Category Archives: Behind the Curtain

An intimate glimpse into what it is like running a fly shop in a tiny village

Needing an Update

Yes,  I have been a little busy…  Sorry for the lack of posts…  Especially since we are having a TREMENDOUS sockeye run right now.  Last year,  we had 73 fish total through the weir.  As of two days ago,  we have over 25,000.  And basically no one here.  Is the run really strong,  or just really early…  no way to tell till it happens.  But boy,  the run is really on fire.  The parent year reached 118,000 fish and as of this date had 16,000 fish through.  We’re blowing the lid off that year.

And if you remember,  I predicted we’d see a 10,000 steelhead count…  Um…  it seems to be leveling off at right around 6,000…  In my defense,  we had a good storm right as the bulk of the steelhead were done spawning that flooded the river and made the weir non-fish tight for 4 days.  I’m going to say 4,000 fish escaped when the counters weren’t looking just because I want to be right and I have no other basis to prop up my argument…  It sure felt like a stronger run than that!

In other news…  I have my plane back finally.  It had been sitting in Sitka for the past 10 months,  after receiving a $17,000 annual that I couldn’t pay for till recently.  But she is back and we’re ready to go spend some time at the Italio cabin.  Speaking of which…

This has been a challenging year so far and so we are making a few changes.  My health problems over the past two months have taught me I need a day off occasionally…  We opened the fly shop 10 years ago this season working long hours without many days off for 9 months straight.  This summer,  we are going to be closed Sunday and Monday.  We’ll be back to 7 days a week in mid-August when silver season starts,  but in the meantime,  I’ll closing the doors two days a week to get a break.  Granted,  that probably means I’ll be out commercial fishing the Akwe with the family,  but if it isn’t a physical break,  it is a mental break from the fly shop and things I have to do around here.

It is hard living in your place of business.  You have no escape.  The phone rings 24/7,  customers come and go at all hours of the day and night…  In the past,  we said to just pull up and honk if we were closed and we’d come running downstairs to help.  I just can’t do that anymore…  Sorry.

And maybe I’ll even get a chance to fly fish for some sockeye again!  Haven’t done that in three years,  since I first showed Chris how.

Busy and Not-So-Busy

It is that summer season where I don’t have time to do all the things I want to do.  One of those things is keeping the blog updated.  I think I did a pretty good job through steelhead season,  but then I really dropped the ball through the pre-sockeye lull.

Oh,  what has been going on…  1) If you didn’t know this already,  we had an opportunity to buy the building here at the airport that the TSA and National Weather Service is in.  It is another older building that need a a lot of renovation work – exactly what I had time for…  We had been covering the “management” of it through the winter to help out a friend,  who was heading south for a couple months for some heath issues.  Well,  those health issues turned into going into hospice care till the end.  We decided to go ahead and buy into it as a partnership with another local couple,  but now it appears we have interest in renters for the remainder of the building – space that hasn’t been updated since the Forest Service moved out of it in the 70’s.  Complete with orange carpeting with cigarette burn holes throughout.  So,  this will be a complete resheetrocking of about 1,700 square feet,  new floors,  doors,  porches,  flooring, electrical,  heat and creating new ADA-compliant bathrooms and a kitchen.  By September 1st…  While we already need to remodel the other existing 5 bathrooms in the building to bring them up to ADA standards…

2) We’re also finally starting in on the hangar again.  Next month,  there will be two cruise ships coming to Yakutat for a brief visit.  The hangar will be one of their main stops,  where we’ll set up local vendors and assemble Yakutat’s motley fleet of aircraft for a bit of an aircraft museum-ish feel.  That mean I need to finally get the bathrooms in here too.  The whole hangar bay will need to be cleaned out and uncluttered,  so it is presentable…

3) We just held our first Saturday Market last weekend and there will be two more of those the last Saturdays of July and August.

