At Alaska’s Wild River Guides, we have a true passion for the fish we chase. For those who spend time fishing in Alaska, most have favorite species of Pacific Salmon to pursue. For Wild River Guides own John Jinishian, that species is the Coho Salmon. In this short article, he tells us what is so special about this gamefish and why it is worth the trip to Alaska to target them! Published originally in the Spring 2019 volume of Anglers Journal.
Alaska’s Wild River Guides own John Jinishian and Pete Jaacks have always been driven by new adventures. The two are passionate about exploring as much of the Alaskan bush as they possibly can both in-season and off-season in an attempt to get “Out There”. Follow the journey as these two friends brave logjams, bears and bugs to fly fish virgin rainbow waters in the Alaska backcountry. Published originally in the Spring 2018 volume of Anglers Journal.
The first noteworthy fish of the trip. Pete was able to sight cast to this fish who wanted nothing more then mouse fly at the end of his line. This was the type of fish we came hunting for.
Up close and personal with one of these incredible chrome lake fish. They have a much stronger likeness to Steelhead then many of the fish we see mid season in the rivers.
This was around the average size fish for the trip. There would be runs where we would pull multiple fish in this range from the river in a matter of minutes. The streamer fishing was pretty darn good for these fish in the lower river.
A view thats tough to beat. Calm winds and bright sun at the headwater lake. The type of weather that boosts moral at the start of a weeklong float trip.
As guides, there are not many things we are picky about. I mean, we sleep on the ground for about three months a year to experience the one of the most incredible wildernesses in the country. Point being, our standards for comfort aren’t very high. But when it comes to the waders we live in and work in during the summer season, we choose wisely. A good pair of waders can mean the difference between comfort and misery in southwest Alaska. There are few things that will put you in a bad mood faster than pulling on waders that are soaked through on a rainy morning. For this reason, we belive in shelling out some extra bills for the best of the best. So here’s a few thoughts on which route to go on waders from some folks who wear their waders almost every day from June to September…
Zippered vs. Non-Zippered
There’s a few things that we hear a lot at the end of a trip, and “next time I come, I’m getting waders with a zipper” is usually among them. They aren’t essential, especially for anglers that rarely wear waders outside of their Alaska trip, but they make life on the river a whole lot easier. They are easier to get on and off, and makes a midday pit stop less of production. Especially when it is raining hard.
As we are strutting our waders around the floatplane dock getting ready to take off, most guests will ask, “don’t you worry about the zipper leaking?” We can assure you that this has proved to be one of, if not the MOST waterproof part of the waders. Both YKK and Tizip have done an extraordinary job designing these zippers and the engineering inspires our confidence in the product.
Dollars: Most high-end zippered waders are going to hurt to buy. Simms G4Z waders clock in at 800 bucks and Patagonia zippered Rio Gallegos are $600. Not cheap, but again, if you wear them a lot and want to make life easier, it’s worth the extra money.
Sense: If you like to roll your waders down around your waist for a little air flow on hot days, the zippered waders may not be best for you. You will also sacrifice a pass-through hand warmer pocket but most waders still feature individual hand warmer pockets to keep your digits toasty.
Simms and Patagonia
In our minds, there are two main categories of waders. Simms and Patagonia versus everything else. There is a reason that almost every Alaska guide you see is wearing a pair of these. They are durable, have a lot of features, and they have good warranties if something goes wrong.
Ultimately, if you put any wader through the ringer of intense guide work and long days, they will all leak eventually. Our goal is to make it through a full season on just one pair of waders. Both Simms and Patagonia have accomplished this feat while working with Wild River Guides in the Alaskan Bush.
The Pros: Once you get past the price tag, there’s a lot of pros to Simms waders. Speaking about the “Guide” Series, specifically the G4Zs, the five layers of Gore-Tex really comes in handy. Jumping in and out of rafts, setting up camps on gravel bars, and bushwhacking through willows takes a big toll on waders. The multiple layers of Simms take a lot of abuse, and we have had several pairs last multiple Alaska seasons. The zipper is bomber, and there are a lot of pockets on the chest for stashing everything you will need throughout the day.
