Jump to content
  • entries
  • comments
  • views

Week One . . . The Only One That Counted

Phil Lilley


If you don't like to fly, don't even think about taking a trip like this one. All together we took 12 flights, including the bush plane ride from Kotzebue to the Kelly River. By the time we landed on the gravel bar next to the river, we were ready to be out of the air – despite the incredible scenery. It was two hours to Denver, six hours to Anchorage (overnight), more than two hours to Nome, 45 minutes on to Kotzebue and an hour in a 206 to the headwaters of the Kelly. It was a long haul. We did upgrade on the long flight and got good seats, with extra seats beside us –a big plus. If you ever fly to Anchorage, spend the extra bucks and get a seat with extra room - it's worth it.

We needed to pick up our satellite phone in Anchorage before heading to the airport. We asked the hotel desk clerk about the shuttle, but she said by the address she knew a cab would only cost $10. Naive tourists we were! We called a cab and headed out to -- the other side of town! We sat in the back of the cab and watched that ticker click off $2.50 every minute or so and thought, "How much is this sat phone going to cost us?" Little did we know. As we got closer to the address, the cab driver was confused. So we drove around the block, and then again. I said, "Let me go in this building and ask." I found out it was down the street, so I ran over and went in. Of course, the phone wasn’t ready, plus it wasn’t the right phone, so I spent over 20 minutes on what was supposed to be a quick turn-around. Heading back to the street, I saw Bill sitting on the curb with all our stuff piled up behind him. I should have taken a picture! “Our epic float trip in remote Alaska starts here!” The same cabbie came back by, picked us up and took us back across town tot the airport. Bill may have to correct me, but I think the cab ride cost us $100, about what the sat phone cost us for the week.

With no other issues, we made it to the airport and boarded for Kotzebeu. Neither of us had been to Nome or Kotzebue, Alaska, so it was exciting to visit both cities. We were disappointed, though, that we weren’t getting off the plane at Nome on our stop. But the quick stop there carried us to our final destination quicker.

Seeing Kotzebue from the air was surreal. It’s completely on a knob stuck out in the bay with water on almost all sides. The runway was even built up out of the water like a bridge to the mainland. As we got out bags, Bill went outside in the parking lot to see if he could locate our air service company. He asked an Alaska State Trooper for directions and the young man promptly said, “Get in and I’ll take you.” Pretty cool welcome, I’d say! It was just around the corner so personnel were soon back with a small truck to haul us and our stuff to the hanger.

After visiting with Jim Kincaid, the owner of NW Aviation, we found the supplies we had mailed up ahead --all there and in one piece. We unpacked it all and organized it into waterproof containers. Then we ran to the store and bought some fresh groceries plus our fishing and hunting licenses. When we returned and weighed it all, plus ourselves, we found out we were 100 pounds over the plane’s limit. We had suspected as much, but Bill thought Jim would be forgiving - nope. I don't blame him. We pulled out what we thought we couldn't live without and he blessed our load.

Looking at the plane, I thought how are we going to get all this and our bodies stuffed in it! The pilot said it would go and it did. It was cloudy, a little breezy and it felt like about 60 degrees -- just what we expected. We were ready to go.

The flight was beautiful. We crossed several rivers before the Kelly. Our river looked nice and big at first, but as we flew further and further upstream, it got smaller and smaller. The water was very clear, and we thought for sure that if there were salmon or char we should see them. We saw no signs of fish. About half way up I was beginning to get concerned about our chances to float, let alone catch fish. I could envision us dragging the boat through riffle after riffle for miles! I didn't realize it, but Bill was thinking the same thing.

The pilot circled the landing "strip" to check the wind and then landed -- very smoothly despite rolling over sticks, brush and rocks. Pretty cool -- we were there! Once we got off, the awesomeness of this special part of Creation -- the quiet, the breeze, the water, mountains and tundra – hit me. Who cared about fish? It was already an amazing trip.

I kept peeking around for bears as we unloaded the plane. Even while blowing up the raft, I kept up the “guide wariness.” Little did I know we wouldn't see an animal on the entire float. I ran down the "runway" to film the plane lift off. Again, I was amazed how easily he took off from the gravel bar. After he was in the air, I thought, "It's just us!"

