Brad Waitman Cut from Alaska’s Old Cloth
“When it comes to the fishing, the food and the flying, the buck stops right here with me and I make sure it is all as good as it can possibly be.” – Brad Waitman
By Ken Morrish Photos by Abe Blair
nyone who has met Brad Waitman, owner of Igiugig outfitter Ron Hayes. Ron was not simply cut from the old Lodge, can tell you he is earnest, fishy, competent cloth, he was the old cloth: hard as nails, strict, uncompromisand most notably content. Like many of the Alaskan ing and not one to suffer fools. He immediately saw something greats, his aircraft is a seamless extension of himself that he in Brad, a gameness if you will, and to test it, on his third day wears as he might wear a coat or a favored pair of boots. At in Alaska, Ron dropped Brad off in Dillingham with a john age 20 after finishing his first season of guiding in Alaska, he boat, a heap of fuel, basic camping equipment, a bit of food, spent all his earnings on flight school because it was immea rifle and a radio. His first job…motor up the Nushagak, diately clear to him that the future he wanted hang a right on the Mulchatna, run up that and take a right in our northernmost state would not happen on the Koktuli until you find the lake at its headwaters without wings. But what impresses me most and set up a camp there. It was a trip of nearly 200 about Brad is his overall level of contentment, miles riddled with countless braids, gravel bars, especially during the four months he lives and works bears and logjams. “When you get to the lower out of his lodge at the outlet of Lake Iliamna. Above the Koktuli,” Ron said, “look for a garbage bag that I entrance to his modest lodge hangs a sign that reads will hang in a tree. When you see it, pull over and take Morrish Mou se “Living the Dream,” and for Brad, the sincerity of this off the prop and put on the jet foot. When you get to phrase so often used in sarcasm is profound. This is exactthe lake make camp, climb up the tallest tree you can find, set ly where he is supposed to be, and his compass has pointed the radio up and I will be in touch.” towards this very place since he was a kid. Brad’s reaction to this? Gratitude. “Ken,” he said “I went Brad grew up in San Mateo, California, and as a young to Alaska for adventure and this guy was willing to pay me teen received a great education in fly fishing in large part due $750 a month to do what I would have done for free. Ron to a local club called the Peninsula Fly Fishers. In high school, would check in with me on the radio, see how the fishing he got his first dream job working part time at his local fly was, and sporadically fly guests in to fish with me. I lived shop, the Angler’s Emporium, where he taught fly-tying and mostly off of fish and bush meat and it was a good time. I eventually met longtime Deschutes outfitter and guide Galand spent three great seasons working for Ron, and he was a huge Haas. Haas liked Brad’s passion and can-do attitude so he influence on me.” By this time Brad had become a bonafide offered the 15-year-old a job rowing boats and setting up his Alaskan. He would guide hunters in April and May, then camps. The first time he was to run Whitehorse rapids on his fly anglers in June and July, and then often head back into own, in a fully loaded gear boat, there was a much lighter and the bush to guide hunters from August through October. A more maneuverable boat wrapped squarely on Oh Shit Rock. few seasons later while working for Bill Sims at Newhalen Brad said to me, “I felt sick and I had to pull over and take Lodge, Brad was sent down the lake to pick up a bottle of gin a nap and when I finally ran it and got through the worst of from neighboring Valhalla Lodge. While there he noticed a it, I bent over and threw up right in the bottom of my boat!” photo of a young woman on the wall…the owner’s daughAs Brad neared high school graduation, Galand gave Brad the ter, Brenda. That stuck and the next year he went to work following sage advice: “Brad, if you like the guiding lifestyle, there, in part hoping to meet and become better acquainted your future is in Alaska.” with Brenda. It took two seasons for Brenda to show up at the lodge, and on their first date, in true bush form, Brad North to Alaska took her out to shoot cans. The rest is history and they spent In June of 1984 at the age of 20, Brad found himself face to the next 15 years together working at Valhalla, raising their face with his new employer, the legendary hunting and fishing children and making plans for their future.
“Above the entrance to his modest lodge hangs a sign that reads ‘Living the Dream,’ and for Brad, the sincerity of this phrase so often used in sarcasm is profound.”