The Cons: The many layered design means more “stiffness” and less comfort and flexibility. There are fewer seams on the G4Z model, so less likely to fail, but it makes doing a cartwheel a little tougher. And jumping in and out of boats isn’t exactly a picnic, at least until the waders are worn in. Buying one size up in these bad boys goes a long way towards crouching over to grab that fly box you dropped. Again, the price on these things can be hard to swallow, but with good care they will last many seasons.
If you don’t think the zipper is your cup of tea, check out the G4 Pro Wader.
The Pros: For a few hundred less bones then the G4Z’s, you can get yourself into the Rio Gallegos Zip-Front Wader from Patagonia. This is a proven wader that has passed the full season field test several times. The 4-layer H2No breathable fabric stands up to hopping in and out of rafts, breaking up logjams, and short wind-sprints. The removable foam kneepads are a lifesaver when hammering on tent stakes or releasing fish. Both internal and external pockets provide enough room for gear with hand warmer pockets for chilly days. The flip out waterproof internal pocket is a nice feature for keeping licenses dry or shielding a cell phone from the elements (if you happen to have a reasonable sized phone).
The Cons: If you have Patagonia waders then you have a convertible suspension system that allows you to drop your waders down to waist height. On the (RG) zip fronts, the zipper is thick and keeps the waders from rolling down easily (and staying down) around your waist. We routinely carry pliers, a knife, and bear spray on our wading belts. The new Rio Zips only have one belt loop in back, which means you need to clip your wading belt together when unclipping your belt or your gear will end up scattered on the ground.
The In-between: The Rio Zips have a roomier fit then Simms, which can be a pro or a con depending on your body style or layering needs. But I will say, when the weather gets chilly, it’s nice to have some extra room.
If the zippered waders aren’t your speed you can check out the Rio Gallegos Wader.
No longer do female anglers need to “deal” with hopping into a pair of waders that are designed for men. In the last few years, companies have started to listen to the needs of women by designing gender specific wader lines for comfort. But like Men’s waders, not all Women’s waders are created equal…
We have had several female guides over the years and their choices have fallen into two categories for wader choices, Simms or Patagonia.
Many women, including WRG guide Kate Rutherford preach to the comfort and design of the Patagonia Women’s Spring Wader. The quick drop-seat function has proved a valuable asset when it comes to relieving yourself without removing clothes in the backcountry. They feature the same durable 4-layer H2No technology proven in their waders for years. A downside of going with Patagonia is they only make one women’s wader so you are locked into spending about $400 on the Women’s Spring Wader but their warranty is rock solid should you ever have any issues.
Simms produces two different waders for women, the Freestone ($250) and Womens G3 Guide ($500), which gives you some options based on your use level and budget. Our guides haven’t tested the Women’s Freestone Wader* in Alaska which only features a 2-layer breathable fabric. The wader reportedly does not breathe as well as Gore-Tex but this could benefit ladies that run cold. The Women’s G3 Guide Wader may come with a higher price tag, but it can handle Alaska fishing. WRG guide, Aubrey Romo has enjoyed the durability of the 4-layer Gore-Tex and reported the straps and pocketing as “user friendly.”
There are some choices to make when considering your next pair of waders. If you are a casual angler that prefers to wet wade on the home waters, it may be wise to save some beer money and find a less expensive pair of waterproof pants. Reddington, LL Bean, and Cabelas all make affordable models that will work fine for an occasional wade. But for your Alaska float, or if you plan on heavy use on your home river, it is worth it to invest in a pair of high quality waders that will last you for years to come.
See you on the river!
WRG Guide Pete Jaacks describes the challenges, people, and fishing of Western Alaska on a late season exploratory coho trip. Join him, his brother, and fellow guide John Jinishian as they fight the weather, the Secret Service, and low water in pursuit of the magical fish in September. Originally published in Vol. 9.1 of The FlyFish Journal.
