Packrafting the Goodsnews
By Larry Bartlett
There’s nothing that gets the season started better than an epic adventure in southwest Alaska, home to some of Alaska’s most prolific fisheries, located in some of the most wild and scenic rivers anywhere. Here, it’s all about access—beginning with a floatplane hitch and ending with over a week in a raft, floating and fishing a river from start to finish.
Every year I try to get out on one of these adventures, choosing a new, off-the-chart spot to traverse, usually for 8- to 10 days, which is about the right amount of time to truly explore a fishery while traveling by raft. And by utilizing packrafts rather than the larger, more common self-bailing rafts, we’re able to access a host of new and exciting waters that very few ever encounter; namely, the tributaries to the well-known rivers of Bristol Bay.
To begin, however, you’ll need an outfitter to get you the gear and put you on the water. Enter Wade Renfro of Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures, who offers a variety of guided and unguided remote fishing adventures for rainbow trout, Arctic char and Dolly Varden, lake trout, grayling and Alaska’s five species of Pacific salmon. Trips with Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures are tailored specific to each client and center around the Wood-Tikchik system and the drainages of the Kilbuck Mountains—rivers like the Aniak, Arolik, Eek, Goodnews, Kanektok, Kisaralik and Kwethluk. Each potential float presents a true wilderness fishing experience; although, with the right gear and experience, anglers can choose to float and fish barely explored tributaries to these blue-ribbon waters.
This year our packing order included backpacks with 60 pounds of gear, 20 pounds of food and a 15-pound packraft; perfect for getting into skinny water and staying mobile for over a week of fine fishing. Working with Wade, we arranged to fly out of Bethel and head for the upper headwaters of Canyon Creek. To my knowledge, not many anglers have floated from its source, through the lake, and down Canyon Creek to the Goodnews River. It was exactly the adventure we were seeking, and to top things off, we got lucky with a high-pressure period of good weather. Bluebird skies, total isolation and untouched fish, the ideal combination.
On our first day out of Bethel, Wade dropped us off about four miles above Canyon Lake onto an alpine ridgeline that overlooked a small, shallow feeder creek that flows in to Canyon Lake. We hiked a short half-mile portage off the ridge and into the brushy bear maze, and then it was game-on.
We chose to travel in separate packrafts for comfort and efficiency. Primarily targeting rainbow trout, each of us also packed two 5-weight fly rods—a backup rod is a must when traveling in bush Alaska—and two dozen flies. Also a novelty of the Alaska wilderness (both because space and weight is such a serious consideration when floating, but also because the remote nature of the water means the fish aren’t very sophisticated), the flies were of only two varieties: the Dolly Llama and Egg-sucking Leech. With over fifteen years of experience fishing the remote rivers of southwest Alaska, I’ve pared down my fly box to include only these two fly types to target as many as eight species of fish on every float. It worked here, too—we caught Arctic grayling, lake trout, Dolly Varden, rainbow trout, sockeye, chum, pink salmon and Chinook. We missed the silvers by about ten days, but that doesn’t mean there was anything we could complain about.
The Canyon Creek float itself is not suitable for every angler, nor can a standard packraft perform as ours did. The larger tube diameter and overall design of the PR-49 and Big Rig packrafts lent us a proud draft, generous weight capacity and better control on the water. The upper four miles has no official name or character rating, but we found it to be shallow, narrow, brushy and loaded with huge grayling. At medium to low stage, the average speed was less than three miles per hour and depths ranged from a few inches to several feet. A classic pool and riffle streambed presented numerous shallows with deeper pockets along the high banks. Overhanging brush threatened frequent snatch-and-grab events, so we kept our fly rods stowed and our gear load tightly secured to the boats in the first four miles. Overall, I’d say this stretch was an easy Class I, with tight turns and potentially fast channels at high stage.
Moving on in the trip, Canyon Lake requires a two-mile crossing to reach the outlet, so hope for cooperative wind direction. The inlet and outlet are great areas to target grayling, lakers and salmon. We caught a variety of spawners and dime-bright salmon before even reaching Canyon Creek. The fishing is definitely worth a full-day layover on the lake, but keep a watchful eye out for bears, as during salmon season they’re doing heady business near the lake.
After spending a day catching as many fish as we could handle near the outlet, we moved into the main part of our float. Canyon Creek courses nearly 30 miles and averages 20- to 40 feet wide, dropping some 18 feet per mile before joining the Goodnews River.
The Goodnews, of course, is one of the more exceptional fish-producers in southwest Alaska, and anglers with great timing routinely have shots at a salmon slam, while picking up several resident species as well.
During our tributary float, the water level was medium to low, which offered an above-average abundance of gravel bars for camping, but also presented us with numerous shallow riffles that occasionally required dragging our packrafts. At high stage, camping would have been challenging due to thick vegetation and unpleasant tent sites on the shores.
Farther downstream, there’s a rather scenic canyon section that lasts for a couple of miles, rising up to 150 feet on both sides of the channel. The average speed through this section was three- to four miles per hour, featuring everything from riffles only a few inches deep to pools with over twelve feet of water.
Overall, Canyon Creek is a challenging float, but a suitable Class II stream for moderate skill levels, as long as the weather and water conditions aren’t extreme (always a risk in western Alaska). Still, I believe our watercraft selection made the difference in our performance and overall experience.
Throughout the float, the creek’s water clarity was generally clear, with lots of shallow riffles followed by deep pools and meandering channels. We chose weight-forward sink-tip lines and presented heavy flies to reach holding fish near the bottom. Typically, there were lots of Dollies and huge grayling in the tailouts, with salmon varieties holding in deeper channels. The larger rainbows were usually found just downstream of salmon pods, especially the early spawners. While this information is specific to Canyon Creek, it’s applicable across most situations one will encounter in the rivers and streams favored by Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures.
Our hottest flies were black on white-and-pink Dolly Llamas, as well as pink and purple Egg-sucking Leeches. We didn’t try dry flies, but as this was an early-summer trip, we often found fish that were surface-feeding on insects. For trips during this time of year, June through July, I’d recommend anglers bring a small box with some traditional nymphs and attractor dry patterns to spice things up (and potentially catch even more fish).
The fishing was best in the upper 20 miles of Canyon Creek, and once we floated onto the mainstem Goodnews, it was hit or miss on pockets of fish until we reached our motorboat pickup downstream. A short 30-minute boat ride transported us back to Goodnews village, where Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures picked us up and delivered us safely back to Bethel. This was day nine of the adventure—a trip tailored specifically to our wishes: uncharted waters, uneducated fish, pure Alaska wilderness. I’m already looking forward to next year.
Larry Bartlett currently owns and operates Pristine Ventures, Inc., a Fairbanks- based wilderness adventure company that produces products and services targeted to do-it-yourself travel and big-game hunting. Larry has lived in Alaska for 17 years and specializes in designing inflatable boats suited for Alaska’s backcountry challenges.