“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Flyfishing the Big Thompson River, Colorado

It just doesn’t get much prettier than this: A clear mountain river coursing through the heart of an alpine meadow, the warm morning sun sparkling on the current’s riffles. This is the Big Thompson River, a flyfishing mecca. Brown, rainbow and brook trout lurk in its eddies and deep pools and bear, moose, elk and mule deer haunt its edges.

The Big Thompson originates in the far reaches of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, flowing through the mountain wilderness of Rocky Mountain National Park before tumbling down through the town of Estes Park Colorado in the valley below. Snow melt and the frigid temps of the high Rockies mean cold water in the Big Thompson, and the steep mountain flanks mean rushing, oxygen-aerated water. Just what trout like. And if trout like it, so do trout anglers, which is how we found ourselves thigh-deep in the rushing waters of the river, flipping delicate flies over the jangling water.

Before we hit the high alpine meadows, we took a couple of hours to literally get our feet wet, checking out the hatch and throwing flies at likely trout-lurking spots. Our guide, Marsh Thompson from Kirk’s Fly Shop in downtown Estes Park, took us to a section of the river accessible from a bridge just outside of town. We walked across a meadow of waist-high goldenrod and through an alder thicket to this hidden-within-view spot less than twenty minutes from downtown. We could hear the occasional car rumble by on the road but the spot still felt wildernessy and we quickly tied on nymphs and started working the water. The Big Thompson here is a little tamer than what we would encounter over the next two days—by the time it reaches this spot near Estes Park, the broad level valley has slowed the current down and it’s a gently flowing waterway.

But no less productive. We had barely gotten our waders wet and we were already into a hungry school of brown trout. The hits came rapidly and continuously for the next couple of hours and we lost count of the number of fish we hooked. It was fast and fun, an addicting introduction to Big Thompson River flyfishing. As the morning rolled on the fishing slowed and we pulled out for greener pastures. We headed further into the backcountry, hiking into an isolated stretch of the river dominated by huge boulders and fast water. The fishing here was even better and the browns and rainbows even hungrier. We easily caught thirty fish each.

Next day: Rocky Mountain National Park where the Big Thompson meandered through a broad meadow next to our campsite. Spectacular fishing, just as productive as the valley and add a backdrop of snow capped peaks. Our best two days of flyfishing ever and Kodak moments to complete the experience.

Details: You can wander about trying to find a prime fishing spot or you can hire a guide to save time searching and have more time fishing. I highly recommend Kirk’s Fly Shop in Estes Park, www.kirksflyshop.com 877-669-1859. Kirk’s does one-day and overnight trips and will rent gear plus they have a fully equipped shop for any last minute flies you may need.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Haulin' Halibut, Alaska Halibut Fishing

Our twin 150-horsepower Yamaha outboards had barely had time to cool down when my fishing rod bent ninety degrees. I was unprepared for action so quickly and stared stupidly at the tip of my pool-cue-sized rod as it twitched violently back and forth. “Fish on!” yelled Landis, our charter captain. His shout fired me up and I pulled the rod out of its angled holder on the boat’s stern and set the hook as Landis slipped a belt around my waist. The butt of the rod slammed into the cup on the front of the belt and I was in business.

“It’s a big halibut!” Landis shouted. And it felt like it. The first hit on the boat today and it must be a monster. I leaned back, pulling the rod tip up and straining against the resistant fish. Between pulls, I’d reel line in furiously as I let the rod tip fall back toward the rolling waters of Alaska’s Cook Inlet. I’d been saltwater fishing before in the warm waters of Florida and the Gulf Coast and I’d never hooked into a fish that felt this big. After ten minutes of exertion, my arms were burning and my wrists ached and I thought I must be pulling what must surely be the biggest fish in Alaska toward our 28-foot boat.

My friend Wes and I caught a charter out of Ninilchik, Alaska, a small fishing village on the western edge of the Kenai Peninsula, about two hours south of Anchorage. We had a particular hankering to catch some halibut. We had just driven up the Sterling Highway from Homer, Alaska and saw numerous large halibut—in the 90 to 160 pound range—being unloaded and weighed on the docks there.

So it was just a matter of good luck when we ran into Jim Considder in Soldotna, on the banks of the Kenai River about 30 minutes from Ninilchik. Jim is from Florida but spends his summers in Soldotna. He is a charter captain himself, but is not chartering this season. He does, however, know many of the locals and when we told him we wanted to try our hand at halibut fishing, he checked around and managed to get us space on this charter during an extremely busy season.  It's unusual to luck into these last-minute deals and we were fortunate to run into Jim who was able to get us aboard two open spaces on a five-person boat.

