Moraine Creek Strategies
By Larry Tullis
Wading chest deep across the swift, clear current spooked numerous big rainbows, but I didn’t dare backup. The big brown bear was now just a couple rod-lengths away, headed downstream. I crossed to the other side, which was currently griz-free. The bear passed; I snapped a few pictures and let the rainbows get back into feeding positions. They were eating sockeye salmon eggs and little could stop this yearly gorging. The first cast landed a 23-incher, third cast a 24-incher and the sixth cast produced a marvelous 28-inch beauty that cartwheeled and ripped out line so fast that I had to run downriver to keep from being spooled. This scene has been played out dozens of times on the timberline, fairytale-like landscape that is Moraine Creek.
Moraine Creek is a dream stream for those who seek big native rainbows to sight-fish for in pristine conditions. While rainbows of 16- to 32-plus inches are the primary target, there are also grayling and a few char and lake trout. Of course, the sockeye salmon are plentiful too, but they often arrive starting to color up already so don’t expect to eat fresh salmon. We called it “Bear Creek” when I started guiding and fishing Moraine Creek in the 1980s. That was to disguise its real position because there are probably 1,000 Bear Creeks in Alaska and most are so named (officially or not) to keep people out. Despite its remote, fly-in location in Katmai Park, it has not been a secret stream for many years. It can get crowded at prime time but is almost deserted at others. The big resident rainbow trout can get educated and difficult to hook if pressured, but the fishing can also be totally awesome when things are right. If this stream is on your bucket list, here are some suggestions on how to plan, fish and execute the trip.
Fishing Moraine Creek
Moraine Creek is fly-fishing-only, catch-and-release-only and open to fishing from June 8 to October 31. That does not mean the fishing is good the whole time. I’ve seen years with an early spring when the trout were there most of June, long before the sockeye salmon arrived. Fish were fairly plentiful and eager to chase smolt or mice patterns and it even has occasional hatches with big trout and grayling taking dry flies. Other years, such as 2012, the river was cold and high, the salmon were late, with few trout until the eggs were plentiful in August. I’ve also seen the whole upper river empty of fish in mid-September with good fishing one day and almost no fish the next. When food thins out after the salmon die, the fish leave. The lower river stays fishing well until late September, then it also gets slow.
Interestingly, Moraine Creek has a neighbor river called Battle Creek, which is just 3 miles long (between lakes). It has a later run of sockeye salmon. Many of the trout from Moraine leave in September sometime, go around a large point of land on Lake Kukaklek and travel up Battle to feed for a while longer.
The bears know about this late run of salmon, too, and often stack up there to feed on the bounty. It keeps things interesting when the bears seem to outnumber the fish. I had myself and my clients boxed-in by a literal herd of bears for about 20 minutes once. Friends have had their camps torn up by bears any time they left it unguarded. Electric fencing your camp is advised both here and on Moraine.
Early- and late season, when Moraine Creek fish are actively feeding on small fish, leeches and lampreys, I like to swing rabbit-strip streamers, fry flies, flesh flies, my Wiggle Bugs and mice. Sink-tip lines on a 7- or 8-weight rod are advised for streamers but floating lines work, too. Use dark colored streamers on dark days and light colors on bright days. Keep a couple mouse flies in your box of streamers and try them occasionally.
When egg densities surge from spawning salmon in August and early September, Moraine trout feed on little else and this is the most consistent fishing of the season. This is when I use a 5- to 7-weight fly rod with a nymphing rig, 9- to 12-foot 2X or 3X leader, strike indicator, split-shot 18 inches from the fly (by law) and an egg pattern. Most of the lodges and outfitters fish the river during egg season and the trout soon get a little selective as to egg size and color and often sensitive to drag. That means you must get as natural a drift as possible. Any drag on the egg fly is often rejected. The hook must be set very quickly when a take is detected. The trout learn to spit out flies very quickly. Experienced fly anglers that nymph educated trout in rivers know the situation and already have the presentation skills. Beginners often have a difficult time but generally still catch fish.
Ninety percent of guides and their clients fish bead eggs on Moraine now. In the early days, anglers used Iliamna Pinkies, Glo-Bugs or Nukes…and they still work. We originally tied the beads directly on the hook then evolved to letting the bead slide free on the tippet to make it look more natural. Now most are on to pegging the bead on the line with a toothpick above a #14- to #6 egg or scud hook.
