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Mark Stangeland - NUFlyGuide
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The Dean River Chronicles Part 3 (In Deep)

Posted by Mark Wednesday, April 20, 2011

As the helicopter crests the last peak and we drop into the Dean river drainage for our first look, we all exchanged glances of wide eyed amazement. We are flying just West of Kalone Peak and look down at the smaller tributary that is Kalone Creek which drains into the Dean from the upper glaciers. We spiral down into an amazing river valley that takes our breath away. As we get close to the river,the pilot stands the bird up on it's nose in a move called the hammer head, and we are now going 75 or 80mph looking straight down out of the front windshield at the river that would be our home for the next 10 days. We swoop past Kalone Creek and Swan run,now flying below tree top level. We make the corner above Eagle and the pilot brings the machine into land on river right. Some one is in Eagle so we opt for the little camp just above there called Cliff.

As we get closer to in my opinion a sketchy LZ, I ask him" Your gonna land there?" pointing to what amounts to a pile of rocks. He calmly says "Yes, no worries" He shimmies the bird in and lands with the rotor spinning a mere 2 or three feet from an alder tree. "Plenty of clearance for today,I may have to do a little trimming soon though " he laughs. To me it looks like 6 inches of clearance and I am not convinced he isn't going to do that little trimming right then. The tail rotor is out over the water. He expertly jostles the aircraft around to make sure he is stable on the basketball sized boulders along the river bank. He seems convinced it's solid,me, not so much! He shuts it down and says "Welcome to the Dean boys!"

We unload the helicopter in a haze, not believing we are actually on one of the most storied steelhead rivers of all time. We move quickly to limit the time we have to pay for the bird. We get everything offloaded in a pile and he hops back in and fires it up and is in the air in a couple of minutes heading down river to pick someone else up and bring them out.

As the helicopter goes out of sight downriver and the noise slowly fades away, we are left with the sound of the river lapping on the rocks and the wind in the leaves. We were so very alone now.A feeling of reverent fear, and a healthy respect for the river and the wilderness we now find ourselves in settles over the three of us. As we realize we are now way past the point of no return we wrestle with all of the thoughts that have been in our minds for so many months.So many questions lie before us. What's the river and rapids going to be like? Grizzlies....really? Do we have what it takes to do this. Did we bring enough food?Are these guys gonna save my ass if things go bad.What happens if someone breaks a leg or gets seriously hurt out here, no one is gonna hear you scream if you do.Where's the whiskey?

We push the fear of the unknown aside and let the excitement of the moment sink in.We are in DEEP,WAY DEEP and we are loving the feel of being way out of our comfort zone. Other than stories and pictures from a few books we have absolutely no idea what to expect now that we are here.We are all experienced outdoors men and boats men but everything we learned in the past was just a warm up for this trip. All of us grew up in the woods hunting and fishing since we were little, this trip will put all that experience to the test. This isn't a sissy trip. You want to have some good buddies with you that know what's up. You want a crew that can keep their heads and save your life if that becomes necessary. Everybody must be operating at full capacity, alert and tuned into anything and everything that could happen. Believe me, stuff happens to even the most prepared and we were no exception as we would learn toward the end of the trip.

I have heard of horror stories of people that did this trip with people that were not up to the task, not prepared or experienced enough.You end up babysitting,doing all the camp chores yourself and not fishing as much because you are tending to someone else all the time. It puts everyone involved at risk a little to have someone who can't carry their own weight..A weak link on a trip like this could be more than a mere inconvenience, it could cost you everything.

I knew full well that I would not want to be here with anybody but the guys I was with

"I sure hope we have everything" one of us mutters as we start to set up camp. 

We get a nice camp set up and settle in for the night. The Dean is a place where you want to hang your food, especially with 10 days worth, so we don't mess around. I like to eat and ain't given any away to Yogi. We rigged a sweet series of pulleys that gave us a mechanical advantage and allowed 1 guy to hoist a 100 lb cooler into the upper reaches of a tree with minimal effort.The short barreled high capacity street sweeper shotgun loaded with buckshot and slugs hangs on the center pole of the tent for easy access if need be. Small comfort if you actually had to face a charging bear for real but it does help one sleep a little easier.

We are fishing in the morning and then we can decide weather we want to stay a couple days up high or blow doors down river. The scenery upriver is spectacular and uncrowded.The fishing can be good but always gets better as you get down farther on the river.

