By Kent Danjanovich
Alaska offers plenty of waters to soak a line. Yes, it is pretty much surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, but much of the fishing is done on lakes and especially rivers and streams throughout its vast expanses. Both large and small, glacial and clear, these ‘tributaries’ are truly the life blood for fish of all species; especially salmon.
Now for those of you that have not been to Alaska, not all of its waters are crystal clear like you may envision. In fact, the majority of its rivers are glacial with little to no visibility. You might think that these waters are useless, but in reality, they are very important to the overall Alaska waterways picture. They are the artery in which millions of adult salmon migrate through each summer in seeking natal streams; their birthplace, the place in which they will spawn, die and complete one of the most amazing cycles in all of nature.
The Yentna River (“Yentna” actually means the ‘backbone river,’ in the local native Dena’ina tongue) runs mostly northwest to southeast from the Yentna Glacier in the Alaska mountain range to its confluence of the Susitna River. Many clear streams intersect the Yentna throughout its length. These streams support nutrient-rich habitats for aquatic invertebrates, small minnows, salmon smolt, native rainbow trout, arctic grayling, not to mention a few feathered, fury and toothy friends.
One of the largest and most dynamic tributaries of the Yentna River drainage is clear flowing Lake Creek, who’s waters are like very few in Alaska. Although many clear-water river systems dot the state, very few are the perfect balance of diversity, creating a masterpiece. Literally, the numerous gravel bars, mid-stream islands, pinched-off oxbow backwaters, sandy-bottom eddies, pea gravel riffles and deep water runs offer the ideal bottom content spawning salmon long for. Lake Creek and its gorgeous river valley is definitely a work of natural art. To see the prevalence of salmon and trout that abound and the other birdlife and mammals that depend on the local rivers is truly a spectacle.
Many Alaska salmon streams are wide, sandy and slow moving in flat, open tundra. These rivers are born from wetlands near sea-level. Most mountain-fed rivers in Alaska are glacial and Lake Creek would be a glacial river as well if it weren’t for Lake Chelatna at the border of south Denali National Park. Glacial streams from the surrounding mountains drain into Chelatna, which acts as a giant settling pond for all glacial sediment, clarifying the water as it runs clear and becomes Lake Creek at the outflow. Numerous other spring-fed tributaries also join Lake Creek along the way at various points downriver. This perfect architecture leads to the clear, gravel-bottom stream that supports such a wealth of fish and wildlife.
Just below the entrance of Lake Creek as it merges with the Yentna is McDougall Lodge, perfectly perched along its sandy banks. The main lodge and adjacent cabins comfortably accommodate 20 to 30 guests per week without stretching itself and the staff to its seams. The large dining area has plenty of room, as not only lodge guests, but day trippers are able to enjoy freshly prepared meals, morning, noon and night.
A typical day at the lodge starts early as breakfast is served by 5:15am. Then it’s back to your room to grab your gear and head out to your boat and awaiting guide. Fishing for king salmon is open from 6am to 11pm daily, with the season ending on July 13th. It is important to be on the water early to grab one of the best stretches on the river, as this popular location can get a little bit crowded at times because the fishing can be so good!
The primary technique used at McDougall Lodge is back-trolling, whether it be by slowly backing down the deep runs with your guide kicking the motor in and out of gear against the current or by anchoring up at the top of the trough, along the seam of the clear water of Lake Creek and the silty water of the Yentna. Both preferences are very effective, depending on the number of fish coming up river and the number of boats jockeying for position. Another great technique is to bounce a jig out of the back of the boat or from the shore in the current while aggressively jerking up and then allowing it to return to the bottom for repeated jigs through the desired area you are targeting.
Our first morning found myself and fellow Pro-Staffer, Steve McGrath, loading into our boat with guide, Ben Matthews and Kay and Annette Adamson from Lehi, Utah. Ben gave us a quick tutorial on the boat and equipment and then we were off to one of his favorite stretches. We each then grabbed a G-Loomis salmon rod, tipped with a medium sized Quik Fish and slowly let our lines out to their designated distances to avoid the chance of getting tangled with each other as we back-trolled through the stretch.
It didn’t take long for the action to begin, as Annette’s rod suddenly bent down only 15 minutes into our first drift. The rest of us quickly reeled in our lines and got out of Annette’s way as she battled her first king salmon. Ten minutes later, Ben was releasing a beautiful 35-pound king at the side of the boat (regulations in the area restrict retention of kings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays). We released two more fish before lunch and after a quick bite, we decided to try our luck at a few rainbows on a side channel along Lake Creek to finish up our first day.
