Bristol Bay Region: Abode of the Blessed
July 27, 2011
Flying high in the trout-rich Bristol Bay region
Roads, pipelines, and open-pit gold mines have not ruined the best fishing in North America. . . yet.
That's because much of Alaska is still pristine wilderness. I don't mean pristine as in natural areas with signs instructing "Please stay on path" or "No open fires." I mean the kind of pristine where you can fly in a float plane for 100 miles, passing low over world-class rainbow trout rivers, and never see a road, clear-cut, cell phone tower, or any other scar that comes from development, extraction, or civilization.
The streams here are not places where you wonder, after a day of casting a fly, what the fishing was like a century ago. The answer is self-evident. The habitat in the Bristol Bay region is mostly unaltered by man. Exotic species have not displaced the native char, grayling, and trout, and their behavior has not been modified by a daily parade of anglers and hooks. They feast on salmon eggs; rise freely to attractor dry flies; crush leech, sculpin, and salmon flesh flies; and brutalize mouse patterns.
If fly fishing is your communion with nature, a trip to the Bristol Bay region is akin to a seat at Alaska's Last Supper. The trout-filled streams are pure and perfect, with nothing as deceitful as a hatchery trout, and no handicaps like man-made dams and the poisons that come from industry and agriculture.
Unfortunately, much of this true wilderness could disappear in coming decades, as a result of placing too high a value on resources like gold and copper, and too little on unspoiled trout streams. The proposed Pebble Mine — claimed to hold an estimated 48 billion pounds of copper, 57 million ounces of gold, and 2.9 billion pounds of molybdenum on state and tribal land near Lake Iliamna in the Upper Talarik Creek drainage and headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers — is only the tip of the iceberg. If this mine (with all its connective roadways, bridges, power lines, pipelines, and massive impoundments to hold poison wastewater) moves forward, it will likely open the door to more development on other Bristol Bay — area tribal, state, and federal lands. If the quest for natural resources in this land of salmon and trout is not halted, the trout streams will be sacrificed.
The great naturalist John Muir, considered a father of America's national parks system, traveled to Alaska seven times and referred to the land as "the abode of the blessed." For fly fishers, this may be truer now than ever. Everyone who has made the trip has surely felt blessed (or at least fortunate) as the float plane cruises the river valley for a bird's-eye preview before a day of fishing.
More to the point, we may be blessed to be the last generation to see these rivers in their beautiful natural state, flowing unmolested over land not yet scarred by humanity's greed for gold. Our descendants may never see it as it is right now.
There are two main types of fly-fishing lodges in the Bristol Bay region: river based and fly out.
At river-based lodges, most of the daily fishing is from jet boats on the home river, making the trip less costly than a fly-out lodge. In some cases, limited fly-outs are available at additional cost.
River-based lodges usually have good fishing for salmon, and on rivers like the Kvichak, Naknek, and Alagnak, they can have good big-river fishing for large rainbows as well.
True fly-out lodges focus on the best fishing Alaska has to offer: sight-fishing for rainbows from 20 to 28 inches — and larger — in small walk-and-wade streams. During a six-day trip, you can expect to fish a different river each day, with 30- to 90-minute flying times (one way) to reach your destination. It's not uncommon for fly-out lodges to have more than 30 world-class waters in their flight radius.
You can expect to catch from 5 to 40 rainbows per day (plus char and grayling), depending on your skill level and how and where you choose to fish. Some rivers have large numbers of smaller trout averaging 20 inches, and you can wear your arm out catching them on beads. Other rivers are known for giant trout in the 30-inch range, allowing you to substitute quality for quantity.
Float planes cannot land on most of the small rivers fly fishers covet, so you typically set down on one of the many nearby tundra lakes and then hike to the river. Hiking distances vary greatly, depending on the river and the section you want to fish. River sections accessed by short hikes of a mile or less are more frequently fished by nearby lodges. If you are willing to hike farther, you can get into areas that are seldom visited. Even when fishing by float plane, it pays to walk off the beaten path.
