Reel Action Alaska Lodge Article by Melissa Norris
Choose the Chosen: A Reel Action Alaska Lodge Fly Fishing Adventure on the Kanektok
I am enormously fortunate to fish all over Alaska. I’ve fished from the Situk to the Nushagak, Unalakleet to Moraine Creek—all incredible fishing adventures in my home state.
Still, one day last year, I contemplated some of the trips that remained on my waters-not-fished list. In vast, opportunity-rich Alaska, some of the prime rivers had managed to elude me all these years—and that included the famed Kanektok. I reached out to Steve Olufsen and Paul Jacob at Reel Action Alaska Lodge to inquire about spey fishing for kings on “The Chosen River”—a river that remains on The List for many serious anglers.
At roughly 90 miles long, the Kanektok River is a powerhouse as far as fisheries go. It’s rare to find wild king fishing on the swing, let alone dime-bright and fresh from the ocean—and that is merely one of the Kanektok’s crown jewels. Being remote keeps pressure to a minimum, contributing to the health of the river and the vital ecosystem of the region. And the system is set up perfectly to two-hand cast. What’s more, the Kanektok is home to a huge variety of healthy, robust Alaska fish species including all five Pacific salmon species, plus trophy-size rainbows, grayling, and Dolly Varden. Its tributaries and braids hold world-class trout nearing 30 inches while the Kuskokwim Bay-fed river receives Bering Sea dwellers shimmering and feisty. Nine gill-breathing species in all make this exalted, variety-packed river a Grand Poobah in western Alaska.
Visitors to Reel Action Alaska Lodge typically book for king or silver season, knowing the rainbow fishing and other anadromous species is decent-to-great all-season-long. You can fish for kings in river from about June 15 through July 25 each year and they are insanely fun to catch on 12- to 14-foot spey rods. Landing kings on a fly rod is spectacular and it’s not uncommon on this river to catch 8 to 10 kings per person in a day. King fishermen know that’s a lot. Catch-and-release is the only way to go with this extraordinary run. Silvers overlap kings slightly, beginning around July 23 and are catchable in good numbers through the first week of September. They make great table fare for the guests of Reel Action Alaska Lodge when they return home and will last well into winter.
It was the last week in June when we flew into Bethel on a Ravn Alaska flight. There was a couple-hour window before our charter flight to Quinhagak, the village directly across the river from the Reel Action Alaska Lodge situated within the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. Paul met us at the Ravn Alaska commuter flight, then with a brief drive took us to the river’s edge. The boat ride was literally three minutes as we motored across the river and into a slough to unveil the entrance to the leased land that houses the Reel Action Alaska Lodge fishing camp each season.
We felt welcome in camp right away, and quickly met the guides and staff. Almost immediately we heard tales of camaraderie and inside jokes among the staff. “I feel very fortunate.” Paul Jacob said that first evening over dinner. “We have a great team here, everyone gets along really well and supports each other—it’s a fun atmosphere.” The best part is they easily welcomed us in, making us privy to their esprit de corps.
We got the lay of the land, learning we’d be sleeping in one of the two-person, all-weather tents but that they also have tents in camp to accommodate single anglers and do not charge an extra fee for singles as some lodges do. All told, they can house up to 12 guests at a time. It’s really quite comfortable with either 10 x 12-foot or 12 x 12-foot heated, customized wall-tent cabins with wooden floors and carpeting. There’s a large, main dining tent, tying tent, and drying tent for all your gear at the end of the day. There are also very clean outhouse-style tents with composting toilets and sink, plus large shower tents. You really aren’t roughing it.
Over dinner prepared by Chef Greg, we met head guide Matt Katibah and learned we’d be fishing with him and Tony the next day. We gave them a heads up that we had not spey fished much but were ready for the challenge. With long-awaited anticipation, the first day of fishing on the Kanektok had finally arrived. We were up early to coffee-up and ready to start fishing!
Another short boat ride took us to the fishing grounds. I started to assess the Kanektok and realized this river could win a cover-photo contest for Gravel Bar magazine. The gravel bars are literally perfect to the point that they look groomed.
That’s part of what makes the Kanektok such a desirable spey-casting destination. I quickly learned you don’t have to be an expert spey caster to catch fish on The Chosen. Matt worked with me first, showing the basics of the Circle Spey cast in a slight upstream wind. This style of casting originated among West Coast steelhead anglers. It’s highly effective and fairly easy to learn, plus it’s a fun and interactive way to fish. Cast, swing, one big step, and repeat. I do like to walk and wade.
Around his fourth cast Wayne hooked into a hefty, bright sockeye and it was game on! Not long after I anchored into a bruiser, then held my first king from a spey rod. It turned out to be a sweet little jack I lifted for a pose and released back in the river. All king fishing at Reel Action Alaska Lodge is catch-and-release. As much as I love to eat king, this is perfectly fine with me. I am all about protecting a coveted resource, and am appreciative I still get to eat Chinook from other waters. I like the conservation mindedness of the folks at Reel Action Alaska Lodge and was impressed with their fish handling and river etiquette.
We spent the day getting the hang of it, practicing casting with Matt and Tony alternately offering advice. I may have smacked myself in the cheek with some lead eyes, no permanent damage. We each hooked into several more kings and it was a hoot. At one point, a local village kid on the back of a four wheeler with his grandmother at the throttle, motored up to where we were fishing. He was looking to fish the drift with the plan to take a king for dinner. Wayne had a king on that seemed to have the moxie of a sheep hunter. It seemed to hang on for hours. I jokingly told him to “try reeling” which had us all laughing audibly. As soon as Wayne could wrangle the chrome hog, we piled in the jon boat to find another hole to fish and let this young man catch his family’s dinner.
Later Paul explained they are all respectful of the local people and their village. They believe it’s the lodge’s responsibility to help preserve the river for Alaskans to practice their traditional subsistence way of life. Reel Action Alaska Lodge hires people from the native village of Quinhagak each season to set up and break down camp and also employs a full time maintenance man and guide on staff who lives there year round.
Back in camp for dinner we were treated to appetizers by Chef Greg while we chatted among the guests to hear about their day on the river. I am always thankful when someone will go out of their way to cook for my pescatarian way of eating. Chef Greg made some unique dishes including salmon sausages which I had never tried before. I loved his maple-glazed salmon, cooked perfectly on their Traeger grill.
The guides rotate each day with different guests. Paul let us know he would be guiding us the next day. I knew it was going to be a privilege. He’s a 20-year veteran Bristol Bay fishing guide and he is what you would call “super fishy.” Working in several top lodges around the region over the years led Paul to start Reel Action Alaska Lodge with his lifelong friend Steve Olufsen. Soft spoken, kind, pensive, and incredibly knowledgeable, Paul’s grin shows more than I can tell. But what I can tell you is he loves fishing. Dustin Saigo would be joining us. Dustin also guides but gets to dedicate a portion of his time at the lodge to photography and videography.
It was a gray, blustery, cold morning on June 30th, and that made everyone happy. “King fishing weather.” Paul grinned. Yes, we agreed this weather would be a good thing and it proved to be a fruitful day for all the guests. Paul worked with both Wayne and me and it definitely improved our casting. The lodge provided us with 12 and 14-foot Sage X 9wt spey rods that we used during our stay. I felt like I was getting the hang of it and was honored to handle a bunch of beautiful kings. We landed over 20 kings that day fishing multiple productive stretches with Paul—and we had two and a half more days of fishing ahead of us yet.
On Day 3 we were guided by Will Semelka who loves being a fishing guide. We toured some different options including runs closer to the mouth of the river that usually pan out. The drift was different than others we had been fishing but there was a spot down below that you’d hit kings on when the swing just about tailed out. As with each previous day, a little instruction from the guide improved our casting.
Reel Action Alaska Lodge holds a Special Use Permit allowing them access into the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area. We had planned to go fish rainbows in the refuge on the fourth day but weather deterred us. We opted to keep fishing for kings in what had proven to be the right timing. We spent the day with Matt again and that was welcomed by us. Matt is an easy-going, conservation-minded guide who is an excellent fisherman and all-around great guy. He guides steelhead in Oregon in the winter as well. We hooked into more nice kings that day, and I got a chum, but the coup de gras was a huge toad of a beautiful leopard rainbow that Wayne caught on the swing.
The last half day before we had to fly back to Anchorage was spent in the Tone Zone with guide Tony Lohr. Tony and I twinned on the humor front and linguistician compatibility. It’s true, the way to my heart is through my sense of humor. Tony’s girlfriend Lydia Dann is the camp’s all-around housekeeper/kitchen help and she, too, is right on point with humor and wit. We coaxed her into fishing with us that last morning so she could fish and we could all hang out. The highlight was watching Lydia catch her first king on the spey.
It’s easy to see why the Kanektok is called The Chosen and it’s easy to see why Paul and Steve chose The Chosen for their home-base fishery at Reel Action Alaska Lodge. I had a great time with this group, a lot of laughs had and friendships started. I also have a budding relationship with the Kanektok, and I can’t wait to see her again. I am already contemplating ways to get back there. I still need to meet her rainbows.
Melissa Norris is Publisher of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines.
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Fish Alaska.
Author’s Note: Reel Action Fly Fishing also guides anglers for steelhead and brown trout in western New York, right near where I went to college as it turns out. If you are in the Northeast or Alaska, you cannot go wrong to hire this solid bunch for a memorable experience. Give them a call at (585) 568-7335 (REEL) and visit their website here.
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