No sooner had the first cast hit the water and I began reeling up the slack. Instantly a wake appeared behind the spinner, followed by a flurry of bright, silver flashes. The lure hadn’t traveled 10 feet before it disappeared into the white mouth of a feisty coho salmon.
“I told you it was going to happen fast,”echoed Greg Brush’s comment from a boat anchored 20 yards to the right of us. Shooting a glancing smile Greg’s way, I was surprised when two of the four anglers in his boat were also locked in battle with coho.
In the background, a sow brown bear fished for silver salmon along the same lakeshore we worked, her young cubs eagerly watching from the rocks. Minutes later, a black bear made its way through the dense brush, looking for a bite of salmon near the creek mouth we fished.
It was Alaska fishing at its finest, and we weren’t five minutes into the day. The good part, we had hours of endless action ahead of us.
I’ve fished and hunted with Greg Brush, of EZ Limit Guide Service (907-262-6169), on several occasions, and we’ve always had a good time. We’ve always caught plenty of fish and filled our big-game tags, too. I like spending time with this man because he’s a disciplined, hard worker and knows what it takes to get the job done right. This fly-out trip was one Greg had been trying to get me on for the past few years, but our timing was never right, until now.
Following a 25-minute floatplane ride from the town of Kenai, the pilot was soon setting us down on Big River Lake. The flight across Cook Inlet was smooth and beautiful, and the closer the plane drew to the base of the Alaska Range, the more stunning the scenery became.
Brush had four clients in his 21-foot powerboat, while I teamed up with one of his pinch-hit guides, Ty Wyatt. A few years prior I’d fished winter steelhead with Wyatt in Oregon and looked forward to spending time on the water with him, again.
“Over the past week, the bite’s been happening early, and then quickly shutting off,” Brush warned me on our flight over. “I’d suggest catching your first two keepers fast; then you can be picky with your third fish.”
Big River Lake offers anglers a three-coho limit. As soon as the third fish is landed, you’re done fishing. But between the first and third fish, you can hook and release salmon as desired. What will determine how much fishing you do, and how many fish you’ll be able to release, depends on the bite, the number of fellow anglers on the lake, and the urge to keep turning back fat, bright, healthy silvers with risk of the bite turning off.
You’re also against time when fishing Big River Lake, and no matter how fast you fill your coho limit, there’s never enough time before the floatplane returns in the early afternoon. That’s because there are brown bears, and lots of them, to observe. With so much to do, anglers must budget their time wisely in order to live this Alaska experience to its fullest.
The mechanics of fishing lakes for silver salmon is pretty straightforward. The objective of anglers is to entice the fish into biting by keying on their visual and olfactory senses. Hardware is the best visual attractant, while cured eggs are tough to beat when it comes to piquing their noses.
Wyatt had an array of spinners and spoons that I tossed at the coho. It was mid-August, and though the bite was tough—by Big River Lake standards—our aggressive moves paid off. Whenever I landed a silver on a spinner, Wyatt was quick to inspect it for damage control. If a blade didn’t spin right, or a wire was slightly out of alignment, it was immediately changed out.
On the spinners that I got lazy on checking, where I went more than a few casts with no bite, Wyatt was quick to remind me of the importance of gear maintenance. Even amid so many silvers, the bite can turn off if all elements of gear management aren’t in check.
Spinners, Pixees and the Blue Fox Vibrax all worked well, and the more often we changed them out, the quicker the bites came. There’s no question these schooling fish reacted more aggressively to freshly-introduced hardware.
In Greg’s boat, a couple anglers tossed lures while the others fished cured eggs under a float. “When fishing eggs, we usually keep the fish, no matter their size,” pointed out Brush. “This is because they normally swallow it, and are in no shape to be released. Eggs are effective, and are a great way to put some meat in the cooler.”
Once two of Brush’s clients had two fish each in the box, they went to spinners and hooked and released coho while their partners concentrated on landing fish. In this situation, Brush knew perfectly well that the bite was not going to last all morning. His approach of switching tactics, from eggs to lures, not only allowed his anglers to catch their limits of fine-eating silvers, but also saw them hook and release several nice fish in a very short time. The action was fast and furious.
During the course of the early morning hours, we explored a few different creeks that flowed into the lake. Coho were prevalent at every creek mouth. The clear, fresh water no doubt attracted the staging silvers, and made for exciting sight-fishing action.
