Fly Fishing Katmai National Park, Alaska
by Steve Buckner of The Northwest Fly Fisherman Guide Service
It was 4:00 a.m. on the morning of the summer solstice and I was booked on a flight from Sea-Tac International Airport just outside of Seattle to Anchorage. The sun would not be setting that evening in Alaska until about 2:00 a.m.. The week previously, I had been going through my gear, checking and double-checking everything to make sure that I had exactly what I would need for the next few months, and at the same time, trying not to go over the 70 lb. weight restriction and two bag limit. Whenever possible, I tried to pack two of everything in case something was either lost or broken. My fly rods, reels, lines, and camera would be kept with me, everything else would get crammed into my checked baggage. As long as I had a rod and reel I knew I could get by for a few days even if my clothes were lost.
The sun's rays were just peaking through the Cascade range as the plane left Sea-Tac International airport, the visibility was excellent. As we reached our cruising altitude and headed up the coast of the Pacific Northwest, one could view many of the fjords, estuaries, and rivers that are the last refuges of native steelhead, sea-run cutthroat, and pacific salmon. These are the last of the undammed rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Within about an hour, the vast mountain peaks of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park were clearly visible. One could see the grayish tint of silt flowing for miles from the Copper river into the Gulf of Alaska. As we approached the end of our 3-hour flight from Washington, the plane descended over the snow capped peaks of the Chugach Range and the rocky, densely forested islands and peaceful waters of Prince William Sound to land at Anchorage International Airport. The moment the plane landed, I smiled. I was in Alaska once again.
The first part of my 3-legged journey to the Alagnak river was over. I was now in Anchorage, but as anyone who has flown to the Alagnak river in Southwestern Alaska knows, the real challenge is traveling from Anchorage to the tiny airport in King Salmon, and from there, flying further north to the Alagnak river via a DeHaviland Beaver. Although the Alagnak river is roughly only 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, it often takes as long to make this journey as it does to fly from New York to Anchorage. Flights from Anchorage to King Salmon are somewhat few and far between, and the foggy/rainy conditions in King Salmon can put the kibosh on travel to or from there more frequently than not. Things went smoothly that day however, there was only light rain and the clouds were relatively high.
The world is a different place in King Salmon, there is no pretentiousness, population 385. Folks are advised to leave their attitudes back in the lower 48. The town of King Salmon is small, even by Alaskan standards. It sits beside the Naknek river on the Alaskan Peninsula, about fifteen miles inland of Bristol Bay. There are a couple of hotels, Eddie's restaurant & bar, a small market, and few other small businesses, emphasis being on the word "small". With few exceptions, transportation into or out of King Salmon is either by plane or boat. Despite its size, King Salmon is the hub of the Bristol Bay region, with jets landing at its small airport. From there, float planes are used to transport people further into and out of the Alaskan bush and/or to Katmai National Park.
After walking off the cargo plane as it arrived in King Salmon from Anchorage, I stopped at the front counter of the one gift shop in the King Salmon airport and purchased my annual fishing license and picked up the current fishing regulations. (Have you ever been to any other airport where you can purchase a fishing license?) My fly fishing equipment and luggage were loaded into the back of a rusted old van and I was transported down a mile or two of muddy road to Branch River Air, the "Best in the Bush" as their logo goes. My belongings would be loaded one last time onto a DeHaviland Beaver, the Rolls-Royce of float planes. After jumping in the plane and fastening my seat belt buckle, Dave the pilot, would taxi down the Naknek river, turn the plane's nose into the wind, and we'd be airborne within a few hundred yards of opening the throttle. The flight to Alagnak River Lodge would take about 30 minutes.
Since a float plane typically does not fly much higher than a few hundred feet above the ground, the flight from King salmon to the Alagnak river offers spectacular views of the surrounding area. Fifteen miles down river from King Salmon to the west is the larger town of Naknek, and one can see the Naknek river as it drains into Bristol Bay. There is a road that connects the town of Naknek and King Salmon, but not much else. Continuing north, one can see the confluence of the Alagnak and the Kvichak river (pronounced "kwee-jack") as it flows out of lake Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska, before it too dumps into Bristol Bay.
To the east, when weather allows, are spectacular views of the mountains and glaciers that are part of Katmai National Park. Further north along the ridgeline of the Alaskan Peninsula range but south of Lake Iliamna, lies Lake Kukaklek and Lake Nonvianuk. The confluence of the Kakuklek river and the Nonvianuk river are what form the Alagnak river as it flows some 70+ miles to join the Kvichak, only a few miles above Bristol Bay.
