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FISHING • HUNTING • ADVENTURE

AKSPORTINGJOURNAL.COM

DESTINATION,

ALASKA! 2018 TRIP PLANNING GUIDE

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Hunting Winter’s Long Night

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SPORTING JOURNAL Volume 9 • Issue 8 www.aksportingjournal.com PUBLISHER James R. Baker ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER Dick Openshaw

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GENERAL MANAGER John Rusnak EXECUTIVE EDITOR Andy Walgamott EDITOR Chris Cocoles WRITERS Paul D. Atkins, Christopher Batin, Bjorn Dihle, Tony Ensalaco, Scott Haugen, Tiffany Haugen, Brian Kelly, Jeff Lund

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MEDIA INDEX PUBLISHING GROUP WASHINGTON OFFICE 14240 Interurban Ave South • Suite 190 Tukwila, WA 98168 (206) 382-9220 • Fax (206) 382-9437 media@media-inc.com • www.media-inc.com OREGON OFFICE 8116 SW Durham Rd • Tigard, OR 97224 CORRESPONDENCE Twitter @AKSportJourn Facebook.com/alaskasportingjournal Email ccocoles@media-inc.com


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CONTENTS

VOLUME 9 • ISSUE 8

36

PLOT YOUR ESCAPE PLAN Would you rather eat gourmet meals at a full-service lodge? Or perhaps go the DIY route and rough it at a U.S. Forest Service cabin? Whatever your expectations are for a summer trip of fishing in the Last Frontier, veteran Alaskan angler and guide Chris Batin breaks down all of your options to help plan that dream getaway. (CHRIS BATIN)

FEATURES 19

39

111

FOR HER COUNTRY AND (ADOPTED) STATE Having grown up in an athletic, outdoors-loving family in Washington, Sadie Bjornsen wanted to train in a state with a tradition of producing several world-class skiers, not to mention lots of snow. The Alaska Pacific University alum plied her cross-country skiing skills in the school’s outstanding ski program and qualified to return to the Winter Olympics next month in PyeongChang, South Korea. WHY WE TRAP WOLVES Throughout the Lower 48 and into Alaska, how to approach wolves with regards to conservation is a hotly contested issue between those who want the predators protected and, especially in Alaska, hunters who rely on healthy herds that provide meat to feed their families organically. Jeff Lund defends the idea of not wiping out wolfpacks but keeping some order in the ecosystem. LET THERE BE LIGHT Winter in Alaska means daylight is at a premium. The trade-off, of course, is endless sunshine-filled summer fun. So for hunters in the Arctic like Paul Atkins, getting outside during the precious light there is is key when

it comes to harvesting late-migrating caribou. As Atkins explains, in the Last Frontier you don’t waste what little blue skies winter offers. 129 GET ‘COY’ THIS MOOSE SEASON A good moose call is an old staple of scoring a big boy of a bull, but Scott Haugen says decoys, even adorned with paper towels, can help you harvest one. Tiffany Haugen combines spinach, Caesar salad dressing and tenderloin to create a From Field to Fire big game feast for the dinner table.

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE 52 61 79

Book excerpt: Panhandle deer hunting memories Gear up for steelhead runs A Mat-Su Valley fishing adventure

DEPARTMENTS 17 The Editor’s Note 37 Outdoor calendar 125 Big Game Spotlight: Muskox

Alaska Sporting Journal is published monthly. Call Media Inc. Publishing Group for a current rate card. Discounts for frequency advertising. All submitted materials become the property of Media Inc. Publishing Group and will not be returned. Annual subscriptions are $29.95 (12 issues) or $39.95 (24 issues). Send check or money order to Media Inc. Publishing Group, 14240 Interurban Ave South, Suite 190, Tukwila, WA 98168 or call (206) 382-9220 with VISA or M/C. Back issues may be ordered at Media Inc. Publishing Group, subject to availability, at the cost of $5 plus shipping. Copyright © 2017 Media Inc. Publishing Group. All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be copied by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording by any information storage or retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher. Printed in U.S.A. 12

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“H

appy” New Year. But before the ball dropped in Times Square on Dec. 31, some environmentally depressing headlines graced us the week before Christmas. One ramification of President Donald Trump’s tax bill that passed also included the approval to allow drilling in a section of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Never mind the caribou herds that call some of those lands their crib; carry on with the drillin’, yo!) Then just a few days later, the Pebble Mine debate entered the news cycle again when the Pebble Limited Partnership announced two holiday news dumps: A new mining partner added to the mix and plans to file a formal application as conservationists fight for the salmon-filled waters around Bristol Bay. Talk about finding a lump of coal (or some other nonrenewable form of energy) in your Christmas stocking! Hopefully a couple of our stories this month will perk you up. Plan a summer salmon or halibut trip or tie up some steelhead jigs thanks to some tips from writers Chris Batin and Tony Ensalaco to find some of the state’s best fishing. We also introduce you to an adopted Alaskan to cheer for next month when PyeongChang, South Korea, hosts the Winter Olympics. I chatted up cross-country skier Sadie Bjornsen, who trains out of Anchorage and qualified for her second Olympics four years after representing the U.S. in Sochi. Maybe the skiers, hockey players, figure skaters and bobsledders heading to Asia will make America feel great again. We know that the Pebble Mine and drilling on what’s supposed to be federally protected Alaska soil will likely remain talking points in 2018 and beyond. But what can you do but continue swinging no matter what corner you’re boxing out of? -Chris Cocoles

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CROSS TRAINING LEADS TO SOUTH KOREA

Washington-born but Alaska-trained the past few years, Olympic cross-country skier Sadie Bjornsen loves what the Last Frontier offers: Some great snow and endless outdoor opportunities. (SADIE BJORNSEN)

ALASKA-BASED CROSS-COUNTRY SKIER QUALIFIES FOR SECOND WINTER OLYMPICS BY CHRIS COCOLES

C

oming back from Russia with gloves – not to mention skis, poles and boots – Sadie Bjornsen wanted to get back to the Winter Olympics. Four years after the cross-country skier who now lives and trains in Alaska competed for Team USA in Sochi, Russia, the 28-year-old Bjornsen has also qualified for next month’s 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. aksportingjournal.com | JANUARY 2018

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Bjornsen races in a World Cup event in Davos, Switzerland last month. The 28-year-old punched her ticket to next month’s PyeongChang, South Korea Winter Olympics with a second-place sprint race finish in Ruka, Finland. (REESE BROWN/SNOWSPORTS INDUSTRIES AMERICA)

Bjornsen, who grew up in Mazama, Washington, then stuck around the Last Frontier after graduating from and skiing for Alaska Pacific University, competed in two individual events in the Sochi games, the 10-kilometer classic race and the 15-kilometer skiathlon, which combines 7.5 kilometers each of classic and freestyle skiing. She also raced on the relay team that finished ninth. Bjornsen punched her ticket for PyeongChang after taking second place at a World Cup sprint race in Ruka, Finland in November. Bjornsen is one of two members of her family who’ve represented the U.S. in the Olympics (Sadie’s younger broth20

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er Erik, also an Alaska Pacific alum, raced in two Sochi events). So when it comes to skiing, it’s a pretty competitive bunch. “Up until probably high school we were training together all the time, pushing each other quite a bit,” Erik Bjornsen told USA Today. “Since high school she’s just kind of been one step ahead of me and kind of shown me the way to make it to the World Cup level. … It’s been fun to watch her. She’s been kind of a role model of mine.” We caught up with a busy Sadie Bjornsen while she was barnstorming through Europe on the World Cup circuit to get her take on the Olympics

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and a love for the outdoors (and the organic benefits its fish and game provides her for helping to achieve these Olympic dreams).

Chris Cocoles Congrats on qualifying for PyeongChang! What are you thoughts on going back to the Winter Olympics? Sadie Bjornsen It is really exciting to make the Olympic team again. It was always a dream of mine since I was a young child to be an Olympian. Over the course of these past four years since Sochi, being an Olympic medalist has become my new dream and goal. I can’t wait to head to PyeongChang for another opportunity!


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EMBRACING THE

ELEMENTS Sadie Bjornsen loves getting outside even when she’s not on two skis racing across the snow in Alaska and throughout the world. Photos courtesy of Sadie Bjornsen.

A fishing outing with her fiancé Jo Maubet.

She’s as sturdy on a mountain bike as she is on skis.

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Relaxing in the Alaskan bush with friends and family.

Sadie and her mom Mary atop Slate Peak in Washington.

Back in her native state of Washington and cooling off in the North Cascades. aksportingjournal.com | JANUARY 2018

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CC What was it like growing up in the Pacific Northwest and loving skiing? SB I grew up in Mazama, Washington, a very small town of 200 people, with one person per square mile. Mazama is situated at the base of the amazing North Cascade Mountains and a beautiful valley full of outdoor opportunities. I grew up doing 24-mile hikes through the mountains with my family on the weekends, floating the river on hot summer days, mountain biking through the hills, and cross-country skiing from one town to the next, with little hot chocolate stops along the way. I was lucky to have a family that viewed “playing outside” as the best opportunity for family time. This love for the outdoors and playing developed me into a competitive cross-country skier as I grew older. At first, racing was just family trips we would take to Snoqualmie Pass (in Washington) or Mount Bachelor, Oregon. Over the years, as I started winning races, I learned that sport could be the best job in the world!

Bjornsen grew up as a vegetarian, but she eats organic wild game such as moose and upland bird and salmon. “For two years now, my fiancé and I have turned into “Alaskan vegetarians,” she says. (SADIE BJORNSEN)

CC You started as an alpine skier and then transitioned to cross-country. What was your main inspiration for making the switch? SB Our family started in alpine skiing because my father had grown up doing some ski mountaineering and alpine skiing with his family, so it was a natural direction for our family to go. The closest alpine resort was a long 45-minute drive away – up to the Loup Loup ski area, between Mazama and Omak. On the other hand, the cross-country trails started from our back door and went on for nearly 100 kilometers across the valley. I remember always being cold riding on the chair lifts during alpine skiing, so I decided it made more sense, and sounded more fun to ski up the hill, rather than ride a chair lift up the hill. This is when Nordic skiing became more of an interest to me. We also had a couple Olympians move into the Methow Valley, both neighbors to me – Leslie Hall and Laura McCabe. They were both Olympians in cross-country skiing, so they kind of started my Olympic dream. I wanted to be just like them. 24

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Sadie (right) and her younger brother Erik, also an Alaska PaciďŹ c alum, both competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (SADIE BJORNSEN)

CC You and your brother Erik are pretty close in age. Did you push each other growing up? SB My brother and I are separated by 18 months and I also have a sister who is two years older than me. Between the three of us, everything naturally became a competition. Who could get to the car the fastest? Who could swim to the middle of the lake the fastest? Who could eat the most spaghetti? We grew up working on a construction site with my parents, who owned a construction business. As young kids, we learned how to work hard but enjoy it together. All of these things contributed to a family full of athletes. I remember one race as a young kid at Snoqualmie Pass, where my brother, sister (Kaley) and I made a little “fam26

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ily plan.” I would block for my sister in the front and my brother would block in the back. We traveled as this group of three little kids through the pack of master skiers and nearly won the race together. I remember it just feeling really fun! As we grew older, the competition between Erik and I was pretty fun. It wasn’t until I was 14 years old that Erik beat me for the first time in a ski race. I remember that day, because he told me, “You will never beat me again.” And that was true; I never did. To this day, despite him being considerably faster than me, he has helped push me in a supportive way. We are able to support, encourage and challenge each other in both training as well as racing.