Join guide John Jinishian on his first season guiding in Western Alaska with Wild River Guides. Originally published in Anglers Journal, John writes about memorable experiences from that defining first season, as well as what drew him to Alaska to begin with.
When I first started casting a fly rod, my fly selection was pretty sparse. I didn’t even really know that there were fly patterns other than Elk Hair Caddis until I was a teenager. Fishing my home waters in Colorado, I stuck to the standard western trout fare. I swung leeches and wooly buggers, dead drifted nymphs, and skittered the reliable Elk Hair Caddis. I rarely deviated from the standard formula until I saw a short film about fishing with mice on the South Island in New Zealand. As far as I can remember, that point marks my obsession with fishing for trout with mice.
I began by tossing big deer hair mice patterns in the late evening, with little to no success. Colorado is not known as a mouse fishing haven, and whenever I tied on mice patterns, I had to optimistically shrug off sideways looks from my fishing buddies. I can dream right? There’s just something about throwing a huge foam fly imitating a mouse that I couldn’t get past. You slap it on the water and strip it back in, then watch as a shadow appears out of the brush, swimming lightning fast towards your fly like a shark chasing a seal. It smashes into the fly, then retreats. Then smashes again, thinking to stun the mouse before devouring it. You have to wait until you see the real take to set the hook, something that takes an overwhelming amount of self control. Then the trout jaws come out of the water again, swallowing the mouse whole, and bam! Fish on! Its magic.
When I began guiding in Alaska, I confess that it was not mice that brought me there. In fact, when I first stepped off the plane in Dillingham, deafened by the roar of propellers and captivated by the NO PEBBLE flags everywhere, swimming mice were far from my mind. I was drawn to Bristol Bay by the promise of solitude in the wilderness. By the thought of untouched salmon rivers meandering their way to the sea.
Upon my first flight into the Togiak Refuge, it became immediately clear to me that I had come to the right place. We soared through the post-glacial landscape, picking our way through mountains and flying over uncountable rivers. Every way I looked out of the float plane window, I saw none of the signs of activity I had grown accustomed to in the landscapes of the West. No fences. No parking lots. No roads. Just rivers and lakes with pods of salmon so vast you can see them from a thousand feet in the air.
It was soon after the mouse on my back returned to the front of my mind. I was sharing my boat with an angler who loved to fish dry flies, having spent summers fishing in Montana. When he handed me his box and gave me the “what should I use?” look, I grabbed a fat foam mouse and tied it on. I still didn’t hold out much hope, but I hadn’t been fishing in Alaska very long. After a few casts at the overgrown bank, a leopard rainbow exploded out of the shadows and crushed the fly. I was honestly shocked. I know now that any Alaska guide will tell you this is no surprise, but I was still new to the region and stared in disbelief. These fish actually eat mice!
There are some specific factors that make Western Alaska a mousing haven. For one, it is tough to earn a living as a trout there. The summer days may be long, but the summer is short. Trout have a small window to eat as much as they can as fast as they can, before summer turns to a long, dark, and cold winter. This makes them ravenous opportunists. Anything that can be eaten, especially something big and full of protein, is well worth the chase for them. Smaller fish, sculpins, salmon fry, salmon eggs, and of course, swimming rodents.
In the later summer months, trout tend to stack up behind the endless strings of salmon migrating up the rivers. For reference, Bristol Bay saw a record 59 million sockeye salmon return in 2017. Sockeye are only one the five species of Pacific salmon that call Bristol Bay home. Thats a lot of salmon eggs. The salmon eggs that fill the rivers are undoubtedly the life source for rainbows and Dolly Varden Char, as well as other resident species. They are innumerable and protein rich, so rainbows really key into them when the salmon are in numbers in the river. The longer the season goes on, the more difficult it becomes to get the leopard ‘bows to look up.
