Everyone has a favorite river. For some, it's a small stream that they have fished all their lives and where they have learned the myriad subtleties of presenting flies to wary, yet accepting fish. For others, it is a medium sized river that continues to impress and reward, one where an angler can rely on standard Alaskan techniques and fish-holding locations, but also learn new ones and increase in catching more and larger fish. For me, it is the large rivers of Alaska that have my attention, ones where the variables of the situation are dynamic, and which can, at any moment, reduce your skills to nothing and leave you both distraught and exhilarated. In rivers like the Naknek, the power to produce huge trout, and to then make the angler earn the right to catch them while wading and fly-fishing, is as good as it gets for me. It is here that we met Morry and Donnalee Moorcroft.
Bear Trail Lodge © Dusan Smetana
For many with the passion to share Alaska's beauty and bounty with travelers from around the world, owning and operating a lodge in remote Alaska is a lifelong dream. It takes a certain breed of person to pull off this complicated equation, with the necessary skill-set as varied as the clients who visit the lodge. The Moorcrofts are such people and a broad and interesting array of life experiences have led them to where they are today as owners and hosts of Bear Trail Lodge.
Morry's Alaskan journey started in 1957 as he left Chehalis, Washington, for Ketchikan at the age of 14, where he began work on a salmon packer. To this day, the best job of his life was spent as a teenager supplying a logging camp at Ratz Harbor on Prince of Wales with staples from Ketchikan. He grew up with the salt air in his palate and the drive to catch fish burned into his genetic code.
He lived for many years in Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula and as things got more crowded, moved to King Salmon in 1974. Along the way, he has traveled and worked around the state in places like Cold Bay, Barrow, Bethel, St. Mary's, and Cordova. As a general contractor, he has been involved in many of the major projects in King Salmon and this also helped to make him qualified to build his own high-end lodge. Morry is a gracious host, entrepreneur, story-teller, and good fisherman. He loves the Naknek River and loves to share it with other people.
Donnalee's path to Alaska started in the west where she grew up on an Oregon farm. She learned respect and grace from her parents who have now celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary! She has made her mark on the world as a business owner and learned to drive 16-wheelers from her dad, which led to pulling 40-foot vans in Oregon on a US Mail contract. Donnalee arrived in Alaska in 1972 after graduating from beauty college. She runs her own beauty salon as well as the lodge and has had many years of experience in retail as the owner of a clothing shop. Donnalee is bright and charming, cute as a button and the perfect hostess. Each time we visit, I simply feel more at home, like I'm a member of the family.
She is most proud of the repeat business that Bear Trail Lodge continues to receive, no doubt a direct result of how well she and the rest of the staff treats clients. She knows each person's story and strives to arrange all the particulars so that all clients feel special. She rises to the challenge and conveyed real joy in helping a group of 32 arrange a trip to the lodge in 2007 or the client that has been to Bear Trail Lodge 16 times (and counting) since it has opened. There is no doubt that she is the glue that holds the lodge together.
A dream was realized when the lodge came to life. Since 1999, the Moorcrofts have hosted happy anglers and their success comes from treating clients like family and providing top-notch accommodations, food and fishing. It also doesn't hurt that the lodge sits on the Naknek River and in five minutes, one can be pulling plugs for king salmon in one of the most productive runs on the lower river. In addition, the river produces well for the sockeye and coho angler. For rainbow hunters, a forty-minute boat ride finds you at the bottom of Rapids Camp and in roughly 30 more minutes, one can spy the bottom end of Naknek Lake and the gateway to Katmai National Park. Fly-outs to remote destinations are numerous and nicely compliment the home waters. To be successful in this competitive industry, a lodge needs prime location, quality accommodations, good food and most of all, good people. Bear Trail succeeds on all accounts.
We've had many successful fishing trips on the Naknek River while staying at Bear Trail Lodge. From pulling plugs for kings to throwing streamers for trout, the river hardly ever disappoints. Fishing with Morry one day near the lake outlet, we watched as a large school of marauding rainbows slashed through the smolt on the surface. Each time the group would approach, we'd throw Pixees, articulated leeches and smolt patterns into the fray. My mother had traveled from Virginia Beach to join us on the trip, and worked tirelessly from the boat to entice a rainbow to strike her Pixee. Fishing in the river from below, I heard the excitement in her voice and the scream of the drag of the spinning reel as the 6-pound rainbow headed for the Bay of Islands. Earlier that day, Melissa landed a 25-pound king. Later in the trip, Wayne and I would both land 30-inch rainbows. It's this type of fishing that makes the Naknek such a special place.
But good fishing is just one component of a great trip. When you return to your accommodations each evening, tired but elated from a hard day's angling, the perfect trip includes good food, interplay with the other guests, and a comfortable place to lay your head. For the hardcore among us, perhaps a scrap of rocky gravel bar and a Mountain House meal satisfy their primal needs, but for the average American, luxury is the path to happiness and a week spent in a tent is equivalent to a prison sentence. It is always nice to return to the lodge each evening, enjoy a great meal, and unwind with a few beers while playing a game of pool, telling fish stories, and determining tomorrow's strategy.
In the end, the sign of a great experience is the sadness you feel when the trip is coming to a close. I always arrive at Bear Trail with great expectations and always leave having met and sometimes exceeded them, yet sad that I have to leave. The pictures on the wall help me relive the events and help to shorten the intervals between returns.
Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.