Last time I shared stories of the bears of the infamous Brooks River. Today, I want to shift gears and head to the southwest to a place called the Ugashik Narrows.
The day we spent on the Ugashik was not on the original plans when we headed to Alaska. However, as every outdoorsman knows, you have to be ready to ebb and flow with the ever changing weather patterns if you are to be successful in your pursuits. The original plan on this particular day was to run the boat across Naknek Lake to Margot Creek, but due to high winds and rather large waves, we decided it best to forego those plans.
Having spent the last couple of days on the Naknek River, I had the itch to explore a bit more of this vast place. So, with a little coercion five guys and a guide decided to jump a plane and head south for the day. The stories I had heard of rather large Arctic Char that live in the belly of the upper and lower Ugashik Lakes had sparked my interest as I was planning for my Alaskan adventure. So, when given the opportunity, I was anxious to be a part....and trust me when I say that a chance at landing one of these Char was just what the doctor ordered.
The Ugashik Narrows is a very small piece of water (no more than 700-800 yds long) that connects the lower Ugashik Lake to the upper Ugashik Lake. I was amazed to hear just how small a spot it was especially due to it's large reputation. Being on the pacific salmon spawning route, you can bet that the Sockeye are present. The other thing you can bet on...or should I say bank on, is the fact that behind all of those Sockeye are world class Char!!!
UGASHIK NARROWS - TO GAUGE THE SIZE, LOOK FOR
THE FLOAT PLANES AS THE LAKE NARROWS DOWN TO THE RIVER.
As with every other morning, we woke with the sun and scrambled up to the dining hall to grab a cup of joe and something that would stick to our ribs for breakfast. The only difference on this day is that today I would get to ride in the Alaska state automobile......the floatplane : )
With food flying down the hatch at record speed, James (our guide for the day) exclaimed, "We better get out of here if we are gonna make the plane on time." With that, anglers began to scramble and gear was headed for the truck with great anticipation of what the day would bring. In short order we found ourselves winding down that alder and tundra laden road that leads back to the bustling Alaskan metropolis of King Salmon! After a twenty minute drive, we pulled up in front of Branch River Air. They would be servicing our flight for the day and let me tell you this.....our pilot could set a plane down so soft that you didn't even know you had touched down! He was very good and very professional! We quickly grabbed our gear and packed it into the plane and then did likewise with ourselves. Within moments, we were a couple thousand feet over the tundra and all I can say is WOW!!! What a view to have. The expanse of tundra went mile after mile until it nestled itself into the shadows of the alder strewn mountains in the distance.
This was my first experience in a float plane and was something I was really looking forward to. As beautiful as the scenery was, I was feeling like my kids on a road trip at times.....are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet?
I couldn't wait to see this land of giant Char!!!
MARTIN POSES IN FRONT OF THE PLANE JUST PRIOR TO TAKE OFF
THE UGASHIK CREW POSES BEFORE HEADING FOR HOME
I can say this about the Ugashik...it has no lack for feeding fish! In fact, I would say that the Char of the Ugashik are the most gluttonous fish I have ever seen in my life. If you could find the fish you wanted to catch, it was just a matter of time and a proper presentation before you would be into your backing with a big Char racing off amongst a sea of red. It took me all day to get to that mystical 30" range, but at the very end of the day, it finally came. I had found a fish just before the plane was to arrive and I was bound and determined to get that fish before our departure.
The challenge was definitely a strong one as my target was sitting right where the river made it's first 90 degree turn. This was quite challenging to deal with. Especially when we are talking about drifting on target at the proper depth in the midst of a pod of 100 or more Sockeyes! Regardless of the challenge, I was up to it and wasn't going settle for anything less than getting that 30" fish to hand before the plane left my butt on the gravel.
Throughout the day, I had my opportunities at some huge fish, but unfortunately had come out on the short end each time. With time dwindling, I was doing everything to get that perfect swing around the corner. I had to do so to keep it on the right track. The challenge was not pulling it off the bottom bounce and avoiding the countless hundreds of sockeyes that were packed in tightly on that corner. I was going to hook this fish!!! I just hoped I would be able to keep that hook firmly in place while the fight played out.
