Article by Paul Vertrees
There is a time each year, sandwiched between the end of August’s oppressive heat and December’s snow, that allows the land and water to breathe a sigh of relief before beginning the slow, soft death of early winter. There are turkeys, elk, deer, bear, and caribou to hunt. There are flaming orange and yellow trees along streams and rivers filled with eager trout. There’s a winter’s worth of firewood to be stacked, and lengthening shadows in the afternoons. Like fine wine, cheese, and venison, a calendar year must be aged to fully appreciate it. I call this time “Septomber”, and it’s my absolute favorite time of each year.
This year would prove to be a pivotal autumn season. The nagging pandemic had postponed a trip to Alaska in 2020, and the fall of 2021 was our chance to finally make that trip a reality. I began my 21st and final year as a high school Junior ROTC Instructor, and my 41st year wearing a United States Army uniform. The summer guiding season was off the charts with nearly nonstop work in the fly fishing industry. We were completing a major remodel of our home. In some ways, similar to the relief the landscape was experiencing, I too felt relief and peace with the arrival of autumn.
Trip One: The Gore Range
Just prior to the beginning of my school year, as we usually do, my close friend and traveling partner, Shawn Larson, aka “Troutprospector”, and I escaped the heat and bustle of the Colorado foothills and backpacked six miles up into a twelve-thousand-foot basin in central Colorado’s Gore Range. This was a place I had bushwhacked my way to several times over the years, and I was happy to show it to Shawn. The two of us share a love of high, lonely places. The fact that this particular cirque held an unnamed high lake full of cutthroat trout without a trace of a manmade trail leading to it made this trip a great way to celebrate both Shawn’s upcoming birthday, as well as the prospect of fall arriving just around the corner.
The trail-less hike into our little high lake is strenuous, even in good weather. This trip would prove to be more difficult than usual, simply because it rained the entire five hours it took to clamber our way up to the twelve-thousand-foot high basin. Miraculously, it stopped raining long enough for us to pitch our tent and get our gear off our backs. We spent the next three days drying out in sunny weather, spending long hours fishing the entire circumference of the lake.
The trout in our Gore Range high lake are very special fish that go through many mood swings during the course of a year, or even a week. At times they are willing to take nearly any fly, and at others they act as if they’ve had their jaws wired shut. We experienced this yet again this fall. One day we were catching fish nearly every cast, as they smashed big floaty dry flies and hammered small black streamers. We caught over a hundred fish between the two of us one day! My thirteen foot tenkara rod got quite a workout! The next day the cutthroats refused many good casts and offerings. Such is the nature of high, wild places.
Returning home from this trip, I had only a month until I headed up above the Arctic Circle in northwest Alaska with my two friends, Patrick and Jon. This pandemic-delayed trip had been on the drawing board for two years, and we were excited to finally pull it off! We would fly ourselves and a large pile of gear four thousand miles north over the course of one very long day. We would eventually be flown by bush plane to a spot on the banks of the Noatak River, 170 air miles northeast of Kotzebue, Alaska, a place so remote and quiet you can hear an incoming aircraft 10 minutes before it’s arrival. We planned to hunt and fish, living off whatever sustenance the tundra would provide.
Trip Two: The Arctic Circle
After a marathon day of long flights, baggage hassles, and airport food, the final leg of our journey hopscotched Alaska Airlines touchdowns in Anchorage, Nome, and finally the outpost village of Kotzebue. Kotzebue’s native Inupiaq name is Qikiqtaġruk, means “small island”, since the town sits on a spit of land jutting out into the Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea. We were met at the airport by Heather, who works at Golden Eagle Outfitters, which was our bush flight service and where we would pick up even more gear for our expedition. It’s only four blocks down a semi-paved street from the airport to our lodging at Bibber’s B&B, but with nearly 500 pounds of gear, we hired a cab (actually a beat up minivan) driven by a local native, Raymond. How Raymond got the three of us and the 500 pounds of gear into and on top of that minivan I’ll never know, and we could hear the tires rubbing against the inside of the wheel wells as we crept down the road to Bibber’s. I could write pages about our night at Bibber’s and the colorful proprietress, Jean Bibber. If you need a warm bed and kitchen, and don’t mind simple accommodations seasoned by conversations with one of the most interesting people in Kotzebue, then Bibber’s is your place!