4) Commercial fishing on the Akwe starts tomorrow morning at 6am and will run each week for 36 hours.  Tanis and I will fly out each Saturday night to do that and sometimes if Chris can cover the shop,  Teen and Eden will come out with us.  That’s what happens this week anyway…

5) We just picked up the mail handling contract with Alaska Central Express,  so every morning except Sunday,  we have to meet the ACE plane and haul the mail to the Post Office.  We’re one month into that now and I miss sleeping in!  I’m a little tired (and cranky) right now…

6) Our fueling project is finally moving forward after 2 years,  so that is also draining my time away,  but at least in theory that will help fund an employee,  so I can pawn some of this off on someone else to help with the workload around here.  In theory…

Oh,  there is more but I won’t belabor it right now.  Hopefully I’ll get to share some of it as exciting news,  rather than use it as an excuse for not posting any updates.  Now after my whining,  I’ll get a long-overdue fishing report in…

What Occupies our Day

Ah…  the glamorous life of a fly shop owner…  I used to have guys pass through the shop in the early years tell me they dream of running a fly shop because they love to fish so much.  They don’t say that to me anymore because they know how little I get to fish now…  When the fishing is good,  I’m chained to the counter,  so I can help you guys catch fish.  Still rewarding and a pleasure to do,  but fish…?  Not so much.  Instead,  this is what I get to do…

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Our order of 14mm mottled tangerine beads arrived with a problem.  Only about 1/4th of them had holes.  I didn’t realize this until someone came in and complained.  OOPS!  Troutbeads said the plate must have been too hot,  so the holes sealed themselves back up as they cooled.  They sent me a new batch of beads,  but it takes a month to get things up here.  One of the reasons we have to be such a “well stocked” shop – if we don’t have the goods,  we won’t sell the goods.  You can’t wait a month for our order to show up (our Simms order took a month to move from Anchorage to Yakutat this spring!).  We gotta have beads and THIS is THE bead!

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So…  Chris,  Teen and I spend an evening going through every single bead packet,  sorting the ones with holes from the ones without,  then we drilled about a thousand holes in plastic beads.  We started off trying to melt the hole through with a heated safety pin.  It worked OK,  but usually left a black spot on the bead.  Out came the screw gun and a search through the hangar for drill bits small enough.

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About 4 hours later,  we had some packets of 14mm mottled tangerine beads to sell.  And a couple holes in my finger.  So much for getting to bed early that,  or getting a blog post in that night…

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I have a lot of days that go like that.  Not exactly productive,  but you had beads to fish with.  At least someone got to fish with them,  ’cause it sure wasn’t me…  Did I mention I needed a day off?  I’ll be less crabby when I get back from a couple days at the cabin.  I promise!

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Now that the season is winding down,  I may actually get to go rip some lips again.  Maybe…

Steelheaders are Funny…

I really do love this time of year.  Spring brings warmer weather and the ability to get out and enjoy our life in Yakutat to the fullest.  We’re seeing a little traffic through the shop,  so after our long dark winter,  we have a little cash flow to start getting caught back up on our winter bills.

Chris with a nice little dolly

Chris with a nice little dolly

And we have the early arrival of the steelhead season.  Steelheaders are serious fishermen.  This is THE thing they do and enjoy.  Salmon season brings a lot more people,  but the steelheaders are SERIOUS fishermen.  It is all about the fishing.

Because steelheaders tend to be so serious,  they tend to be very competitive.  Competitive means one can’t share their particular secrets with your competition.  Subtle deception is a necessary ingredient for beating those around you and even those who will be coming in the weeks that follow.  You must have a leg up on even the people who will be fishing long after you have already returned home.

Me with a fish on in my favorite fishing hole

Me with a fish on in my favorite fishing hole (my secret location)

Ahh…  fishing reports…  It is hard to believe that we are now beginning our 8th season in the fly shop.  8 years of trying to keep my reports page as up to date and accurate as possible.  The majority of the reports I receive are as accurate as I could hope for – from the perspective of the fisherman.  Obviously you have a lot of skill-level and effort to factor in,  since some guys have a lot of skill and knowledge of this river and will undoubtedly be more successful.  And you have those who don’t do this particular river but once a year and are less successful.  Their reports are going to be a bit less enthusiastic.

A bright-as-a-dime hen steelie

A bright-as-a-dime hen steelie

Then you have the “competitors”.  They seem to have a compulsion to distort,  or fabricate their accuracy.  Granted all fishermen lie – in fact we have a license to lie!  Size,  numbers,  patterns…  I think I’m pretty good at sifting through the fudge to find what may actually be happening on the river.  But then you have the flat-out lie-their-pants-off fishermen…  They crack me up.

