Fish Paradise - the Katmai Experience

Story and photo by Troy Letherman

There’s nothing that can prepare a person for Katmai. After crossing Cook Inlet and the sentry peaks of its western coastline, the Navajo Chieftain slipping nimbly between the twin spires of Iliamna and Redoubt, both summits entombed in several feet of enduring white, one glides down out of the clouds to at first catch but a glimpse of this milieu kept hidden from the highway maintenance, the drive-up latté stands, and the Wal-Mart parking lots of the other side—stark outcroppings of bare rock left clinging to the slopes now in retreat, an ocher hillside coming to an abrupt end at the edge of an isolated lake, the water so clear you can’t tell if it’s three or thirty feet deep, vestigial streams bending through an emerald expanse that swells and folds like the surface of the sea. Much ink has been spilled over the scene, but lacking is a patois with words for explaining the brutal realities one encounters when faced with the power of pure space. The effect is liberating, for few are the places left in this world that can render hyperbole so redundant.

Touchdown brings an utterly different view, however; what seemed as idyllic as a Monet canvas from the air is at once feral in its ruggedness. The water is big and flows swiftly, its size and remoteness lending mystery to something we anglers think we know so well. The banks are lost in a forbidding tangle of alder, willow, and devils club, and any trails that might ease travel through the labyrinthine growth were made by seven-hundred-pound mammals with less than a sterling reputation for hospitality. On closer inspection, one is also confronted by an explosion of color peeking out from beneath the head-high canopy of brush: whites and yellows, pinks and reds, about five different shades of purple. Soon, a person understands that no one who’s referred to the tundra as barren has ever stepped foot upon it.

With time to spare in such an environment, the mind is naturally lured into the contemplation of things we forget when behind on the bills, late for the kids’ soccer games, or simply napping in front of the television. Thankfully, there are too many trout to allow more than a brief encounter with this sort of reflection, which tends to lead to midlife overhauls and metaphysics.

“Goodness,” Michael Roper crowed. “He doesn’t have another one on, does he?” I looked downstream to where Michael’s son Peter stood waist deep in the current, his rod bowed, his back arched. Further comment was unnecessary.

“Let’s work the seam on this side then,” Kulik Lodge guide Ray Irvin said, directing Michael’s attention to a slick of medium-paced water that shouldered the line where the river—having been cut in half by a short, pear-shaped island—returned to join in a single flow again. “Drop it right in the bucket there.” His instructions were accentuated by the slash and boil of a rainbow not twenty feet away.

We were fishing fry patterns in the surface film and targeting the hundreds, maybe thousands of crimson-sided trout stacked up in the last half-mile of river before the outlet. Not twenty-five miles away, I knew another group of guests from Kulik Lodge was working the shallow migration corridors of a headwater lake, minding the birds and tossing smolt imitations at mobile troupes of gorging fish. Even closer, a different party was stalking the narrow banks of a burbling, rock-strewn stream, fishing nymphs and traditional dries for brilliantly hued leopard ‘bows. Later that day, we’d vary our tactics as well, moving upriver to the source lake and swinging bead-head streamers through deep pools and isolated pockets where big,ambush-minded fish held in anticipation of the prey sure to come their way. At one point during the morning, Peter went a step further and tied a rather bushy deer-hair creation to the end of a ten-foot leader, eventually inducing several follows and three vicious takes, the kind only encountered when fishing a mouse.

“It looked just like a shark coming up to attack,” he said of the long, torpedo-shaped wake of a rainbow on the hunt. “Now that’s good fun.”

This variety of techniques, this almost unimaginable level of success, wasn’t an anomaly. The period between the June trout opener and the onset of the sockeye spawn is always a stirring occasion for the Katmai trout angler. But then, in this part of southwest Alaska, there is no such thing as an inopportune time to be on the water.

