Thursday, September 16, 2021
Thursday, September 16, 2021
As a result of Covid-19, Alaska’s overall tourism, including angling traffic, dropped dramatically in 2020. The Farm Lodge, where I have fished five out of the past six years, felt the pain; the lodge didn’t open for guests until July, and even after opening it never saw more than 80 percent of its regular bookings. By mid-September, with cold weather moving in and the birch trees already turning to a golden hue, the last of the guests were gone.
The Farm Lodge has been my base of fishing and photography excursions around the Bristol Bay drainage, and a sort of home-away-from-home. In previous years I fished a lot of water in and around Katmai National Park and Preserve, and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Most of my visits have been in August, which is a great month for fishing the area, a time when rivers are full of sockeye salmon. At that time rainbow trout and Dolly Varden have moved out of the lakes and into the rivers to gorge on protein-rich salmon eggs and carcasses, a result of the spawning and dying of those sockeye.
This year I was visiting alone, and in September, working on a book of essays about some of the waters in the Bristol Bay drainage and the native fish that inhabit them. On this particular day the weather had turned, bringing in wind and rain, and threatening our plans. Around 9 a.m., after a hearty lodge breakfast, we departed the village of Port Alsworth with Glen Alsworth, Jr., lodge manager and grandson of the legendary aviator “Babe” Alsworth (after whom the village is named). He flew our Cessna 206 float plane. His teenage son Caleb (a high school senior taking the day off from school) joined us, along with Jeff Duck (a guide at the lodge).
Our flight took us south out of Lake Clark National Park, across Lake Iliamna, and down into Katmai National Preserve.
We flew low over a river that we’d planned to fish. However, one glance down made it clear that it wasn’t worth landing. A couple nights of hard rain had blown out the river. The swirl of mud emptying into the lake at the river mouth was the first clue. A quick circle over the trees upstream revealed a gushing river overrunning its banks.
So Glen adjusted his plans on the fly—a benefit of four decades of accumulated knowledge, and also of having myriad options. We continued down the lake to another river. Although it was too small for four anglers to wade upstream, it would provide good casting along the lakeshore near the river mouth. From the air, the river appeared to be in better shape, with no signs of mud. Glen circled once then brought the plane down onto the lake just around a point. We taxied back toward the river mouth with hopes of enticing a few patrolling lake trout, Dolly Varden char, or Katmai-sized rainbows. As we approached, I spotted two river otters bobbing and diving near the shore. I hadn’t seen an otter in years, so it was a delightful sight. It was also a potentially promising one, as the otters were unlikely to be in the area if there wasn’t a plentiful food source. Unfortunately, as soon as we got the plane’s pontoons tucked against the shore a stiff wind picked up from a bad angle, making it unsafe to leave the plane parked there. We took just a minute to stretch our legs and relieve ourselves of the morning coffee, then loaded up and took off again.
Several minutes later, we came in for a landing at the outlet of Hammersly Lake, next to the head of American Creek. Born and raised in Port Alsworth, Glen has spent his whole life fishing the Bristol Bay drainage. Nonetheless, it had been a while since he’d stopped at American Creek—not because it doesn’t offer excellent fishing, but because the fishing is so good that the river is rarely free of other anglers. Like most fly-fishers, Glen prefers to have a good stretch of river to himself and his friends or clients. While that’s getting harder to achieve, even in Alaska, he’s proven quite adept at it over the years. On this occasion, there wasn’t a boat or plane in sight.
We landed into the wind, turned, and taxied back toward the northeastern corner of Hammersly Lake. Jeff and Caleb hopped into the water and helped tie the plane to shore, nose outward. With the wind blowing straight in, there was little danger leaving it there for the day. By this point, we were eager to fish. Huddling against the shoreline brush, with our backs to the cold wind, we rigged our rods as quickly as our chilly fingers allowed. I went with my favorite for Bristol Bay waters: a heavy #4 Egg-Sucking Leech with a hot pink, chenille head wrapped around dumbbell eyes; a black chenille body with black hackle and red wire; and an extra-thick marabou tail. It was my variation of the original ESL and had proven itself over time for rainbows and Dollies when I’d fished for them in August.
Flies tied on, we headed toward the fishing. Walking the gravel shoreline between water and brush, we skirted the last hundred yards of lakeshore to the river mouth, and started downstream. A low bluff rose on each side of us. Thick shoulder-high brush lined the streambank, and further up the bluff a few small spruce trees stuck their noses above shoulder level. Beyond a few yards on each side of the river, however, the landscape was mostly barren of trees—or of anything growing taller than a few inches above the thin windswept soil. Moss lined the slopes, along with low blueberry bushes bearing a few remaining uneaten berries shriveled and squishy from nights of frost. The frequency of anglers had yielded a little path through the streamside brush. We made occasional use of the trail—booby-trapped though it was with large piles of blueberry-laden bear dung. Mostly we slowly waded our way downstream looking for signs of trout. Though there were stretches of swift current that made for challenging wading amid slick rocks, and a few pools of slower water rising above the level of our waders, for the most part the river was quite wadable and I rarely bothered pulling out my wading staff.
For the first several bends, none of our flies drew even a hint of a strike. Instead of battling rainbow trout fattened on salmon eggs and salmon flesh, we battled the bitter blustering wind. Hoping to find more productive water further downstream, maybe in the pools of salmon carcasses we’d spotted from the air, we cut up and over a corner of the bluff. From the higher vantage point, Glen spotted a dark shadow dart across the current. He offered me first shot at it, but I took out my camera instead and sent him, hoping for a video of him hooking a monstrous rainbow. He worked down through the brush to the shore and took several casts to the area where the shadow had moved.
