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Southwest Alaska: Salmon, Brown Bears, Eskimos and Alaskaլtimate Rivers

From 졳ka Fishing: The Ultimate Anglerǵide, 3rd Editionﳴrong>

It's 5 AM on an early August morning, and my East Coast buddy is waiting to greet me in the lobby of Anchorage's International Inn. Dave is one of those rare, lucky guys who can fish anywhere he wants in the world, yet every summer he returns for another adventure in a place some say is more a state of mind than a region on the map-Southwest Alaska.

Stretching from the Alaska Peninsula to Norton Sound (an area the size of Montana), Alaska's vast, mystiqueful southwest corner is so rich and varied in natural wonders, it truly defies adequate description. It has the world's largest runs of Pacific salmon and Alaska's most fabulous freshwater sportfishing locations in and around Bristol Bay, along with the state's most scenic mountain lake country (Lake Clark and the Wood-Tikchiks). There are unique, volcanic landscapes (and fishing bears) in Katmai and the northern Alaska Peninsula, and an incredible, seldom-explored arc of rugged islands, the Aleutians, that sprawls almost to the rocky shores of Asia. The center of the universe for the Yupik Eskimo culture, Southwest is a timeless haven for wildlife, with much of its land set aside in some of the largest parks, refuges and preserves in America.

Most important to guys like Dave are the hundreds of miles of rivers and immense lakes found there. Unlike the glacial drainages that predominate in much of Alaska, most of southwest's waters run sparkling clear, providing perfect habitat for a profusion of salmon and an unrivalled variety of resident sport species-charr, grayling, rainbow trout, pike, lake trout and even sheefish in some waters.

We make it to the airport on time and board a 737 jet that takes us several hundred miles west to one of the major fishing villages along the coast. From there, a small floatplane whisks us and our gear to the extreme headlands of Bristol Bay, where a lonely little stream awaits. We inflate our small raft and begin a week long journey through some of the prettiest wild country we've ever seen, while enjoying fishing that most folks would die for.

Big, giant finned grayling pounce on our flies in the shallow, rock strewn headwaters and fight valiantly in the swift current. In crystal blue pools below some long canyons, bright charr chase our streamers, along with dark salmon much too large to contemplate hooking on our light four-weights. We break up the fishing with short hikes up into the hills (to scout for caribou, wolf and bear ), berry picking and long naps on the raft.

As it leaves the mountains, our river breaks up into gravelly braids and sloughs. Dave pulls one of the lifelike mouse imitation flies from his hatband and uses it to prompt explosive surface strikes from chunky, gorgeously marked rainbows. I stick with the notorious Egg Sucking Leech and do pretty well coaxing greedy charr and trout from under cutbanks. And so it goes for the next few days -rainbows, charr, grayling and even some fairly bright silver salmon, in numbers that wouldn't make any sense anywhere but Alaska.

We lose all track of time exploring this stream fishing nirvana, but all too soon our time is up and we grudgingly put the rods away and bid farewell to our special river, secure in the knowledge that somewhere at least, there are rivers that can deliver fishing adventure to haunt your dreams.

Alaskaլtimate Rivers: Southwest streams support the state୯st prodigious salmon runs

Fishing Highlights

A list of the region's outstanding angling locations reads more like a roster of North America's dream waters, so blessed is this region with extraordinary fishing. In fact, there is so much good water, it makes it difficult, if not impossible for newcomers planning a vacation there, as the fishing on practically any Southwest river or lake will easily eclipse the best angling most folks have experienced elsewhere.

Some of the more notable highlights are the fantastic streamfishing opportunities for salmon, particularly king, silver and sockeye, as most of Alaska's major producing rivers for these species are located here (the Kvichak, Naknek, Egegik, Nushagak, Togiak and lower Kuskokwim rivers). Flyfishing possibilities in the countless clear streams and lakes are almost endless. So too are the numbers of feisty, fat charr and grayling you'll encounter in nearly every body of water, with trophy potential in some waters exceeded only by a few locations in Alaska's remote Northwest. And, of course, there are those fabulous rainbows. Can enough be said of the peerless Southwest rivers and their armies of hungry, husky, wild Alaska rainbow trout? Nearly every drainage from Katmai to the Kuskokwim is amply endowed with them, with many waters holding fish of mythical proportions. And the flyfishing conditions couldn't be better, especially in spring and fall.

