Early last Friday morning we put the finishing touches on packing for this summer’s (potentially epic) fishing-centric trek on the upper Alaska Peninsula. Two Salsa Fargo bikes equipped with semi-fat tires, to be loaded with Big Agnes Rattlesnake Mountain Glow tent, down sleeping bags, Alpacka pack rafts, tenkara rods, fly rods, freeze-dried camping food, cookware, compact stove, minimal camera gear, blank writing journals, waders, rain gear, and (for me) just one extra pair of underwear. We then borrowed a pickup truck drove the gear to Chignik Lake’s airstrip and loaded it onto a Lake Clark Cessna headed for Nondalton.
I’ll turn 58 on this trip and I’m a little apprehensive – not as sanguine in my physical endurance and strength as I was in the old days. For the first time in my life, I am aware of physical limitations in a way I’ve never before felt those limitations. But I want to get out there and try this and see if I can handle it. I think I can handle it. If it comes together all right, this trip will set the stage for the next several summers. Fortunately, Barbra has greeted the prospects this summer holds forth with unbridled enthusiasm sufficient to douse my doubts. “Pace yourself,” a friend advised, and although that two-word phrase is anathema to the way I’ve gone about things most of my life, I have to concede that on this series of treks, it’s probably the most prudent recommendation I could receive.
Iliamna Lake is the epicenter of the world’s most prolific Sockeye Salmon nursery.
Nondalton is a perfect starting point. The Newhalen River threads together some of Alaska’s (and by extension, the World’s) most storied fly-fishing waters, including Lake Clark upriver and legendary Iliamna Lake downriver. Along with their nearly innumerable tributaries, the entire watershed constitutes the world’s greatest Sockeye Salmon spawning grounds and nursery. Oh, there are kings, silvers, pinks and chums, char, grayling, white fish and pike, too – and at the right time and place lots of them and large ones. But the keystone species is the Sockeye, and it’s because of these millions of spawning salmon and the ocean-borne nutrients they carry upriver each summer that the watershed is home to some of highest numbers of large rainbow trout found anywhere. Trout 18” and up are common. How far up? The Kvichak River, which flows out of Iliamna and into Bristol Bay, gave up a 23-pounder in 1999, and while there don’t seem to be as many super large trout as in the past, fish well over 20 inches are still abundant, as are large Dolly Varden Char, Arctic Grayling, Northern Pike and Lake Trout. In fact, when I ticked off a list of modestly-sized personal bests for the species we’ll be targeting this summer, our friend Jerry, who talked us into this trek, kind of laughed and replied, “You’re gonna break all those records right here on Six Mile.”
After exploring the Six Mile Lake area, the possibilities are practically limitless. Virtually every lake, stream and river in this part of the Bristol Bay watershed is a world class angling destination. So it’s almost a given that we’re going to catch a lot of fish. And camp, and hike, and pick wild berries, and raft, and swat mosquitoes and see bears and moose and cap an especially good day with a bourbon toast from a small flask a fair distance from anything that looks like civilization.
But it’s not all gonna be blueberry patches and easy trout. We might have to bush-whack into some places, and we won’t use guides or take float planes in to the best water. We’re determined to make the fishing our own, and that will mean fishless stretches at times as we explore, and it might mean tough going at times. That’s the price for getting off the beaten path.
If we each get a few personal bests this summer and have a few fish-after-fish-after-fish days, a few memorable wildlife sightings, a few meals of freshly caught fish… If we learn a few things, experience a few new things…
It’ll be a great summer.
And with that, the staff of CutterLight is off on vacation for blessed weeks on end with no phone service, no computers and no news. Look for accounts of our adventures when we resume publishing toward the end of the summer.