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A Week In Alaska Hunting Guide Camp

By David M. Johnson

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"Well, that’s about it," I heard Art say in my dream. Raindrops were still hitting my hat, but the heavy first drops were gone. Art, Chad and Stacey had been sitting upright during the short squall, but it looked like a 20-minute wait to me so I had leaned back in the alpine tundra, put my hat over my face and closed my eyes.

We were quite a ways up a tributary of the Nushagak River, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Alaska bush. From our side of the commanding hill, we could see line on line of low mountains and ridges stretching off to the horizon. Low growing vegetation and rock dominated the ridges; spruce, willow and birch covered the valleys. The vegetation was just starting to show the first yellows and reds of fall. Pretty nice country.

Reluctantly, I stretched and stood. I had been warm and dry in my raingear. A little ways around the hill, however, any residue of sleep departed. Art stopped, looked through his Zeisses, and said, "I need to put the scope on that moose." It wasn’t moose season just yet, but he knew the bull might be around when the moose hunters arrive in camp in September. That got us all looking around. Within a few minutes we had seen a black bear going over a saddle, another moose, and a caribou. This is good wildlife habitat.

From where we stood on the hillside, we could look down to where we had been fishing earlier in the day. Art had looked over some likely looking places along the river and stopped at one of them.

I’m more of a hunter than a fisherman, but since I had a fishing license, I picked a rod and reel with lightweight line and spinner from the boat. I cast twice into the main current, but thought a little pool off to the side might be little better for a lurking grayling or two. I cast once and then again, and pow…..hook’s caught. Hmmm….this log’s moving downstream. The 4 # test line goes stripping off the reel…..can’t be too big a log, I can pull it in……zzzzzzz……there it goes again.

"Hey, guys, I need a little fishing expertise here," I called out. That brought Chad and Stacey at a fast clip. These guys have hunted and fished and filmed the action all over the country and Africa, too, so they are no strangers to the ways of catch and release.

Well, I was. Although I could have kept and eaten the 20-inch "log" that turned into an incredibly bright native rainbow trout, our guides encouraged us to release our catch, even in areas where it isn’t required. Chad expertly and gently cradled the `bow and released the hook. Stacey got up close to the fish with his camera and Chad enthusiastically described the action. I’m glad he knew how to do that. The few fish I catch normally wind up in something hot so I don’t worry much about their health.

That was just the beginning of some pretty impressive fishing. I suggested Chad try out the fishing hole that I had accidentally found, and he pulled in even more and bigger rainbows.

Meanwhile, Art had walked upriver a short distance and began catching grayling after grayling. Every other cast brought in a new fish. When he hollered and began playing a fish downstream towards us, we knew he had something unusual.

Chad Koehl with a 
Nushagak rainbow trout 

The char he had on the line was incredibly colorful. Orange spots tinged with black lined his sides. His swim fins were also bright reddish orange, edged with black and white. He made even the delicately colored rainbows look dull. After a few more grayling, Art even landed and then released a still bright silver salmon.

With a couple of hours of non-stop fishing action on tape, Chad and Stacey figured they had enough material for at least one program, so we headed on up the hill to see what might be available in the caribou department.

This was the second day I had been out with Chad, Stacey and Art. Chad Koel (pronounced "cool’) produces The Great Outdoors for WDAY-TV in Fargo, and Stacey Anderson is an experienced outdoor videographer. They are both good troops, going through alders, up hillsides and through small swamps and nursing sore feet with nary a complaint but good humor instead. Chad was hoping for a caribou, but so far nothing had materialized. He had seen a black bear the previous day and thought some of pursing it, but decided against it. It was still early in the hunt.

Art Hirschel is an assistant guide working with Deltana Outfitters, our hosts. Art has lived in Alaska for decades and has plenty of experience in the hills and woods. He is also a taxidermist.

I’m out here because Ralph Miler and Jim Weidner, the registered guides who own Deltana Outfitters invited me to join them for a week at camp. Ralph and Jim and I have known each other for many years.  I was an Area Wildlife Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Delta Junction – Deltana’s home base -- back in the 1980's, and when I moved back to Delta after retirement, we had renewed our friendship. We produce Deltana's web site.