Chris took this photo of a juvenile bald eagle during the winter steelhead run,  who got himself soaked in the Situk and couldn't fly - ice forming on his wings and no way to help the poor doomed bird

Chris took this photo of a juvenile bald eagle during the winter steelhead run, who got himself soaked in the Situk and couldn’t fly – ice forming on his wings and no way to help the poor doomed bird

You really think I’ll believe that after 8 years of you never catching anything,  you’d be returning every single year for the same slot?  Really?  I don’t sit around hanging on every word every fisherman utters.  There are those who I trust and those,  who I verify.  And those I completely ignore.  I do sometimes post the outlier report just for variety,  but usually you can read the guy who’s level of bullshit exceeds his ability to justify why he comes back to do so poorly year after year.

My favorite (sarcasm here) is the guy who demands accurate reports that he reads religiously before he comes,  then tries to give crap reports while he is here.  There are a LOT of these guys.  They want to know what to truly expect,  then want to give everyone else false info.  Hey,  what ever floats your driftboat.  If you think you are clever,  you aren’t.  Everyone can read you like the open book you are.  That’s OK though.  I enjoy the game.  It is all part of the life of a fly shop owner I guess.  Weeding through the nonsense,  so I can hopefully be as helpful as possible to the people who deserve my encouragement and support.

March 30th,  2008,  Teen is doing the final cleaning of our construction dust before we officially open two days later...

March 30th, 2008, Teen is doing the final cleaning of our construction dust before we officially open two days later…

Don’t get me wrong,  I really love what I do.  This has been a fun and educational 8 years.  Starting out,  I knew a lot about salmon,  but virtually nothing about steelhead.  It has been my customers,  who have enlightened me about the ins and outs of these wonderful trout.  I still only fish about 2 weeks a year on average for steelhead,  so most of you still know more than I do.  I appreciate your patience and kindness to this ignorant recovering commercial fisherman.

A chrome-bright Situk steelhead

A chrome-bright Situk steelhead

After 8 years,  the fly shop still isn’t paying us.  We continue to grow our inventory to where a real fly shop should be and that doesn’t leave anything left (yet).  16 hours a day,  9 straight months without a break with no pay…  but we are still thoroughly having a great time.  A great time because of you.  Thank you for helping us and joining us for this journey.  This shop is succeeding because of you.  Without you,  we’d be nowhere.  Sometimes I’m not sure where we are,  but we’re still open and still getting a little better with each passing day.

One of Chris' many steelhead on that damn Dolly Llama

One of Chris’ many steelhead on that damn Dolly Llama

Now if all your fishing reports could be based on some sort of reality,  that would be a help.  But I’ll take what I can get…  even if sometimes just for the entertainment value.

A fly shop devoid of any fly fishing stuff - this is a week after we opened and there was still this much empty space!

A fly shop devoid of any fly fishing stuff – this is a week after we opened and there was still this much empty space!

About that Alaska Dispatch Article…

We’re still down in Gustavus at the moment and I just had the opportunity to get online to read that article… WOW! That was “disturbing”! It is hard to read about yourself. I wish that could have been more about the river and run instead of about the personalities – especially my personality. Yuck!

I told the reporter to call Brian at Fish and Game, so fortunately he was featured for the actual interesting and valuable information (unlike the strange parts about me…). If you have a chance to call or visit with Brian Marston, it will be well worth your time. Not sure if Brian wants to be flooded with calls every day, but he is an incredible wealth of information about the Steelhead run and their behavior.

It is a little odd that I’m so closely associated with the Situk River now. The Situk has never been my area of expertise, compared to the Italio and Akwe. Bob and Frank are the real experts on the Situk and have been guiding the river as long as I have been alive! A couple of the Yakutat Lodge guides (most notably Aaron) spend more days in one season on the river than I have spent ever. For a thorough knowledge of Situk Steelhead and real information, look to Brian, Bob, Frank and Aaron far more reliably than to me. And I would throw John Latham under the bus as well, for knowledge and experience of the Yakutat area. John is in my opinion the best fly fishing specific guide in Yakutat. Unfortunately he just doesn’t do it all that much anymore.

