As the sun sets on the 2023 season at ATA Lodge, we are proud to share our end-of-season fishing report from the amazing Alagnak Wild and Scenic River of Bristol Bay, Southwest Alaska! We had what, in many ways, may have been our best season overall ever!! The season went very smoothly overall, and in general, the fishing was superb. Everything seemed a bit late this season, the spawning of the trout in the early season, and some of the salmon runs were late and/or spread out more than normal. But there was always great things happening and our staff and guests were fantastic!
The Sockeye Salmon run this year sustained well through July and into early August. Thousands of sockeye salmon stream past our lodge on their way to their spawning grounds upstream in our headwaters and tributaries. These sockeye salmon, are the main food source for the many bears that frequent the banks of the Alagnak River in July and August. We regularly see more than 25 bears a day, up to over 40 during the main part of the run in July!!
The Silver Salmon start to replace the Sockeye, King and Chum salmon as the month of August begins. Their numbers are few in the early weeks of August, but continue to build in number as August progresses. This year we caught many fantastic Silver Salmon, although the run was a bit sporadic and the main run spread out and late. Some weeks it seemed more of a trickle that continued to sustain from early August well into September.
Regardless, every week most of our guests were able to "strike silver" and the quality of the fish that were being landed was often exceptional. It seems that everything this season was running about 2 weeks later than "normal". So some of the best Silver Salmon fishing extended right through the end of our season in mid-September.
Silver Salmon spread out through our whole river system over the course of the month of August, and we were able to catch fresh fish both upstream and downstream of the lodge. We often make longer runs down to the tidal effected section of the river near to the estuary. When the tides are right and the salmon are coming in on each tide, the fishing can be exciting as we swing streamers, using sink tip lines, standing on sweeping sand bars as the salmon move through on the inside bends of the river.
We continued to send boats downstream like that for weeks to catch these hard-fighting salmon as they first enter the river and can be the most aggressive to the bite. Often, these salmon have only just entered fresh water and will still have sea lice on them.
The longer the salmon are in the river, they will start to take on some colour and the males will develop what is called a "kype" as their faces deform, turning into hooked beaks. By this time, many will have distributed themselves all throughout the river, with some going far upstream, past our lodge to streams and tributaries even past the Kukaklek and Nonvianuk Lakes from which the Alagnak river originates. But most will stay between the "Braids" and the "Confluence" just up and downstream from where we are located.
These salmon are very acrobatic and are known, not only fighting hard, but for rod bending runs, mixed with jumps and cartwheel like leaps. For this reason, many of our guests consider these salmon their favourite target fish. The first Silver of the season will usually be caught between the end of July and first couple days of August.
They will build in number as more and more come into the river every day, and by mid to late August, we expect to be catching multiple silvers every day, whether in tidewater, mid-river, or at various holding pools scattered throughout the upper part of the river.
Flyouts in August and September can provide some memorable days for those who would like to visit streams throughout the region. Whether part of our watershed or perhaps ranging a little "further afield" to other rivers, streams, creeks, and mouths of lakes.
Some of these locations are exceptionally beautiful. The experience of getting in a float plane and landing on some remote pond or lake or river can be exhilarating, adding to the sense of "adventure". As we get deeper into August, many of our bears migrate upstream, following the sockeye salmon, which are one of their many food sources during this time of the year.
Although we see 20 to 40 bears a day on the Alagnak River around the lodge during the main sockeye run in July, in August, they will begin to gradually follow the salmon to where they will eventually spawn on the gravels in shallow streams and creeks. This is a popular time to charter an air taxi and fly out to witness these bears gorging on the sockeye salmon.
During these trips to witness this spectacle, guests are amazed to witness these incredible creatures "up close and personal" as we walk among them while fishing. These fly out locations become "hot spots" for rainbow trout and arctic char as these fish begin to feast on the eggs of the spawning salmon.