That leaves a specific window for mouse “prime-time”. The early season. Rainbow trout finish up their spawn in the late spring in Alaska, then prioritize eating as much as they can before winter. Their food sources are more limited however, as not many salmon have made their way up the rivers yet. Since the eggs are not yet prolific, the trout stay in the cover of the woody debris strewn along the banks. Their leopard spots afford them ample camouflage while they lie in wait…
This is what I have found to be a mouse fishing paradise. A perfect storm of events; long sunny days, hungry post spawn trout, and a lack of food supply competition all lead to one thing. Insane mouse fishing. Trout hide in the undergrowth, and hungrily chase mouse patterns that are slapped on the water near the bank, sometimes returning to attack the same mouse pattern a dozen times. The Kanektok river is well know for this phenomenon, as it has over 100 miles of overgrown banks for its resident ‘bows to hide in. A circulating photo shows a biologist dissecting a Kanektok ‘bow with over a dozen rodents in its stomach. Like I said. Insane.
Needless to say I found a place to fish mice. And while I throw them all season long, nothing quite compares to the first few weeks of the summer when the slap of a mouse pattern on the water is almost always shortly accompanied by the splash of a hungry rainbow. Now when I get those sideways looks about the mice patterns in my fly box at home, I grin and repeat the same line almost manically. “Come fish Alaska.”
A past guest summed it up for me one evening. He was fishing his way down the bank opposite from camp, casting a favorite foam mouse pattern. I sat on my raft, all the camp chores done for the night, and watched midnight sun glitter on the water as it sank lower in the sky. I heard a splash from downstream, followed by laughter and a yell back up to me, “I’m in a crazy land where fish eat mice!” Another convert to the mouse fishing faith had just been baptized in the waters of western Alaska. I shouted my approval.
Rain or Wading Jackets are a critical piece of gear for wilderness rafting and fly fishing in western Alaska. Our climate is “maritime” and influenced by proximity to the cool waters of Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea. This climate provides all the cool water to our rivers to host the world’s largest salmon population.
Our daytime average high temperature is 62 degrees. Our average nighttime low is 45 degrees. It is generally cloudy or partly cloudy and about one half the days each week we experience rain showers. It tends to be breezy mid day with an average 8 mile per hour wind. But here’s a fun fact. You are going to experience long days of sunlight. In July you’ll have 20 hours of fishable daylight. In late August 16 hours of daylight.
In summary we experience cool and breezy conditions with regular rain showers. For most of us a Gore Tex or similar waterproof breathable jacket in good repair will keep us comfortable for a week of fly-fishing. With a good rain jacket we’ll enjoy our hours of raft travel even when our hoods are up in a rain shower. We’ll be warm and protected from the wind.
There are lots of rain jacket options and if you are making a purchase I’ve included suggestions to fit your budget. Note: If you are a husband or father bringing your spouse & or family it’s vital that the family has rain gear every bit as “bombproof” as yours.
What is in your closet now? Do you have a dedicated wading jacket? Do you have a Gore Tex shell for skiing or snow boarding. What do you currently wear when you are fishing or hiking or canoeing in rain showers? Does the jacket have a very good hood? Many of us have a serviceable jacket but the question you need to answer is: Is it up to the task of a week on an Alaskan river?
Grab your jacket off the hanger and critically look at it for worn (fuzzy looking or shiny) fabric, missing zipper teeth, and give it a test in the shower. If it passes your inspection then before you leave home treat it with a renewal of the outer waterproofing with a product such as “ReviveX”. ReviveX will reapply the thin layer of Teflon like substance called DWR that causes water to bead and run off your jacket like “water off a ducks back”. When the water beads and runs off it doesn’t have much of a chance to seep though the fabric.
If your answer is: “I really don’t know if it’s going to keep me dry for 7 days on the river. I’ve worn it for years and it shows signs of wear & tear.” My recommendation is to purchase a new jacket for the trip that will definitely keep you dry and should serve for years to come under more temperate conditions. I heard from more than one guide that they’d rather have a great jacket in Alaska than a new fly rod.
If you are faced with purchasing a new jacket here are some Jackets that have proven themselves.
The Simms G3 and G4 and the Patagonia SST are proven all weather fly-fishing jackets. This is what most of the guides in AK wear and should give years of service. However they are not cheap. Still several guides told me they thought a good jacket was more critical than a good fly rod in AK. Something to think about!
