True Alaskan Wilderness on the Alagnak River

Alaska Trophy Adventures

by Justin Maxwell Stuart – July 2017

Destination: Alaska

Holiday: ATA Lodge

For a huge country, Alaska can appear to the travelling angler rather crowded! Communities that are virtually silent and shrouded in icy darkness for 7 months of a year burst alive over the summer. This is at its most evident over the 3-4 week Sockeye run in late June/July. More than 500 trawlers and their migrant worker crews converge on tiny communities with single stores such as King Salmon or Nushugak to harvest an annual total of around 30+ million Sockeye. Flights in and out of these tiny outposts suddenly get busy. Very busy. Instead of just the regular airport traffic of village natives alongside anglers with large bags, rod tubes and accessories, there are the seasonal workers who come to make good the annual harvest. They are easy to spot, particularly at the close of the season for their worn features, dishevelled look and as often as not sporting the only deckhand footwear they require for the job, a pair of wellies!

Staying at the Lakefront Hotel in Anchorage and watching the non-stop floatplanes buzzing in and out is a visual experience in itself. I may be wrong but I think the term ‘combat fishing’ probably originated in Alaska. Images of lines of typically spin fishermen lining the riverbank. By way of example the Kenai River, famous for its huge King Salmon is also the major river system in closest proximity to Anchorage. Consequently, it attracts fisherman like bears to uncovered trash cans! All this is vital to the Alaskan economy but if truth be told, not typically welcome on a fishing holiday, no matter how good it is for tourism.

All of the above to bring me to my recent week at Alaska Trophy Adventures or ATA lodge on the Alagnak River. Many of my overseas fishing trips are a result of fastidious research, tips and or lodge reputation. In this instance, it was more coincidental, an introductory email from Wayne McGee, the new owner of ATA lodge, a connection via friends who had mentioned that they were going there and above all, the fact that I was in Alaska the previous week! I really was not sure what to expect and finding an impartial view on the www is not always easy.

Reaching the lodge requires a local flight with Penn Air (nicknamed ‘When Air’) from Anchorage to King Salmon. On arrival, a brief transfer to one of the local hangar’s servicing the bush planes and helicopters, and with some masterful packing we had filled the tail section of the plane with a huge amount of luggage and squeezed in 4 passengers alongside Sam the pilot. Issued with pilot quality headphones and mike I guess I was expecting to hear the regular pilot banter. In its place, shortly after take-off, Sam flicked a switch and we were listening to some decidedly relaxing ‘chill out’ music. Not what I was expecting. 35 mins later we touched down on the lodges dusty private runway.

Our arrival was on one of Alaska’s finer days. Certainly something that is not always the case, Alaskan weather being variable at best, however in the glow of the late afternoon sun the location is mesmeric. The lodge and cabins immediately overlook the Alagnak River, fast flowing, clear and purposeful. One of the guides was standing on the pontoon jetty with a silver salmon cartwheeling in front of him. To the East, a distant snow speckled mountain range basked in the evening sunlight. The closest neighbouring lodge is miles downstream and bar a very occasional boat almost all activity is confined to those from the lodge.

Wilderness lodge is one of the most overused terms in Alaska. A lodge itself may indeed be remote, certainly by any normal standards, but that does not mean you are removed from river traffic, whether from jet boats relentlessly pacing up and down the river, float planes appearing from nowhere or rafters dropped off goodness knows where and plodding their way downstream. At Alaska Trophy adventures you really are blissfully detached in a way that many fishing lodges proclaim to be but relatively few are.

Weighing in at probably 1000lbs this bull was most comfortably viewed from the safety of the boat!

July sees the Sockeye run in full force up the Alagnak river. They run in their hundreds of thousands. Sockeye run very close to either side of the river bank. During the thick of the run, this represents a continual passage of fish, unceasing for weeks on end, all incredibly visual and almost within touching range. Excellent fighters on a light fly rod they also represent the most bountiful source of food for hungry bears and of all the experiences at ATA this was perhaps the most incredible.

There were bears everywhere! Every day from either the main lodge building or from our riverside cabins we saw at least one bear crossing the river and as often as not accompanied by cubs. They are certainly inquisitive but more than anything else they were fishing and seemingly oblivious to our presence. If they strayed too close, some shouting or banging on the boats was enough to send them on their way. They are treated with respect but not feared!