A Place of Their Own
Brad about his favorite rivers in the state, he pops off with, “heck, they are both right here, the Kvichak and Lower In February 2008, it was 26 below zero when Brad landed Talarik. One is at the doorstep and the other is ten minutes in Igiugig, borrowed a snow machine and skittered across the by plane.” frozen outlet of Lake Iliamna to first view what would later When I ask him why these two rivers stand out for become his lodge. Through the frigid blue twilight, Brad him he had the following to say. “Well, if you could tell the place needed some work but when it like catching really big hot rainbows in small came to what really mattered, namely the locawater, it is hard not to see Lower Talarik as tion and size of Larry Todd’s old operation, the greatest river going. I have spent an awful he knew he was on to something. Not only Morrish lot of time there and up by ‘the rock’ and I have had was this facility located on the Kvichak (one of Brad’s Sc u l pin more amazing days of fishing there than I can count. two favorite systems) but it was located right on the Back in the day I flew there from Valhalla Lodge all the time very best run on the river, where Alaska’s largest lake tailsbut if it looked at all busy I would just fly a bit further to the out and turns into one of the greatest trophy rainbow sysKvichak and typically have the place more or less to myself. tems in the world. The natives call this place Igiugig, which What is great about the Kvichak is that it’s big and it’s tricky. in Yupik means “like a throat that swallows water.” By all Most guides are lost on it and never really understand it, but accounts, the river-right run just outside the front door of his if you break it down, there is no question that it is in a class lodge is one of the longest, sexiest and most productive pieces by itself. It has incredible rainbow fishing, great dry fly sight of trophy fly water in all of Alaska if not the world. fishing for grayling, the best sockeye fishing in the world and Then and still now, Brad’s Igiugig Lodge isn’t an architecpretty darn good silver fishing as well. I know it as well as tural eye-popper but rather a modest place with guts of gold. anyone, and I love it.” “Ken,” he tells me, “in many ways I am one of the last real owner operators. Most of the lodges around me are backed Fishing Program by big investors but here it is my wife and me and one other Igiguig Lodge’s fishing program is a unique hybrid of fly-out guide and that is exactly the way we want it. When it comes to fishing and home water fishing. Brad likes to host up to six the fishing, the food and the flying, the buck stops right here anglers per week and employs two guides in addition to himwith me and I make sure it is all as good as it can possibly be.” self. The typical program has Brad flying out each day in his And that is, in a nutshell, why we like sending folks to Brad. Cessna 206 with two or sometimes three anglers. In this case He is passionate about what he does, incredibly competent he will be both the pilot and the guide and the plane will and most importantly, he and Brenda care. always be near if you want to change locations. The following Location, Location, Location day there will be a rotation and the fly out anglers will fish the Kvichak by jet boat and so on. Throughout the course of a While the outlet of Alaska’s largest lake may not be the week this will mean that anglers will fish the home waters 3 to most remote location in the state, for anyone who loves big 4 days and fly out 2 to 3 times. rainbows and salmon it is hard not to consider it the most On fly out days you might park the plane and spend the strategic. The variety of world-class systems reachable within entire day walking and wading a river, or you might land at 35 minutes flying time is exhaustive: The Nushagak, Koktuli, a location where Brad has a boat stashed and either use the Tazimna, Newhalen, Iliamna, Gibraltar, Copper, both Talariks, boat for transportation between runs or fish from the boat, American, Brooks, Moraine, Funnel, Big Ku, Little Ku, Battle, depending on the system. On your home water days, there and Kulik represent some of the better known. When I ask
“By all accounts, the river-right run just outside the front door of his lodge is one of the longest, sexiest and most productive pieces of trophy fly water in all of Alaska if not the world.”
Top: Brad and a guest with a nice rainbow; landing a fish on a crystal clear braid of the Kvichak. Middle: Taking the short trip from the lodge to the aircraft and boats. Bottom: The type of rainbow that has made the Kvichak famous; an aerial view of the lodge. Photos: Abe Blair
Wow! If you guys consider this to be “modest accommodations” and “down-to-earth”, then I know that I have found paradise. Lamb chops, prime rib, crab and filets, crème brulee, chocolate soufflé and NY cheesecake. Fresh linens every day, laundry service and a mug of hot coffee with a wake-up knock each morning. If it was any better than this, I would have felt terribly uncomfortable. Point is, the personalized service was purely top-shelf. I fished at least one morning or evening every day off Brad’s beach, astounding…the Kvichak offers a totally insane fishery. - J. Merrifield, PA
will be options that vary depending on the time of year and guest’s specific interests. In the early season the swing fishing for spey and single hand anglers can be incredible. This is largely a wade fishing cast and step game and die-hard anglers can fish well into the wee hours of the night right in front of the lodge. During the mid-season when lots of salmon are spawning on the Kvichak, your guide might spend the majority of time strategically positioning the boat for long, drag-free indicator drifts through the most likely feeding lanes. The important thing to know is that Brad not only has a vast amount of experience, but a vast number of distinct angling options. Spey fishing for big Kvichak rainbows and massive Nushagak Kings, walk and wade sight fishing for egg-munching rainbows, swinging flies for migrating schools of chrome-bright sockeye salmon, stripping flies for supercharged silvers and chums, mousing for big pike, and sight casting dries for big grayling that rarely see anglers are all great options depending on the time of year.
Accommodations & Meals Ask Brad about his lodge and he will tell you the following. “My place isn’t the fanciest but the steaks we serve will be as good as any in the state and our halibut will have been hand-caught by my family and processed a month before our fishing season opens.” If you need a place that comes with bragging rights, keep moving but if you are after a place that delivers a really big bang for the buck and prides itself first and foremost on the quality of their fishing program and family-style service, this is all that and more. Anglers stay in double occupancy cabins with full private bathrooms, 24-hour power, heat, and daily maid service. For us at Fly Water, Brad and Brenda run one of those special places that unexpectedly won our total confidence. Sure, it’s about safety and service and a deep understanding of the local fisheries, but it is also about who the Waitmans are: wholesome, hard-working and 100% hands-on. So when you visit their team at the outlet of Lake Iliamna be sure to get your photo taken beneath the sign reading “Living the Dream,” because for both you and the Waitmans, it will be the case.
Travel: Anglers will overnight in Anchorage on Friday night and take a non-scheduled air taxi flight into the lodge on Saturday. Season: Second week of June through early October. Capacity: Six anglers Essential Tackle: A favorite 6 or 7-weight rod with a weight forward floating line. Top Flies: This varies depending on time of year but it is always a good idea to have some big black leeches, some sculpin, the dreaded purple egg-sucking leech and a mouse or two. 2016 Rates: $6,500 per person plus air charter fees for 7 night/6 day package.
Top: Tight to a hot one on the home waters. Middle: Living large at the lodge. Bottom: Braid Waitman enjoying another day at the office. Photos: Abe Blair