“Welcome back to the “Winter Doldrums’”, read the message on the marquis in front of the local fly shop. My buddy and I just glanced at each other and went inside anyway. I was hosting a bonefish trip to Mexico in less than a month. I had chosen a local fly shop to meet with everyone on the trip to assist with gear prep, clothing needs, travel details, etc. You know, all those things that a good host should do instead of just sending a pack list/itinerary and hoping for the best. Once we were inside the shop, it didn’t take long for me to realize the twelve inches of newly fallen snow and more than 60 days of frigid temperatures had won the battle for “chipper attitude of the month.” Hence the marquis message.
Notice I said “a local fly shop”, not “my local fly shop.” The majority of the guests on that particular trip were from the upper Midwest, so I chose a fly shop most convenient to them to meet. Plane tickets were cheap for me back then. Alas, the old days of AirTran. I had spoken with the shop owner in great detail about our trip meeting. I had hoped it would generate some revenue for the shop as well as help him get into the travel fishing business. It seemed like a grand idea to use his shop, and it was. As the group started filing in one by one, the vibe in the room went from mass melancholia to downright elation in just a few minutes. It’s funny how just a little bit of talk about planning a fishing trip can change the mood.
Nowadays, I plan all my fishing trips in January/February. It is a superb time to have a get together with my buddies and plan a trip. My family calls it angler-based group psychotherapy. Either way, the timing works. Over the years, we have put together so many trips. Some turned out beyond great, others not so much. Through all the group therapy down in the fly-tying shop, I have learned that following a particular planning protocol will lead to a more successful trip, no matter if I am booking a lodge or going full DIY. In addition, the amount of flexibility I am willing to bestow makes a difference as well. The following is the way I plan not only for myself but for anyone who asks me to help them plan their fishing trip. Since the last two decades of my guiding career have been based in Alaska, we will work with that planning protocol. However, you will find that using this protocol will work for just about anywhere you want to go, third world countries included.
1) Decide what species of fish you want to target.This seems simple, doesn’t it?One would think so. Put 10 anglers in a room and start the discussion and you will find out that 6 of them are like minded when it comes to what species they want to target on any particular trip. Singling out a particular species to target for this fishing trip is the very most important part. Everything else will fall into place after that. Once this obstacle is overcome, move to step 2. Don't jump ahead in line. Trust the protocol.
2) Decide where you want to travel to target the chosen species. This is the part where you get to control the financial commitment towards your fishing trip. For example; I have decided that I really want to catch giant, clowned up, sea run Dolly Varden. I would love to travel to some remote portion of Siberia to cast to a Dolly that has absolutely never seen a human, much less been fished to. Without a doubt, it would be the trip of a lifetime, right up until I see that it’s gonna cost a second, third, and fourth mortgage. So that gives me the opportunity to reevaluate my financial commitment to another location. Once you've got this nailed down, move to step 3.
3) Deciding when you go is pretty easy after steps one and two are done, especially with Alaska trips. Most of the fishing is based around the migration of Pacific salmon and their lifecycle as a target species, or a food source for another species of fish that capitalizes on salmon eggs and flesh. So, if I wanted to target king salmon during the peak of the run on the Nushagak River, I would plan to be there in late June. But, if I wanted to target leopard rainbows behind spawning sockeye in a creek, I would go mid-August. Now we have that established, go to step 4.
4) Last, and certainly far from least, is how to go. How you go encompasses everything left about your trip. Are you going to DIY or book a lodge? Maybe you want to do a combination of DIY and day trips with a guide. I look at every option available, how much it costs, and figure out the bang for the buck. In some cases, a DIY trip turned into a fully guided lodge booked trip, only because the lodge had a special price that coincided with my species and timing. The lodge price wasn't much more than the DIY price estimate, and all the guess work was taken out of the program. Therefore, it was easily worth doing the lodge deal. This doesn't always happen, but it’s worth doing the research.
If you are like most of us self-taught anglers and wouldn't dream of doing a guided lodge trip even if budget wasn't a concern, I implore you to do your research. Make sure that where you are going and what you are targeting is still a viable thing. If you are doing a DIY raft trip for trout, make sure the river you chose has a good trout population in it. Alaska seems like a dreamy wonderland for all cold-water salmonids, but everything is cyclical. Just make sure. Don’t trust social media. Not all lodge owners and booking agents are telling the truth, some are just selling empty beds and boat seats. Probably the most valued asset you can find is a trip consultant. A trip consultant doesn't have any allegiance to a lodge or travel company, and for a couple hundred dollars, you will gain more information than you bargain for.
So, call your friends over, smoke a brisket, and plan a trip. It will do wonders for your mental state and seasonal affective disorder.