On my last day in Alaska in 2009, my guide and I walked about 3 miles (one way) from our drop-off point to reach the headwaters of a popular stream in Katmai National Park. The hike was exhilarating. We saw grizzlies in the meadows grazing on low-bush blueberries, and together we explored water my guide had never seen. The fishing was so good that, after landing dozens of 20-inch and better rainbows on a Morrish Mouse, I had to cajole him to take my rod so I could sit down and soak in the atmosphere.
A trip to a true fly-out lodge costs from $7,500 to $9,500 per angler, per week. Why is it so expensive? Having a plane and a pilot at your disposal every day is not cheap, and supplies at the lodge — the wine, gourmet food, fuel, and all other amenities — have to be flown in or transported by barge.
Float planes are the norm in Alaska, but some lodges also have planes equipped with Tundra Tires. The balloonlike tires allow pilots to land on volcanic debris fields and gravel riverbanks.
When you research your Alaska trip, inquire about the planes at the lodge and their upkeep. The best lodges take pride in their aircraft to make sure you arrive safely at your fishing destination each day and get a pickup in the afternoon. You don't want to spend a night on the tundra or a day at the lodge because a plane is grounded for repair. A true fly-out lodge has from two to four planes, typically Cessnas, Beavers, and Otters. The lodge should have a seat in a plane for each guest: If a lodge accommodates 16 guests, it should have seats for 16 anglers — otherwise somebody is fishing at the lodge or waiting for a return flight.
Also ask about fly-out salmon fishing to coastal rivers or other available options in case you want a break from trout fishing. Rapids Camp Lodge has fly-out trips to Geographic Harbor (for whale watching and halibut on the fly), Brooks Falls (for bear viewing), and (in season) cast-and-blast trips for silver salmon and ptarmigan. Most first-class lodges have similar trips and amenities, such as gourmet dining and an on-site masseuse.
On a Montana trout stream, it's possible your guide grew up on the river; spends hundreds of days each year fishing it; knows its hatches intimately; and may even have a few "pet" fish in certain spots along the river.
Alaska fly-out guides are a different breed. These young, dedicated anglers leave friends and family behind for three months of intense fishing for more than five different species of gamefish, most of them migratory and in dozens of river systems. Because of this short season and the huge number of rivers they visit, they often do not know every nook and cranny in a particular river, but they are experts on Alaska fishing and rely on a network of pilots and other guides to know where the best fishing is at any moment. They spot trout, rig salmon-egg beads for you, carry a heavy pack all day over miles of tundra and cobble, and can help you with your casting and presentation. Many are among the best professional guides in the world.
Like most professional guides, they help you catch fish, but more important, they keep you safe. It's your guide's responsibility to get you to the pickup point after a day of hiking and fishing in one of America's most remote areas.
The guide's heavy pack often contains lunches, a day's supply of water, first-aid supplies, fishing tackle, your raingear, and emergency supplies for overnighting. (It is rare, but possible, that weather prevents your return to the lodge and you become benighted on the tundra.)
The guide also keeps a lookout for bears while you fish, and should be an expert in bear diplomacy. Guides know when to shout and clap rocks together to scare off a curious teenage bear, and when to scramble out of the river when a bear exhibits territoriality. Some guides pack handguns or bear spray — others depend on seasoned judgment to steer clear of trouble.
Ask prospective lodges about the guides and their level of experience. Some lodges pay poorly, and as a result attract mostly first-year guides with little experience. The best lodges attract and keep the most seasoned guides, and good guides will make or break your trip. Expect to pay $400 to $800 extra at the end of your trip for tips, which are not included in the regular trip price.
The word "Alaska" comes from Russian explorers adopting the Aleut word alaxsxaq, which means literally "the object toward which the action of the sea is directed." Bristol Bay may be the best example of this action, as the rivers flowing into it receive from the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska the bulk of the largest sockeye salmon migration in the world.
Along with sockeyes there are Chinook, coho, pink, and chum salmon — and near tidewater there is fine fishing for the gamest of these species. But this isn't a story about salmon fishing. This is a story about abnormally large rainbow trout that could never thrive in these streams without the ocean's lavish annual gifts of salmon eggs and decaying salmon flesh.
