By Troy Leatherman
Three clearwater braids forked from the silty main channel, dissecting an extended gravel plateau left uncovered ever since the higher flows of early summer. Upstream, on the farthest bank, just beyond a sweeping outside bend, a young brown bear rooted around the alder in the search for something to eat. Downstream, the forks converged and the river once again steamed its way towards the Pacific coast. But here in the braids, a moderated flow prevailed, and several long pools sparkled in the day’s brilliant autumn sunlight.
I was fishing for silver salmon, having early that morning flown through the pass to experience a day’s outing along the western coast of Cook Inlet. With my first cast I hooked and landed a nice, 10-pound coho with an angry, extended kype. With my second, a fish pushing 12 pounds.
For no reason other than habit, I took two steps downstream and threw three more drifts, all of which ended with another robust coastal salmon.
I was fishing a brightly-hued Conehead Popsicle, and on the swing, each take was strong and snappish. It’s the type of angling I prefer: down-and-across, tight line, solid hit—coho fishing, in a nutshell; but after going five-for-five even I figured a change was in order. I tied-on an Intruder, a salmon version of the venerable Pacific Northwest steelhead creation, and the results, for anyone who’s had the good fortune to visit the coastal rivers of Katmai when the fishing is on, were predictable. Three fish in seven casts.
Now, I’m as partial to rainbow trout as anyone I’ve encountered, but if I absolutely have to forgo a day chasing fall redsides, this will do nicely. However, as luck would have it, I really didn’t have to choose. I had spent the previous day doing just that, chasing Alaska’s famous trophy trout, all fattened up on eggs and flesh, hundreds of miles and one major mountain pass away.
Lower Talarik Creek is a quiet, modest stream, easing through a scrub willow and muskeg plain as it wends towards monstrous Lake Iliamna, home to freshwater seals, Alaska’s richest supply of juvenile sockeye and a mythical cryptid that bites holes in the bidarkas of bad Natives. Without the aid of a fly rod, the creek is hardly different from any other trickle across the tundra. For those with an inclination toward rainbows, though, it can cause the internal engine to boil over. Fishing the last quarter-mile of moving water that day I took the occasional fish in the 16- to 18-inch range, but most were bigger than that. And when things revved up later that morning, a parade of 24-inch football-shaped torpedoes began.
Two days, two streams, 200 miles and a mountain range apart—all it took was a little timing and the good sense to book with one of several fly-out fishing lodges that specialize in fall combos for trout and coho in western Alaska.
Fall fishing in Alaska needs little promotion, as for many anglers, it’s the best time to fish the best angling destination in North America. For starters, autumn is when the coho return.
Silver salmon offer an incredibly diverse range of scenarios for which any number of techniques, presentations and lures or fly patterns may be appropriate, providing great variety to the angler. They arrive in strong numbers, are among the more aggressive Pacific salmon and are widely admired for both their value as table fare and for the exceptional sport a hard-charging, cartwheeling coho provides.
Fall is also the time of the trout, and notably, the time for trophy rainbows. After a season spent gorging on the results of the salmon spawn, Alaska’s trout are in prime condition come autumn and anglers will flock from around the globe to pursue them in the runs and riffles spread across southwest Alaska.
Time it right, and pick the right lodge or river, and you can combine the best of fishing for both species, essentially doubling your Alaska fishing fun.
When talking trout fishing in western Alaska, it makes no small amount of sense to begin with the waters of Katmai National Park & Preserve. The streams and rivers of Katmai include some of North America’s most famous, and most productive, trout waters, many of them separated by mere minutes on a float-equipped plane, the primary mode of transportation for Katmai anglers.
Highlights include the headwaters of the Alagnak River system, specifically meaning its twin lake outlets, the Nonvianuk River and the Kukaklek branch of the Alagnak. The two lake outlets, particularly Kukaklek, have long been famous trout locales, and below there, the best trout fishing on the river is encountered in the famous Alagnak braids, which occur just outside the boundaries of the park. Several of the system’s smaller lake tributaries also offer exceptional rainbow fishing, including plenty of trophy potential. Both Moraine and Funnel creeks offer large rainbows in strong numbers, with some fish pushing 30 inches every year. The Kulik River and Battle Creek are noteworthy as well, with fall being the prime time to search for 24-inch and larger rainbows.