This region's geography is a mixture of tundra, glaciated mountains, enormous lakes, and rivers, both large and small, through which char, grayling, pike, world-class rainbow trout, and all five species of pacific salmon thrive. This area is the home of large populations of Alaskan brown bears, caribou, moose, wolves, ptarmigan, and a host of bird species. I too, have been able to call this place home as I've fished, guided, and explored many of the rivers in and around Katmai National Park. As I stepped off of the float plane onto the boat dock at the Alagnak lodge, I was greeted by my friends and within moments felt a mosquito drill into my neck.
Brief History of Alaska and Katmai National Park
On March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward signed an agreement that took possession of the vast territory known as Alaska. Alaska was purchased for the sum of 7.2 million dollars and would include 586,000 square miles. The 40th Congress(1867-1869) passed a law that made Alaska a United States Customs district. At the time, this purchase of land was referred to as "Seward's Folly" because the majority of U.S. citizens couldn't envision the worth of this land. However, there were many who had already realized that Alaska was an untapped 'gold mine' of fish, lumber, furs, and minerals and some had already begun to exploit its wealth of natural resources. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898 added to the appeal for many to move North in hopes of striking it rich.
Katmai became a National Monument on September 24th, 1918, largely due to the efforts of the National Geographic and other agencies within the department of the interior who realized that without protection, this unique region would soon be exploited. During this time frame, National Geographic photographers and writers informed the American citizens about this region and gained public support for its protection. In September of 1918, President Wilson signed Proclamation 1487 which set this region aside as a national monument.
In the early 1900's, most Alaskan's were against the idea of locking up so much land, preventing them from taking advantage of its riches. And to further aggravate the situation, native reservations were set up that expanded the boundaries of what would be protected. In 1919, Thomas C. Riggs, the acting governor of the Alaskan territory from 1918 to 1921 stated in his Annual Report of the Governor of Alaska, that "practically all of the reservations should be eliminated and the laws of the United States made to apply." He further noted that "Katmai National Monument serves no purpose and should be abolished." Luckily for us today, Thomas Riggs' wish did not come true. In 1959, Alaska became the 49th state, and on December 2nd, 1980, Katmai National Monument became Katmai National Park.
Over my 40 something years on this planet, I've had some fantastic opportunities to explore, guide, and fly fish on many of the great rivers of the western States and the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, and while each river has its own charm, the Alagnak river as well as other rivers, lakes, and streams that make up Katmai National Park stand out as something truly special. Over the course of the next page or two, I hope to give you a better idea of what this region is about.
The Alagnak River
The Alagnak River, or Branch River as it is known locally, is home to some of the most incredible scenery and fishing opportunities that exist. The Alagnak is formed by the outflow of two lakes, the Kukaklek, and Nonvianuk Lake, both of which are located within Katmai National Park. From there, the Alagnak flows roughly 70 miles to its confluence with the Kvichak, (pronounced "kwee-jack"), the river that drains Lake Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska. From approximately 29 miles upstream of the confluence with the Kvichak, the Alagnak is within Katmai National Park. The Alagnak is tidal in the few miles above its confluence with the Kvichak, and it is in this zone that the freshest anadromous (ocean going) fish, such as salmon, will be found. The upper sections of the Alagnak, Kukaklek, and Nonvianuk rivers, among others, are where the large trout make their home, though they too can be found throughout the river.
The Alagnak river is designated as Wild and Scenic through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is for "selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values. [These rivers] shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and...they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations." Needless to say, it's easy to fall in love with this river and all of the other rivers nearby. This area is a fly fisherman/naturalist's paradise. The area is vast and beautiful. It's wild. It's pristine. It's what one imagines Alaska to be.
In order to be successful fly fishing this region of the globe, it's helpful to know something about the behaviors and life histories of the fish that live in these waters. In general, most who visit this region are fly fishing for either pacific salmon (of which there are five species, more on this later) and/or want to mix it up by fly fishing for rainbow trout, grayling, arctic char, and/or pike. Where you fish, when you fish (run timing), and the method that you use are paramount to your success. Again, time, place, and technique are everything. For anyone wanting to explore and fly fish this region, the first question one should ask themselves is what species they want to pursue. The second question is to evaluate your own skills, equipment, and expectations to determine which species are more suited to your individual abilities and desires.