While much of Alaska is crisscrossed with glacially silted streams or, alternatively, streams choked by volcanic ash, the Bristol Bay area has a high concentration of clear-running, lake-fed drainages with exceptional natural reproduction of both trout and salmon. The clear, clean water offers many benefits. On most small streams during summer, you can sight-fish to large trout finning cautiously below almost any concentration of salmon. The excellent habitat on some waters also promotes the growth of mayflies, caddis, and other aquatic invertebrates.
Some headwater streams, however, are barren until the salmon arrive in late spring. They may be frozen solid with anchor ice for six months every year, and harbor little or no aquatic insect life. The trout are solely migratory in these types of streams, and the guides don't even start looking for them until the first waves of salmon arrive.
Some other lake- and/or spring-fed streams flow under the ice through the winter — at least enough to maintain aquatic insect life — and the trout are a mix of resident and migratory fish. In these streams, salmon eggs (and flesh) are not the sole food items. Before, after, and sometimes even during the salmon spawn, you can have fine dry-fly fishing with Parachute Adams, Elk-hair Caddis, and Stimulators.
In Alaska, "matching the hatch" means using 6mm to 12mm plastic beads to imitate salmon eggs. The most common way to rig a bead is to run the tippet through the center hole of the bead and then tie on a bare heavy-wire, short-shank hook. (In areas where bare hooks are not permitted, guides tie a small, flesh-colored rabbit strip to the hook.)
Hold the bead in place 2 inches or less from the hook by jamming a toothpick into the bead and trimming it neatly with scissors. If the toothpick doesn't hold, you can combine it with a figure-eight stopper knot to hold the bead in place. (Do not use a simple overhand knot, as this significantly weakens the tippet.)
Some guides, believing trout can see the toothpick inside the translucent bead, now use clear, 200-pound-test fluorocarbon to jam the bead in place.
"Beading" was controversial a dec-ade ago when some anglers argued that it was unethical because the hook caught the trout in the outside of the mouth instead of the inside. Some of their concern was warranted: If the bead is pegged too far up the line, trout are too frequently hooked in the gill area or an eyeball.
However, state regulations require that the bead be either free-sliding or pegged no more than 2 inches from the hook. To protect the fish they depend on, the guides are sticklers about following these rules.
Naysayers predicted the downfall of the Bristol Bay trout fishery due to the widespread use of beads, but in fact it is as healthy today as it ever was. Guides maintain that hook scarring comes from heavy catch-and-release fishing combined with poor catch-and-release techniques and is not directly related to the use of beads.
Be careful to cradle the fish gently in the water with one hand and back the barbless hook out carefully, with your fingers if possible. Too many anglers clamp the hook with hemostats and use leverage against the weight of the trout, tearing away mouthparts in the process. Don't just release trout alive — release them intact.
Salmon eggs come in a multitude of colors and sizes, and the guides are craftsmen in their off hours, hand-painting beads to create the most realistic imitations.
Not only are the beads the perfect size, shape, and color, but also the right density. In most instances, the guides do not use lead split-shot, as this can impede the natural drift and cause you to miss strikes.
Beading is unlike some tailwater nymphing, where you must drift the nymph within inches of a trout's mouth. Alaska rainbows are energetic feeders, and if you have the right bead, they will move great distances for it.
September is the best month to hunt specifically for giant rainbows, particularly on large river systems such as the Naknek and Kvichak rivers. In those rivers, you boat-fish for broad-shouldered, lake-run trout that look and fight like steelhead. On the small streams, the deeply spotted "leopard" 'bows are heavy from the salmon spawn, and eager to eat streamers and mice before winter sets in.
August is prime time for the salmon spawn, and probably the best month for catching the largest numbers of trout. As a result, many established lodges with returning clientele are booked annually for the month. Biting insects are less troublesome in August, the days are still long, and water temperatures are warm, making the trout active for dry-fly fishing and mousing.
In June and July, the days last until midnight, snowfields dot the landscapes of the headwater streams, and the trout are hungry after a long, cold winter. Bring your DEET in bulk. These are the best months for catching long, lean trout one after another on streamer patterns, both in the bigger rivers and in some of the headwater streams that hold resident trout. If you want to catch fresh kings at tidewater, with rainbow trout as a side course, July is a good choice, but if you strictly want the best trout fishing, shoot for August or September.
