Apparently, as Linda and I and our kids were visiting some of our most amazing national parks, I should have had my fly rod along. Don’t I wish that this new book, 25 Best National Parks To Fly Fish by Terry and Wendy Gunn, were available back then!
Well, not really, because those were family vacations, and later, after the kids grew up, Linda and I did fish in one of the most spectacular places: Alaska. In several trips to Montana for conferences, I also was blessed to have fished there with my friend Joe Sowerby of Montana Fly Fishing Connection, who grew up in Maine.
But let’s start with Maine. I was pleased to open the book to find that the very first article was written by my friend Bob Mallard of Skowhegan, about fishing in Acadia National Park. Bob’s article, like all the others in the book, is full of great information, from the places to fish to the flies to use to the places to stay and to eat. And Diana Mallard’s photos are fantastic.
Terry and Wendy Gunn rounded up an impressive group of anglers and writers to author each chapter in the book. After reading about Acadia, I flipped through the book, initially checking out the national parks we’ve visited. I started with Yellowstone, because I’ve actually fished there, and was pleased to note that the place I fished is one of those featured, the Firehole River Canyon.
One thing you’ll appreciate in the book is that they also tell you about great places to fish just outside the parks. Two of my favorite Montana waters are in that category. In fact, I had a fantastic day of fishing the Yellowstone River, and two of its tributaries, above where the river enters the national park.
One of my greatest fishing adventures was in Alaska, when Linda joined me for a two-week trip. We spent time in Denali National Park and Preserve, featured in the book, but did not fish there. But our second week, we stayed at a remote sporting camp, Rainbow River Lodge in Iliamna, Alaska and flew each day to different rivers to fish, most of which are featured in the chapter about the Katmai National Park and Preserve.
We fished the Kamishak River three times, catching big silver salmon, and seeing a couple dozen bears each day. They were fishing the same pools we were! One day Linda got so tired of pulling in salmon that we boated further up river, to catch the smaller (up to 5-pound) Dolly Varden trout. If the photos in this chapter don’t immediately cause you to start planning a trip here, well, I feel sorry for you.
Terry and Wendy Gunn are well known in the fly fishing community. He’s a long-time guide, author, and speaker, and the two of them have owned and operated fly shops since 1989. They have also co-hosted TV shows and – of course – fly fished all over the world. Lucky them!
And lucky you, if you buy this book and get to fish in some of these wonderful places. And lucky me too, because of these 25 national parks, I’ve visited 18 of them, and now I have a good excuse to go back!
Loving Alaska with Linda
This story, which I wrote after the Alaska trip I took with Linda, might wet your appetite – and fly line – even more….
I fell in love with Kamishak and my wife was there to see it.
Kami wasn’t my only new love that week – just the first. Little Ku stole my heart one day, the more full-bodied Moraine another.
But I kept coming back to Kami and made her my final choice.
On a week long vacation at Rainbow River Lodge in Iliamna, Alaska, our first look at Kami was from high above her in a float plane.
She’s a big coastal river, but not distinguishable from other Alaskan beauties from the air. However, once we started up river in a boat and spotted a huge brown bear on the first gravel bar, the Kami’s special allure grabbed me.
By the time our guide beached the boat at our first fishing location, we’d seen – up close – ten brown bears including a sow with two cubs – and I’d used up my first roll of film. If you’re fishing the Kami, bring lots of film.
In three days there, we saw 17, 20, and 25 bears respectively – and we did respect them. They fished beside us like longtime angling buddies, wrestled each other, frolicked in the river, and generally ignored us. It was hard to ignore them.
Even harder to ignore were the fish. Huge Coho salmon, called silvers, stacked like logs in calm pools, resting on their way up the rapid river to spawning grounds. Colorful Dolly Varden trout lay in every riffle of fast water, feeding on salmon eggs.
I was particularly delighted to find we could catch silvers on the surface, using a large fly that we dragged across the top of the water – sort of like fishing for bass. This worked each morning for a short while, and then we’d switch to subsurface flies – still using floating line on our 8 weight rods.
And guess what: the fly of choice was a green clouser – the same fly I employ for trout in Maine! You’d drift the clouser just under the surface, draw it past the silver of choice – because almost all of this is sight fishing – and hold your breath when the fish turned to gulp the fly.
Often these fish would follow the fly a distance, sometimes waiting to take it almost at your feet! Wow!
Linda and I battled hefty 11 and 12 pound silvers all morning that first day with Kami, then switched to Dollies to rest our aching shoulders, getting – no exaggeration – a fish on every other cast with many over 20 inches. My biggest Dolly was a 6-pound brute.
For Dollies we used 5 weight rods and a bead that resembled a pink or red salmon egg. It was important to get the color of the bead right, just one of many reasons that the employment of a guide makes a lot of sense.
Eager to take our flies and tough fighters, the green-tinted Dollies are too often ignored in these world-renowned salmon and rainbow trout waters. But we loved their eagerness and their fight and we took every opportunity to fish for them.