At the commencement of breakup, months of ice-covered lethargy leaves the resident species of Katmai like dollars from an angler’s wallet, and the fish emerge from their metabolic doldrums with renewed vigor, cruising the shorelines and streambeds in search of the easy meals that have come to define the virginal season. Arctic grayling, never the most capricious of gamefish to begin with, return to their indiscriminate feeding habits with breakneck speed. Dolly Varden attack the swinging fly with reckless abandon, while their close cousin-fish, the Arctic char, shed their late-season reputation for fussiness and purposely track down any fly that looks remotely fishy. Another species fond of the deeper, cooler regions of a lake during the hot summer months, the lake trout, makes itself readily available to the fly fisher in spring, as the moderate temperatures and an abundance of out-migrating smolt lure them within casting range, sometimes even into the rivers themselves. And, not one to be overcome on the gluttony scale, northern pike patrol the shallow-basin lakes and side-channel sloughs of a few drainages in the area, looking to devour just about anything unfortunate enough to happen by.

June also sees the first of the year’s salmon, the mighty Chinook, reenter their natal waters after a three to five-year sojourn at sea. In July, the rivers of Katmai are alive with millions of returning sockeye, and it’s their arrival that calls the region’s famous bruins back to the streams. Chum salmon, too, populate the area’s freshwaters during the height of the Alaska summer, and while inexplicably scorned by many, these thick-shouldered bulls are eager biters and every bit a match for an eight-weight fly rod. After the pinks, which can quite literally clog a stream from bank to bank, the end of another salmon season is punctuated by the coming of the coho: big, bright, and aggressive fish with inexhaustible stamina and a penchant for taking flight.

Still, none of the above engenders the reverence paid to the real luminaries of Bristol Bay, Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus, the coastal rainbow trout. After a summer spent wolfing down the remnants of the salmon runs, deteriorating flesh and the oodles of eggs that never make the spawning gravel, a 25-inch trout might weigh eight pounds, whereas in the spring that same fish was just over half as heavy. Not surprisingly, the presence of the piscine equivalent to the Holy Grail makes for overbooked flights and company on the water come late August and September. The luggage one sees in airport terminals from Anchorage to King Salmon wears tags from all over the world.

Autumn trout anglers can usually leave the Sherlock Holmes merit badges behind, however. The food source for these fish is abundant and as regular as Mass at the Basilica of St. Peter. Why would a trout expend the energy needed to chase down a bite-sized mayfly struggling to take flight from the water’s surface or even a plumper sculpin flitting about the bottom when the current is intent on depositing mountains of high-protein flesh and eggs right on its doorstep? The answer is they don’t. Both angling troglodytes and cutting-edge matchers of the hatch will soon discover that fall trout fishing in Alaska is about one thing—mimicking the salmon drop, whether it’s the fish of the future or parts of their own bodies that’s being left behind. Flesh flies, white bunny leeches and Buggers, beads, Glo-Bugs, chenille eggs and yarn flies, and maybe if things get really crazy, an Egg-sucking Leech: Such is the bill of fare for autumn trophy-hunters.

Contrarily, spring is the season of variety for the trout-obsessed, and nowhere within the Last Frontier is the available mélange more delicious than in Katmai. Flesh flies can still be effective, as greater water levels derived from high-mountain runoff will have churned up the carcasses left stranded on the banks by the previous fall and winter’s receding flows. The life cycle of the Pacific salmon thrusts itself upon the spring fishing scene in another manner as well. Having hatched and subsequently escaped from their pea-gravel redds, millions upon millions of juvenile salmon storm the waters of the region. Anglers can fish fry patterns to imitate the juveniles making their way into the lakes for the summer (very early on, alevins—newly hatched fry with the yolk sacs still attached—are an even better bet) or larger smolt imitations. The window of opportunity for fishing the smolt out-migration is more condensed. As the days get longer and the temperature of the stillwaters rises, the prior year’s fry, having spent at least a year maturing in the lakes, smolt up, losing their parr marks, and head for the sea. To get there, they must run a gauntlet of predatory sport fish and squawking birds. Fly fishers with impeccable timing can use the flocks of circling, diving, bait-munching birds to locate the concentrations of smolt, which in turn will lead them to some frenetic topwater action for lakers, rainbows, and char. For patterns, there are a number of specific smolt imitations available commercially, though in their haste to feed, most of the target fish will just as quickly scarf down a three to four-inch-long impressionistic pattern like the Zonker.