The other major system draining Katmai, the Naknek system, is also well known for the quality of its trout. Heading the list, of course, is the Naknek River itself, typically not thought of as a Katmai fishery, but as a standalone monster trout destination. Within the system as a whole, there are five distinct spawning stocks of rainbow trout: one each above and below the falls of the Brooks River, one in Idavain Creek, an American Creek population, and the Naknek River stock, which probably holds more trophy potential than any other trout population in the state. For more intrepid souls, there are also Idavain and Margot creeks, smaller tributaries of the lake. The former flows about a dozen miles from Idavain Lake to its terminus in the North Arm of Naknek Lake, just west of the Bay of Islands, while the latter empties into Iliuk Arm about eight miles southeast of the Brooks River. The trout population in Idavain is strong and can be sight-fished with good success in the fall once the sockeye have taken up their positions on the spawning beds. Idavain and Margot creeks are teeming with Katmai brown bears, and in the fall especially, encounters are nearly guaranteed.
If bears, solitude, and rugged country are the quest, accompanied by strong numbers of wild rainbow trout of course, then American Creek is an even better bet. Issuing from Hammersly Lake to the northeast of Naknek Lake, the stream’s trout fishing can reach the spectacular. In the fall, the creek probably fishes better than it does at any other time of year, particularly in the pools and tailouts of its middle and lower sections, where beefier ’bows will be gorging on sockeye eggs and flesh.
However, while the fly-in lodges, the gravel-bottomed tundra streams, the bears and the iconic rainbow trout of Katmai draw most of the acclaim, there is another side to the park—literally.
Separated from the rest of Katmai by the Alaska/Aleutian Range, the park’s eastern coast extends from the mouth of the Kamishak River in Kamishak Bay to Cape Kubugakli in Shelikof Strait. It represents a spectacular wilderness region, featuring everything from long, narrow fjords and U-shaped valleys to broad coastal flats, and a host of swiftly-flowing streams that—when in season—can offer some of the state’s most explosive angling for silver salmon.
Anglers can access pockets of this 497-mile Katmai coastline—or the other coastal fisheries that lie just outside the park’s borders—either departing from Homer or Kenai along the Southcentral road system, or by flying out for a day’s diversion with the lodges of the Iliamna or Katmai regions.
Most of the effort expended along the coast centers on the coho fishing, which for fly anglers especially, far outpaces most silver opportunities available on the other side of the range. The Kamishak River probably represents the most notable coastal Katmai fishery, with a run that supports regular attention from the lodge crowd, including a few seasonal camps.
Rising from the coastal mountains of the park, the Kamishak flows northeast through a series of deep valleys and picks up water from a number of clearwater tributaries like the Little Kamishak and Strike Creek, becoming a fair-sized river before spilling onto the mudflats of Akumwarvik Bay. Access to much of the water, including the braided middle portions, is gained by jetboats stationed by the lodges and fly-out services in the lower reaches of the river.
Also along the western shores of Cook Inlet, several other drainages spill off the slopes of the Alaska Range, criss-crossing the short, muskeg dotted forelands and eventually emptying into the sea. While the coho runs to these west Cook Inlet drainages aren’t necessarily prolific in numbers alone, the lack of attention they get, despite their proximity to the population center of the state, and the usually compressed nature of the streams, make the fishing hard to beat. Big River Lakes, a series of four interconnected lakes on the Bachatna Flats probably get the most visitors during the silver salmon run, along with the Kustatan River, located a short distance away and featuring similar angling prospects. The Kustatan is a solidly glacial system, however, that offers little in its mainstem for fly fishers, who are instead limited to fishing in the upwelling tributary waters, where the coho stack to refresh themselves and clean their gills during the upstream migration. The coho of the Big River Lakes area, on the other hand, have less chalky-gray flows to hide beneath, and the drainage is known as a top locale for pitching Pollywogs and other surface skaters to milling silver salmon.
The Chuitna River also doubles as an exceptional coho destination. The Chuitna, not unlike the other drainages on the west side of Cook Inlet, runs fairly shallow for much of its course, but its winding nature, moderately swift current and shifting rock bottom combine to form a fair amount of slow, deep pools for holding coho. Tannins leeching into the water render it too murky for sight fishing in most instances, but as the stream is just a few miles long, the silvers usually remain sprightly from their ocean sojourn and repeatedly show themselves on top. Silver Salmon Creek, located farther to the southwest, nearer the Kamishak, also offers superb coho angling set amidst the sweeping coastal scenery. Even farther removed from Katmai, as the landscape narrows into the Alaska Peninsula, the options for fly-in anglers are practically endless.