Our plan was to float down a ways and find a good place to camp. We had no idea what was ahead of us as far as places where fish were holding. We shoved off and floated about a mile, found a nice, sandy spot and set up camp. It was about 6 p.m. when we landed. I knew sundown was around 8:30 p.m., but I also knew that it takes another hour after sundown to start getting dark that far north, so we had plenty of time to get settled.

The next morning we awoke to frost on the tent. Just a couple of days before, we were enduring triple-digit heat at home in the Ozarks. Now frost! I much prefer frost myself. We broke camp, loaded the raft and headed out for holes that were home to big char.

We floated for I’d say three hours through some beautiful country. Vast – that would be a good word for what we were seeing. The mountains lining both sides of the valley we were in looked almost fake—a painting may be. The river in front of us at times gave us choices to make, dividing into braids, taking off in lots of different directions. We said on more than one occasion that it would have been nice if the river had stayed in one stream, providing us with plenty of water to float and may be hold a fish or two. But that’s not the makeup of most rivers in Alaska. The valleys are wide and flat. In the spring and early summer, I’m sure they’re full of water from snowmelt. By the looks of the floor of the Kelly River Valley, the braids have different pathways each year through the valley. I’d love to see the area with the water high.

In fast, deeper sections, I’d see a fish or two darting from in front of the raft, but it was hard to identify what kind of fish. I thought, at the time, they were chum salmon because I caught a glimpse of white. When salmon start their dying stage, their flesh will die off and turn white. That’s what I thought I was seeing, but knowing now what we saw later in the float, these fish were actually char -- so we missed at least a few chances to stop and fish for them early in the float. But the numbers of these fish weren’t close to the big numbers we’d find just a little farther down the river.

We were looking for a river coming in from the east, one that Jim called “No Name River.” Not sure if that was its name or if the river actually had no name. Odd, seeing there aren’t many rivers up there flowing into the Kelly. We failed to turn on our GPS for the first few miles of our day’s trip, so we were guessing at the distance, fearing that we had missed it somehow. But we noticed a wide valley coming up to the east, and then we saw a small stream entering our river. That was it. Bill rowed the raft up in an eddy close to the inflow, and we saw our first male char, a sight that about made both of us fall overboard.

There was a perfect place on the shore to camp, so we beached the boat and started to scope out this section of river. We still suspected we’d see chum salmon close by and thought our beads would be the right tool to catch these trophies. But we were wrong. No salmon. So we went to Plan B — big streamers.

Bill was the first to hookup. He was fishing the plume where the No Name, or what we now call “Maggie Creek” flowed in. After a long fight, he landed what was the first of many male, sea run arctic char in that stretch and the largest of the char we’d catch on the trip.

We tore ourselves away from fishing to set up camp. But then it was back to the river and more hookups. Bill figured out the best way to present our streamers. He’d lay out a long cast across the river and immediately started mending his line upstream over and over. Each time, he’d bump the fly while still letting it drift downstream. These were heavily weighted flies, either with lead eyes or lead wire, so they were getting close to the bottom, which was about four feet down. But the water was swift and the drift was short, or the heavy flies were perfect for this style of drift. You knew when you’d get a strike—they didn’t mess around.

We both landed male char pushing 38 inches in length, but more impressive than the massive bodies was the color they presented. A master painter could not create a more beautiful fish than these, and we were so grateful that God created them for us to enjoy.

We decided to camp for three nights at Maggie Creek. We explored the river up and down from the mouth but saw no other fish. We did, for the first evening and next day, see more char making their way up the shallow riffle below this hole, but after the first day we didn’t see another fish come up. Were some of these fish heading further upstream or staying here to spawn?

I did hike over and up onto a ridge overlooking the valley. I was tempted to walk on up at least to the base of the mountain range, but Bill wasn’t up to it, and I didn’t want to meet a bear out in the open tundra by myself, so I sat and took in the view -- and picked a few wild blue berries to add to our pancakes the next morning.

The third morning, the fish seemed to be tired of our company. They weren’t hungry. We had already decided it was time to get on down to Wrench Creek, the second and final creek that Jim had told us entered Kelly River, again from the east. So we broke camp, loaded up and headed downstream.

