Answering the call of the Hoodoo River results in a spiritual experience filled with bent rods, good friends and natural beauty that is never forgotten.
By Troy Meder
It’s been almost a year. Time has passed quickly as I navigate the wonderful life afforded me. While my energies are focused on my work, rare is the day when my thoughts don’t return to Alaska.
Born of fire and ice, Alaska is one of the world’s last great places. I think God saved all the good things of creation for the ‘wild’ that embodies our far north state. Trust me when I say, if you haven’t been there . . . go!
The love of the ‘wild’ was imparted to me by my grandfather. Treasured memories of him still resonate within me. Grandpa Ray was passionate about being on the water. Salmon fishing the Pacific Northwest was his favorite. It has become one of mine as well. And while my true love lies within the opportunities in the PNW, I have a long-distance love affair with Alaska.
The month was August 2016. I’d waited all year for the trip that lay ahead. The plan was simple. I was to travel from my home in Bend, Oregon to Anchorage. There, I would join up with my friend and host Clancy Becker. To say that Clancy also loves fishing is—well—to say water is wet. Late in his ‘70s, Clancy is enthusiastic about life. A vibrant, successful, powerful man of faith, he’s become profoundly dear to me. A fly fisherman since the age of 17, this engaging and humble man can orchestrate pure artistry with a fly rod. Clancy’s journey would start from his home in Walnut Creek, Calif. Upon arriving in Anchorage, we planned to meet at the famed Lakefront hotel. After a fantastic meal at Orso’s and a good night’s rest, our schedule was to fly out the next morning via charter from Anchorage to Nelson Lagoon. Once on the ground in Nelson, our host would fly us to his lodge on the Hoodoo River.
Located on the Aleutian Peninsula, our destination remains an Alaskan gem. Surrounded by a sea of tundra, Hoodoo Lodge sits mere feet from the native named Sapsuk or Hoodoo River. The land was previously purchased by present owner/ lodge wainwright Rod Schuh. Almost single handedly, Rod has carved out of the bush an incredible opportunity for the outdoorsman. Hoodoo is the onlyfishing lodge on the river. Every nail, stick of lumber, appliance and sack of concrete was first shipped on the Bering Sea from Anchorage. At the confluence of the ocean and the Hoodoo, every item was then transferred onto small boats and hauled up river to the lodge’s current location.
Whether bivy sack, tent or lodge, my nature is to always be prepared for a comfortable experience while adventuring. But for these seven days of fishing, I had no idea just howcomfortable this adventure would be.
From Anchorage, we enjoyed a short three-hour flight via Pilatus to Nelson Lagoon. On our quick descent, I looked down and saw our host Rod. He and his vintage 1957 DeHavilland Beaver were waiting on the antiquated dirt strip. Once down, we transferred our gear and piled aboard the beautiful plane. To say Rod is a powerful, adventurous presence would be an understatement. He welcomed us aboard with a firm shake given from a hand the size of a paw from a brown bear. I smiled to myself, thinking he was not unlike the Indiana Jones character in Harrison Ford’s movies. Rod exuded a confident commitment to those around him and the work he enjoys. When he’s not hosting guests at Hoodoo, Rod guides world class bear, caribou and sheep hunts . . . but that’sanother story.
The flight to the lodge was short, perhaps fifteen minutes. Once we left Nelson Lagoon, the rumbling Beaver climbed to a mere few hundred feet above the tundra. Pushing southeast, we visually enjoyed the vastness of the barren Alaskan landscape. Green and lush, the grasslands passed below us like an undulating tapestry. Soon, the wild serpentine of the Hoodoo River came into view. Banking right, Rod piloted the plane into an oncoming westerly wind and gently landed on the gravel runway just north of the lodge.
Once the plane rolled to a stop—the dream of this trip—had now become very real.
As we stepped from the plane, Rod’s warm staff made themselves available to assist us. My feet had no sooner hit Alaskan gravel before I heard an endearing and familiar voice call out, “Carpie!” Popeye, my good friend and fishing guide greeted us both with huge hugs and warm handshakes. As Rod’s senior guide, Dennis Franco (aka, “Popeye”) had previously fished Clancy and me many times on the rivers of Northern California. He was certainly the finest guide I’d ever fished with. In the fishing realm, Popeye is legendary. Although he appears tough and callused on the outside, those who know him understand that his barrel chest contains a heart of pure gold. Popeye’s passion to share his ‘wilderness office’ drives him to impart it with any like-minded adventurer. With pleasantries exchanged, his boyish eyes danced as he whispered, “You guys ready to fish?” I couldn’t get the words “you bet” out fast enough. A broad grin spread across his face, “Then toss your gear, grab a bite and let’s get to it!”