CC Since there are two Bjornsen Olympians, who’s the best skier in the family? SB Hmmm. That is a good question. Maybe you have to ask each other’s opinion. I think Erik is the best, because he is the fastest. But this question could be answered different by each of the four other members of my family.

CC How did the outdoors define who

Sadie's office is also her playground to explore the Last Frontier on skis. (SADIE BJORNSEN)

Eating the organic way - like upland birds and fish she’s harvested - is the main course in Bjornsen’s diet, which helps in her training. (SADIE BJORNSEN) 28

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you are? What was your biggest passion when you weren’t skiing/training? SB The outdoors has always been a way to see the world from new eyes. It has provided me with the opportunity to travel all over the world, and it has provided me with an opportunity to meet some pretty incredible people. When you walk outdoors and breathe in the fresh air, it is the most natural form of medicine! Suddenly, all the problems of the world can be put aside, and you can find true happiness! Some of my biggest passions when I am not ski training are hiking, backcountry skiing, camping, fishing, climbing, and bird hunting.

CC How much are you into fishing and/ or hunting? Can you share any of your favorite stories? SB I grew up vegetarian until I was about 20 years old. At that point, I was traveling the world and competing at an international level and I was struggling to get the fuel that I needed. As a result, I started eating a little bit of meat. I always ate fish as a kid, but no other types


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of meat. Right about that time I met my boyfriend, now fiancé (Jo Maubet), who had grown up both hunting and fishing. He grew up in France, but spent many of his summers in the states with his American grandparents doing these sorts of activities. He gradually introduced me into the Alaskan way of living off the land – hunting, fishing, berry picking and gardening. It didn’t take me long to realize that I loved it. I love hiking super high into the mountains and chasing after ptarmagin, or biking way up to high streams in the mountains and fishing for dinner. For two years now, my fiancé and I have turned into “Alaskan vegetarians.” We eat a combination of moose, fish, grouse and ptarmigan, all things that we have caught or hunted. It makes me feel good as an athlete to know that I am fueling my body with the most natural fuel out there!

CC What was your main trigger point to go to Alaska and did you have a welcome to Alaska moment? SB My main motivation to go to Alaska was University of Alaska (Anchorage), the school that was recruiting me in high school. [She eventually transferred to Alaska Pacific, which has a very successful skiing program that has produced multiple Olympians.] The coach at the time was Norwegian, and I knew (Norway) had a history of success in my sport, so I wanted to go to the best. [Bjornsen’s great-grandfather was Norwegian and emigrated to Seattle.] At the time, moving to Alaska was a second thought, and I don’t think it hit me until two weeks before it was time to leave that I was moving so far away. I had watched (the Alaska-shot movie) Into the Wild for the first time and suddenly I had this feeling I was moving to the middle of nowhere; I started freaking out. Fortunately, everything was already signed and a lot of my stuff had already been sent, so there was no turning back. I was pleasantly surprised as soon as I arrived to learn that Anchorage was pretty far from the movie I had watched a few weeks earlier. CC Is there a most important benefit of you staying in and training in Alaska 30

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“I love hiking super high into the mountains and chasing after ptarmagin, or biking way up to high streams in the mountains and fishing for dinner,” she says. (SADIE BJORNSEN)

after you graduated from Alaska Pacific that’s more integral to what you do than if you were back down in the Lower 48? SB One of the most valuable qualities of living in Alaska is the weather. Because we are so far north, we keep snow really long into the spring and we get snow really early in the fall. In addition, I spend one week (each) of June, July and August up on Eagle Glacier, just a short 45-minute drive and 10-minute helicopter ride away. Our team has a little house they maintain on the rocks above the glacier, so I spend one week of each summer month living and training on snow all day long. We also have

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very mild summer weather and we are never limited by heat, which is convenient for the amount we are training. I also train with the strongest team in the country, which pushes me every day to be the best I can.

CC What do you want to do after your competitive skiing career ends? SB After I am done ski racing, I have a collection of things I want to do. I have my undergrad in accounting, so I would like to stay in that field. I also really look forward to being a mother! And one of the things I look forward to the most is having more free time to spend holidays with friends and family.


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CC I’m a big sports fan and I get so excited about the Olympics. What’s it like to not only compete but to wear that Team USA gear on the snow and when you march with your teammates in the opening ceremonies? SB There is so much honor and excitement pulling on the Team USA uniform. It is so much more than I ever dreamed. I love how suddenly, you become teammates with your entire country. You no longer are just representing yourself; you are representing your country and everyone who has ever helped you along the way! The Olympic rings have this incredible ability to put all the world’s differences aside, and for two weeks allow sport to bring everyone together. ASJ Editor’s note: The PyeongChang Winter Olympics begins on Feb. 8, with the first cross-country skiing race scheduled for Feb. 10. For more on Sadie Bjornsen, check out her website (sadiebjornsen.com) and follow on Twitter (@sadzarue) and Instagram (@sbjornsen). Like at facebook. com/sadiebjornsenxc.

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“There is so much honor and excitement pulling on the Team USA uniform,” Bjornsen says. “It is so much more than I ever dreamed. I love how suddenly, you become teammates with your entire country.” (REESE BROWN/SNOWSPORTS INDUSTRIES AMERICA)

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OUTDOOR CALENDAR Jan. 1 Jan. 1 Jan. 1 Jan. 1 Jan. 1 Feb. 3 March 3

Lynx season opens in Game Management Units 7 (Seward) and 15 (Kenai) Nonresident black bear hunting (without the use of registered guides) opens in GMU 2 (Prince of Wales Island) Resident brown bear hunting opens in GMU 26 (Arctic Slope) Brown bear hunting season opens in GMU 5 (Yakutat) Resident antlered moose season opens in GMU 22B, C and D (Seward Peninsula/Southern Norton Sound) Yukon Quest sled dog race begins, Fairbanks; yukonquest.com Expected start of Iditarod sled dog race; iditarod.com

Editor’s note: For more specific information on hunting regulations, refer to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s handbook (adfg.alaska.gov).

Lynx hunting seasons on two Kenai Peninsula game management units begins on Jan. 1 and runs through Feb. 15. (KRISTINE SOWL/USFWS)

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Wolves – and specifically how to handle wolf hunting and trapping – represent a hot-button topic among hunters and those in opposition. Author Jeff Lund defends that he traps and hunts the predators to preserve a way of life he and other Southeast Alaskans embrace.

PROTECTING

WILD ALASKA

(JEFF LUND)

DEFINING THE

LUPINE CONUNDRUM

A SOUTHEAST ALASKA WOLF TRAPPER DEFENDS HIS CHOICES BY JEFF LUND

I

’ve discovered that part of life is figuring out how much hypocrisy you can tolerate with yourself and with others. The most important one is the former because that’s the only one you can control. Worry too

much about the latter and you’re setting yourself up for a humbling experience. If, of course, you’re capable of realizing you should be humbled. Any time I write about Prince of Wales Island, I advertise the rivers

I want to fish and places I want to hunt and will undoubtedly be upset if when I arrive, I find someone else. I sometimes feel I am contributing to my problem. Outdoor politics is rank with contradictions because the issues are incredibly complex.

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PROTECTING

WILD ALASKA

Wolf-trapping guru Elijah Winrod sets a trap on a secluded part of the Prince of Wales Island. Controlling a healthy population of POW wolves without wiping out the island’s population to preserve other species that allow hunters to eat organically harvested meat seems reasonable. (JEFF LUND)

TRAPPING VS. TRAPPING WOLVES As easy as it is for me to take a deer, it is equally as difficult for me to get

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traction when it comes to trapping. I have nothing wrong with trapping as a means of subsistence living, but

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

doing it myself is the issue. I don’t care that my buddy Dan gets mink and marten, but what


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PROTECTING

WILD ALASKA

An increasing wolf population has made ďŹ nding huntable deer to ďŹ ll freezers that much more challenging, the author argues. (JEFF LUND)

would I do with them? Between my daily work schedule and coaching high school basketball, do I have time

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to do right by the little critters, get them properly taken care of and sold or otherwise used? I have a full-time

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

job; do I really want to invest money in traps and time in labor to do it right, so I can then sell the fur?


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ning animal.

PROTECTING

WILD ALASKA In the area of wolves, I am more convinced. I, along with bears and wolves, am a predator of deer. If I want healthy populations of deer, I have to come to terms with where I sit with the other consumers. Am I merely adding to the pressure, or am I being an apex predator and helping to manage wolf populations? One of the problems with southern Southeast Alaska is that there are far more deer hunters than bear hunters and wolf trappers. We all know that wolves are capable of severely impacting the populations of deer, but most deer hunters rely on a limited number of trappers to keep four-legged predators in check. A thankless job for sure, especially considering the amount of time and money it takes to trap such a cun-

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LOWER 48 LOGIC There has been a lot of outcry on behalf of wolves because they are beautiful and majestic when photographed. Make no mistake; these things are brutal. When populations in the Lower 48 states were almost extinct, efforts to restore them were understandably strong. Wolf populations have recovered to the point where predator management is necessary and, thanks to outcry over hunting, some states have to regulate the population itself. But Southeast Alaska – particularly on Prince of Wales Island – is different. Alaska is different and the attitude that trappers of wolves want them all dead, or could even accomplish that end, is absurd. The intensity and sheer size of the habitat makes it almost impossible. Prince of Wales is the third largest island in the United States and is home to fewer than 5,000 year-round res-

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

idents. To label wolf trappers as inhumane killers akin to the buffalo slaughterers during westward expansion is unfair. I live here; I know these people. I see what people post about them when they share their successful bioregionalism success stories. Most of the people I know who trap don’t even do it for the money, because it’s not sustainable. It’s for the preservation of the food resource – deer.

DON’T I CARE? Sure I care. I care about species of animals, because we lose something when they are gone. I care about ways of life, because we lose something when they are gone. I care that it is possible for people who live below the poverty line to be able to get food themselves here. They can subsist on fish in the summer and deer in the fall. With it comes the opportunity to develop family bonds through hard work and doing what was required of almost everyone a few generations ago –


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PROTECTING

WILD ALASKA

Lund feels that wolf trappers and hunters are misunderstood about the vitriol they get from those who argue that they are slaughtering a species into extinction. (JEFF LUND)

provide for yourself. I care that healthy populations of deer provide opportunities for local

commerce to thrive with the influx of hunters. I care that populations of Lower 48 predator and prey have

recovered from massive, unregulated harvesting in the boom time of hunting and trapping. I care that

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PROTECTING

WILD ALASKA wolves are here in Southeast Alaska and don’t want to see them gone. Not all of them. The problem is people in urban settings assume that the American life is now free from the need to provide for yourself because everything you could need or want is at Trader Joe’s, Amazon.com or Starbucks. I lived in California for 10 years. I know this. In that world, it’s easy to get behind an argument that states if you care about the earth, you’ll stop eating meat, because the cattle farms put off dangerous gases. Well, how about caring about the earth so much that you go get your own meat from the forest so you don’t have to have any of your protein shipped by a gas-using mode of transportation? And in order to reduce the car-

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bon footprint even more, how about regulating the number of predators that keep more people from being able to provide their families with more free-range, organic, antibiotic-free venison?

