Traditional country pursuits reimagined for a modern world
Simon.K.Barr recalls his experience fishing in the Alaskan wilderness with fishing and hunting legends Gordy & Sons.
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Photographer / SIMON.K.BARR
Battling through thick forest on the shoreline above one of the many creeks cutting into Barenof Island, Alaska, I came to a conclusion: going on a wilderness adventure with the owners of one of the world’s greatest hunting and fishing stores, was extremely useful. I’d started my trip by flying to Houston, Texas, to meet Russell Gordy and his son Garrett, founders of Gordy & Sons, who I’d also be pursuing steelhead with in south-eastern Alaska.
Their much talked about store is just outside Downtown Houston. They claim to be able to outfit you for any hunting, shooting or fishing trip, anywhere in the world, with best-in-class equipment and clothing. I can honestly say, having been lucky enough to travel the world to hunt and fish, they do not make this claim in vain. What could be better than being guided round Gordy & Sons by passionate hunters and fishermen who knew exactly what I’d need? A happy afternoon, culminating in testing rods on the store’s private casting pool, and resulting in significantly more luggage than I’d started with. Pleasingly, the conclusion was for 11ft Hardy rods and reels, so I felt a little bit of my own British heritage would be with me for the trip.
We flew indirectly from Houston to Sitka, Alaska, the skies brightening to reveal the amazing archipelago as we came in to land. Sitting on Barenof Island, Sitka was part of the lands in Alaska sold by the Russians to the US in the 1860s. Remnants of its past are everywhere, with Russian names on streets and even an onion-domed Russian church, as well as the things that made Sitka a success: whaling and the fur trade. One of the strangest sights were the bald eagles: this noble bird, emblem of the USA, has reached pest levels and could be seen dumpster diving around the back streets of the town.
We were aboard the Adventurous, a 56-footer with eight comfortable berths and captained by one of the most amusing people I have ever met, Travis Peterson. His crew was made up of an excellent chef named Kristen Seaman and the calming First-Mate-cum-seasoned-fishing-guide ‘Weck’ who had worked with Travis for many years. We, the Rods, were a team of four: Russell and Garrett Gordy and the distinguished Texas-based sporting artist and all-round outdoorsman Chance Yarbrough.
Wherever possible, we would be eating what we caught from the boat during the week, so soon after setting sail, lines were put out for king salmon and halibut. No doubt these would be tasty but I was all set to be a fly fishing snob about the big game rigs we had deployed – what kind of sport could that be? Boy was I wrong – these monsters of the deep fought hard, giving us plenty of drama and entertainment before we could net them. The weather further out kept us pinned in the bay, unable to get out to sail further where the prime steelhead creeks were. It didn’t matter, our first day of halibut and king salmon fishing was tremendous. We’d soon caught our (strictly regulated) halibut quota, which was more than enough for the table that evening. It had been a great first day and it had rekindled my love of big game fishing.
Day two dawned, bringing better weather. The clearer visibility not only meant we could get to a prime steelhead creek, it also meant we could see the hydrants of water spouting into mist when humpback whales were nearby. There was something strange about seeing these majestic creatures, tails crashing onto the waves, in terrain that was so similar to, though on a vastly increased scale, Scotland. This was unsurprising when I realised we were at the same latitude as my home in Scotland. As we closed in on our first creek, we dropped shrimp pots, using the scraps from the feast of halibut we’d enjoyed the previous night as bait.
The ship’s fast rib took us to the mouth of the creek, where, with Travis and Weck guiding, we hiked for two hours on paths long untrodden. As we landed, a fallen tree trunk showed the local population may not be entirely friendly – brown bear claw marks streaked up and down, and I was glad of Travis’s holstered .460 Smith & Wesson. My excitement that I’d be casting for a steelhead was soon subsumed by the concentration needed to thread the 11-foot needle through the Alaskan forest. Glancing at the water and the shores, I could see this would be a technical challenge: while the water was crystal clear, the bed of the creek was sandy and debris and timber obstacles were visible, not to mention the towering forests on both banks.
