I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, fly-fishing for cutthroat trout in Alaska would undoubtedly be near the top. But even as I write the words, it seems like something I would expect to read in a travel brochure and not something I would actually do.
It is too incredible to be real.
To be honest, the idea of taking a weeklong trip to Alaska never seemed plausible—especially when my old college buddy, Brant, half-jokingly suggested it nearly a year ago. I hadn’t seen Brant since we graduated from the University of South Dakota in the mid-80s. But there we were, thirty years later, waist deep in a remote Alaskan lake and casting our lines to rising trout.
Brant and I are both amateur photographers who have always enjoyed the outdoors. As college students with too much free time, we would often drive around the Vermillion area searching for anything worthy of exposing on a roll of 35mm film. Abandoned farmhouses and the Missouri River breaks were some of our favorite subject matter.
On this trip, we were middle-aged men with precious few vacation days, determined to photograph every corner of Ketchikan, Alaska. The location and equipment may have changed, but the intention—and the friendship—was still the same.
And just like our days in Vermillion, we didn’t have any plans or expectations. We knew Ketchikan was the southernmost city in Alaska, tucked in between British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska, and that it rained a lot. Other than those basic facts, we came to Ketchikan with our minds as open as our schedule.
Except for one thing
No trip to Alaska would be complete without catching a cutthroat trout on a fly rod. I’ve spent most of my adult life pursuing rainbows, browns and brookies, but I’ve never had a chance to feel the weight of a large cutthroat trout at the end of my line. As the name suggests, cutthroats have a distinctive red marking under their jaw. To put it simply, this is a beautiful fish.
As soon as I booked my airline tickets I began searching for a local outfitter who could make it happen. I found Dave Rocke with The Hook Up Fly Shop. Dave knew exactly what I was looking for—and he recommended an isolated lake called Wynstanley located about a 100 miles deep into the Tongass National Forest. He had not fished the lake in nearly 20 years, but was confident we would catch plenty of cutthroat trout and land-locked kokanee salmon.
Flying over the Tongass reserve in a four-seat floatplane was a humbling experience. It is a 17-million-acre rainforest reserve the size of West Virginia—untouched, unspoiled and unconcerned with the rest of the world. Looking out over the horizon and seeing nothing but spruce trees, muskeg and open water, I couldn’t help but feel absolutely irrelevant.
Minutes after landing at the far end of Wynstanley, Dave suggested that Brant and I tie on a woolly bugger to the end of a nine-foot leader. When I asked which tippet we should use, he grinned and said, “I wouldn’t worry about using a tippet…these fish aren’t going to be shy.”
Dave was right.
The next four hours were spent casting our flies to hungry, almost willing trout. We pulled in so many fish that we never bothered to keep a tally. Some were small, similar in size to trout found in the Black Hills. Others were large enough to be exactly what you would expect to catch in Alaska. All of them were memorable.
We fished until our arms were tired. Maybe it was because we caught so many trout or maybe it was because I was casting a longer, heavier rod than I normally use in the Black Hills. Dave assured me that the rod I was using (aka “the broomstick”) was considered light by Alaskan standards. We could have stayed longer, but catching more fish would not have added to the experience. It was time to fly back to Ketchikan.
With a fly-in fishing trip emphatically checked off our list, Brant and I resumed our photographic exploration of the Ketchikan area. The cruise ship passengers who pull into the harbor every morning get a few short hours to see the sights. We gave ourselves five full days, from sun-up to sundown, to truly experience it.
By the end of the week, we knew where the salmon were running on the north end of the island, we knew where the local fishermen like to drink and we knew where the bush pilots repaired their planes at night.
Looking back on the trip, it is still hard to believe. Me. Fly-fishing. Alaska. A thirty- year friendship renewed.
If I didn’t have the photographs, I wouldn’t believe it really happened.