NOT ME VS. YOU In the comments after an article in the Juneau Empire about the increase of the wolf quota for trappers in Game Management Unit 2, someone from Massachusetts wrote wolves are for viewing, not for harvesting. You can’t really get mad at the guy because he doesn’t know what he is talking about, so why waste energy in a comment fight? He probably didn’t care about wolves in Alaska until conservation groups tried to get the Unit 2 wolf listed and it got national attention. He probably doesn’t know that there are real people who get real food from the real woods, and since the wolf population has tripled in the last three years, finding deer has been much more difficult.

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

It’s not real to him, just like whatever regional political issue he is fighting isn’t real to me, and really, I don’t care. I have enough of my own personal and regional problems to go out of my way to comment on someone else’s lifestyle. I don’t care that someone wants to be or is a vegan or vegetarian. If that makes them feel strong and healthy, great. We need more happy, healthy people in this country that is becoming increasingly stricken with chronic disease that could be eliminated, avoided or reversed with nutrition and exercise. I don’t even care if a self-proclaimed vegan has a cheat meal of a bacon cheeseburger once per month. Speaking of meals, I have venison cooking in a slow cooker at home and when I check my traps this weekend, I will do so with a clean conscious. ASJ Editor’s note: Jeff Lund is the author of Going Home, a memoir about fishing and hunting in Alaska and California. Get it at amazon.com.


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BACK TO MY MOUNTAIN

“It was 20 years ago with my dad that I first climbed the mountain,” Bjorn Dihle writes in his new book on chasing fish and game throughout Alaska’s Panhandle, “and took in this haunting view.” (BJORN DIHLE) 52

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SOUTHEAST SPORTSMAN PAYS HOMAGE TO HUNTING MEMORIES IN NEW BOOK BY BJORN DIHLE

T

Editor’s note: Bjorn Dihle grew up in Alaska with an outdoors-obsessed family – his parents Nils and Lynnette fled north from California in the 1970s and fell in love with the Last Frontier’s hunting and fishing culture – and has tramped the forests, mountains and riverbanks near Juneau with his brothers Reid and Luke since they were kids. “Hunting stories are the oldest stories we have,” writes Bjorn in his new book. He’s previously shared several tales of his adventures in Alaska Sporting Journal, including an excerpt from his 2017 book, Haunted Inside Passage (ASJ, March 2017). In Never Cry Halibut And Other Alaska Hunting & Fishing Tales, Dihle dives deep into those old stories, including trips hunting blacktail on a particular mountain. The following excerpt was reprinted with permission from the author and publisher Alaska Northwest Books, an imprint of Graphic Arts Books. Never Cry Halibut will be available everywhere books are sold in April 2018, or preorder online at Amazon.com.

here are many great things about civilization: reality TV, French fries and a seemingly infinite number of back-hair waxing products, to name a few. I try to appreciate the advantages of living in the 21st century, but sometimes it gets a little much. Last August, in a giant shopping mall in Juneau, as I debated which hair removal brand was best for me, I was suddenly overcome with an intense feeling of hopelessness. Near the toddler’s clothing fashions, I fought the urge to crash a shopping cart into a pretentiously dressed mannequin. When did little kids begin caring about fashion? Whatever happened to the days when they were content wearing burlap sacks and chasing animals, rolling in mud and eating worms? And what was with all these skinny, anatomically correct mannequins with their chiseled abs and smug smiles? Give me realism; give me mannequins with beer guts, fat butts, crooked noses, lopsided skulls, varicose veins, crooked spines and blemished skin. I had the feeling something other than me was trying to manufacture my reality. I was nearing the aisle dedicated solely to no-tears pet shampoo and conditioner when I had the sudden desire to flee into the wild. “I have to go hunting,” I told my girlfriend, MC, as we put away groceries. “There are Sitka blacktails up in the high country.” “You just got back the other day – there’s still deer blood rotting in your hair!” she said. “And you’re leaving in a few days with your brothers to go sheep and caribou hunting.” Everyone knows it’s bad luck to shower during hunting season, but MC

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The author (front), his dad Nils and brother Reid take a break from hauling deer off a mountain on Admiralty Island. The trio has made plenty of trips into the Alaskan bush. (BJORN DIHLE)

is always busting my chops about it. It might be our biggest point of contention; well, that, and she got all weird and irrational at the beginning of hunting season when I staged a few harmless pagan rituals and became the Wildermann – a furry man-beast with a insatiable appetite for blood – for just a night. I don’t see what the big deal was. It was just a chance to blow off a little steam, get dressed up in furs and run around the neighborhood howling and chasing dogs, cats and children with a torch and stone ax. “You can take the jungle out of the tiger, but you can’t take the tiger out of the jungle,” I whispered, staring off into the distance. “I think you mean, you can take the tiger out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the tiger,” MC said. “I’m a writer! I know what I’m saying!”

WHENEVER I GET TO feeling too domestic I crack a beer, pick up a hammer and start hitting two-by-fours. My pounding succeeded in annoying MC so much she kicked me out of the house. Soon, I was happily climbing through 54

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the rainforest, wading through devil’s club and stuffing my face with marble-sized blueberries and huckleberries. A black merlin winged along the edge of a meadow, hunting songbirds. A sooty grouse flew up into a small hemlock tree, then looked down with tragic innocence. I followed a wellused deer trail into the subalpine of a mountain I’ve hunted for two decades. Fifteen Augusts ago, when I was 17 and my little brother Reid was 13, we followed the same deer trail along the edge of an alpine slope. I spied a deer through the maze of underbrush. Hearts hammering and skin tingling, we belly crawled to the edge of the bushes and peered up. A beautiful fork-horn grazed above three does. I passed Reid my rifle. He crawled a few feet forward. As if he’d done it 1,000 times before, he chambered a round, took a rest, and shot his first buck. The clouds dissipated, revealing ocean and the mountains of Admiralty Island and the Chilkoot Range stretching into the blue horizon. The vision never failed to remind me how lucky I am to live in Southeast Alaska.


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IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO with my dad that I first climbed the mountain and took in this haunting view. My dad patiently waited as I struggled up the slippery slopes with all the stealth and grace of an exhausted freight train. The following morning, after he tried to rouse me from my sleeping bag to brave the rain and fog, I heard a shot. I still remember the smell and touch of that young buck, the first deer I ever “helped” butcher and carry off a hill. Climbing a steep, slippery slope, I spotted a deer in a stand of stunted trees. I froze, then slowly raised my rifle and looked through the scope. No antlers. I waited until it walked off and hiked to a bench my family had used as a camp spot for two decades. I dropped a small tent and sleeping bag, before heading off to glass a couple different bowls. A red-tail hawk shrieked and harassed an immature bald eagle lazily circling in the blue sky. I crept up to the edge of a draw, lay on my belly and waited for dusk to come. Like magic, two does appeared on the opposite side

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of the draw. I remembered 18 Augusts ago, when my older brother Luke and I saw a nice fork-horn in this same draw. We were green – Luke missed twice and I proceeded to shoot the earth in front of me. On Luke’s third shot, the fleeing deer stumbled, then disappeared. With ringing ears, we looked at each other in shock. In our rush to find the deer, I fell down a steep slope towards a cliff but, miraculously, slammed into the one stunted tree growing from the edge. Luke chose a better route down and, together, we stood in awe over his first deer. Dusk was nearing as I crawled away from the two does and crept back to camp. A small deer flickered inside of maze of jack pines. A moment later it was gone. I passed the rock where 14 years ago my friend Orion had lined up on his first buck at just 20 yards. After panting for five minutes – the deer oddly unaware – he whispered, “Should I?” There was the bowl where I’ve spent hours with my dad and brothers glassing. There was the spot where I acci-

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

dentally shot two bucks one foggy, rainy morning. There was the ridge where that spike had been bedded down two Septembers ago. There was the ravine where that little fork-horn had been at the edge of in late September. There was the bowl where, with my friends Jesse and Ed, I took my first buck 17 years ago. Reid and I have taken many more out of the same spot since.

IT WAS NEAR DARK by the time I made it to camp. I was considering crawling into my sleeping bag when a deer emerged from the forest 400 yards away. In the low light, I couldn’t tell whether it was a buck or doe. I grabbed my pack and crept along the forest’s edge, careful to make sure I didn’t silhouette myself. Through a break in the trees, 30 yards away, two deer stood. One had antlers. I quietly worked my bolt, brought the rifle to my shoulder and fired. In the darkness, I found the buck lying nearby in deer lettuce, heather and false hellebore. I lay my gun down and rested a hand on his warm body as the last of the crimson sunset disappeared behind


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“There was the ravine where that little fork-horn had been at the edge of in late September. There was the bowl where, with my friends Jesse and Ed, I took my first buck 17 years ago,” Dihle writes of places he’s found blacktails on his mountain. (BJORN DIHLE)

the Chilkat Mountains. After gutting and splitting his brisket, I partly skinned his hindquarters and broke his pelvis so the meat would better cool. By Southeast standards it was a hot night. I wedged a few sticks in his rib cage to air him out and then hoisted him the best I could in a stunted tree. I tied my sweat-drenched shirt on a foreleg in the hopes of scaring off any potential bears in the area, an act that was probably more psychological than practical. The black merlin hunting was hunting the meadow as I packed the buck out the following morning. Nearby, a fawn leapt out of the brush, then looked me over for a minute before disappearing into the old-growth forest. A goshawk hurled itself between trunks and branches of giant hemlock and spruce trees. It paused – gripping the vertical trunk of a large hemlock with its talons – when it saw me. It spread its wings apart and stared, its red eyes burning, 58

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then leapt back into flight. The pack, filled with 50 pounds of premium venison, bit into my shoulders, but it was a weight I was happy to carry. At home, MC had filled the bathtub with warm bleach water and left out a wire brush, paint thinner and waterproof sandpaper. On the sink was a bottle of the latest and greatest hair

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

removal product she’d bought for me. It wouldn’t work anyways – the hair on my back only comes out thicker and coarser. You can take the jungle out of the tiger, but you can’t take the tiger out of the jungle. ASJ Editor’s note: For more on the author, check out facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.


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As the calendar flips to 2018, some anglers aren’t dreaming of Alaska’s summer salmon runs but steelhead that start arriving towards the end of winter and spring. Tony Ensalaco (with steelhead) has been doing this for a lot years and has developed a planning routine. (TONY ENSALACO)

THE STEELHEAD CHECKLIST

TIPS TO BE AN ACE ON THE RIVER FOR SEA-RUN TROUT BY TONY ENSALACO

A

s much as I enjoy the hectic holiday season, it is a major relief when it’s over and I can focus my attention on restoring whatever normalcy I used to have in my life.

The new year symbolizes fresh beginnings, and I am inspired to know that longer days and warmer temperatures are quickly approaching. Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to spring training camp in a few weeks, and soon after baseball wakes from its winter

nap, the grey ghosts will begin feeling the spawning urge and gradually start making their way into the lower sections of their parent streams. I’m happy to announce that the 2018 steelhead season is just around the corner! Unfortunately, this is the most dif-

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ficult time of the year for hardcore metalheaders to endure. Most of the rivers are still frozen, and the ones that are free of ice probably won’t have fishable numbers to make a trip worthwhile. We are forced to wait a little while longer for those precious open-water opportunities to arrive. No worries; just take advantage of the down time to prepare for the upcoming season so that you will be ready when the fish do decide to show up in your favorite river. There is nothing worse than knowing that fresh steelhead are piling into the stream and you can’t go after them because you’re not ready to fish.

