Float plane fishing in Alaska has always sounded like a prohibitively expensive proposition to me.
Having just returned from my first time doing so, I can now definitively state just how wrong I was.
Sure, float plane fishing can indeed be VERY expensive, costing hundreds of dollars a day with private guides and First Class service. But there are much cheaper, do-it-yourself options available. The one my friends and I slapped together, for example, cost a mere $50 per day, making our “prohibitively expensive” vacation one of the most affordable I’ve been on in a long while. And, one of the most enjoyable.
It would have been a great trip no matter where we went because it was with a group of friends I’ve known since junior high school, no wives or girlfriends allowed. No one really knew what to expect, however; only two of us had ever been to Alaska before (click here to see the 17-part series from last year) and only one was enough of a fisherman to actually own his own rod. Nonetheless, the trip turned out to be the perfect Alaskan experience; bears, bald eagles, fresh salmon, and jaw-dropping scenery. And, great friends, of course.
Organizing such an excursion for a group of half-fisherman, Alaska neophytes, certainly took a bit of planning but the return on the investment was priceless.
The following is a detailed guide for preparing a similar trip yourself. If you’ve never fished or spent time in the outdoors, however, I wouldn’t recommend this option; you’ll definitely need a guide, some handholding, and plenty of money to spend. But if you do have rudimentary outdoor skills and are ready to tackle the Alaska wilderness on your own, please read on.
We settled on the Ketchikan area because it’s the fastest way in and out of Alaska. My $540 Alaska Airline flight left Los Angeles at 6:15 in the morning and would have arrived in Ketchikan at 11:30 a.m. had it not been delayed four hours in Seattle. Thankfully we had decided to spend our first night in the city; otherwise we would have missed our charter flight out to the wilderness.
Spending a day in Ketchikan also allowed us to pick up supplies, eat a hearty meal, acclimate to the wonders of Alaska, and stay the night in an old bordello.
Although there are cheaper places to stay in Ketchikan, we opted for the historic New York Hotel. The main part of the hotel is on busy Stedman Street, but the two-level suite we booked for $240 was located 50 yards away, literally hanging over a picturesque river of spawning salmon (above).
This is the historic Creek Street area, a gangplank-connected row of turn-of-the-century buildings that served as the red light district up until prostitution was made illegal in 1953. Today, it’s overrun with t-shirt stores and souvenir shops but still remains a wonderfully beautiful location within walking distance of all the best restaurants, bars, and stores in Ketchikan.
The Charter Plane
If you’re not careful, the wrong charter company can set you back quite a bit of money. On the other hand, finding the cheapest crop duster to fly you into the wilds of Alaska is probably not a good idea either.
After plenty of online research and numerous telephone calls, we eventually settled on Alaska Seaplane Tours. The company had some of the more affordable rates and was very pleasant on the phone during the off-season when we were planning the trip. We ended up chartering their entire fleet for all seven of us; a five passenger DeHavilland Beaver and a two passenger Cessna 185.
The total round trip cost for the flight (20 minutes each way) was a modest $800 for both planes; just $114 per person. The pilots were professional and yet hilarious at the same time. They picked us up at our hotel in Ketchikan, drove us to their dock, loaded up the plane in moments flat, and then took to the air-all within a 30 minute time span. The whole time they were making jokes, having fun, and otherwise entertaining us.
My only complaint was some poor communication leading up to the trip. They were difficult to get a hold of during their busy summer season and never responded to emails regarding pickup times and weight limits. Otherwise, they were a great, lucky find and I highly recommend them.
The flight itself was a joy. I’ve never been in a float plane before and was rather surprised at the smooth take off and landing. Water is so much better than tarmac! The planes also fly rather low and provide wonderful opportunities to check out the surrounding mountains and lakes. Even if you’re not heading out to the wilderness, this would be a great sight seeing tour.
Packing for a float plane trip is similar to packing for camping; everything you might need must be packed in advance because the nearest civilization is miles away.
The Alaska Seaplane Tours Lake Trip Rental Package was a huge help. The following items were packed into the plane and flown out with us for just an additional $89:
2 fold chairs
1 Coleman – double burner propane cook stove
1 back-up single burner propane stove
1 week’s propane supply
2 Therma-rest sleep pads
1 cooler for food
Necessary cook utensils
1 cook pot
1 fry pan
1 dish bowl
1 weeks plates/bowls
1 6hp two stroke Yamaha outboard
1 Coleman Propane Lantern
1 week’s mixed two-stroke engine fuel
Fishing equipment was a bit more of a challenge. Only one of us had a decent pole. The guys at Alaska Seaplane Tours threw in three extra rods to help us out, but they were a little banged up and, as we would find out, strung with line that was too light to catch salmon. Luckily, we also rented poles from Alaskan Aquamarine for $10 per day. For an additional $10 they delivered the poles directly to the float plane dock and then picked them up again at the end of the trip.
We did, however, have to spend some time buying lures and other fishing equipment. The best place in Ketchikan to do so is the Tongass Trading Company located right on the docks. They’ve got a tremendous amount of fishing supplies and some very knowledgeable staff to point city-slicker neophytes like us in the right direction.
Lastly, each of us needed to buy a fishing license. It’s easy to do so in Ketchikan, but an even easier option is online here.
The US Forest Service maintains a number of cabins throughout Alaska. They are simple, Spartan structures that provide shelter, warmth, and not a whole lot more. The most important thing, however, is that they are very cheap. Our cabin was just $35 a night.
It came equipped with two wooden-plank bunk beds, the bottom of which was wide enough to sleep two each. That’s just barely room for six people. We had one extra person which meant we took turns sleeping on the floor of the cabin. With enough bed pads, it was actually quite comfortable.
The interior also had a small table, some shelf space for cooking supplies, and a wood burning stove. The stove wasn’t very practical for cooking but it did a great job of warming up the cabin. We did most of our cooking on a camp stove outside or wrapped up in foil and placed on the embers of an outdoor fire ring. Next time, I think we’ll bring a small grill to place over the embers.
The cabin also had an exterior outhouse as well as a completely loaded woodshed. Best of all, nearly every US Forest Service cabin in the areas comes equipped with a small skiff.
The cabin was awfully small for seven people but served its purpose well. I was a little disappointed, however, that there was no roof over the front porch. It rains a lot in this part of Alaska and this is where we spent most of our time in the evenings. Thankfully someone brought a rain tarp which we strung up.
One word of advice in booking a cabin; try to do so six months in advance. This is when the Forest Service opens up the reservations and the more popular cabins can disappear very quickly when this happens.
For a gallery of more Alaska photographs from this trip, click here