With excitement, we located our assigned room. Even in my haste, I was pleasantly surprised at the comfortable detailed simplicity given to each room. Deep pillow top beds were draped with lush down comforters. Ample space was provided for huge bag of gear. Tasteful reading lights illuminated the quality of the wood furnishings and made this a truly restful and rustic Alaskan experience. With bags unpacked, we made our way to the dining room for a quick lunch. Our cook—Eileen—set the culinary tone for the week with Havarti cheese grilled to perfection on focaccia bread. Nestled beside the glorious sandwich was a cup of tomato basil soup. The meal was crowned with hot brownies from the oven. Just like that, I was returned to boyhood bliss. I wondered if I might have to pinch myself to see if I wasn’t already in heaven.
“Wader up boys!” Popeye’s voice bellowed from the mud room. “The boat leaves in 15 minutes!” Swallowing one last gulp of home brewed ice tea, I thanked Eileen while rounding the long dining room table and headed for the door. Quickly, I readied my heart for what the crystal waters of the Hoodoo River would soon offer.
Each guest is daily assigned a guide and a boat. Because this was the first day of our trip, we would be fishing only the afternoon set. The weather perfect as Popeye, Clancy and I stepped off the dock onto our river transport and headed east. Winding our way up the river, I allowed my soul to completely immerse within the beauty of this rare place.
Alaska is home to countless myriads of complex waterways. Rivers of all types, sizes, shapes and demeanors thread through America’s 49th state. From the signature glacier blue of the popular Kenai to unnamed rivers few if any men have fished, Alaska has a water adventure for all. The Hoodoo is no exception. Its unique attitude is quiet and gentle. It meanders through the tundra, a perfect gem, willing to be experienced. The river’s headwaters pour out of a pristine mountain lake that bears no scar from man. Hoodoo Lake is fed by abundant rain and glacier melt. The narrow overflow pouring from this pristine lake’s northwest side flows through a narrow 15 feet wide gravel seam and becomes the genesis of the Hoodoo River. Within this season, the headwaters hold thousands of spawning sockeye salmon or ‘reds’ as they’re referred to in Alaska. For 35 miles, the river quietly serpentines through the tundra toward the Bering Sea. Never more than about 40 to 50 yards wide, the Hoodoo often narrows to little more than ten yards across. This natural change in topography creates impeccable salmon hide-outs. Within these deep bends, the normally knee to waist deep water plunges to depths that would challenge any strong swimmer. During the Chinook season, massive kings are taken from these deep aquatic caldrons.
The bottom of the Hoodoo is a mix of sand, gravel and small cobble. This inviting combination makes an ‘easy to fish’ experience for anyone willing to don waders and get wet. Most certainly, if one can walk, one can fish the Hoodoo. Even the physically challenged would have no worries here. The guides will ensure that anyone who desires to fish will get time on the river. Indeed, the Hoodoo is the most fisherman friendly river I’ve ever enjoyed.
Gliding our way effortlessly upstream, I dipped my hand into the side spray from the boat. The water was clear and cool. Perfect.
Only minutes from the lodge, Popeye slowed our 14-foot aluminum boat to the south side of the river. “Welcome to Pop’s secret. I hope you boys brought your A-game,” he said. Hopping out of the boat, I reached for my 8 weight LOOP Cross S-1 rod. Popeye tied a bead head Bunny Leech on the end of 9-foot, 10-pound leader. Locked and loaded, I took a few steps out into the slow-moving river. I released one simple back cast—forward—double haul—the fly dropped into the softer part of the current. I took three streaming pulls and WHAM—fish on!
Fresh from the Bering Sea, a chrome bright coho missile exploded from the tranquil water. A raucous silver salmon ballet ensued as the powerful fish wrangled to release the hook. My rod hammered in a unison dance, mirroring the fishes every move as it headed downstream. I heard a characteristic “WHOOP!” from upstream. I turned to see Clancy grinning like a boy as his rod also bent under the power of a coho takedown. A double! I looked back at Popeye. Our eyes met, his weathered face burst into his familiar wide smile. Only moments before, I was getting off the plane. Now—here I am—waist deep in a beautiful river with a fish on.