So we were a couple of happy campers when we stowed our gear in the cabin with three other passengers; Dale from Florida, Keith from Anchorage, and his father, Ray from Nebraska. Like us, all but Ray were first time halibut fishermen. While we waited to pull out, we watched boats coming in from early morning charters with massive fish. A couple of 150-pounders, a half-dozen in the 100-pound range, and a bunch of 50-to-80 pounders.  Things were looking promising.

So now that I was feeling the pull at the end of my 130-pound-test line, I felt sure that I would be top dog back at the scales. Halibut fishing is different from the cobia, snapper, and speckled trout fishing that I am used to in the Gulf of Mexico. First, halibut like to stay deep so we were fishing in about 200 feet of water, fifteen miles offshore. They are bottom feeders, so the deal is to find a likely spot--maybe a tidal rip or where cross currents meet--anchor, and let heavily baited hooks, weighted with four pound lead weights, ride along the ocean floor. You also want to be fishing with either a strong incoming or outgoing tide. Natural baits tend to collect there and the opportunistic halibut take advantage. They will jockey for a spot on the ocean floor and wait for the rushing tide to whisk a tasty morsel past their nose. The idea is to make sure that the chunk of herring on the end of your hook is the morsel that they chomp down on.

By now I could feel the shortness of the line and I knew the fish was close to the stern. I caught a glimpse of a milky white flank and Landis leaned over the side, gaffed the fished and hauled it aboard. Everyone stood speechless. What we had all thought would be a 150-pound trophy was a 45-pounder. It had snagged the hook on its underside and I had been retrieving it flat-side-forward through the outgoing tide, kind of like pullng a barn door sideways through the water, the reason for the tremendous pull on the line.

Still, like I told Wes, anywhere but Alaska, this would be a prime catch. Only here would we be disappointed in a four-foot, 45 pound fish. We caught six more halibut before dusk, the largest two being 45 pounds. Throw in a few 36-inch gray cod, and two three-foot sharks, and we had a nice trip, no complaints. Still, on the way back to Ninilchik, Landis told us that this had been his worst trip of the summer. Just enough to sucker us into a return trip—not that we needed much convincing.


Saltwater Charters runs charters into Cook Inlet on a daily basis during the May-to-September season. You can book a halibut charter, a salmon charter, or a combo deal, depending on the season. Full-day and half-day charters are available and include all equipment and bait. All you need is a $10 one-day Alaskan fishing license. The Alaskan limit on halibut is two per person per day. Don’t do what we did and expect to show up and get a slot on a boat the same day. Make reservations well ahead of time at 907-333-3333.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Down East Maine

Courtesy George Goff
"This is stupid!" grumps my son Val. We are treading gingerly across the rocky nesting ground of thousands of Arctic terns and the object of his derision is the three-foot wooden stick he is holding straight up like a flagpole over his head. No sooner have the words escaped his lips than a furious, dive-bombing tern slams against the stick, almost knocking it out of his hands. This aggressive tern is one of many that we will encounter today on Machias Seal Island, a barren eighteen-acre rock outcropping ten miles off of the Maine coast. Val may feel stupid but he follows the advice of the Canadian Wildlife Service officer who greeted us as we landed on the island: “The terns will attack the stick instead of your head if you keep it pointing up high.” The terns are very territorial and during the height of their nesting season they are frenetically attacking us as we walk along wooden boardwalks through the heart of a very boisterous and busy nesting area. The sticks divert the fury of their attack, so that they strafe the sticks instead of our heads, an alternative that Val quickly comes to appreciate.

Courtesy George Goff
Machias Seal Island is the culmination of an extended wilderness trip through far eastern Maine that combines a week long canoe trek along the Maine New Brunswick border with a visit to the island and a couple of days of hiking and biking in Acadia National Park. This trek takes us through a variety of habitats that make for an exciting and beautiful wilderness expedition. This area of Canada and Maine offers excellent outdoor opportunities with the chance to glimpse moose, bear, seals, and whales--and birds are everywhere.

Courtesy George Goff
For sheer numbers of birds however, Machias Seal Island would undoubtedly be the high point of this adventure. We had heard stories about thousands of birds that could be seen on the island and wanted to see for ourselves so we departed from Jonesport, Maine on the Chief, a boat captained by Barna and John Norton. The Chief sails from Jonesport for a two-hour run to the island, a picturesque outpost jutting out of the north Atlantic. The island’s shoreline is steep and rocky but gently sloping fields of lush green grass dominate the rest of the island.

Our first sight of the island confirms that we will see plenty of birds. The cliffs, the sea, and the surrounding sky are alive with wheeling, diving sea birds. Visualize a cloudless azure sky, the rolling Atlantic Ocean breaking in white spray against the island’s rocky footing, and a quaint red roofed white lighthouse perched in the middle of a deep green meadow. It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque tableau.

