As the sun sets on the 2023 season at ATA Lodge, we are proud to share our end of season fishing report from the amazing Alagnak Wild and Scenic River of Bristol Bay, Southwest Alaska! We had what in many ways may have been our best season overall ever!! The season went very smoothly over all, and in general the fishing was superb. Everything seemed a bit late this season, the spawning of the trout in the early season, and some of the salmon runs were late and/or spread out more than normal. But there was always great things happening and our staff and guests were fantastic!
The Sockeye Salmon run this year sustained well through July and in to early August. Linda ("Goldilocks") is seen here with one of the millions of sockeye salmon that streamed past our lodge on their way to their spawning grounds upstream in our headwaters and tributaries. These sockeye salmon, are the main food source not only for "The Three Bears" in this photograph below, but for the many bears that frequent the banks of the Alagnak River in July and August. We regularly see in excess of 25 bears a day, up to over 40 during the main part of the run in July!!
The Silver Salmon start to replace the Sockeye, King and Chum salmon as the month of August begins. Their numbers are few in the early weeks of August, but continue to build in number as August progresses. This year we caught many fantastic Silver Salmon, although the run was a bit sporadic and the main run spread out and late. Some weeks it seemed more of a trickle that continued to sustain from early August well into September.
Regardless, every week most of our guests were able to "strike silver" and the quality of the fish that were being landed was often exceptional. It seems that everything this season was running about 2 weeks later than "normal". So some of the best Silver Salmon fishing extended right through the end of our season in mid-September.
Silver Salmon spread out through our whole river system over the course of the month of August, and we were able to catch fresh fish both upstream and downstream of the lodge. We often make longer runs down to the tidal effected section of the river near to the estuary. When the tides are right and the salmon are coming in on each tide, the fishing can be exciting as we swing streamers, using sink tip lines, standing on sweeping sand bars as the salmon move through on the inside bends of the river.
We will continue to send boats downstream like that for weeks on end to catch these hard fighting salmon as they first enter the river and can be the most aggressive to the bite. Often these salmon have only just entered fresh water and will still have sea lice on them.
The longer the salmon are in the river, they will start to take on some color and the males will develop what is called a "kype" as their faces deform, turning into hooked beaks. By this time many will have distributed themselves all through out the river, with some going far upstream, past our lodge to streams and tributaries even past the Kukaklek and Nonvianuk Lakes from which the Alagnak river originates. But most will stay between the "Braids" and the "Confluence" just up and downstream from where we are located.
These salmon are very acrobatic and are known, not only fighting hard, but for rod bending runs, mixed with jumps and cartwheel like leaps. For this reason, many of our guests consider these salmon their favorite target fish. The first Silver of the season will usually be caught between the end of July and first couple days of August.
They will build in number as more and more coming into the river every day, and by mid to late August we expect to be catching multiple silvers every day, whether in tide water, mid river, or at various holding pools scattered throughout the upper part of the river.
Fly outs in August and September can provide some very memorable days for those who would like to visit streams that are found throughout the region. Whether part of our own watershed, or perhaps ranging a little "further afield" to other rivers, streams, creeks and mouths of lakes
Some of these locations are exceptionally beautiful. The whole exprience of getting in a float plane and landing on some remote pond or lake or river can be exhilarating, adding to the sense of "adventure". As we get deeper into the month of August, many of our bears migrate upstream, following the sockeye salmon, which are their many food source during this time of the year.
Although we see 20 to 40 bears a day on the Alagnak River around the lodge during the main sockeye run in July, in August they will begin to gradually follow the salmon to where they will eventually spawn on the gravels in shallow streams and creeks. This is a popular time to charter an air taxi and fly out to witness these bears gorging on the sockeye salmon which have now turned a crimson red color as they prepare to spawn.
During these trips to witness this spectacle, guests are amazed to witness these incredible creatures "up close and personal" as we walk among them while fishing. These fly out locations become "hot spots" for rainbow trout and arctic char as these fish begin to feast on the eggs of the spawning salmon.
