For months leading up to my visit to Alaska’s Tikchik Narrows Lodge, I’d been fantasizing about two personal angling milestones — landing a king salmon on a fly rod and catching a 24-inch rainbow trout on a mouse fly. It would take a bit of effort and more than a little luck, but if there was any place where such a fishing fantasy could come true, it’s the Bristol Bay region — a sport-fishing Mecca in a state renowned as a sport-fishing Mecca.
Bristol Bay sits in southwestern Alaska, due north of the Alaskan Peninsula and roughly 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. The descriptor is a catchall for the area containing the many watersheds draining into this easternmost section of the Bering Sea, which include the Togiak, Nushagak, Naknek and Kvichak rivers. These waters are home to the world’s largest returns of sockeye salmon, with some 41 million projected to swim toward their natal waters in 2017.
While the sockeyes sustain a major commercial fishery, they also form the foundation for the region’s tremendously diverse sport fishery. The sockeyes (joined by chum, king, silver and pink salmon) travel up rivers and lakes hundreds of miles into the interior each summer to spawn, providing angling sport along the way; more important, they provide nutrition (in the form of eggs and, later, decomposing flesh) for the river- and lake-dwelling fish that await their arrival, including rainbows, Dolly Vardens, chars, graylings, lake trout and northern pikes. The chance to encounter such a tremendous variety of fish is a big part of its appeal for fly fishers and spin anglers alike . . . that, and the fact that the numbers — many fish and few anglers — make casting a fly or spinner here more an exercise in catching than merely fishing.
For my dream Alaska adventure, I stayed at Tikchik Narrows Lodge, which rests on a peninsula that juts out into the water where the Tikchik and Nuyakuk lakes meet. Tikchik sits at the eastern end of the 1.6 million acre Wood-Tikchik State Park, a roughly 30-minute floatplane ride from the fishing town of Dillingham; there are no roads in these parts. Bud Hodson, who guided and piloted planes at Tikchik Narrows in the late 1970s, acquired the lodge in 1986 and has been operating it since. The main lodge rests on a rise at the point of the peninsula and includes a dining room, bar, sitting area and deck, all overlooking the lakes and the Wood River Mountains to the west. Lodge walls are decorated with a mix of mounted fish reflecting the many species available, along with tasteful angling artwork and photos. The lodge also houses a tackle shop. (All tackle — including fishing rods, flies and lures and waders — are provided.) Guests stay in heated cabins with electricity and en-suite bathrooms with hot water showers.
Tikchik Narrows and its 36-person staff can accommodate up to 24 guests for a seven-night stay — with six days of fishing.
A lodge like Tikchik is all about fishing diversity — not just species, but venues. “We have over 25 fishing spots where we can take guests throughout the season,” said Chip King, who has served as the lodge’s lead guide for 17 years. “We pride ourselves on being adaptive to guests’ skill levels, weather and river conditions, and to the experience visitors want to have. We have many people who arrive with limited or no fishing experience at all, but our 14 guides are great teachers. In the course of the week, they may troll for salmon, cast a spinner or fly for pike or hike into small streams for trout, Dolly Varden and grayling.” Anglers have access to nearly all of the famed rivers of the western Bristol Bay region, including the Nushagak and Togiak drainages, the Wood River and Tikchik Lake systems (which include the Agulipak and Agulowak rivers) and the Kulukak River. Where and how you fish will depend on when you visit, as conditions evolve with the arrival of new runs of salmon.
If six days of fishing is one too many, guests have the option to visit Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park & Preserve, where brown bears gather to capture returning salmon and photographers gather to capture the iconic images of said bears catching salmon.
One constant at Tikchik is flight. Nearly all of the rivers that lodge guests’ fish are accessed by its three de Havilland Beaver and Cessna 206 float planes. (Boats await to spirit anglers up and down the rivers from there.) Though the last Beaver rolled off the assembly line in 1967, these rugged and beloved workhorses remain the primary means of transportation in the Alaskan bush, allowing travelers and supplies to reach places that might otherwise be inaccessible. The current roster of Tikchik pilots sports more than 120 years of combined flying experience.
Tikchik anglers learn what fishing fates await them after dinner, when lead guide King announces assignments. On my second night, I was excited to learn that the next day I’d be flying to the Kulukak, a short river that dumps into the Pacific Ocean, to cast for king (or Chinook) salmon. Kings are the largest Pacific salmon species to return to the region and are Alaska’s state fish, equally prized for their flavor and fighting power; they can weigh 60 pounds and more, though specimens in the range of 15-to-25 pounds are more common. The intimate Kulukak is narrow and shallow, providing the ideal environment for targeting kings with a fly. En route to the coast, we flew just below the clouds, past rugged, mist-shrouded mountains and intermittent stands of spruce, Seuss-like in their thin, narrow stature. The abundance of water below us was staggering — long, narrow glacial lakes, bogs, small ponds, rivulets and rivers. My fellow passengers — Loren Dake and his adult sons, Trevor and Spencer — and I strained our eyes to spot a moose or brown bear below, but none were to be found.