We awake to a frosty morning, a little fresh snow on Kalone Peak. Chilly for early August. The sun comes out and we start fishing right out in front of camp. Tim hooks the first fish and it leaves the building almost immediately. He chases it down through a fast chute and I manage to tail it for him a hundred or so yards from where he hooked it. A fine buck of around 12 lbs, perfect in every way with just a hint of rose on the gill plate and along the side. We admired the fish, for a few seconds, noticing how the body lines were unlike any we had ever seen. Chunky, solid shoulders, hit like Mike Tyson and went absolutely bonkers after it was hooked and was just an amazing specimen. We slapped a high five and now we had some idea about the fish that lived here. There would be more.

I think we stayed only one night at the camp at Cliff . Giants had opened up so we moved down there in that first afternoon and settled in again to see what it had to offer. We hooked a few fish but we were hungry to move and see the river,so we did the next morning.In subsequent years we would end up having some out of control days there at Giants, days that I will never,ever see again in my lifetime, but that's another story for another day.

 Map of Dean River above the canyon

We got up early and packed up camp for a day of exploration of the unknown. We had a 14ft Sotar pontoon that held the majority of our camp and two of us and a smaller 10ft pontoon that carried one. We fished our way down river hitting Eagle and Lower Eagle and Boulder Hole, leapfrogging our way down. We were starting to hook fish now and it was getting fun. Tim and I would come around a corner and see our buddy Dave tied into one. We would watch and jump below and hook a fish or two as he was coming to pass us. We were giddy. We were just straining to see what was around the next corner. What killer run is coming next? It was hard to stay still in the boat. I was twitching like a long tailed cat in a room full of rockers.

A totally new river, and we were unfamiliar with everything about it but we did know steelhead and they liked to live in the same kind of places, go figure.

We make it down to Boulder Hole, just above Stewarts Upper camp.  I started swinging a simple black old school articulated leech through the upper end. I made about 4 casts and got a violent take that actually broke 12lb maxima. I will remember that yank until I die. I don't know if I clamped down on the rod or what but that fish ripped me. I end up hooking and landing a nice hen a little lower down. My buddy Tim has dropped below me and is fishing his way down towards Dave and the small pontoon. He gets bit and he starts yelling about" it's big "or something and I wind up and run down to see what all the hub bub is about. When I get down there, Tim is in the second round of the heavyweight champion of the world. He is giving this fish the business but the fish isn't listening. Harry Lemire is now out on the porch of the lodge watching the action. The fish, which is huge and pushing 20 lbs has Tim at a loss. There is a little island and some fast water below and he is trying to keep the fish from leaving the park. The fish does a double tail slap and bolts for the far side of the island through the fast water. Tim follows as far as he can and finds himself right in front of Dave's pontoon boat. Without thinking , he jumps in the pontoon, puts the butt end of the cork of the rod in his mouth like an over sized cigar and starts following the fish. As he rows out across the fast water towards the island, the fish ( a big buck no doubt by the look of him) is continuing with a face melting run to try and shake the size 2 skunk from his grill. Tim finally reaches the gravel bar on the island , pulls the pontoon onto the shore in a flash and drops the oars and stumbles down the bank still trying to put the brakes on this enormous fish. The fish sees a chink in Tim's armor and swims around a huge boulder, just out of wading distance off the end of the island. Tim makes a stand where he can and starts getting down and dirty with this big dude. Tim yards on this fish as hard as he dares and barely budges him. The fish is sulking down in some deeper water and is almost impossible to move. Tim makes one last effort to get the fish clear of the rock and momentarily gains the upper hand, actually gaining back some of the kite string he had just given up. The fish makes one last run for freedom, wraps the line around the rock and breaks off in a tail walking flurry across the pool. Tim, just trudges back to the pontoon and rows over to where I was standing and says quietly,"That was a big one man" This was probably one of the most awesome displays of fish fighting and boating skills I have ever seen in my life. Absolutely insane to watch!

We did find a few salmon and they tested our tackle to the max. Anyone who tells you that the chinook aren't bright up above the canyon is putting you on. We found plenty of big,hot, bright fish as far up as Shannon's. They like the swinging flies we used for steelhead just fine. If you haven't had the rod bending pull of a strong chinook you are missing out. To see a fish of 30+ lbs take to the air attached to a fly rod that is in your hand is something that cannot fully be explained. I landed one that was in the mid 40lb range that just tore me up.

Tim in a street fight with slambo

More coming.......

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