The Ultimate D.I.Y. Trip:
Alaska’s Alagnak River
By: Phil Landry
Published in the November 2015 MSFF Newsletter
The fish in the Alagnak River are all prey and predators at the same time. It is an “eat or be eaten” kind of scenario. In many runs, back to back hook sets might reveal a 3” fingerling or a 23” inch plus fish.
In the upper half of our float we nymphed with bead rigs quite a bit. The Rainbow Trout would key on different size or color beads in many different areas based on what salmon were around and what the condition of the eggs were. The streamers of choice were of the egg sucking leech variety in the upper half.
The Salmon that were the most prevalent during our time there were the Chum Salmon. There were also a lot of King Salmon. Our focus was mainly on the Rainbows, but catching salmon was going to happen whether on purpose or not. Dolly Varden became a personal favorite of mine to target. They proved to be grouped up in certain areas, many of which were unpredictable. While they were on my radar going into the trip, I had no idea how much fun they would be. It was strange that some runs that would have the same features as others would be almost barren, while others were so thick with fish that a fly couldn’t stay in the water for more than a few seconds without being attacked.
The current in the Alagnak River is just flat out strong. As a result, so were the fish. We commented many times about how amazing it was that a 10 inch rainbow could haul a 200 grain sink tip and streamer from 30 feet downstream past your wading position and end up 30 feet upstream before he gave out. With the current being as strong as it was, wading could be semi treacherous as well. There were many times that a really nice fish would be hooked, fought for several minutes and then it would decide it was done with this game. If they turned downstream with that current behind them it was usually over shortly thereafter. We fished 6 weights primarily, but did use 8 weights some. It still didn’t seem to matter though. Drag’s were tightened all the way and there was still no stopping some of the runs. If a fish bolted and made it across a deeper faster run downstream, there was no chasing after it because you were not going to keep your feet and you might end up several hundred yards downstream. I wanted to do this several times, but was reminded by Eric that I was the only one who could row the loaded down raft in the heavy current and often windy conditions.
The lower half of our float revealed more death. Dead salmon began to show up in numbers. This made swinging flesh flies very productive and the preferred method of fishing. The strikes were very hard and adrenaline coursed through your vanes as fast the water moved that you were standing in.
The first couple of days when a fish would whip you or come unbuttoned it kind of hurt your pride and feelings a little bit, but you got used to it and learned to just enjoy the ride. As I said in part one of this story, I went into this trip convincing myself it was ALL about the fishing, but I was wrong. We did well on this trip as far as the fishing went, but we did better on the whole experience. We prepared very well. There was nothing that we didn’t have that was crucial. We survived on a weeklong float through wilderness that was covered in bears and we did so comfortably.
At our final campground, where we were to be picked up the next morning, a double rainbow arched across our tents as we ate dinner. One of the biggest grizzlies we had seen the entire trip had visited us earlier as we were setting up camp. He ambled about twenty-five yards from us before changing his direction and deciding to go eat a fish instead of us. Later that night, after we were in our tents, he came back and got closer. Close enough that I could hear him breathing. The tracks were there the next morning about seven yards from my tent and on the other side of our electrified bear fence. On day one or two of our trip this might have freaked us out a little, but at the end we were used to it and actually were going to miss it.
When the float plane pilot picked us up at the end of the trip he flew up river staying low for the first five or six miles. It was amazing to see the river we had navigated and battled from the air. There were so many chutes and runs that we didn’t even get a chance to see, much less fish. After the pilot climbed to a higher altitude and we could see the magnitude of the river as a whole it really was breathtaking. We just “did that”. To say there was a sense of accomplishment doesn’t do it justice.
I tapped the pilot on the shoulder about half way up the river and said, “You’re gonna drop us off at the top and let us do it again right?”
He laughed pretty hard and noted that he didn’t know if he heard that one before. “Most folks are ready to go home after being out here for a week”, he said.
I sincerely hope that I get to do this again one day. Next time, I’ll take some of the other channels and maybe try a slightly different time of summer… or maybe next time I will already have it arranged to get dropped off at the top and do it again!