By Kent Danjanovich
One of the truly amazing places in the world for me is Alaska. Over the past 15-years, I have had the great opportunity to visit many locations across this massive state, partaking of hunting and fishing trips most only dream of. Each area is unique in its own way, but all have two things in common – spectacular landscapes and wildlife galore!
As you know, the Sportsman’s News team is always looking for new places to visit that offer a chance for our readers and followers to experience outdoor adventures of a lifetime. We are always on the lookout for new destinations, but we are also mindful of not over representing any particular area to be fair to our loyal operations that have been with us for years. One such area of southwest Alaska that falls into this category is the Bristol Bay region.
The Bristol Bay area encompasses a lot of land and a lot of water. Some of the most well-known waterways in Alaska are found here and are home to some of the largest salmon runs in the world, with annual numbers surpassing 50,000,000. The Bristol Bay watershed provides vital habitat for 29 fish species, more than 190 bird species and 40 terrestrial animals. Bald eagles, moose, brown bears, rainbow trout, freshwater seals, pacific walrus, north pacific right whales and beluga whales all live in the region.
One river of this area that I had always wanted to visit was the Naknek, known not only for its great salmon runs, but also considered by most to be the best rainbow trout fishery in all of Alaska. And when a trout fisherman listens in on stories of fish seemingly behind every rock in the river, with opportunities to hook into and land ‘bow’s stretching out to the magical “30-inch” mark, well, it is just more than you can stand! So, when I saw that Jim Johnson, owner of the Naknek River Camp, was going to be exhibiting at the Denver ISE Show last January, I hopped on a plane and stopped by his booth to talk about his interest in having us make a visit to his operation. Plans were quickly made and the timing of the trip was set for June 23-30, 2018, also with a return visit scheduled for September 8-10 to see what the fall fishing was like as well.
Fellow Pro-Staffer, Kevin Orton had told me that he was looking for a trip to take his dad and cousin along on, so when I told him that I thought that I had a good one scheduled, they quickly jumped on board. We all met up in the Anchorage International Airport on the afternoon of June 23 and soon found ourselves loading up for our flight to King Salmon. An hour later, we were grabbing our bags and loading into the van with James Johnson, head guide, camp manager, and Jim’s son. James filled us in on the area as we made our way to the lodge, situated only about 7-miles from the airport. He also informed us that we would be actually staying at their second lodge, the Katmai Trophy Lodge, which would be more centrally located to give us the best opportunity to cover the wide choice of fishing options at our disposal.
After a quick lunch, we loaded into our boat with guide, James Johnson and headed down river to swing for some kings.
The Naknek is a good-sized river, about 35-miles long and flows from Naknek Lake to eventually empty into Kvichak Bay, an arm of Bristol Bay. Much of the fishing takes place in the upper 15-miles, beyond the reach of tide water. Its currents are pretty swift, especially the upper ten miles that traverse through an ancient glacier moraine that creates a canyon and a long, boulder field of rapids. Although the water has a blue-green tinge on the main river, due to the glacier silt and volcanic ash that was deposited in Naknek Lake, the water clarity is pretty good, with normal flows about 4,000 cfs after ice-off, rising to more than double that by October.
Our quick trip down river soon had us turning into a side channel, motoring up it to our first stop on a long, slow moving, relatively deep cut bank. James instructed me to string up my 9wt with 300- or 400-grain sink-tip on the reel, topped off with a pink and blue Dolly Llama. Kevin then started to set up his camera equipment as I waded into the water to throw my first cast.
James pointed out that the best part of the run started about straight across from us, as it quickly dropped into the trough that would be holding, hopefully some incoming kings. As I laid my second cast at the tips of the waving grass on the far side of the stream, I gave it a mend up-river as my fly slowing dropped in the water column. Suddenly I felt a tap, tap, tap and after a quick strip set and a lift of my fly rod, I was hooked into my first king salmon of the trip – Yes, on my second cast!
