Make someone happy,
Make just one someone happy,
And you will be happy, too.
- J. Durante
The flats boat glided silently upriver as my guide poled and scanned the calm tidal water. His head, framed by bright blue sky, blocked the sun's glare and gave him a clear view of the water. He pointed to eleven o'clock, whispered "school!" and told me now was the time. I firmed up my stance on the bow, took a deep breath and aimed. My weight-forward saltwater line unfurled, depositing a red and white Clouser in the middle of the racing ripples. I worked a quick retrieve, murmuring a fervent prayer, "take it, take it, take it!"
Miraculously, one fish did.
The take was decisive and, after the momentary pause that comes before the fight, my reel zinged and I was down to my backing. Lee kept me cool, urging me to let him run. Then the acrobatics started, six or eight jumps in all, and we had two runs back and forth to the boat before my fish graciously allowed himself to be netted. I was ecstatic, and more than a little proud to have landed the first silver of the trip.
That's right - a silver salmon! The scene sounds more like a tarpon and bonefish expedition in the Florida Keys, but we were on the Afognak River just outside of Kodiak, under the tutelage of Lee and Cilla Robbins, owners of Raspberry Island Remote Camps. A few years ago, Lee had the novel idea of adding the flats boat to the lodge's already broad repertoire, to allow his guests to take best advantage of the vast schools of salmon that come in and out of the bays and rivers in this area north and west of Kodiak Island. We were attracted to their lodge for this very reason, the novelty of using a tropical approach to silver fishing.
Lee and Cilla are two of the most gracious and knowledgeable lodge hosts in Alaska. They've built their place from scratch, over more than 20 years, taking time along the way to raise and homeschool three great kids while building a first-class wilderness operation. Their preparation, knowledge, and devotion to detail leave almost nothing to chance, in a part of the world where preparation can be the difference between not just a good day and a bad day, but between life and death. Yet, each week, they build a thrilling, spontaneous adventure, custom made to their clients' tastes. These are real, down-to-earth people who aim to make you happy, and who accomplish all the exacting work behind the scenes with such ease and grace that you're hardly aware of their intensity.
The first morning, we awoke to the lowing of cattle. It's an odd sensation, to be sleeping soundly in a classy cabin on a remote island and to shake yourself awake trying reconcile the remembrance of the place you went to sleep with the sounds now surrounding you. The mooing gave way to the Bonanza theme song and eventually we figured out that we were being treated to a public-address system alarm clock, Robbins style. This set quite the animated tone for breakfast, where we settled into Lee's intense but good humored pace with fellow guests Curt Frankenfeld and Elizabeth Taylor of Colorado.
This was to be our first day on the flats boat. Cilla called the weather "Kodiak sunshine," with small squalls moving in and out and spells of blue sky in between. After I made that first catch, my husband Patrick was up. Once again, Lee spotted an incoming school from his platform. Pat had decided to work the surface, and we were entertained by pinks chasing frantically after his hot pink Gurgler. He enjoyed some success, but once the rain started, the surface approach stopped working.
Ceding the floating platform to Elizabeth and Curt, we moved downstream with Cilla to a perfect rock ledge perch. Patrick caught on fire. This was his kind of fishing: sight-casting, plenty of back-cast room, and the opportunity to extemporize fly selection and retrieve. I stepped back for a moment to take in the scene as he developed his rhythm - watchful waiting, laser-like casting, alternating slow and fast twitch retrieve, back to watchful waiting. Lee calls it the "Zen and when of fishing," and on this day, Patrick was heavy into the Zen. It was only a few rhythmic cycles before the first take, and the three of us delighted in the drama of the chase and the catch. Cilla was masterful with the net when it counted, as she helped Patrick land a shimmery fourteen-pounder.
Meanwhile, upstream in the boat, Curt brought in a twelve pounder to much applause, and Elizabeth experienced her first Kodiak salmon, a feisty pink. In all, we landed about 30 fish, half silver, half pink. Left on our own, we'd have never been ready to leave, but Lee pointed to the falling tide and we realized that the "when" of our Zen fishing was over. We motored back down the river to where we'd left the Gemini, the lodge's roomy cat cruiser, and headed home for our victory dinner. We'd truly had a Bonanza of a day!
Kim Swaneveld, the camp's all-around handyperson, met us back at camp and took on the job of unloading and filleting. Cilla was kind enough to point out the Beer Garden, a collection of diverse beverages stashed under a cool waterfall. We chose wisely then made our way to the lodge for an evening of camaraderie and great food from Chef Randall.
