Part Two of Affordable Float Plane Fishing in Alaska dicusses the lake itself, the fishing (of course!) and the wildlife encountered. To learn more about the cabin, the charter float plane, and the logistics of getting to Alaska, click here to read yesterday’s column.
There are a lot of lakes in Alaska and picking the right one can be a challenge.
Since none of us were hardcore fishermen, we wanted a lake that offered some nice hiking trails so that we could split our time between fishing and exploring. As I asked around, however, I was surprised to learn that are actually very few lakes with hiking trails. This is because the brush is so thick in this part of Alaska that it is almost impossible to bushwhack your way through it. Most cabins offer access to the lake, and little else. Without the row boat, there’d be almost no where to go.
As a result, we were a bit limited in our options. We eventually settled for a place called Heckman Lake which turned out to be one of the more bizarre bodies of water I’ve ever visited.
Sure, the entire area was very beautiful, but the water itself was a mysterious blackish color. At first I thought it was just the lack of sunshine on our first day, but it never changed. It was as though a thousand octopi had all released their ink into the brackish water and then disappeared into its depths, never to be seen again. The inky blackness made me think of the eerie Mines of Moria lake encountered by the characters in Lord of the Rings and I kept worrying that some enormous tentacle would emerge and drag us to our deaths.
And yet, I still mustered up the courage to go swimming, only to be met with another oddity; beneath the water my body appeared a ghastly, jaundice-like yellow. It was clear enough to see my toes, but beneath my yellow flailing feet the murky waters receded into a dark, soulless pit. I didn’t stay in for long.
The lake seemed to be cursed. It was beautiful, scenic, calm, relaxing, and all those other wonderful attributes commonly associated with a picturesque body of water in the middle of the wilderness, but for some reason it was nearly devoid of life. There were practically no birds, no bears, and, sadly enough, no fish. We spent our first day tooling around the lake and didn’t get as much as a single bite. I thought that this might have been due to the fact that we were fishing in the middle of the day. But when evening came–a time when mountain lakes are usually full of circular ripples from fish feeding off the surface–Heckman Lake remained as smooth and quiet as a sheet of glass. If we wanted to eat fish, we’d have to hike away from this lifeless body of water.
Despite an Alaska Department of Fish and Game memo promising Steelhead trout, Dolly Varden, and Pink, Coho, Chum, and Sockeye salmon at Heckman Lake the only thing we pulled from the lake was a tiny little trout that we would have thrown back had he not swallowed the hook and died immediately after we pulled it out. That’s him above, on the left, hoisted on a single finger by his infanticide butcher (the other fish were caught later in the day – keep reading to find out where!).
After the failure of our first day of lake fishing, we consulted a map and found a place which we hoped would offer better luck. My theory was that the salmon weren’t running this far from the ocean. We hadn’t even seen any in the river which fed into the lake despite it being the time of year that the salmon run (August).
Jordan Lake, however, just two miles away, was fed by a very wide stream coming in from the ocean. If there were any salmon, this would be the place.
And so early on the second morning, we packed up lunch supplies, grabbed our fishing poles and set out hiking down river. The trail was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Nearly the entire length was a wooden gangplank suspended just above the ground, cutting through extraordinarily thick, primordial brush. Hiking its length made me think of the classic Ray Bradbury story, A Sound of Thunder in which hunters can go back in time to shoot dinosaurs. An elevated gangplank ensured that the hunters did not accidentally tread on anything which might impact the future, such as a harmless butterfly, for example.
The two mile hike took us past another Forest Service Cabin on Jordan Lake (this one with a roof over the porch). About a mile beyond, we cut off the trail and down to the river feeding into Jordan Lake. And this is where we came across a bounty of spawning salmon choking the stream and flopping about in the air.
The setting was phenomenal; a rushing stream, sunny skies, and a bounty of nature. We spent the day leisurely fishing and lounging about.
Our luck wasn’t all that great, however. We only pulled in two salmon. Although this turned out to be more than enough to feed us all for dinner, I was extremely frustrated. I spent most of my time watching my lure float past hundreds of big fat salmon who simply sidestepped the hooks as they went by. There were even times I could lower my hook directly into the water and bounce the lure right in front of their beady little fish eyes. Again, no luck. Out of frustration, I actually reached into the water at one point and grabbed one with my bare hand only to have him slime out of my grip and swim away.
Everything changed on the third day, however. We hiked even further down the river and found a nice shady spot to start casting. No one had any luck the first two hours, but then things turned around. We landed three big fatties almost back to back-more than enough to feed us for dinner! And then it became sport fishing time where everything we caught we sadly tossed back into the river.
I’m not sure how I managed to improve but it got to the point that I had a bite nearly every time I threw in my lure. Every fourth or fifth cast and I reeled in a fish! This was the Alaska I had heard so much about! In fact, the river was teeming with so many salmon that occasionally we’d catch one by accidentally snagging it on the side as the hook passed through a crowded school (this, by the way is illegal; any fish caught in this manner was thrown back).
Certainly the best part of fishing is eating your catch.
After trudging the three miles back to our cabin with more than a dozen pounds of salmon, Derek the filet master gutted and sliced up our bounty. And then it was cooking time. We fried some of it in a pan and the rest we steamed in aluminum foil pockets placed on the embers of our fire.
The fish was excellent but not the best I’ve ever had. This was spawning season and the salmon we caught were within a few weeks of spawning and dying. Most of their characteristic red coloring had faded into more of a fleshy gray color indicating that the fish were nearing the end of their life cycle.
It ain’t Alaska if you don’t see bears and bald eagles. We had to leave Heckman Lake to do so, but eventually we did run across a fair amount of black bears on the river below Jordan Lake. Occasionally they came rather close but were quickly scared away upon seeing us–which is a good thing considering our buddy Steve dropped the bear spray into the river.
We actually saw fewer bald eagles than bears, which is rather surprising considering that they have just come off the endangered species list. There is something so very majestic and mesmerizing about these amazing birds, however. Especially when they have salmon clutched in their talons.
Some Final Thoughts
All in all, we had the quintessential Alaskan experience; we caught and ate salmon, flew in a float plane, spotted bears and bald eagles, gathered around the campfire to reminiscence about the halcyon days of our youth, and came home stinking of fish and a crowded cabin.
And, it only cost us about $200 dollars each, excluding the airfare to get to Alaska.
For a gallery of more Alaska photographs from this trip, click here