The rainbow trout found in this region are highly migratory because they can best survive by following the salmon, which will provide the protein that allows these fish to grow large. Rainbow's spend their winters in the large lakes where they find food, shelter, and warmer water. In the spring, upon ice-out, the fish start to move from the lakes into the rivers. During the early part of the season, the trout feed upon sockeye parr, insects, mice, and other food sources. In my opinion, the best trout fishing takes place early or late in the season when the trout are feeding on insects, leeches, and salmon fry. The Nonvianuk River and Kukaklek rivers are excellent options for early season rainbow trout fishing.
As the summer progresses, and as the sockeye salmon begin their migration up the rivers, the trout begin to key on the spawning salmon. During this time period the trout are often more likely to take egg patterns using a nymphing technique. Fly outs in August to The Moraine River and or Funnel Creek are good options at this time. As summer fades into fall, and after the sockeye have spawned and died off, the trout key in on the flesh left behind from the decomposing carcasses in preparation for their long winters.
Generally speaking, the rainbow trout average 20 inches or so but on any given day, there is the real possibility of hooking into fish that are in the 10 lb. class or better. That said, 5 to 7 weight fly rods will generally provide enough backbone to handle a large fish. However, when fishing around spawning sockeye, it's common for an incidental hook-up with a sockeye and they're hard to control with anything less than a 7 weight. There's seldom a need for your 6X tippet when fishing for rainbow up here!
When it comes to pure beauty, it's hard to beat the beautiful fall spawning colors of char. They tend to exhibit similar behaviors as the rainbow trout and follow the schools of sockeye above the lakes and key in on the bountiful food produced by the spawning sockeye. Char are opportunistic and what they lack in strength and fight, as compared to rainbow, they make up for in aggressiveness. The American River and Contact Creek are prime destinations for those wanting to find good populations of arctic char.
Grayling can be caught on many of the rivers and streams that are part of Katmai National Park and/or the surrounding area. Many who pursue these fish prefer to target them with dry flies such as elk hair caddis, royal wulffs, stimulators, and other attractor patterns. Grayling are usually surface oriented and who wouldn't want to spend a day out catching some of these beauties!
Most grayling will average 15" or so, but occasionally, large fish in the 20" range are intercepted. Grayling are truly exquisite, with their tall dorsal fin covered with purplish spots. They and great sport on 3-5 weight rods. They are generally found in the same tributaries as rainbow trout, but their numbers and size will vary somewhat based upon the stream in which they are located. Contact Creek gets my vote as one of the most scenic places to encounter grayling, char, and rainbow that I've ever seen.
If watching your top water fly become lunch to a predator gets your blood stirring, there is nothing quite like the take of a pike as it pursues its prey. "Water wolves", as they are often called, inhabit the sloughs of the Alagnak and are exceedingly aggressive toward anything that resembles a food source. Both top water and sub-surface patterns are highly effective. On the Alagnak, most of these fish average 20" or so, but fish over 36" are sometimes caught. Wire leaders are a must with these toothy fish, their razor teeth will cut through just about anything, including fingers.
Run timing on the Alagnak
Salmon are highly migratory, potentially traveling thousands of miles over the course of their life spans. They are reared in fresh water, and depending upon the species, may spend up to a year or so in fresh water prior to migrating to the ocean where they'll feed upon the abundant food sources there. After they become sexually mature, a process that may take from 2 to 7 years depending upon the salmon species, they migrate back from the ocean to their natal fresh water streams where they will spawn and create the next generation of salmon and then die after this process is complete. Salmon take full opportunity of getting upriver fairly quickly in large numbers, spawning, and then dieing before the rivers become too cold. All pacific salmon exhibit this general life cycle.
Because the summers are short in Alaska, the run timing of the five salmon species is fairly compressed. There is some overlap in the run timing, but it pays off for you to determine which species you'd like to target and time your trip as close as possible to the historical peak of that species within that season. For each species of salmon, there are generally only two-three weeks in which the fishing is at its prime. Depending upon your visit, and the timing of the run, you may or may not hit the peak of a particular run. It's also important to note that each year there is some variation in both run timing and run strength, and predicting how a given year will turn out is somewhat like predicting the weather. The rivers can quite literally go from being empty of salmon one day, to being full, almost overnight, as though a light switch has just turned the river on. Each river in Alaska has its own run timing and not all rivers receive the same species. Do your homework and find out what species are available on the rivers you'd like to fish and the best weeks of a given month to target them.