With ten minutes to get the job done, I studied the location of that fish. I looked at the funky flow of the water, the seams that would wreck havoc on my line if laid on the water wrong. I looked at the behavior of the fish I was targeting and trying to gauge just how deep the water was he was lying in. After a quick moment of sizing up the challenge, I made my presentation. Again and again, I made my presentation each time needing to tweak it just slightly always hoping that the next cast would be exactly what I needed. Ten minutes had now turned into four or five minutes until the scheduled arrival of our plane. My mind was racing....I can't leave here defeated....NO WAY....my level of masculinity wouldn't stand for it. My pride was feeling threatened. I was better than this...... Have you ever played that game with yourself? Well for me, I take my game very serious. I wanted this fish and nothing could change that! With the time winding down fast, the pressure was mounting. How could I be the so called "professional" (for what that's worth) and get out fished by all the rookies in my group (because by this time they all had their 30" fish). Ok, so maybe now you understand why I was so bent on catching this fish! Yeah, it was pride on the line : )
Four or five minutes had now dwindled even further, and I can hear guys starting to pack there bags and break down rods. It's now or never I tell myself and with my kid brother standing behind me rolling video, I was either going to have one heck of a humbling moment on film, or one heck of a rally cap moment on film.
So, as the time is ticking, my heart starts racing.....now or never....now or never. I focus in and run a drift.......I notice a slight movement toward the bead, but nothing. He looked though, I thought. Only a few drifts left and I would be eating humble pie......"Not today," I said to myself. At this time I was starting to get vocal. I was talking to the fish, and I'm sure my brother was getting a kick out of it. Another drift, another slight movement. Another drift and I'm telling that fish rather forthrightly, "Eat the stinkin' egg you gluttunous piece of salmonid!" And as luck would have it, on that very drift, God's blessings flowed, the stars aligned, the sea of Sockeye spread, and the egg came out just off line, at the fishes level, and he moved! Yes, he moved and the world slowed. As I watched the fish move to the outside, I knew he had seen my offering. With exuberance I proclaimed, "Yes, eat that egg!" And with that the line went tight and I raised the rod.
Everything that was slow in that moment now went into warp speed! The Char symphony had begun. The rod bent as if the conductor was bringing the orchestra to attention and then the music began! First the light racing rhythm of small strings and woodwinds are heard as the fish runs. Then the punctuations of brass fire off with each cartwheel through the air. As the fish lands, a splash of cymbals rings out. This is the song that is sung each time my rod bends. As the reel starts to sing, the voice of a world class soprano cries out in glorious song. In the midst of the fight, my shouts of excitement ring out as a timpani punctuating the most spectacularly orchestrated pieces.
The song continued for several minutes and then it slowed. Softly the song plays as the fish is slipped into my hands and my eyes behold its beauty up close for the first time. The ambiance of the moment is truly world class and worth more than words could ever describe!
What is that I hear? Ah, it's the distance report of the thumping prop that can only come from my ride home. As I see the plane coming across the lake, I come to the realization that it's time to leave this place that will forever be a part of who I am. But in that moment, I also realize that I have triumphed.....I have done it. The trophy has been landed and in fact, as I look at the fish once more I smile the smile of true satisfaction. With a sweet kiss of appreciation on the head, I gently slip him into the water and with a thrust of his tail, he tears out of my hands to regain the hunt for Sockeye eggs. As he swims away, I think to myself, this is what dreams are truly made of!
PATRICK POSES WITH HIS LARGEST CHAR OF THE TRIP
JEREMY POSES WITH A BEAUTIFULLY COLORED
CHAR FROM THE UGASHIK NARROWS
As I mentioned before, the Sockeye Salmon were absolutely thick in this river. Untold thousands and thousands were everywhere you looked. So, you couldn't help but catch a few from time to time. The biggest Sockeye I got to see on our trip were on this stretch of water.
Below is one such specimen. In fact, it was my largest for the trip coming in at 30".