Don't be a slave to the bead. While they are a great way to run up the trout numbers, you will miss a great part of the Alaska experience if you don't throw giant streamers, chug a mouse pattern through the riffles, or spend a few afternoons drifting dry flies. Tell your camp manager what you want to do the next day . . . it's your dream trip. Fly-out lodges specialize in catering to their guests' requests.
If you take a guided fishing trip on the Madison River in Montana, you will fish the Madison, and the conditions there will dictate your techniques. At Bristol Bay, if the type of fishing is important to you, your pilot and guide can take you to the river that provides what you're after. If you're uncertain, defer to your guide's judgment.
Streamers work well for Alaska trout all season, except when they are feeding selectively on salmon eggs, and even then you can pull a few hogs on big black stuff like the Battle Creek Bunny, Alaska Bugger, Morrish's Medusa, Egg-sucking String Leech, or almost any large, #4-8 leech.
When the salmon spawn ends — from late August through September — rotting salmon flesh becomes an important food, and guides turn to dead-drifting or swinging flesh flies tied with tan or salmon-colored marabou and crosscut rabbit strips.
On some rivers, the dry-fly fishing is excellent. The Brooks River — between its early and late sockeye runs — is known for technical dry-fly sight-fishing, and there are other waters where you can spend August days catching 22- to 27-inch rainbow trout on Stimulators.
The highlight of Alaska fishing may be its mousing, which is not a seasonal rarity. It is an exciting and dependable way to catch big Alaska rainbows all summer. Even when the salmon spawn is underway, you can plow a mouse pattern through the riffles downstream of a group of sockeyes and have rainbows tear it to pieces.
My best day of fishing in Alaska was not the day I ran up the numbers on a mouse, or the day I stood like a fence post behind a group of spawning Chinooks and caught a fish on nearly every cast. It was on a blue-sky day in a wide, warm valley, where we hiked across fields of reindeer lichen. The fragile, white, richly branched fungi look like dried coral, and each step left a print as if we'd stepped in snow. The slow-growing lichen would take years to recover. Since ours were the only ones we saw, we took care to step in each other's footprints.
We shared the river that day with three (maybe four) male bears that paid us little attention because the river was ripe with sockeyes. We made a pact that day to fish with only dry flies, and the fish were willing.
On the walk back toward the plane that afternoon, Jason and I remembered a deep pocket behind a granite boulder we had passed in our rush to "the big bend" downriver.
"Too deep and too fast for a dry fly," I was thinking to myself when a 24-inch rainbow came up vertically through the water — positioned as if he were standing on his tail — and ate my #12 Parachute Adams.
"No way there's another trout there," I thought as I cast behind the rock again. A larger trout came after my fly three times there, and each time an errant loop of line pulled the fly away. On the fourth cast, he ate it going downstream, as if to say, "You're not getting away from me this time."
We shouted and laughed and admired its cherry stripe, slid the trout back into the water, and then didn't try for one more. It was more than good enough.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman. His most recent trip to Alaska was to Rapids Camp Lodge on the Naknek in August, 2009.
While a float plane gives you enormous range and flexibility, the Bristol Bay region is massive, and most of the lodges are based in and focus on the fishing in one of three major areas.
Katmai: Katmai National Park and Preserve and the immense region around it include the massive Naknek system, which drains Naknek Lake and its myriad headwaters inside the
park boundaries. The Naknek River is known for its extraordinarily large trout (caught mostly in September), but the headwaters are the main attraction and include the Brooks River
(Alaska's most photographed bear-viewing preserve), the American River, and many other smaller streams. The headwaters of the Alagnak River inside the park — while technically part of the Kvichak River system — include The Moraine, Battle, Funnel, and others.
Lake Iliamna: This 1,000-square-mile freshwater lake is the largest in Alaska and feeds the Kvichak River, one of Bristol Bay's most important sockeye rivers. The headwaters of Lake Iliamna include Upper and Lower Talarik creeks, the Newhalen River, and upstream,
the waters of the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
Wood-Tikchik: North of Bristol Bay, much of the fishing in this 6-million-acre wilderness area occurs in the lake and river systems in Wood-Tikchik State Park and/or the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. The Tikchik Narrows and the Agulowak, Agulukpak, Togiak, and
Tikchik rivers are just a few of the area's dozens of deservedly famous trout streams.