It's a Wonderful World
Patrick and Lee at Malina Beach.
Next morning's alarm was Louis Armstrong with "It's a Wonderful World," and, indeed, it was. There were trees of green, skies of blue, and a plan to visit Malina Beach on Shelikof Strait for surfcasting. When Lee mentioned Shelikof the night before as a possibility, Alaskan lore of dangerous surf, rocks, and wind came to mind and we mentally prepared for anything. Anything but, as it turned out, what we were actually blessed with - less than two foot seas, bright sun, and just enough breeze to make casting a challenge.
Malina, Russian for raspberry, is an enchanted spot on Afognak Island, about a 30-minute boat ride from the lodge. As we neared the beach, literally hundreds of silvers appeared, popping in and out of the water in some strange dance about 25 yards offshore. Lee beached the boat on the rising tide, and we scrambled to our posts. Patrick and I fished chartreuse and white Clousers, our mainstay saltwater fly, and Curt tried everything else imaginable - pink, purple, black, orange, and red, but none did the trick. It was heart-stopping, being able to just reach the popping salmon, knowing that your fly was in the thick of things, yet not ever tasting a silver victory. We worked up a dance of our own, the three of us heaving flies, barely stopping to savor the rich surroundings. Every cast would frustrate, yet our optimism was renewed every time another salmon jumped. These fish were active, but apparently not hungry. By noon, we were the hungry ones, and Lee sent out orders to bring home some lunch. Curt moved off the surfline towards the mouth of Malina Creek and hauled in a nice fresh pink, which Lee sautŽed over a campfire.
After lunch, I took a walk upstream, hoping to spot some Dollies. To avoid disturbing the hordes of spawning pinks, I hiked the very muddy trail rather than wade the creek. I was appreciating the nice footholds on the path until I suddenly realized that these water-filled indentations had claw prints on the end of them and that the brown mounds around had berries in them! I looked behind me and realized that any salmon-seeking bear coming over the rolling hills would have the advantage of surprise, so I decided not to round that first bend. Dollies are nice, but fall in Kodiak is not the time to go exploring alone.
I joined Patrick down on the beach, and we headed towards a huge rock cliff at the end of the bay to take another shot at those tantalizing silvers. This time, Patrick cracked the code. His red and orange homespun creation, somewhere between a marabou and a Clouser, did the trick, and he brought in three pretty hens and one large buck. He donated some flies to Curt and I and we were able to duplicate his success.
The fishing turned off for a while, as fishing does, and Patrick and I decided to scale the rock formation. The view was endless. Just offshore, about 30 birds flocked, and we spotted the attraction - four humpback whales were rolling, the baby of the group being nudged by its mother to keep pace. Below us, in crystal clear saltwater, were zillions and zillions of pink salmon cruising the multi-colored bottom. When they crossed a white patch of sand, the water would practically go dark with their mass. We dropped a line down the 35 foot dropoff, just to "diddle fish," and laughed when the pinks pounced on the fly while we snatched it away. We welcomed Curt and Elizabeth to our perch, and the four of us just relaxed in the sun, not quite believing our fortune, to be enjoying this wonderful world.
Make Someone Happy
Next morning's alarm was Jimmy Durante over the loudspeaker urging us to "Make Someone Happy." Another day of flats boat fishing at the Afognak River was on tap, but wind and the tide had conspired to warrant a late departure. To make us happy in the meantime, master logician Cilla decided that an octopus hunt was in order. Hauling a short hose and a bucket of water mixed with bleach, she led us down the beach. She'd find a likely looking rock, blow some bleach water underneath it, and see if anybody oozed out. We became amateur marine biologists for a few hours, and met some of the most entertaining creatures.
The eight of us, including new arrivals Tim Moser and Sandy Riebe from Denver, set out in the Gemini just before lunch. This roomy aluminum cat with twin custom diesel engines easily accommodated us, our gear, and the flats boat in tow. Once again, Afognak Bay sported six-inch seas, and we cruised along in harmony with each other and the water. Talk was easy, the mood was light, and we each harbored our own silver dreams.
The river had totally changed in the last 36 hours. In spite of the current clear blue sky, the water was markedly higher with no visibility. Lee proclaimed it a "challenge," promising he'd do his best. During the initial slow period, I got a chance to fish with Lee's new outfit, a Sage TCR with a Van Stahl reel, landed a couple of fun pinks, and got both right and left handed casting lessons from a master.
