Story by Cecelia “Pudge” Kleinkauf
All the years I have lived in Alaska, I’ve heard about the Kanektok River in western Alaska, but I have never had an opportunity to fish it. As it happened, at a recent fly-fishing show, Paul Jacob and Steve Olufsen, the owners of Reel Action Lodge on that very river, learned that I was a contributing editor for Fish Alaska magazine and invited me to come out for a few days to learn about the river and their lodge. Of course, I jumped at the chance and rearranged my own guiding days to make it possible.
The Kanektok River (also known as “the Chosen River”) is 90 miles of pure, unadulterated, amazingly fabulous fly fishing in southwest Alaska! It is born in the Ahklun Mountains from beautiful Kagati and Pegati lakes and flows westward into Kuskokwim Bay on the Bering Sea at the village of Quinhagak. Almost all the river’s course lies within the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. The Yup’ik name for the village is Kuinerraq, meaning “new river channel,” and its existence has been dated to at least 1000 AD.
The lodge is very respectful of the people in the village and their customs and traditions. It believes that the lodge existence should help preserve the opportunity for these local people to engage in their subsistence way of life. As a result, they provide a recreational use of the environment that remains a wildlife-oriented ecosystem.
I took off in an Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage to Bethel and from there hopped on a Ravn flight to Quinhagak about 45 minutes south. Once the plane landed and I was riverside, the lodge had a boat waiting to take me the rest of the way to camp.
Before dinner that evening, Paul showed me to my comfy, customized tent cabin that was equipped with my own heater and cot just next to the main lodge. I then got an introduction to the camp with its ring of private tent cabins, two well-equipped bathrooms with hot showers, two, large, well-equipped outhouses, plus a fabulous drying tent where waders, raincoats and other wet items can dry out and be ready for the next day. There is also a long fly-tying bench in the main building where guides and clients alike can tie the different patterns that are proving successful. A huge amount of tying materials just waited to be utilized, and tying is what most of the guides do after dinner.
Both staff and guests eat together at the long tables for a “family-style” dinner. The conversation is all about the day’s great successes, the lost fish or two that everyone experienced, and of course, the plans for the following day. The guides rotate each evening among different guests and discuss what different species they would like to pursue the next day so that the boats can be ready with the flies, lunches, gas and other supplies.
As for species and number of fish, the Kanektok does not disappoint. There are incredible opportunities for all five species of Pacific salmon as well as rainbow trout, Dolly Varden char and Arctic grayling. King salmon are the prized fish of the lodge during the months of June and July, while silvers come in at the end of July and are peaking throughout August. Sockeye and chum salmon run at the end of June, peak through July and taper down by the first week of August. Pink salmon are great through July and also into the first week of August. Rainbow trout and Arctic grayling are available all summer long, while the Dolly Varden start the beginning of July and run strong through September. Over the course of a summer, millions of fish swim right past the lodge.
I was up and ready way before breakfast, eager to get on the water. The weather had improved considerably from the previous day and Travis, my guide, got us going quickly. He said we’d be headed to one of his favorite spots. The silvers were not in yet so our targets were going to be rainbows, the northern strain of Dolly Varden, interspersed with Arctic char and Arctic grayling.
The ride on the way to our destination was as scenic as anyone could ask for, and no one else was on the water but us. There were still some sockeye salmon hanging around but Travis assured me some much better fishing farther upriver. He lived up to his promise—famously. We parked the boat on the entrance right next to a lovely pool-side channel and got to work. A large school of sockeye salmon, not yet ready to spawn, was there to welcome us. There were stray rainbows, too, but they were just followers hanging around the salmon. We decided we were more interested in rainbows than sockeye and waded along a small creek nearby. We could actually see many of the fish we were after. The water was clearer than I had anticipated, given the rain the previous day. The creek gave up two nice rainbows within 10 minutes and three more 10 minutes later.
Hiking along the banks we landed and released rainbow after rainbow until arriving at a beautiful pool that still held quite a few sockeye and some Dolly Varden. Suddenly, Travis spotted a huge rainbow holding in the water right behind a spawning salmon, but try as we might, neither of us could get it hooked. Instead we landed three or four salmon and a few Dollies, after which we headed back to the boat for some lunch.
