Forced to Fish Kodiak Island’s Karluc River for Five Extra Days
Kodiac Island, Alaska, is a sportsman’s dream. Years ago, when I got stranded there for five days at the mouth of the Karluc River earlier, some people didn’t believe me. Stranded in Alaska? Right!
Traveling with Les Priest of Readfield, who organized the trip through a company he owned at that time, Alaska Outdoors Adventures, we enjoyed a five-day adventurous raft trip down the Karluc River with outfitter Fishing Alaska Style, owned by Maine native Jeff Pyska who lived in Alaska.
Our guide for the week, Augusta, Maine resident Bob Smith, did a superb job of putting us onto lots of King Salman and keeping the river’s huge brown bears out of our tent camps.
Alaskan summer days linger late. The sun shines bright up until 11 pm and it never gets totally dark. On the third day of our trip I fished for 16 hours, finally stepping out of the water at 1 am so Bob, who stood guard on the riverbank to make sure bears did not bother me, could get some rest.
About 10 pm a large brown bear emerged from the alders directly behind me. Bob shouted, “Bear!” That got my attention right away. I quickly abandoned the river, stumbling up the shore to the protection of camp and Bob’s rifle.
That bear was driven off by Bob’s shouting but I fished closer to camp for the rest of the night, glancing nervously over my shoulder on each cast. My last salmon of the night was huge and took line 200 yards down river, but I did not follow, worried about the bear.
About midnight, in the dusky twilight, preparing to cast, I glanced directly behind me to small inlet brook where a couple of harvested King Salmon lay in the shallow water, kept for tomorrow’s dinner. A nose poked out of the tall grass. I whirled around, fearing a close encounter with a bear when a fox emerged. Whew! I chased him away from the salmon and kept casting.
The next morning I emerged from the tent to sit on the boxed-in-toilet that Bob had set out back in the alders. Finishing my business there, I turned around to gaze into the alders as I pulled up my pants, and there, strolling by no more than 25 yards away, was a massive brown bear. If he’d walked by in front of me while I was seated on the toilet, I wouldn’t have needed to go to the bathroom for a week!
Kodiak Island is a gorgeous combination of lush hills, high snowcapped mountains, boiling rivers and the sea, about the size of Connecticut and, as Les noted, “a weather pattern that nobody can figure out.”
At the end of our fabulous wilderness adventure we were stuck for five days at the mouth of the Karluk River, waiting for the fog to lift so a float plane could pick us up. The problem was complicated by the fact that the plane could only land on a high tide.
Bob kept our spirits up. Camp cook Jeff Madore kept us well fed. And we just kept on fishing. It helped that a run of Sockeye Salmon passed right in front of our campsite each day.
After two days of waiting patiently for a plane, we moved up the bay to a small native Indian village for hot showers and real beds. Out of the tents at last, clean and comfortable, with stunning scenery and a bay full of salmon, I might never have left if my family didn’t draw me back to Maine. I called wife Linda every night from the village, letting her know I was still stranded there. Not sure she ever believed me!
After landing over 50 King Salmon, hooking and losing many more in ferocious battles, seeing brown bear every day, being accompanied everywhere by flocks of Bald eagles, and enjoying a true wilderness experience, I yearn to return.
Just before we broke camp and moved into the Indian village, Les and I were 500 yards from camp fishing the bay, and standing in the water quite a ways off shore, when we heard, in unison, the remaining 8 members of our party yell, “Bear!”
Between us and camp a huge Brown bear sauntered down over the hill and stood on the shore, Les and I on one side, camp – guides – and safety on the other.
Bob and Assistant Guide Pete Potter rushed down the shore with guns, hoping to chase the bear back up the hill rather than toward Les and me. I stood mesmerized in the water, prepared to chuck the rod and swim into the bay if the bear approached. Not a great strategy.
Luckily the bear retreated up the hill, leaving us with nothing but another fine memory and putting an exclamation mark on our wilderness adventure.
