American Fly Fishing

By Will Rice

You know the feeling you get when you open a magazine and see your favorite secret stretch of river revealed to the world? As a writer, I’m sensitive about publicizing small private spots that are known only to the few people who have done the work necessary to find them. The Koktuli River definitely falls in that category. A beautiful remote river in the northern part of Bristol Bay, it probably sees fewer than eight parties a year. The fishing is excellent, with big rainbows and Dolly Varden following the migrating salmon upstream. Wildlife is abundant, but not habituated. It’s a secret that should remain private.
   But secrecy is not in the best interest of the Koktuli or those few who have fished it. The Koktuli’s headwaters arise in the high tundra north of Lake Iliamna, right in the middle of the infamous Pebble Mine’s proposed mining site. The river will be the first casualty if the mine is developed. 
   The Koktuli (and any pollutants it carries) ultimately flow into the Nushagak, one of Bristol Bay’s most important salmon rivers. All five species of Pacific salmon make it up to the Koktuli, with chums and kings being the most common. They are far enough from the ocean that they are not in prime shape, but the rainbows and char that follow them up from the lower rivers provide consistently good fishing. They are typically not as large as trout found in Bristol Bay rivers, but I’ve have taken fish up to 24 inches there. Large grayling inhabit the river, and the dry-fly action can be very rewarding. Amazingly enough, the Koktuli gets good hatches of big Green Drakes, and when they come popping off the water, the grayling
respond enthusiastically.
   The best fishing is during the egg drop of the kings and chums—late July and early August. Fishing pressure has made using plastic beads to imitate salmon eggs ubiquitous throughout most of Bristol Bay. Happily, that is not a problem on the Koktuli, where the fish are still naive enough to pick a Glo Bug out of a mass of real food.
   The only way to fish the river is to float it, and it’s not a trip for the inexperienced. It is a weeklong drift between a tundra put-in lake and the river’s confluence with the Mulchatna—the only stretch big enough to land to a floatplane. Just getting to the river requires humping the raft, gear, and a week’s worth of supplies over a half mile of wet muskeg, swamp, and willows. There is no white water, but rowing can be technical. There’s a long stretch of river that varies wildly: from 70 feet wide to so narrow there’s barely room to slide by the sweepers and leaning cottonwoods lining the banks. During my float a couple of years ago, my guide and I ran into two logjams that completely blocked the river. It’s a dynamic river that changes with every spring runoff, and the braids can get confusing. On one occasion we had to saw through an overhanging tree to get the rafts down a narrow stretch. I have floated nearly two dozen Alaskan rivers on my own, but I was glad I was with a guide on this one,—namely, Chuck Ash, (907) 344-1340, 
   We saw tracks of some very large moose and numerous itinerant caribou. As with all Alaskan salmon streams, bears are a constant presence. They’re not protected here and consequently tend to disappear as soon as they sense a human threat. On our trip one bear roared his displeasure outside camp, another watched morosely while we fished its salmon run, and another stumbled into camp in the middle of the night, only to bolt in a panic when he realized his mistake. The rest of them just slipped back into the woods. The Koktuli is a true wilderness gem. Like an endangered animal, it deserves your support, even if you have no hope of ever seeing it.


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