A credit card runs through it

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A Credit Card Runs Through It

At Pricey Alaska Salmon Lodges,
It's Cash, Catch and Release;
Six Days and 188 Fish: $3,750
July 30, 2004; Page W1

UNALAKLEET, Alaska -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has fly-fished for more than three decades, casting out in rivers and streams from Pennsylvania to New Zealand. But when she really wants to improve her chances of hooking a big one, she heads to Alaska.


Salmon-fishing trips aren't cheap, but with some luck you can take home enough fish to make it pay. Here are a few ways of bringing home the salmon.

"It's my idea of fishing heaven," says Justice O'Connor. "There's an abundance of fish and the place is breathtakingly beautiful."

It's salmon-fishing season in rivers from California to Alaska, and in some areas you can hardly angle for a place to stand, let alone catch a fish. But dozens of Alaskan lodges offer a virtual guarantee you'll reel in a salmon, plus postcard views unmarred by too many other fishermen. Alaska's Fishing Unlimited Lodge, located in a national park in the southwestern part of the state, says guests catch an average of 18 fish a day. The Bristol Bay Sportfishing lodge estimates its guests reel in about 120 a week.

Pole position: At Unalakleet River Lodge in Alaska, the average guest hauls in more than 100 fish.

These lodges are known mainly by word-of-mouth or through a handful of specialty travel agents, and rates are comparable to those at the highest-end hotels. Bristol Bay Sportfishing charges $5,450 a week for a package including lodging, meals and excursions on the lodge's fleet of planes and jetboats. Fishing Unlimited's week-long packages -- with transport from Anchorage, flights to fishing holes, wood-fired saunas and dinners of local halibut -- run $6,600. That may sound pricey, but even if you have just average luck, it works out to about $56 a fish.

To get a closer look at the sure-thing salmon business, Weekend Journal checked in last month to one of the remotest fishing camps around -- Unalakleet River Lodge in western Alaska, a spot about 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and accessible only by plane from Anchorage and a 20-minute boat ride. The lodge can host just 14 anglers at a time, and its guests have included such notables as Justice O'Connor, football great Larry Csonka and Waste Management Corp. founder Dean Buntrock. Our mission on the Unalakleet River was to catch a king salmon -- a species of epic fighters that can exceed 50 pounds -- with nothing more than a feathered hook and a fly rod.

Unalakleet River Lodge charges $3,750 for six days of fishing, with equipment and chest-waders for those who need them and a team of guides who will take novices or old hands over miles of the winding river on one of the lodge's motorboats. Otherwise, its pleasures are rustic. The place is powered by generator, and there are no telephones, televisions or e-mail. (Cellphones don't work either.) Beyond the lodge, young bald eagles perch over the tundra-topped riverbank, and Eskimos hang rows of pink salmon to dry on wooden racks. The summer sun stays up nearly round the clock.

Still, this isn't exactly roughing it. The cozy cabins have firm beds with strong, hot showers. In the wood-beamed restaurant and lounge, where stuffed lunkers look down from the walls, the chef prepares seared salmon with lime beurre blanc, pork roulade, prime rib and sushi. Salmon sushi, naturally.

One Fish Per Cast

Within an hour of arriving with two British businessmen and a Mississippi attorney and his 84-year-old father, I was on a motorboat, fishing under the tutelage of the lodge's head guide, Norm Norton. A white-haired, retired U.S. Forest Service employee from Idaho, Norm's knowledge of the Unalakleet -- pronounced Youna-la-kleet -- rivals those of some salmon.

Norm has guided the river for six years and says he's never had a guest go fishless. To the contrary, he says, people have complained when they catch only 30 silver salmon -- which can weigh around 10 pounds each -- in a day. The lodge's detailed records show that during last year's June-to-mid-September fishing season, its 149 guests caught 15,512 fish, or about 104 each. That may seem like a fish story, but the Unalakleet is so filled with wild salmon -- four of the five types of Pacific salmon return here each summer to spawn -- that it's literally possible to catch one on almost every cast, even with modest skill. (The vast majority of fish are caught and released.)

Catch and carry: Unalakleet guide Norm Norton with king salmon.

For my introduction to the river, Norm insisted not on fly-fishing but on trolling with a casting rod and an orange plastic lure he calls "The Monster." Fifteen minutes after letting out six turns of line from the reel, I felt a huge tug and reeled in my first fish -- a 22½-pound king salmon, fresh in from the sea. As anglers here are allowed to keep one king over 20 inches a day -- and up to four per year -- I decided to keep this one and pay the lodge to ship it to a smokehouse.

King salmon run in the Unalakleet from mid-June through mid-July, and Fred DeCicco, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, estimates there were about 4,000 in the river this year. By contrast, it was host to some one million of the salmon family's smallest member, the pink salmon. Fishing a dozen feet off the shore in front of the lodge one night, I looked back toward the gravel edge and watched an endless parade of pinks pass behind me in a foot and a half of water.

I suspect catching a leaping, four-pound pink salmon would fulfill many a fly fisherman's dream. But pinks are considered by many to be low-status salmon -- typically making their way into inexpensive cans rather than smokehouses or restaurants -- and I soon learned of the lowly opinion they enjoyed on the Unalakleet. Norm called them "a nuisance." Back at the lodge, Gordon Hunter, who runs a British air-cargo business, complained they were hurting his chances of landing a big king on his long fly rod. Amid such mutterings at the bar one night, the Mississippi lawyer, Bruce Kuehnle Jr., turned to me. "I don't know about you," he sheepishly whispered, "but I kind of like the pinks."

'Dysfunctional' Caster

I did, too -- at first. But after a few days, I was landing pinks on nearly every cast. Hauling them in was growing monotonous, and tiring. I soon found myself agreeing with Mr. Hunter.