The day before we finally packed up, Bob, Les, and I boated back to the mouth of the river where Sockeye salmon were migrating through. Standing in a slough of fast water, fishing with fly rods and large red and green salmon flies, we caught dozens of salmon. On light rods, these 10-15 pound fish were all we could handle. I’ll bet a thousand sockeyes passed me that afternoon.
As we motored back to the Indian village, knowing that we were already four days overdue at home, I couldn’t help but secretly wish for one more day of fishing. But my good luck on the Karluc was over. The float plane picked up the next morning.
Loving Alaska with Linda
I fell in love with Kamishak and my wife was there to see it. Kami wasn’t my only new love that week – just the first. Little Ku stole my heart one day, the more full-bodied Moraine another. But I kept coming back to Kami and made her my final choice.
On a week long vacation at Rainbow River Lodge in Iliamna, Alaska, our first look at Kami was from high above her in a float plane. She’s a big coastal river, but not distinguishable from other Alaskan beauties from the air. However, once we started up river in a boat and spotted a huge brown bear on the first gravel bar, the Kami’s special allure grabbed me.
By the time our guide beached the boat at our first fishing location, we’d seen – up close – ten brown bears including a sow with two cubs – and I’d used up my first roll of film. If you’re fishing the Kami, bring lots of film.
In three days there, we saw 17, 20, and 25 bears respectively – and we did respect them. They fished beside us like longtime angling buddies, wrestled each other, frolicked in the river, and generally ignored us. It was hard to ignore them. Even harder to ignore were the fish. Huge Coho salmon, called silvers, stacked like logs in calm pools, resting on their way up the rapid river to spawning grounds. Colorful Dolly Varden trout lay in every riffle of fast water, feeding on salmon eggs.
I was particularly delighted to find we could catch silvers on the surface, using a large fly that we dragged across the top of the water – sort of like fishing for bass. This worked each morning for a short while, and then we’d switch to subsurface flies – still using floating line on our 8 weight rods.
And guess what: the fly of choice was a green clouser – the same fly I employ for trout in Maine! You’d drift the clouser just under the surface, draw it past the silver of choice – because almost all of this is sight fishing – and hold your breath when the fish turned to gulp the fly. Often these fish would follow the fly a distance, sometimes waiting to take it almost at your feet! Wow!
Linda and I battled hefty 11 and 12 pound silvers all morning that first day with Kami, then switched to Dollies to rest our aching shoulders, getting – no exaggeration – a fish on every other cast with many over 20 inches. My biggest Dolly was a 6-pound brute.
For Dollies we used 5 weight rods and a bead that resembled a pink or red salmon egg. It was important to get the color of the bead right, just one of many reasons that the employment of a guide makes a lot of sense. Eager to take our flies and tough fighters, the green-tinted Dollies are too often ignored in these world-renowned salmon and rainbow trout waters. But we loved their eagerness and their fight and we took every opportunity to fish for them.
Of course, we’d traveled all the way from Maine to this first class Alaskan wilderness lodge to catch giant rainbow trout – so our love affair with the Kamishak and her bears and silvers and Dollies was an unexpected surprise.
The rainbows did not disappoint. Many exceeded 20 inches in length and either of the two 27 inch 8 pound fish I caught – one on the intriguing Little Ku (Nanuktuk River), the other from the bigger Moraine Creek – would have been the thrill of a lifetime for any avid angler.
For three days on the rainbow rivers, we used light 5 weight fly rods, stood surrounded by spawning red and pink salmon amidst stunning scenery in cold rushing rivers, peered into the water to see gigantic rainbows lying in wait, drifted our flies past the selected fish, watched as the fish grabbed our fly, set the hook, and took a deep breath – so we could yell: “Fish On!”
A relative novice with a fly rod, experienced only with small Maine brook trout, with one trip to Quebec where she caught some big landlocked salmon, Linda was somewhat stressed, worried that she would not cast well enough or be able to land these big Alaskan brutes.
But with good advice from our guides she had no problem at all, learned a great deal, experienced more catching of big fish in a week than you’d get in a lifetime of fly fishing in Maine, and landed as many of her fish as even the most experienced anglers that week (including yours truly, who had a hard time learning that you can’t just horse these fish in).
