This is the Naknek

Article by Troy Letherman

In late September in southwest Alaska, the trees and tundra swap summer green for the polychromatic brocade of fall; the skies darken and low-handing clouds promise rain that might not end for days, the rivers swell, the wind whips and the bears venture out in force, scavenging for one last meal before their long winter’s nap.

The summer’s salmon have spawned and died—five species of flesh clinging to rootwads and bankside branches, five species of eggs dislodged from the redds and bouncing downstream. It’s not a coincidence that Alaska’s trout, treasures by any standard, near their finest form during this peak of the fall season, gorging on spent salmon and protein-rich eggs, happy and fat and eager for more.

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Justin Crump and Kris Fausti celebrate a gorgeous catch. © Pete Gruendike


Three hundred miles from the fancy hotels and four-star restaurants of Anchorage, the meaning of all this reverberates in the silence of a foggy morning, wisps of mist rising from a river so big and wide it runs silent, cutting a massive lane through the muted hues of saturated tundra. This is where more than a million salmon ended up, where tens of millions of fry and smolt will emerge from the lake in coming years. This is where the rainbows are, bigger and badder than ever before.

For an angler, there is no better place on Earth. This is the Naknek.

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Healthy signs of salmon life. © Kate Taylor


Situated just under 300 air miles to the southwest from Anchorage, the Naknek River drains the colossal, emerald-colored lake of the same name, which also happens to be one of the world’s most significant rearing grounds for juvenile sockeye salmon. As a result, it regularly pumps out trout of gargantuan size.

That, along with its booming salmon sport fishery and the relatively easy logistics of getting there, is one of the reasons the river receives the highest amount of angling pressure of any sport fishery in southwest Alaska, over 15,000 angler-days annually. Accessible via commercial flights from Alaska’s largest city, the community of King Salmon sits on the river and is the launching point for the great majority of the angling activity, whether lodge-based, guided or of the do-it-yourself variety.

Unsurprisingly, there is much history to this business of fishing the Naknek, as Alaska’s people have been drawn to this river since the earliest times. Central Yup’ik Eskimos and Athabascan Indians jointly occupied the area, utilizing the Naknek River system in particular as hunting and fishing grounds throughout the summers, with Sugpiaq (Aleut-Russian) Eskimos arriving to the same region in later years. The Russians and then the canneries came next, and by the early twentieth century, Naknek was on the map.

In the 1930s, the United States government built an air navigation silo on the north bank of the river at the site of present-day King Salmon, and at the outset of World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces built an air base around the silo. The region’s recreational sport fishing began in the early 1940s when pilots like Ray Petersen began flying workers from the Naknek canneries and the military personnel to Brooks Lake and other prominent fishing holes. At around the same time, the U.S. army built a pair of rest-and-recreation camps on the Naknek River. One, informally called Rapids Camp, was located at the foot of the river’s rapids, while the second, Lake Camp, was constructed about seven miles upstream. Also in the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a 16-mile-long road from King Salmon to Naknek, opening up more access. From those fairly humble beginnings, word of the river’s outlandish fecundity spread quickly.

Today, the area is a bustling summer destination for anglers and other outdoors-enthusiasts. As the gateway to 4.2-millon-acre Katmai National Park, thousands of visitors pass through annually on their way to view the volcanic topography, watch the famous bears snatch salmon in the falls or fish the plethora of wilderness streams. Numerous others are bound for wilderness float trips or hunting drop-camps, depending on the time of year. And with an array of lodges stationed on the river’s banks, ranging from upscale fly-out operations to do-it-yourself fish camps, the Naknek itself remains one of Alaska’s most prominent sport-fishing destinations—and one of the world’s premier trophy trout rivers.

this-is-the-naknek-7.jpgChinook, coho, and sockeye all show good runs on the Naknek. © Blue Fly


If venturing to the Naknek in the summer, there is a wide array of salmon fishing to be had, depending on your arrival date. All five species of Alaska’s Pacific salmon make their way into the system, and during the month of July, many of the clear-flowing watersheds will be choked with fish, as the planet’s greatest concentration of the highly-prized sockeye moves inland towards their spawning beds. Along the way, and with their eventual deaths, they’ll disperse millions of tons of nutrients from the rich marine environment to the tundra’s nutrient-poor freshwaters, increasing production at all levels of the food chain, from aquatic insects and rainbow trout to bald eagles and coastal grizzly bears, as well as providing crucial sustenance for the surrounding riparian ecosystem.