Pods of anywhere from 20 to 300 silvers could be found congregating at the various creek mouths, a testimony to how attractive these little freshets can be in terms of luring migratory fish. One of the most breathtaking settings I’ve ever fished in Alaska found us where a small creek meandered down a rocky hillside, through dense brush and into the lake. We were anchored amid lily pads and casted toward overhanging brush that grew to the water’s edge. I felt more like I was fishing for peacock bass in the Amazon than targeting silvers in Alaska.
But it was the big school of fish in the shallows at the upper end of the lake that most intrigued me. This was the domain of the brown bear.
The Ultimate Experience
Personally, there’s no greater thrill when it comes to fishing than sharing the hole with bears. Bears and fish are synonymous with one another in Alaska, and it’s an experience many anglers from around the globe yearn for. I’ve been blessed to fish amid the biggest of the brown bears on the famed Brooks River. I’ve waded with them on the Egegik River, and saw more than my share while traipsing the many secluded streams when I lived on the North Slope. Observing bears and fishing with bears is something I can’t get enough of.
When our boats slowly motored into the calm waters at the upper end of the lake, anticipation mounted as big bears began popping out of the brush. Some bruins grabbed salmon as they struggled to swim up a shallow creek. Others plunged into the lake, snatching singles from the giant school.
Two boars proved to be the entertainment committee, and their presence also drove away the sow with her twin cubs. The brown bears had no fear of humans, or one another. A half-dozen boats gathered around the edges, watching as these bears wrestled, cruised the shallow edges and snorkeled for salmon.
Snorkeling is the term given to bears when they dip their snout and eyes underwater, ears above the surface, and search for fish. Above water, the antics are intriguing to watch, as you can feel the intensity with which the bears search for fish on the move. Once they dial-in on a target, you get to see how efficient these bears really are. Imagine fishing with only your mouth and hands...the thought is humbling and makes one appreciate how skilled bears are at catching fish.
At one point the two boars got caught up in play, taking them all the way around our boat. When they finally split, one bear swam within three feet of our bow, searching for fish along the way. To see his long, white claws and the massive pads of his feet tread water was an image I’ll never forget. His massive body, over half the size of the pram I was in, was intimidating, no doubt. But he paid us no mind. These bears are used to fishing among man, and nowhere else in Alaska have I felt so safe when viewing them so closely.
Hauling their large bodies ashore, shaking hundreds of pounds of water from their pelage, the strength of the brown bear is unmatched. When swimming, their power is like that of a freight train as it pushes forward, yet their movements are so graceful, so agile, so effortless.
A few hours of bear viewing—and fishing alongside them—passed quicker than I’d wished. Leaving the brown bears, Brush led us to a captivating waterfall. Here a black bear fished the edges for coho. He was more leery to our presence compared to his larger cousins. Still, the black bear was captivating to watch.
In the distance the buzz of an approaching bush plane caught my ear, and a sinking feeling hit my stomach. This was one of those places I didn’t want to leave; a moment I didn’t want to end. When it comes to bears and fishing in Alaska, I can never get enough. It’s Alaska at its finest.
Brush and Wyatt, firing up the motors on the boats, sensed my calmness. There was no need to tell me where the boats were destined to. I knew the day was coming to a close.
“Was it what you thought it was going to be?” quizzed Brush. “Better,” I smiled.
“It’s not over yet,” he cheered, “I have one more surprise for you.”
When our floatplane lifted off, bound for civilization, we didn’t follow the same path as the other planes. Instead, we banked hard to the right and headed into the heart of the Alaska Range.
Within minutes we were soaring mere feet over giant glaciers. Our wing tips seemingly touched the vertical cliffs which engulfed the aircraft. Black bears were seen at eye-level, feeding on lush, green grassy hillsides. Soon we were slipping over another glacier, it’s every crack and crevice easy to see.
Cruising down the mountain range, gorgeous scenery led to the shores of Cook Inlet. Across the way, the Kenai Peninsula took shape, and soon we landed and slipped across the lake en route to the dock; that’s when we saw a moose and her calf swimming the nearby shoreline.
From daylight to the very end of our journey, the excitement never ended. As if catching a limit of beautiful silvers wasn’t enough, we got to observe so many special features of what makes Alaska, Alaska. Now I knew why, after guiding full-time in the Last Frontier for nearly 20 years, this trip is one of Greg Brush’s most cherished.
Hopping in the car, the clock read mid-afternoon. “Hey, I know where we can go catch some pink salmon real quick, if you’re up for it,” smiled Greg. That’s August in Alaska in the world of guide Greg Brush . . . so much to do, only a short timeframe to fit it all in.
Look for Scott Haugen’s latest book, Bank Fishing for Salmon & Steelhead, at www.scotthaugen.com