Large king salmon
Courtesy of Talaheim Lodge & Air Taxi

Angling meets aviation in the sport of heli-fishing, where fly-fishermen are transported to remote and pristine waters for a chance to hook fish that have never seen a hook. 

Eighty-five miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska, the Talachulitna River teems with salmon, rainbow trout, and other game fish that have rarely seen a hook. The fortunate anglers who drop flies into these crystalline waters are among the few who can describe what they are doing as catching, rather than mere fishing.

Selection of dry flies used in Patagonia
Courtesy of Jim Klug Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures
The reason so few hooks have hit these waters is that they are exceptionally remote. There are no roads, and few places for bush-piloted floatplanes to land. For the most part, the people who fish here are those who combine the ancient art of angling with 21st-century aviation. The sport is called heli-fishing and, like its cousin heli-skiing, it uses helicopters to deliver enthusiasts to places that are simply inaccessible by any other means.

Heli-fishers have been drowning worms for 30 years or so along wilderness streams in New Zealand, Canada, Alaska, Chile, and the Rockies. As far as fishing fantasies go, it remains the most expensive, most self-indulgent, and most likely to plop an angler down in a rarely-if-ever-fished spot teeming with naïve lunkers.

Rick O’Connell of Sedalia, Colorado, heli-fished Patagonia two years ago with Chile’s Nomads of the Seas. This boat-based operation ferries guests from a luxurious ocean-going yacht by helicopter to remote Andean fishing spots. One day O’Connell and his wife, Mary Jane, were choppered to an alpine lake ringed with waterfalls.

“Between my wife and me we probably caught a hundred fish,” O’Connell recalls. But the truly stunning aspect was the scores of cascades pouring into the water. “You’re fishing right into a waterfall,” he says. “That was the most beautiful place on Earth I’ve ever seen.”

O’Connell’s assessment neatly summarizes the chief appeal of heli-fishing, namely that it quickly and conveniently takes you places so remote almost no un-choppered visitors ever see them. And, once you get there, you find fish that have almost never seen a hook.

“Fly-fishing made simple,” is how veteran heli-fishing guide and Alaskan lodge owner Mark Miller puts it. Basically, heli-fishing can put an angler down by a stream or lake full of fish that don’t recognize humans as predators. Anyone who’s ever dangled a worm in front of a fish that scarcely gave it a glance before contemptuously ignoring it can probably imagine how this changes fishing. Fishing a place hardly anybody ever fishes makes fishing a whole different sport. 

And even in Alaska, good fishing holes accessible by boat or floatplane attract crowds — or what pass for crowds in a state with more than 730,000 inhabitants in a space a third the size of the continental 48. But helicopters land easily in places no sane fixed-wing jockey would even consider. “There are a lot of lodges and a lot of traffic,” Miller says. “With a helicopter you can have waters by yourself, which is why people want to come to Alaska.”