The fish ran hard. Charging upstream, then rocketing downstream. Twice the silver bullet took me down to the backing. After an impressive fight the fish started to tire. Popeye edged closer to my side, net in hand. With a quick expert dip into the cool Alaskan water, we landed the silver. She was a 11-pound beauty. Exquisitely bright, she came with sea lice still attached. I marveled at her perfection. With a swift and careful motion, Popeye relieved the northern monarch of the fly perfectly buried into the corner of her jaw. Together we took a quick picture and gently released her back into the river. Lazily, she engaged the current. Once freedom was realized she bolted away. Again, I glanced up at Clancy, he had already caught and released his equally nice buck.
For a moment—as my friend and I exchanged smiles—time just seemed to hold its breath. Both of us stood in awe of the absolute blessing of dear friends sharing something so profoundly perfect. Popeye broke the moment by jokingly ribbing us back to the present. “You two just gonna stand there like statues? Get another one!”
Which is exactly what we did.
Throughout the length of our stay, Rod’s team provided whatever was needed when it came to gear and tackle. Although, not unlike a cowboy and his saddle, individuals are encouraged to bring their personal waders and boots if possible. For those who are squeamish about traveling with their rod, the host also provides quality rods and reels from The Fly Shop in Redding, Calif. Various rod weights and lengths are available. Of course, I suggest you bring your own favorite 8-weight for the silvers.
Every day there are ‘fly-out’ opportunities for fishing beyond the Hoodoo. Rod, an accomplished pilot, also has a beautiful Cessna 185 float plane. One of the adrenaline highlights of my entire trip was taking off while threading the curves of the Hoodoo River. Each week-long trip includes one fly-out. Additional fly-outs can be purchased separately. These trips can include fishing for silvers at North Creek Camp (located at the creek mouth on the Bering Sea), silvers on Caribou River braids and Hoodoo Lake for Dolly Varden trout. It’s wise to bring along a three or four weight for the day with the Dollies.
Most days we fished using bead head streamers with colors as varied as a child’s imagination. All the flies are provided. Water conditions, weather and genuine guide intuition are key. Let your guide make the choice. Candidly, there were days when I felt I could tie on a piece of bacon left over from breakfast and the silvers would hit it. On the rare occasion when fishing would slack a bit, the guide team would quickly pull us aside and change to another color streamer or variation. There really was never any down time, unless one chose it.
Like most rivers, fishing the Hoodoo is multifaceted. Pulling streamers underwater is common; pulling “wogs” on the surface is not. This was an experience I’ve never had until the Hoodoo. While the guides had many ‘top water’ flies to use, I was partial to my buddy Clancy’s creation: the Clancywog. Simple construction of a 1/0 TMC 7990 hook, threaded together with red 8/0 thread. Clancy incorporates fluorescent pink bucktail, fluorescent pink marabou, Opal Crystal Flash and pink FlashBou Mirage into the tail. The body is Opal Red ESTAZ. Hackle boasts palmered red saddle. All over shelled by 3/8 x 2 ¼ inches of 2mm pink foam. According to our guides, Clancy’s ingenious creation became a major contender for ‘fly of the year.’ Easy to cast and a blast to pull across the water, the Clancywog was a huge hit.
No matter the fly, the silvers usually lay in soft water behind underwater mounds of sand, weed knobs and submerged debris. It’s within these natural sanctuaries that the fish rest momentarily until they make their next push upriver. It’s most productive to cast a wog just above the eddy or slow water and let it drift into the slack. Once in the slack, then strip it in with quick, short bursts. This is most effective on a sunny, calm water day. The big silvers rise to the surface and literally chase the fly like a shark. Many are the memories permanently seared on brain of seeing huge silver mouths gulping air and water as they lunge for my skating fly.
One day, I even had bloody knuckles from trying to slow down a hard-spinning reel as fish after fish hit the wog and ran with nearly unimaginable power. While incredible, fishing with wogs it’s not as easy as it seems. Speed, length of strip and timing are critical. One only gets a few seconds before the fish denies the fly and heads back down to rest.
The river was teaming with coho. Almost without exception, for the rest afternoon every cast produced a bite or a fish in the net. Repeatedly throughout the day, Clancy and I had fish on together. If someone would’ve told me that fishing the Hoodoo in August would be like that day, I would’ve likely passed off the story as just another fish tale. But it was true. This was the finest fishing adventure I’d ever experienced.
With the sun starting its lazy descent toward the horizon and the last streamer pulled through the current, Popeye summoned us aboard the boat. Tired, sunburned and elated, Clancy and I shook hands, then drew each other into a strong hug. It was a wordless covenant that galvanized his father’s heart to this son’s heart. We donned our life jackets and squared ourselves away for the short ride back to the lodge.