Some anglers got carried away, pegging multiple beads on one line, the hook often snagging the body, eye or fins of the fish. The law changed to pegging a maximum of 2 inches from the hook. Sliding beads are also legal. Bead eggs, not tied to the hook, would likely have been outlawed in fly-only waters had not an advantage been discovered. Fish often sucked traditional egg flies deep. A 2-inch pegged bead typically hooks the fish on the outside of the mouth, rarely hooking the fish deep in the mouth or throat. Moraine Creek rainbows are long-lived and this creates resident fish that have beat up mouths from multiple hookups, which is a little sad, but pegged eggs do save many trout from hook-related mortality. Landing them in knee-deep water, not allowing the fish to flop on the bank, also lessens possible damage to the trout.
Use a 6mm fire-orange bead with a light coat of pink or peach nail polish as a fresh egg imitation. Eight- to 10mm beads also work sometimes. Use a milky, pink or tan bead (dead egg) if there are lots of older eggs drifting in the river. Individual fish may have a preference, so experiment. Pre-coated bead eggs are available commercially from Trout Beads and Spirit River. Attention: Bare hooks are illegal in Alaska’s fly-only waters. Tie thread, a small tuft of yarn, a mini flesh fly, a nymph or larva imitation to the hook to avoid a ticket.
Resident trout get darker backs and are rather easy to spot over the light gravel so they get pounded hard by sight-casters. Other fish are bright silver and have perfect mouths and are much harder to see. These are lake-run fish that just come into the river for a short time to feed or to prepare to spawn in the spring.
As the salmon start dying in masses, flesh flies start working well. Use larger ones around swiftwater snags and smaller ones in the gravel runs. A “Steak and Eggs” combination (a pegged bead and a flesh fly) often does well.
Dry flies are not commonly used on Moraine Creek but if a hatch does come, you had better have some mayfly, caddis, stonefly and gnat patterns along. I’ve had a few afternoons of dry-fly fishing that were phenomenal, with heavy fish 20- to 30 inches long eating dries! Many were not landed, of course. Most dry-fly action occurs before the salmon spawn but hatches sometimes come off during egg season in the rockier holes where lack of salmon spawning doesn’t disrupt the stream bottom too much. Pods of grayling often take advantage but you’ll also get a few rainbows to look up if the bug density is high enough. As the eggs and flesh get sparse they may again take dries and streamers.
Planning your Moraine Trip
First, realize that conditions change every year, even daily, so you might want a backup plan to fish another nearby stream if high water, high winds, no fish or heavy crowds trouble your trip. That said, your trip will likely be great by keeping the following advice in mind.
There are three main ways to see Moraine. One is to go with an established and reputable fly-out lodge that is permitted to take clients into Katmai Park. This is probably the best way to go if you are not an experienced wilderness traveler. It’s pricey but a good guide will make sure you catch fish and keep you out of the bears’ way, then get you home to a great dinner and warm cabin. Speaking of bears, you’ll likely see a few to 40 or more in a day. Bears are there to fish also and are generally well-behaved. I have heard of no serious bear attacks ever on Moraine despite lots of interaction. Read a good book about travel skills in bear country.
Plan on walking half a mile or more each way over tundra in waders; plus, you’re likely to cover some ground up- or downriver. If you can’t hike far, tell the guide beforehand and see if they can do a day float in a raft. Day floats are usually done on the lower river.
Outfitter/guides for rafting/camping/fishing are the best option if you want more hours on the water; plus they cost maybe half what a full fly-out lodge costs. This guide will have all the communal gear, food and knowledge: just bring your personal stuff in a waterproof duffel or backpack. Plan on helping some with camp chores or the guide will be too tired and busy to help you catch fish. Some outfitters place a base camp near a good fishing spot then hike around from there. Others will float you in rafts, allowing you to see more of the river, even camping a night or two near good fishing holes. This option lets you be on some good water early, before fly-in lodges can get there in the morning, and then you can fish late. Most lodge guides and clients leave by 4- or 5 p.m. to get back for dinner.
I know you don’t want to hear about having to race to the holes, but it does happen during the peak of the season. Late arrivers may have to do some serious hiking to find unoccupied water. Conversely, if bad flying weather descends, campers on the river may find Moraine is all theirs. A little bad weather is no big problem to a prepared camper. Excellent waders, raingear and a weather-tight tent are important because you’ll be living in them. Ask if the outfitter has a basic or deluxe camp. The difference is in creature comforts, such as stand-up tents with cots vs. crawl-in tents and sleeping on a ground pad.