Some of the tools of the trade for steelheaders: Lures with treble hooks are replaced by single hooks to comply with Alaska regulations; have a good supply of jigs in various colors to find the right offering for a hungry fish. (TONY ENSALACO)

PLAN AHEAD January is a great time to begin thinking about when your first steelhead outing of the season should occur. If you happen to be one of those fortunate few who can drop everything and fish at a moment’s notice when a favorable report comes out, then by all means take advantage of that flexibility and hit the stream when the conditions are right. The rest of us need to make plans well in advance to fit our frantic schedules. 62

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Unfortunately, unless you own a crystal ball, it is impossible to accurately predict the timing of the run from year to year. I have fished in Alaska every spring during the same calendar week for over a decade, and in that time I have seen every phase of the run. Three years ago, I fished the early stages of the run when most of the steelhead were chrome, but the numbers were low. The stream’s temperature was barely above freezing, which kept the majority of steelhead from running on time. The ones that did come in were lethargic and hard to coax a bite out of. In another year, the steelhead came in several weeks early due to an unseasonably warm March and I fished the tail end of the run. Although there were plenty of fish in the system, most of them had been in the river for some time. The ones that were there were “beat up” from being so far along in the spawn and were reluctant to play.

GET IN STEELIE SHAPE Like many people, I make a New Year’s resolution every year to start an exercise regimen. It might sound crazy that I use the fast-approaching spring steelhead season as my motivation to hit the gym, but every steelheader knows how grueling river fishing can be, so I want to be in the best possible shape. I know my days will consist of walking up and down slippery trails through thick brush, wading in fast currents and rowing several miles of river each day. All of these activities are physically demanding, so I want to be able to perform at my best. I don’t do anything special: Just some walking and a little bit of weightlifting to build up my endurance. I know I will feel better at the end of a hard day of steelheading if I am in the best physical shape possible. Besides, it is a great excuse to shed some of those unwanted holiday pounds that I seem to put on each year. TE

TRIAL AND ERROR There are no guarantees how the fishing will be when planning a trip in advance. You can do some research and use that information to try to predict when you should go. Most people will arrange their trips to coincide with the historical peak of the run, which is fine if you don’t mind sharing the river with tons of other anglers. I prefer to fish the early part of the run to avoid the crowds. I am willing to trade less fish for less fishing pressure. I also feel that fishing earlier in the season gives you a better chance of hooking a trophy steelhead because they will be fresh from the saltwater and super aggressive. Fishing a week or two after the peak period isn’t a bad idea, since the streams will have plenty of steelies that have already come into the river, as well as some new fish trickling in every day. The water temperature will also be warmer, which means the fish will definitely fight harder. What I don’t recommend is to book your trip based on a guide’s or a lodge’s availability. There is usually a reason why there is an opening. Several years 64

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(Top) Make sure to check your rods ahead of time for cracks or damaged guides. Dress warm and check your waders to handle the frigid Alaska conditions. (TONY ENSALACO)


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Steelheader by day; a dad forever. The author gives his daughter Brooke and son Anthony a tutorial on jig tying. (TONY ENSALACO)

ago, my buddy Pedro Gonzalez booked a discounted and fully guided Kenai River king salmon trip at a lodge for

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the ďŹ rst week of May. This was back when the mighty Kenai was still hosting healthy runs of ďŹ sh.

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

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that week. After a couple of days of lousy river fishing, they realized why they were able to get such a great rate. Remember, just because an establishment is open for business doesn’t necessarily mean the fish will be there. Sadly, Pedro learned that lesson the hard way. Once you have taken care of the details of the trip and established a time frame for your first outing of the year, then you can begin focusing your attention on the prep work. There are plenty of tasks to do well in advance that will help you fish more effectively during the upcoming steelhead season. These are some things that I have learned over the years that have really improved my time on the water.

WAIT TO CHECK THE WADERS Now I will turn my attention to my equipment. It is important to do a thorough inspection of all of your gear well in advance to determine if you need to repair or replace something. I don’t know why, but somehow things never come out of storage the way they went

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in, especially waders and rain gear. Any steelheader can tell you how important it is to be comfortable when you are out in the harsh Alaskan elements. Your waders and raincoats are the first line of defense in keeping you dry, so take the time to do a complete examination of those items. Not only do I visually inspect my waders, but I also test them before my trip by submerging the waders in water. I like to wear them when I am checking for leaks. If I don’t have access to open water, I will put on my waders in my house and I will sit in my bathtub for a few minutes. My wife says I look ridiculous, but I have learned that you can miss small holes if you rely only on your eyes. Nothing can ruin a day more quickly than starting your morning wearing leaky waders.

TACKLE TALK Once I feel confident that I have done everything I can to keep myself comfortable on my trip, I will turn my attention to the rest of my tackle. I look to see that all of my rods and reels are

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

Danny Kozlow released this near 20-pound steelhead in Alaska. It can be a challenge with unpredictable weather and other factors, but the Last Frontier is paradise for steelie anglers. (TONY ENSALACO)


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in perfect working order. I check rod blanks and guides for cracks, and pay close attention to the tip tops because they are the most vulnerable to damage. If I forgot to clean and oil my reels when I put them away at the end of last season, I will take care of that. Finally, I sharpen all of my hooks before I see the river. I realize that cold and wet hands get lazy, but I’m also aware of the anticipation and excitement that can come over someone when he has a dozen fresh steelhead holding at a cast’s length in front of him. Such a rush makes it easy to forget to check the hook’s sharpness. That’s why I prefer to sharpen my hooks from the comfort of my couch, usually while I am watching television to make the time go by faster. Performing these essential tasks before the season allows me more time to rectify any problems that might arise.

DOUBLE CHECK EVERYTHING Continuing with the subject of equipment, it goes without saying that I

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strongly recommend that you have your vest and tackle bags fully stocked, reels spooled with the correct line, and all of your flies and jigs tied prior to your trip. It seems to be a ritual in steelhead camps to hang out in the evening while preparing for the next day. Fly fishermen are especially known to sit down at the vise and reproduce the hot pattern that hammered the fish earlier that day. From my experience, Alaska steelhead are not all that selective, so all you need to have is a few basic patterns in different colors and sizes. Just be sure to have plenty of options. Last year, I met two anglers from Anchorage who wanted to get off the river early one afternoon so they could go back to the lodge and tie some jigs to replace the one that had been working for them. Everybody was experiencing a hot bite on the river that day, but those guys were still willing to sacrifice approximately five hours of fishing time so they could get a headstart on the next day. I convinced them to stay a while

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

longer by giving them a few of my jigs in the color scheme that was working for me. When I ran into the boys downstream a couple of hours later, they were just about to release a chromedout steelie that one of them had caught on a jig I had given them. They informed me that they had just boated one of their best fish of their trip. One of the guys was nice enough to show his gratitude by buying my partner and me a couple of rounds of drinks at the lodge that night. I guess it was a winwin situation for everyone involved. I believe that you should do as much as you can prior to your trip. It’s best to relax and reminisce about the day’s events when you come off the river after a long day of steelheading.

GO TO BED! I don’t know anyone who can rest on a fishing trip, but between the anticipation of what the next day is going to bring and sleeping in a different bed, it makes it all but impossible to get a good night’s sleep. Don’t make things worse by having


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to stay up late because you’re not ready for tomorrow. I have seen some pretty groggy fishermen who stayed up later than they should doing things they could have done at home. They looked like zombies in Gore-Tex hanging around the coffee machine in the morning trying to get their motors started. There should be no reason to prolong your night for any reason. You will fish better and your trip will be more enjoyable if you are somewhat well rested. Steelheading is a tough sport, even in Alaska. Even though the 49th state has some of the best fishing on the continent, just stepping into one of its world-famous rivers doesn’t guarantee automatic success. It is impossible to control the weather and you can’t make the fish show up in the river, but you can definitely do some things ahead of time to prepare yourself to fish at a high level when you are on the water. Great trips start from the effort you put in at home, so be sure to do everything you can to make this year’s upcoming season a winning one! ASJ

The author’s dad Bob Ensalaco would like nothing more but for a repeat of past steelhead runs in 2018. (TONY ENSALACO)

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FROM FLOODS TO FILLETS AFTER TOO MUCH WATER CANCELED ONE MAT-SU SALMON TRIP, LOWER 48ERS GIVE IT ANOTHER TRY

Jim Step hops a hair jig through a promising silver salmon hole on the Little Susitna River. A guys’ trip that bad weather canceled the previous year became a reality in 2017. (BRIAN KELLY)

BY BRIAN KELLY

A

nyone who has traveled to Alaska knows how fickle the weather can be. Rain falling sideways, followed by blazing sun, followed up with a quick burst of hail is often a typical August afternoon in Southcentral Alaska. After two consecutive seasons of unseasonably warm, dry weather, my longtime fishing partner, Jim Step, and I knew we were living on borrowed time. The payback was coming, in a way unseen in many a year.

Our 2016 adventure was going to involve a trip into the untamed Alaskan bush on the west side of the MatSu Valley, south of Denali. A short floatplane ride would free us from the traffic jams and overabundance of humanity we faced the last few years in Wasilla (I still cringe at the mention of “Palin” and her path of strip mall destruction that ruined what was once a nice, quiet little town). A week in the bush slinging eggs and spinners to fresh silvers was just the remedy to ease my nerves and see the wild side of Alaska that has called

me for many years. The trip was booked early in the year and paid off by spring. The anticipation grew daily as the stale summer went on. Being DIY types, we planned to bring our own gear, which meant paring back on the usual arsenal. And the floatplane had a strict 50-pound weight limit, so spinners, jigs, plugs and floats were carefully chosen; only the best of the best were getting packed and repacked in my trusty backpack. Being an avid silver angler means watching the weather like a hawk; it

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comes with the territory. The radar was green over camp for the better part of August, no worries of skinny water and doing a rain dance to bring the fish. I was having visions of spring -fed sloughs filled with fat silvers that were just waiting to devour my eggs. Then the reality check came… Two days before our departure to Anchorage, a call with a 907 area code popped up on my phone. The voice on the other was our guide/outfitter with news that no salmon angler ever wants to hear “Dude, we are flooded!” It wasn’t just the usual “the water is over the banks and we’re hoping it drops by the time you get here” declaration, but it was an all-out flood of epic proportions. “Camp is a mess,” he said. “The water is right up to the lodge, the cabins have standing water and I lost a handful of fuel barrels – it’s not good.” With that message, a rebook for 2017 was agreed upon and plan B was sprung into action.