Ralph and I had driven to Anchorage where we met Chad and Stacey. From there, we took off on the daily scheduled ERA Airlines flight for Iliamna, a small community on the north shores of giant lake Iliamna, southwest of Anchorage. Iliamna is the base of operations for Iliamna Air Taxi, a busy and well-run charter operation owned by Tim and Nancy LaPorte.

Deltana’s main camp on the Nushagak is a good solid hour from Iliamna on a float-equipped DeHavilland Beaver. The trip passed pretty quickly what with looking out over the hills and muskegs of Southwest Alaska—I just wished that I had remembered to get out my earplugs for the engine noise. The first group of clients plus Ralph, Chad and Stacey and I arrived in three Beaver trips. Jim and assistant guides Art Hirschel, Dave Hoffman and Billy Molls were already there, along with camp cook Al Lucero and packer Ben Holbrook. With the exception of Billy, the whole crew hails from Delta.

Jim showed me around camp, which they have built around arched canvas tents made by Alaska Tent and Tarp in Fairbanks. The dining hall was 60 feet long with a wood floor, tables and chairs. Al had two stoves, a large food preparation space, a couple of wood heaters, and a well-equipped pantry. After dinner the first night, I chafed Al a bit about all the different kinds of food he put out. I told him I was hoping for a little more variety. He was incredulous until he saw that his leg was being pulled.

Ralph and Jim are proud of their meat care, and Ralph showed me why. They had Alaska Tent and Tarp build a special tent with fly mesh along the sides – not just the windows and door. The tent had a huge meat rack, cutting table, and electric lights inside. A scale and box was ready for the first load of meat. After hanging during a client’s hunt, the Deltana crew packs the meat in a "wet lock" box and prepares it for shipping on the last day. When the client leaves, the meat goes out ready for air freight or excess baggage.

My tent, like all the rest, was 10 X 12 with wood floor, cots, wood stove, propane lantern and shelves. The arch style maximizes vertical space….no stooping over in this tent. I had casually mentioned to Ralph that my back really hurts when I sleep on a cot…and I wasn’t surprised to find not one, but two mattresses on my bed.

When it started to cool off that evening, I remembered the wood stove. In a box by the stove, the guides had cut stove size firewood and kindling. Matches and fire starting blocks were in a zip lock bag on top the wood. I figured that was the guide camp equivalent of mints on the pillowcase in fancy hotels.

Other clients arrived the same day I did. Father and son team Rick and Kyle Dodge from California; Walter Matera and his buddy Jim Ruby also from California; Rodney Weekley, a Florida hunter, and Bill Smith from Wyoming made the camp complete.

Late in the week, I went back out with Art, Chad and Stacey. Art tied up the boat along the river and charged on up the hill with us right behind. After going through the trees and muskeg for the better part of a mile, we got up on top and started walking ridgelines. A steady wind cooled us down.

We hadn’t gone very far when Art spotted a couple of black dots on a hillside about a half-mile away. They appeared to be medium-sized black bears eating the berries that were so incredibly prolific this year. In short order, the caribou hunt turned into a black bear hunt. Chad figured he could buy another tag for caribou. Alaska law permits non-resident hunters to use their big game tag on other species, so long as the tag value is equal or less.

Art led us rapidly around the hill. Sight is not the strongest of the bear’s senses, and the wind was perfect. It kept our scent and sounds far from the bears. They continued lazily eating berries and rolling around in the tundra.

When we got close, Art and Chad slipped up behind a small hillock. Chad went up with his rifle and peered over the hill. Before long, he turned and came back. The bears were all legal, being third or fourth year animals, but he decided he’d rather go back to caribou hunting and capture these guys on tape instead.

After that, we just sat and watched them for awhile. Two of them got up on their hind legs and started batting at each other. A grinning Stacey kept the camera rolling during the whole sequence.