After lead pilot Steve Larsen set the Beaver down gently on the Kulukak, our guides Adam Franceschini and Cameron Nizdil fired up the engines for two jet boats that were moored on the river, and we headed upstream. (Tikchik has semi-exclusive access to the Kulukak; we didn’t see another human until Larsen picked us up.) At the first pool, the guides set up the Dakes with spinning rods and roe sacks for bait while I started casting my fly, a large, pink creation called the Dolly Llama. The Dakes cast upstream and let their baits drift down, ready to set the hook should the bobber dip below the surface. I cast my fly toward the far bank, letting it swing across the river on the current. Within 10 minutes, both Spencer and Loren had hooked up and were fighting bright, silvery salmon approaching 25 pounds to the bank. Then my rod violently jolted, and I was fast to 20 pounds of king salmon somersaulting downstream. As I battled my fish toward Nizdil’s waiting net, Trevor hooked up and was soon racing below me to bring his fish to hand. Within short order, we each had our first king salmon; each was released to help maintain the river’s limited runs. (Many others were landed.) To celebrate our success, the guides prepared a shore lunch of fresh salmon. The sand near our table was decorated with the footprints of bears, wolves and moose. Though Alaska’s iconic mammals are not often encountered, one senses that they are never far away.
To finish off a nearly perfect fishing day, we were treated to several brown bear sightings on the flight home, including a sow with three cubs.
We were not the only anglers who’d found success with the kings that day. Gary Dunn, a first-time Alaska angler in his early 70s, had landed several salmon in the 40-pound class on the Togiak. “I’d seen the lodge on the Travel Channel, and thought that I’d like to visit before I got much older,” he shared. “I used to fish on charter boats off Long Island, but it was with heavy equipment. I’d always wondered what it would be like to catch a big fish in a river on light tackle. My wife convinced me to go, but couldn’t accompany me. I called my son Brian, and he was game.”
“When he caught his biggest salmon of the day, he was almost in tears,” Brian Dunn added. “He said, ‘I caught Walter!’ ” recalling the fictional trout from “On Golden Pond.” Relating this story, Brian was almost in tears as well.
The most memorable fishing lodges blend goodwill and good fishing to achieve an atmosphere of easygoing bonhomie. Such camaraderie was certainly evident at Tikchik Narrows as longtime guests — including many father-and-son parties — mingled with newbies and guides near the bar to swap fishing tales and share tips for the river they just returned from. Most nights, guests swapped tables to get better acquainted and enjoy creations from chef Thomas Lubinski — braised lamb shank, roast beef tenderloin and, of course, Alaskan king crab. After dinner, most would linger to observe the ever-growing schools of sockeyes circling below the deck or play cards. One evening, a mother bear and two cubs slowly picked their way along the shore across the narrows. Close by, but not too close.
On my second to last night, I flew to Tikchik’s satellite location, Sunset Camp, which can accommodate four anglers. It’s a camp in name only; guests enjoy private wall tents with en-suite bathrooms and running water, comfortable beds and nearly exclusive access to the prized Upper Nushagak.
The next morning, guide John Smolko captained our jet boat upstream, weaving through verdant forests and around snags and gravel bars. Whenever he spotted a group of spawning chum salmon, we’d stop; I’d cast an egg fly above the salmon, letting it drift through and below, in hopes that rainbows, Dolly Vardens and graylings were waiting below. More often than not, they were. After at least a dozen fish, I mentioned my mouse-fly fantasy. (The anticipation and thrill of a surface take has captured my imagination after too many YouTube videos.) “You won’t catch as many,” Smolko cautioned, “but it might work.” Rodents are not an integral part of the rainbow trout diet, but the feeding season is short in Alaska, and such a bundle of protein is too much for opportunistic trout to turn down.
Smolko moved the boat to the middle of the river and I began making long casts downstream toward the bank, letting the deer-hair fly swing on the current. Most presentations were ignored, but occasionally there would be a splash as a curious rainbow tried to grab the mouse. A few fine examples — 17 or 18 inches — held on. Trophies, perhaps, in the Lower 48. But hardly river monsters in Alaska.
With 10 minutes to go before we had to meet our plane, I made another cast to the left bank. As the fly gurgled across the river erupted but the fish — a big one — missed the fly. It came to the mouse again and I set the hook too soon, pulling the fly away. I wanted to cry.
“Give it back to him,” Smolko said, and I cast to the same spot. The waters parted and I was fast to the fish I’d been dreaming of. After a long fight, Smolko netted it — resplendent with a faint magenta stripe and the fine spots that have earned Alaska rainbows their “leopard trout” sobriquet.
“It’ll go two feet,” Smolko said as we snapped pictures and returned to the trout to the Nushagak. My trip was complete.
Santella is a writer based in Portland, Ore. His website is steelhead-communications.com.
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907-644-3961 (summer) or 907-717-6867 (winter)
Its package is all-inclusive, excluding fishing licenses, liquor and gratuities. Cost is $8,550, based on double occupancy for seven nights’ lodging and six days of fishing. Licenses can be purchased at adfg.alaska.gov.