Country, Climate & Fishing Conditions

Southwest Alaska is the area of the state that lies west of the Gulf of Alaska and south of the great Interior. It is predominantly a maritime province, heavily influenced by the nearby icy, stormy Bering Sea. (The 1,600-mile arc of the Alaska Peninsula/ Aleutian Islands effectively isolates most of the region from the moderating influences of the Gulf.) The climate is definitely raw, with summers typically cool, cloudy, foggy and breezy, broken by brief sunny interludes, more prevalent in locations away from the coast. Winters are long, moderately cold and snowy. Dramatic shifts of weather are possible any time of year, and the region is notorious for having some of the most unforgiving conditions in Alaska.

The landscape is dominated by great expanses of naked, rolling tundra, broken by patches of forests (mostly in the lowlands), long winding rivers, deep, glacial lakes and ice-sculpted highlands. There are also more than 50 active volcanoes, most of them scattered along the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula. The intense glaciation of the last Ice Age gouged many deep bedrock basins that now cradle enormous lakes that are the rearing grounds for the largest concentrations of salmon, trout and charr in the world. Iliamna, Becharof, Ugashik, Naknek, Nonvianuk and, to a lesser extent, the interconnected Wood-Tikchiks all support phenomenal fisheries and provide in their outlets and associated river systems some of the greatest angling to be had anywhere.

Southwest fishing conditions are varied and often quite challenging. Much of the more productive salmon and trout angling takes place in big water, best worked from boats using stout casting or spinning gear. Shore angling is limited and difficult in many of these areas. Flyfishermen and light tackle anglers will have the best luck working headwater streams, confluences or smaller rivers. Because of their size and volatile weather, most of the big lakes are seldom fished, except at outlet and inlet waters. Water levels influence the fishing greatly, with high river flows typically expected from late spring to early summer (sometimes longer) and sometimes in fall during particularly wet rainy seasons (August-October). In an average year, most southwest rivers will fish well from late June into September. Weather, always the limiting factor, can be especially bad in certain locations (Alaska Peninsula) and times of year (late August to October). Anglers with little or no experience dealing with the vagary conditions of the region are strongly advised to seek out the services of a reputable lodge or experienced southwest wilderness fishing guide.

What to Expect

Maritime conditions: Cool, cloudy, windy weather much of the year, without the extremes of the continental climate. Summer temperatures generally range from the mid-50's to mid-70'S (Farenheit); winters are long, snowy, but not too cold. Yearly precipitation is locally variable, 20 to 40 inches, with April through June generally the sunniest, driest months and August through October the wettest. Rivers and lakes begin freezing usually sometime in late October to early November and break-up occurs sometime in May (later in some of the mountain lakes). Fog is quite common in summer. The weather can be extremely volatile, with intense storms bringing prolonged wet and windy periods at any time of year. Biting insects, abundant and aggressive during warmer months (June-August), generally taper off by late summer and early fall. Travelers planning to venture into any part of this country should equip with expedition-quality gear and ample provisions for any contingency.

Access, Services & Costs

With no connecting surface transportation, access to most of southwest Alaska is by plane, through the main hubs like Dillingham, King Salmon, Bethel, Iliamna, Aniak, etc. (Limited ferry and barge service from the mainland is available to some of the Alaska Peninsula.) All the major towns are serviced by regular scheduled commercial flights from Anchorage. From these hubs, local air taxis and riverboats provide additional access to villages and fishing locations within the region.

This is Alaska's definitive fly-in fishing country, with a world-famous coterie of lodges, guides and outfitters offering a wide range of exciting options for that ultimate fishing vacation. (Because of the remoteness, Southwest has higher prices than Southcentral and Southeast.) You can rent gear then fly in to remote headwaters and spend days rafting and fishing a wild river where brown bears far outnumber any folks you might happen to see. Or stay at Alaska's finest (and most expensive) lodges and be pampered with gourmet meals and plush accommodations, while you enjoy daily fly-outs to world-class fishing locales. If your tastes run somewhere in-between, you can even visit rustic outpost camps on far-flung rivers with unpronounceable names, where you'll get a cot in a wall tent, three square meals a day and all the fishing action your arms can handle. No matter how you decide to go, Southwest Alaska can consistently deliver a quality of angling that few areas in the world can match, a place where the truly serious can put their fishing passion to the ultimate test.

 
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