Traveling to other states and countries is always interesting. Traveling to Alaska is so much more – exciting, inspiring, with jaw-dropping beauty, massive mountain chains harboring glistening glaciers, high country tundra, a stunning coastline, rivers, lakes and ponds of all sizes, – all on a scale that is unimaginable to anyone in the lower forty.
And did I mention the bears? I am amazed by the photos of Lin calmly casting her fly while a huge bear – sporting a light brown coat – stood nearby watching her. She went from a state of terror about the bears to complete nonchalance. Well, honestly, she was wary but not worried.
Rainbow River Lodge managers Chad and Nicole Hewitt might have missed the first Alaskan gold rush, but today, there’s still plenty of gold in the fishery found in this state’s coastal and inland waters, thanks to savvy fisheries management, good research, and an understanding of what spectacular fishing can do for a state’s economy and people. No rainbow trout in this entire area can be killed. It’s all catch-and-release angling for trout with barbless hooks. Three salmon per day may be kept and the lodge staff filets, freezes and packs them for you.
Lin and I also rode the train from Anchorage to Denali National Park, where Mt McKinley peaked at us through the smoke generated from fires that have burned more than 5 million acres in Alaska this year. In this stunning national park, we saw lots of Caribou, Mountain Sheep, Grizzlies, and three of the biggest bull moose you’d ever see – Alaskan moose are about a third larger than Maine’s.
But it’s Rainbow River Lodge and the fishing that I will never forget. This was the best fishing I have ever enjoyed in my life. The lodge offers my kind of wilderness experience: gorgeous comfortable cabins, hot showers, gourmet food, superb service, super friendly staff, gracious hosts – all in a family environment where baby Hewitt joined us every evening for dinner.
This is a fly-out lodge, where – every day – you are able to fly to your selected river to fish for your favorite species. Admittedly, this is pampered angling – until the first big rainbow or silver is on your line and you’ve got to go to work. Both rainbows and silvers take to the air as soon as you set the hook, and you sometimes think your heart will burst before, finally, you find the fish at your feet, ready to be released.
The variety of angling experiences available here are impressive. A couple of anglers from California wanted a day of dry fly fishing – hard to find in August – but Chad flew them to the headwater of the Copper River, where they hiked the upper river catching lots of rainbows and grayling – an extraordinarily beautiful fish that flies out of the water, often taking your fly as it returns to the surface.
Another group flew to the Iliamna River and proclaimed it the most beautiful setting in which they had ever fished – with lots of rainbows to boot. This group said the Iliamna was their favorite of all the rivers they fished that week – hard for me to imagine after experiencing the Moraine, Ku, Gibraltar, and Kamishak.
But then, one group chose to raft and fish the Gibraltar on their final day and reported it was the best rainbow fishing they’d had – another surprise because I liked the Moraine and the Ku the best for rainbows.
One evening, Eric Wolf from Connecticut and I lugged a canoe over a nearby beaver dam to fish one of the “Pike Lakes” in back of the lodge. You can guess what species awaits eager anglers in these waters. Catching large northern pike on eight weight rods, popping mice on the surface of this wilderness pond, we were excited beyond description. We fished until it was pitch black, and then turned to discover we didn’t know where we’d started this adventure. The entire shoreline looked the same!
Eventually, we found the beaver dam and returned safely to the lodge, arriving about midnight. Of course, it remains light until after 11 pm, giving relentless anglers more fishing opportunity after dinner. This was the only night I fished after dinner – every other evening we were exhausted by the day’s angling in these mighty rivers.
So here will be your dilemma in this angler’s paradise: with so many species, so many big fish, and so many amazing rivers, when Chad asks, as he does after dinner every evening, where you want to fish the next day, what will you say? Believe me, that’s the most stress you’ll feel all week.
Home only a month, I already yearn to return to Alaska and Rainbow River Lodge. I will never forget my love affair with Kami, Little Ku, and Moraine.