Flowing Towards Heaven: Kings and Calm on the Aniak
By Jeff Varvil
Southwest Alaska stands out. It stands out among even the most beautiful, the most rugged, the most pristine areas in the world. It stands out even in Alaskathe Greatlanda state brimming with the beautiful, a state bursting with the pristine.
Completing one of Alaskas wild rivers can be one of lifes most memorable and rewarding experiences. And southwest Alaska is where to go to find them. The mere mention of these rivers evokes an image of Alaskas most precious scenic trophies. The Andreafsky, Alagnak, and the Kanektok; the Tikchik, Goodnews, and the Nuyakuk: rattle the names off in your head and watch as the parade of visions commences. Kings barreling upriver, eagles soaring overhead, mammoth brown bears gorging themselves on salmon, and gorgeous rainbows tail-dancing across the water. The Togiak, Stuyahok, and the Nushagak; the Newhalen, Kvichak, and the Naknek: theres almost no end, just like theres almost no end to the grace and beauty of the vast terrain they traverse. But of course, everyone has a favorite, and mine is the wild and remote Aniak River.
There is no sway in the hold this river maintains over me.
I make two trips a year, every year, the first of which is in search of the
toughest fish in the West, or almost anywhere for that matterthe king
salmon. Among the idyllic calm of the Aniak, I embark upon my annual quest,
intent on putting my best fly rod to the test. Its me and the fleet of
returning chinook, alone in our battle. Like two heavyweights (and I get
heavier every year), we meet and try to outwit or outmuscle each otherand
Each evening is spent wandering the tundra, enjoying the breathtaking scenery while searching for moose and caribou sheds. The hiking on the tundra surrounding the headwaters is incredible, almost like walking on the manicured grass of a golf course.
Just before the Salmon dumps into the Aniak, I hear the word Ive been waiting for: Kings, Doc shouts, clearly excited. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I leap up and peek at my newfound presents. And there they arenearly overflowing the shallow stretches near the confluence. At this moment, seeing the hordes of chinook pooling up to gather strength for another blast upstream, I feel as if we are doing something wrong. This many fish for only two guys? It was too easy.
It wasnt until we pulled over to the side of the river that our dreams were foiled. Two huge brown bears were just claiming the pool as their own. The brownies on the Aniak carry a native curiosity but tend to keep their distance. Nevertheless, we wisely decided to continue around the corner, but only to see more bears reigning over hundreds of kings. On we went, around two more bends, before finally coming across an unoccupied gravel bar where we could plant our flag. The bears were intent on gorging themselves on the migrating salmon and showed little to no interest in this pair of pesky humans that landed among them. They simply rolled the whites of their eyes and continued going about the business of storing up fat for the long Alaskan winter.
With the bears content to ignore us, Doc and I began to fish with serious intent. After 60 hours of little sleep and constant battles, we finally hit the proverbial wall and pulled the raft into a slough filled with chums. Too tired to fish? I asked Doc.
A sleepy smile emerged from under his big cowboy hat,
trailed by a casual Nope. Then he began snoring. In the morning we would
fire up the little Mercury outboard and motor to the village of Aniak. But
tonight, for the last time this trip, we would sleep on the raft, under the
stars as it was meant to be. I smiled as I dropped anchor, thinking of my
upcoming September trip with my son Josh and how someday it would be him
describing a trip with his dada trip on the greatest river in Alaska . . .
a trip on the Aniak.
All three forks of the upper Aniak offer classic flyfishing conditions for char and grayling, claims author and longtime wilderness float-fishing guide René Limeres, when I queried him recently about one of his favorite rivers. They are rocky and shallow with lovely pool/riffle combinations that are perfect for floating a dry fly. It should also be mentioned that the Aniak offers potentially some of the best trout fishing in the state. With its abundant snags and pocket water among the logjams, the Aniak has plenty of habitat for its beautifully marked, husky rainbows.
Because of its character and distance from the sea, the
Aniak is generally not ranked among the best Southwest rivers for wade and
cast fishing for dime-bright salmon. However, it does receive substantial
numbers of king, chum, and silver salmon that take quite readily in its
abundant holding areas. The best flyfishing opportunities occur in the
shallower, crystal-clear waters above the confluence. According to Limeres,
the river below the confluence is large, swift, and easily silted by runoff,
with the best fishing in backwater sloughs and pools where the water slows
down and the salmon, trout, and char like to hold.
The Salmon is the most easily accessed and hence the most popular of the three Aniak headwaters, all of which eventually join together in a confluence 60 miles downstream from Aniak Lake. The three forks quickly become a maze of log-choked channels and dangerous sweepers as they descend from their alpine upper reaches.
Caribou, bears, and wolves are frequently sighted when floating any of the three forks, seen among the beautiful natural setting of the area. The upper Salmon has some real nice hanging rock gardens that you drift through, Limeres explained. With nice pools filled with grayling. The upper mainstem is a little different, with these awesome patches of white clay on the bottom of the deeper pools that make the grayling extremely visible. The char fishing on the alpine tundra surrounding the three tributaries can be incredible, and the rainbows are found from the mid-sections of each fork down to the murky water of the lower river near the mouth.