We were up early the next morning, and spent a couple of hours sorting through and weighing our pile of loaded dry bags, rifles, and inflatable river raft. Since Cessna 206 bush planes can only carry 800 pounds of humans and gear, everything had to be weighed down to the nearest pound. With three of us and our necessary adventure gear, two bush planes were needed. At 11:56 AM on September 19th our bush plane lifted off the runway at Kotzebue and we headed straight out over the Chukchi Sea before banking to the northwest.
We flew over the rugged and totally uninhabited Baird Mountains, which are one of many smaller mountain chains in the huge Brooks Range in northwest Alaska. Below our tiny bush plane we could see Kobuk Valley National Park and the Squirrel River and later the Salmon and Tutuksuk Rivers. The last river we flew over was the Cutler River, a place we knew could hold many caribou, lots of dolly varden and arctic char, and just as many grizzlies. The grizzlies on the Cutler River had caused a lot of trouble for hunters and anglers before our trip, and we were relieved to know that we were flying over it and on to the northwest to the larger Noatak River.
The Noatak River is the longest river system in northwest Alaska, flowing some 425 miles, and it drains the southern slope of the enormous Brooks Range. The Noatak River drainage lies entirely north of the Arctic Circle, and it passes through both the Gates of the Arctic National Park Noatak National Preserve. There are no villages or permanent settlements of any kind. To say the Noatak lies in a remote part of the North American continent is an understatement! As we flew low over the river and approached our campsite, I was struck by the realization that, despite over 40 years of rambling the Rocky Mountain backcountry, I had never been anywhere as remote and wild as this.
As we banked low over the Noatak River, a hundred feet in the air, I spotted two bull musk ox, and only a minute later we were bumping along the tundra as we slowed to a stop. After we quickly unloaded our bush planes, our pilots Jared and Jason buzzed away across the tundra and popped into the air and were gone…we thought we were alone. A trio of caribou hunters were watching from the nearest hill. They walked down to us, we exchanged greetings, and learned they were camped not far from us on the riverbank. They had floated downriver in a raft, and would continue to do so for several more days. Neighbors…I didn’t know what to make of this at first, but as we learned more about the grizzlies in the area, it was a bit of a comfort to know we would have some company for a day or so.
Our camp was around 200 yards from the banks of the Noatak. We had flown up my friend Patrick’s ultralight tipi, which gave the three of us plenty of room, despite the amount of gear it took to make this trip work. We set up camp, and hiked out of camp a ways to do some scouting. In Alaska, you can’t hunt big game the same day you fly into a camp, so we hiked, glassed, and scrutinized caribou, musk ox, and wolf tracks near camp. I also walked down to the river to gather drinking water, look for fish, and to read the current.
The Noatak at our camp is around 200 yards wide, but looked to be fairly shallow. After failing to spot any dolly varden or grayling near the river’s edge, I returned to camp, hoping for a good day of fishing and caribou hunting the next day. I had brought a 13-foot tip-flex tenkara rod…the same rod I use for big fish and big rivers at home in Colorado. My backup rod was a fast 9-foot six weight western fly rod. Packing light, I had brought one box of river-specific flies that included a number of weighted streamers and an assortment of egg beads for the big dolly varden, as well as dry flies and nymphs for droppers for the arctic grayling. There are no trout in the Noatak that I know of where we were, only dolly varden and grayling. Truth be told, I was as excited to fish this far north as I was to hunt caribou.
I had been checking the weather online for this part of Alaska for a good month prior to our trip. For the first half of September, the highs had been in the high 40s and the lows in the high 30s, which was still suitable weather for fishing, even though the huge anadromous dolly varden had most likely gone back out to sea. Hoping for resident dolly varden and the ever-present grayling, I was optimistic that the river would provide us with supplemental protein as well as the excitement of catching fish in remote places. What greeted me the next morning changed all of that!