The river kept breaking up in multiple braids, and at times it was hard to tell which were the right ones to pick. We were doing pretty well when we decided to take a path that lead us to shallow water and lots of dragging. We could see the main stream to our left just a hundred yards away but couldn’t get to it. Finally, we pulled our way through tiny streams of water to the big water and vowed not to do that again!

We stopped at several interesting spots. One was a huge bluff and deep holes. The water was a emerald green color in one spot and a sky blue in another. We did see a couple of male char holding in one deep pocket but they were way too spooky to entice with a big leech. We ran into several large wooded areas with tall pines. Upon further exploration, I found the floor of these wooded patches to be tundra, which I thought was strange. But Alaska is full of wondrous surprises.

Finally we found the mouth of Wrench Creek. It was much larger than Maggie Creek, much more like a creek you’d find here in Missouri. I’d almost switch the names around and call Wrench a river and Maggie a creek but I’ll leave it alone. Wrench had wooded areas on both sides of the creek as well as up and down one side of the Kelly River. Pines and willows, and the willows were in full fall colors – bright yellow. The tundra was also sporting its fall foliage in shades of red and burnt red. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. If only the sun would peak out, I thought, it would be totally eye-popping.

We pulled up on the bank across from the mouth of Wrench Creek, knowing we could wade across the Kelly to access Wrench when we wanted to. The gravel was small enough for our campsite and tent to be staked it out and set up camp.

Fish were jumping in front of camp on the Kelly on the opposite side of the river in deeper water, and we did try fishing that stretch, but the current and depth of the water were not right. We fished and caught out fish up in Wrench and that’s all, just in the creek. Because we only found fish at Maggie and now at Wrench, where water flowed into the river, we decided instead of floating on down to the mouth of the Kelly, we’d stay here and finish out our week. We called Jim at NW Aviation, and he said that would be fine. Why leave fish and take a chance on not finding any downstream?

Not every bend had fish up in the Wrench, but the mouth and first bend did. We did have to walk about a fourth mile up around three bends before finding more char and grayling. They were holding mainly along deep-cut banks. We found four good areas with fish. The river split in two parts above the last hot spot. Exploring up another half-mile, we thought it didn’t come back together, but when we flew out, we could see from the air that it did, meaning we probably should have walked up farther.

It did seem there were new char in the creek each day, so we weren’t fishing for the same, exact char each day. But I know we caught some of the fish twice over the three days we were there.

There were still a good number of chum salmon in the river and dead ones along its bank. But for the most part, they were done spawning. Fortunately for us, though, the char and grayling were still interested in anything that looked like an egg floating down through the chutes. Our chuck-n-duck method served us well, pegging a 8mm bead about two inches from a #8 hook. We also did well tying on a black leech or wooly bugger and pegging the bead two inches above the fly.

The bigger char were found at Maggie River for sure. We did land quite a few males well over 30 inches at Wrench but nothing close to the 36- and 38-inchers we caught at Maggie. Those were big brutes. Also, I did see one male char at the mouth of Wrench that would have measured well over 40 inches, but he wasn’t interested in anything we offered.

Bill did a great job bringing everything we could possibly needed on the trip, including a great sleeping mats, bags and an efficient Cabela’s tent, cookware and good eats and every tool needed to keep us alive in the “bush.” It sure pays to be prepared!

The last morning, we woke to dense fog, the only day that we couldn’t see the mountain to our west. We had already packed up our fishing gear and most of our equipment the evening before, thinking it might rain that night. We didn’t want to ship back wet stuff! Having nothing to do, we lay in our tent and read, snoozed and waited for the skies to clear. With obviously not internet to check the weather, we had no idea how long it would be – an hour – a few hours – a day or even two!!!??? Pretty helpless feeling actually! But about 10 a.m., I peaked out of the tent’s door, and I could see the mountains! We called Jim on our sat phone. It was clear in Kotzebue, and he estimated he’d be there in about 45 minutes.

Would I do that again? Float a remote river in Alaska? You bet! I’ve been going to Alaska for six straight years and this trip by far was one of the best. I’m already thinking about next summer.


Recommended Comments

There are no comments to display.

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.