Anatomy of a Float Trip

Story & Photo
Marcus Weiner

There’s a contingent of dedicated anglers who prefer remote float trips to the fanfare of lodge travel, the chaos of road-system fisheries or the battle with the elements all too often associated with saltwater fisheries. Floating an Alaska wilderness river brings its own challenges for those so inclined; however, for them, the rewards more than compensate for any drawbacks.

I should know: I’m one of them.

Alaska is full of amazing remote rivers, crammed full of multiple species of resident and transient fish, devoid of most angling competition and offering what to me is the very definition of peace and quiet. An angler can spend several lifetimes floating wilderness Alaska and see but a fragment of the floatable water in the state. There are the mighty rivers of the northern portion of the state—the Ivishak, Kobuk, Colville and Noatak, as well as those that vein ANWR, and then the famous tundra streams of the west, rivers that include the Aniak, Kisaralik, Kanektok, Eek, Alagnak, Goodnews, Togiak and American. And let’s not forget Southcentral gems like Lake and Alexander creeks and the Talachulitna, Karluk and Gulkana rivers.

So, with all this water, how does one determine which river to float?

For me, there are several important questions to answer, from which a list can be pared down to a manageable number of choices.

For instance, how many days will you have for the trip? What dates can you go? What species of fish do you want to target? What level of proficiency do you have behind the oars and in wilderness camping? Do you need a guide? What’s the budget?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you are on the way to narrowing down the possibilities. Let’s assume that you’ve decided that you are prepared for a weeklong self-guided experience, targeting rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and silver salmon in the Southwest region of the state. And let’s use our 2009 float down the Arolik River as the case in point.

Do Your Research

I’d heard over the years that the 45-mile Arolik River was full of anadromous fish, had limited pressure and hosted good resident populations, including strong numbers of rainbow trout.

After floating the Kisaralik River in 2003, I was more than eager to travel back to that area. I first started by researching the river in various books and websites and ended up speaking to friend and contributing editor René Limeres for his input. One piece of crucial advice was that in low-water conditions, one could end up dragging the boat for many miles before finding enough flow to float. He advised that I lighten up on gear as much as possible to be prepared for the probability of low water. He also shared with me that the Dolly Varden fishing was fantastic and that rainbow fishing throughout was good. He suggested that the rainbow fishing only got better and remained steady as we worked the lower half of the float. When we entered the lower 10 miles of river, he predicted that we’d find plenty of fresh silvers. All of this advice was right on track and helped me to plan a floating strategy.

Choose Your Service Provider

You’ll need a raft, gear and transportation to and from the river as the next link in the chain. We chose Wade Renfro of Tikchik Adventures to provide a raft and transport us back and forth from Bethel to the Arolik River. As a client of Fish Alaska magazine, it was an easy decision for us to work with Wade, especially since he has a decade of experience in the region and a good mix of airplanes necessary to complete the mission. He’s a hunting guide and outfitter as well and has spent many years investigating the Kuskokwim basin.

Wade provided us with a 14-foot SOTAR raft that virtually floated in 6 inches of water; he flew us to the river and provided pick-up at the end of the float and transportation back to Bethel.

When choosing an air service, find out what types of planes you’ll be flying in, their level of experience both flying and specifically in that portion of Alaska, what type of raft that you’ll be getting and exact drop-off and pick-up locations. Acquire GPS coordinates for both or at least a very detailed map. If you are being picked up at an exact location at a certain time, be certain to know precisely where. Air taxis are very busy during the flying season, and you don’t want to miss a pick-up for risk of being stuck at the location a day or more beyond your planned extraction date.

Gear Planning for the Trip

Weight and space are primary concerns when planning gear for your float. Start with the essentials—tent, sleeping bag and mat, waders and wet-weather gear, clothes, food, toiletries, bug repellent, fishing gear and tackle, water purifier and stove, water bottle, fuel bottles, camera, first aid kit. Stuff it all in dry bags and weigh the items for a tally. You’ll want to keep the weight to about 100 pounds per person, so that the items will fit on the boat and plane.

Also, talk to your air taxi about the options and the associated costs. A plane with a larger payload will cost more but may be worth it for the ability to bring more gear. Many air services will also rent camping gear and sell you white gas to use in cooking. This is essential as it is not possible to bring white gas on the airlines, and you should not rely on finding wood for fire.

I typically use freeze-dried food like Mountain House meals as my main sustenance and compliment those with fresh fish. Oatmeal, coffee, peanut butter and jelly, bread and granola bars round out my food supply, so as to keep weight and cooking time to a minimum. Prepare in advance a sweet-and-spicy rub and a lemon/garlic rub, bring a roll of aluminum foil, and you can enjoy the freshest fish possible. Leave the skin on and coat the flesh side with rub, place skin-side down on foil and form into a tight pocket.

During our Arolik trip, we got into a routine where the foil and rub were brought out, a fire was started and burned down to cooking coals, and then the fish was caught, filleted and cooking in just a few minutes. Depending on the heat of the coals and size of the fish, fillets cooked in 10- to 15 minutes. Fish Alaska operations manager Wayne Norris, my normal floating partner, typically isn’t much for eating fish, but the sweet rub had him eating grayling for days.

Setting the Trip Itinerary

In the case of the Arolik float, Wayne and I wanted to spend our waking hours targeting trout and did not feel that we needed to rush past prime water to get to salmon holding pools. We budgeted six days to fish and float and one day on each side to travel.

After spending August 7 traveling from Anchorage to Bethel, and then from Bethel to the river, we were left with just a bit of light after assembling the raft and portaging the gear. Floating about a mile from the put-in, camp was pitched on a nice gravel bar at dusk. A fire and some celebratory spirits were enough to send us to bed.

