Luxury lodges and 20-inch trout make Lake Iliamna the fishing trip of a lifetime

Priceless: Luxury lodges and 20-inch trout make Lake Iliamna the fishing trip of a lifetime

Foster, David C

Ted and Mary Gerkin have spent the past quarter-century running one of the most expensive fishing lodges in Alaska. If you have the nearly six grand for six days of fishing ($5,000 after Aug. 20), the famous Iliaska Lodge and its three bush planes are at your beck and call.

How about some place a little cheaper? You might think that paying $5,800 a week, or $950 a day, just to fish-even in Alaska-is ridiculous. That kind of money makes the average angler think of college tuition or paying off the mortgage, not fishing.

There is no such thing as “just fishing” in the Alaska bush. And at Iliaska, or any of the other resorts that fish the tributaries of famous Lake Iliamna, anglers are paying to fish some of the most inaccessible and famous waters in the world. Some of the lodges offer slightly nicer rooms and a little nicer food but, on the whole, prices are very similar. And nobody is getting rich. Running a fishing lodge in Alaska, regardless of the tariff, is more a lifestyle decision for the owners and hosts than a moneymaking scheme. And it’s not a matter of luxury, this business of fishing such famous streams as the Copper, Lower Talarik, Gibraltar, Moraine, Funnel, Kvichak (pronounced Kwee-chak) and Newhalen, to name only a few. It’s a matter of access. And in Alaska, there is nothing cheap about access.

The Gerkins offer fly– fishing trips out of the village of Iliamna to all of the rivers named above and more. As you approach the lodge in Ted’s old, blue Suburban you see the boarded-up buildings of Talarik Lodge, one of several deserted lodges dotted around the lake. It’s another reminder that no one is getting rich helping anglers chase some of the largest rainbow trout and char in the world, not to mention all five species of salmon (depending on runs), some very impressive grayling and some Northern pike that will scare you.

Once you’re settled in the famous blue-roofed Iliaska Lodge on the site of the historic Iliamna roadhouse, you sip a cocktail while Ted orients you to the week ahead: fly-fishing only, catch and release, different stream every day depending on the species you wish to catch, bear-country advice, reveille at 5 a.m. And he means reveille and he means 5 a.m. By 5:30 you are done with breakfast, suiting up and heading out to the planes.

Ted has three restored DeHavilland Beavers. Each burns 22 gallons of fuel an hour (figure about $5 per gallon). It costs about a million to buy a Beaver that’s ready to fly and $400,000 to overhaul one, not counting regular maintenance. Last summer Ted, the lodge’s chief pilot, had one other commercial pilot to ferry guests. Parties are seldom mixed, so the flight you are on includes your party, your guide and your pilot.

Few experiences in Alaska match the sublime thrill of flying across expansive Lake Iliamna in one of these classic, magnificent flying machines. Almost every morning provides a different mixture, from mists rising from the lake to the sunrise over the Aleutian Range. That sunrise is often a veritable flurry of colors from pale pinks to fiery reds as light cascades through the clouds and reflects off the still, cerulean waters of the lake 200 feet below. This spectacular show of light and mountains and water is accompanied by the deep-throated music of the Beaver’s 450-horsepower radial engine.

Some days you cross the lake only to find you can’t reach your destination. So, the pilot finds a place along the shore and sets down to wait out the weather, which often includes ground– clutching fog. At Chicago’s O’Hare airport, such a moment would be a huge inconvenience. In Alaska it’s just another part of the adventure, waiting for your flight to continue as you explore an unnamed beach or fish a small, salmon– choked creek that might not have seen a hook in 20 years or more.

Iliaska Lodge specializes in about 13 streams, depending on such factors as weather, sockeye runs and time of year. Each of these fishing locales is about as remote as one can get. But with the airplanes, remote does not necessarily mean lonely. In January, chances of seeing anybody at one of these locations is about as likely as seeing a camel cross the moon. July through mid-September, however, is a whole other matter.

Around lakes Iliamna and Clark, not to mention along the Kvichak River, are several lodges that cater to anglers who flock to fish these famous waters. Hundreds of anglers are in the area at a time. And while there is pretty good water for everybody, the really good stuff is on everybody’s wish list. Therefore, come dawn-and in some cases a few minutes before-airplanes begin their daily ferry service, each trying to safely reach the better fishing holes before another lodge stakes its claim.

While the airplanes easily add 30 percent to the cost of any trip to the Iliamna fishing areas, they increase by 100 percent your chances of fishing only with yourself.

On the other hand, airplanes don’t win them all. Lower Talarik Creek is one of the most famous rainbow trout holes in the world and, although it is a creek, the word “hole” seems more correct. Two areas tend to be the most productive; “the rock” just upstream from a lagoon next to Lake Iliamna and the “canal” that runs parallel to the lake for almost half a mile. First priority: Get to the rock. Second: Get to the canal. Get to either late, say five minutes after dawn, and you will most likely have to wait for a chance at the good spots.

Recognizing this, Ted spoke conspiratorially to two of his clients. “I want you to fish the Lower Talarik tomorrow. Boat leaves at 4:30.”

Boat? And you thought this was a flying vacation. Ted’s jet boat can make the 30-mile run down Lake Iliamna almost two hours before the most bold pilot can fly, guaranteeing the rock for his clients unless, as sometimes happens, another lodge has set up a spike camp.