Getting value at a reasonable price. In addition to shopping at your local fly shop and outdoors store. Consider checking Sierra Trading Post like long time Bristol Bay angler Bob Erickson. He’s going to be wearing a new Gore Tex jacket by Filson this year and he reports that he “never pays retail”. When he made his Sierra Trading post purchase there were Simms, Redington, and Frog Togs jackets available as well.
Another option is EBay where there are discontinued new and used Patagonia and Simms jackets for sale.
Other wading jackets that our guests are happy with include LL Bean, and Cabelas and Helly Hansen. Guide John Jinishian got 2 hardcore seasons out of his Cabelas “Guidewear” jacket while expeditionary angler Rob Crawford loves his LL Bean Gore Tex Jacket. Bristol Bay guide Peter Jaacks reports that he fished Steelhead in the Olympic Peninsula rain forest all winter with Helly Hanson commercial rain gear and it was quite serviceable and affordable.
If you are a mountain sports person with an OR, Patagonia, North Face, or Arc Teryx Gore Tex jacket, that might be perfect for the trip. As above assess the jackets wear & tear, perform the DWR maintenance, and test it out against leakage.
For information on restoring the DWR finish of a jacket checkout REI or ReviveX. http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/rainwear-dwr.html
By Mark Rutherford
You may have read the unnamed tributary trip report that we posted a few months ago, detailing a trip with the Beattie Productions film – Alaska: La Frontera Norte. You can now see the full feature with the 2014 Fly Fishing Film Tour touring around 140 cities across the U.S. and Canada. The teaser above is a little glimpse of the storyline, the fishing adventure, and the great people that went on this fantastic wilderness float with me.
Notably in the film, Alejandro Vega “AKA Sandflea” is the warmest, most genuine, humble angler imaginable, a true sweetheart. However put yourself in his shoes/sandals. Can you imagine how anxious Sandflea felt leaving behind a barefoot life in the Yucatan to come to one of the most inaccessible trout streams in Bristol Bay Alaska and endure a portage through hell, plus the obligatory wind and rain and bears… all to attempt the Alaska dry fly grand slam. Rainbows, Silver Salmon, Grayling, Dolly Varden, and Northern Pike all on the surface, all in one week, on one river trip through the wilderness! Sandflea will be at the Seattle Fly Fishing Film Tour show with me. Come meet him!
Learn more about the film at AlaskaFishingFilm.com
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot” – Aldo Leopold.
Why immerse ourselves in Alaska’s wild landscape, and explore the untamed rivers? Why fish and camp far beyond motorized transport? Partly because we are looking for better fishing than we would find near the lodges. But perhaps, we seek something more through our fly-fishing passion than a day trip provides or than a trophy fish in a photograph could recall. Author Paul Brooks said in Roadless Area, “In every Wilderness trip there comes a moment of awareness, a sudden sense that you are there.” He described a deepening feeling of connection to nature after he and his wife had put three or four canoe portages between them and the last settlement. Do some of us need to immerse ourselves for longer periods in wilder places, not only for the fishing, but for other reasons too?
Once we’ve been dropped of in the Bristol Bay Wilderness, we are certain of several things. Our raft will certainly pass through a vast, post-glacial landscape. Between casts, we will wade in the clean cold water noticing grizzly bear tracks and salmon carcasses scattered about. We will walk downstream re-casting the fly, watching the drift, mending the line, and retrieve. Gusts of wind coursing across the tundra will blow our mental clutter away, making us focus on the fundamentals of our sport. The Arctic Tern will dive in front of the raft, emerging while dripping beads of water, with a sockeye smolt in her blood red bill. The passage of the cloud shadows on the tundra will create dramatic light. And, perhaps, let come the realization that “I am tremendously grateful to be here at this exact moment participating in nature’s great drama.”