Form many, the Arctic Char and closely related, Dolly Varden, is a "bucket list fish". And when you see them, there is no mistaking why that is the case. Some are ocean run, and others are resident fish that live in the rivers and lakes of the region all year long. Once the salmon start to spawn and begin to drop their eggs, there are specific locations where they tend to congregate, making it easier to target them and having the chance of catching a real trophy fish!
When the "stars align" and the timing is right, in the right location, good days, can become "unforgettable days". We were fortunate enough on a number of occasions this year, to "hit it just right" and get into some truly amazing fishing for these uniquely beautiful fish. It is in later August and September that these fish will develop some remarkable coloration. We say they get "clowned up" as it almost looks like that have put on make up for the occasion!
For many, this type of fishing in smaller streams, waking and wading, and fishing among the bears, seeing the "river run red" with sockeye salmon that have transformed from the silver bullets they were when they first entered fresh water, to the bright crimson color they are when on their spawning gravels, fishing for big, fat "clowned up" arctic char, is the highlight of their stay!
Another species that we love here at ATA Lodge is the Chum Salmon. The Alagnak River is famous for its runs of Chum Salmon. These fish are also referred to as Dog Salmon. It is said they are called this because they have traditionally been a source of food for indigenous peoples dogs. But also because the teeth the develop to help them fend off fish focused on eating their eggs and to aid them in competing for spawning privileges. But I like the determined style which they "doggedly" fight once hooked.
They "dog down" and pull with everything they have once they feel the sting of a well presented fly. They are definitely one of the most underrated salmon among the five species of Pacific Salmon that enter the Alagnak Wild River!
Since 2020, their numbers have been significantly down, not only in our river, but across their entire range. The early run of chum salmon which normally appear around the middle of July, were a few weeks late as well. But we were happy to see their numbers up from 2020 and 2021, and are hoping that they will rebound from whatever it was the caused them their numbers to plummet, since it is this species that provides the main food source for the bears and resident fish that are found in our section of the system.
But, I have to say, that it is the rainbow trout that is my personal favorite target fish. The Alagnak River has an incredibly beautiful strain of rainbow trout that are called Leopard Rainbow Trout because of how "spotted" they are! Be careful, because you can go "cross-eyed" if you look to close because the spots can make you go dizzy if you look at them to long.
These trout can occasionally reach sizes of up to 30+ inches. But it is not unusual to catch a few every week that are over 24 inches. These trout are hard fighting as well, and your 6 or better yet 7 weight rod will be bent over double, with the line screaming off your reel, and before you know it, your will be deep in to your backing, wondering if you are going to be able stop this "freight train" to turn the fish!!
We may use different tactics to fool this fish depending the time of the season and conditions in which we are fishing for them. Sink tips with steamers, dry flies, beads to "match the hatch" when salmon are dropping eggs and even skating mouse patterns on the surface for aggressive top water takes are all practiced regularly.
Our systems produced the best trout of the season for us, but we were also to get some great trout on some of the fly outs we did throughout the region this year too. It's always a thrill getting a 26-30" trout to bite, with big bruins patrolling the shore line looking for their next salmon meal!
Arctic Grayling are a resident fish in the Alagnak River that many guests hope to target and tic off their "bucket list" of species they hope to catch during their stay with us. And this is not just wishful thinking, but something that will be a guaranteed reality if grayling is on your list of fish to put in the net! The upper Alagnak, where we are located, is a world class grayling fishery. And we get a lot of grayling in the 18-20 inch range, and even a bit bigger for lucky anglers. It is possible to catch dozens of grayling in fact.
Dry fly fishing is the main way we target them. And you can catch them all season long on dry flies as grayling always seem to be "looking up". But when the egg drop is "on fire" you will catch many grayling while drifting beads as well.
Below we see some examples of sockeye salmon in their full spawning colors. These are not normally targeted, and very few are actually caught at this stage in their spawning cycle close the the lodge. This is because most of them spawn in our headwaters at the top of our watershed.
