Some of the first Alaska hunting conversations that fell on my young ears took place in the local Kenai barbershop in the early 1970s. There were always men hanging out there, some to get a haircut, some to talk hunting, some for both. Even in those days, perhaps the best of times for Alaska hunting, the talk always turned to "flying out" and how that was the route to good hunting. Nearly 50 years have passed and that sentiment has more validity than ever. But is it worth the price of admission?
Maybe. Maybe not.
It seems circumspect, depending on the desired outcome of a fly-in hunt. If the intent is feeding the family with the "free meat" hunting is supposed to provide, it may not pencil out. Assuming success with a moose-sized animal, once you consider all of the costs, it may not prove economical.
If the goal is obtaining protein from a source unfettered by the various and sundry chemicals applied to meat for the masses, that's another story. In the modern world, it's difficult to put a price on a food source you know is untainted.
If the goal is to get away from civilization and go where you don't see another person for 10 days and experience one of the last vestiges of wilderness remaining in the world, you'll hit a home run every time. Some would argue, the author included, that a relaxed hunter is a successful hunter.
How well one does the work of investigating the game, the chosen area, the timing of the hunt and the transporter you hire plays a role in your success. Expecting to find game just because you flew a 100 miles from the highway could lead to disappointment.
Alaska is huge, game populations aren’t
Alaska's land mass is huge but a large share of that mass is unsuitable big-game habitat. The variety of big game available to hunt here is legion, but game populations are not.
Consider that the annual harvest in Alaska, according to 2015 Fish and Game statistics was approximately 60,000 big-game animals, excluding wolves and wolverine. By contrast, Minnesota deer hunters killed approximately 150,000 whitetail deer the same year.
Game populations are concentrated in good habitat, which ebbs and flows, depending on fires, climate and predators. There aren't many secret spots anymore. Hunters talk a fair amount about their successes, particularly on internet forums and social media. Few reveal specifics, but general area information is out there, and it isn't rocket science to nail down some prolific game spots.
Recent information is important. Dynamics in the wild change over time, and sometimes change happens fast. A review of Fish and Game harvest statistics can be helpful when trying to pick a location. Better yet, talk to your local big game biologists. These folks are a wealth of information, and while they aren't going to give you specifics either, they are usually willing to share pertinent information that can help you choose an area.
Attempting to secure a drawing permit in one of the better areas for the game is an option. It pushes the time available to make arrangements, given the timing of successful permit announcements. Still, you can do some of the homework for the area, and if it doesn't happen, try again next year.
Once an area and species are selected, finding a transporter to fly you in is critical. A Google search will give you some options, but word of mouth and reputation in the hunting community is probably the best way to start. Being flown in and getting out is serious business in Alaska. Hunters don't take to haphazard operations, and they will tell you if they've had bad experiences. After all, transporters spend an awful lot of time in the country they serve. The good ones keep track of game conditions and know when to say no if an area is getting too much pressure.
Transporter is critical
The transporter you choose can make or break the entire experience, but they can only do so much. They can transport you to a destination and transport you back, but they cannot spot game for you.
There are many ways to approach a fly-in trip, but determining what you want out of the experience early and preparing are critical.
How much you're willing to spend on the trip and how hard you are willing to work matter most. From there, you can do your best to maximize your time afield.
In the flying world, time equals distance and expense. It also, to some degree, predicts one's odds of success. If most folks hunting the area you've chosen fly an hour from the strip, going another half an hour beyond that should mean more animals that are less pressured. It also means more on-board fuel and less available cargo weight. If you're a sheep hunter and plan to hit the ground running with your camp on your back, toughing out whatever happens, your range expands. On the other hand, if you want to set up a comfortable sheep hunting base camp that you then spike camp out of, that means more weight and less distance or more trips.
The same applies to other species, except most don't spike out of a moose or caribou camp. How comfortable you want your moose camp to be is a matter of weight and trips required. Weather, of course, is a major consideration. Obviously, the later you go in the fall, the greater the chance of inclement weather providing an extra dose of misery and delays.
In my early years, I was happy with a rifle, sleeping bag and a sheet of Visqueen. Nowadays, the total experience is much more important, and I'll take a comfortable camp every time. I've regretted going to the field minimally, but I've never regretted spending a little more money to have a decent camp.
I suspect for most folks, the annual hunting trip far from the modern world is a vacation — an opportunity to spend a few days away from phones, traffic and crowds. Ideally, the only sounds you hear are the wind, the birds and a crackling campfire.
For those who share hunting DNA, it is a revitalization, a re-affirmation of the ties that bind us to the creatures we pursue. It is as normal to us as pointing a grouse is to an English setter pup, that expanding civilization continues to erode.
So yes, I would say it is worth the price of admission.
Steve Meyer of Soldotna is lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at email@example.com.