Courtesy George Goff
Getting from the boat to the island is no piece of cake. After anchoring off of the lea side of the island, we scramble into a small skiff to ferry to the rocky shoreline. There is no pier or dock for visitor access and the rocks are exposed to the sea. The landing is treacherous and we hop out of the skiff onto slippery wet boulders, timing our leap from the skiff with the swells so that the surging waves do not wash us into the cold ocean.

Courtesy George Goff
This scary landing and the attack of the terns make us wonder what we have gotten ourselves into but as we hike through the tern nests up a gentle slope to the brow of the island, we hear the raucous squawks of birds carried on the brisk wind in our direction. A stealthy tiptoe into a series of wooden blinds constructed on the peak of the hill reveals a rocky sloping field angling down to the foaming Atlantic a quarter mile away. A group of small wooden blinds overlook the rocky cliffs and allow us to observe the primary attraction of the island up close. The snug blinds are situated within feet of thousands of Atlantic puffins calmly flying and sitting among the rocks within feet of our cameras. It’s an incredible thrill to see and photograph puffins that are less than six feet away. The gentle slope provides an unobstructed view of thousands of nesting seabirds. We spot razorbills, thin billed murres, black guillemots, common terns, common eiders, herring gulls, greater black backed gulls, and a lone sharp tailed sparrow.

Courtesy George Goff
To minimize disturbance to the birds, visitors are limited to about two hours on the island so we’re off the island way before we want to be. During our return trip to Jonesport, Captain John points out a Wilson's storm petrel shadowing the boat off to the starboard. As we near the Jonesport docks, we pass huge harbor seals sunning themselves on rocks in the harbor. Although we missed them, finback, humpback, and minke whales are often seen in the area.

Our Maine trip actually began nine days earlier when we sighted a large moose serenely feeding in a bog as we launched our canoe on Spednick Lake. A large, island dotted lake, Spednick empties into the Saint Croix River, which defines the border between Maine and Canada. Camp on the left bank of the Saint Croix and you’re in Canada, camp on the right and you’re in Maine. Spednick Lake allowed us two days of leisurely lake travel to get our "sea legs" prior to beginning the trip down the river itself. We had beautiful early June weather with a clear blue sky outlining the quaking aspen, paper birch, and sugar maple on the far lakeshores. Nosing around the bays, inlets, and small islands, we also sharpened our eyes spotting bald eagles, ospreys, black ducks, common goldeneyes, and green winged teal. It was isolated and serene and our first night in camp we went to sleep to the call of common loons.

On the third day, a portage around a dam in the tiny town of Vanceboro, Maine changed the nature of the trip from lake canoeing to fast water paddling on the Saint Croix River. The Saint Croix is exciting, but not dangerous, with practically all of the rapids being no more than Class II, easily run by all but the most inexperienced canoeists. The flat-water stretches interspersed among the rapids offer plenty of time for wildlife viewing. The Saint Croix is an isolated and undeveloped river surrounded by lush expanses of spruce and fir forests, only occasionally interrupted by the presence of a cabin or other sign of civilization. There are campsites located at well-spaced intervals along the river, each equipped with fire rings and primitive facilities. The first night we camped on a small shelf of land atop a squat bluff overlooking the river. Just before dusk, a Bald Eagle glided silently and majestically downriver, 20 feet above the water, followed in seconds by another. The next night we camped near a large bog, perfect moose habitat, but failed to spot a single moose, much to Val’s chagrin. Birds were everywhere and we continued to see ospreys and bald eagles each day. We were reluctant to leave the Saint Croix as we ended our canoe journey but we looked forward to the next leg of our trek.

We moved on to Acadia National Park. This 40,000-acre park, located on Mount Desert Island jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, is a haven for hikers and bikers. The park features converted carriage trails that provide great hiking and mountain biking opportunities. These trails are the legacy of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who built 50 miles of carriage roads for his sightseeing enjoyment via horse drawn carriage. He eventually donated the land for the park to the federal government. We rented mountain bikes in the nearby town of Bar Harbor and toured Acadia over these carriage trails. 

With so much variety, this part of Maine guarantees exciting and varied adventures. Machias Seal Island offers spectacular birding and the always-captivating puffins. The Saint Croix River offers wilderness paddling. Acadia National Park's biking roads offer easy access to memorable scenery . And don’t worry about being disappointed, just the sight of thousands of Atlantic puffins on Machias Seal Island is worth the trip.

Visitor Information:

Acadia National Park
P.O. Box 177
Eagle Lake Road
Bar Harbor, ME 04609-0177

For information and outfitting on the Saint Croix River:

Sunrise County Canoe Expeditions, Inc.

For Machias Seal Island:

Capt. John E. Norton
118 Main Street, Box 330
Jonesport, ME 04649

The number of visitors to the island is limited so make early reservations.

(A version of this article originally appeared in Bird Watcher's Digest.)