Once getting as far as a couple of hours would take us through the forest parallel to the creek, we dropped down to the water and started to fish in earnest, working our way back downstream to the rib. There were steelhead scattered everywhere in this system. The bad weather had lifted the river the day before, moving the fish around. Perfect. Once in the water, roll casting precisely with so much debris around is no mean feat, particularly if you can’t see the fish – so we’d take it in turns, helped by Travis and Weck, one fishing and one spotting from higher up on the bank and talking us into the fish. The casting style was determined by the thick forest around the creek, which, combined with dead drifting flies was to prove effective within minutes. While I’d like to say this was down to all of us being superb fishermen, it didn’t hurt that there were a shit-tonne of fish.
With my first take I understood what all the fuss was about with steelhead fishing: these things were aquadynamic beasts. If you didn’t clamp to the cork as soon as the fish took, the steelhead would turn, get some speed up and snap you. Give these extremely fresh fish an inch and they’d take a mile, along with the fly, line, rod and you.
Using the rod in these tight spaces was an art. We lost a lot of fish before we managed to land one. For the rest of the day, our luck and the weather held out. From the smallest of the day at 5lb to the largest at 13lb, these steelhead were street fighters, tail-walking, leaping and refusing to give up until you had them in your hands. It was no punishment spotting and taking a break from casting, either. The sheer spectacle and the excitement of a team-mate landing a fish thanks to your help was something I’d never experienced. When, finally, we’d waded our way back down to the rib, we’d caught and released 10 of these amazing fish between us, having lost at least as many as we’d hooked. Back on the Adventurous, we set sail and soon after pulled out our shrimp pots, revealing a feast for that night. We sipped our drinks, smoked cigars and mulled over what a day it had been.
Over the next days, we’d leave the Adventurous at 8am and fish until 4pm, before heading to the rib. The hiking was as much of a pleasure as the fishing – spotting fish, and perfect spots to cast, driving our anticipation to new highs. For me, the additional chance to take photographs was a huge bonus. What started out as a necessity, to ensure my trips could be documented and written about for magazines, has become an obsession, and in these wild environments it’s a joy to attempt to capture the essence of a trip like this.
Amazingly enough, despite the rain we’d had on those first few days, the waters were, as we say in the UK, gin clear. Another day of bad weather looked to put a dampener on our trip on the third day’s fishing, so Travis decided we’d head to a waterfall – it wasn’t the longest creek, nor the best fishing, but it was worth it for the views. As we got to the falls, the white water lit up, and the sun came out. The fishing was phenomenal, and we took pleasure in watching each other fish, leapfrogging downstream towards the rib.
That evening the pots we’d dropped were full of king crab, which, together with shrimp-adorned Bloody Marys and sushi made from a 30lb king salmon Garrett had caught, made for another incredible feast. It being the final night on board the Adventurous, we decided a spot of shooting might be in order: Travis has a hand-held clay thrower on board, which he put to good use, keeping us entertained until dusk.
The final day gave us more bad weather, and we decided to return to that first creek that had given us so much sport. It didn’t disappoint, and this time we hiked to a lake at the top of the creek, where a float plane was waiting to return us to Sitka. Four days of intense fishing, a fair amount of banter (particularly when it came to my accent and my style of fishing) and amazing food was at an end. Fishing with friends is always a pleasure, but when you fish with the Gordys, you know you are in the presence of passionate outdoorsmen. We’d netted 27 steelhead between the four of us and lost at least as many again. As I finally started to unpack back home, after three days’ travelling, I had no trouble recalling the stunning pools, the fighting steelhead and the fantastic camaraderie. And then it hit me. The stench of fish. The boys had played one last trick on me and sent me home with a reminder of Alaska – rotting mackerel buried deep in my bag.
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