Alaska Fly-in Float Trips With Pontoon Boats
by Larry Tullis

When the float plane flies away and leaves you in the middle of a wilderness wonderland, hope that your planning was complete because you have a great adventure at hand and your own strengths to complete it. I do numerous Alaska float trips in my pontoon boats. We at North Fork Outdoors get asked often how we do it or if they can come along with me to see how it's done. I don't take many people and like to keep groups small so that:

1. We and our gear can fit in one float plane.
2. There are not so many people that the fish get hammered too quickly.
3. Remote camp spots are underdeveloped and best suited for small groups. So don't take big groups.

Here are some tips if your adventure bone is itching so you can do it yourself:

Doing Alaska yourself doesn't take too much money, (much less than a lodge). In fact, you can buy 3 boats and take 2 friends along for much less than a top Alaska fly-out lodge (which is $5,000-$7,000 per week plus airfare just for one person).

A successful trip is all about setting up the right logistics and going with the right boat and equipment. Float plane taxi operators in Alaska are great sources of trip info. Contact them to get suggested floats in their service area. Ask about fishing and type of whitewater you might see. They get reports daily from guys they pick up so they often have the latest reports. They can usually change the itinerary on short notice if conditions change too. I'll have a list of Alaska waters you might investigate listed later. Read books on Alaska and check websites of the Air Taxis, float trip guides and river running organizations. Some have detailed descriptions of each float.

Beginners may want to go with a guide the first time but most people with camping and river running experience can do it themselves with the right planning. Once you have decided on a river, decide what time of year you'd like to go. If you want certain species, make sure they are in the river at the time you will be there. Generally, think king salmon or rainbow trout in June, sockeye salmon, rainbow trout and dolly varden in July, silver salmon, rainbow trout and dolly varden in August and silver salmon and big egg/flesh fed rainbow trout in September. Every watershed is a little different, so get some local info on runs and best times.

Once you have a trip outlined, get some friends interested and get flights booked and organize equipment. A typical trip to Alaska from the lower 48 involves 2-3 flights each direction. For example: Home to Anchorage, Anchorage to Iliamna, Dillingham, King Salmon, etc. and the float plane trip from your jump off town to the wilderness head water of your choice. This gets you deep into the Alaska bush for the most adventure and often the best fishing. The float plane pilot will then pick you up at a designated place and time at the end of your float. Destinations from Anchorage or other large Alaska towns get fished more but save you an intermediate flight. Renting a car and doing some road accessed floats is possible also.

Choose a boat that can handle the weight (you and gear) and the whitewater of the trip. Generally an 8' pontoon boat (like our Box Canyon) is too small for all but easy day trips with little, if any, whitewater. A 9' boat (like our Henry's Fork or Madison) is okay for class I-II rivers and backpacking style lightweight gear. A 10 1/2' boat (like our Skykomish Sunrise) allows you to take a few luxuries for class II-III+ rivers. An 11' boat (like our new Northwest Express) can fit 1-2 people plus gear for up to class IV whitewater. A 13' boat (like our McKenzie X2) is great for 1-2 people and lots of gear. A 16' boat (like our McKenzie X4) is great for 2-3 people plus a weeks gear. I'd advise being cautious about whitewater because wilderness compounds danger by the difficulty of rescue if needed. Besides whitewater, you need to handle sweepers, log jams, braids, bad weather, bugs and bears on many trips.

Choose a quality 3 or 4 person tent, a 30 degrees or better sleeping bag, dry bags and other camping/backpacking gear. I like to think "backpacking on water". That means quality lightweight outdoor gear and clothing, carefully chosen so you don't have too much but enough to meet conditions. Avoid cotton clothing in cool, wet conditions.

Airline weight and size restrictions are getting harder to anticipate. In general: you can have 2-50 lb. to 75 lb. bags plus a carry-on or two for most flights. Oversize, overweight or extra baggage pieces sometimes result in extra fees of $25-$200. Since float planes have strict weight restrictions, most floaters opt to buy a little leeway by paying for an extra bag or two. Another option is to air freight up your gear a couple weeks before the trip or shop for food once you get there.

