of the Kenai Fjords, sea lions, mountain goats, whales and more glaciers than I could keep a count on. The fishing was very good out in the open water as we limited out on halibut with a smattering of the other fish on the boat also.  Our first day trip with the Gone Fishin’ Lodge was a good one.

Day two kept us closer to the lodge and focused on a single species, the silver salmon. We met our guide, Gary Chamberlin at the docks while it was still dark and loaded his boat for a quick ride up the river. This trip was yet another learning experience and turned out to be one of the best days on the water for me. Gary quickly got the poles rigged up and in our hands to chase after the salmon. We used a back trolling method to get after the fish and ended the day with quite a collection. I was lucky enough to have a large silver latch onto my line and even luckier that it didn’t get off. It ended up weighing 18lbs. 14oz. and the largest at the Gone Fishin’ Lodge last summer. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.  That day I was living proof of that.

We spent the third day out in the Cook Inlet with Captain Charlie trying to pry the “barn doors” off the bottom in the deep water. Once again the scenery was every bit as impressive as the fishing was. In the near vicinity lay three massive volcanoes, one of which steamed the entire time, giving the impression that it was just a matter of time until the landscape would once again change. We had some great boat mates along with us from Florida that ended up hooking into one of the largest fish I have ever seen. A 100 lb. halibut coming to the surface from 250 ft. down is a sight for sore forearms and an aching back, which is just what Jean had. Once again the trip was a success and the coolers were filled for the 45 minute drive back to the Gone Fishin’ Lodge.

The classic Alaskan fishing experience awaited us for our fourth day out, a fly out across the Cook Inlet to a small River. Our guides for that day were Ralph Crystal and Dick Bowen, owners of the Gone Fishin’ Lodge and very accomplished fishermen as well. We met just outside of town at a small lake, where our floatplane was waiting, which we would load into for our flight  to the river. It was a foggy morning, but broke just long enough for us to skim along the lake and take off. It’s a quick trip over to the river and a very small slough to land in, but the pilots are nothing short of amazing, touching down with ease.

The river was lower than in years past and the silver salmon run was starting to slow down, but Ralph was not going to let that stop us from having the time of our lives. We tried a few different spots and were catching fish in each one of them, but not in the numbers Ralph had hoped to see. The move upstream proved to be what he was looking for as we all limited out quickly using a number of techniques from Ralph’s repertoire.  The Gone Fishin’ Lodges’ favorite is looping a glob of roe on the hook, with a weight a couple of feet above it, then casting it at an angle slightly upstream and letting the current and the fish do the rest.  Soon the tap, tap, tap indicated the time was right to set the hook and whamo, the fight was on.  We also were able to throw a few leech patterns with our fly rods and had the time of our life fighting those high flying silvers.

I never thought I would look forward to taking a day off from fishing, but this trip proved otherwise. We had a scheduled day off and it was used to sleep in, rest our arms and actually do a little sightseeing around the Kenai Peninsula. Of course we still had to fish a little and managed to catch and release another bundle of pinks on our fly rods on the Kenai behind the lodge and at the Eagle Rock boat ramp area just a short 10 minute drive away.

Our final day in Alaska led us to the upper Kenai River to fish for rainbow trout, bright red salmon and Dolly Varden. We fished from drift boats, similar to what is done in the lower 48; just for different sized fish and under much more impressive mountains. Just a couple hundred yards downstream from the boat launch and we had already started hooking into fish. It turned out to be the only day we got rained on, but nothing we couldn’t fish through.   I am sure it’s a rarity for Alaskan visitors to see such a dry stretch of days. Even though I can fish for rainbow trout within 10 minutes of my house in Utah, these fish were very different. They were much larger in size, some up to eight pounds, with more spots in more places and of course they fought harder than most I have encountered. Our float that day took us through a canyon that only a seasoned guide could negotiate and ended with a long motor across Skilak Lake.

The week had come to an end and to say that my expectations were met would be an understatement. It truly was a trip of a lifetime and one that the Gone Fishin’ Lodge knew how to perfectly put together. I can’t wait to get up there again and experience all that Alaska has to offer. Oh and by the way, my Mother was right, “variety is the spice of life.”

The Gone Fishin’ Lodge…877-462-5752 and visit them on the web at  Their season runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.  They will cater to your every need and set you up for a week in Alaska that you will never forget.  A new adventure every day is awaiting you with the Gone Fishin’ Lodge where a variety of fishing adventures is their niche’.