by Miles Nolte
I arrived in Alaska unprepared—oozing that brand new guide smell, dry bags overflowing with ignorance. I’d never driven a jet-boat before, hadn’t laid eyes on a live salmon or brown bear, thought a 20-inch trout was huge, and still thought the term “flossing” only applied to dental hygiene.
Mostly though, I was unprepared for the rain.
From June 1st to September 1st, we enjoyed three whole days without rain. The other 89 ranged from intermittent dribble, to persistent mist, to aquatic assault—a graduate education in precipitation.
We fell asleep in Weatherport tents to the tympanic staccato of liquid drumsticks on canvas, woke to steam creeping from sleeping bags, and lived in waders. Literally. All season long, my waders were the most worn garment in my meager fish-box full of clothing. I’d don waders and rain jacket when I left my tent in the morning (usually around 6:30) and wouldn’t shed them until the guiding was finished; the boats washed, gassed, and greased; the coolers hosed; and the first beer (or two) polished off (also usually around 6:30).
Quality waders are not an extravagance in Alaska, they’re an essential. And I’ve encountered no other place that will test the mettle of waterproof gear more rigorously than the 49th state.
If you’ve never been there—if all you know are glossy spreads, slo-mo leaps, and Insta-stories—then your perception of Alaskan fishing may be more Say Anything than Heathers. ((For those unfamiliar with 80s movies, the title of this article explains that analogy.) Alaska offers the greatest salmonid fishing in the United States, but if you show up dressed for romance and sunshine, you’ll end up disappointed, or at least wet and uncomfortable.
Since guiding in the Bristol Bay region for three seasons in my mid-twenties, I’ve been fortunate enough to return to Alaska and experience several parts of this sweeping state. I’ve discovered two constants: 1) The fishing is better than expected. 2) The weather is worse.
I once spent an entire week at a heli-fishing lodge without boarding a helicopter. Day after day the gestating clouds spawned precipitation so thick nothing manmade could fly. Luckily, the rivers and streams in boating and walking distance were equally fecund—bright red battalions of orgiastic sockeye swayed over gravel flats; blush knots of ornery silvers swirled in every eddy; dolly varden in full clown makeup hoovered errant eggs; and tribally tatted leopard rainbows lurked in boulder pillows ready to smash amphibious rodents. Plus, not flying meant we were never far from the fireplace conveniently located beside the lodge bar. We could get our strings stretched by multiple species in a downpour for a few hours and then warm up, dry off, and sip a delicious beverage before heading back into the storm and doing it all over again.
On another trip to the southeastern corner of the state, I followed a taught, muscular creek for a few hours—boots regularly slipping on rain-slicked rock surrounded by devil’s club handholds—and hooked seven steelhead in seven consecutive casts. Rain rinsed the blood off my cork handle almost as fast as the thorn slashes on my hands could leak it out.
On an Aleutian Peninsula bluff, I listened to a deep-bush guide band and tracked a storm blowing in off the Pacific. Within less than a day, I’d tired of fishing the river—catching pinks, chums, and slivers at a rate of roughly 1.5 casts per fish—so I walked to the ocean and sight cast to packs of salmon patrolling the beach, feeding in preparation for their final journey. It was kind of like bonefishing, except I was wearing waders, multiple insulating layers, and a rain jacket.
No matter what flowing fold you explore in Alaska, you’ll almost certainly find exceptional fishing. From giant pike and sheefish in the northern interior, to the fabled flows of Bristol Bay, to the southeastern coastal rainforest where wild steelhead still sneak in and out of unnamed creeks, Alaska’s mythos is well deserved. You don’t need a huge arsenal of complex flies, or a massive quiver of expensive rods, as the fishing rarely gets technical. But you do need durable, comfortable waders that will keep you dry through long, strenuous days, and a rain jacket that can stand up to constant, soaking precipitation.
Don’t kid yourself: If you’re going to Alaska, you’ll probably be standing in the rain for hours on end (usually holding a bent rod). The difference between a phenomenal trip and a miserable one often has more to do with what you’re wearing than what you’re casting, because the fishing is generally phenomenal. As my former boss used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”