IF YOU TRAVEL TO Alaska, you have probably been forced into Plan B or even C at some point. A few years pri-

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JANUARY JAN JANU JJA A AN ANU NU N UARY ARY AR RY 2018 20 20 201 01 018 18 1 8 | ak aaksportingjournal.com ksspor spo sp por po p or orttin tiin ting iing n ng gjjour jou jo our our ou ur n naal. nal. nal al.ccom al co o om

These brown bears took advantage of the run by working on their Russian River sockeye limits. Eagles in the area also found some fish to pick at. (BRIAN KELLY)


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A FLYING FIASCO Most trips that include any form of air travel wouldn’t be complete without at least one or more delays. Since so many major airlines have merged, the friendly skies aren’t so friendly anymore (can you say collusion? Ahem). As fate would have it, the wonderful people of Delta Airlines had a “computer glitch” earlier in the week of our departure, which resulted in my initial flight from Buffalo being delayed half a day or so. After the usual gate sprint to catch connections and hoping like hell that my checked bag made it, I was finally in Anchorage and sipping an Alaska White Ale. At the end of our trip, our customary ritual is to have one last Alaskan White Ale on draft from Humpy’s bar in the airport. Our bags were checked, the plane

was on time and we were ready to take on the long road home. Once we hit our cruising altitude, I made a beeline for the restroom as my middle-aged bladder cannot contain those White Ales like it once did. Upon locking myself in the stink closet at the back of the plane, a voice boomed over the speakers. “If there are any medical personnel on the plane, please report to the rear of the aircraft, as we have a medical emergency.” Just when this trip couldn’t get any worse. A young man passed out in his seat, so of course panic ensued. Fortunately, there was a doctor and several EMTs onboard who sprang into action. They were able to revive the young man and the discussion of an emergency diversion were quickly squashed. But it was touch and go for a few minutes, and while I

hoped the man was OK, all I could think of was getting stuck in some outpost airport while my fillets spoiled. The rest of the flight to Seattle was uneventful and soon we were at the gate and readied for the joyous occasion of a redeye flight back east. Normally, the overnight haul from Seattle to Detroit is quiet and peaceful, but in accordance with the “trip from hell” rules, we found ourselves surrounded by families with small children who screamed and kicked our seats during the entire flight. By the time I pulled into the driveway at my home in Erie, Pennsylvania, I was going on 34 hours without any sleep, looking and smelling like hell. When I walked in the door, my cheerful wife asked, “So how was the trip babe?” Well, let me tell ya. BK

or, my Alaskan mentor and I faced a similar predicament when the cabins we planned to stay at burned down and the river was closed due to poor weir counts – all on the same day! So it was decided that while we were still going to fly into Anchorage, we needed to find wheels and lodging on short notice. Fortunately, I was able to reserve a mini-van from Midnight Sun Car Rental in Anchorage, a com-

pany that we had used on several trips that always treated us well. Once we became mobile, the next course of action was to find accommodations. Mid-August is typically the time of year when all those pesky tourists from the Lower 48 have gone back home and most motels or cabins have openings. It was decided that Cooper Landing would be our headquarters for the next five days and the

tour of the Kenai Peninsula was about to begin. I was ready to put my skills to the test on the infamous Alaska road system streams. After all the traveling nonsense we encountered (see sidebar), it felt good to slip on the waders and get in the stream. Our journey began at a favorite stream in the Mat-Su Valley, then we would spend the rest of trip down south on our favorite Kenai haunts. It didn’t take long to Author Brian Kelly used an Arctic Spinner to land this ocean-fresh silver. (BRIAN KELLY)

Jim Step celebrated with a cigar and was The guystoalso spent a misty morning thrilled land this male silver that hitonan the Kenai. (BRIAN KELLY) Arctic Spinner at his feet. (BRIAN KELLY) 82

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find a gathering of eager silvers; Jim and I were giggling with each hookup, even as the local guides were claiming this to be the “year of no silvers.” Funny how the local experts can come up with lame excuses instead of getting their asses on the water at first light! After we each bonked our limit for the freezer, we lit celebratory cigars, bagged the fillets and proceeded onto Cooper Landing for more hijinks and hilarity.

OUR BASE CAMP WAS a familiar place

Traveling to and from the East Coast to Alaska wasn’t easy, but catching silver limits and packing up a bunch of fresh fillets made it quite a productive adventure. (BRIAN KELLY)

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we had used for fish storage and processing on previous trips. The cabin was clean and affordable and we were ready to get caught up on sleep and venture down to the Russian River the next morning. Just as we were getting settled in for the evening – albeit at 6 p.m. local time – a loud disturbance erupted from the back of the campground. It seems that the owner of the adjacent camp thought it would be a great idea to construct a small pavilion and have local bands come and entertain the folks in Cooper Landing. Cover bands playing bad rock tunes from the 80s is not what one comes to Alaska for, especially when you’re staying within eyesight of the Kenai River! Just when the band would quit and I’d get started in on some serious sleep, they would crank back up. We later found out that there was a bachelor party going on and the revelry would last until 4 a.m. It took a pot of coffee each for Jim and myself to get our bearings and hit the road at 5 so we could get down to the river for the bite at first light. The silvers weren’t in the Russian just yet, so we focused on upriver fall bright sockeyes for the freezer. Drifting for reds isn’t my favorite Alaskan activity, but it’s difficult to enjoy planked salmon without fillets. After numerous rerigging and retying episodes, we finally accomplished the task at hand. The next few days were a blur as we felt like rubber bands bouncing between the highs of an early-morning egg bite for sea lice-laden silvers and hitting the proverbial wall every afternoon from the lack of sleep. No matter


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how many espressos we pounded to keep ourselves going, we would usually find ourselves struggling with routine tasks such as getting in and out of the van without whacking our noggins on the door frame or rear gate. Sleep deprivation also seems to add an extra bit of weight to one’s feet, as it becomes increasingly difficult to step over stationary objects, which leads to streamside wipeouts of epic proportions. I had the uncanny ability to fall in the exact same spot on a goat trail leading to the meat hole on our favorite little KP tributary. I knew the pitfall was there, but the synapses weren’t firing on all cylinders until I was on my ass! Bitching and grumbling were eventually replaced by laughter; I mean, what else can you do but laugh when a trip goes this sideways? Mercifully, the cover band sessions came to an end and we could finally sleep through the night without interruption.

AS IS OFTEN THE case, we got in a groove on the last couple days. Conditions were ideal, as the peak of high tide was predawn and there was just enough rain to keep the rivers elevated enough to push the silvers upstream in force. Even though these were fresh fish, the bites were often subtle – even with good bait. But we had a game plan to combat the light bite. We tied the gobs of cured skein in pink egg netting, which proved to be the trick, as the silvers would hold onto the golf ball-sized egg sac longer than just a plain hunk of skein on the egg loop. On the morning of our departure, we gathered the processed and frozen fillets from our hosts. We each managed to fill a 50-pound insulated fish box with sockeye and silver fillets, which seemed extraordinary to the locals since the silver run was deemed “poor.” The drive back to Anchorage was relaxed as we had plenty of time and even made a few stops to pick up souvenirs for the family back home. After too much water derailed us the previous year, despite some loud music and lack of sleep, bringing home a lot of salmon made it worth the wait. ASJ

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THE PROOF IS

IN THE PLANNING

FOREST SERVICE CABINS? LUXURY LODGES? HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR ALASKA FISHING ITINERARY BY CHRISTOPHER BATIN

Y

ou’re going to fish Alaska in 2018. You’ve talked about it. Dreamt about it. Discussed it with friends. You are stoked. So, where do you begin? Regardless of whether you have a few dollars in a shoebox or an unlimited budget, there should be no reason why you can’t afford to enjoy the thrills and excitement of Alaska sportfishing this year. Research is the key to ensuring fishing success. I should know. For the past 44 years, I’ve made a professional career experiencing Alaska fishing, from the Arctic Ocean to the tiny cutthroat ponds near Ketchikan. I’ve written a half-dozen books on the subject, caught fish when I couldn’t make another cast and, at other times, dug deep to scratch up a strike. I’ve studied countless pages of field data and

research, and slugged, paddled and flown my way into the unexplored corners of Alaska sportfishing. Anglers say they envy me because of my job. But there is a lot of hard work involved to sort out the subtle nuances of each fishery, so anglers like yourself – who only have a limited time to catch lots of fish – can experience an adventure worthy of bragging to your grandkids. It’s my job to incur the expense and take the hits, so you don’t have to. You achieve Alaska fishing success through preparedness and knowledge, and a smidgen of luck. In short, experience counts. And if you don’t have it, you’ll need to acquire the knowledge through books, reviews or the pages of this magazine. So sit yourself down with a latte or soda, because I’m about to give you an abbreviated version of my “Planning Your Alaska Fishing Adventure” talk that I give to anglers new and old.

You want to take a fishing adventure in the Last Frontier; do you go the luxury route like this group did at a full-service lodge in Southeast Alaska, or maybe is a more simple cabin more rustic? The author (inset, left) has some tips. (CHRISTOPHER BATIN)

TIMING IS EVERYTHING New visitors often fall victim to the stereotype that all of Alaska offers excellent fishing. I frequently receive calls and letters from anglers who – for one reason or another – were disappointed with their Alaska fishing trip. Their dissatisfaction was usually due to not doing their homework, believing advertising hyperbole, or trusting the owner’s claims of fabulous fishing when none existed. In actuality, the best fishing is at select times in different regions. Schedule a trip a week late and you can miss the

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When you rent a place from from an outfitted cabin camp, anglers can enjoy remote destinations while enjoying budget prices from doing part of the guiding themselves. (CHRISTOPHER BATIN)

entire run of salmon and return home, empty-handed. Planning carefully as to when and what kind of fishing you desire can save you thousands of dollars and allow you to bring home fish and memories to last a lifetime. Yet, be wary of false economy. Don’t nickel-and-dime it trying to sample Alaska’s best fishing at shoulder-to-shoulder road system hotspots. Whether or not you are successful, you won’t like it. Although a fly-out or boat charter may cost $400, it is a minor expense when you consider your time, travel costs to Alaska and overall trip expenses.

DEFINE THE PURPOSE AND GOALS OF YOUR TRIP First decide what you want to catch, and how you want to fish. For instance, if you want to fish rivers for numbers of king salmon, Southeast Alaska – despite its reputation for world-class salmon – is mostly a saltwater marine troll fishery for these 30- to 90-pound fish, and not a viable choice. Here’s why it is important to carefully shop and carefully examine your op92

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tions: No matter what service provider you choose, one of the main problems facing anglers is that they believe an outfitter’s claim that, for example, catching 10 salmon a day is the norm. And it might be for his area. But two rivers over, there is often another river or area that offers 50 or more salmon per day. Obviously, Operator A won’t tell you about Operator B or an area that is better than the one he fishes. For best success, it is imperative that you do your homework for the species you plan to pursue, in different areas of a watershed and the state. Chances are, there is always a better place to fish than what most anglers come up with. This was the sentiment expressed by Dennis Morain when I helped him plan his first Alaska fishing trip. “I read reviews online, and read features in magazines and journals for that bit of information that I found appealing, that would get my wife excited about Alaska fishing,” he recalled. While it’s all exciting it’s also very confusing knowing you’ve chosen the right area, as there are also numerous

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horror stories out there of camps with few fish.

BEFORE YOU GO: GET IT IN WRITING If you’re using an air or boat charter, insist on an explanation that stipulates what is available and the price you will pay before using that charter, just so there is no misunderstanding. Don’t think that $800 for a bush plane fly-out will automatically place you in the heart of the Alaska wilderness. Fisheries near major cities with large air taxi operations generally have several fishing camps. There may be a half-dozen charters dropping off people in the same area. And add the additional pressure from resident boaters and private pilots, and this becomes a no-go option. Don’t settle for the “where fishing is best” response. Ask about the destination and available species before you fly out, in addition to having an agreed upon Plan B already in place if the area doesn’t meet your expectations. Talk to anglers flying in and check on their success. If a charter operator realizes you don’t want


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their “standard” drop-off, he might take you a bit farther and to better fishing for the same price. Most charter operators are very good about keeping you happy, but watch out for fly-by-night operators who hire inexperienced pilots or boat skippers who are just working Alaska for a summer job, and who may not be fully knowledgeable of all the area’s fishing hotspots.