Of course, we’d traveled all the way from Maine to this first class Alaskan wilderness lodge to catch giant rainbow trout – so our love affair with the Kamishak and her bears and silvers and Dollies was an unexpected surprise.
The rainbows did not disappoint. Many exceeded 20 inches in length and either of the two 27 inch 8 pound fish I caught – one on the intriguing Little Ku (Nanuktuk River), the other from the bigger Moraine Creek – would have been the thrill of a lifetime for any avid angler.
For three days on the rainbow rivers, we used light 5 weight fly rods, stood surrounded by spawning red and pink salmon amidst stunning scenery in cold rushing rivers, peered into the water to see gigantic rainbows lying in wait, drifted our flies past the selected fish, watched as the fish grabbed our fly, set the hook, and took a deep breath – so we could yell: “Fish On!”
A relative novice with a fly rod, experienced only with small Maine brook trout, with one trip to Quebec where she caught some big landlocked salmon, Linda was somewhat stressed, worried that she would not cast well enough or be able to land these big Alaskan brutes.
But with good advice from our guides she had no problem at all, learned a great deal, experienced more catching of big fish in a week than you’d get in a lifetime of fly fishing in Maine, and landed as many of her fish as even the most experienced anglers that week (including yours truly, who had a hard time learning that you can’t just horse these fish in).
Traveling to other states and countries is always interesting. Traveling to Alaska is so much more – exciting, inspiring, with jaw-dropping beauty, massive mountain chains harboring glistening glaciers, high country tundra, a stunning coastline, rivers, lakes and ponds of all sizes, – all on a scale that is unimaginable to anyone in the lower forty.
And did I mention the bears? I am amazed by the photos of Lin calmly casting her fly while a huge bear – sporting a light brown coat – stood nearby watching her. She went from a state of terror about the bears to complete nonchalance. Well, honestly, she was wary but not worried.
Rainbow River Lodge managers Chad and Nicole Hewitt might have missed the first Alaskan gold rush, but today, there’s still plenty of gold in the fishery found in this state’s coastal and inland waters, thanks to savvy fisheries management, good research, and an understanding of what spectacular fishing can do for a state’s economy and people. No rainbow trout in this entire area can be killed. It’s all catch-and-release angling for trout with barbless hooks.
Three salmon per day may be kept and the lodge staff filets, freezes and packs them for you.
Lin and I also rode the train from Anchorage to Denali National Park, where Mt McKinley peaked at us through the smoke generated from fires that have burned more than 5 million acres in Alaska this year. In this stunning national park, we saw lots of Caribou, Mountain Sheep, Grizzlies, and three of the biggest bull moose you’d ever see – Alaskan moose are about a third larger than Maine’s.
But it’s Rainbow River Lodge and the fishing that I will never forget. This was the best fishing I have ever enjoyed in my life.
The lodge offers my kind of wilderness experience: gorgeous comfortable cabins, hot showers, gourmet food, superb service, super friendly staff, gracious hosts – all in a family environment where baby Hewitt joined us every evening for dinner.
This is a fly-out lodge, where – every day – you are able to fly to your selected river to fish for your favorite species. Admittedly, this is pampered angling – until the first big rainbow or silver is on your line and you’ve got to go to work.
Both rainbows and silvers take to the air as soon as you set the hook, and you sometimes think your heart will burst before, finally, you find the fish at your feet, ready to be released.
The variety of angling experiences available here are impressive. A couple of anglers from California wanted a day of dry fly fishing – hard to find in August – but Chad flew them to the headwater of the Copper River, where they hiked the upper river catching lots of rainbows and grayling – an extraordinarily beautiful fish that flies out of the water, often taking your fly as it returns to the surface.
Another group flew to the Iliamna River and proclaimed it the most beautiful setting in which they had ever fished – with lots of rainbows to boot. This group said the Iliamna was their favorite of all the rivers they fished that week – hard for me to imagine after experiencing the Moraine, Ku, Gibraltar, and Kamishak.
But then, one group chose to raft and fish the Gibraltar on their final day and reported it was the best rainbow fishing they’d had – another surprise because I liked the Moraine and the Ku the best for rainbows.
One evening, Eric Wolf from Connecticut and I lugged a canoe over a nearby beaver dam to fish one of the “Pike Lakes” in back of the lodge. You can guess what species awaits eager anglers in these waters.
Catching large northern pike on eight weight rods, popping mice on the surface of this wilderness pond, we were excited beyond description. We fished until it was pitch black, and then turned to discover we didn’t know where we’d started this adventure. The entire shoreline looked the same!
Eventually, we found the beaver dam and returned safely to the lodge, arriving about midnight. Of course, it remains light until after 11 pm, giving relentless anglers more fishing opportunity after dinner.
This was the only night I fished after dinner – every other evening we were exhausted by the day’s angling in these mighty rivers.
So here will be your dilemma in this angler’s paradise: with so many species, so many big fish, and so many amazing rivers, when Chad asks, as he does after dinner every evening, where you want to fish the next day, what will you say? Believe me, that’s the most stress you’ll feel all week.
Home only a month, I already yearn to return to Alaska and Rainbow River Lodge.