No fuels are allowed aboard commercial planes so plan on buying cooking propane just before your float plane ride. I prefer to go with dried and freeze-dried foods, power bars, gorp, jerky, tortillas, etc. so the foods come sealed in plastic or foil. I then pack it in plastic lined, bear-resistant, backpacking canisters. Figure 1 1/2-2 pounds dry weight per person per day. Make sure you have a good water filter.

As far as bears go, I see lots (60 on a recent trip to American Creek) but have not had any problems with them. Read a book on how to deal with bears. It is mostly common sense stuff like don't camp on a bear trail, keep food and other smelly items out of camp. Don't eat where you sleep and so on. A friend brought along a portable electric bear fence last trip that operated on D cells that works well if you're worried about bears at night or leaving camp unattended during the day.

Some Alaska floats you may consider include: Alagnak River, American Creek, Ongivinuk River, Togiak River, Arolik River, Kisarolik River, Willow Creek, Lake Creek, Chilikadrotna River, Mulchatna River, King Salmon Creek, Aniakchak River, Kobuk River, Karluk River, Naknet River, Kvichak River, Morraine Creek, Kenai River, Agulapak River...and there are many others.

Suggested gear list for Alaska float:

* 2 to 3 large duffel bags for boat and gear
* Carry-on day pack, camera case
* Dry bag (inside duffel bag so airlines don't scuff holes in it)
* Rod case if fishing
* Pontoons, frames, straps, pins, seat, cargo deck, 3 oarlocks, 3 oars, side bags
* Straps, bungee cords, tie off and lining rope, fins (optional)
* Repair kit, wire, duct tape, sewing awl, glue, patches, tools
* Life jacket with rope knife attached

* Tent, poles, rain fly, stakes, ground cloth
* Sleeping bag, sleeping pad and/or cot

* Electric bear fence (optional)
* Flashlight and batteries
* Bathroom kit, toilet paper, baby wipes, micro towel
* Plastic bags, rubber bands, zip-loc bags
* Camera/s, batteries and film/tapes/chips, lens cloth, tripod (optional)
* Leatherman style multi-tool
* Notebook, pen, pencil, book
* Small dry bag for easy to get items
* Maps, compass, G.P.S. (optional), binoculars
* First aid kit, medications
* Parachute cord, rope
* Plane tickets, hotel reservations & intinerary
* Wallet, picture ID, cash, credit cards, checks, fishing and/or hunting licenses, important phone numbers
* Insect repellant, sun screen, lip balm, head net
* Firearm in lockable hardcase (declared), ammo (separate baggage), cleaning kit (optional)
* NOTE: Pepper spray is not allowed on commercial flights
* Fleece jacket, thermals, socks, gloves
* Pants, shorts, shirts, underwear, hat, warm hat
* Hiking shoes and/or camp shoes
* Rain jacket and rain pants (if no waders)
* Water filter, water container, liter bottle, cup
* Spoon, fork, plate
* Cooking/boiling pot/s with handle and lid, spatula
* Bio soap and scrub pad
* Napkins or paper towels, trash bags
* Stove, fuel (not on commercial flights), lighter, matches
* 1 1/2 to 2 pounds dry weight per person per day
* Bear resistant containers, dry liner bags
* Spices, salt, hot sauce, cooking oil
* Rods, reels, spools, reel case
* Vest, tippet, leaders, weights, strike indicators, flies, fly boxes, hemostat, nippers, hook hone, knot tool, dry fly floatant, cleaning pad, weigh scale, thermometer
* Waders, wading shoes, wading belt, wader patch kit
* Mini fly tying kit (optional)
* Polarized fishing sunglasses 2 pr.

Planning your own trip takes lots of work, but for me dreaming, scheming, researching and gearing up is half the fun of the float fishing adventure. Alaska float trips are lots of adventure for the money and should be on every anglers or outdoor persons "to do" list.

DISCLAIMER: All water sports, including Alaska float trips, are inherently dangerous. Wear life jackets, choose proper boats, gear and locations for your skill level. Suggestions in this article are from our experience and may not work for you. Read and study any materials relating to safety for your chosen activity. Enjoy your time afield and be safe!