But when we fly out to various streams throughout the region, to target rainbow trout and arctic char while "fishing with the bears" in the sockeye spawning grounds; it is not unusual to have these brightly colored salmon snap at anything that comes into there spawning beds. So we do get a few, and they make some dramatic photo opportunities!
There's a reason the Alagnak River was designated a Wild and Scenic River! I often like to use the tag line #WhereTheWildThingsAre...
This Wild River is home to many different iconic animals that makes a stay at ATA Lodge one where you will normally encounter a wide variety of wildlife. Moose, wolf, eagles, osprey, mink, caribou, beaver, otter, wolverine, lynx, fox, porcupine, blue grouse, sandhill cranes, tundra swans, as well as a variety of birds and waterfowl all inhabit this natural wonderland. Although some sightings are rare, you never know what you might encounter in the wild, remote and savagely beautiful part of Alaska!
Our river and in fact, our entire region is particularly known for its huge population of the large Costal Brown Bears that thrive due the large runs of Southwest Alaska's 5 species of Pacific Salmon. This year we were treated to a number of "once in a lifetime" encounters. If you have watched our social media channels, as reported in our fishing report from earlier this season, we showed pictures and video of a bear taking down a full grown moose. In fact, staff and guests were able to get video and photos that "went viral" generating millions of views and being picked up by major news outlets. Field and Steam and Outdoor Life, called the images the most incredible collection of images of their kind that they had ever seen! I was personally able to video 6 bears fighting for 4 full minutes over a single sockeye salmon, in what was an almost slapstick comedy, only with claws and fangs flying!
But despite the fantastic fishing and amazing wildlife viewing a stay at ATA Lodge offers, it is the people that make our season so special! We were blessed with an almost full season with great guests and a lot of fun memories of shared experiences whether on the river, around the camp fire, or around the dinner table!
New friends were made, and old friends were welcomed back. With each year that goes by, there is a growing sense of "family" that continues to develop as more and more guest find their way back again and again and really do feel more like extended family and friends, than mere guests that are just passing through. To get to share such a magical place with likeminded individuals is such a blessing. There is just something about being in such an awe-inspiringly setting, that allows us to reconnect with something very special that our busy modern realities "back home" doesn't seem to have room for. To be able to wake up as dawn breaks, and look out over the grandeur of the river as the sun rises and basks the valley in colors that are so vibrant they almost seem "unnatural"; is a feast for my soul. To share that with others, just makes it all the more special.
To catch a wild salmon that has just come in to the river that day, or the day before, and to have a shore lunch with your best friend, is an experience you just can't put a value on. Many guests enjoy taking a moment, to just "drink in" the wonder of being where they are. Catching and cooking their catch on the banks of the river, is a great way to "etch the moment" in the recesses of their minds; something that will be cherished and remembered for years to come!
And it is our staff that make it all possible. We can not thank our amazing staff enough for all they do, to make this the "Trip of a Lifetime" for so many of our guests. Your commitment to service and to creating the opportunity for our guests to have the time of their lives, often goes above and beyond the call of duty. It's much more than just a job, it's an adventure. And your attitude and efforts to help to make this the type of place that guests hate to leave, and can't wait to come back to. For that, we thank you. You are what makes ATA Lodge the place it has become!
Week in and week out, we were thrilled with our guests and staff and couldn't have hoped for a better season. Even though a couple of weeks, the fishing was slower than we have come to take for granted; still the quality of overall experience, was felt by all who came. If you are looking for that image of Alaska that you have always dreamed about experiencing, we encourage you to take a close look at the experience we offer here and book you spot at ATA Lodge soon!
We will be waiting "with the kettle on", to make you feel like part of the ATA Lodge family when you finally make it here! We would love nothing more than to share our little corner of Alaska with you. It is a true honor to be the custodians of this magical piece of Alaskan paradise. We are sure that once you've been here, you will want to make this your "home away from home" as often as you can!
Get in touch soon to book your spot for the 2024 season. Spaces are going fast, with many weeks already fully booked, and other with limited space left. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call on +1 877 801 2289 to find out more. I will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have. You can find out more at www.atalodge.com. We hope to hear from you soon!