Fly Rods in Magic Waters

By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr. 

I’m standing beside an unnamed creek that rises in the foothills of the Alaska Range and runs across a few miles of rolling tundra before emptying into one of the Bristol Bay watershed’s numerous large lakes. The current is trying to find its way to the Bering Sea, as it will eventually do by way of the famed Kvichak River. I am simply trying to find a hole in the brush wide enough to let me cast a fly rod.

Thanks to a week of rain the creek is flexing its muscles, and the high water has buried the little gravel bars that ordinarily provide convenient platforms from which to fish. Nearly impenetrable willows line the banks, and the willows are buzzing with bears the way a hive buzzes with bees. I’ve already bounced off three of them at close range since hiking across the tundra from the airplane, and with forward visibility less than the length of my fly rod I’ve started to wonder if I shouldn’t be fishing somewhere else today.

But the bears have simply come for the same reason the rainbows I’m here to catch have come: The red salmon that have traveled all the way upstream from the salt to spawn, die and start the species’ life cycle all over again. The bounty is such that the bears can still afford to ignore the dead fish starting to accumulate on the banks, pouncing instead on live ones, filleting them delicately with their claws and dining selectively on their favorite parts. The gulls wheeling overhead will take care of the rest. The rainbows are mostly interested in the salmon eggs filling the current with tiny pixels of orange light, but some are starting to feed preferentially on scraps of decaying fish.

After a hundred yards of willows and bears, I’ve finally realized that the only way to tackle the stream is to wade in and brave the flow. Uncertain of the rainbows’ current food preferences, I study my fly box and select a Steak ’n Eggs—a white and tan gob of marabou on a streamer hook trailing a single egg pattern tied to its bend. Then I slide down the bank and into the water.

Fortunately, the bottom consists of pea gravel and sand. The force of the current is such that wading over an uneven surface of slick rocks would be impossible. But I have soon established an acceptably stable position midstream and start to false cast. Stripping line from the reel, I absently let the fly hit the water a dozen feet ahead of me, but when I raise the rod top next, the fly doesn’t follow orders. Chiding myself for hanging up on a submerged stick before I’ve even started to fish, I haul back to free the fly, only to be greeted by a steelhead lookalike dancing through the air in front of me.

Given the circumstances—strong current, obstructed banks, tricky wading, light tackle—landing the fish requires far more luck than skill, but I manage somehow. I never carry a tape measure or a scale. Because of the challenging circumstances I’d love to grant this fish the benchmark 30 inches of a Bristol Bay drainage trophy, but my conscience won’t allow it. I settle for 28.

Perhaps most remarkably, that wasn’t the day’s only fish of that class, and they all came from water no wider than a small mountain trout stream. 

Geography and History
Bristol Bay is a broad, shallow arm of the Bering Sea, the head of which lies some 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. Its limits to the south are defined somewhat arbitrarily around Port Heiden, and to the north by Cape Newenham. Major drainages include the Togiak, Nushagak, Kvichak, Naknek and Ugashik. All of these river systems contain large lakes that serve as rearing ponds for juvenile red (sockeye) salmon and provide winter sanctuaries for large rainbow trout.

Despite my longstanding interest in fly-fishing Alaska saltwater, one can forget about Bristol Bay itself, which is turbid, difficult to navigate and ravaged by some of the world’s highest tides. However, it is also home to the world’s largest runs of red salmon, which support a robust commercial fishery and contribute to the base of the food chain in all the region’s inland waters. Herein, the term “Bristol Bay” will refer to the watershed and not the bay itself.

The area’s original Native inhabitants included elements of Eskimo, Aleut and Athabascan cultures. During his 1778 voyage in search of a Northwest Passage, the British navigator James Cook named the bay in honor of Admiral Lord Bristol. In 1818, Russians built a fort near the mouth of the Naknek, primarily to exploit the area’s fur resources. Russian place names still dot the area. American interests became ascendant with the 1867 Alaska Purchase, negotiated by Secretary of State William Seward. 

An Abundance of Salmon
All five eastern Pacific salmon species return to Bristol Bay freshwaters, two of them of particular interest to fly-rod anglers.