Reading someone else’s article is hard. The things I think are important end up on the cutting room floor, while some of the casual quotes that I didn’t think important end up being featured as a highlight of the story.  He did an admirable job under the circumstances,  while piecing together the weird nonsense I babbled to him on the phone.

The biggest problem with my fishing reports are that I tend to hear a lot more from the people who are struggling.  The guys having a great week out there tend not to need any help from the local fly shop, so my reports do tend to be on the negative side.  For instance…  over the past couple weeks,  the river flows have been well below average.  There are still plenty of fish throughout the mid-river for anyone to have a pretty good day.  Underwhelming for Situk standards,  but it’d be an incredible trip anywhere else.  Still nothing coming out of the lake and the cold water stopped fresh fish from coming in – so nothing at the top and bottom,  but probably a thousand fish between the bridge and the weir.  For the dozen or so people here over the past couple weeks,  that’s a lot of fish per angler!  I’d be disappointed by the fishing,  but I’m very spoiled.  A bad day on the Situk is still a great day…

About 4 days ago,  clouds came in and kept our nighttime temperature up.  Day heated the water to 42 degrees,  but the night low held at 38F.  That is the PERFECT range of temperature and big shock!  We had two days of fresh fish coming in at the bottom.  Still nothing out of the lake though,  until we get more flow…  And that is another “problem” with my reports…  They tend to be a day or two delayed,  since I rarely get same-day reports off the river.  By the time most people are off the river in the evening,  it is too late to come in and share any news with me.

I’m far from the most knowledgeable guy out there on the Situk.  I’m learning a LOT every season and I hope getting a little better at providing useful information to the people coming up/down here.  I am so thankful to you guys,  for sharing your experiences and knowledge with me over these few years we have had the fly shop.  You have taught me a tremendous amount of stuff,  for a guy who opened a fly shop in a remote Alaskan village,  who had never been in a fly shop before he started building one…  Boy,  was I truly clueless!  Now I’m only kind-of clueless.

And I can’t end this without extending a huge thank you to Chris,  for all his knowledge and enthusiasm he has shared with me over the past year.  He has been a wonderful gift for us!

http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/20140417/spectacular-steelhead-fishery-yakutat-good-way-kick-season-anglers

PS.  Thanks John and Dawn for the photo I sent him to illustrate the article.  Timing was perfect,  but so was the photo you took Dawn!

 

Avoiding the Computer

I managed to go all of Christmas without turning my computer on!  Yay!  I hope your Christmas was merry.  We had a wet Christmas Day here in Yakutat,  with a light drizzle falling.  Woke to about 1/2 inch of snow this morning.  River conditions look great at the moment,  with relatively warm water and air through the weekend.  I doubt I’ll make it out there to fish,  but you never know.  I would guess there are still steelhead in the usual places above the bridge.  I may just have to pry myself away from the hangar just to rub in a steelheading day,  while Chris is away!

Kind of a sad looking snowpile this morning.  DOT spent yesterday shaving off parts of it in the warm weather,  making it into more of a column than a pile.

Kind of a sad looking snowpile this morning. DOT spent yesterday shaving off parts of it in the warm weather, making it into more of a column than a pile.

We had an inspection from the State of Alaska DOT,  with some of the movers and shakers coming for a tour of the little ol’ Yakutat airport.  I took them on a LONG tour of the hangar,  showing off all we have done so far and what we have NOT done.  It is getting harder and harder to do “full tours” now that we don’t have the “control” area to show – an area of non-renovated space.  It is hard for most to understand what we have done because we no longer have any space that hasn’t been touched or improved in some way.  Except for the outside siding of course…  That is still a major eyesore,  but that 73 year old siding is still protecting most of the building well enough – even if it is as ugly as sin.

The new retail shops are in clusters of 2 that share a main entrance.  They will have French doors that open to the main building entry.  These two also have the stairwell exit from the 2nd floor,  where the flight crew apartment and flight school classroom will be.

The new retail shops are in clusters of 2 that share a main entrance. They will have French doors that open to the main building entry. These two also have the stairwell exit from the 2nd floor, where the flight crew apartment and flight school classroom will be.

These two shops will be fairly large (each slightly smaller than the fly shop).  The other two shops toward the corner of the building are 20'x2-' and 20'x10' respectively.