For many, the Arctic Char and closely related Dolly Varden is a "bucket list fish". And when you see them, there is no mistaking why that is the case. Some are ocean-run, and others are resident fish that live in the rivers and lakes of the region all year long. Once the salmon start to spawn and drop their eggs, there are specific locations where they tend to congregate, making it easier to target them and have the chance of catching a real trophy fish!
When the "stars align" and the timing is right, in the right location, good days can become "unforgettable days". On many occasions this year, we were fortunate enough to "hit it just right" and get into some truly amazing fishing for these uniquely beautiful fish. It is in later August and September that these fish will develop some remarkable coloration. We say they get "clowned up" as it almost looks like they have put on makeup for the occasion!
For many, this type of fishing in smaller streams, waking and wading, and fishing among the bears, seeing the "river run red" with sockeye salmon that have transformed from the silver bullets they were when they first entered fresh water, to the bright crimson colour they are when on their spawning gravels, fishing for big, fat "clowned up" arctic char, is the highlight of their stay!
Another species that we love here at ATA Lodge is the Chum Salmon. The Alagnak River is famous for its runs of Chum Salmon. These fish are also referred to as Dog Salmon. It is said they are called this because they have traditionally been a food source for indigenous peoples' dogs. But also because of the teeth they develop to help them fend off fish focused on eating their eggs and to aid them in competing for spawning privileges. But I like the determined style which they "doggedly" fight once hooked.
They "dog down" and pull with everything they have once they feel the sting of a well-presented fly. They are one of the most underrated salmon among the five species of Pacific Salmon that enter the Alagnak Wild River!
Since 2020, their numbers have been significantly down in our river and across their entire range. The early run of chum salmon, which normally appears around the middle of July, was a few weeks late as well. But we were happy to see their numbers up from 2020 and 2021, and are hoping that they will rebound from whatever it was the caused their numbers to plummet since it is this species that provides the main food source for the bears and resident fish that are found in our section of the system.
But, I have to say that it is the rainbow trout that is my favorite target fish. The Alagnak River has an incredibly beautiful strain of rainbow trout called Leopard Rainbow Trout because of how "spotted" they are! Be careful because you can go "cross-eyed" if you look too close because the spots can make you go dizzy if you look at them to long.
These trout can occasionally reach sizes of up to 30+ inches. But it is not unusual to catch a few every week that are over 24 inches. These trout are hard fighting as well, and your 6 or, better yet 7 weight rod will be bent over double, with the line screaming off your reel, and before you know it, you will be deep into your backing, wondering if you are going to be able stop this "freight train" to turn the fish!! We may use different tactics to fool this fish depending the time of the season and conditions in which we are fishing for them. Sink tips with steamers, dry flies, beads to "match the hatch" when salmon are dropping eggs and even skating mouse patterns on the surface for aggressive top water takes are all practiced regularly.
Our river and, in fact, our entire region is particularly known for its huge population of the large Costal Brown Bears that thrive due to the large runs of Southwest Alaska's 5 species of Pacific Salmon. This year we were treated to a number of "once in a lifetime" encounters. If you have watched our social media channels, as reported in our fishing report from earlier this season, we showed pictures and video of a bear taking down a full-grown moose. Staff and guests got videos and photos that "went viral," generating millions of views and being picked up by major news outlets. Field and Steam and Outdoor Life called the images the most incredible collection of images of their kind that they had ever seen! I was personally able to video 6 bears fighting for 4 full minutes over a single sockeye salmon in what was an almost slapstick comedy, only with claws and fangs flying!
But despite the fantastic fishing and amazing wildlife viewing a stay at ATA Lode offers, it is the people that make our season so special! We were blessed with an almost full season with great guests and a lot of fun memories of shared experiences whether on the river, around the camp fire, or around the dinner table!
We will be waiting "with the kettle on", to make you feel like part of the ATA Lodge family when you finally make it here! We would love nothing more than to share our little corner of Alaska with you. It is a true honour to be the custodians of this magical piece of Alaskan paradise. We are sure that once you've been here, you will want to make this your "home away from home" as often as you can!
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