Well, the last month has seen me get to do a couple of the things I’ve wanted to do my whole life. It all started back in February when I was going through an accident investigation course in New Mexico. I ran into a friend of mine from college who was enrolled in the same course and we got to talking about summer plans. My friend Phil works in Northern Japan, but he would be returning to the states for his sister’s wedding in May. He was bemoaning his lack of adventures recently so I suggested, almost half jokingly that we get our seaplane ratings done in the days before he had to show up in Ohio for the wedding. He jumped at the opportunity and I started planning. We set our sights on Coer d’Alene Idaho, a lakeside mountain town just east of Spokane. We had plane tickets bought and hotels booked and then, two days before we were supposed to show up, I got an email from the flight school saying they couldn’t accommodate us due to a lack of a designated pilot examiner from the FAA. Apparently they never had one booked, but they had “hoped” one would become available. I feel like they hoped they could still get our money and that everything would line up despite the 100 to 1 odds against. I was not the happiest I’d ever been, and with my friend flying in from Japan, I began scrambling to find a school anywhere in the country that could accommodate us. I began with schools in the Pacific Northwest so that plane tickets wouldn’t have to change, but all the schools in the Seattle and Yakima areas were booked or their planes were down for maintenance. Several others in Oklahoma, Alabama and Tennessee were ether booked or far too expensive. Twitchell’s in Turner was too out of the way for Phil’s timeline and Jack Brown’s in Florida was also booked solid. Finally, I was explaining the whole situation to the owner at Jones Bros. In Tavares, Florida and he said “Wow they really screwed you. I’d be happy to make it work.” With less than 48 hours to go, I got the training scheduled and Phil booked a connecting flight from Seattle/Tacoma to Orlando. I decided to drive down from Birmingham to save on airfare and to exclude the need for a rental car. I made it down at 7 pm on Saturday and picked up Phil at midnight thirty in Orlando. We had the next day to recover and then training started on Monday. Jones Bros. Is a top notch school and the instructor pilot, Paul Lindsey was one of the best instructors I’ve ever flown with. We flew a Cessna 140 on straight floats and had a blast in the lakes, rivers, canals and skies of central Florida.
Some of the locals were angry that we were making so much noise. If any of you guys get the chance to fly a seaplane do it. It’s a ton of fun and I never stopped smiling the whole time I was in the plane. We finished up the Checkride on Wednesday evening and recieved our temporary certificates as the country’s newest commercial seaplane pilots. We had just enough time on Thursday for me to get Phil back to the airport in Orlando and then for me to drive to Birmingham to catch a flight out to Baltimore to meet up with my brother Tim and our friend Shimon on Penn’s Creek. We had two ok weather days before the rain poured for the next two. Tim and Shimon managed a couple of good fish, but Penn’s remains my kryptonite. I’ve only ever caught one nice trout there.
I returned to Alabama for a week and then packed my bags and made my way to MacDill AFB in Tampa. 9 of us from Birmingham were on loan to MacDill for an exercise at Eielson AFB in Fairbanks, Alaska. We loaded our stuff on the jet and made the flight in about 8 hours. I spent three weeks there flying, and in my down time I had my fly rod in hand. Fairbanks is home to the Chena River which is some of the better Arctic Grayling water in the Interior. I swung by Big Ray’s in down town Fairbanks to get my license and get some flies. Parachute Adams, mosquitoes and small foam beetles were the order of the day. After getting some advice on where to go, I headed out bright and early the next moring, which may as well have been bright and late the next evening as the sun only went down for 3 hours of twilight per night. My first trip I tried the main branch of the Chena, which was high, muddy and fast.
I managed two Grayling that first morning, on a small Micky Finn of all things. There were thousands of salmon fry and smolts in the water.
Grayling seem to occupy the niche in the Interior that Dolly Varden do on the coast or that Brook Trout do in Maine. Over the next week, I tried several other sloughs and streams. On the way to Chena Hot Springs, the road follows the upper Chena River where you can catch a true monster grayling. It was high and off color and the rest of the guys wanted to soak in the springs instead of watch me stand in a river, so I didn’t get a chance to fish it, but the hot springs were nice.
The next day, we went on a road trip the 2.5 hours to Denali National Park. Again no fishing, but it was awesome to get to the park. The sky’s were pretty low so no shots of McKinley. We hiked some trails.
And saw some locals.
If you get away from the really big mountains, you’d swear you were in Northern Maine. I felt quite at home in the Alaskan backcountry although I did carry bear spray. Finally in the last week here I discovered a small slough not 10 minutes from the base where there were dozens of Grayling in each pool. I fished it hard and had a great time. I probably caught 3 dozen fish and missed another twice as many. Grayling are awesome. They seem to be always looking up and they are none too spooky. These rivers are also all C & R, although much like home I think the locals see that as an outrageous overreach of the evil government.
On my last day fishing I brought along two of the guys from Birmingham with me. They didn’t have waders so they were limited to the areas around the culverts under the road. Neither of them had any experience fly fishing. I rigged my under used Tenkara rod with a foam beetle (until it was lost in a tree ) and then a parachute Adams. They both managed to catch fish and have a great time. I thought it was really cool that their first fish caught on the fly were Arctic Grayling in the Alaskan bush.
Finally, two days ago, we packed up and flew the long trip back to Florida. Got a really nice shot of a glacier on the way towards Anchorage.
All in all my first trip to Alaska was great, although work ate up 90% of my time and energy. It’s a beautiful place that’s a lot like home, minus the brown bears, grayling and glaciers. It’s been a good couple months. I got to accomplish two lifelong goals of mine; To fish Alaska and to earn my seaplane rating. Now if any of you have a floatplane laying around in need of a pilot, I know a guy.