For anglers, the Naknek presents a relatively under-the-radar but still world-class sockeye fishery, which peaks sometime between the last week of June and just after mid-July. Typically some two million fish will pour past in a given season, moving from the open waters of Bristol Bay through Naknek Lake and beyond to the spawning tributaries.

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Boasting up to a fifth of the angling effort in southwest Alaska, the large, powerful Naknek also supports a solid run of kings in late June and early July, with the peak of the run typically occurring near the last week of July. Effort is greatest in the lower river, from the mouth of Big Creek to Pauls Creek, where guides and anglers use jet boats to access salmon migration lanes and the best Chinook holding water. For tactics on the Naknek, think about the standard big-water salmon producers; namely, back-bouncing and back-trolling plugs, such as K-15 and K-16 Kwikfish.

Naknek salmon-chasers get a shot at chum and pink salmon as well, although the pink run (occurring in even-numbered years) is relatively short-lived, lasting only the first two weeks of August during average years.

Silver salmon begin to poke into the Naknek in late July, and while Naknek silvers are a bit more sporadic and unpredictable than the other salmon species, fishing can be excellent anywhere in the upper river. If you want to look, one can find some silvers in the Naknek all the way into September, but by then most of the river’s anglers have a completely different species on their minds.

The resident rainbow trout of Alaska are of the coastal subspecies, Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus, same as the rainbows you’d find in eastern Oregon or Washington, but these fish of the Last Frontier grow at a slower rate, reach sexual maturity later and live longer than their more latitude-challenged cousins. Most trout of western North America join the spawning pool at an age of two or three and only live to reach six or seven years of age. On the other hand, Alaska rainbows, which can live for upwards of ten years, might not enter into reproduction until after their fourth or fifth year of life. Partly as a consequence, they get bigger. And biologists have estimated some Naknek fish to be more than 14 years-old at their time of capture.

Another Alaskan growth incentive is the amount of biomass available in the state’s more productive river and lake systems. As expected, environments conducive to hosting large rainbows contain both rich and stable food sources, like maybe millions of spawning salmon, and a large lake (610 square kilometers of surface area will do) to modulate flows and temperature. Toss in a wildcard—how about the presence of both anadromous and dwarfed freshwater forms of the Arctic lamprey (hence the popularity of black articulated leeches among Naknek trout fishermen)—and you have the Naknek’s trout: the biggest rainbows in a state famous for big fish.

this-is-the-naknek-8.jpgAn angler casts into a typical run on the upper Naknek for fall trophy trout. © Gray Struznik


Deep, jade-colored Naknek Lake provides both remarkable and consistent trophy fishing potential, while the Naknek River, equally productive, drains the lake and flows about 30 miles west before emptying into Kvichak Bay. The widely migrating Naknek rainbow trout population first moves from the lake to the river for spawning, which occurs downstream from the lake outlet in the upper nine river miles during April and May. There is a limited sport fishery for pre-spawners that coincides with breakup, and anglers can do extraordinarily well with large articulated flies, particularly leeches, though the area is hampered by inclement weather at this time of year. The section of the river where the majority of spawning activity occurs, from Rapids Camp upstream to the lake outlet, is closed to angling from April 10 until June 7 to protect spawning stocks. On June 8, Naknek rainbow fishing resumes as anglers begin to target trout feeding on sockeye salmon smolt migrating downriver from Naknek Lake.