As I poked my nose out of the hole in the hood of my sleeping bag at dawn the next morning, I could tell it was very cold…much colder than when I had tucked myself into it the night before. Our little indoor/outdoor thermometer read a crisp 2 degrees Fahrenheit! After warming our tent and eating breakfast, I discovered that my wading boots I’d worn the day before were frozen solid. I had to boil water to pour into them, making them pliable enough to pull them over my stockingfoot waders. As I walked down to the river for more drinking water I realized the river had frozen overnight, and what water wasn’t iced over was completely full of slush. I had to walk a quarter mile just to find a piece of driftwood big enough to break through the ice so I could gather drinking water. My high hopes of rafting and fishing above the Arctic Circle on this trip were crushed!
The weather over the ensuing days never crept above 25 degrees, so the three of us focused on hunting caribou. The first day we hunted, Patrick, Jon, and I all harvested very good bulls. We also had some close encounters with grizzlies, one of which destroyed most of my bull’s carcass while Jon and I were field dressing and quartering his. After many trips hauling meat and antlers in backpacks and ultralight sleds, we contacted our bush pilots by satellite communication to call for our flight back to Kotzebue. As we bumped along the tundra and lifted off into the frigid air, I felt both the satisfaction of successfully completing my first caribou hunt, as well as the sadness to be leaving this stark landscape without fishing this beautiful and now-frozen Arctic river.
Trip Three: The Front Range
Once I returned from the Arctic, I spent many days enjoying the warm fall weather on my home rivers and streams in the southern Front Range of Colorado. The October colors were vibrant this year, and the water was low and clear. Eager brown and rainbow trout continued to crush big bushy dry flies and grab dropper nymphs as well. With the Arkansas River flowing right through our town, there were plenty of opportunities for fall fishing for an hour or two after work each day. Toward the end of October, I put together a plan for a multi-day backpack trip into one of our local canyons with my good friends, Patrick and Bryan.
This particular multi-day backpack trip was one I had done many times before. I loved this particular canyon and stream so much I decided to share it with others, and so I created an overnight guided fly fishing trip there in 2021. I never tire of working my way up this rugged, rocky canyon in search of scrappy browns and rainbows. As a tenkara angler, this stream is ideally suited for fixed-line fly fishing. It has countless pockets, bend pools, riffles, and small tailouts, and at only 25 feet wide, everything is in reach with a tenkara rod.
On October 23rd Bryan, Patrick, and I stepped off into the canyons and hiked upstream about five miles to my guide camp. As usual, we didn’t see another person the entire time. We spent two days exploring upstream from our camp, and were pleased to find the trout still willing to eat nearly every fly we put in front of them! The brown trout were nearing their spawning time, and the three of us worked carefully around the few redds we found, making sure we didn’t disturb the areas in the gravel the brown trout had cleaned off with their tail fins. The browns in this particular creek do not clean out very many redds, so any that exist hold great importance to the future of the trout in the stream. The early sunsets and cold temperatures each evening drove us into my wood heated tipi, where we enjoyed long conversations, good food, and fine Irish whiskey. Fall days and evenings like this are some of the most enjoyable times I spend in the outdoors, and this weekend trip was certainly splendid!
On our last day, we packed up camp and headed back downstream, pausing twice to watch bighorn sheep on the canyon walls above us. It’s always with a little sadness that I leave a landscape like this, wishing I had just a few more days to spend alone or with a couple of good friends. Hiking past familiar pools and runs on the way out, I remembered past decades of great fishing and adventures in this canyon when we all had younger legs, lungs, and hearts. We may hike and wade a little slower now, but our love of the canyons hasn’t withered a bit.
Septomber… it’s a magical time. It’s a time of long shadows, cold clear water, crisp nights, and blazing orange leaves. It’s a time to appreciate the warmth of the sun a little bit longer. It’s also a time to spend with the fish we love so much one or two more times before the landscape freezes solid. Get out and enjoy your own Septomber while you can!
Paul Vertrees was one of the first professional tenkara guides in the US and works as a guide for Royal Gorge Anglers in Cañon City, Colorado. He writes on his personal blog, Tenkara Tracks, as well as various online and print publications.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021-22 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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