Fishing, Outdoors

Bright nights, big fish

Eight members of a Varsity Scout Team spent a week rafting on the Gulkana River in south-central Alaska. They caught a king and redeye salmon as large as 45 lbs and cooked them over their evening campfire.

In Alaska, Land of the Midnight Sun, Scouts lose sleep to hook monster salmon.

Long past midnight, when most campers slide into a deep sleep and dream of perfect outings in which blisters never form and muscles never ache, the big beasts came.

It happened late last June as eight Scouts and five adults from Varsity Scout Team 29, Eagle River, Alaska, spent a week in the wilderness, rafting the Gulkana River in south-central Alaska. Now they camped on a riverbank of rocks, resting paddle-pooped muscles with hard-earned sleep.

“Then the booming started,” said Star Scout Jeremy Farnsworth, 14.

“The splashing sounded like big bears crossing the river,” added Eagle Scout Brad Coy, 15.

The boys bolted upright in their sleeping bags, wondering which of them would become bear bait.

Killer Fishing

But a quick look at the river just outside their tents told the real story. There were no bears, just salmon–schools of monster king salmon rocketing up and over a rocky shoal.

“You had 40-, 50-pounders jumping and slapping the water as they went upstream. Hundreds of them!” said David Harrell, 15.

Alaskan summers have sunlight almost 24 hours a day–thus the state’s nickname, “Land of the Midnight Sun”–so the Scouts grabbed their fishing gear. Almost every cast hooked a king (or”Chinook”) salmon.

“My first king!” David said, reeling in a 45-pounder.

His excitement showed just how special this moment was. Catching fish was nothing new to the avid angler. But hooking a big king (world-record: 97 pounds 4 ounces) when you are accustomed to five-pound trout makes the heart beat fast. And catching one after another?

“It’s killer!” David said. “Really, really cool!”

Others shared his pride and luck.

“We limited out in the first hour,” said Star Scout Joe Eichhorn, 15, explaining they kept all they could eat (far fewer than the one-fish-per-angler daily limit) and released the rest.

Just Like Clockwork

The salmon that the Scouts caught, both kings and reds (or “sockeye”), came in from the ocean to put down eggs, fertilize them–then die. It is an age-old cycle of life. Where the fish go at sea and how they know when and where to spawn is a wonder of nature not completely understood, even by biologists.

But it is a fact.

“You can set your watch to it,” said Eagle Scout Ron Haskell Jr., 15.

“We do!” added his brother, Chris, casting out a hook holding a golf-ball-size sack of salmon eggs that lure the giant kings.

A Tradition

Like the salmon, the Scouts return to the Gulkana River every June. Last year’s trip marked Team 29’s fifth run.

The Gulkana, designated a wild river in 1980, is one of 25 Alaskan rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. It cuts through spruce and aspen hardwood forests. Its water and fish help support caribou, beavers, moose, eagles, black bears, grizzly bears and more. For boaters, it boasts Class I and II rapids and one wild Class III or IV, depending on water flow.

“The Gulkana River is not a place for a novice boater,” warns the U.S. Department of Interior. “Accidents can occur in seconds and emergency assistance can take many hours.”

Trip leader Wells Stephenson taught the boys to plan for every possible problem. No item went unchecked, from filing a detailed float plan using a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map to toting a phone-size Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (an EPIRB transmits a distress signal for rescuers to follow).

Tonight’s Menu: MRE…or Fresh Fish?

With such thorough planning, the Scouts had no real problems. Day in and day out, on down the river, the fun simply repeated: Paddle. Stop. Fish. Swim. Eat. Paddle. Stop. Fish. Swim. Eat.

Still, it took work. At trip’s start, an annoying rain threatened to soak the Scouts. Then, for the next two days, gusting winds blew whitecaps upstream.

“This wind is a killer,” sighed Jed Higley, 15, stroking with extra energy.

Getting off the river meant no more paddling, but it did not guarantee rest. The Scouts worked fast as the nightly welcoming committee of bloodsucking mosquitoes swarmed, forcing everyone under some type of netting.

Cookfires quickly fired up. Main entree? Fish, of course.

The Scouts filleted the salmon. Butter, parsley flakes, lemon herb, seafood seasoning and lemon pepper topped fillets that were then double-wrapped in aluminum foil and placed on coals for 20 minutes.

“I never get tired of eating salmon,” said David Harrell. He pointed to a military Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) can of chicken stew. “I get tired of eating those–they don’t even taste like chicken–but never fresh fish!”

Weir Here: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish…

And there were plenty of fresh fish.

At one point, the flotilla paddled upon a fish counting weir. The plastic pipe “fence” funneled all fish through a gate where Austin Mahaley, with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Came, took his turn counting each passing fish–8,223 reds and 4,319 kings in 12 days thus far. He explained that the census helps biologists. If salmon numbers are down, the fish and game officials may tighten limits.

He also said he had found that most fish moved through at night–exactly what the Scouts later learned firsthand when the kings came booming past their riverside campsite.

Goodbye Solitude, Hello Combat

Following that midnight monster-fish-a-then, the boys awoke and beat back fatigue for a final paddle. Seven hours later, rounding yet another bend, they suddenly knew the trip’s end was near. Anglers who had hiked in from a nearby bridge packed the riverbanks.

“Combat fishing,” sighed Paul Smith, 15, repeating the common term for too many anglers cramped too tightly together as they battle for too few fish.

The boys paddled past, pulled ashore and unpacked their gear. Their run was over.

But that was O.K They had their fish, they had their memories–and they had their plans. Next stop in Team 29’s hunt for supersize fish: Homer, Alaska, to troll for halibut.

How big does this giant member of the flounder family get? Early last June, a 459-pounder was boated near Dutch Harbor.

“Now that’s a big fish worth losing sleep over,” Paul said with a smile.

Know Before You Go

“Alaska is a beautiful, wild, wonderful and dangerous state,” declares the Alaska Fish and Game Department. So if you want to go, make sure you do it safely. Start your homework by contacting: Alaska Division of tourism (P.O. Box E, Juneau, AK 99811), U.S. Forest Service (Visitor Information Center, 101 Egan Drive, Juneau, AK 99801), Bureau of Land Management (Office of Public Affairs, 222 West 7th, Anchorage, AK 99513).

And get a copy of “The Milepost” (Vernon Publications Inc., 300 Northup Way, Suite 200, Bellevue, WA 98004, 800-726-4707), which tracks Alaska mile by mile. For fishing, most anglers need a resident or nonresident sports fishing license and king salmon tag (a license). Fees and rules vary; anyone under age 16, for example, does not need a king salmon tag. Find Alaska Fish and Game information by phone (800-874-8202) and by Internet (http://www.state.ak. us/local/AK pages/ FISG.GAME/sportf/geninfo/sflic.htm).

What’s Your High Adventure?

Letters come to Boy’s Life telling of great trips–trips just taken, unfortunately. The editors enjoy reading about Scout’s wonderful times. But, like this Alaska rafting and fishing trip, we want to cover outings to share with Boy’s Life readers. Is your unit planning its trip of a lifetime? If so, please send details at least three months in advance (preferably longer). Include the name and daytime telephone number of an adult leader. Write Boys’ Life Super Scouting Outings, S216, P.O. Box 152079, Irving, TX 75015-2079.

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