Spring in Katmai is also the preeminent time of year the trout-fishing traditionalist. In several locations around the area, dry flies that can fall within the general attractor class produce steady (and if that is your wont, more exciting) action. Try an Elk-hair Caddis, a Humpy or Stimulator, Trudes, Adams, or anything from the Wulff family of flies. And if dries will work, nymphs will, too. Again, with Alaska’s hatches sporadic at best, especially early in the season, there’s typically little call for matching a precise stage of larval development: Good all-around nymphs like the Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear, Prince Nymph, or Pheasant-Tail Nymph will perform admirably. The Bitch Creek, with its mottled body coloring and undulating rubber legs to garner extra attention, is another Katmai favorite. Like any good western U.S. trout water, some of the region’s largest spring trout are taken deep, drawn in by the swing of a streamer. Patterns of merit include the usual assortment of Woolly Buggers, Muddlers, Woolhead Sculpins, olive and black articulated leeches, and a gamut of Matuka-style flies. Throw in better weather, fewer bears, no maladroit long-leader-and-split-shot concoctions to cast, and a serious reduction in the number of competing anglers, and Katmai’s spring trout fishing sounds quite appealing, 30-inch trophies be damned.

Like me, the Ropers had been lured to Kulik Lodge in June by the promise of this relaxed early-season ambience and rumors of terribly hungry trout. During Happy Hour the evening before our outing with guide Ray Irvin, I learned that Peter in particular had already sampled the various bounty of Katmai. Adjacent to the bar there’s a sizable big-fish board. Dates and weights are chronicled for the largest of every brand of sport fish taken at the lodge, with the serendipitous anglers’ names recorded for posterity—or until someone lands the hawg to knock them off. There are separate sections on the board for the current year, the previous year, and one for the all-time lodge records. During their stay, Peter had logged the largest Chinook of the year, a 42.29-pounder taken on the Nushagak River earlier that week. Early on in his visit, he’d also notched the big-boy chum of the year, though that mark didn’t hold. He’d caught some of the first sockeye of the season at Brooks, hammered the grayling on dry flies, and picked up lakers, Dollies, and rainbows with his double-handed rod. But right now it was Michael’s turn.

Standing next to Ray and landing the fly precisely where the guide had indicated, he let the small, epoxied fry pattern drift gingerly in the current. It didn’t make the tail of the run before we heard that sweet song of the take.

All gamefish produce a distinct melody in the instant of a hookup. Without a doubt, I prefer the rainbow’s to all others. While the eye captures sight of the boil, you hear the zzzt of the initial pull, then the pop of fly line coming tight with rod and reel, followed by the zzzing of the first few turns of drag as line sails through the guides. Out on the water, the whole thing lasts but a moment, though the echoes tend to ring in our ears indefinitely.

This trout didn’t waste any time, immediately streaking downstream, racing for the deeper water at the end of the run, effortlessly stretching seventy feet of fly line across the surface before vaulting into the air two, three, four times. Eventually, Michael played the fish back upstream where Ray tailed it and the two posed for a quick photo.

“He might be catching more,” Michael quipped of his son, who was still fishing the far side of the seam. “But I get photos of mine.” Predictably, when I glanced downriver at Peter’s position, he was into another fish.

The father-son tandem had traveled a long way for these fish, and they treated each with noticeable reverence. Hailing from Staffordshire, England, the Ropers make a point of visiting a new angling destination every year, but this was their first trip to Alaska. Whether they knew it or not, a large part of the reason they had ended up in Katmai was settled over six decades ago, when a young Bush pilot first journeyed north.

Ray Petersen, honored as “the Father of the Fly-in Fishing Lodge” by the Alaska Legislature, arrived in the Great Land in 1934, a full quarter-century before statehood. By the 1940s, after establishing Northern Consolidated Airlines, he fixed upon the idea of creating permanent fishing lodges in the Katmai wilderness. An exhaustive search—years of flying and fishing in the region’s backcountry—led him to settle on the handful of locations that were to become the Angler’s Paradise lodges, the first full-time sport-fishing lodges in the state. Today, three of the original sites are still actively in use, Brooks, Grosvenor, and Kulik, and Sonny Petersen, Ray’s son, continues the family tradition of providing flying services, guided fishing, excellent accommodations, and exquisite service in one of North America’s most magnificent settings.

Katmai National Park and Preserve covers over four million acres of western Alaska, an area larger than the combined size of Connecticut and Rhode Island and more than twice the dimensions of any national park in the Lower 48. Its appeal is even more immense.

