July 20, 2011
Do it Yourself in Alaska's Brooks Range
While some anglers prefer lodge accommodations while they pursue Arctic char, there's nothing like the true connection you get with nothing between you and the fish except the next cast. Such unguided and undeveloped waterways exist all over the Arctic, including the Brooks Range region of Alaska, where the only tracks on the river's edge are from caribou, but not other anglers.
North of the Arctic Circle
Northeast of Kotzebue, Alaska, are numerous drainages entering the Bering Sea with tributaries similar in size to walk-and-wade Western rivers. These great watersheds hold char up to 15 pounds and include the Wulik, Kivalina, and Noatak rivers. Their tributaries, including the Kelly River, Wrench Creek, and many others, also host runs of char. The area containing fishable water is vast.
Start your journey in Kotzebue and locate a charter plane service to reach these remote waterways. We hired Northwestern Aviation (alaskaonyourown.com), but other services in the area include Bering Air (beringair.com) and Hageland Aviation Services (hageland.com).
Your aerial arrival allows you to spot schools of char when you buzz the river at 50 feet. Your charter plane drops you off with your gear — including inflatable rafts — and then picks you up downriver at a prearranged time and location. There is enough water on the Noatak, Wulik, and several other rivers to handle a one-week or longer adventure, with 20 miles or more of floatable water and plenty of char, as well as grayling, pike, sheefish, and, on some rivers, Pacific salmon.
Be sure to bring adequate maps, a satellite phone, and a handheld GPS to ensure you reach your pickup location and to maintain contact with the outside world in case of an emergency.
It can be difficult — if not impossible — to pack all the necessary camping and rafting gear with you on a commercial flight from the Lower 48. Northwest Alaska Backcountry Rentals (northwestalaska.com) in Kotzebue rents everything you need for your trip, including tents, sleeping bags, 14-foot inflatable rafts, and complete kitchens, and can have it waiting at the air service of your choice. The owner, Walt Maslen, is an expert on area fishing and hunting opportunities, and can help you choose the right river and make sure you have everything you need to be safe and comfortable.
You should time your Brooks Range adventure based on the migration of the char and the river flows. During high water in May, June, and most of July, these rivers can be difficult or impossible to fish. This makes late summer and fall (August and September) prime times. There are typically two runs of fish — one in early summer, and another in the fall. To maximize your fishing opportunities, focus on the ends of the runs for quantities of fish. Also, fish that have been in the river for a few weeks have the best color and markings.
For my trip to the Brooks Range, we chose August, as the bulk of the spring/summer Arctic char run was already in the river, and highly colored, and the fall-run fish were just beginning their migration. We fished the Noatak River, exploring its tributaries by foot and camping on a gravel bar. If you prefer floating, one-week or longer trips are available, depending on how many river miles you plan to cover. Arrange drop-off and pickup points with a charter service, and stay in contact by satellite phone.
The beauty of a trip to this region is that you have the advantage of flying over many river systems, choosing your final destination based on char concentrations spotted from the air. If one river is too high — or too low — continue flying and searching until you spot large numbers of fish. In addition, area pilots are well informed about where fish are being caught when you arrive.
There were four anglers on our trip. We spent approximately $2,200 per angler and landed about 15 to 25 char daily. The largest was 36 inches long and weighed 23 pounds.
We saw caribou and grizzlies during our stay. When camping in the Alaska backcountry, be mindful of your surroundings and take the proper food stowage and camp cleaning precautions to ensure a safe return home.
Gear and Flies
Two rod-and-reel outfits suit the trip. Use a 5-weight for the eager grayling that are often rising, and an 8- or 10-weight outfit for char, salmon, and sheefish. Use a floating line on the 5-weight, and a multi-tip line for the heavier rod (RIO Coldwater VersiTip or Scientific Anglers Tri Tip).
With water from 2 to 10 feet deep, being able to change your fly line tip to reach the right depth increases your chances of success. In Alaska it is critical to get your fly down to where the fish are. Do not expect a char — or any other species for that matter — to rise through the water column to take your fly (although it can happen).
In the clear, low flows of late summer and early fall, fluorocarbon leaders and tippets from 0X to 4X are best.
Bring #2-6 streamers such as Barr's Meat Whistles (black, white, tan), #1/0 to #4 Clouser Minnows (chartreuse over white), and Egg-Sucking Bunny Leeches. Realistic egg imitations (cheese-colored, 6 to 8mm), mouse patterns, poppers, and large rubber-legged stoneflies are also valuable.
In bad weather or dirty water, the fish spread out and are less cautious, and they prefer large, brightly colored flies. On clear, sunny days, or in clear water, use dark flies with just a little flash.
Roughing it with friends (and without a guide) is not for everyone, but if you want a remote adventure for the fish of a lifetime, do not pass up northwest Alaska. There is nothing like watching the white-tipped fins of a char flare out as its fire-engine body races toward your fly.
Landon Mayer is a Colorado guide and author of How to Catch the Biggest Trout of Your Life (Wild River Press, 2007). He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.