While the fly-out lodges offer an exceptional and unique opportunity to access a variety of water, dropping in on some of the best trout and coho fishing the planet has to offer from one day to the next, there is plenty of other opportunity to combine the species into a single adventure; you just need to choose the right river.
The old Southwest reliables—the Togiak, Alagnak, Naknek, Nushagak, Goodnews and Kanektok rivers—are all good candidates, and as the primary outlet for giant Lake Iliamna, the Kvichak River harbors some of the world’s largest wild rainbows as well as a solid silver return. The river runs clear and deep, providing perfect habitat for these spectacular resident ’bows, and as it’s not overly long, anglers can typically motor to coho fishing in the same day, if desired.
The Nushagak and Togiak systems, as well as the already-mentioned Alagnak River, are home to coho salmon stocks worthy of their immense reputations as well. On the wide, meandering lower Nushagak, the 20th largest river in the U.S. by volume, fly anglers will want to concentrate on the fairly shallow seams that run off the river’s sizable gravel bars or in one of the many clearwater tributary streams such as the Nuyakuk River, a deep, gin-clear waterway that flows from Tikchik Lake through black spruce forests and heavy brush to its confluence with the Nush.
Anglers would also be wise to consider a visit to the Wood-Tikchik area, where the angling opportunities are nearly endless. Wood-Tikchik State Park covers some 2,500 square miles, and the lakes and streams that flow throughout are literally stuffed with fish, particularly rainbows. The southern lakes of the drainage are interconnected and eventually funnel into the Wood River below Lake Aleknagik, and it is in this lower system that the best trout angling is to be found, though a few areas of the northern (Tikchik) section have good reputations, especially the Tikchik Narrows, which connect Tikchik and Nuyakuk lakes. In the Wood River system, the river’s outlet at Lake Aleknagik can be excellent, but the big rainbow producers in the area are two of its smaller streams, the Agulukpak and Agulowak rivers.
Most of the tributaries of the Kuskokwim River (the largest coho-producing system in the region) also fish very well for both wild, leopard-spotted rainbows and coho salmon. Here, the Aniak, Kisaralik, Kwethluk, and Holitna rivers probably present the most consistent populations. South of the Kuskokwim River, the chance for fly fishers to intercept populous concentrations of bright coho only increase. All three of the major rivers draining into Kuskokwim Bay—the Kanektok, Goodnews and Arolik rivers—present outstanding prospects. The Kanektok, in fact, was the site of one of my best fall combo trips to date, and throughout the week, I’m not sure we ever left a three-mile section of the lower river.
Big-trout-day on the Kanektok for me starts with the mental preparation first. There are good numbers of fish in the river, upstream from my location primarily, but hunting for trophies means the lower river; it means more casts, trickier drifts and fewer fish. It’s early August, and though a monster silver run is peaking, this is a time for precise, targeted bead presentations, and for patience.
I could take the time to prospect for big rainbows because for the previous two days I’d caught so many coho I nearly had to ice my arm and shoulder each night back at the lodge. Fishing every type of fly imaginable, using both dry lines and sink-tips, I’d caught silver after silver, easily more than 30 fish per day. None of it seemed to take a particular amount of skill.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, drifting down the mainstem Kanektok, I cast unwieldy split-shot and indicator setups, looking to bring the bigger ’bows up from their hiding places amongst the root wads and tangled deadfall. Occasionally successful with fish up to six- or seven pounds, I finally arrived at the bottom end of the river, where the current was forceful and the runs started at a depth of at least six feet. I could have gone back to casting for incoming silvers here, but instead out came the Spey rods and the heaviest shooting heads; on went barbell-eyed articulated leeches and gone was any idea that this business of trout fishing was supposed to look pretty.
Fishing ugly yielded three rainbows better than 28 inches in length and one runaway freight train that I never even got to see.
It’s weeks like this, stuffed with bright, ocean-fresh coho and remembered through dozens of photos of two-foot trout, that remind me how special Alaska and its fisheries really are. Hitting the peak for two species simultaneously, fishing a variety of water and wearing out your tackle, shoulder and back in the process, may seem greedy, but when it comes to building your autumn angling vacation, greed has to be good.
Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine.