There are brown bears in Katmai National Park & Preserve, over one for every square mile according to the National Park Service. Naturally enough, there are also brown bears at Brooks Camp, with as many as a hundred of the large, lumbering ursines visiting the river per day during the peak of the sockeye runs.
None of this is a surprise. In fact, it’s pretty much promotional literature at this point.
And, like most summer visitors to the river, Fish Alaska publisher Marcus Weiner and I hadn’t waited long to see our first. Less than fifteen minutes after concluding the Park Service’s “Bear School,” a brief safety course centered on etiquette in bear country, and available in at least four languages, we donned waders and begun the 1.2-mile trek from Brooks Lodge to the lake of the same name. Just as it looked like we might be able to fish rather than snap blurry photos of bears hundreds of feet away, we encountered a young boar splashing around the shallows and generally having a hard time of it, if dinner was indeed his intention.
After about five minutes watching an apex predator strike out in a way they never show on Animal Planet, it was quiet. Fishing quiet. The bear ambled off into the alders. Upriver, a lone angler appeared and immediately began to throw the kind of long, graceful loops that demand scorn, if not stoning. Downstream, and operating at a much more civil pace, a young guy from Fairbanks was up to something peculiar that featured a white egg. Marcus and I stepped—a little gingerly—into the stream and started scouting for trout.
Near its issuance from Lake Brooks, the Brooks River offers a touch of a classic feel, with swift water flowing like glass, hefty boulders and deep pools that should come with the word ‘fishy’ stenciled overtop. Regardless of the umpteen-thousand sockeye that crowd its corridor every July, the water seemed to suggest a dry fly, or perhaps, depending on conditions, a nymph. This is heady stuff for a transplant who’s never quite given up the peccadilloes developed over many a summer avoiding work on the Bighorn, and so my arm was easily twisted.
Marcus, typically as Alaskan as it gets on the stream, went in for more of a scorched earth flavor, and with a strike indicator of the most garish, practically incandescent color imaginable. “Disco Balls” it was for the remainder of the trip.
Of course, he was also into the first fish. He’d spotted a line of rainbows stretched along a seam just below an overhanging willow and though they were apparently uninterested in sustenance, he had relentlessly dragged his egg imitation through the pocket until one—either having just noticed the bead, which was practically impossible, or having been finally driven insane by its metronome-like appearance in regular, eight-second drifts—grabbed hook long enough for Marcus to set-up. Everything changed in an instant.
I saw the flash of silver as the fish leapt. I heard Marcus holler “Fish on” and watched as the trout splashed down. Then, from that hazy recess at the edge of vision, I saw turf being removed from the hillside at an alarming rate. Before the fish managed another full pirouette the bear had barreled into the river and had closed to within a good rod’s length or two of Marcus, who was attempting a rapid backpedal, trying to both set the rainbow free and not fall down. He succeeded at the first and mostly pulled off the second.
Somewhat heroically, I had remained in the river, though a prudent forty feet downstream. Once the bear had disappeared again into the maze of brush that lined the outer bank, I double-checked my fly to make certain the barb was pinched. And I seriously considered clipping the point.
Fishing in Katmai, you see, typically requires a decision or three.
When talking fishing in Katmai National Park & Preserve, which encompasses over four million acres of wilderness, more than twice the area spanned by any park in the Lower 48, the most difficult decision may in fact be where to begin. The streams and rivers of Katmai include some of North America’s most famous, and most productive, trout waters, many of them separated by mere minutes on a float-equipped plane, the primary mode of transportation for Katmai anglers.
First up are the headwaters of the Alagnak River system, specifically meaning its twin lake outlets, the Nonvianuk River and the Kukaklek branch of the Alagnak. The twolake outlets, particularly Kukaklek, have long been famous trout locales, with participation increasing both there and in the Alagnak River over the years. Fishing at the outlets is prevalent during the early-June Bristol Bay trout opener, when fly fishers look to work the groups of aggressive rainbows schooled up during the peak of the smolt out-migration. Moving downstream, the confluence of the Alagnak and Nonvianuk will almost always hold trout in the long, conspicuous seam that marks the two flows’ convergence. Below there, the best trout fishing on the river is encountered in the famous Alagnak braids, which occur outside the boundaries of the park. At either location, streamers and smolt patterns are extremely effective in the late spring, and though most of the larger rainbows will follow the July-arriving sockeye out of the Alagnak and into the two headwater lakes and their tributaries, the summer offers steady mousing action.
Several of the system’s smaller lake tributaries also offer exceptional rainbow fishing, including plenty of trophy potential. Both Moraine and Funnel creeks offer large rainbows in strong numbers, with some fish pushing 30 inches every year. The Kulik River and Battle Creek are noteworthy as well, with fall being the prime time to search for 24-inch and larger rainbows. Kulik, much like the Brooks River, is a tiny one and a half mile-long stream connecting two larger bodies of water, in this case Nonvianuk and Kulik lakes, and can also present some exciting spring fishing when the trout congregate to chase the sockeye fry and smolt heading for the safety of Nonvianuk.
