Our quest was to catch a king (Chinook) salmon, which run during the first two weeks of July up the Togiak and Ungalithluk (referred to as Rainbow) rivers in Alaska, and are usually between 18 and 30 lbs in weight. However, we would be quite happy to catch sockeye, chum, Dolly Varden (arctic char), rainbow trout, char and grayling if things didn’t go according to plan. My friend Michael and me weren’t to be disappointed.
Our journey began at Terminal 5, Heathrow, where we caught the afternoon flight to Seattle, and there we transferred to an Alaskan Air flight up to Anchorage. After a day’s rest, taking in the sights of what turned out to be a very vibrant city, in the summer at least, we boarded an early morning flight up to Dillingham which is on the edge of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. There we were welcomed by our guides and boarded a mini bus, which took us to the hamlet of Aleknagik on the southern shore of Lake Aleknagik, where we transferred to a fast boat. The journey across the lake took us half-an-hour or so, until we finally reached our destination; Bristol Bay Lodge.
Without a minute to spare, we were soon up river and fishing for sockeye salmon but more of that later.
Fishing was accessed by shallow draft, flat-bottomed boats or by single-engined Beaver float-planes, which lined up every morning at 8 o’clock to take the anglers to their various destinations, the furthest of which was at Birch Creek, some 100 miles distance, to the west from the lodge. Each night 2 parties of four from the group slept at out camps so that fishing time was maximised.
Flying in the Beaver planes was quite an experience, weaving in and out of the mountains, which still had traces of snow, and across the tundra strewn with lots of lakes and meandering rivers. Likewise travelling up river in the boats at high speed was exhilarating, with the guide weaving the boat from side to side, avoiding the shallows and bouncing up and down as we flew up the rapidly flowing water.
Our first Pacific salmon fishing experience was on the Agulowok (referred to as the Wok by the guides) river, which joins lake Aleknagic to lake Nerka and so we were transported by boat, from the lodge, and were soon wading in friendly, shallow water casting our flies at the sockeyes which we could see before us, moving in pods, up river. The tackle we used were #8 single-handed fly rods with fly-lines that had fast sink tips.
Two Teeny flies were fished in tandem, one joined to the other with a short length of leader, tied with a blood knot onto the bend of the leading fly. Weights were added in front of the leading fly to get them down to the river bed in the fast current. They were awkward to cast with but it didn’t matter because the fish were only a few feet out from the river bank. Within a few minutes I had caught my first sockeye.
The next day we were flown out to Togiak camp to fish for King Salmon and this would be our first encounter with the fish we had come to find, although we spent the early part of the day wrestling with monster chum, sockeyes and Dolly Vardens. Eventually we managed both managed to bring a king salmon to the net but unbeknown to us there were even more and bigger fish to be caught later in the week. That afternoon we flew up to the camp at Birch Creek on the Middle Fork of the Goodnews river, where we would be staying overnight. Again the fishing was full on and we managed to get a couple of hour’s grayling fishing in before dinner was served at the camp.
It was at this time that I was introduced to Fat Albert, a ridiculous fly that grayling just cannot resist. It is extremely large like an oversized Chernobyl Ant, with flexible legs and two tufts of white fibres sprouting out of its body.
The following morning, after a hearty breakfast, we were out on the river with our guide Eric. He soon put us on to fish and we were casting from gravel banks catching our fair share of chum and sockeye.
One of these was a bright silver fish which we kept for lunch, barbecued on the river bank and served with fried potatoes – delicious.
After a night back at the lodge, it was our turn to fish the Agulukpak (referred to as the Pak) river, which joins Lake Nerva and Lake Beverly. We spent the first part of the morning fishing for char at the bottom of the river where it runs into Lake Nerka. Using white, Klauser type lures we managed catch a few of these very hard fighting fish. We then went grayling fishing and this turned out to be one of the most spell binding experiences of the whole trip. We tackled up at the top of the river, tying on Klinkhamers and tungsten-headed nymphs, just like we do back home. Our guide, Bob, set us off on a long drift from the top of the river, using the oars to keep the boat moving at the same pace as the river. Our flies drifted endlessly and we could see fish after fish, in the crystal clear water, coming up to take the flies (awesome as our guides would say). The day was further enhanced by the sight of an eagle looking down at us from the top of a pine tree.
We were now settling down and getting into the routine and on the fifth day we flew out to the Togiak to fish with our guide for the day, Ryan. He managed to put us on the largest King Salmon, which was caught by Michael. – and when he lifted it into the boat we all fell about laughing because it was so enormous. At the end of what we thought was another successful day’s fishing we were flown out to Rainbow Camp only to be confronted by more large, salmon; varied but mostly Chum. Rainbow Camp is situated just below the confluence of the Negukthlik and Ungalithluk Rivers, which is tidal and as the tide turns vast numbers of fish are corralled into a short stretch of river and so needless to say we caught even more Salmon.
The last day saw us returning to the Wok where we had first started our fishing adventure. We kicked off with some easy sockeye fishing which enabled us to catch our shore side lunch. In the afternoon there followed a spot more grayling fishing from a drifting boat, which I loved, and the experience was enhanced by seeing bank after bank of sockeyes slowly making their way to the spawning grounds, just in front of the boat. To cap it all we managed to take a picture of a brown bear catching supper, as we returned to the lodge.