Curt tied on a little green rabbit leech, which was very well received by an incoming silver. It took 10 seconds to get to backing, busting his knuckles on the way and causing Curt to muse aloud about how different this was from Colorado fishing! Sandy and Tim started to get the hang of this kind of fishing, and did quite well. All told, we got about 10 silvers and countless pinks, plus the opportunity to razz Lee about his predictions of challenge.
The next day, we got some serious saltwater fishing in, with Sandy pulling in her first-ever halibut and Tim entertaining us with Minnesota "Ole" jokes. Patrick and I both got huge hits on our bottom rigged mooching rods, leading us to believe Lee's insistence that there were credible lunkers in the area, but we didn't manage to actually hook one. Curt and Patrick went ashore in the dinghy for salmon fishing in a creek, while Cilla and Elizabeth went gathering mushrooms and the rest of us stayed on board Gemini for silver fishing. There were fish absolutely everywhere, two huge schools of 200 fish each, alternately circling the boat and cruising the flats around us, taunting us with their very numbers. We managed to land just two of them with our saltwater gear, but the experience was aerobic nevertheless.
A couple of the guests and their guide hiked up to Afognak Lake for some stillwater fishing, and they reported big, tailing silvers in skinny water, responding to Clousers and Gurglers. We marveled that, even without the flats boat, one could make the analogy between our Raspberry Island Remote Camps experience and our best tropical fishing memories.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Our last full day, we woke up to Izzy Kamakawiwo'ole's haunting ukelele version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." We felt like we were already there! Tim and Sandy spent the morning getting private fly-casting lessons from Cilla. Afterwards, the three of them set out in the kayaks, and they came back having scored several cool species of waterfowl visually and several fresh pinks with a rod. After a scrumptious lunch of jambalaya, we sent them off to meet their ferry.
We took advantage of a mid-afternoon high tide and took a short cruise in the Gemini to nearby Selief Bay, hopes high. Lee kept us laughing, as usual, warning us about how very quickly the tide would come in here and conjuring up pictures of us floating out to sea.
We anchored near the mouth of the river and hiked upstream. It was a dazzling clear day, but autumn had started to take hold in subtle ways. Grasses were yellowing and the cool air clashed with the warmer water, creating a surreal, swirling mist. Lee positioned us on opposite sides of the river, with Curt and Elizabeth on the left bank, Pat and I on the right. Fishing was brisk, with silvers and pinks taking everything from Pat's float rod jigs to Curt's green bunny flies. We got a bit worried as the tide approached flood and we became increasingly marooned on our private grassy knolls. The fishing was too good, though, and our trust in Lee too great, to be truly worried.
Curt, in particular, was in the zone, the pink zone. Trouble struck when he cast off the tip of his rod, fetched it, and reset it hastily. Next cast, it broke clean in two. Lee managed to wade over to him, and together they jerry rigged it together with some mono from Lee's vest. Curt made a short cast, thinking he'd get another pink if anything, and retrieved with a long strip set. That's when he felt that thunderbolt strike, the kind that could only be a silver. He hollered out the appropriate expletive and quickly realized that he hadn't set this up well. There was line everywhere from his previous long casts, and it was pretzeled up in the slough that had been a meadow a few minutes earlier. His huge silver jumped, and Lee just started laughing. And laughing. What else could he do? Curt was marooned, the now-ebbing water was so deep that he couldn't move in any direction, the floating line was threatening to knot, and the fish was heading down to the rapids. By now, we were all reeled in, happy to just be the peanut gallery. Curt masterfully averted disaster and got his fish on the reel, playing him gently and praying that the mono would hold the rod together. There was a great deal of back and forth, give and take, but Lee finally herded the prize into the net, and we were able to snap some photos of the smiling fisherman and his silver.
That night, over happy hour, Curt recounted the tale for Chef, Kim, and Cilla. We couldn't have counted the belly laughs if we tried. Lee's great humor is infectious, and he had us all hooting as he harassed Curt for not trying out the mended rod on a pink. What a tall tale this would become!
Over dinner, we toasted all around, to the fish, the octopi, and the birds; to our new friends; and, most of all, to the incredible staff and owners of the lodge. We marveled at the diversity of our adventures, from top-action silvers in rivers and lakes, to surfcasting, halibut jigging and salmon trolling, to kayaking and beachcombing. Funny how we all used the words "family" and "happy" to describe our week. There's the kind of happy that only happens at home - where you can relax and be your real self. That's the kind of happy that the Robbins' Raspberry Island Remote Camps makes you. We were all leaving with a sense of accomplishment, of exhilaration, and of belonging. Most of all, we were leaving with a certainty that we'd want to return.
~Kathy Anderson is an Associate Publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.