The Billion Hole Golf Course," said Bill Martin. He dipped a wing of the Cessna 185 Skywagon to afford a better view of the rolling landscape below. "See that dogleg to the right down there? That's the 9th hole fairway. It's a four-mile shot from the tee."
The country sprawling 2,000 feet beneath the plane did indeed resemble a non-stop golf course. Long, crooked swatches of open ground snaked green and tan and lavender through the dark spruce forest. Ponds and meandering streams dotted or slashed the countryside, some of them as artfully placed, it seemed, as any Robert Trent Jones water hazard. There was, however, not a clubhouse in sight, nor yet a single duffer to be seen. These fairways were actually avenues of soggy, man-swallowing tundra, alive with mosquitoes and no-see-ums thick enough to suffocate a caribou, the water hazards icy glacial moraine holes and their connecters. The only regulars on the Billion Hole Golf Course were moose, caribou, brown bears, barren-ground wolves and crafty carcajous. The only eagles were of the bald and golden varieties. Ah, but the fishing!
If ever there was a land built solely for the delectation of the fly-fisherman, it is this Tikchik Lakes country of southwestern Alaska, 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. Rainbow trout of 10 pounds are considered barely keepers. Record class grayling are so abundant that serious trout fishermen, after catching 30 grayling before a single trout has taken the fly, consider the "sailfish of the north" a dadratted nuisance almost as bad as the ubiquitous 12-pound northern pike of the slower flowages. Sea-run Arctic char, lake trout, Dolly Varden and even that jut-jawed remote cousin of the salmonids, the shee-fish (or inconnu), can be reached handily by Tikchik-based float planes. And during the summer and early fall five varieties of Pacific salmon—chum, pink, sockeye, coho and king—run up the fast, icy rivers from the nearby Bering Sea to spawn.
Martin, our pilot on this initial reconnaissance of the region, is the owner and operator of the Royal Coachman Lodge, one of only three fishing camps in the Tikchik country. In order to protect the angling resource from the overfishing that has spoiled such former hot spots as Canada's Great Slave and Great Bear lakes, the lodge owners permit their clients—at most 300 in a season—to kill only one "trophy" fish apiece, 'in the short summers at this latitude," says Martin, "it takes a rainbow seven to 10 years to hit 10 pounds. After that the growth rate is even slower. With unlimited killing you could clean out this country in a decade, maybe less. Even with the Alaska limit of five rainbows a day. it wouldn't take long." The lodge owners allow the client to decide for himself what's a "trophy" and what isn't. "After all, it's a relative judgment," says Martin. He is heartened to see that many of his guests release all their fish, regardless of size.
"A good fly-fisherman can catch 350 to 400 fish a week here, rainbow and grayling," says Martin. "More if he knows how and when to use the dry fly. Well, talk is cheap. Let's go on down and you can see for yourselves."
The Royal Coachman Lodge squats snug and homely on a point of raw land just below the outlet of Tikchik Lake. A brawling rapids pours down and hangs a hard right to become the Nuyakuk River outside the front door. Within minutes of our arrival, Charlie Cook, a 61-year-old house-plant wholesaler from Dallas, was hanging grayling of a pound or better on an artfully cast black gnat. Doug Reid, 36, a Datsun dealer from San Diego, who never fly-fished before, picked up a rainbow on his first throw. The fish, short but chunky, and bright as all the rainbows in this drainage—at this time of year at least—leaped and somersaulted like an ice-water Comaneci. Reid, a saltwater, big-game angler up to now, watched with bulging eyes. "This is better than marlin," he said.
From across the Nuyakuk, toward sunset, came two guests who had arrived earlier. Lewis Little, 46, is a cattleman from Austin, Texas. His partner, Charles Le-Noir, 39, used to be in the oil pipeline business but is now a gentleman of leisure. Both looked bone-weary and preoccupied.
"How'd you do?" asked Martin.
Little shook his head ruefully. "A couple of about six pounds," he said. "The big ones aren't up there." He gestured toward the top of the rapids. "They were there a few days ago, but now they're gone."
"How many grayling did you catch?"