Only in Wilderness, can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the events of these moments are “true”, and not modified by man. There is no detail except our own actions that can be changed to make the moment a more “perfect” experience. If we find fault – it reflects only our human limitations. Perhaps we feel diminished by the weather or nervous about the Brown Bear. Perhaps we fail to land the greatest rainbow trout of our life. Or, it is equally possible that we land the lovely fish and learn about the bear and don’t simply fear it. Perhaps we will adapt our minds to the weather. One thing is certain; when we fly fish in the Bristol Bay Wilderness, we’ll participate in a drama in which man’s role is small in a vast natural world.
Your fly fishing jacket is more important than beer or duct tape. Welcome to gear talk about jackets worn in the Bristol Bay, Alaska. You can cut corners to save money to make your fly fishing trip affordable, but there are three places you don’t scrimp. 1. Do not hire an inexperienced floatplane pilot. 2. Don’t bring worn out waders. And, 3. . . . don’t bring a cruddy jacket!
We depend more on good jackets for our angling success, comfort, and potentially our survival than all the other gear we pack along. Our waterproof jacket combined with breathable waders is more critical than our choice of fly rods or fly selection – more important than which river we select. Our jacket is more important than whether we chose a lodge, a do it yourself trip, or a guided float trip. Our outer layer is our new best friend.
Gore-Tex or equivalent waterproof-breathable jackets define Bristol Bay comfort and safety. Your jacket must absolutely repel wind driven rain, withstand some abrasion, be wind proof, be durable, not leak, and the cuffs and hood must be adjustable. You can use commercial fishermen’s rain jackets to accomplish this with some loss of comfort.
I get asked, “Can Gore-Tex be depended on?” The better manufacturers of waterproof outerwear finally achieved in the 1990’s the promise of “Light & Dry & Breathable” that they began promoting in the 70’s, and failed under field conditions until the 90’s. Yes, Gore-Tex and a few other waterproof-breathable brands (H2NO, eVent) work incredibly well! Bristol Bay guides wear these materials week after week.
Bring the best hooded jacket that you can afford, preferably built of 3-layer fabric. If you are willing to fork out the cash, then consider the Gore Tex or H2NO guide jackets by Simms and Patagonia. They are incredibly well designed to keep you comfortable while casting and have details that restrict rainwater from running into your sleeves. I have personally had positive experiences with the following jackets of 3-layer waterproof-breathables: Simms, Patagonia, Orvis, L.L. Bean, Cabelas, Arcteryx, Cloudveil, Moonstone, Marmot, Mtn Hardwear, & Northface.
These 3 layer Gore-Tex jackets are not cheap but you can expect to wear one for 5 years for rain/wind. And, those jackets marketed as “Mountain Hard Shells” double for winter sports like snowboarding, skiing, snowmobiling, etc. I currently wear Patagonia River Salt, Patagonia SST, or the Simms G-4 jackets. They are well designed for fishing in variable weather. The 1 or 2 layer waterproof back packing jackets designed primarily for light-weight and packability do not hold up well in Alaskan field conditions.
Economically there is an argument to be made re: 100% waterproof “commercial duty” rainwear vs. Gore-Tex. A 100% waterproof “commercial fisherman style” rainwear “slicker” by Helly Hansen, Grunden, or similar is highly serviceable costing less than $150 compared to $250+ for Gore Tex. Many Alaskans have proudly worn “Helly Hansen Rainwear” for years and snickered at the fancy Gore-Tex. Try to get a model with adjustable cuffs to keep water from running up your sleeve and a drawstring hood. Whatever you choose – It must absolutely keep you dry! Shop carefully.
If you are bringing a Gore Tex jacket that you’ve worn previously, no matter whether it kept you perfectly dry make sure to re-vitalize its repellency just prior to the trip. The fabric needs to be re treated with DWR (Durable Water Repellant) finish. It makes a huge difference to how efficiently your jacket performs. You are going to be fishing close to the Bering Sea. Think about it. Use ReviveX to restore and enhance repellency. http://www.mcnett.com/ReviveX-Spray-On-Water-Repellent-P316.aspx. See you out there with a smile in rain or shine.