Chinook salmon begin entering the Alagnak river in late June with numbers peaking somewhere during the first couple of weeks of July. After that period, there is often somewhat of a lull in numbers. The season runs from July 1st through July 31st and more often than not, there is one last push of bright fish just before the season closes. As with all salmon, the best time to target these chrome bright fish is early in the run, low in the tidal sections of the river, where the fish are in their prime. Fly fishing for these bright fish is best accomplished by fishing from a boat, using large marabou patterns and heavy sink tip lines, usually between 300 grains and 500 grains. A good day of fishing may yield only a couple of fly caught fish but at its prime, one may catch 7-10 or more. These fish can be large, routinely in the 20-30 lb. range. Last season, one guest I was guiding had the great fortune of hooking and landing a chrome bright beauty of 42 lbs. on an 11-weight fly rod. The run of chinook on the Alagnak is somewhere around 7,000 to 8,000 fish.
Later in the season, toward the end of July, the chinook that entered the system earlier have moved a 10-20 miles or more up river and have begun to seek out their spawning beds. Chinook are mid-river spawners, below the lakes. It is at this point that they have become dark red in color, and in preparation for spawning, do not have the vigor nor strength of those fish caught in the tidal sections of the river. Sadly, there are some lodges and/or some fly fisherman that pursue these fish on their spawning beds so that they can brag about having caught a chinook on a fly. It is considered unethical to target such fish and it is strongly suggested to leave these fish alone so that they are able to spawn and create the next generation of fish.
Over the past two years (2004 and 2005) the Alagnak has received between 4 million and 6 million sockeye salmon. Their run timing is similar to that of the chinook salmon, starting in late June/early July, and wrapping up by the latter part of July. These fish are absolutely beautiful, often traveling in pods of a few hundred fish, with tens of thousands of fish swimming up river each day through the run cycle. Once the run begins, the river literally begins to move with fish and one is able to watch the wakes of the pods of sockeye as they move up river. Once sockeye begin their migration, they do not stop nor slow down. Sockeye are often seen rolling, jumping, or porpoising as they swim.
Sockeye spawn in those river systems that include large lakes as this is where their offspring will spend a year or so prior to migrating to the sea where they'll become adults. Sockeye spawn in the tributaries above the lakes, and as a result, literally race through the lower river systems, pass through the lakes, and then swim into their natal streams that feed into the lakes. It is here that they will spawn and die. As mentioned previously, rainbow trout have learned to follow the sockeye as they make their migration through the rivers because they will feed upon the eggs and flesh of these salmon as they return from the ocean.
Chum salmon are often referred to as the "bonefish" of the Alagnak because when they first enter the lower river they can be found on "the flats" where they tend to inhabit the shallow, sandy shoals by the thousands on the incoming tides. Here, they can often be found in shallow water, only a foot or two deep, where they can be pursued with either wet, dry, or skated flies.
The chum salmon caught in the lower Alagnak are aggressive and beautiful. They're the perfect quarry for the fly fisher who wants to keep their rod bent. They average 8-12 lbs. and are mint bright. They can be very surface oriented for those who want to challenge themselves by catching these fish with dry or skated flies. The overall run of chum on the Alagnak can number in the millions. They generally begin to run during the second to third week in July, with numbers peaking around late July/early August. The quality of these fish changes quickly as they come in from the salt. It's easily observed in both color change and loss of vigor. The best fishing for Chum is in the lower, tidal section of the river, early in the run when these fish are in their prime.
Two-handed fly rods have become popular over the past few years and they're also making their presence known on the Alagnak, especially when pursuing chum salmon on a fly rod. Two-handed rods allow one to cast relatively long distances with much more ease than a single-handed rod. If you're a two-handed rod enthusiast, swinging flies for chum salmon is a must! Fly rods should be somewhere in the 7-9 weight range.
Pink salmon enter into the Alagnak in the millions. Pink salmon only run every other year, due to their lifespan of only two years. In Alaska, pink salmon run during "even" years, so as an example, 2006 will be a "pink" year. These fish are extremely aggressive towards any pink colored fly and can also be caught off of the surface using wogs or other top water flies. The pink salmon can become so thick that it makes targeting other species difficult because it can be hard to keep them from striking any fly. These fish average 4-7 lbs and are best pursued with 7-8 weight fly rods.
Pink salmon generally enter the Alagnak during the second or third week of July and will run strong for a good 3-4 weeks. When they are in the river, there is no shortage of opportunities to catch them until one becomes satiated. When they are fresh, they are an attractive salmon, and again, are best pursued in the lower river while they are still strong and bright. Pink salmon are the perfect quarry for those new to fly fishing because they'll have plenty of opportunities to fine tune their casting and fishing skills when these fish enter by the millions.