Even now, I can still hear the tundra wildlife calling out as we made our way up the boarded walkway to the lodge. A cool breeze welcomed us both back to the lodge. I opened the door for my friend and heat from the wader room embraced us. This thoughtfully appointed room was equipped with everything needed to hang and dry all wet gear. Once free of the clammy waders, Rod and his crew provided toasty lodge slippers.
After a hot shower with sweats and slippers donned, I made my way to the lodge’s great room. True to his gregarious nature, Clancy was already acquainted with everyone present and was now friends with each guest in the lodge. Laughing heartily, my dear friend effortlessly engaged the guides and fishermen with stories I too, have enjoyed many times over the years. Adding to the comfort and ambiance of the evening was a well-appointed open bar for those wishing for a custom adult beverage. Each night soft drinks, beer, wine, ice tea were also available for the guests. Following the drinks was a sumptuous array of hors d’oeuvres meticulously crafted from smoked salmon, fresh shrimp, baked brie cheese, deep fried calamari, olives, onion rings and grilled meats of all kinds. This was just a sampling of the food we enjoyed—before dinner!
Although the lodge accommodates only 16 guests—with an equally large staff—fisherman hailed from Sweden, Italy, Russia and the states. All were gathered around good drink, good food, good stories and good hearts. The social barriers we sometime construct melted in the commonality of new friendship and fishing.
With the booming voice of a concert baritone, Rod hailed all to dinner. Gathering around the table we heartily dined on prime rib, shrimp alfredo, fresh salad, warm home-made bread and steamed vegetables. With no dining stone left unturned, provided for all were bottles of very nice red and white wine, beer, ice tea, soda and of course brilliantly fresh Alaskan tap water. For those with extra hearty appetites, the food just kept coming. Although, our first plate was ample, the adept cooking staff supplied the table with extra platters of prime rib, pasta, shrimp and bread. For those with room, the meal was finished off with freshly baked chocolate cake and ice cream. From the first night, I reconciled that there would be much more of me coming home than when I left. I smiled to myself, thanking the Good Lord that my wife loves me, because there would certainly be more of me to hug after this trip.
Once dinner was concluded, I poured myself a hot cup of decaf, exchanged my slippers for boots and headed out into the tundra. While I love the hearty exchange of stories amongst friends, I have found myself to be a ‘quiet soul’ when it comes to adventuring. I deeply value the sounds of creation. The wild melody that rises right before darkness is unmatched. I didn’t want to miss the multitude of living souls lifting up their chorus of gratitude before the sun slips into slumber.
After the sun set and the symphony quieted, I returned to our room. Clancy was already asleep. I quietly crawled into bed. With a heart so full, sleep came quickly.
There simply aren’t enough words to describe the scope, the natural drama, the raw beauty and emotion of this trip. Clancy and I fished until our hands and arms were exhausted from the number of salmon we caught. I was elated to put a 16 ½ pound silver in the net. Throughout the week, my new friends and I ate gourmet food. We flew to distant, wild locations. We added new stories to a strong foundation of old memories. We shared life experiences until the late hours of the night. We listened well, we laughed hard and we slept deeply. Powerful are the memories of the friends I’ve made, all framed within this amazing land of the Midnight Sun.
As with all worthy adventures, the end always comes too quickly.
Undoubtedly, fishing coho on a fly rod was remarkable. The food was extraordinary. The fellowship was fulfilling. The accommodations were outstanding. However, the memory most deeply seared within me is the vivid recall of the land itself. For eight day’s we immersed ourselves in the raw beauty that is Alaska. It’s a place where massive brown bear, moose and mountain sheep run wild. Caribou roamed below us as we flew to secret places rich with coho salmon and Dolly Varden trout. Sunrises and sunsets of epic brilliance harkened the beginning and end to perfect days. For me, the quiet of the tundra in the evenings afforded respite from the noise that is our civilized life. Far beyond the reach of beeps, rings, sirens, traffic and clatter of everyday life . . . was perfect stillness. Perfect peace. Perfect harmony was restored in my heart. The world was once again quiet. Within this profound place, my soul could clearly hear the voice of One who made all.
Boarding Rod’s plane on that last day, I recalled the smile and deep contentment often seen on my grandad’s face after a day on the water. He loved the thrill of a bent rod. The sparkling green eyes of that simple, hardworking, heartwarming man still inspire me to enjoy life, every ounce of it. To embrace the wonder and beauty of the outdoors like my grandpa. The torch of his love of adventure has been firmly passed on to his grandson. Now 57 years old, I still am the little boy that adores and misses his treasured grandfather.
“Thanks pops for teaching me the love of God’s perfect creation.”