Later that day, we were lucky enough to come upon a school of grayling that took our dry flies and small little streamers with gusto! They must have been just waiting for us. Fish after lovely, brightly-spotted fish came over to play, and we counted 20 or so others hooked and released before we knew it. Travis was practicing his dry-fly techniques, so when the fish tired of that we decided to head upstream.
We hiked back and forth across the flow, hoping for some action, but it wasn’t long until Travis told me to pull my line in and we started walking. It took a while to get where he was going, but when we did we hit a bonanza (which he knew would be there, I think). Lots and lots of nice, beefy, leopard rainbows were clearly visible picking up sockeye eggs and taking turns biting chunks of dead and decaying salmon hanging from a stump. We changed flies to small, tan bunny streamers and the party was on—with a vengeance! Fish after fish absolutely slammed the flies and we could hardly remove one when another one grabbed it. I lost count of the fish we landed, but by the time we headed back for the boat we sure were tired.
That night Paul told me that I should be ready for breakfast by 5:30 a.m. because we were going into the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area where the fishing was as spectacular as the environment. The 4.7-million-mile area is managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and only a few permits are available to users. I was really excited!
Our trip into the refuge was an unbelievable adventure, and it was here that I encountered the thousands and thousands of Dolly Varden that the river is famous for. Paul walked the boat along in many of the places we fished so I could make a cast to the very best holding water, and I certainly took advantage of it. I’ve learned years ago that char, whether Arctic or Dolly Varden, take softly, so was careful not to “horse” them up.
In many places, we could see the fish perfectly because there were so many of them. The Dollies were beginning to color-up with bright spots of pink and red, while some of them displayed an orange hue that revealed that they were getting ready for their spawn. I’m more used to landing the smaller char, so these beasts were really something to write home about. Pretty routinely in the 20s and higher, they all seemed to bend my 5-weight effortlessly. From time to time I got worried that I didn’t have enough power to handle them with my trusty fly rod, but I managed.
Some of the banks along the shore were beginning to show their fall colors as we floated by and the yellow, orange and red of the fish were mirrored in different bushes and plants. Winter probably comes a bit earlier to these areas.
We didn’t just catch the char in these beautiful waters. There were lots of rainbows as well. All of them were also in the 20-inch range. I got so I was asking Paul with every fish if it was a char or a rainbow. Once he asked me if I would like to fish top-side with a mouse. I tried a few but wasn’t the best at setting the hook on them. I’m more comfortable with a streamer. I hated to head back to the lodge, but was absolutely worn out and looking forward to dinner by the time we did.
It was Zach that I was fishing with the next day and once again I got up early because that was my last day to fish. I wanted to find some grayling, so we went to look for them. After several stops with just char and spawning sockeye to show for it we finally found the grayling. It was wonderful. A small creek dumping out of the tundra and running along the edge of a sandbar was showing rise after rise as we pulled in. Good numbers of grayling were fighting over the tiny smolt headed downstream and were perfect targets for our flies, dry or wet. Two or even three fish at a time would attack the fly. They actually fought among each other for it. It was one of those “fish every cast” events.
After a while, Zach went walking on the top of the sandbar scouting for more locations, but came back to tell me that there was a newly-dead animal laying partially in the water at the head of the bar. He figured that other animals would soon come down to feed on it, so we decided to move on. I never did learn what the animal was. After a few more stops we needed to head back to the lodge so I could make the late afternoon plane. Boy, was I ever reluctant to leave. The cook got me some early dinner (knowing there wouldn’t be any food on the plane) while I packed up my wet boots and waders and said goodbye to the rest of the guides and guests and headed back across the river to wait for the plane.
Everybody kept telling me that they were sorry the silvers were late in coming in, but I really didn’t mind. I’d gotten my wish about experiencing this magnificent river and this superlative lodge. I was sad, yet perfectly content.
The lodge is open until August 31, and the silvers round out the season with gusto. When it is time to take down the tents, folks from the village lend a hand for the dismantling and then the storing at a location in the village until the following spring. The lodge has been in existence for six years, and by now this routine sounds kind of like a big party to me. If I lived in the village I would be right there in their midst. The village and the lodge working together to care for their river. This is the way it should be.
Cecilia “Pudge” Kleinkauf is a longtime contributing editor for Fish Alaska. She is the author of several books including her most recent Rookie No More: The Flyfishing Novice Gets Guidance from a Pro.