The Ultimate D.I.Y. Trip:
Alaska’s Alagnak River
By: Phil Landry
(published in the Mid South Fly Fishers monthly newsletter- October 2015) www.msff.org
“Do it yourself” trips are a staple for dedicated trout anglers. These outings can take many different forms and often provide some of my favorite fishing memories. Sometimes trips are composed of a guided day and then a D.I.Y. day or four. This a great way to get the most out of multiple fishing days on a specific river. D.I.Y. trips often have a more gratifying after glow of sorts, because you made all the fishing decisions and made it work.
As I approached my 40th birthday my wife asked me what I really wanted for my big present. My answer was simply, “to go to Alaska while I can still fish hard”. It was ONE of the most exciting times in my life that, “she said YES”. She also said that I could take someone with me as part of my present. I chose my all-time favorite fly fishing client that began flyfishing with me 8 years ago and very regularly, Eric Albertson. Naturally, as much time as we have spent in a boat together, we have become good friends and fishing buddies. Honestly, he didn’t believe it was true for several weeks after I told him we were going, but then the planning began.
Alaska is just not a cheap place to go. I wanted to get the most time I could get there without a second mortgage being taken out. Lodges in Alaska can range from $5000-8000 per person, plus plane fare for 5-7 days. That was out of the question. After doing a lot of research I found our plan.
The Alagnak River is an incredible scenic waterway that flows through Katmai National Park and Preserve out of the end of Kukaklec Lake. I had decided this was the spot and after some research I found the perfect option for us. Katmailand, a business that operates within the parklands offers several more affordable options for fishing this area without being guided and pampered. A week long D.I.Y. float trip down the Alagnak River was the option for us. We were booked and the real planning began. We were going to be flown to the headwaters of this river and dropped off with a 14’ inflatable raft, a few bear-proof barrels for food and trash containers, a battery powered electric bear fence and whatever we brought with us for camping and fishing gear.
After the float plane flies away, we are left on a rocky beach a couple hundred yards from the beginning of the river. This is not the time to say, “Oh No, I forgot to bring….” This is also when the realization hits you that you have about 50 miles to go before you will be picked up about 13 miles from Bristol Bay. Survival and comfort are now just as important as the fishing.
We assembled our raft frame, pumped it up, loaded our gear on it, and went hurdling toward the ocean. One of the first things I noticed was that this current was strong. Maneuvering and rowing the loaded down raft with all we had on it was going to be harder than I had previously thought, especially when the wind howled. Toward the middle of the afternoon on day two we entered the braided section of the river. Now there were multiple choices to make, high wind gusts and currents that pulled the raft like tractor beams in Star Wars.
The National Park Service says that in the local dialect the word Alagnak means, "making mistakes". The river’s course is dynamic and fluid, often splitting into new branches and side channels. Locals, what few there are, refer to it as the "Branch River", where boaters may mistake one branch for another. A person could do this float more than fifty times and never go the same way twice. Luckily, we had bought the most recent quadrant maps from the USGS, circa 1952! Between these maps and the use of a GPS we had to choose our paths wisely.
Often we chose islands to beach the raft and get out and wade fish, as it was more productive and easier than drift fishing. Around 2:00 - 3 :00 pm we would try to find an island that fished well, had many different wading opportunities, and was also suitable to make camp on. The process of preparing a spot, setting up camp, and then breaking camp after reloading the raft in the morning got faster and faster with each day. The system refined itself along the way and became engrained in the daily routine. The daily routine also involved choosing a cooking site, and separate barrel cash, both preferably downwind from our campsite to keep from attracting bears. We paced ourselves to allow for one of our campsite locations to be the same for 2 nights. It was that second day there at the base camp that I managed to fish almost 14 hours. It didn’t get dark until after 11:00 pm on the Alagnak in late August. Tune in next month for part 2 of the adventure, including the answer your burning question, “How was the fishing?”