Alaska’s Bearclaw Lodge: A Multi-Species Adventure
Article by Marcus Weiner
Photos by Marcus Weiner & Melissa Norris
Alaska’s Bearclaw Lodge
Alaska’s Bearclaw Lodge sits on a private parcel of land on a peninsula on Lake Aleknagik, with Jackknife Mountain as the backdrop, at the edge of the Wood-Tikchik state park. The park encompasses a vast, watery expanse that includes many highly productive rivers, lakes and creeks. At 1.6 million acres, it’s the largest state park in the country. There’s an almost unlimited amount of water in which to fish. Included in the species portfolio throughout the season are rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden char, Arctic char, northern pike, sockeye salmon and coho salmon.
Fishing, family, and fun
Melissa and I have been invited to visit Rob Fuentes’ Alaska Bearclaw Lodge on Lake Aleknagik in late July. During this time period, anglers have ample opportunity to catch Arctic grayling and rainbow trout on dry flies. This is a unique opportunity in Alaska, and we are eager to see it first-hand. Our itinerary will include time on the Agulowak River, Agulukpak River and on Sunshine Creek. In addition to topwater opportunities, we will also target sockeye salmon and Dolly Varden char.
“Ain’t nobody got time for that,” quips Rob Fuentes. I like him immediately. This catchphrase typifies what Rob is about. He’s a man of action, and spends nearly every moment in the pursuit of something positive. Thanks Rob, I’ve adopted your catchphrase and use it frequently with my sons.
To get to the Alaska’s Bearclaw Lodge, guests first fly into Dillingham on either Ravn Alaska or Alaska Airlines, and then are shuttled about 20 miles by van to the boat launch on Lake Aleknagik. It’s a bit more than a 10-mile boat ride from the launch to Rob’s lodge. One of the positives about a location like this is that weather will not usually preclude guests from making it to the lodge, which can sometimes happen at remote destinations around the Greatland.
Immediately, the family-friendly atmosphere is readily apparent. Rob is a strong family man, and these principles shape the type of lodge environment that he has created. While there, Melissa and I (brother and sister) are joined by a father and son, and husband and wife. It’s a place where people can gather, enjoy the comfortable environment, the fishing, the chance to be in Alaska’s wilds, and to bring your family for quality time. One of my greatest takeaways that truly defines Rob’s methodology is that guides share information, tips, fly boxes, don’t count or measure fish, show great river etiquette and generally seek to help one another as much as to help the guests. This is refreshing in a Bristol Bay lodge where egos, testosterone, and competition usually dominate.
The general manager of Alaska’s Bearclaw Lodge is a highly personable and entertaining guide named Greg Morgan. He’s both a storyteller and a coach, helping clients to decide on an itinerary that will best suit their desires. The whole time I’m there, we are either laughing with each other or at each other. I like him too. And his dog is definitely the lodge mascot. Or his beard.
Guests enjoy comfortable accommodations ranging from private suites to cozy rooms. The shared space includes a sitting room, dining room and well-used front deck with a row of supremely comfortable chairs that get used on a daily basis. They overlook the lake and offer a chance to soak up the impressive scenery. Food is served family style with guests and staff sitting down to home-cooked meals that are delicious. Lunches are eaten on the water. A typical day includes breakfast at eight, fishing until about five, hor d’oeuvres and happy hour until about seven and a multi-course dinner to cap a brilliant day. Quality waders, wading boots and fishing gear are provided for each guest.
On Day 1 we take about a 30-minute boat ride to fish the Agulowak (Wak) River. The Wak flows four miles connecting Lake Aleknagik to Lake Nerka. It is a lovely, clear, wide and burly river with many nice even runs, as well as some riffles and pools, making it well suited to both dry and wet fly fishing. Fish are spread from top to bottom. On average, 1.8 million sockeye make their way up the Wood River system and around 200,000 of them spawn in the Wak, providing an ample food supply throughout most of the year. During the period in which we visited, most of last year’s carcasses had washed out and this year’s sockeye are not yet dropping eggs, so the trout and grayling are looking for insects and other aquatic life for sustenance.
Since chrome sockeye were still running into the river, we begin the day targeting reds. Due to a large run, limits had been set at 10 fish per day. Melissa and I got to work and by about 1 pm, we’d landed 15 and kept 9, while fighting and losing at least another 15. Pound-for-pound I am always impressed at the strength of a sockeye salmon, and I am equally impressed at the meals created from this top-quality fish. The lodge fishes quality TFO 8-weight fly rods for sockeye, with floating line, an 8-foot leader, slinky weight and a pair of sparsely dressed flies. We cast slightly upstream, mend to allow the flies to drop into the zone, and follow the fly waiting to line one of the many sockeye salmon streaming by. During the peak of the run, the action is fast and furious. One of the extra benefits of catching sockeye salmon is the ability to take them home and enjoy many fine meals. Alaska’s Bearclaw Lodge fillets, vacuum packs and provides an insulated, airline-approved fish box to take your salmon home.