Of the salmon species to pursue with a fly rod, coho are my favorite. They can be a real challenge at times. However, when coho fishing is good, it can be sensational. These fish can be shy one day and aggressive the next. One thing for certain, once they're hooked they'll often jump and leap with more energy than most other fish. The coho are the last of the salmon to run, with the run starting to trickle in during the first week of August and building through the month and wrapping up in September or so.
Coho are generally considered fairly challenging and often require that the angler is very proficient with a fly rod. In many circumstances, long casts are required to place the fly where the fish are located. Often this has to be done under near gale force wind conditions. From there, the angler must be able to strip, set, and play the fish accordingly for success. Coho fishing ranks at the top of my list!
The Alagnak does receive good numbers of coho but if you're looking for something truly special, consider flying out from there to the Egegik river for some tremendous coho fishing. The Egegik river flows out of Lake Becharof, the second largest lake in Alaska, and flows a short distance into Bristol Bay. It offers some unbelievable coho fishing when the timing is right, typically around the first part of August. Egegik can be a very windy place to cast because it is unprotected from the winds that blow in from Bristol Bay.
The Wildlife of the Region
While the Alagnak river generally offers more than enough opportunities to keep a fly wet and a rod bent for a week, as you know by now, there are many other destinations in the vicinity that the adventurous fly fisherman should consider exploring, and sometimes without a fly rod! And while each angler gets to decide what their purpose for going to Alaska is, my recommendation is to take some amount of time during your stay to enjoy the other scenic beauty Alaska has to offer, besides the fishing. By doing this, you're going to get much more out of the overall experience. When was the last time you watched an Alaskan brown bear catch a jumping sockeye salmon in mid-air, consume part of it, and then watched the rest of the fish get eaten by rainbow trout in the ten-pound class? When was the last time you were able to watch a wolf running up the bank of the river, and then disappear into the grass?
If the answers to the above set of questions are "it's been awhile" or "never", one strong suggestion is to visit Brooks Camp. It's one of the most photographed locations on the planet of bears in close proximity. In mid-July, a huge migration of Alaskan brown bears make their trek to the falls on the Brooks river to take advantage of the migrating sockeye.
Katmai National Park has provided viewing platforms that allow visitors to view these magnificent predators safely within a few meters. Depending upon the day, you may see 20 or more Alaskan brown bear. They'll often range from male bears in the thousand pound range to a sow with a couple of cubs. On one occasion, I was also fortunate to watch a wolf catch a couple of sockeye and then haul them up into the bushes where it could safely feed on its catch away from the bears.
For many, flying to Alaska is the trip of a lifetime and it's important to take a moment and set realistic expectations. Everyday in Alaska is not like the ESPN show you watched on Saturday morning. Sure there can be some fantastic fishing and catching but many television shows and some fishing lodges make it seem like every cast results in a trophy fish and that's not reality! Some species are simply more difficult to catch than others, and even in Alaska, fishing can be tough sometimes for even the experienced fly fisherman, let alone a novice.
The Alagnak river and surrounding Katmai National Park provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy and appreciate a spectacularly beautiful area and to learn more about anadromous fish, rainbow trout, and other fish species. For the novice fly fisherman it can also give you a chance to learn to fight large fish and improve your skills and knowledge. For the experienced fly fisherman, there are species and tactics that will challenge anyone.
Most people who come to the Alagnak river and/or Katmai National Park are there to fish and explore this beautiful area and/or use it as a base camp to fly further on into the Alaskan bush. There are many variables that can affect your trip, and some of them are completely out of your control. Depending upon many factors, such as the weather, the biting insects, the fish, and/or your attitude, things can either work in your favor or work against you. Realize too that although this region is remote, its beauty and reputation attracts people from all over the world. There may be days when you won't see a soul on the river and there can be other times when the rivers and the surrounding area can be busy. Even the "remote" fly outs can be busy. There is generally enough water for everyone so be courteous if you happen upon another group of people.
Practice your casting well in advance of your trip
Hopefully you know by now that fly fishing in Alaska can both be some of the best and some of the toughest that you'll find. However, if there is one thing that you can do to improve your odds for a successful fly fishing trip, it's to make sure that you have the necessary fly fishing and casting skills before you spend thousands of dollars on your trip. If you are unable or unwilling to practice to develop those skills prior to your trip, lower your expectations. Casting and fishing are skills that are developed over a lifetime. If your casting needs a tune-up, seek out a Federation Of Fly Fishers Certified Casting Instructor in your State and set up a casting lesson, you'll be better prepared for your trip and you'll get more out of it!