Alaska is such a dream fishing location. Pennsylvania native Tom Kozlowski has had the opportunity to fish Alaska several times. His most recent trip was an unguided float trip on the Kanektok River. The Kanetok River is located in Southwestern Alaska. Tom takes us through all aspects of his trip with great advice for others considering the adventure.
What made you want to fish the Kanektok River?
My father ignited my passion for fishing at the age of 4. I always dreamed about one day fishing in Alaska and I’ve been blessed to have fished the Last Frontier on three different occasions.
Upon graduation from college in 2013 I spent 2 weeks car camping around the state fishing in Anchorage, Parks Highway, and the Kenai Peninsula. After that trip, I was watching the Outdoor Channel and came upon an episode where a father and son floated down a western Alaska river fishing for salmon. This instantly peaked my interest.
A typical week fully guided in remote Alaska can be quite expensive. A much cheaper option although requiring a little more planning was an unguided float trip. After some research a coworker, Brian, and I decided to book an unguided float trip through Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures.
In the summer of 2014 we floated the Arolik River. The float was approximately 45 miles long. We caught 4 of the five species of salmon along with endless amounts of artic char, leopard rainbows, and grayling. That trip of a lifetime ended with us determined to go back and float another river.
We decided to fish the Kanektok River the summer of 2016 for a few reasons. We wanted to target Silvers, the only species of salmon we missed out on the first float, and float a longer river. The Kanektok receives a nice run of silvers and is approximately 100 miles long. We used Renfros Alaskan Adventures again for this trip.
Can you describe for us the fishery?
The Kanektok River flows from Pegati Lake through the foothills of the Akhlun Mountains. The change of scenery is what we loved most about this river. The upper portion of the river provides amazing scenery as you float through the mountains. Once out of the mountains, the middle portion of the river is very braided which provides tremendous habitat for the beautiful leopard rainbows. The lower river flows through a lot of lowland tundra. The river receives a good run of all five species of salmon as well as rainbows, grayling, and char.
What time of year did you go?
Timing is critical when salmon fishing in Alaska. A lot of the timing revolves around the type of winter Alaska receives. We wanted to specifically target silver salmon this trip, the only species of salmon we missed on our last trip. The silver run typically occurs in mid August and runs into September.
We opted to float the last week of August into the first week of September. This would allow a few buffer weeks in case the run was late, but also gave us a few weeks for the early fish to make their way upriver and allow us fishing opportunities along the entire river.
We were fortunate and hit the run perfectly. There were fish spread throughout the entire system. “Blushed” fish were in the upper portion of the river and became fresher as the float went on. Closer to the mouth there was a steady trickle of silvers making their way upstream.
One nice advantage is that by this time of year the guided lodges are wrapped up and closed down for the season which lessens the pressure and chances of seeing many other people. In 10 days we only saw 6 other people.
Weather can be a challenge, as September is really getting into the start of “fall” in Alaska. We expected/anticipated rain for most of the trip. The typical average temps are highs in the mid 50s and lows in the lower 40s. We were blessed with weather. We experienced sunny and 75 conditions for most of the trip with the lows dipping into the mid 40s.
We only had rain for two of the 10 days, but it was a brutal downpour for 48 straight hours. Staying dry is a challenge on these unguided trips. Once you get wet, it is hard to dry your clothes, making quality rain gear and quick dry clothing a must.
What is the feeling like when you see that plane fly away and realize “we are on our own”?
This is one of the most humbling parts of this type of trip. After unloading our gear, the pilot confirmed pickup coordinates and date with us as well as gave us any last minute advice on navigating the braided section of the river as it constantly changes with the mass number of beaver dams along the river. Words cannot describe the feeling watching the float plane head back to the lake before taking off right in front of us. This is the point where the the trip really starts. You have to trust the months of preparation that went into planning the trip to meet the strict 70lbs per person gear weight requirement.
As the plane lifts off and disappeared into the skyline, you quickly become immersed in the Alaskan wilderness. That plane was the last point of contact for the next 10 days.
What were your weapons of choice for your fly rod, reel and line?
One great thing about silver salmon is being able to take them on topwater poppers. One rod was designated for popping and the other utilized a sink tip for stripping flies.
For trout, I carried a 9′ 5wt TFO rod and an Okuma reel lined with 5wt Orvis floating line. I also brought along a 13’6″ centerpin rod to use strictly with beads to target trout/char/grayling.
What were your most productive flies for the trip?
Each species had a “go to” fly that was most productive. For silvers, any variation of pink dolly llama worked well. Pink poppers were very productive chasing silvers on the topwater. Flesh flies were the most productive flies for the leopard rainbows.
This time of year these fish are gorging themselves on eggs and flesh of the sockeye and chum salmon that are past their prime. Beads were the go to for char and grayling.