Two others warrant mention. Bristol Bay red salmon represent a paradox. They return to the streams in staggering numbers that are crucial to both the economy and the ecology of the region. However, they are always hard to catch on flies (or anything else), and by the time they reach the lakes where their smolt will eventually mature they have usually begun to undergo pre-spawning changes that make them uninteresting as gamefish. While the occasional bright sockeye taken incidentally from the lower reaches of one of Bristol Bay’s larger rivers can be an exciting, vigorous fish, they’re best regarded as an unexpected bonus.

Dog (chum) salmon are large, powerful fish that color-up quickly in small coastal streams farther south. However, in some of Bristol Bay’s longer drainages they remain bright and active miles upstream from the tide line. These attractive fish run and jump and do everything else one could ask for on the end of a line. Bright chums can liven up the day when fishing for kings in rivers such as the Nushagak during late June and early July.

Now, to the top of the lineup. King salmon returns have suffered widely around the state during the last decade. While king runs in Bristol Bay have fared better than most, they have also become more unpredictable. Furthermore, quality angling for kings is generally restricted to the lower reaches of larger rivers where the fish remain bright, and much of this big water is difficult to fish with fly tackle. With all that said, the lower Nushagak remains one of my favorite places to fly-fish for kings, since its frequent braids and back channels offer abundant opportunities to wade and cast to bright, migrating fish in water suitable for fly tackle.

Silvers have long reigned as my personal favorite among Pacific salmon because of their abundance, acrobatic ability, affinity for water suited to fly-fishing and willingness to hit flies (well, sometimes). I’ve fished for silvers across most of their range in Alaska and have enjoyed many productive days in the Bristol Bay region. However, in my opinion, the greatest reason to consider Bristol Bay as a silver destination is that their August and September arrival schedule correlates well with prime time for big rainbows. We’ll get to them later. 

Between the Glamor Species
While most anglers visiting the Bristol Bay region target kings, silvers or rainbows (with good reason), several sleeper species that often fly under the radar deserve mention.

Dolly Varden and Arctic char are often confused, and we’ll leave discussion of the differences between them to another time. Here, we’ll simply refer to both as char, which they are. Small ones abound in headwater salmon spawning streams, where they stay busy doing what the rainbows are doing—eating salmon eggs, along with almost anything else they can find. Larger specimens that are more obviously Arctic char run up out of most large lakes to spawn in the fall. Not infrequently weighing six- to eight pounds and dressed up in their autumn colors, these are beautiful, powerful fish.

Arctic grayling are also common in most headwater streams, where their willingness to hit conventional dry-fly patterns offers a welcome respite after days of dragging streamers or egg imitations through the water. Small water usually means small grayling, but in waters such as the Togiak and the Wood river systems, 20-inch grayling are not uncommon. The Ugashik Narrows between Upper and Lower Ugashik has produced record-class grayling for years. If I wanted to target a 4-pound grayling on a fly, that’s where I’d go to do it.

The King of Bristol Bay
Finally, to the heart of the matter. There are other places to fish for all the species profiled thus far, and while none may be more beautiful or exciting, many are more convenient to reach. But there is no better place to fish for big rainbows anywhere in Alaska, or anywhere in the world.

What defines a big rainbow? The question is obviously subjective. Even on the best big-trout waters in the Mountain West, a five-pound rainbow would be the fish of the season for many and the fish of a lifetime for more. In the Bristol Bay region it’s just another nice fish. And they get a lot bigger than that. When my late mother was in her mid-80s, she caught a Naknek rainbow that measured an honest 36 inches long.

Credit for these remarkable fish goes to a combination of food, habitat and genetics. The low density of aquatic insect life in these streams may surprise some visiting anglers, but those monstrous red salmon runs more than compensate. After spending the winter in lakes such as Naknek, Iliamna, Brooks or the Wood River system (and there are many more), rainbows move into the streams to spawn themselves before beginning to gorge on salmon smolt migrating out to sea in early summer. Then they turn their attention to eggs as the reds begin to spawn and finally to decaying fish before retreating back to the lakes where, sustained by every phase of the red salmon life cycle, they enter a period of inactivity until the following spring. This pattern of behavior is reminiscent of the steelhead’s, and it’s accurate to regard these fish as lake anadromous.