There are other strategies, such as that for the upper section of the Copper River, which eliminated the need to hurry. Two lodges have leased fishing rights for this prime piece of stream: Rainbow King has it on odd days; Iliaska on even. Reaching a remote location first, or having exclusive access, makes a huge difference in fishing success.

Most anglers who fish Lake Iliamna’s tributaries are seeking rainbow trout with a secondary yearning for silvers, which are not the primary salmon in this watershed. For silvers, especially late in the season, it’s best to fly over to the Katmai and fish the streams that empty into Cook Inlet. Nearly all the fly-in lodges offer this service at no charge or just a reasonable extra charge. If you want to catch big fish until your arm drops off or your eyes glaze over, this is one day you don’t want to miss. If possible, make it the first one and be done with it. Huge rainbows are waiting and that’s really why you want to fish here.

Ah, the rainbows. Forty years ago, Iliamna rainbow trout and bald eagles each had a dollar bounty on their heads. Today, both are protected and the rainbow is worth far more than a carcass charge. The entire Iliamna watershed has been designated as Alaska’s only trophy fishing region. That means one hook per rod, artificial bait and, in many cases, catch and release or that only one fish per day– regardless of size-may be harvested.

The average rainbow Outside measures about 11 inches. Rainbows taken in the tributaries and tail waters of Lake Iliamna, especially during the sockeye runs, average about 15 inches. On some rivers they average closer to 17. Fish in excess of 25 inches and weighing more than 10 pounds are common. Anglers who have never caught a fish longer than 15 inches often break their personal record two, three or even four times on the first day. The fishing is that good. And it gets better once the countryside begins to take on fall colors and temperatures, say late August to mid-September.

For the most part, this is sight fishing, so don’t forget your polarized sunglasses. Guides are experts at spotting fish, but even with help you must be able to discern rainbows hanging above the ubiquitous red salmon. Not an easy thing to do. This is especially true for fly anglers.

For rainbows, some of the best streams to wade are the Lower Talarik, Copper, Moraine and Funnel creeks. The Gibraltar, Newhalen and Kvichak are also excellent fisheries for rainbows, char and grayling, but are generally best fished from rafts or boats provided by the lodges (you can arrange for day trips on all three). One of the most interesting-and beautiful– streams in the watershed is the crystal– clear Iliamna River that runs through a deep and primordial forest of spruce, birch, beech and even cottonwood to the flanks of the green-sloped Chigmit Mountains, part of the Aleutian chain. Here, as the season progresses, you will find exceptional char fishing and the occasional large rainbow.

Part of the lure of fly-out fishing from the lodges is the varied topography, from the alpine forests that bed the Iliamna and Copper rivers to the high tundra through which course such streams as the Moraine, Funnel, Gibraltar and Kvichak.

Some of these streams are accessible to the unguided angler by floatplane from the village of Iliamna, especially the Gibraltar, the lower Copper and the Kvichak. The mouth of the Newhalen is accessible by taxi from the Iliamna airport and is a very popular fishing area for hundreds of Alaskans, especially those from Anchorage. Once you get beyond the mouth of these very large, very fast and very deep rivers, wading becomes difficult and to fish the more remote waters a guide is virtually indispensable, at least for anglers new to the area.

Bears are always an issue during the salmon runs. Regardless of the stream you choose, if there are shoals where bears can fish, you will most likely find them there. Your guide’s experience with bears is as important-maybe more important-than his experience with fish. Most guides do not carry weapons and only a few carry bear spray. Even so, unhappy encounters with bears on any of these streams is very unusual because the bears are accustomed to sharing fishing holes with humans. Most lodges do not recommend taking firearms into the bush because a simple bear encounter that would otherwise end peacefully can turn tragic when a nervous finger finds a trigger.

For Mary and Ted Gerkin, hosting fishing clients from around the world over the past 23 years has been highly rewarding. Their Iliaska Lodge is one of the world’s most famous and their accommodations are second to none. There are many choices of lodges in the Iliamna region, but the prices will shock most shoppers. It is worth your time to shop around for a trip that fits your budget. Keep in mind that the cost of the lodge begins, in most cases, after you get to the lodge. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of traveling to Egegik and/or Iliamna, which is served with regular air service by both ERA Aviation and Iliamna Air Taxi.

For most people, a week at one of these lodges is the trip of a lifetime. On the other hand, few people have the opportunity to fish these magical waters, to fly low and slow over the rising mists of Lake Iliamna, to fight more than one 20-inch rainbow, to watch bears within casting distance, to see moose amble across their path or to experience the primordial vistas of the Iliamna River.

As one fellow said during a recent trip, “You know, I could have paid for the kid’s tuition. I decided he could get a job this semester. Some things you just have to do for yourself.”

Once you feel the thrill of that Beaver’s radial engine sputtering to life on a chilly Alaska morning, see that big rainbow swing out of his lie for your fly, stand in the middle of a world that you will never forget and watch all those sockeye fulfill a million years of genetic responsibility, you will know exactly what he is talking about. Exactly.

DAVID C. FOSTER is editor-in-chief of GRAY’s SPORTING JOURNAL and general manager of ALASKA magazine.

Copyright Morris Communications Dec 2002/Jan 2003

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