James let out a holler and I just smiled in awe, as my line started zinging out of my reel. On its second big run, my first Naknek king sprang into the air, somersaulting back into the tea-stained water. After a valiant, 10-minute battle, James eased his net into the water and the first fish of our trip was on the board. I then looked back at Kevin and he gave me the thumbs-up that he had caught it all on film, from start to finish.
The photo session quickly ensued as our excitement continued. A few casts later, another king broke the silence of the afternoon as it sprang from the water and into the air. Kevin’s dad, Wells and his cousin, Brad Jeffery, soon joined the action as they beached their boat above ours and started to fish the upper reaches of the run. With them throwing Rapalas and me continuing to swing Dolly Llamas, we were able to land a half a dozen fish in the next hour before we were off to more stops up river. By the time we started heading back to the lodge at about 4:30pm, a dozen kings had come to the net for our group. What a start to our week on the Naknek River, with Naknek River Camp and Katmai Trophy Lodge.
Over dinner, we mingled with our fellow fishermen and women who would be sharing the lodge with us for the week; Two gentlemen were from Michigan, a husband and wife from Colorado, one from northern Utah (the second of his three trips to the lodge in 2018) and two more from Oklahoma. The stories of the day could be heard in every corner of the lodge as our anticipation for the week ahead was busting at the seams.
Day two found us again loading into the boat with James, but this time heading just a few hundred yards from the lodge to one of the best rainbow stretches on the river. “The Flats” perfectly depicted the shallow, rocky area that laid itself out in front of us. A couple of islands dotted its expanses as well with potential trout filled seams calling to us throughout the area. James quickly helped me set up two rods, one with WF floating line and the other with my sink-tip. This time, we tied on black and white Dolly Llamas.
We would be throwing from the boat to start, with James positioning us in just the right spots as we swung our offerings through the gin-clear water. Sadly, it took me THREE casts this time to hook into my first fish, a feisty, 22-inch silver ball of rainbow trout. The next three hours produced over a dozen fish, ranging from 18- to 26-inches. Begrudgingly, we made our way to a pretty spot along the river at about noon for a lunch break. James broke out the hibachi and threw on some juicy pork chops on one side and a tin-foil wrap of green beans on the other. Kevin and I cracked open a couple of soda’s as we reminisced about our mornings’ results. And, oh by the way, the before mentioned lunch was spectacular!
That afternoon, we decided to head back for some more kings, with the result, another dozen kings from four- (immature jacks) to 30-pounds (adults) coming to the net. Wells and Brad had the hot hand on this afternoon, with both landing a bunch with their spin cast setups, while throwing Rapalas and Wiggle Warts. The only bad thing about the day, was that 4:30pm came way too soon as we found ourselves heading back to the lodge and another great meal and a little rest for our tired arms and backs.
Day three found us heading up river for more rainbow adventures with our guide, Kode. Seemingly every time we came around another bend in the river, we stopped to fish a run. And you know what, there weren’t many stops that didn’t produce fish. Soon we found ourselves passing the Naknek River Camp that sits along the shores of Naknek River, just below its headwaters at the end of Naknek Lake. Kode informed us that we would be chasing a few boils before we broke for lunch to see if we could hook into a lunker rainbow.
Now the term, boils, refers to the happening when rainbows finish their endeavors to corral salmon smolt that are trying to make their way out of the lake and out to sea to mature. The big rainbows chase them to the surface and wack them with their tails to stun them, before gorging themselves. Alaskan gulls and terns also watch for these boils as they then dive-bomb the water in hopes of taking in some of the rainbow’s catch. So yes, the birds can be your friend in this case, as they help you to locate, in many cases, where the next boil will take place, with their lofty perch above the water helping them to spot the bait balls.
Our next hour produced seven big rainbows, ranging from 20- to 25-inches. We then broke for a lunch break along a pretty piece of beach on the west side of the lake. Brats and taters quickly filled our bellies as we watched in the distance as boils, birds and ‘bows entertained us.
