Sea Run Char in Alaska’s Far North

Stark contrast. These were the words that continually ran through my head as we rowed, camped, and fished for sea run char for a week in Northern Alaska.

This trip was three years in the making. A grand adventure spurred by my love for char and the environments they call home. There would be no guide, no fancy lodge, just a few friends floating a remote river with only fly rods and camping gear.

I live in the Sonoran Desert where heat, dirt, and little moisture are the theme. I have a desk job though I spend a lot of time outdoors. A week long trip to Alaska’s Brooks range for char the size of salmon would be a stark contrast compared to my “normal” life and it proved to be just that.

Work was hurried the Friday we left, not enough hours in the day seems to be the theme of things these days. I left feeling stressed and out of time. A quick stop to pick up the satellite phone was next. The phone would be our life line north of the arctic circle. That went fine and I was at DJ’s ready to load gear before I knew it.

We must have looked comical dragging three giant bags and a yeti cooler to baggage check at Sky Harbor International. Having to check the bear gun took far too long and we nearly missed our flight to Anchorage. We made it though and left the 110 degree heat of this valley right on time.

Leaving Anchorage we flew North and made it to our final hub on Saturday Morning. Weston had met up with us in Anchorage and the three of us were excited to start our grand adventure. We met our bush pilot then flew by cesna to the river we would call home for the next week.

Well within 24 hours of leaving Phoenix we were standing on a gravel bar in Alaska’s Arctic where two planes had just landed. The tundra seemed to stretch forever, the river clean, untouched by humans. A stark contrast from our lives in the lower 48.

We decided to camp there for the night but first order of business was to start fishing. We rigged our fly rods and donned our waders. Very quickly we were rewarded with fish. Jumbo arctic grayling, big colored up chum salmon, and a couple of sea run char, our main target for the trip.

We went through our gear after fishing until 10 pm. The sun was still pretty high in the sky. We set up camp, assembled the electric bear fence, and crashed for the night.

The next morning we awoke to ice on our gear, another stark contrast of life for us in August in this hot desert. We inflated and loaded the raft. Days 2-7 were kind of a blur. They were all about the same, wake up make oatmeal, float a few miles down river, pick a camp spot, fish our guts out, eat dinner, crash.

We ended up seeing two grizzlies from a long distance away out on the tundra. Binoculars revealed their huge bodies and big humps on their backs. Blue berries blanketed the tundra and the bears were busy vacuuming them up. We gradually ate through the food we brought. Each day the further we got down river the more and more fresh from the ocean char we found. By day seven it was five casts in a row. By far the best fly to fish was a dolly llama streamer in pink/purple, black/blue, and white.

Day seven was biter sweet. I was ready to get back to my bed and shower after a week sleeping in the dirt, ready to see my kids and wife. But leaving the peaceful life, floating down a river, camping and catching fish without rush hour traffic, summer heat, and work was tough to stomach. The weather was pretty stormy so we called the pilot on the sat phone. “Are you flying today?” I asked. “We fly everyday” was his answer. I was glad to hear we would catch our flight and pretty happy to see him touch down in front of us to load up ourselves and our gear.

A warmer than normal summer meant the char run was a bit delayed. They lacked the dark spawning colors usually present this time of year. What they lacked in color though they more than made up for in raw wild power. Power that only a fresh-from-the-ocean fish can possess. Each char pulled extremely hard and I ended up snapping one of the rods I brought. Average size was 20-25 inches but all three of us caught at least one char over 30″ long. I hope to return to the arctic again. Its a place time seems to have forgotten. A place that I hope never changes.

Categories: Alaska, Arctic Char, Backcountry, Char, Dolly Varden, Fish, Float Trip, Fly Fishing, Sea Run Char