PATRICK'S LARGEST SOCKEYE OF THE TRIP...WHO KNOWS,
HE MAY END UP ON THE WALL IN REPLICA
FORM SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE
ALASKA HAS THE COLORS OF THE RAINBOW
IN SPAWNING FISH AND HERE ARE SOME OF THOSE COLORS
JEREMY AND PATRICK GO DOUBLES ON 26-28" CHAR
MARTIN WAS PROUD OF THIS SOCKEYE AND FOR GOOD REASON!
HE WAS A GREAT LOOKING SPECIMAN.
AND HE HAD A BEAUTIFUL SET OF TEETH TOO!
Jeremy and myself tried to get some filming done while we were on the Ugashik, so we only took one rod. That meant that one would carry the rod and fish while the other filmed or shot photos.
This is a shot from early in the day when Jeremy was trying to get the hang of my Sage Z-Axis switch rod.....looks like he's doing alright!
A NICE CHAR PUTS A BEND IN JEREMY'S
ROD AS JAMES JOHNSON LOOKS ON.
JEREMY BANGS A NICE CHAR AND THE SUN FINALLY DECIDES TO SHINE!
ANOTHER NICE COLORED UP FISH.
THESE FISH ARE STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL!
Now here is where the story really got started and what ultimately caused me such angst later in the day.
You see, I had several guys on this trip with me who were for the most part rookies to the fly fishing world. If they had fished on the fly, it was only a handful of times and now they were in Alaska of all places.
On this morning, I had three of those rookies with me and was glad to share this experience with them. Now, mind you, it is an unwritten rule of thumb on the Ugashik that any fish of 30" or larger is a trophy. Easy enough......so that was our goal.
So here is how the story goes..... We land, we unload, we assemble rods and we got to fishing! Ten minutes later I look over to the shouts of my friend Ryan (rookie). He says, I've got one and honestly, it appeared to be a nice fish. In no time, James (our guide) was over there and he proclaims, it's a Char, and it's a nice one! Just moments later, the fish comes to hand and nice is an understatement! The tape comes out and we now officially have one Ugashik Char in the bag....and yes, for Ryan, his first fish is a legitimate 30" speciman. I couldn't believe it!!! His first fish and it's the trophy everyone was looking for. Lucky guy, I say to myself.
PATRICK FILMS RYAN FLEMONS 30" ARCTIC CHAR
PATRICK HOLDS A NICE SOCKEYE WHILE RYAN
POSES WITH HIS FIRST 30" CHAR
After a short time of filming and photography, we were all back into the groove! We are catching a couple of fish here and there...Sockeye, smaller Char, Sockeye......when again I hear the shouts of Ryan! This time he proclaims, "I think it's a Char, and it's big!" James scurries over as do the others and sure enough, another very nice fish!
The fight lasts for several minutes and finally the fish comes to hand. I can hear James in the distance when he says, I think it's bigger than the last one. "WHAT?" I ask myself. Impossible! There is no way it's bigger I think to myself!
With that, I make my way back over to him and sure enough, it was as the guides at Naknek River Camp call, "a bonifide toad!" The tape came out again and this time it didn't stop at 30...not 31....not 31.5, but 32 whopping inches!!! This fish was huge! The girth was superb. The color was even better! I was so impressed that I proclaimed to Ryan that he was done for the day! I said, you are sitting the rest of the day. I mean, only four Char had been landed by the entire group at this point. Half of them he caught, and all of his fish were 30" or larger. Talk about beginners luck, he had it all over him.
In all honesty, we were all very happy for him! But I think we would be lying if we said we weren't a little bit jealous or envious!
THE 32" TOAD FROM THE UGASHIK
CONGRATS RYAN ON A FISH OF A LIFETIME!
So, with more Char under our belt than you could possibly count, we loaded back into the plane exhausted from the hard days work (you feel sorry for us don't you) and headed for home. It was one cool day with some really hot fish!
Until next time, keep dreaming of those places you want to fish! Some day those dreams may come true!!!
Patrick "Flybum" Robinson
Steelhead Alley Outfitters