For good fishing and adventure, you can't beat floating Alaska's top 10 rivers.
(Reprint from Alaska Magazine, April 2001)
Camping in the rain, sleeping on gravel bars and going without showers for a week might not meet some folks' idea of a great fishing vacation, but some of us wouldn't have it any other way. Floatfishing, by raft, canoe, kayak or driftboat, offers a unique way to access Alaska's more remote fishing water. Trade-offs in comfort are more than compensated by the advantages of being streamside 24 hours a day.
Our float fishing odyssey begins at a pristine, mountain headwater lake in
southwest Alaska. We quickly set up camp then chuck spoons
and flies into water so clear you can see bottom at 50 feet.
In no time at all, we have thick yellow-orange lake trout
fillets sizzling over a driftwood fire. Next morning, we rig boats and set off for a serene drift through magnificent alpine country, casting flies and small spinners to chunky, black grayling that seem to fill every pool and riffle. Our camp for the night is a wildflower-strewn gravel bar at a stream confluence, where we fish grayling and feisty char until the sun finally dips below the horizon. We stumble into our sleeping bags sometime after midnight.
There's no rigid schedule on a floatfish trip; you decide when and where you want to make camp and when and where to fish.
And the unexpected lurks around every bend in the river.
On the third day of our float we encounter the first of many "honey holes," where egg-gorged trout and greedy Dolly Vardens literally bite on every cast.
Shortly after lunch on the fourth day, our adventure takes on a whole new flavor when the lead boat swings around a bend to confront an entire wolf pack-five adults and as many or more pups, splayed out along a giant gravel bar enjoying tasty king and chum salmon, caught in spawning shallows below. As our bright flotilla swings into full view, mayhem breaks out, with the adults scrambling to herd frightened pups to the safety of the forest. A magnificent, alpha male defiantly stands guard and follows us down the beach, while we scramble for our cameras. The encounter adds extra icing to an already memorable experience.
Not every trip promises extraordinary animal sightings or phenomenal fishing, but float fishing will open up the opportunity-beyond the roads
and crowds-for an intimate experience of Alaska's wild country
not possible anyway else. The state offers many different
possibilities for float trips to suit the budget, time
constraints and taste for adventure of practically every
traveller. The following are a few of the most popular.
Easy, Short Floats
Upper Kenai River, Southcentral
Half-day to full-day
The lovely queen of Alaska rivers draws mobs of anglers each summer but still provides some of the best dayfishing in the state. The upper river, from Cooper Landing to Skilak Lake (closed to motorboats), offers the best floatfishing on the river, with good to excellent opportunities for big rainbow trout, Dollys and red and silver salmon. Put in at the state boat ramp at Cooper Landing (a 90-minute drive south from Anchorage on the Sterling Highway), hit the mouth of the Russian River on the way down and take out at Jim's Landing a few miles below for an easy 4- to 6-hour float with lots of good fishing along the way from mid-June through September. (Tip: Do it on a weekday during the height of season to avoid the weekend-- warrior throngs).
Upper Chena River, Interior
Half-day to three-days
Fairbanks anglers have it easy, with the Chena flowing right through town on its way to the Tanana River. Known for its grayling and king salmon, the Chena has a reputation for spotty fishing, but it's doing better than ever these days. Additional species like chum salmon, northern pike, sheefish and even rainbow trout and arctic char are found in its tributary lakes and streams. The best water to fish and float is the upper river (accessed via Chena Hot Springs Road) where you'll find "absolutely classic arctic grayling dry-fly stream conditions," according to lifelong resident fisherman and guide Logan Ricketts, who runs a float trip operation there. With a number of well-marked, easy-access points from Chena Hot Springs Road, which parallels much of the river, you can float and fish for a few hours or a few days.
Situk River, Northern Southeast
One to three days
Here's another great short trip, though certainly more remote. Located in Southeast, this stream, with its legendary steelhead runs, also offers salmon, Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout. From its headwaters above Russell Fjord, to the terminus below Yakutat Bay, the float covers 18 or so miles of winding, brush-- banked water. The lower end offers the easiest and most accessible fishing. For a convenient one-day float, start at the bridge 9 miles out from Yakutat on the Forest Service road and take out at the landing near the mouth. Make it an overnight trip by renting one of the area's three U.S. Forest Service cabins (two on the river, another up at Situk Lake) for $25 to $35 per night. There also are some private cabins down at the mouth. If you're looking for steelhead go in April or May; if you want big silvers, go in September or October.
Great Affordable Floats
Gulkana River, Southcentral
Four to seven days
Next to the Kenai, this is, perhaps, the most significant recreational river in Alaska, with easy access and many possibilities for extended float trips that combine a variety of fishing with exciting river running and scenic country. Part of the Copper River system, this large, clear and swift river originates-- in three separate forks-from the broad, high plateau north of Glennallen and is noted for its fine grayling fishing and good runs of king and red salmon and rainbow trout. Almost all of the main stem can be reached from the Richardson Highway, with most anglers putting in at Paxson Lake and floatfishing down to Sourdough Campground or Gakona Junction. For an optimum fishing experience, try the more remote middle fork that heads at Dickey Lake or fly in to one of the headwater lakes of the west fork. Go in early June through mid-September, but get a guide if you are a river novice: The Gulkana is known for its swift water, sweepers and some tricky rapids.