Moraine Creek is a classic piece of Alaska trout water, with nice riffles and pools that hold big fish scattered throughout. This used to be one of Alaska’s most closely held trophy-trout secrets, but the word has long gotten out and now the lodge crowd descends on the stream in force. The fishing picks up in July, when squadrons of sockeye move through Kukaklek Lake and distribute themselves along Moraine’s spawning gravel. The rainbows traveling with them can be fished with streamers and other traditional trout patterns for a few weeks, until the eggs begin to drop and the feeding frenzy begins. By mid-August, Moraine Creek is usually an egg-only affair, at least until later in the fall when the salmon begin to die-off in numbers. Nearly identical angling circumstances exist in Funnel Creek, the primary tributary to Moraine. Both also share another trait, as do Kulik and Brooks—lots and lots of salmon-munching bruins, enough that the pair of streams stand out as favored grizzly locales even among the other bear-infested streams of Katmai.
The other major system draining Katmai, the Naknek system, is also well known for the quality of its trout. Heading the list, of course, is the Naknek River itself, typically not thought of as a Katmai fishery, but as a standalone monster trout destination.
Within the system as a whole, there are five distinct spawning stocks of rainbow trout: one each above and below the falls of the Brooks River, one in Idavain Creek, an American Creek population, and the Naknek River stock, which probably holds more trophy potential at this time than any other population in the state. Telemetry data from ADF&G suggests there is some limited mixing of the Brooks River, Idavain Creek, and Naknek River stocks during the summer and fall, though no mixing on the spawning beds has been documented. None of the other four stocks exhibit steelhead-like tendencies to the extent of the Naknek fish, and none are known to produce trophy specimens with such regularity, either.Still, the rest of the drainage is not immune to producing the occasional 30-incher, either. In fact, the Brooks River, which flows barely a mile in connecting Naknek Lake to Lake Brooks, kicked out a large number of trophies in the past, though that number has dwindled with the increase in fishing pressure throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Marcus and I saw several such fishing hanging in the current in this clearwater stream in August of this year, though they were extremely wary of the fly).
For more intrepid souls, there are also Idavain and Margot creeks, smaller tributaries of the lake. The former flows about a dozen miles from Idavain Lake to its terminus in the North Arm of Naknek Lake, just west of the Bay of Islands, while the latter empties into Iliuk Arm about eight miles southeast of the Brooks River. The trout population in Idavain is strong and can be sight-fished with good success both in the spring when the fish are concentrating on the juvenile sockeye migrating from Idavain to Naknek Lake and then again in the fall, once the sockeye have taken up their positions on the spawning beds. Between those two periods, however, most of the Idavain rainbows—the bigger specimens in particular—will be in the Bay of Islands area of Naknek Lake. To a significant degree, however, Margot hosts only Dolly Varden, though the basics of the fishing are similar. Both have access limited to floatplanes and boats, which also means relatively few other anglers will be found at a given time—except the four-legged variety. Idavain and Margot creeks are teeming with Katmai grizzlies, and in the fall especially, encounters are nearly guaranteed.
If bears, solitude, and rugged country are the quest, with strong numbers of wild rainbow trout of course, then American Creek is an even better bet. Issuing from Hammersly Lake to the northeast of Naknek Lake, the stream rushes and sometimes rages about 40 miles to Lake Colville. American Creek presents an advanced challenge for floaters, with abundant sweepers, some class III rapids, and lots of browns. Because of the speed much of the river flows at, combined with its narrow confines (especially in the canyon section) anglers can find themselves right on top of a bear before either realizes what’s happening. The trout fishing, however, can reach the spectacular. In the river’s upper stretches, the rainbows are generally smaller, rarely going over 20 inches, but the area does present the best potential for dry-fly fishing. Hammersly Lake also sends sockeye fry swimming for Colville Lake early in the spring, and trout anglers with impeccable timing can find the action furious. In the fall, the creek probably fishes better than it does at any other time of year, particularly in the pools and tailouts of its middle and lower sections, where beefier ’bows will be gorging on sockeye eggs and flesh.
Add to these headliners an untold number of isolated feeder creeks and tributary streams—the unseen Katmai, as it were—and factor in the fabulous fishing to be had for other species, including Dolly Varden, grayling, lake trout and even northern pike, and we’re talking a pretty impressive piece of angling real estate, even when compared with the best of what the rest of Alaska has to offer. And to think the formation of this park had nothing to do with fishing.
