July 16, 2008

Minnesota Anglers Take the Slow Flight to Alaska, Fishing on the Way

The scenery was breathtaking, the fishing spectacular.

And the people two Minnesota men encountered along their 7,000-mile, three-week trek in small floatplanes from Minnesota to Alaska and back were simply unforgettable.

"The mountains, oceans and fishing was phenomenal, but I think the people is what we'll remember 20 or 30 years from now," said pilot Wolfgang Greiner, 52, of Bloomington. "We ran into open, generous people every day."

Their itinerary would make an angler_or pilot_drool.

Greiner and buddy Phil Mattison, 51, of Forest Lake, each flew small single-engine two-seat airplanes_with the rear seats removed and stuffed with survival gear, rifles, bear spray and extra gas, over some of the most remote and stunning wilderness in North America. And they swooped down and fished some of the best waters in the world, catching feisty grayling, big lake trout, monster northerns, slab halibut and tasty walleyes.

"Every day was full of flying or fishing," Greiner said.

They flew over glaciers, through snow-capped mountain passes and over mile after mile of desolate wilderness. Though both have traveled around the world and have flown in the far north tundra county, they had never been to Alaska.

They were mesmerized.

"We'd be flying along and come around a bend in the valley with spectacular mountains all around and we'd say, 'Wow, this is the greatest thing we've ever seen,' " Greiner said. "Then we'd fly around another bend and say, 'Oh my gosh, this is even better.' "

Added Greiner: "We saw grizzlies, moose, caribou, whales, seals ... it's such an incredible environment. We've seen the movies and pictures, but until you're there looking at it ..."

Greiner and Mattison occasionally landed on remote lakes and fished from their floatplanes.

"That's Phil's passion," Greiner said. "He caught a number of nice lake trout right off the floats."

A guy fueling their planes in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, told them they just had to fish the east arm of Great Slave Lake for some of the finest lake trout fishing in the world. So they flew into a fishing camp and angled with a guide for two days.

"We fished ourselves absolutely silly on lake trout and big northerns," Greiner said. Mattison caught a 42-inch northern.

"The northerns were in the shallow bays," Greiner said. "We'd have a fish on every other cast."

The lake trout, too, hit aggressively and averaged 12 to 15 pounds. Mattison landed a 20-pounder. "The water was so clear, you could see them come up and hit the spoons," Greiner said. "It was just continuous action."

In Alaska, the salmon weren't running, so the pair flew to a small town and fished halibut for a couple days.

"I caught a 90-pounder," Greiner said. "By their standards it was pretty average, but for a walleye fisherman from Minnesota, pulling in a 90-pound fish that came up like a sheet of plywood was pretty exciting."

Mattison flew a yellow 1999 Cub Crafters Super Cub and Greiner a red 1998 Aviat Husky, both with single 180-horsepower engines. "They can hit 75 mph or 85 mph, depending on the wind," Mattison said.

"These are small airplanes. They're like a motorcycle with wings," he said. They spent about 75 hours in the cockpits. They chatted with each other via radio as they flew.

Both planes were equipped with amphibious floats with retractable wheels, so they could land on water or land. That gave them flexibility.

Still, refueling was a major concern in the remote areas they flew. Running out of fuel, of course, could be a fatal mistake. But getting fuel in remote regions sometimes was problematic.

"A big part of every day was calling ahead to verify that there was going to be fuel where we were going," Greiner said. Some places had fuel, but it was reserved for local planes.

They occasionally had to resort to using automotive fuel.

The cost of fuel, of course, has been rising, and the cost in remote areas was sky-high.

"The least expensive was $4.60 a gallon in Grand Marais, Minn., on the way home," Greiner said. "The most expensive was a little over $9 a gallon" in the Northwest Territories.

They encountered no major mechanical problems.

Both men, buddies since college at the University of Minnesota, said they were struck by the people they met along the way who offered them flying and fishing tips_and sometimes a place to stay.

"We made friends all along the way," Greiner said.

And memories.

There was the caribou they had to scare off a runway in the Northwest Territories before they could land. And the black bear that ate their freshly caught fried walleyes in Ontario.

And grayling they caught at midnight on the summer solstice, when night never came.

"It was a spectacular trip," Mattison said.


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