At first, the area was set aside as a national monument to preserve the natural laboratory created by the cataclysmic 1912 eruption of Novarupta Volcano, which was about ten times more powerful than the 1980 blast of Mount Saint Helens. Most of the geothermal features have since cooled in the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes, but the protection of the coastal brown bear has become an equally integral responsibility for Katmai. Besides the grizzlies, caribou roam the Nushagak/Bristol Bay lowlands in the western portion of the park and preserve, and moose are widespread. Birds galore flock to the region: grouse and ptarmigan in the uplands; hawks, falcons, owls, and bald eagles nesting on the rock pinnacles of the coast and atop lake and riverside trees; the tundra swans, ducks, loons, grebes, and Arctic terns that populate nesting sites along the lake margins and surrounding marshlands of the park. The volcanic heritage of Katmai has not been lost either, as the fifteen active volcanoes that line Shelikof Strait make the region one of the most active volcano centers in the world. Any of this and more can be viewed while on a fly-out excursion from the Angler’s Paradise lodges. And then there’s all that fantastic fishing.

How Ray Petersen could have selected these particular sites from among all the splendor of Katmai boggles the mind. As there wasn’t nearly the proliferation of bears present fifty years ago as there is today, the building of Brooks Camp alone qualifies as a stroke of genius. The spectacular angling hasn’t changed, though, which is a recurring theme when discussing the Angler’s Paradise lodges, each situated near waters other operators must spend hours in the air to reach. Sonny Petersen has maintained the aviation legacy begun by his father, too, for most packages to Kulik Lodge involve fly-outs to other destinations in the Katmai area, including some that are remote enough to remain uncharted. Fishing these isolated waters, some no more than trickles pouring into massive Alaska Peninsula lakes, never knowing what you might catch—if anything at all—only seems fitting when you’re a guest of the lodge that started it all.

On my last day at Kulik Lodge, I slipped down to the home river on my own, absent any companions or a plan of any kind. Silently, I tied on one of Ray Irvin’s fry patterns and began casting towards the boils in the same place I’d fished four days earlier with the Ropers. That afternoon, I recalled, we’d run upstream to a headwater lake and practiced what Peter referred to as “civilized fishing.” This primarily consisted of sneaking bites of lunch and sips of Chardonnay in between casting for any trout that might have been holding in the outflow from a feeder creek.

The lake was cupped in a bowl of mountains, jagged peaks silhouetted against an azure sky, and the water’s surface sparkled. Once, while drifting lazily along, attending to our lunch, we peered into the lake and watched a behemoth of a lake trout lumbering below. The sight remained as clear in my memory as it had been that day.

Holding off thoughts of the Navajo Chieftain that was scheduled to drag me back to Anchorage in a few hours, kicking and screaming or not, I tied on a fly with a slightly different look, white eyes instead of yellow, and cast again, remembering the stories Michael and Peter had shared from all the wonderful fishing destinations they had visited in their lives. They had talked of bonefish in the Bahamas, of the prolific waters around Cuba, of the explosive salmon fishing to be found on the Russian frontier. And yet, they hadn’t been prepared for Katmai.

“We’re coming back here,” Peter had told me one night at the Kulik Lodge bar, not realizing his father had uttered the same few words just hours beforehand.

I let the current slide me about three feet downstream and cast one more time, basking in the pride of being an Alaskan, like we all do when hearing a visitor heap praise on the state, as if the words were meant as congratulations for our choosing to live here.

This last day had begun overcast, as I had looked out the window of my cabin to see a series of milky gray clouds handing low over Nonvianuk Lake, but now the sun was beginning to burn through. My legs were numb from standing in the clear, cool waters of the Kulik River for so long without respite. Still, I continued to take pleasure in the grace of a well-formed loop, in tossing small flies towards truly gallant fish, in being but a dot in this vast pileup of space.

There wasn’t another angler in sight, the wind wasn’t blowing, and I didn’t have so much as a single split-shot on my person. Considering all that, I wondered if this really wasn’tangler’s paradise, if it could ever get any better than it was right at this moment.

Zzzt. Pop. Zzzing.

Troy Letherman is the editor of Fish Alaska magazine.