The third way to see Moraine Creek is a do-it-yourself trip. It’s easy enough to arrange with the air-taxi operators in the area, but it’s really only recommended for the experienced. The travel, camping, boating, food, safety and fishing arrangements are all up to you. Bring everything from home that you’ll need or rent some of it from the air-taxi operator or someone they recommend.
I have done many such trips and like to travel with lightweight, quality backpacking-style gear and float with personal pontoon boats. For food, I bring dried or freeze-dried meals plus snacks and drink mixes stored in backpacking-size bear-resistant canisters. Don’t cook or store food in camp, keep a clean camp, don’t put the tent on a bear trail and you shouldn’t be bothered by bears. Don’t forget a good water filter.
With less or lighter gear you’ll save large airline baggage fees and not give yourself a hernia toting it all through airports and across the tundra. You can have a boat (or parts) in one bag, your backpack-style camping gear in another and a carry-on with your fishing, camera and extra gear. I guarantee you that it’s not as easy as it sounds to keep your gear lightweight, but there are many excellent websites to help you with cutting weight and bulk.
I consider it part of the fun of the DIY trip to outfit yourself and plan logistics. Once you get the gear, you can do many such trips on a modest budget. Plan your party number around the capacity of the floatplane. For example: most DeHavilland Beavers can handle 3 persons plus your boat, fishing gear and camping supplies (4 persons plus gear, if you go light). You don’t want to pay for an extra, unplanned flight. Communicate with the air-taxi pilots for lots of good, recent info and check current Katmai Park regulations. Contact www.branchriverair.com for DIY floats.
Floating Moraine Creek
I love self-propelled camp/fishing in a single-person pontoon boat. Most DIY floaters settle for a raft. Twenty-plus-mile Moraine float trips start at Mirror Lake, on Funnel Creek. Fair char, laker and rainbow fishing is found in the lake. It’s a beautiful, lonely valley to hike and photograph, and you may see a world-class caribou or wolf. The outlet stream has a small, rocky constriction that needs to be portaged but the rest is fairly easy to float if you don’t mind walking through the shallow spots. Funnel Creek often lacks trout until you get down maybe halfway to the confluence. It’s a tight stream and you need to watch out for bears on brushy corners. The bluffs are nice for spotting big trout. I heard of a 36-incher getting caught that way.
Moraine Creek proper is shorter and comes out of Spectacle Lake. It’s an easier 15-mile float but for some reason, the trout don’t stack up as often as in Funnel. Both forks may be relatively empty of fish when the mainstem has many.
Most fishing occurs from the confluence hole down. Crosswind Lake, a quarter-mile from the river here, is the most common place to land in a floatplane from lodges but other pothole ponds are possible for skilled pilots. Floaters can lug their gear and start at the confluence and go down the 10-plus miles to Kukaklek. The confluence float can be done in a long day but it’s a better 2- to 5-day float with lots of fishing time. If you go for a week, you’ll likely camp more than one night in spots. There are some class II or more rapids in the middle portion so make sure a skilled oarsman is navigating.
Fishing is often excellent in the lower 5-plus miles of river and this area gets lots of day floats from lodges that land in a bucket lake near the river. Others land near the lake inlet and just walk/wade upstream. Your floating pickup spot is usually at the top of a straight section of slow water just above Kukaklek, unless the water is low; then a lake pickup is preferred. Some combine Moraine with another float, such as either fork of the Alagnak, by hiring the floatplane to come shuttle them across to the Kukaklek or Nonvianuk outlets partway through the trip. Rowing across Kukaklek is not recommended.
Whether you ever get to Moraine Creek or not and experience its explosive rainbow trout action, it’s nice to know public rivers like that still exist, filling your daydreams with pleasant images and big fishing plans. Rivers like this need friends that respect, cherish and protect the resource. Tight lines and fun adventures!
Larry Tullis of Pleasant Grove, UT, has guided fly anglers for over 24 years, from Alaska to Patagonia. He has written six fly-fishing books and has had over 100 magazine articles published. Larry currently designs and markets personal fishing watercraft for www.northforkoutdoors.com and guided
2012-13 at www.rainbowriverlodge.com.