Matching the hatch in Alaska is a little different than here in Pennsylvania. Depending on the species of salmon infront of you, you pick the bead size and color to target the mass amount of char and grayling lined up behind the spawning salmon waiting for an easy meal.
How do you describe the overall fishing?
The fishing is truly out of this world. The number of salmon spread throughout the entire river system is mind blowing. Each slough held hundreds of silvers waiting to engulf your fly.
Behind the salmon, countless numbers of trout, char, and grayling can be seen waiting for the salmon to drop their eggs.
Over the 10 day trip we landed hundreds of fish. The largest coho of the trip was estimated at 22 pounds caught stripping a pink popper on the topwater. I will never forget seeing the “V” wake behind my popper before seeing the coho engulf the fly.
The leopard rainbows are awesome to catch and it was a blast mousing for them. Brian and I played a game of “baseball” where each cast was a strike and each fish was a “hit.” We never made it out of the third inning that day, the fishing is that good.
In regards to weapons, you didn’t only bring your fly rod but also a pretty hefty handgun. Did you encounter bears? And what recommendations do you have for others going regarding bear safety?
Bear safety is critical. The first time I encountered an Alaskan Grizzly, my jaw dropped. Here in Pennsylvania we come across some black bears here and there, but no PA black bear could have prepared me for the sight of a walking smart car sized grizzly in Alaska.
In my 3 trips to the Last Frontier, I’ve come face to face with 15 grizzlies, Under 100 yards, with the closest being 30 yards. It can be argued back and forth whether to carry bear spray or a gun, but in my opinion it is what you are most comfortable with.
In my experience 99% of these bears really want nothing to do with humans. Its the 1% that you prepare for. I carried a 5″ S&W 460 mag chambered in 325g hardcast bullets. I put in countless hours of practice and was confident in my shot in the event I needed to use it.
Brian carried bear spray while I carried the firearm. We were never more than 20 yards apart from each other. We also carried bear bells to make our presence known as we rowed down the river.
We only had one close call this trip and it happened to be the very first day. As we found a gravel bar to set up camp the first day I spotted a “dot” out in the distance probably 1500 yards on the mountain. As we sat and reminisced about the day the dot moved down the mountain closer to us. We glassed with binoculars and went back and forth whether it was a grizzly or moose. We finally agreed that it was a grizzly.
As it got darker we lost sight and figured it was headed to the alders some 300 yards away from us. I turned around and saw the bear coming toward us at roughly 60 yards. I rang the bear bells and talked to the bear to make our presence known. The bear turned around and headed back.
About 10 minutes later, I looked up and here comes the bear on the same trail headed back toward us. This time our talking and bear bells were not effective and the bear was determined to check us out. At about 40 yards the bear veered away and jogged back into the alders. By this point it is almost too dark to see. We continued to shake the bells and make our presence known.
A few minutes later we could only make out the dark outline of the bear as it came back and we had to yell to back it off once again. Too dark to see, we bunkered in the tent for the night, and I vividly remember leaving the revolver out at my side accessible. We were never interrupted that night, but I bet the bear made his way through camp.
It is critical to keep a clean camp when in bear country. We would eat meals at least 500 yards from where we intended to set up camp. We would store our food and garbage bag across the river when possible, or at least 200 yards from our tent. This may seem extreme to some, but we never had a bear terrorize our camp.
What are your top pieces of advice for anyone thinking about doing a trip to Kanektok River?
The Kanektok is an amazing river. Some of my top pieces of advice would be:
1. Preparation is key especially for an unguided trip. Typically you are limited to 70 pounds of gear per person in the bush plane not including the raft. This may seem like a lot of weight, but this is including food, clothes, fishing gear, etc for 10 days in the bush.
2. Quality rain gear/waders. It is imperative you bring quality gear. Alaska will test your gear to the max. On these types of trips you will spend 90% of the day in your waders. I always say prepare for it to rain for the duration of your trip, especially during the time period we went. It is critical to stay dry. Once wet, it is really hard to get dry.
3. Be overly cautious. Realize you are 100 miles from civilization. There isn’t a hospital or laundromat nearby. One wrong step could lead to a injured ankle, burn, or being drenched from falling in.
What can you tell us about the company you pro staff for and how they helped you have a successful trip?
I am a pro-staffer for Steelheadbeads.com. I’ve been using their beads for trout and steelhead for over 5 years. Tremendous colors and buoyancy make these the best beads on the market in my opinion. I landed countless leopard bows and char on the Kanektok with these beads on the centerpin.
That bear story was amazing! And the fishing…wow! It sounds out of this world. This is why I love doing DockTalk365. Who doesn’t enjoy a great fishing trip story like this one? Thanks Tom!