Travelling up river on some days we might count 10 or 20 depending on how far you travelled. On one day we saw three mothers each with three individual sets of cubs. On one incredibly memorable occasion in the gorge region of the Kukaklek tributary, which meets the Nonvianuk to form the Alagnak, we witnessed a mother rather rashly deciding to cross the river in one of the fastest parts. Safely across the largest of her cubs followed only to be swept out of control downstream. A moment later the other two followed suit also swept perilously down the rapids but failing to make the crossing and ending up stranded on the side of a cliff face. The mother now distraught plunged back in finally reuniting herself with the first cub on the far side but now separated by a torrent of white water and out of sight of the other two cubs. She then re-crossed but further downstream and then made her way up a cliff face desperately searching. All the time she roared and the cubs howled. It was as exciting as it was traumatic. Most of this spectacle took place yards from where we were fishing. Happily, we spotted all reunited the following day.

The Kukaklek River, tributary to the Alagnak – The scene of our bear and and cub drama. The mother bear crossed immediately upriver from our boat, the first cub ended up 400 yards downstream on the far bank, the other 2 cubs were swept to the bottom of the cliff face in the upper left of the picture, the mother climbed the cliff from lower down, desperately calling them but not being able to find them. What an event…but eventually reunited so a happy ending!!!

Similar experiences, whether with bears, moose, eagles and even the occasional Wolf are played out all season and are far from unique. There is no need for folklorist tales to be passed from one angler to another. Everyone will have their own selection of individual and incredible experiences, even to the extent that it becomes easy to forget exactly why we had come to ATA, but then that is part of the attraction.

The King Salmon run in the Bristol Bay region seems to have been generally poor this season. It is always the smallest of all the Pacific Salmon migrations but they are of course the largest by an equally considerable margin. A 40lb fish was caught the day we arrived and there were a few encounters over the week but few of note. Although a disappointment of sorts we were far from bereft of activity. On the lower sections of the river, where there is additional lodge and boat activity, each day the groups which made the journey had spectacular fishing for Alaska Tiger Salmon (chum). Incredibly strong, weighing up to 15lbs and just over, they frequently take anglers on a downstream chase.

The Sockeye fishing was exceptional. For a good many years now catch and release has been the byword for sporting fishermen and at the bulk of destination fishing lodges, most fish are released. The strength of the runs of Sockeye simply mean that this need not apply. Individual bag limits of 5 fish / angler / day apply and for those making the relatively short journey back to the US or Canada, most take the opportunity to take home with them a box of the freshest and best tasting wild salmon available. For those travelling further there is the option of exchanging your fresh fish for smoked at the Alaskan Sausage and Smokehouse in Anchorage. My onwards travel plans precluded me from doing this however that was not going to stop me enjoying some of the spoils.

A Sockeye Salmon having escaped a bear found its way onto our lunch menu!

On two gloriously sunny days, in the most attractive part of the upper river, the Aquarium pool on the Kukaklek, we had one of the most delicious salmon feasts. A couple of Sockeye having been easily caught, Ethan our uniquely clean shaven guide, first made a small campfire and then served us up Sashimi salmon with soy sauce and wasabi. This was followed by two types of cook cooked salmon, teriyaki marinated as well as a more traditional lemon and seasoning. Enjoyed with a bottle of wine, watching several hundred Sockeye move around the pool and with bears clambering, swimming and fishing opposite us, it is a fishing experience that has little equal.

My time in Alaska have taught me to be more open-minded with what you catch and how you catch them. Pacific Salmon take or are caught in very different ways to Atlantic Salmon and there is no point comparing like for like. Rainbow Trout are prized and looked after in a manner that certainly is not afforded to our stocked specimens in Britain. They are also caught using eggs and mouse patterns, a far cry from a size 14 Grey Duster on the River Test. Although most anglers are pretty conservative in their approach to different means and tactics to embrace a different style will very often allow you to enjoy the wider experience.

The Aquarium Pool. Visually stunning, very prolific and as good a place to have a shore lunch as you could wish for.

Alaska Trophy Adventures is a family run lodge, headed by Wayne and assisted by his wife, daughter and two sons. Although they have only been in ownership of the lodge for two years they have turned around a lodge which had dropped in people’s estimations to one that is as vibrant and dynamic as any I have recently visited. Excellent and dedicated guides compliment the whole operation who share a deep passion for the lodge and the river they fish.

Running a remote lodge in Alaska is a serious logistical challenge and over the season there will be flight delays, engine breakages and any number of other issues. Out of season they have to secure the lodge against the incredibly harsh elements and in 2016 spent the opening week removing the excrement from a family of wolves who had made the boat shed their home. Part lifestyle, part adventure it all amounts to a fantastic experience, one that guests at the lodge seem to enjoy as much as those making it happen, and that is a truly great combination.

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