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Kings and Calm on the Aniak

Kings and Calm on the Aniak by Jeff Varvil
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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 Alaska, the Greatland, a state brimming with the beautiful, a state bursting with the pristine.

Completing one of Alaska’s wild rivers can be one of life’s 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 Alaska’s 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 commence.

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: there’s almost no end, just like there’s 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 matter—the 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. It’s 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 other, and sometimes both.

The flight from Anchorage serves as little more than an appetizer, as I hardly notice the landscape passing beneath the plane, my sights set squarely on the angling to come. The first three days of the float roll along at a leisurely pace, as my fishing partner, Doc, and I gently slip from one side of the Salmon River to the other, catching an occasional rainbow or grayling in the swift and shallow water. The sweepers and logjams that pervade the streams are a nightmare for navigation but provide a most favorable habitat for monster trout and salmon.

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 I’ve 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 are, nearly 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 wasn’t 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 dad—a trip on the greatest river in Alaska . . . a trip on the Aniak.

The River
Located about 300 miles west of Anchorage, the mighty Aniak is the most significant drainage on the lower Kuskokwim River for both recreation and subsistence and offers a wide range of floating and fishing possibilities. When conditions are right, it can offer fantastic fishing for rainbow trout, Arctic char, grayling, and salmon. Northern pike can be found in decent abundance in the lower river, and even sheefish are an Aniak target, fished for in the spring near the river’s mouth. This multi-forked mountain river with headwaters north of the Wood-Tikchik is an angling paradise, and outstanding fishing opportunities abound.

“All three forks of the upper Aniak offer classic fly-fishing 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 fly-fishing 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 Aniak below the confluence can be easily blown out by rain or high melt off from a tributary of the Kipchuk that turns dark chocolate as soon as it rains or during the spring spate,” the longtime guide added. “With the swift current and potentially murky water, the main stem is very hard to fish. The best water really is from two to three days float-fishing above the confluence, on any of the three forks.”

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. What’s most important for anyone planning a trip is to understand the character of the river and how it changes—and how that influences both the floating and the fishing.”

Getting There
There are three options for beginning a float trip on the Aniak River. For about $350, you can buy a round-trip ticket with PenAir from Anchorage to the village of Aniak. From there, its travel by float or wheel plane to any of the three headwaters—Aniak Lake, the Kipchuk River, or the Salmon River. The Salmon is the easiest and least expensive option, but it’s also the most crowded. The Kipchuk and mainstem from Aniak Lake are more alpine and scenic and can provide extended wilderness fishing experiences that are among the finest to be had in southwest Alaska.

There are landing strips before you hit the village itself, but it takes a bold pilot and a Cub to fly into them. And you’ve heard the saying: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there aren’t many old, bold pilots left in Alaska.”

For my trips, I switch from PenAir over to one of Inland Aviation’s 207s for the approximately 30-minute flight from Aniak to a little gravel landing strip on Bell Creek. From there, it’s only about three city blocks to the Salmon River, though it’s a brushy, muddy portage with a steep and dangerous descent to the creek.

Floating the Aniak
Plan on at least six nights of camping along the Aniak before reaching one of the takeout points near the village, three each on the Salmon and Aniak rivers. The trip down the other two tributaries is much longer and technically challenging, with potential logjams, sawyers, and even portages, depending on the channel configuration blasted out by the river at breakup. Either way, the Aniak is not the river for the casual boater or the unprepared. When planning a trip to the Aniak, a floater must check conditions with the air taxis prior to departing and plan on an alternate river in the event of high water. I myself have watched the river go from a gin-clear, pebble rock wading stream to a raging whitewater river with the consistency of a chocolate milkshake in less than two hours.

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. Here’s where you’ll 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 jet boat 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 you’re 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 can’t beat July. A trip the last week in July can offer the remote possibility of encountering and catching all five species of Alaska’s salmon, the rare Alaska Grand Slam.”

Fishing the Aniak
This certainly isn’t an easy river to fish and determining a successful strategy for angling success can be quite consuming. The Aniak differs from all the other rivers downstream on the Kuskokwim in that it is more an Interior river than a coastal river according to guides like Limeres. It comes swiftly off the north side of the Kuskokwim Mountains into dense timber and an extensive floodplain that makes for a maze of braids and logjams, much like rivers farther in the Interior. Consequently, it fishes much differently.

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 you’re 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 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 Chinook 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 aficionados 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 fly fishers,” 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 moment’s 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, I’m 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 can’t 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 wham, they have a fish on instantly. As they play it into the shallows, another drops his bead into the slot for some instant action. It’s a real dream come true for the guide and lots of fun all the way around!”

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  1. Scott Hurlbert
    October 9, 2008    

    Nice story but I grew up on the Kuskokwim and guided on the Aniak and it changed me. I saw the river go significantly downhill because of fishermen – rafters and sport fisherman alike. This made me realize that if really respected the land and it’s beauty the only things I needed to take out are pictures and memories. When I was guiding we practiced “catch and release.” What a lot of people don’t realize is that C/R is only marginally better and in a wild place like the Aniak it is still detrimental. If you respect the land, the wild and it’s beauty then why not leave it the way you found it. Scott

  2. Jeff Varvil
    October 9, 2008    

    I respectively disagree with you rea catch and release in regards to KIng salmon. After 18 years guiding myself, I have seen the same fish marked by broken off hooks, lures ect several weaks after I have released them in the upper streams. As you know from guiding They are an extremely tough fish if handled properly. And no, THey were not my lures, and yes, I did remove old hooks and lures from previous fisherman when I could.I do feel for you on the traffic however, I have also seen many areas overfished and many fisherman not practice proper C/R.

  3. Scott Hurlbert
    October 9, 2008    

    Jeff, I wasn’t referring to C/R in regards to Salmon, but rather the Rainbow Trout, Char, and Grayling. In the ’70s and ’80s these fish were at their natural levels – several time more abundant than the early ’90s when you showed up. You are judging the river by it’s already depleted levels as the sport fishing and rafting on the Aniak had taken it’s toll by the late ’80s. Believe whatever you want, but I was there. I still go back on occasion and it makes me sad to see what the river has become even under mild pressure compared to the lower 48. But as you know, arctic rivers are fragile. It’s my hope that people will realize this before it’s too late and that the wilderness can repair itself to the levels I witnessed in the ’70s and ’80s. Scott

  4. Jeff Varvil
    October 10, 2008    

    I agree on the Rainbow Trout. FRAGILE as they come.I too have seen similar problems in other fisherys like the Tazimina, Newhalen and Morane,Funnel, Talachulitna and Lake Creek. Basically anywhere that has been hit mhard by the public. I feel somewhat responsible for alot of the Fishing and hunting pressure. I have made my living off selling rafts and trips for the every day joe to enjoy Alaska as I have. I guess if it was not me it would have been the next guy.The big thing is the pressure does not hurt the fishing and hunting,It makes the game all the wiser,and we catch less ect, the killing or improper handling of fish and game animals hurts all of us.