We retraced our steps and continued on along the ridgelines. As we stopped for lunch, a young bull caribou came around the edge of the hill onto the saddle 30 yards below us. He stopped suddenly, and quickly ran through the catalog of friendly shapes in his head. We didn’t fit any of them, so he wheeled and trotted off in that peculiar splay-legged gait of caribou. The wind kept us from hearing the clicking that caribou make when they move.

Later, we saw another young bull. This one had more antler development, but Chad was looking for a bigger animal. The bull looked at us and trotted over to where he could get our scent. He didn’t like the human smell very much but he must have thought that we were probably just stinky caribou. He circled us, keeping pretty much out of sight except for his head. Finally, he reared up on his hind legs a couple of times to confirm that we really weren’t caribou and took off at a fast trot. The last time we saw him, he was a couple of miles away and still covering ground at a steady pace.

Ever the fisherman, Chad quickly agreed to Art’s suggestion of pike fishing on the way back to camp. Art knew a slough where the pike were thick. While Stacey and I lazed in the bottom of the boat, Art and Chad lathered the weeds with lures and kept up enough whooping to make snoozing difficult. Back at camp, Al turned those pike into some of the best fried food I’ve tasted in awhile.

The next day, young Kyle Dodge connected. Ralph and Jim had taken Chad and Stacey out fishing again and put together a shore lunch built around the fish they took. Jim had been guiding the Dodges, so Art took them up into the hills this time. Fairly early in the day they spotted some mid-sized bears and stalked them. Art took them up close and Kyle took his shot at a bit under 300 yards. The bear crumpled up right away. I talked to his dad later. He was pretty proud of his son’s marksmanship and hunting skill. Kyle is only 15 but already taking his place among men in many ways, Rick said.

Art put his taxidermy skills to work immediately, turning the ears and salting the hide. The bear squared a respectable 5-1/2 feet: not huge, but a nice medium bear which Kyle and his father will have Art turn into a rug mount.

During these days Jim and Walter and Rodney and Bill had also been busy. Between them they walked many miles and spent long hours peering through optics and the distant hills hoping to see antlers headed their way. Each was delighted with the tremendous fishing this part of Alaska provides. They caught and released many.

When the end of the week arrived we took stock of the situation. What had we gained? In terms of trophies won and game meat put back, the score was not high: one medium black bear hide and skull. Fishing success was high, however: literally dozens of grayling and a smaller number of silver salmon, char and rainbows caught and released. A number of smaller but meaty pike gave plenty of sport and excellent eating.

What else? For our hosts, Jim and Ralph, the owners of Deltana Outfitters, the week was frustrating. For years, this spot on the Nushagak has provided many, many caribou with large antlers. While this week was mostly a bust as far as antlers and meat, they took it with good humor and grace. Jim and Ralph want their clients to go home with the trophies of memories, antlers and meat, but they are experienced enough to know that one can only take home what the land provides. They and their guides worked as hard and walked as many miles as any and perhaps more than most would. But it wasn’t to be….this time.

The following groups of hunters had much better success, Ralph and Jim said later.  Instead of the small numbers of caribou that first- week hunters had seen, later hunters saw dozens or even hundreds at a time.  The migration was just a few days behind usual.  Ralph told me that most of their hunters this year took caribou, moose or bear, and some took more than one.

Still, our trophies of experience from that first week were many. Together, we saw many, many caribou, although the main herd and the larger bulls were miles away. (Large numbers of caribou came right after we left!)  We pursued several animals, but either failed to close or elected not to kill. We saw more brown and black bears than most people will EVER see. One of the teams just about ran over a nice bull moose, right in the Nushagak river. Those of us who saw the wolverines glimpsed a trophy that few ever see alive in the wild, and we saw four of them! I’ll never forget the two young bears I saw sparring just 200 yards away and the antics of the caribou that desperately wanted us to be his kind. Then there were the eagles, loons, gulls, osprey, porcupines, chickadees and other dwellers of this wild and beautiful land.

What we gained was the prize of the dedicated hunter who knows that it’s called "hunting" because game at the end is never guaranteed. It was the prize of memories of the distant hills and the stillness of the wilderness; and the camaraderie of the hunt, this oldest of human endeavors.

David Johnson is the webmaster for OutdoorsDirectory.com

 

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