As I made my first cast of the afternoon, my mind was still on my last fish before lunch, a 24-inch rainbow that had to have been almost a foot deep. Kode shrieked, “Cast to that boil behind you – hurry”! I quickly changed positions and laid out a perfectly placed offering. As I made my first strip, my line went taunt and I laid into the resistance. Line started to zip out of my reel as my eyes got wide and I uttered, “This is a big one”!
Her first run didn’t stop until I was in to my backing. I quickly tried to gain some ground, only to have the big silver ball of muscle take it right back. Just as Kode would start to make a swipe with the net, my fish would streak out on another run. Finally, I was able to get the upper hand and guide it into the net, with the site before us a gorgeous Naknek Lake rainbow trout filling the net from one side to the other, over 27-inches in length, a true trophy of a lifetime.
Our next two days resulted in much of the same; kings, rainbows, some sockeye and even a monster 42-inch northern pike thrown in for good measure. Yes, you could say we had become a little numb to our experience, since it was far exceeding anything that we had possibly imagined it could be!
Our second to last day found us loading into the boat for a ride up river to the Naknek River Camp and then loading into the jet boat for a ride across Naknek Lake to Brooks Falls. After an orientation at the information center on the area and its residents (Alaskan brown bears) we headed out, with flyrods in hand, along the mile-long trail to the falls. Although we didn’t see any bears on our hike, many of them had left a ‘pile’ here and there to let us know that they were in the area. Unfortunately, we were a little early in the sockeye run for them to be lined up, chasing fish as they sprang through the air on their migration run to Lake Brooks, above the falls.
After a photo session at the falls, we made our way back down the trail to the area that led us to the river below the falls. Kode and Dan would be our guides on this day as they tied on streamer and minnow patterns on our 5- and 6-weight fly rods.
I was first to hook-up with a nice fish, with Brad soon to follow. As we worked slowly downriver, Dan and I noticed fish starting to surface along its banks. Dan quickly changed me over to a #16 Caddis for a little top-water action. My first cast produced the first of two-dozen fish in the next two hours, with rise after rise just begging me to land my fly in the area. Of course, I obliged, with the result gorgeous rainbows of every size coming to the net, with the biggest on the day a beautiful, 24-inch giant. I even managed to hook into a big grayling, the only one for us on the day, but another species to add to our list for the trip.
Our June trip had come to an end, but as luck would have it, I would be passing through King Salmon at the end of the first week in September, so plans were quickly made for a return trip for a couple of days to see how the rainbows had developed throughout the summer months.
Steve McGrath and I found ourselves loading into the covered boat on the morning of September 9th on our way to Brooks Falls again, only this time, we would be fishing the river above the falls starting at the mouth of Lake Brooks. We would be using a single bead below a strike indicator at this time, imitating the egg pattern of the salmon now in the system.
The next five hours was full of excitement as our group of six spotted and then laid our offerings out to the suspended rainbows waiting for eggs to bounce down the river. Beautiful leopard rainbows could be seen flying through the air as we not only took in the excitement, but also the splendor of our surroundings. And oh yes, there were plenty of brown bears along the banks doing the same thing!
Silvers were on the docket for the next morning and after we had landed a half a dozen, Ryan recommended that we head for one of his favorite runs for a try at a monster fall ‘bow. We would be hoovering beads, bouncing them along the bottom, but this time it was all feel in the main channel of the Naknek.
By 2pm, Ryan had to literally tear Steve and I away from the endless hookups of big rainbows, up to 28-inches as we had to catch our flight back to the states at 5pm.
Well, as you can see, our two trips to the Naknek River, including stays at both the Naknek River Camp and Katmai Trophy Lodge were nothing short of spectacular. Kings, sockeye and rainbows in June and silvers and even bigger rainbows in September. Now that’s pretty hard to beat. We are proud to have Jim Johnson and his lodges as part of our Platinum Approved Outfitters and Lodges family and we will be joining a lucky winner and their guest again during the 2020 season as part of our Pro Membership Sweepstakes. But don’t wait for us, get on the phone right now and reserve your spot at 907-246-2894 during the season or 616-745-6066 during the off-season.