KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Walt Panchyshyn dreamed often of traveling to Alaska, not only for its spectacular scenery, but to sample its world-class fishing. Particularly fishing for salmon.
"But (I) didn't want to pay $4,000 a week for a lodge, or see anglers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, like they do on my hometown stream."
With prompting from Marlis, his wife, and his sons Tony and Mike, Panchyshyn did some research and found a way to turn his dream into an affordable vacation reality. The Panchyshyns rented a wilderness cabin in one of Alaska's national forests for $20 per day, and enjoyed some of the best silver salmon fishing of their lives, returning home to money in the bank. Panchyshyn says his memorable fishing excursion to Alaska cost less than $300 per person, excluding air fare.
Less adventurous anglers commonly pay thousands per week to receive such lodge amenities as five-course dinners, having their sheets turned back at night, being flown into wilderness areas each day to fish, and even having their fish unhooked by lodge staffers.
But, if you don't mind catching and cleaning your own fish, cooking your own meals, and you enjoy hiking along miles of established trails in a wilderness environment away from the crowds, then you're a prime candidate for a do-it-yourself Alaska salmon and trout adventure.
For the $20 per-day rate, outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy any of 197 cabins operated by the U.S. Forest Service and nestled in isolated salt water bays, or on remote streams filled with migrating salmon.
Some are in mountain passes in designated wilderness areas, where cutthroat and rainbow trout abound. Chances are you'll have the stream or lake to yourself and the mountain goats, brown and black bears, deer and moose.
The cabins generally are modern and well-maintained, with furnishings that include an oil- or wood-burning stove, table and benches, but not beds. Many offer boats, oars, outhouse and firewood. Several cabins have ramps and boardwalks for the handicapped.
The greatest difficulty posed by the cabin system is choosing which one is right for your needs and desires. However, Fairbanks authors Chris and Adela Batin have helped solve that problem. For two years, they worked in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and produced a 356-page book that details the fishing opportunities at each cabin location as well as the best lures, flies and techniques used by the experts.
Also included is information on other activities available at each cabin, such as photography, wildlife viewing and hiking. The book is titled "Fishing Alaska on Dollars a Day: A Comprehensive Guide to Fishing and Outdoor Recreation in Alaska's National Forests."
According to Chris Batin, an 18-year resident of Alaska and editor of The Alaska Angler, a newsletter, Alaska's national forests are this country's best-kept sportfishing vacation secret. The 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest offers more than 120,000 acres of fish-bearing lakes and 23,000 miles of streams. More than 5.5 million acres are wilderness. The 5.9-million-acre Chugach National Forest contains about 70,000 acres of lakes and 8,000 miles of streams.
According to figures provided by the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, Oregon, Northern California, Idaho and Michigan have a combined 15,000 miles of streams in national forests that support populations of salmon and trout.
National Forests in Alaska, however, support more than 30,000 miles of streams, yet are exposed to only 16,000 hours of fishing annually. Meanwhile, national forests in Alaska annually produce more than 153 million pounds of commercially caught fish. The closest runner-up is Washington and Oregon, with 7.5 million pounds.
"What that means," Batin says, "is an abundance of sportfishing opportunities available to anglers, whether they be veterans or newcomers to the sport. When fish are packed from bank to bank, it's hard not to have a hookup."
The book offers explanatory listings, photographs and topographical maps for each cabin and surrounding scenery, most of which are located on prime trout, steelhead, char and salmon streams and lakes. It also includes tips on enjoying each site. One listing points out that a cabin at Anan Creek cabin has a stream that is excellent for photographing brown bear and fishing for salmon.
"The forest service built a large shelter from which to photograph brown bears in safety," Batin said. "It's ideal. And 400 yards downstream, anglers are catching salmon for themselves."
The book also lists specifics on bird rookeries and marine mammal concentrations, and tips on locating the best beachcombing areas.
According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, the top reasons given by travelers for visiting southeast Alaska are its national forests and fishing. In that survey, 87% of all respondents expressed medium to high satisfaction with the U.S. Forest Service cabins.