Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Alaska's Naknek River Camp

Naknek River Camp's cabins
The best way to judge any travel destination is with the simple question: "Would you go again?"

After a week of fishing at the Naknek River Camp run by the Johnson Family on a trip organized by Mad River Outfitters my answer is an unequivocal yes. Indeed the fishing experience on the Naknek will be the measuring stick to which all future fishing outings will be judged. As one guest at the camp said as we wrapped up a week of fighting salmon, trout, char and grayling: "I'm not sure I can fish that muddy water (of Ohio) ever again." I won't have any trouble returning to the streams of Steelhead Alley, but I will be thinking of the crystal clear waters of the Naknek.
Guide Kyle with a hefty rainbow.

Jim Johnson bills his camp as an affordable Alaskan fishing experience. But when it comes to Alaska affordability is all relative. Put it this way, a 6 pack of local beer is $15 and milk is $9 a gallon in Alaska -- so everything is pricey, even the "affordable" fishing camps.

You will also notice that the operation is called a "camp," not a "lodge." There is no fancy great room or lush carpeting, and some of the rustic cabins lack running water. But a shower and bath facility and a group dining area provide comforts that many "camps" lack. And every cabin has electricity thanks to generators and batteries. Every morning started with a great hot breakfast and after a day of fishing a fine dinner, often featuring local fish and game, was served. If you want to order off a menu this isn't your kind of place, but every meal was well prepared and seconds were often sought and always delivered.

Most importantly the Camp is located on the Naknek River, which is considered the best rainbow trout river in Alaska -- which is saying something. The Camp is just downstream of where the river begins draining Naknek Lake, which is a vast inland sea that many trout call home. Proximity to the lake allows the Camp to run boat trips to Brooks Falls, Margot Creek, Idavain Creek and other streams that are popular fly-out (read expensive) destinations for lodges in the Bristol Bay area. Guests are able to fish multiple destinations throughout a week-long stay, including several spots on the Naknek. In July the Naknek is full of sockeye salmon, king salmon, rainbows and graylings. Silver salmon were in short supply -- the run hadn't started yet. And pink salmon run more in even numbered years.

Jeff Liskay makes a fine
 waiter even in waders.
Anglers interested in catching their limit of sockeyes (five fish) could achieve their goal in less than an hour and then pursue the more challenging rainbows, which resemble small, powerful steelhead. The resident Naknek rainbows love to eat stripped streamers and swung leech patterns (the bigger and hairier the better). The fish average about 20 inches, with plenty of fish in the mid 20s and 30 inchers within reason (though I never got one that big).

The Camp's guides are young but have multiple years of experience on the river, and know what it takes to find the rainbows. Several of the guides spend their falls and winters fishing the steelhead and salmon rivers of Michigan, so they know how to translate the Midwest angler's experiences to the waters of Alaska. Usually there was one guide for two anglers, and sometimes the ratio was one-to-one. Kodie Kowitz, one of the young Michigan guides, demonstrated a keen ability to read water and helped me land four different kinds of fish -- chum salmon, char, rainbow and grayling -- on a dry flies. I'll write more about that incredible experience in the near future.

The week at Naknek provided many memories and not all of them involved fishing. I hope I have a chance to make even more memories in the near future.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Chris. A friend and I are planning a trip to AK , hopefully the Aknek River. I am familiar with Jim from staying at his camp in Baldwin 25 years ago. We fish a lot here in N.E. Iowa (you should try it, we will take you out to some fine wild trout water) and out west. Our one fear is that--from searching for info on the web--there is too much pressure. We will have come that far, spent that much, and regret the experience. We don't expect fish on every cast, since we have fished steelhead on the Clearwater in Idaho, and Wi and MI streams. But we also don't want to try for fish that have scarred up mouths as I have heard some say, from being caught over and over. So just a request if you have time to chat. We are flexible in our time that we can travel. My email is Phone 563-419-6438