Whats most important for anyone planning a trip is to
understand the character of the river and how it changesand how that
influences both the floating and the fishing.
There are landing strips before you hit the village itself, but it takes a bold pilot and a Cub to fly into them. And youve heard the saying: Theres old pilots and theres bold pilots, but there arent many old, bold pilots left in Alaska.
For my trips, I switch from PenAir over to one of Inland
Aviations 207s for the approximately 30-minute flight from Aniak to a
little gravel landing strip on Bell Creek. From there, its only about three
city blocks to the Salmon River, though its a brushy, muddy portage with a
steep and dangerous descent to the creek.
Comprised largely of one gravel bar after another, the Aniak runs at a class I and class II during normal river conditions. The total length is about 110 miles from Aniak Lake to the town of Aniak, where it conveniently runs next to and occasionally into the village itself. Heres where youll be glad you brought a small motor (4 to 5hp range) as the last 15 miles of the river are basically a moving lake. In fact, most guides arrange for a jetboat or small floatplane pickup on the lower river near Buckstock or Doestock creeks.
The rafts we use are NRS and Aire 14-foot catarafts. The catarafts offer the boater an extremely stable fishing platform, as well as breaking down enough to fit in a plane, where youre already looking at an 800-pound maximum capacity for your gear. These versatile rafts are extremely maneuverable and can carry huge loads, which is a lot of the reason they have stormed onto the market over the last few years, virtually replacing the drift boat in Alaska. Another is their affordability, as they can be rented for around $90 per day. Limeres, however, cautions taking the cataraft route. The inflatable drift boat, with its lower profile and better containment, is an intelligent and much safer option for a river like the Aniak, with its swift, deep waters and abundant sweepers, he explained.
The best times to float the river range from mid-July to
mid-September, though a generous dose of luck in regards to the weather is
the real key. For specie variety, though, you cant beat July. A trip the
last week in July can offer the remote possibility of encounteringand
catchingall five species of Alaskas salmonthe rare Alaska Grand Slam.
With its speed, depth, and numerous snags, the Aniak is best fished by anglers who use heavy gear and bring ample terminal tackle. Sinkers, lures, and flies must be brought in abundance if youre planning a float. Holes on the Aniak can run from 6 to 15 feet deep, and you can literally break off hundreds of times during a trip from the headwaters.
Though fishing gear and methods are as diverse as the people floating the river itself, I like to think of myself as a purest. I purely use what works. I use 10 and 12-weight fly rods made from 9-foot IM-6 blanks that I have built for me by Eilers Rod Shop in Fairbanks. I have a double handle installed to give me an extra grip for leverage, as well as an oversized reel seat and fighting butt to accommodate my large reel.
When you are fighting 30 to 40 kings a day, most fly reels take a beating. During my best day on the Aniak last year I hooked and landed 49 chinnook salmon. My body and equipment are simply torn up after a day like that.
I use an unconventional fishing system for the large kings of the Aniak. Most angling afficionados will disagree with my system, but it works. I fish a monofilament system. This allows controlled depth fishing and keeps the fly deep. Regular mono works, but on fly reels water soaked monofilament is not good.Mono expands and will either warp or break a fly reel spool. To combat this I have resorted to using a mooch reel. The mooching reel, which is used in Canada extensively, is a larger diameter reel with enough spool space to combat any monofilament expansion. My leaders are short and can be tied in tapers (keep them simple with 20-pound tippet).
My fly selection for the Aniak varies. Chartreuses, reds, and pink combo flies do the trick. Although well decorated flies catch fish, having patterns that are easy to tie makes for less downtime. Although favored by guides and less among educated flyfishers, yarn is a proven chinook catcher. I keep a well-supplied vest with assorted colors. I can easily construct a fly with a snelled hook and fish my yarn in a variety of colors. This snelled system allows me flexibility to change colors to suit the conditions within a moments notice.
Like in other rivers, seeing the fish is half the battle, and a good pair of polarized sunglasses can really aid the well-prepared angler. Most of the streams of Southwest run crystal clear, including the Aniak during good weather, and 40-pound kings stick out like a fire hydrant on an ice rink. No glasses mean fewer fish.
After doing it all right and seeing that chrome streak of
a fish swim away, Im always left with a sense of awe. There is nothing like
fishing in Alaska, and there are few rivers like the Aniak. Even a guide
with the experience of Limeres cant contain the excitement optimal
conditions mean for fishing on this Southwest river. Fish are everywhere,
especially char in late summer. There are some great spots where the water
braids off the main channel into some spawning sloughs, and you can
literally line up the clients and have them drop a bead down into the
riffles and whamthey have a fish on instantly. As they play it into the
shallows, another drops his bead into the slot for some instant action. Its
a real dream come true for the guide and lots of fun all the way around!
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