Day two found all of us grabbing a good helping of scrambled eggs and bacon before hitting the water in search of more big kings. We were able to hook into a couple of 18 pounders, but we each decided to release them in hopes of landing something a little bit bigger, maybe even in the range of the one Annette had let go the day before!
Ben made the decision after lunch to head up river and do a little jigging. The four of us would be joined by Dennis Schoonover, one of the lodge owners and three of his guests. Our guides, Ben and Chase, set up our rods and we each found a place along the bank. On my second cast, I directed my jig at about a 45-degree angle up river and as soon as it nestled on the bottom, I started my jigging motion. As I raised for the third jerk, I felt resistance and set the hook. My line started ‘zinging’ off of my reel and I was off to the races. Everyone started hooting and hollering as I began my battle. It was obvious that this fish was going to be a hand full, so Ben told me to jump into the boat and we would be prepared to chase him downstream if needed.
Steve grabbed the camera in hopes of capturing the fight for an upcoming edition of SNTV and also made his way onto the boat. The next 15 minutes was full of excitement as my first big king of the trip continued to peel line off of my reel as I kept trying to keep up with him. A half-dozen tail dancing explosions later, Ben turned to me and said, “He’s a nice fish, probably about 35-pounds, what do you want to do”? My mind started racing, as I had to quickly make a decision on whether to end my day on this fish on my second cast or let him go and take the chance of hooking into another monster. Seconds later, my big king made the decision for me and threw the hook!
The rest of the afternoon found Steve and I hooking into more great fish, with Steve really having the hot hand and finally deciding to keep a nice 26-pounder to fill his limit for the day. Since this was my first of three king salmon trips of the year, I had to kind of pace myself with my yearly, statewide freshwater limit of five kings hovering over me, so I decided to keep releasing to pile up some more footage for the show.
Day three again found us back up river to do a little more jigging. Kay and Annette decided to stay downriver and do some back-trolling, so Ben shuttled Steve and I back up to our new favorite spot. Steve didn’t waste much time again, hooking into his first fish of the day on his fourth cast. He then hooked a couple more, with the first one throwing the hook, but the third filling his tag for the day, resulting in another great 25+ pounder in the fish box.
I was feeling a little left out, so Ben decided to change my luck and switch us over to the other side of the river. I slowly started working my way along the trough and as I neared the bottom of the run, my line suddenly stopped and then headed back up stream. Because of the subtle take, I didn’t really give it a good hook set, but never the less, I had hooked into a whopper!
The fun began as my big king first went on a screaming run up river and then after three water-clearing explosions, he turned and headed quickly down river, almost spooling me in the process. Ben could see I was in trouble this time and quickly headed downstream to see if he could get to the fish before I ran out of line. As he got into position, I was finally able to curtail the fish’s momentum and Ben grabbed my line to assist in the fight. But low and behold, on one of the king’s aerial flights, he had thrown the hook and it was now lodged in the back of his head. With restrictions in Alaska of keeping snagged fish, Ben jerked the hook out of the big fish and watched him quickly disappear downstream. What a battle, one I will remember for a long time from my first trip to Lake Creek.
That afternoon, we ventured to a series of lakes on Fish Creek, about five miles upriver from the lodge in search of northern pike. We didn’t land any monsters, but about 25 toothy pike, from 15 to 30 inches came to the boat using both spin cast and fly rods. What a way to cap off a great day of fishing in some of the most beautiful surroundings you can possibly imagine.
Day four found us again back-trolling the seams just upstream from the lodge as we were able to land a couple of nice fish in the morning session for Kay and Annette. Steve and I went back out in the afternoon and were able to hook-up on four more nice fish as well.
Our last morning landed on a Tuesday, so everyone took the opportunity to sleep in a little and we finally hit the water at about 9am. Ben took Steve and I back up Lake Creek to one of our most productive stretches of the week and we were again able to land a couple of nice fish as well as securing some awesome drone footage of the river and incredible surroundings.
So, as you can see, it is hard for us to not find great things to say about our visit to Lake Creek and McDougall Lodge. Even with the 2017 king salmon run a little on the slow side, we were able to hook into plenty of great fish, while throwing in a little trout fishing and northern pike for good measure. And I hear the silver and sockeye fishing is nothing short of fantastic as well, so we are working on another visit to the lodge in 2019 and this time a lucky winner and their guest will be joining me for a week of unforgettable fishing as part of our Pro Membership Sweepstakes. So, if you aren’t a member yet, you had better get signed up! McDougall Lodge has it all and we are proud to welcome them as one of our newest Platinum Approved Outfitters and Lodges. Check them out on the web at www.mcdougalllodge.com or give them a call at 907-733-2818.