By Rich Hohne
Despite working in the fly fishing industry most of my adult life, I’d only scantly fished in Alaska. By that I mean, I’d never done the whole week-long wilderness lodge experience up there. So, when a buddy invited me to join him this year at Royal Coachman Lodge, I kind of felt compelled to say yes.
As a fly fishing industry guy who has been on a pile of great trips, Alaska almost feels played out. I realize how obnoxious that sounds, but hear me out. I’ve read approximately 12,000 articles and watched about 800 videos about the place and even financed some while in the industry. Everybody’s been there, so it can’t be that good anymore. Surely that's why places like Kamchatka and Patagonia have stolen the limelight from our beloved 49th state.
Sockeye Salmon staging in a remote Alaska stream.
I don’t usually roll with the whole package lodge deal. I’m the frugal, miserly, DIY angler who hikes with a packraft for 40 miles even though a horse could have done it for a few dollars. I’m more comfortable being uncomfortable, at least my ego is. As I skimmed the suggested packing list looking to see exactly which files I should bring, I found a passage instructing me to simply bring an empty box as the guides would have all the requisite tackle. Alright, but that upset my DIY innards.
Royal Coachman is a postage-stamp sized lodge in the heart of the Wood-Tikchik State Park. Run by some good friends of mine from Livingston, RCL has been around since the 70s and it’s exactly what I pictured from all the Alaska fishing media I’ve consumed over the years: Get to lodge via float plane and fly out each day to a destination in the middle of nowhere full of bears, giant fish, and crazy scenery. It was really nice, maybe too nice, but that’s my problem.
The first day on the water, I got a proper introduction to the world of bead fishing. Now, I had fondled a few beads in the past—tasted the rainbow, so to speak—but I always kind of looked sideways at the whole setup. I mean, I like a trip to Michael's as much as the next grown American man, and I’m not too proud to shop CVS for just the right shade of nail polish, I just don’t usually include those errands in my pre-fishing shopping trip. I’m no purist, but setting up a fly rod with a rig that doesn’t include anything actually sold at a fly shop just seems...weird.
When it comes to beads, it's all about selecting the right 'flavor.'
Salmon make Alaska, Alaska, at least as far as fishing is concerned. We were targeting giant trout and char, but this time of year the trout and char have their snouts stuffed so far up sockeye butts, they’re practically wearing the salmon as hats. You can throw all the delicate dries or triple articulated streamers you want, but if you want to actually catch fish on your once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip, then you should probably listen to your guide, and our guides were all about the beads. The guides at RCL are beadwork artists—cranking out dozens of pre-tied rigs every night in their guide shacks after full days of wrangling clueless clients in the AK backcountry. They seem to relish in their ability to match the size of bead with just the right hue of pinkish fingernail polish...recipes they guard almost as fiercely as their whiskey stash.
I, for one, listen to guides, and besides any sense of purist elitism disappeared the first time I saw my backing knot click past my rod tip. Say what you will about beads, the damn things work. Even though the beers corrupted a significant portion of my memories of that trip, the photo album on my phone proves that my wife and I both caught dozens of massive fish every day. Could it be that after all these years and all these trips, a plastic bead was the key to fishing happiness? Probably not, but when in Rome.
In the end, who really cares? The fish were treated well, and I laughed my ass off with friends in a place like no other. Alaska remains mindbendingly amazing, even if everybody knows about it. It also turns out that flyout lodges and bead fishing are equally badass, despite my own personal hangups. I’m not saying I’m going all in on either–I sure as hell can’t afford too many fly out lodge trips—but I will be back. I’ll just make sure to hit up The Craft Barn in plenty of time to get ready.