These two shops will be fairly large (each slightly smaller than the fly shop). The other two shops toward the corner of the building are 20’x20′ and 20’x10′ respectively.

Looking from the bottom of the stairwell toward the building entrance (in the dark on the right) into what we are calling the "Adventure Shop" for now.

Looking from the bottom of the stairwell toward the building entrance (in the dark on the right) into what we are calling the “Adventure Shop” for now.

We still hope to have the 4 new retail shops completed and “available” by this coming summer,  but it all comes down to finances and what we can afford to finish.  I hope someone in Yakutat will want to have their own retail shop and fill these spaces with something exciting.  If not,  we’ll open something,  but I’d much prefer someone else taking on some business growth in Yakutat…

Fresh home-made cinnamon rolls just out of the oven

Fresh home-made cinnamon rolls just out of the oven

With my cream cheese icing...

With my cream cheese icing…

We had a lovely and quiet Christmas.  We didn’t set up a tree at the house,  so celebrated Christmas here in my office this year.  We baked fresh bread and treats and shared some of them with the folks who had to work on the holiday around town.  Fortunately it did NOT snow,  so not as many people had to be out clearing the roads and runway this year.

High ceilings means a 10' 2" tree this year!  And a higher power bill...

High ceilings means a 10′ 2″ tree this year! And a higher power bill…

We spent Christmas Eve watching the WEIRD 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House.  Really WEIRD!  With nothing to do with Christmas...

We spent Christmas Eve watching the WEIRD 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House. Really WEIRD! With nothing to do with Christmas…

Another lazy day or two and then we’ll start in on our end-of-the-year inventories and taxes for 7 businesses.  Our biggest seller this Christmas around the shop was definitely the rare books we brought in throughout the year.  I have just been selling the de Laguna books for my cost as a way of “bring them home” to Yakutat.  Not exactly a money maker for us,  but the cash flow at the end of the year has been nice.

We’ll be “closed” for the next three months,  but OPEN if anyone needs anything.  Having the doors locked for the shop just means I can be more productive with construction instead of having to have one foot in the shop every day.  If anyone needs anything,  but send me an e-mail,  call,  or honk the horn in the parking lot.  We’ll come running around and open for you.  “Closing” the fly shop doesn’t actually mean we’re closed,  just that we have a different hat on for a little while.

Take care and be safe this New Year.  I have some more work to do around here,  but then I promise to catch you up on all that we did over this past season.  Then on to the next season in 2014…  Another tough year,  but also an incredible year for us.  We do truly have a blessed life,  in no small part because of the wonderful encouragement and support you have shown us through thick and thin.

Thank you!

Thank you,  Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from the Miller family,  up here in Yakutat!

Thank you, Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from the Miller family, up here in Yakutat!

Continuing to Struggle Online…

We continue to wait for the new HughesNet dish transmitter.  And wait,  and wait…  Unable to upload any photos and barely able to check e-mail.  I have so much to share,  but unfortunately I can’t right now.  Sorry.

Hope you are all well as we enter October and watch the snowline on the mountains get lower and lower.  The silver season was OK.  Nothing great,  but it was early.  The peak sure looked spectacular,  but then the run pretty much collapsed a little earlier than I would have liked.  There are still fish out there,  but only scattered pockets here and there.  Some guys leaving today said they did really well on the Situk this week.  Everyone else said “they had fun,  but the fishing wasn’t too hot”.  These are the guys who come every October to avoid the crowds and are prepared to see fewer fish on occasion.

We’re settling into storage and construction mode now.  The shop will stay open through till after Christmas,  but we’ll have the doors locked Sunday and Monday.  We’ll still be here working,  but not paying attention to the front door every day in hopes of being a little more productive.

Yes,  we will be doing hangar storage,  but…  ALL storage must be out of the hangar May 1st,  2014 because we will be doing hangar bay renovations that may include asbestos abatement.  No exceptions.  Also,  we do plan to store for the 2014/15 winter season as well,  but that will be our last season of boat and vehicle storage.  Two more winters and we’ll be done.  There are now two other locals who are working on building new storage facilities.  Hopefully they will be able to accommodate everyone.

As soon as this darned part arrives,  we’ll be back up and running full strength and I can resume posting photos,  movies and stories from this past season.