Leggett: Alaska vacation gets the grandkids hooked on fishing

June 24, 2017
Maybe the most beautiful fish that swims in North America, the rainbow trout of Alaska is brilliantly colored and one of the most sought after game fish in the world. This trout was caught as Mike Leggett waded in the Copper River near the gigantic Lake Iliamna. MIKE LEGGETT PHOTO

I was still getting myself rigged and ready to step into the frigid waters of the Tazimina River when my granddaughter Connie Cooper was hooked up to her first-ever fly rod fish.

I had been worried about this moment since my wife, Rana, and I had decided to try to bring Connie and her twin brother, Ben, along on this most special trip to Newhalen Lodge in Alaska. My old friend Bill Sims, who founded the fishing mecca nearly 50 years ago, promised they’d be able to catch fish and enjoy the life in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska.

Sims, a legend in Alaskan fishing and hunting, was right. I just didn’t know how right he would be.

Guides Sanford Anthony, Rex Messing and Patrick Hilbert helped us on the first few days of the trip and quickly had the kids making short casts and learning the basics of stream fishing and how to present a fly and make a proper drift. I could hear them talking to the kids as I was trying to get into the water to begin casting myself.

Connie, ever primed to do her best no matter what she’s trying, was busy with her left hand, stripping line and mending it to keep the fly making a proper drift, and was letting an imitation mouse drift below her when the grayling smashed the fly 30 feet away. Grayling are easy targets, and Ben was hooked up himself before she could bring the fish to hand.

I caught a nice grayling and a very nice rainbow trout, then had to watch as Connie caught another and another. All the while, Anthony was talking to Connie and encouraging her to keep casting, and she kept catching fish after fish.

There could be no better place to introduce kids to the wonders and beauty of fly fishing than the waters of the rivers near Newhalen Lodge. Sims begins taking customers there around the annual June 8 trout fishing season opening day, which is when we arrived in Alaska this year.

All the guides were calm and helpful and encouraging of the kids, which gave me time to fish myself during the trip. The twins were hooked, too. Even though I caught a bug on the plane coming up and had to miss three days of fishing during the trip, both of them got up each morning, got into their gear and went out on a plane to fish all day in the cold and rain.

We just had to get them outfitted with waders and long underwear before we arrived for the trip. They had their sunglasses, waders, waterproof outer jackets and sweaters, and the lodge provided modern life vests in case somebody went into the water. That never happened, though Ben did manage to fall down a couple of times.

There were a couple of days when Connie caught the largest fish of the day, a count that included three rainbow trout over 25 inches during the trip and a 35-inch pike she landed one morning. The two of them landed 98 grayling on dry flies on the last day of the trip.

That will get kids really hooked on fishing, which was one of the goals of the trip.

Sims raves about the early June fishing at Newhalen, even thought his most serious anglers usually prefer the late September to October rainbow trout fishing, when anglers routinely catch multiple trout over 30 inches during a day’s fishing. But June is an overlooked time, Sims says.

“Almost every year, our single largest trout of the season is caught during this first trip of the year,” he told me. “We catch some really big trout, especially down on the Kvichak River. You’ll see.”

I caught a couple of nice trout there, though Connie landed the largest fish that day to keep her streak alive. My largest fish came during our final fishing day of the trip on the short Gibraltar River. It was a special day of fishing.

After a long flight over gigantic Lake Iliamna to the upper reaches of the river, we inflated and launched rafts that would take us back downriver to the spot where the Gibraltar runs back into the lake. Fishing a streamer, I landed a 25-inch rainbow that engulfed the fly as soon as it hit the water.

That began a day when the average fish was above 20 inches and the largest was 27 inches. I dropped him, though, before I was able to take a proper photo. Connie caught a couple of nice fish, and Ben landed one of his own.

It was a trip rich in memories and experiences one can only enjoy during the summer in Alaska. A perfect summer vacation.