Switching gears, our guide Steve runs us to the top of the river, and we begin long, smooth drifts. Casting small dries—like Royal Coachmen, Parachute Adams, Stimulators and Caddis—in sizes 12 to 16, we catch many nice grayling and rainbows. They are fat and healthy, and the biggest eclipses 16 inches. Resident species are plentiful in the Wak, and these are typical fish. You should expect good numbers of fish, with trout and grayling beyond 20 inches considered very large specimens for the drainage. The lodge employs TFO 6-weight fly rods, floating line, 8-foot leaders and tandem flies when targeting trout and grayling on the surface in the Wak.
Day 2 dawns foggy, with bright sunshine hidden behind the fog. We are due to fly over to the Agulukpak (Pak) River to target trout on nymphs. It’s about a two-hour boat ride from the lodge to the Pak, or a short 20-minute flight. This two-mile river connects Lake Beverly to Lake Nerka. Trout move in and out of the river depending on localized food sources, so the river can be hard to fish if the trout are absent. Finally, the fog lifts enough to make the trip and we land on Lake Beverly, grab the jon boat and power over to the inlet. Our guide Barrett positions us in a likely looking slot, in an open lane at the lake inlet. Four other boats are working the area, providing ample room for us all. I look around and notice several bent rods.
The technique for the day will involve landing big, strong trout on light tippet and small flies. There are tons of midge larvae in the water. The goal is to match the hatch, which requires nymphs in sizes 16 to 20, tied on 4x tippet. We find that Prince nymphs and Zebra midges are adequate representations.
Using 6-weight fly rods, floating line, a Thingamabobber strike indicator, 8 feet of leader, a couple feet of tippet and tandem flies, we make long, drag-free drifts to hungry trout. Trout are feeding voraciously, and Melissa and I find it’s very easy to break them off, often on the strike or when applying any pressure on a long run. Soon we get the hang of big trout on tiny flies and light tippet, in fast current, and begin to land trout. Over the next four hours, we land at least 20 and hook at least another 20. Barrett says that this has been one of the top three days he has ever had on the Pak. The largest buck I tape measures 23 inches and runs deep into my backing three times. Many make long runs, and all require that we turn the drag all the way down to avoid breaking off. The last fish screams upriver past the boat and out into the lake. I can honestly say that this was one of the funnest days of ‘bow fishing in recent memory. Our expectation was to catch a few trout, but the ones we would land would be quality. Expectations were exponentially exceeded.
On day 3, we run up Lake Aleknagik to Sunshine Creek with Rob, Greg and guide for the day, Doug. We fish for dollies using indicators and beads for about four hours. The dollies follow the salmon into the river anticipating a buffet of eggs. They had not quite shown up yet. Still, they piled up in the lower few holes and a few spread out in several holes upriver. Sockeye, chums, pinks, whitefish and grayling are all present in this small, easily managed creek. Hiking and fishing about 1/2-mile of river, we hook about 25 between us, and land some nice ones, including the largest at 18 inches. In primetime, action can be frenetic all day long and anglers may never run out of char to catch. After wrapping up for the morning, Greg and Rob head back to the lodge while Doug, Melissa and I make some drifts in the Wak. More nice grayling and rainbows come to hand, and I catch several chunky rainbows about 18 inches long on dries. I’ll never get enough of watching a fish pounce on a dry, realizing that trout and grayling often miss the fly, jumping right over it. That’s part of the fun.
On day 4 we head back up to the Wak with Steve. We decide to try our luck on sockeye first, hoping to pick up a few more fillets for the freezer. Sockeye have mostly passed by, and I land a few, after several hours of effort. The run appears to be over, so we segue to trout and grayling on dries. Melissa and I land several nice fish including fighting fish at the same time on several occasions. On one drift, while she was taking her jacket off and the rod was wedged between her knees, two grayling simultaneously ate both dries. Her grin said it all.
Nearing the bottom of the river and end of the day, I lay out a 40-foot cast towards the far bank. The light is right, so I can plainly see both flies gliding along the surface. Suddenly, a sockeye-sized trout, with a big red band, leapt airborne and pounced on the fly. Immediately, I felt a spike of adrenaline, an increase in heart rate, and the “holy cow that’s a big trout” moment. I pull back and there’s nothing but air. At this moment, I vacillate between what could have been and the appreciation of what just happened. I’ve been lucky enough to fish the Wak, spent good time with great people, landed many nice fish, and just watched the largest trout of the trip, by far, launch itself on a well-presented fly. Life is good at Alaska’s Bearclaw Lodge.
Marcus Weiner is Publisher of Fish Alaska magazine and Hunt Alaska magazine and is the father of four sons who love to go fishing with their dad.
This article originally appeared as “Rising to the Top—A Multi-Species Adventure at Alaska’s Bearclaw Lodge” in the February 2020 issue of Fish Alaska.