No takes. No more sign of shadows. I snapped a few photos, and then joined the others in the water and we continued working our way downriver.
We worked another hundred yards and two bends in the river before Glen had his first strike. He was drifting his orange flesh fly through soft water, in a deeper stretch below a rip. Oddly, the hit came not as he drifted the fly downstream—imitating the natural drift of salmon flesh—but as he stripped the line slowly back in. It was a soft hit that missed the hook. But he soon had a second hit, and a third, all light taps on the retrieve.
I looked around again, trying to read the river and understand why the fish might be hitting in this particular spot. The sockeye salmon that draw trout out of the lakes and into the river were gone. Or, rather, the living sockeye were gone. What Glen spotted flying over, however, were the carcasses of hundreds of spent salmon in eddies and backwaters near the banks. And dead salmon meant dead salmon flesh floating downriver: an easy river mouthful for a hungry trout. Glen had tied on a gaudy orange pattern. And the trout liked it.
The first fish Glen landed was a smallish rainbow, only 15 inches or so. It would prove to be the smallest fish of the day. His second fish, still in the same hole, was an absolute football, rippling with fat reserves, and muscular enough to put a serious bend in his rod. I didn’t get a good look at his third fish because soon after he hooked it I got busy snipping off my Egg-Sucking Leech and tying on one of my own flesh flies: a body of hot purple zonker strip, two pink beads, and some softer pink marabou wrapped like hackle around a 4X long #4 hook.
Within minutes I was fighting my first bow of day: another football-shaped mass of fat and muscle that had more the girth of a 28-inch fish than the 20 to 21 inches it actually measured. And I was wondering what foolishness had kept me from imitating Glen’s fly selection from the very start.
American Creek is one of Bristol Bay’s remarkable rivers. It sits in the upper portion of the Naknek drainage, which also includes the famous Brooks Camp, where fat bears catch salmon out of the air as they leap the Brooks River falls. American starts at the outlet of Hammersly Lake, at an elevation of 1,599 feet, making it not only the highest point I’ve fished in Katmai, but likely the highest elevation I’ve fished anywhere in the presence of spawning—or spawned out—salmon. It flows some 30 miles total, starting north, then turning east where it wanders through the hills just south of Nonvianuk Lake, before veering south to run its final 10 miles into Lake Coville. Coville drains back toward the east (temporarily moving away from Bristol Bay) into Lake Grosvenor which eventually drains down toward Naknek Lake. The only access to American Creek is by boat or float plane at either end of its 30-mile run.
Alsworth didn’t have American Creek in mind for a late summer/early fall trip but, for a couple years, he’d tried to get me to come in September, his favorite season. Although the weather could get sketchy, the fish would be as fat and healthy as they’d been all year. Dolly Varden char, even at their dullest, are a stunningly beautiful fish, sides dotted with rich, magenta pearls. During fall they are particularly bright and breathtaking, with red bellies that rival those found on a male eastern brook trout’s, and lips so vivid orangish-yellow that you might think they got into their mother’s lipstick. So after reading up about the safest way to fly a commercial airline during a pandemic, I’d taken the leap and purchased plane tickets.
And there I was out casting in a well-known Katmai river, with the notorious September weather tying wind knots that actually were the result of wind. But even when the sky opened up and started dumping a heavy rain on us for a quarter of an hour, I was quite happy. The fish were coming one after another. We mostly found them congregating in big pods in long patches of soft water every hundred yards or so, but I also hooked into a few in the small pockets behind rocks or against the shore.
The downpour didn’t last long. At some point, the rain stopped altogether. The wind died down. Sun broke through for a glorious hour.
Not that rain and wind bothered me too much when I was catching footballs. Unlike Glen, who continued to hook fish on the retrieve—and probably had three times as many hookups as I did, including three fish that broke him off—I couldn’t get past the instinct to drift my flies like natural flesh, and that seemed to work pretty well also. Although it was seriously beat up by the end of the afternoon, I never took off the flesh fly that hooked my first fish of the day.
Glen knows me well. About 30 minutes before we actually needed to fly back to the lodge in time for dinner, he gave me the “five-minute” warning. I made my final cast, which took me at least another 50 yards downriver and 25 or so minutes to complete. Then we cut back across a bluff on a straight line toward the parked plane. Although one of the fish that broke Glen off was a Dolly Varden, the rest of the day it was all rainbows for all of us. I would have enjoyed seeing those magenta pearls, but I didn’t complain about the amazing rainbow fishing. (A couple days later in a different Bristol Bay river, on another fly-out with Glen—this time accompanied by my friend Branden, another of Glen’s Farm Lodge guides—I was able to hook a fair share of Dollies in their fall colors, as well as some bright red silver salmon.)
As we flew back across the northern edge of Katmai National Preserve, above the myriad lakes and waterways just south of Iliamna, Glen said, “There’s the biggest rainbow of the day.”
Having grown used to Glen’s well-trained and very useful ability to spot fish in a river from two hundred feet in the sky, I looked down, trying to spot the monster rainbow he was talking about. It must have been big, I thought, if it was the biggest of the day. “Where?” I asked, secretly hoping he might land and give me a chance to cast.
“Up there,” Glen said. I lifted my eyes from the lake to the eastern horizon. The clouds to the west had opened up again, allowing shafts of sunlight to burst through and carve into the mist and rain still falling in the mountains. To our right as we flew north, a big rainbow arced across the sky. I had to concede. Glen was right about its superlative size and splendid coloration—the best rainbow of the day.