Alagnak River, Southwest
Four to six days
The Alagnak is among the most productive, easiest and economical of many great southwestern Alaska floatfishing trips. Located in the fabulous Katmai country in the neck of the Alaska Peninsula, the river has strong runs of all five salmon species and enjoys a longtime reputation for its rainbows and good flyfishing.
Floaters with limited or intermediate boating skills can safely negotiate the voyage from Nonvianuk Lake (accessed from King Salmon) to several take-out points along the lower river. Consult with your air taxi service to choose the best place to end your trip. The best trout fishing is in June and late August through October. Most of the better king and silver salmon fishing is in the lower river where deep, fast water makes it hard to fish by raft. Bring plenty of spare flies (Sockeye Willie, Comet, Brassie, Russian River) and watch out for the bears!
Togiak River System, Southwest
Four to six days
The Togiak is a great floatfish trip for all skill levels and one of my favorites. Located in the Bristol Bay region, the river is a scenic, crystal-blue, swift-- water float with no dangerous rapids.
It is best known for its salmon fishing, particularly silvers, which are abundant, aggressive and big-15 pounds or more. Sea-run Dolly Varden-large, bright fish that look and fight like rainbows-also are found here. Most folks put in at Togiak Lake (a short flight from Dillingham) and make a four- to six-- day float to take-out points along the lower river or at Togiak Bay. A put-in on one of the tributaries, such as the Ongavinuk or upper Togiak Lake, makes an exciting option. Best times to fish are from mid-July to early September.
Classic Streams/Flyfishermen's Dreams
Talachulitna River, Southcentral
Two to six days
Alaska's most classic stream is famous for gorgeous rainbows, great water and beauty. The "Tal" begins as a trickle in the high hills skirting the enormous glaciers that feed the lower Skwenta River, directly across Cook Inlet from Anchorage. A sizable stream by midriver, it rushes down through a series of rocky canyons to join the Skwentna, some 60 miles from its source. You have two options for floating the Tal. A put-in at the Judd Lake headwaters gives you an additional two days of floatfishing and access to potentially larger trout, especially later on in the season. The best king and silver fishing is in the lower river around the mouths of the tributary creeks and in sloughs above the Skwentna. There is a lot of fast water and rapids, so the trip is best done with a guide, unless you are fairly experienced. Do it in early July or August to mid-September.
Kanektok River, Southwest
Arguably the finest of several sparkling rivers in the lower Kuskokwim country, the Kanektok River flows 90 miles west from its headwaters at Kagati Lake to the coastal village of Quinhagak. Though it certainly doesn't need any more attention from fishermen, this river has some of the dreamiest stretches of water you can imagine. Classic wade-and-sight casting to trout and salmon in its clear, shallow depths makes it appealing to fly fishermen. King, chum, sockeye and silvers all can be taken here, along with those famous "leopard rainbows" and some of southwestern Alaska's best sea-run Dollys. From the lake down to the village you'll need seven full days, with no real tricky water except for some small rapids and sweepers. Do it from July to mid-September.
For The Truly Adventurous
Aniak River, Southwest
Six to eight days
The Aniak is a demanding yet rewarding floatfishing river. A fair-size and productive tributary of the Kuskokwim, the river rises in three forks that drain the mountain country north of the Wood Tikchiks. It has good king, chum and silver fishing along with outstanding char, rainbow and grayling action. Scenery and wildlife at the headwaters is superb. The trick is getting in and safely negotiating the swift log- and sweeper-- choked midsection. Most folks fly in from the village of Aniak to a put-in on the Salmon River and float to one of several takeouts below the confluence or at the village of Aniak. Don't consider this trip unless you are an experienced wilderness floater and have checked with local sources for current conditions. The best time to go is from the second week in July through the middle of September.
Unalakleet River. Western Alasks
Four to six days
The Unalakleet is really off the beaten path, with lots of fish and no crowds. Abundant king and silver salmon are the main draws for sportfishermen, with outstanding char and grayling as a bonus. Though mostly fished from boat and bank, you can floatfish this wild and scenic river from points above the confluence of Old Woman River or Ten Mile Creek, some 40 river miles above the mouth. You'll have to hitch a ride in a skiff from someone in Unalakleet village, as plane access to the upper river is almost impossible due to lack of suitable landing sites. Once there, you can take four to six days to leisurely float and fish good water down to the mouth while enjoying scenery, lots of wildlife and nobody's company but your own. Go between late June and early September.
Copyright Morris Communications Apr 2001
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