Where the Air Is Cool and the Fishing Is Heavenly

Flying around this vast, watery wilderness in floatplanes is central to the excitement of the Alaskan adventure experience.

The length of a football field upstream from where I stood—on the deck of an aluminum jet sled anchored in the shallows of a wide, gray, swift-flowing river—the current erupted. Packs of rainbow trout were slashing into schools of finger-sized silvery sockeye salmon smolts moving downstream, drawn toward Bristol Bay and the North Pacific beyond.

“Here they come,” said my guide. “Be ready to cast.” 

Suddenly the frenzied trout were surrounding the boat in distinct groups, splashing and leaping after the juvenile salmon. I threw a white fly-rod popper into the nearest commotion and—before I could take even one strip—it was devoured by one of the fattest and strongest rainbows I’ve ever hooked.

In late June, on an afternoon when the temperature hit a record 108 degrees Fahrenheit in my Seattle-area town, I phoned my friend Ken Morrish at Fly Water Travel in Oregon. “I’m desperate,” I told him. “I need to head somewhere cool—with lots of fish.”

“And I suppose you want classy food, too,” he replied, not entirely tongue in cheek.

“Of course.”

“Then I have just the place for you.”

Several weeks later, I found myself at the Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage, Alaska, preparing to board a one-hour private charter to King Salmon, aptly named because it sits in the middle of one of the great wild salmon ecosystems on earth. And I couldn’t have come at a better time: this year witnessed the largest run of sockeye salmon on record—an astonishing 65 million fish.

A quick transfer by van of a small mountain of duffels and my sporting companions for the week and I were met by official greeter Manny the German shorthair. I looked up at a rustic sign reading “Rapids Camp Lodge” that was mounted over a set of moose antlers cradling an old fly rod. I smiled and thought perfect before being handed a pint of the Fireweed Blonde that was on tap at the lodge bar.

“I’m Chris,” said a tall, lanky man in olive hip boots and a brown leather flight jacket. He extended a hand; in the other was a half-smoked Macanudo cigar. 

More than in any other prime sport-fishing destination in the world, here the adventure involves airplanes—in this case, the two white floatplanes tied up to the elaborate floating dock on the Naknek River down a set of wooden stairs from the lodge: a vintage de Havilland 1954 Beaver and the airplane Chris Larson flies, a larger-turbine Otter.

The next morning, I climbed into the Otter, looking into the tight flight deck beyond a green and silver aluminum plaque, the size of a baseball card, that certified the airplane’s birthdate as January 1957—the year I hadn’t yet turned three. 

Four anglers and two guides, all of them in waders, strapped in and listened to the pilot give us a quick safety rundown: “You’re in a single-engine DHC-3 amphibious Otter,” he announced. “It came originally with a 600-hp Pratt and Whitney gas radial engine but was converted to a 900-hp TPE331-10 Garrett turboprop for improved performance and dependability.” I learned later that it has a wingspan of 58 feet and a gross weight of 8,367 pounds.  

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Chris started flying an air ambulance in southern Oregon in 1986. He was flipping through an old copy of Playboy and stopped on a picture of a bush pilot sitting on the wing of a vintage Beaver, smoking a cigarette and fishing. That was it—he was off to Alaska. Barely had the ink on his “wet ticket” dried on his pilot’s license (he’d had only three and a half hours of flight time in a single-engine seaplane) when he began flying air taxi for Temsco Airlines in Ketchikan. Four years later, he started working for Katmia Air in King Salmon, bringing tourists out to the bear-infested Brooks Falls.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled about the first time he ever got in a Beaver. “It was a dream come true—like getting into a beautiful antique car. I remember somebody asking me what I planned to do in the future. I said, ‘I’m going to be flying this all my life!’”

While Larson whacked vicious biting whitesocks flies on the windshield with a yellow rag, he simultaneously hit the fuel switch to key the exhaust gas temperature to 690 degrees during the start. He reached for the power lever. I was barely aware that we were moving away from the dock when we were racing smoothly across the water and in one minute were in the air, 1,200 feet above the Naknek River, climbing to 2,500. Larson reached for the round elevator-trim wheel to bring the pitch of the nose down and we were cruising with 50 percent torque and 96 percent rpm—just under the 134-mph redline.

Ain’t nothin’ on autopilot. I thought. This guy is really flying this thing!

We were heading to a beach at the southeast end of Naknek Lake, at the mouth of a glacier-tinted river draining the famous Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes where, in 1912, Mount Katmai blew 10 times more smoke and pumice into the air than Mount St. Helens did in 1980. It covered 33,000 square miles of Alaska. 

Waiting for us were a sow coastal grizzly and her three curious cubs. 

While my eager fishing companions jumped out with rigged fly rods and made a beeline for the water, I stayed behind to help Chris pile up driftwood and start a roaring fire. We were still a few weeks away from the sockeye spawn, but fish by the thousands were already staging off the rivers. The bears were, too. A young blond male appeared and, oblivious to us, swam right by us, not more than 100 feet away, alternately standing on his haunches to get a better look into the water. He made his way down to the anchored plane. Just beyond we saw some splashing. “He’s got one,” Chris said, pleased at nature’s timeless drama. 

After catching dozens of Dolly Varden char, the boys appeared through the grass and gathered around our fire, their wet, cold waders steaming. A gust of raindrops stirred the white embers to orange. Any impulse to check for text messages would have been blasphemy.   

Planning Your Own Alaskan Fishing Adventure

Dan Herrig, the owner of Rapids Camp Lodge, has been guiding these wild waters since 1997. Massive migrations of salmon shape the seasons, he explained. When the lodge opens in June, the focus is on fishing for rainbow trout, Dolly Varden char, and grayling. In July the waters leading to Bristol Bay teem with fresh-run sockeye salmon. In August chum and silver salmon arrive. In September, Dan said, "the Naknek is on fire with "big, girthy rainbows," 16 to 22 inches, and some monsters to three feet chowing down on endless sockeye eggs: "They are complete carnivores." 

To plan a trip, contact Ken Morrish at Fly Water Travel in Ashland, Oregon, at (800) 552-2729.

Editor’s note: Not into fishing? This huge state offers lots of other vacation options. For ideas, see “What to Do in Alaska,” by Debi Lander.

Beavers and Otters, Oh My!

The first Beaver single-engine, propellor-driven airplane took flight on Aug. 16, 1947, in Toronto. It was designed and assembled by the British de Havilland Aircraft Company, which had built military aircraft and trained crews in Canada throughout World War II, for both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force.

The de Havilland factory is now the Canadian Air and Space Museum at Downsview Park in Toronto.

The sturdy, short-take-off-and-landing original Beaver featured a 450-hp Pratt and Whitney Wasp Junior nine-cylinder air-cooled engine. It was 30 feet long with a 48-foot wingspan and had a cruising speed of 143 mph and a range of 455 miles. The last of 1,657 Beavers rolled off the assembly line 20 years later, in 1967.

Encouraged by the enthusiasm of wilderness pilots for the high-winged Beaver, the maker early on started drawing up plans for a larger version to accommodate more passengers and, particularly, transport larger loads of supplies and construction materials to remote camps. The 41-foot Otter appeared in 1951; only 466 of the single-engine version were manufactured through 1967. A year earlier, in 1966, the more powerful twin-engine Otter began flying.

From the beginning, both the Beaver and the Otter came with factory wheels, but they were designed to be easily fitted with floats. The legendary de Havilland aerial cousins are regarded by many as the best bush airplanes ever built. The ones that survive are cherished and kept in tip-top shape.