Although I've fly-fished for years, Norm called my casting skills "dysfunctional," and warned me I could spend the whole week casting for kings and not hook one -- even with his expert instruction. So I agreed to spend an entire day trolling with him. By evening I had reeled in eight kings, five weighing at least 30 pounds.

Even Norm was impressed. But I wasn't. He had let it slip that when the guides are talking among themselves, they discuss how many fish they, not the guests, had caught that day. That's because the real skill in trolling is directing the lures along the river bottom to the fish by maneuvering the boat downstream. Cranking the reel is the easy part.

Fly fishing is a different story. Casting, when performed correctly, is an art. Long yards of line arc back behind the angler in a long unfolding loop, then hurl forward to drop the fly softly on a spot 60 feet or more across the river. And you can't force a fish in on a lightweight fly rod; it takes finesse to bring in a salmon of even a few pounds.

On my next-to-last day, Norm and I traveled far upstream to fly-fish from a gravel bar in the middle of the Unalakleet. Norm went off with a lighter rod to catch Arctic graylings -- a sail-finned trout relative that, on this day, was striking dry flies with a vengeance. I stuck to salmon, using a weighted, Barbie-pink streamer fly in a deeper part of the river. Thanks to Norm's lessons, I was casting close to the opposite bank, without smashing the fly on the gravel behind me. In the first hour or so I had caught at least a dozen pinks -- males, mostly, with huge brown humps that form on their backs prior to spawning.

Again, I cast toward the opposite bank, my line straight but my fly falling somewhat short. But a fish hit and the line tore out from the reel. A large salmon leaped from midriver and fell in a splash. I yelled for Norm.

For five tense minutes, I reeled in, letting the line rip out again whenever the fish made another run. Norm reminded me that slack line can cause the fish to throw the hook, so I concentrated on keeping the line taut. The fish made a last, desperate run, and I reeled in and steered it to the shallower water by the river's edge. It was a 10-pounder, with a black-flecked back and red sides. "You got your king," said Norm.

By the time I left the Unalakleet the next day, I had reeled in a total of 188 fish -- doing my part to boost the lodge average. But it was that king, caught on the fly rod, that I had come for. Norm grabbed the line, unhooked it and, after a couple of photos, let it swim away.

Write to Steve Stecklow at [email protected]


Bringing Home the Salmon
Salmon-fishing trips aren't cheap, but with some luck you can take home enough fish to make it pay. Here are a few ways of bringing home the salmon -- and how a typical catch translates into the per-pound cost of the cleaned fish you take home (smoking, shipping and air fare not included):

Fish Source/Outing Price Cost Per Pound Comments
Alaska's Fishing Unlimited
Port Alsworth, Alaska
$6,600/week* $82.50 This Bristol Bay lodge gets to the fish with planes and boats, and guests reel in 18 salmon and other fish a day on average. During early July's king-salmon run, some keep four 30-pounders -- about 80 pounds after cleaning.
Unalakleet River Lodge
Unalakleet, Alaska
$3,750/week $23.50 Silver salmon are running now, and a daily bag limit of four 10-pounders works out to about 160 pounds of take-home fish. We spent about $300 for smoking and shipping to turn our own two king salmon into 26 pounds of lox.
Fraser River Fishing Lodge
Agassiz, B.C.
$1,015/three days $18.60 Riverside lodge has eight rooms, plus a stuffed, 68-pound salmon in the breakfast room. For an extra $3,940 per day, you can hire a helicopter to fly you to a remote river -- but you can't keep fish you catch there.
Newfoundland Coastal Safari
Harbour Mille
$750/five days $94 It's not cushy: Atlantic-salmon angling trip in Newfoundland includes stay in a prospector tent with an outhouse nearby. The upside? "You get very good cooking," including fresh scallops from local fishermen, says the owner.
CoHo Charters
Ilwaco, Wash.
$71/day $8.80 Ocean charter service says silver salmon make up majority of customers' two-fish limit, but August brings some larger king salmon. Biggest fish so far in this year's port-wide salmon derby: a king weighing 33 pounds, gutted.
Whole Foods
Overland Park, Kan. $13.99 At this Whole Foods Market, wild Alaska king is the most expensive -- with wild Alaska sockeye running $12.99.

*includes air transport from Anchorage
And I thought my 10 day moose hunts in BC were expensive at $4000! LOL And I am bringing back 300 to 400 pounds of cut and wrapped meat.



Active Member
I had the good fortune to fish Unalakleet and North creek back in the late 70's. Not to many Kings but they did average 25 to 35 lbs. Silvers in the Fall just before freeze up were about 8 to 9 lbs. I've seen it start to snow and never stop on Aug 31. Salt water forzen in 2 to 3 weeks.

Chum / dogs were the predominate species averaging 9 lbs, dictated by the size of the gill nets and the fish slipping through. The 10 to 12 lbs class were harvested.

What I liked best were the Grayling, brown bi-visibles fished in the seam or 6" from the bank. many approached 20 inches with a dorsal bigger than your hand. C&R back then. we always had dogs to eat.

Every so often a group of European fly fishers would swing through. Germany, Sweden, Norway, and they were always respectfull of the fishery and surprized there were so few regulations.

Unalakleet is like Squim, a sun belt, with mild weather. My favorite river was the Wulik just west of Kotsebue for the 36" arctic char. What a gas on a 7wt.
I don't understand why people insist on counting fish. :beathead:

Seriously, who in their right mind counts up to 188? :confused:

Enjoy the scenery, enjoy the fishing, enjoy the weather and enjoy the time away from work, but whatever you do don't ever count fish. It will only dissapoint you the next time when you "only" catch 142. Silly.....

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