Even experienced trout anglers will have to adjust their technique to the region’s unique food chain. Imitating the appropriate food source based on salmon activity is obviously a good way to start, and catching big rainbows on egg imitations can be ridiculously easy at times. Since it can also verge on the boring, I’ll mention two alternatives that have become personal favorites.

The first involves casting streamers at smolt balls as they move downriver between big lakes and the sea, usually in June. Following the principle of safety in numbers, two- and three-year-old smolt move downstream quickly in large masses, undergoing constant assault by birds from above and predatory fish from below in making their way to sea. Get an appropriate streamer in the middle of the smolt ball (often easier said than done), strip it and hang on.

The second is less predictable but even more exciting. The Alaska tundra is home to many species of small rodents collectively referred to as “mice” (even though most of them are technically voles or lemmings). These rodents experience large population swings. When over-abundant, they move, often falling into streams as they go. Big rainbows love them, and the sight of one slashing the surface to inhale a deer-hair dry fly that looks as if it were meant for pike or bass is unforgettable. Personally, I’d rather catch one rainbow on a mouse pattern than ten on egg imitations. 

Beyond the Fish
Although it doesn’t happen often, it’s possible to have a slow day of fishing in the Bristol Bay region even if you’re on great water at the right time of year. If you complain, you have no one but yourself to blame. The area’s spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife make it a fascinating destination even on the rare days when the fish don’t cooperate. I guided bear hunters there during both fall and spring seasons, and while I may sometimes have been cold, wet and exhausted, I never remember feeling bored. Whatever the time of year, there are always new birds to look at, new bears to photograph, new mountains and beaches to explore. And whether you’re based out of Iliamna, Dillingham or King Salmon, the local villages are home to the highest percentage of interesting people of any communities I’ve ever visited.

However, one must always remember that Alaska’s wilderness is more fragile than it looks. The vast herds of caribou I remember in the Mulchatna drainage during the 1980s, for example, are all but gone now for reasons that largely remain undetermined. Today, the biggest threat to the complex fishery I’ve described isn’t a virus or a parasite or a predator, but a mine that doesn’t yet exist. Put forth by a consortium of foreign corporate interests, the Pebble Mine would create vast pools of potentially toxic waste in a seismically active area. One tremor could extinguish all that you have just read about. A broad coalition of local residents, commercial and recreational anglers, lodges and other regional business interests, and environmental activists have spent years trying to keep Bristol Bay’s fisheries what they are today. Visit www.tu.org or www.stoppebblemine.com to learn more.

Late June on the lower Nushagak. My wife Lori and I have spent the night in a tent listening to our friend Ernie Holland electrify mosquitoes with some kind of battery powered tennis racquet, unable to convince him that he’ll never get them all. Unable to tolerate them any more even after decades in Alaska, Ernie has taken the 180 over to Dillingham to visit friends, leaving the two of us on a gravel bar beside a small, inviting channel of the river. The sun is still lost in a gentle sea of fog overhead, and we’ve already landed several mint-bright chums. However, we’re still waiting for the first king of the year.

In order to let the chums swim upstream in peace we have traded gaudy streamers for Flip’s Fat Freddies, weighted egg cluster imitations that feel like lethal weapons on the end of our 10-weights. Lori is 30 yards downstream from me when she lets out one of her signature whoops that announce contact with a fish. One glance at her doubled rod convinces me that she hasn’t hooked another chum, an impression her king’s first leap soon confirms.

There may be somewhere else in the world I’d rather be, but by the time she slides the fish out onto the gravel ten minutes later, I still can’t imagine where it is.

Don Thomas and his wife Lori divide their time between homes in Montana and southeast Alaska. Don’s latest book, How Sportsmen Saved the World, documents the contributions hunters and anglers have made to the conservation movement. His 17 outdoor books are available through the website 

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