ANGLING OPTIMIZATION Careful research is also necessary to achieve what I call angling optimization. If silver salmon is the species you wish to pursue, you will be hard pressed to find any in rivers in June or early July. In freshwater, the silver is generally targeted from July to October. Alaska covers roughly 663,000 square miles and each watershed and species has its own timetable for opti-

mum success. If you are salmon fishing, determine the period of peak abundance or availability for that species and for the watershed, so plan your trip accordingly. Alaska salmon runs are historically predictable. Most anglers try to target their fishing during the early to middle of the run’s peak. This works for the most part, unless a run surges through early or is several weeks late. This is where luck of the draw comes in. I always choose an area that has multiple runs of salmon, as well as various species close to base camp. Summer storms lasting several days can prevent boat or aircraft access. I want to be fishing rather than twiddling my thumbs in a hotel room. Some lodges are fly-out-only camps with no significant fisheries at their base lodge. If they can’t fly out due to mechanical breakdown or bad weather, you are spending nearly $1,000 a day

Traversing the Alaska road system in a vehicle is one way to find some good fishing spots. (CHRISTOPHER BATIN) 94

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to wait out the storm, with no refunds. Fishing categories can be broken down into several categories – from bare-basic budget trips, do-it-yourself outfitted trips, charters, and high-end lodges. Here’s the lowdown on each one:

BUDGET TRIPS Everyone can afford to fish Alaska if they know the tradeoffs. Anglers pay $8,000 a week to a lodge for service. You are paying the lodge for the multi-course dinners, liability insurance for aircraft, a staff to turn back your sheets at night, the flight into wilderness areas, pointing out the different flies and unhooking your fish for you. But if you’re capable of grabbing a guidebook, catching and cleaning your own fish, cooking your own meals and hiking along miles of established trails to the fishing hotspots, then you’re a prime candidate for a cabin in Alaska’s national forests, this country’s best-kept sportfishing vacation secret. The 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest (fs.usda.gov/tongass) offers more than 120,000 acres of fish-bearing lakes and 23,000 miles of streams. More than 5.5 million acres of wilderness await you. The 5.9-million-acre Chugach National Forest (fs.usda.gov/chugach) contains about 70,000 acres of lakes and 8,000 miles of streams. At the heart of this Alaska adventuring is the cornerstone that makes it all possible: the U.S. Forest Service recreation cabins. Starting at $35 per day, outdoor enthusiasts can choose from over 180 cabins nestled away in isolated saltwater bays or on remote streams filled with migrating salmon. Some are located in remote mountain passes in designated wilderness areas where cutthroat and rainbows abound and the only company you’ll see are mountain goats, brown and black bears, deer and moose. Chances are you’ll have the stream or lake all to yourself. Don’t expect run-down shacks crawling with rodents, but rather modern, well-maintained cabins with furnishings that include an oil- or wood-burning stove, table, benches, boat, oars, outhouse, and firewood supply. The USFS administers the recreation cabin program under the Granger-Thye Act. Rental fees are used to establish new cabins


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High-end lodges in various parts of the state usually offer floatplane service that can send you to remote fly-in opportunities. (CHRISTOPHER BATIN)

and maintain existing ones. Several cabins offer ramps and boardwalks for easy access by the handicapped. At the Kegan Creek’s cabin at Tongass (fs.usda.gov/recmain/tongass/ recreation), anglers can catch four of the five species of Pacific salmon in August. Fishing is often a fish per cast, especially where the creek enters saltwater. There’s also rainbow and cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden in the upper stream and lake, along with steelhead in April. Cabin access via boat or air charter will be your major expense to these cabins, which can run from several hundred dollars to $1,200 or more, depending on distance. Divided among a group of four anglers, the airfare is still, even with plane fare to Alaska, affordable. But again, you are responsible for packing all gear, food and figuring out logistics. A personal favorite for adventure and fishing is Anan Creek cabin, which is just southeast of Wrangell Island and also has a large protected shelter nearby that was built for photographing and viewing brown and black bears fishing for salmon, which I rate as one of Alaska’s greatest, unheralded attractions. At se96

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lect locations, anglers can catch salmon and trout for themselves. The site is fit for a president, as former Commander in Chief Ronald Reagan once made a visit to Anan Creek.

OUTFITTED CABIN CAMP For a few dollars more over the total cost of a bare bones, do-it-yourself trip, you can enjoy an outfitted cabin. If your budget allows, it’s an option I highly recommend because it’s value for the dollar is greatest. These camps allow more time to fish, because the camp operators are handling the support logistics and infrastructure so you don’t have to. Best of all, they provide first-hand knowledge of the area’s fishing hotspots and best tactics for catching fish. Take Tom and Katie Prijatel of Alaska Wilderness Outfitting (907-424-5552; alaskawilderness.com) in Cordova. The Prijatel’s offer floating cabins for cutthroat trout, char, salmon and bottomfish. The accommodations include is a land-based cabin for lake trout and grayling, and a deluxe cabin unit on the Tsiu River, where you’ll find yourself casting to hundreds of ocean-fresh silvers

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

bottlenecking into shallow, clearwater rivers. Dig for clams, pick berries and beachcomb for Japanese fishing floats. The Prijatels provide the à la carte option of staying several days at select, outfitted camps, which offer the most adventure for the buck. Halibut to 200 pounds, silver salmon to 20 pounds and streams choked with thousands of 4- to 6-pound pink salmon provide hot fishing action, even for youngsters. Expect to see sea otters, whales, black bear, eagles and other Alaska wildlife. They also offer a grayling and trout cabin high in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, where you will probably be the only angler on the entire lake. The flight in, over the massive glaciers and icefields of the Wrangell-St. Elias Range, is unforgettable. As for the fishing, in September, you’ll be hooking 20 to 50 or more coho fresh into wilderness rivers on the morning’s tide – salmon that range from 8 to 16 pounds. The scenery is spectacular, but don’t hurt your neck looking at it. Most of the mountains and alpine glaciers rise straight up several hundred yards from the shoreline.


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Good planning can set you up in a setting like this with a fishing hole on a beautiful river all to yourself. (CHRISTOPHER BATIN)

As for pinks and chum salmon, they are so thick by day three, you’ll be trying to find a fly or lure they won’t hit or chase every cast. Seriously. Anglers can fish, sleep and do whatever they want on their own schedule, no matter what the weather. Floating cabin packages start at $2,195 per person for six nights.

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Saltwater anglers can enjoy the outfitted cabins of Juneau’s South Passage Outfitters (southpassageoutfittersllc. com), where the Montgomery family offers a furnished, heated cabin, 18-foot Lund with a 40-horsepower Yamaha and all meals for $2,000 for six nights. It’s an ideal, affordable set-up for anglers who

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know how to troll or mooch for saltwater salmon and halibut. And don’t forget Joe Connor’s Big Sky Charter and Fish Camp on the Kenai (877-536-2425; kenaiguide.com). While it’s on the road system, the camp is nestled away from the hustle and bustle of traffic, and provides one of the


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more peaceful Kenai fishing experiences. Remote outpost cabins and houseboats are popular because the immediate areas they’re in receive little, if any, sportfishing pressure. Look forward to a feature story on this adventure in next month’s issue of ASJ.

SALTWATER AND HALIBUT CHARTERS Battling barndoor-sized halibut is grunt fishing that many anglers want to attempt. It’s a kick in the butt, a term Alaskans use to also describe when the “butt kicks you.” Halibut to 450 pounds makes this a sport for the strong of heart and arm. Halibut charters are available out of Unalaska, Ketchikan, Sitka and other major cities along Alaska’s coastline. My favorite halibut fishing port in Southcentral Alaska is Valdez. During the summer, Valdez-based anglers catch (and hopefully release most) lingcod to 60 pounds, up to 200-pluspound halibut, rockfish, and salmon. Do-it-yourselfers might consider Whittier as an early-season halibut fishery and a silver salmon locale in August and September.

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TRAVERSING THE ROAD SYSTEM Even though an outfitted cabin package is hard to beat, roadside anglers have it a little tougher during the sockeye salmon runs on the Kenai and other roadside hotspots, where anglers stand shoulder to shoulder to hook their limit of fish. Just because you’ll be able to find a hole all to yourself and catch fish, however, don’t expect that you’ll be able to land them. I dug up some notes from a longtime friend, James Figg, who fished the Talkeetna drainage one year for king salmon. “In 4½ days of fishing, I hooked 78 30- to 55-pound king salmon on flies, and landed 20,” Figg wrote. “They tore up me and my reel. I had to break off many salmon after 300-yard runs.” If you fly fish, be sure to take extra fly line and backing and avoid crowds or a stream layout that makes landing a fish extremely difficult. Go early and conduct some reconnaissance. Take plenty of line or backing, or prepare for the battle of your piscatorial career. If you’re like me, you prefer a little more elbow room when fishing the road

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system. Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska is the third largest island in the United States and offers over 1,000 miles of remote logging roads to explore remote rivers and streams that produce salmon, steelhead, cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden. Anglers booking a trip to POW in September can also enjoy excellent blacktail deer and black bear hunting. Out of Talkeetna, water taxi operators like Phantom Tri-Rivers Charters (907733-2400; phantomsalmoncharters. com) offer an affordable, drop-off fishing service, with Clear Creek an historically favorite destination. My friend Jim Rainey and I enjoyed such a drop-off in August, when we hiked in for a half hour from the mouth and caught 5-pound rainbows. We also came face to face with a brown bear in midstream and caught four species of salmon in an afternoon. We were too tired to catch additional salmon we observed in a lower pool. The best part was, by going in midweek we didn’t see another angler the entire day. When glacial rivers clear in the autumn, it’s easy to catch 70 char, grayling and rainbows per person on egg


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patterns and nymphs. Float trips along the road system offer another great way to get away from the combat fishing. Reini Neuhauser of Alaska Fishing and Rafting Adventures (800-819-0737; akrivertours.com) has guided on Bristol Bay finest waters, yet settled on Fairbanks to expand his float fishing business that was started by the late and great Alaska fishing guide Logan Ricketts. Reini offers day float trips in the Fairbanks area for salmon and grayling. He specializes in overnight adventures for salmon and trout. Expect to spend three to five days on extended floats, fishing and sleeping during most of Alaska’s 19-plus hours of daylight. You’ll be floating during the remaining five hours from midnight to 4 a.m.’s twilight period (still light enough to read in).

HIGH-END LODGES AND CAMPS The old adage “you get what you pay for” rings true with Alaska full-service lodges. These complete wilderness resorts will spoil you for life; not necessarily from the fishing but from the services

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Mission accomplished for Joe Nye, who caught a nice autumn rainbow he hooked while fishing on a fly-out trip arranged by an outfitted lodge near the Copper River drainage. (CHRISTOPHER BATIN)

you’ll get in addition to the fishing. I’ve experienced bedside delivery of coffee in the morning, Godiva chocolates on my pillow at night and smoked pheasant pate with a bottle of Champagne chilled in 1,000-year-old ice from a nearby glacier. Being sent out for the day with only a sack lunch and a can of soda is never the same after a week at a high-end, full-service lodge.

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What I like about these fly-out lodges is that you often have a floatplane, guide and pilot with your group for the entire day. This opens up a world of Alaska fishing that is truly exploratory and spectacular. King salmon? No problem. Put on your hat and you’ll possibly be flown to the Nushagak River, a popular destination for many of the lodges operating in


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Whether you’re roughing it in a remote cabin, relaxing in a fancy lodge or something in between, you want your Alaska fishing trip to be memorable in its own way, so decide what you want and go for it. (CHRISTOPHER BATIN)

Bristol Bay. There, you’ll lord over one of the largest king salmon migrations in Alaska, where anglers can hook and release anywhere from 20 to 100-plus kings in a week in late June. The task of choosing a full-service lodge would be simple if there were but a handful from which to choose. Instead, the staggering number of lodges

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and camps in the Bristol Bay area alone makes the process of choosing nothing less than a frustrating, hair-pulling chore. Veteran Alaska fly fisherman Tim Hagerty’s comments to me on one excursion are typical of those searching for a full-service lodge. “All the ads promoting the various lodges all claim they have the best fish-

JANUARY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

ing,” he said. “From my research, there are vast differences in prices for a lodge and services provided at a particular lodge. To further compound the problem, Alaska is so massive and the options so numerous, that after several months of research, I’m no better off now than I was when I started in choosing the right lodge to catch big salmon.”


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Hagerty’s plight is not unusual. The problem with many premium, fly-out lodges is for $8,000, you fish an average of six to eight hours, then fly back to the lodge – up to 90 minutes of travel time – in time for appetizers, after which you sit around and socialize during a time when one can fish long into the evening or early-morning hours. If the weather is bad and the planes can’t fly, you sit in camp. But if the lodge is located on or near a lake or stream – many are not – you can fish on your own for whatever is available. While some anglers enjoy this type of set-up, others may want more time for fishing than socializing. Inquire before you book. In contrast, a boat-based operation like Western Alaska’s Goodnews River Lodge (goodnewsriverlodge.com) offers the best safeguards to weatherproof your fishing. With nearly 20 hours of daylight in early summer and a diverse river location, you can fish until you fall face-first into the river from exhaustion, enjoy heated Weatherport-type tents, experienced guides, nightly campfires, more home-cooked food than you can eat and not once have to climb into a plane, until it’s time to leave.

GOOD PLANNING LEADS TO GREAT ADVENTURE An Alaska fishing trip doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark. Thorough research, attention to details and a bit of planning will put you in some of the best fishing the 49th state can offer. Remember, only if you fail to plan will you plan to fail. ASJ Editor’s note: Chris Batin is editor of The Alaska Angler, and author of numerous books and DVDs on Alaska fishing. For over 44 years he has taught Alaska Angler Advanced Alaska Fishing Seminars at fishing lodges and camps throughout the state and has for decades, has made his personal expertise available through personal consultation with anglers through his Alaska Angler Information Service. He works one on one with anglers to help them choose the best fishing trip to meet their needs and budget. For autographed copies of his books, or more info on his services, visit Alaskaangler.com or send him at email at batinchris@gmail.com.


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The dead of winter, especially in Alaska’s Arctic, means short days and lots of darkness. But it’s also a prime opportunity for hunters to replenish the freezer. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

CARPE DAYLIGHT DURING THE (MOSTLY) DARK DAYS OF WINTER IN THE ARCTIC, HUNTERS CAN’T WASTE THE FEW HOURS OF SUNSHINE

BY PAUL D. ATKINS

T

he dark days of December and January are tough here in the Arctic. Sunrise and sunset are almost the same thing, and if you have a job that’s inside, you don’t really know anything but darkness. For some it’s depressing; the dark does that to people, making time slow down while the chances to get outside and play become almost nonexistent. It creates a hurry-up-and-wait attitude, a “let’s get this over with” outlook and a desire to bring on the light of spring. Yet there are a few who like these short days; for them, winter means something totally different. I happen to be one of those people. For myself and others who live here, it means snow, ice and preparing for the cold winter months of hunting ahead. It means breaking out snow gear, working on sleds and digging out the winter tent

for this year’s camp. It’s all fun, especially when the ice in Kotzebue Sound is thick enough for that first trip across. Many don’t understand the importance of ice, especially to the people of the far north and, as far as that goes, throughout Alaska. In the Arctic, ice and snow mean one thing: travel. And more specifically, travel by snowmachine. People who couldn’t travel before now can, making it easier to traverse areas that only months earlier were barren tundra. It’s a ritual that begins in November and doesn’t end until late May. You can always tell by the old familiar smell of gas and oil that permeates the air, coupled with the customary “two-stroke screech” echoing throughout the town of Kotzebue, where I live. Besides ice and the NASCAR-like snowmachine parade that occurs during this time of year, the cold short days mean something else too; it means the

arrival of the last caribou herds. These are the stragglers that didn’t dare show themselves in September or October, but now arrive by the thousands to make their way across the newly frozen ice and hold up south of town. They feed as they go – stopping; mingling for days; creating huge swaths of churned-up snow in their wake. For many of us, this is a prime time for filling the freezer, especially if your meat cache is running low or, in cases like mine, it’s a no-moose year. It’s a lot of fun too, but not as easy as you might think.

THIS WINTER’S ARRIVAL WAS no different than previous ones. Thousands of caribou started showing themselves in late November, as the ice was thick enough to make their flight across the sound a bit more secure. They were showing up everywhere too: in front of town, at the post office

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Winter brings the migration of the last caribou herd through the Kotzebue area, animals that use firm ice to cross a saltwater bay. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

and even the parking lot of one of the local grocery stores. It was a caribou invasion, to say the least. With all the rule changes that have occurred in the last couple of years, hunting the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, and more specifically these endof-the-year arrivals, is a bit trickier than it used to be. First and foremost, it is pretty much subsistence hunting only and restricted to Alaska residents. This hasn’t changed in many years, but it has only been the last couple of years when hunting and harvesting is restricted to cows only. This starts in October and continues throughout the winter, usually until February before bulls are allowed again. I guess there are many reasons for this. During late October and November, bulls are “rutting” and the meat isn’t the best due to the “stink” factor given off by the bulls that are fighting to breed females. This is very true. Several years ago, Lew Pagel and I caught a break in the weather and we were able to take a smasher caribou bull up the Noatak River. It was a great hunt, but once we got the meat back, we could tell it wasn’t the best. Still, the grinder didn’t care and it did make some pretty decent burgers. I also believe the cows-only rule has to do with studies and herd surveys that 112

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tell us that bull numbers are down. As many know, the Western Arctic Herd has been on the decline for several years and this created a panic among those who keep watch on these things. Nobody really knows for certain how to put a specific finger on the problem. It’s uncertain whether it’s weather, predators or the harvesting of too many animals, but each has been suggested. But they do know that to improve the health of the herd and increase its size, it’s going to take drastic measures; thus the cow-only regulation has been put in place. We’ll see if it works.

I DO KNOW THAT harvesting a cow can be a tough endeavor. While many will disagree, that has been my experience. It’s primarily due to the fact that cows and bulls are hard to distinguish from each other, especially as the year progresses. Cows are smaller, of course, and bulls are bigger in body size, but once bulls lose their antlers it can be quite difficult to determine the difference, especially if they’re herded up and your stalk doesn’t quite go right. Good glassing and taking your time is the key, if you have the patience – not to mention the time. Indeed, short days

Time is never more of the essence than hunting in winter in the Arctic, so mobility is key. Most of these short caribou hunts are just that – short – to get back home before darkness sets in. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

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create short hunts. Getting it done and back home before dark is always in the back of your mind. All bulls don’t lose their antlers either. I’ve seen plenty of males that still held their headgear come late February, especially older bulls. Cows will keep their short scraggly horns throughout the year; older bulls will too. Back in the days of either-sex hunts, I took bulls that I thought were cows only to get a big surprise once the field dressing began.

Still, harvesting a cow has many advantages. The meat is better and they’re easy to work with once down. Field dressing is a snap, and within minutes you have them loaded in your sled and are on your way home. And if you happen to luck out and take two, you’ll have enough good meat to last a couple of months.

THIS PAST FALL WAS a blessing. I was able to take a nice bear and fulfill my dream of taking a mountain goat, but once

Getting into position for a shot can be tough. Most of the small bands of caribou have been hunted, and they’re skittish to the sound of a snowmachine – if they hear one, they are off in a rush. Using cover to get to an ambush point or within rifle range will improve your odds considerably. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

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again I failed to find a moose. Lew and I hunted hard throughout September and early October, but finding one of those big-antlered dudes eluded us. Admittedly, we passed on a couple of small guys that we probably shouldn’t have, but at the end of it all our freezers were empty. That can be a big problem here in the far north, especially if buying meat at the store is your only option. The weather wasn’t our friend either. It seemed that each weekend when we


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planned to go, either the wind, rain or a blizzard prevented us from getting out. Luckily, it has been a good snow winter. We got dumped on early and still were getting snow well into December, making that travel thing I talked about earlier so much easier; plus all those late-arriving caribou have helped. The first good weekend – one when we could actually see the distant hills instead of just a white blur – found Lew and I gearing up our sno-gos for a trip behind town. It was a glorious day, but we had to time it right and make sure we used the available daylight to its fullest advantage. It was cold too, and the wind seemed to rip right through our heavy snow gear with minus-zero enthusiasm. But with years of experience of dressing for the cold, we knew we could go out and look for caribou. Whether we killed anything or not was just a bonus; we were just happy to go looking and get a good ride in. The trail was smooth and the snow deep in places where it needed to be deep. With snowmachine tracks lining

the frozen tundra, we knew we weren’t the first local residents out looking to fill the freezer. Caribou tracks were everywhere too. Occasionally we ran across where a few had been taken. Meat-picked carcasses, courtesy of the many ravens, and hides seemed to be everywhere. We knew we wouldn’t have to go far. And we didn’t. Lew cut through the snow and maneuvered his big machine like a pro through the deepest powder. It’s a view I’ve become pretty familiar with over the years. He quickly stopped and pointed. I knew we had caribou but couldn’t see how many. When I did, I realized this was it. I was also amazed at how close to town they were and how easy it was to find them. It wasn’t a large herd, maybe 20 altogether, with a mixture of sexes. Small herds are better to hunt, in my opinion, as with fewer animals, it is much easier to distinguish between cows and bulls. This small group was just the ticket, but now we just had to figure out how to get close to them without creating havoc. It’s something that is also pret-

With the cow-only rule this time of year, hunters need to pay more attention than in the old days when either sex could be taken. Some big old bulls like this one hold onto their headgear later, but others don’t, and in herds it can be hard to tell between the sexes. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

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ty tough, especially if they have been hunted before. We made a plan to circle in front of them and cut them off as they passed by, something we had done many times before. The key would be the timing; if they kept on the path they were on, then it all should work, right?