Waking to clear skies, the river unfolded in front of us as it swept out of the Ahklun Mountains in the heart of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. In the upper reaches of the river, the clear, flowing water held great numbers of Dolly Varden, adequate numbers of rainbow trout and smaller numbers of Arctic grayling. We found the average to be about 15 Dollies to three rainbows and one grayling. We’d present egg patterns behind pods of blushed sockeye, and the resident fish would eagerly pounce.

This was the program for the first three days as we’d float until we found signs of sockeye, pull over and wade and fish until we’d exhausted our supply. If the fishing continued to be good, we’d just keep wading, taking turns to push the boat along.

On day three the Dolly fishing peaked. We fished four long (100-yard) runs that were absolutely crammed with fish. Wayne taped the biggest Dolly of the trip at 27 inches in this stretch of river. We’d record our catch numbers every hour and finished the day landing 125 Dollies. The larger fish fought more like rainbows, actually leaping clear of the water and making line-burning runs upon the hook-set. These fish had recently returned from the ocean and were in prime physical condition, thick-shouldered and girthy.

By day four, we’d reached the upper end of the braids, with channels merging to form deep buckets stacked with fish. Deep, gentle corners would hold spawning red salmon, and the three resident egg-eating species lined up at different spots in the river’s cross section. Rainbows occupied the outside lane, close to the far bank. Dolly Varden stayed in the main section of the current and grayling chose the softer flow of the inside bend. One could predict in advance what the species was depending on when the bead was struck. Our lunch grayling was a fat, 18-inch fish with a shrew in its belly.

At this point in the trip, we’d found a good pace, covering five- to eight miles per day, fishing as much as we liked. Meals were quick. Setting up camp was a simple affair, and we’d wait until about 10 p.m. each night to do so. In a 16-hour day, 13 were spent fishing.

On day five, working through the heart of the braids, multiple forks of the river slowly came together. The rigged fly rod collection now tallied five, with two bead rods, two streamer rods and a mouse rod. It was there that Wayne spotted a run that looked like it might be productive with the mouse, and I promptly stuck our first topwater trout. Two more Arolik rainbows fell to the mouse before the day was done. We also began to find that the rainbows were gathering in segregated runs in this portion of the river, away from the Dollies. By day’s end, we estimated ourselves to be about 15 river miles from Kuskokwim Bay and the end of the float. In regards to the angling tally, I’d caught 22 rainbows compared to 19 Dollies and three grayling.

On day six, the river’s complexion began to change. It widened and shallowed, and the wind began to blow. Fishing was good for most of the day, and in the early afternoon, we were greeted with the first pool that held fishable numbers of silver salmon. Firewood had been easy to come by to this point but was now pretty scarce.

On day seven, we hit the mother lode of silvers. They would lay in the slack water off the main current in the froggiest spots on the river. Spinners, spoons and most types of streamers would elicit multiple strikes. In many locations, the silvers would race one another to the lure. In these same holes, big rainbows would lay in between the moving and slack water. Five were landed that taped over 20 inches, and all were larger than any landed during other stretches of the float. We continued to catch silvers until the end of the day, when we made our final campsite in preparation for pick-up the following morning.

After such a comfortable trip, the lesson was pretty clear: Set a basic itinerary of how much water needs to be covered each day, but be flexible should you find great angling. Don’t float away from the type of fishing you want to do in order to keep a rigid schedule. After all, shedding the artifice of time and schedules is part of what makes this type of adventure rejuvenating.

However, be warned that flogging unproductive water for too long can limit your time to fish terrific water later in the float. Should you choose to float that river again, you’ll surely improve on time management in order to maximize the experience you’re seeking. I felt like we could have spent another day on the lower river catching silvers and big trout, and perhaps another half-day targeting rainbows on the surface. In the future, I’d borrow that time from the front of the float, when we might have been a little too eager to thoroughly work the Dolly and grayling water.

Be Safe

If you are heading out on your own for the first time on a wilderness float trip in Alaska, be certain that you are ready for the event. Do your homework on safe practices for camping in bear country. For example, I prefer to eat dinner well in advance of the nightly camp spot to eliminate any food odors from where I’m sleeping.

Make sure that you are capable of rowing a boat and navigating moving water. Wear your life jacket when floating and when aggressively wading. Understand that help is not around the corner, and can take hours and even days to reach you. Make sure you have a satellite phone.

In the end, pay extra caution to your environment and always keep track of the other members of your group, as it becomes easy to get lost in catching so many fish. Many of these rivers have braided sections where you can easily get separated from other boats in the party. Set a plan in advance as to what to do should you stray from the pack.

It’s also good practice to use a guide if you are unable to do all these things proficiently, as they will take a lot of the stress of navigation, planning and fish-catching out of the equation. If you’ve gained some experience from participating in other floats, this could be the year where you venture out on your own. I’d recommend starting on a shorter, four- to seven-day float with limited rapids for first timers and from there work your way to the two-week jaunts into less chartered territory.

At the End of the Float

There are just some things about a float trip that keep you coming back. You’ve got ample time to unwind from normal life. There’s a campfire at the end of the day and the constant and comforting sound of moving water.

There’s also a sense of the unknown around every corner. Time stands still. Food simply tastes better. And there are often more fish than any angler needs, and since we’re talking remote rivers, they are pretty eager to eat a well-presented lure or fly.

All that’s left is for you to grab a friend, father, son or daughter and start making plans. No matter which Alaska river you chose, you can rest in the assurance that it will be a trip worth talking about for the rest of your lives.

Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.