Katmai actually began life as a living laboratory, set aside as a national monument to preserve for study the effects created by the cataclysmic 1912 eruption of Novarupta, which was about ten times more powerful than the 1980 Mount St. Helens blast. And actually, only one other eruption in historic times—Greece’s Santorini in 1500 B.C.—displaced more volcanic matter than Novarupta. The terrible 1883 eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatoa belched out little more than half as much, yet killed 35,000 people. Vastly isolated Novarupta killed no one.
The movement to create Katmai National Monument began on July 31, 1916, when botanist Robert F. Griggs, sent by the National Geographic Society, finally passed beyond Katmai Pass. He was certain he and his party had discovered one of the great wonders of the world, later writing, “The first glance was enough to demonstrate that we had found a miracle of nature which, when known, would be ranked with the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and other marvels, each standing without rival in its own class.”
He was describing one of the most accessible geological wonders of this country, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The valley is surreal and starkly beautiful, with pools of quicksand underlining 100-foot ochre cliffs so soft that the riverbed below shifts ceaselessly. Today you can take the trip from Brooks Camp out to the valley, where the turbulent Ukak River and its tributaries cut deep gorges in the accumulated ash.
Since most of the geothermal features have cooled in the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes, the protection of the coastal brown bear has been deemed an equally integral responsibility for Katmai. Of course, the bears aren’t the only residents of the park. 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 in 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. And then there’s all that fantastic fishing.
Katmai sport fishing didn’t get untracked until the early 1940s when pilots like the late Ray Petersen (honored as “the Father of the Fly-in Fishing Lodge” by the Alaska Legislature) began flying workers from the Naknek and Nushagak canneries to Brooks Lake and other prominent fishing holes. From those fairly humble beginnings, word of Katmai’s outlandish fecundity spread quickly. By the end of the decade Petersen’s newly created Northern Consolidated Airlines was flying in anglers from across the United States, and Ray had 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 flight services, guided fishing, excellent accommodations and exquisite service in one of North America’s most magnificent settings.
Grosvenor is old park, meaning the site sits within the boundaries of the original Katmai National Monument, created in 1918. The park and preserve as we know it today, with boundaries expanded over the years, was established in 1980, approximately thirty years after Ray Peterson staked out the first cabin and opened the doors to visiting anglers.
It’s a stunning chunk of real estate, cradled between the mountains that rim Grosvenor and Coville lakes and within minutes of some of Katmai’s—which means Alaska’s, and the world’s—best trout fishing. The lodge practically defines the wilderness experience, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the region’s other well-known waters and accommodating only six guests at a time. Because of that, anglers can make up their own itineraries, using the skiffs maintained at the lodge to work the lake shallows, casting from shore, or going on to sample the stream fishing in the area—from American Creek to a number of feeder streams that pour into the lakes.
On the morning of my first full day at Grosvenor, I loaded into the lodge’s big jet boat and headed for American Creek, where despite the confines of some extremely skinny braids, I managed to land several rainbows of the creek’s typically solid size and vibrant coloring, on a size 12 dry-fly. Later in the same trip we motored a short way off the beach in front of the lodge, where the water of the lake just begins to neck down into the narrows. I’d missed ‘the boil,’ a kind of local phenomenon that revolves around the sockeye smolt out-migration, with the juvenile salmon having to crowd through the narrows, forming a parade of protein that’s not a secret to the other gamefish of the lake. Although in the end, bad timing didn’t seem to matter. For the next hour, three of us stood in the boat and casted, retrieved, and more often than not, hooked into laker after laker, only switching flies if three successive casts were made without inducing a strike. On other days, I just stand on the beach in front of the lodge and fish the narrows, and there find some of the most consistently outstanding trout fishing I’ve ever experienced.
Kulik Lodge, on the other hand, offers a completely different experience, serving as the headquarters of the Katmailand operation and housing its floatplane fleet. From here, guests fly off to all of the fabulous Katmai locales, returning each night to a typically fine dinner and exaggerated conversation around the bar. Guests also have the opportunity to fish right out the front door on the Kulik River, a fly-out destination in its own right, for the other lodges of Katmai.
Brooks offers a third contrast: do-it-yourself fishing.
The lodge is now probably more famous as a bear-viewing location, with a Park Service campground and three viewing platforms to go along with the lodge’s cabins and main buildings. There’s also a reconstructed pit house portraying the life of early Natives, a fish-cleaning building, ranger station and a Park Service visitor’s center, which offers evening programs on everything from geology to wildflowers. However, the trout fishing is quite good as well.
During our visit, and after the initial bear-bullying, Marcus and I explored nearly every inch of the river on foot, simply setting out each morning with a box of flies and some vague ideas about what might work when and where. Because we were a week or so before the egg-drop, the trout hadn’t keyed-in on the spawn yet and could be caught with a variety of methods, including the occasional dry.
In all, it was about as you’d expect from a week in Katmai, different from the experiences I’ve had at the other two Angler’s Paradise lodges, but full of fish, and even magic.
Troy Letherman is the editor of Fish Alaska magazine.