TEN MINUTES LATER FOUND us at the edge of a small hill, waiting for some-

thing to happen. With our engines shut off, our machines were somewhat hidden in a small group of willows. As Lew made his way over the rise to glass, I could tell the snow was deep, especially when he started sinking up to his waist. Lew got a good look and let me know that caribou were a little further out than we had guessed and a stalk was in order. We commenced the long trek and it

didn’t take long to warm up. I was now wishing that I’d dumped a few layers of clothing. We finally arrived at a spot where I would continue onward with a rifle, with Lew staying behind. Trudging along, I sank up to my chest in some very deep powder. When I finally arrived, I could see caribou just above the horizon. All of them were there and, more importantly, they were unaware of

A long stalk through waist-deep snow is tough, especially in the cold. By the time you return, you are usually soaked in sweat, which can be dangerous in the Arctic winter. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

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us. I glassed the small group for what seemed like forever. Trying to distinguish cow from bull, and cows with calves from those by themselves was a tedious process. Finally, I found a lone cow and focused my efforts there. It was frustrating. The herd kept moving on me, while the cold air fogged up my binoculars. At last, the cow separated itself from the rest. Without a rest, I steadied myself the best I could and squeezed the trigger. It was a hit and the cow went down where she stood. I could almost taste the meat from my freezer. There were other lone cows in the small herd, but one would do on this day. Plus the sun was starting to dip beyond the horizon and it would again be dark soon. ASJ

After a stalk across the frozen landscape, author Paul Atkins (left, with hunting partner Lew Pagel) was able to connect on this cow caribou. The reward outweighs the effort on these cold dark days. Filling the freezer – or at least a shelf or two – with fresh meat will help out in the long run. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.

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Muskox provide hunters with an Arctic adventure in some of Alaska’s most remote hinterlands. These Ice Age giants also offer some of the most delicious table fare. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

ALASKA BIG GAME FOCUS

ALASKA BIG GAME FOCUS: MUSKOX BY PAUL D. ATKINS

I

t was cold, so cold I couldn’t stand to have my gloves off for more than the time it took to pour a cup of coffee from my thermos and tear the frozen Pop Tart from its silver wrapper. The long ride up the Noatak had been bone jarring. Rough ice and drifts lined the trail and Lew and I wondered if maybe we should have stayed home instead of coming all this way. But once we got off trail it wasn’t too bad. The deep snow and various windbreaks helped considerably, plus we had good

GIMME FIVE: FACTS ABOUT MUSKOX • The muskox is a stocky, longhaired animal with a slight shoulder hump and a very short tail. Both sexes have horns, but the horns of bulls are larger and heavier than those of cows. • Mature bulls are about 5 feet high at the shoulder and weigh 600 to 800 pounds Cows are smaller, averaging approximately 4 feet in height and weighing 400 to 500 pounds • An 800-pound muskox will dress out at about 480 pounds and provide roughly 275 pounds of meat. • Muskox eat a wide variety of plants, including grasses, sedges, forbs, and woody plants. • Muskox are poorly adapted for digging through heavy snow for food, so winter habitat is generally restricted to areas with shallow snow accumulations or areas blown free of snow. -Alaska Department of Fish and Game

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visibility and bright sunshine, making it ideal for hunting muskox. Now it was time to glass and try to stay warm. I’ve become quite fond of muskox, and lucky for me I have been able to hunt them on a regular basis for several years. They are majestic creatures, almost methodical in stature. The meat that comes from these guys is second to none and if I had to choose, it would rank first among all Alaska big game animals. In Alaska, more and more muskox are being harvested in the last few years. For example, 98 animals were harvested in 2003, with 258 taken in 2007 and 241 in 2016’s registration, draw and Tier II hunts. Muskox tend to like open expanses, on which they can see all of their surroundings. They also like to stay in groups, and if threatened will form a circle to help protect their young. They can also be quite aggressive if you get too close. Lew and I did in fact find muskox that bitterly cold day. On a lone hilltop overlooking the valley below they watched us as we made our approach. We got close, but unfortunately, they were all cows. Better luck next time. ASJ

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Author Paul Atkins poses with a muskox bull he arrowed. The species tends to avoid areas of deep snow in winter, preferring wind-cleared plains where it’s easier to find food. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

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TRY THIS QUICKER MOOSE PICKER-UPPER

ADORNING A DECOY’S RACK WITH PAPER TOWELS, PLUS CALLING CAN BRING IN BULLS BY SCOTT HAUGEN

T

hough Alaska is locked in winter, it’s never too early to think about moose season. Last fall saw some tremendous bulls being taken throughout the state, with many of those successful hunters crediting calling as a major factor. In addition to calling moose, decoys can have a major impact when it comes to luring in a wary bull. Last September, a buddy and I hunted out of Egegik, with Bruce Hallingstad and his crew at Becharof Lodge (becharof .com; 208-337-8211). As with most moose hunting, finding bulls isn’t the biggest challenge; getting close enough for a shot is.

BULLS AHEAD On day one of the hunt we saw 11 moose, including three dandy bulls, one of which pushed the magic 70inch mark. He was over 2 miles away and there was no way to reach him. We dedicated ourselves to maintaining the high ground – glassing, waiting, calling and using decoys for however long it took. Day two was a repeat; we glassed multiple bulls but simply couldn’t reach them in the flooded tundra. But a couple hours before dark, a bull started moving through some willows about 1,100 yards in front of us. Bruce went to calling with his Bull Magnet moose call. Long, drawnout cow talk paired with bull grunts got the attention of the bull, but he wouldn’t commit.

A DECOY TOY That’s when we broke out the decoys. We moved through tall alders and popped out on the front side, where I staked a Montana

Situated between two moose decoys, one with paper towels draped off its rack to simulate a bull’s antlers freshly shed of their velvet, Bruce Hallingstad of Becharof Lodge near Egegik, Alaska, works the call. This exact set-up helped the author and a buddy punch two tags last September. (SCOTT HAUGEN)

Decoy cow moose full-body decoy. Bruce hung the Moose Rack decoy, reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of paper towels. After draping them over the bull decoy’s antlers, he loosely secured the paper towels with electrical tape. They glowed against the dark head and surrounding green alders. Freshly shed velvet this time of year leaves moose antlers white, which other bulls pick up on from a great distance, thus the white paper towels. “The contrast of the paper towels really captures the attention of bulls from a long ways off, and if the wind is blowing, that’s even better because it keeps the paper towels moving which is easier for the bulls to see,” Bruce said. Bruce resumed calling from the decoys, while I violently raked the brush with another Bull Magnet moose call. It worked, and soon the bull began closing the distance. As he ap-

proached, he postured, rocking his rack from side to side. He’d stop, rake the willows, lip curl, and keep moving our direction.

AN OPPORTUNITY In less than 10 minutes another bull appeared – this one even bigger – but he was missing one side of his rack; it was possible that it broke it off in a fight. Nonetheless, I was ready and willing to take him if he closed to within range. A few minutes later a third bull appeared. He wasn’t legal but was cocky and fearless. He approached the first bull, posturing and seemingly wanting to challenge him. While it was fun to watch, it thwarted any chance of the bigger bull closing to within range by nightfall. “It’s getting too dark, but we’ll leave the decoys up, head back to camp and be here at first light,” Bruce suggested. “Those bulls should be on our side of the river come morning.”

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Few cuts of meat are more delicious than backstrap – Scott Haugen (inset) holds up one from his bull moose – or tenderloin, either of which can be cooked to perfection on the grill or in the oven. (TIFFANY HAUGEN)

FIELD

BACK(STRAP) TO THE FOREFRONT BY TIFFANY HAUGEN

H

ead to tail and top to bottom, moose could well be the allaround best-eating big game animal in North America – maybe the world. Every time we get a moose, I’m reminded of just how delicious every ounce of meat is. While it’s all good, the cuts we usually enjoy first are the tenderloins and backstrap. Backstraps and tenderloin are prime cuts on any game meat. Whether it’s elk, deer, bear, Dall sheep, or others, make sure to set these cuts aside and cook them up properly. These are tender cuts that don’t require much cooking. The key is to not overcook, as meat will become tougher and stronger-flavored as the moisture is cooked out. To lock in more moisture, prepare stuffed tenderloin or backstrap and plank-cook it or bake/grill in foil over a bed of onions. To remove the guesswork, use an internal thermometer; don’t let the meat go beyond 145 degrees. If you don’t have enough tenderloin to feed everyone, this makes a nice appetizer and is a great recipe to introduce folks to venison. While this recipe works with moose, it’s tasty with any big game.

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3- to 4-pound moose tenderloin ¾ cup Caesar salad dressing 2 tablespoons onion, minced 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 cup plain breadcrumbs ¾ cup Parmesan cheese 2 teaspoons dry mustard 2 eggs, beaten 2 tablespoons white wine or water ½ teaspoon salt ¼ teaspoon black pepper 1 cup spinach 1 soaked cooking plank or foil and 1 sliced onion Butterfly tenderloin and pound between two pieces of waxed paper until ½ to ¾ inch thick. Marinate in Caesar salad dressing four to eight hours. Prior to cooking, let marinated meat sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. In a medium bowl, mix all remaining ingredients except spinach. Remove backstrap from marinade and place on a prepared plank, a bed of onions or in an ovenproof baking dish. Spread Parmesan mixture evenly over backstrap. Lay spinach over the Parmesan mixture and fold over at least one time. Coat

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venison with remaining Caesar dressing. Grill or bake at 375 degrees 20 to 25 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 135 to 145 degrees. Let sit at least five minutes before slicing. Editor’s note: For signed copies of Tiffany Haugen’s best-selling cookbook, Cooking Big Game, send a check for $20 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489 or order online at scotthaugen.com. Follow Tiffany on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and watch for her on the online series Cook With Cabela’s, The Sporting Chef TV show, and The Hunt, on Netflix.


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Not only did the bulls still have 800 yards to go before hitting the opposite side of the river on which we sat, but they had to cross that big river, then wade through another 100 yards of dense alders to reach the decoys. But that’s exactly what they did, all three of them. The next morning we watched the flats come to life as daylight broke. The one-antlered bull stood right below the decoys. As I readied for the shot, the bull moved into thick willows. I changed position to shoot and the little bull popped into view and trotted through the willows. Then the rack of the third bull materialized in tall grass. He was bedded with the wind in his face – tall willows to his back – in a small opening. When Bruce let out a grunt, the bull stood; I put the crosshairs behind his shoulder and gave him two quick shots. The .270 Weatherby performed flawlessly and the bull expired on the spot.

FINISHING A SUCCESSFUL HUNT Two days later my buddy filled his tag. We spotted his bull at 1,800 yards mov-

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Author Scott Haugen with a nice bull. When it comes to moose hunting, don’t overlook decoys, because they do work. (SCOTT HAUGEN)

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ing across the tundra. When it reached 1,300 yards we started calling and raking. Both decoys were already in place and the faux bull’s rack was once again adorned in white paper towels. The approaching bull immediately marched in our direction. He was posturing, raking, lip curling and grunting the whole way. Eventually he was at 1,100 yards, then 800, then 600. That’s when my buddy let him have it with a 7mm long-range set-up, which dropped the bull on the spot with a single shot. Moose decoys don’t always have to equate to up-close encounters. In both of these scenarios they were used to capture the attention of bulls at a distance, and it worked. As you prepare for next moose season, don’t overlook the power of decoys, because they, along with efficient calling and raking, work. ASJ Editor’s note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s best selling book, Hunting The Alaskan High Arctic, visit scotthaugen. com. Scott is the host of The Hunt, on Netflix. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Chris Stewart (left) and outfitter Hallingstad with a dandy moose that was brought into range with calling and decoys. (SCOTT HAUGEN)

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