Not all of the Naknek’s trout are available to river anglers at that time, however, as it is known that a number of post-spawning trout migrate back to the lake for the summer, where there is abundant forage in the form of millions of juvenile sockeye salmon. Because of this, great trophy rainbow fishing can be had in the lake during the summer months, particularly in the area known as the Bay of Islands, where the usually turbid water is clearer and allows the predatory trout to more effectively utilize their visual acuity. Some studies have found that by the month of August over half the rainbow trout in the lake can be found in this eastern arm. Numerous others have determined that on average these summer lake fish are the largest of the system’s rainbows.

this-is-the-naknek-9.jpgPlan to fly out with an outfit like Branch River Air Service to
really experience the full bounty of the region. © Kate Taylor


However, the lake-feeding rainbows eventually return to the river in the fall, some as early as August, when trout fishing in the Naknek heads towards another peak of activity that continues into October. As the autumn months progress, both the number of total fish and the number of larger fish increases in the river as the rainbows return to their preferred over-wintering habitat (some utilize Naknek Lake for over-wintering as well). Their primary forage at this time will be eggs and the flesh of deteriorating salmon carcasses, both of which will be washing downstream.

Even with all the targets, the Naknek is not a trouble-free river to fish by any means. Obvious holding water is not easy to locate, especially during the higher water of late summer and fall when prime lies are often disguised beneath deep, heavy flows. Still, the presence of the big, silver-sided lake fish that frequent the river make it part of a very small group of North American rivers that pump out 30-inch rainbows with regularity.

As anglers staying at one of the river’s lodges may discover, the trout fishing in the region certainly isn’t limited just the one lake and river. Within the Naknek system as a whole, there are five distinct spawning stocks of rainbow trout: one each above and below the falls of Katmai’s Brooks River, one in Idavain Creek, an American Creek population, and then the Naknek River stock.

Although these streams are small, some are big enough to have acquired reputations of their own, and they certainly deserve them. Though the Naknek River stock currently holds the most trophy potential, the rest of the drainage is not immune to producing the occasional 30-incher. In fact, Brooks River, which flows barely a mile in connecting Naknek Lake to Brooks Lake, was responsible for a large number of trophy catches in the past, though that number has dwindled with the increase in fishing pressure throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Today the river is most famous for its waterfall-leaping sockeye and the brown bears there to eat them, but it remains a classic Alaska trout-fishing stream.

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. Earlier in the year, however, most of the Idavain rainbows—the bigger specimens in particular—will be in the Bay of Islands area of Naknek Lake. Access to these streams is limited to floatplanes and boats, which means relatively few other anglers will be found on the river at a given time—except the four-legged variety. Idavain and Margot creeks are teeming with Katmai grizzlies, and in the fall especially, encounters are nearly guaranteed.

If bears, solitude and rugged country are the quest, with 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 rushes and sometimes rages about 40 miles to Lake Colville. American Creek presents an advanced challenge for floaters, with abundant sweepers, some class III rapids and lots of brown bears. The trout fishing, however, can reach the spectacular. In the river’s upper stretches, the rainbows are generally smaller, rarely going over 20 inches, but the area does present the best potential for dry-fly fishing. Hammersly Lake also sends sockeye fry swimming for Colville Lake early in the spring, and trout anglers with impeccable timing can find the action furious. 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.

It’s early spring and chunks of ice drift downriver like little frozen rafts bouncing around in the current. There’s ice built up in the rod guides that needs knocking out every third cast. There is ice, or at least slush, gathering around wader legs. Snow borders the river’s banks, stacked a couple feet high in areas where the wind has piled the largest drifts. 

Frankly, the temperature is calamitous. An angler’s breathing takes physical shape, and it’s not a puff of fine vapor but rather an almost crystallized block of spent air. Moustaches grow stalactites. It’s cold enough that digital cameras are necessary, not just modern and handy, because the standard film necessary for the old cameras would snap. And you need a camera today. 

You need it because the big trout are in the river. The big trout are hitting long, black leeches with abandon. These are the biggest trout you’ve ever seen.

You need a camera because this is the Naknek.

 

Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine.