Fishing the Togiak Wilderness

How about a hundred fish day in the heart of Alaskan wilderness? Walking up side channels with bear and moose footprints, but none from humans? Experiencing the pristine, delicate beauty of tundra? Guests at Reel Action Fly Fishing on their Kanektok River camp have an opportunity to visit the Togiak Wilderness one day during their stay on the river.

The Togiak National Wildlife Refuge is located on the southwest coast of Alaska between Kuskokwim Bay and Bristol Bay and covers almost 4.7 million acres. That is about the same amount of land as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Over half of the refuge, the northern section, was designated Wilderness in 1980 under the Wilderness Act of 1964, thus granting these lands the highest level of federal protection. The Wilderness is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Ahklun Mountains cover about 80 percent of the Refuge, giving way to tundra and coastal plains. Along with a multitude of lakes, the Togiak Wilderness includes three major river systems, the Togiak, Kanektok, and Goodnews. The Kanektok and Goodnews Rivers flow faster and are more twisted than the Togiak. There is no whitewater on these rivers, but currents can be challenging. The Togiak Refuge has no roads. The only practical access is by air or water, with Dillingham or Bethel being likely airports for flyouts to the Refuge. Access from the Reel Action Camp is by boat, up the Kanektok River.

Reel Action Fly Fishing has one of the very few permits for motorized boat access for guided fishing in the Togiak Wilderness. Paul Jacob, Owner/Operator of Reel Action Fly Fishing (founded in 2001 with partner Steven Olufsen), considers access to the Togiak Wilderness a special privilege and treats the Wilderness with utmost respect. Each day he or a trusted member of his team guides only two guests into the Wilderness for a day of trout and salmon fishing.  Guests rotate through that privilege during the week.  Be prepared for weather of any kind and fishing for multiple species.

Leopard rainbow trout are abundant in this river. When casting from the boat along the bank in rather fast water, the fly of choice is a Dolly Lama/Dolly Lamah/Dali Lama/Dahli Llama; no matter how it is spelled, it works.  A five or even six weight rod might be too light for these casting these heavy flies, often in windy situations, although the casts are typically quite short.  I like the Rio Outbound Short line for throwing Dolly Lamas.  It can be tricky to work the fly around root balls and other structures, with no going back for “stuck” flies.  Next year I’m going to bring at least two dozen of my own Dolly Lamas to assuage my guilt at getting snagged so often. Paul recommends a short, “hard swing” that results in the fly running closely alongside the structure, and, wisely, “if you think you can’t make it, don’t cast.”  Beaver dams here, sometimes complete with a huge beaver, seem to be trout magnets and are often incredibly productive.  Mousing with wake flies can also be very effective.  Hit the bank with the mouse, allow the current to pirouette it around quickly off the bank, then pop it in an imitation of a drowning mouse.

Walking and wading along side channels and sight fishing for trout can be a relaxing alternative to fishing from the boat. The side channels of the Kanektok come and go every year with snowmelt and rains. This year late snow and subsequent high water sent the trout far up these side channels, away from the main river. Bears, moose, and coyotes will have been there before you.  Expect to see huge bear prints and fresh scat filled with remains of salmon berries. The no-see-ums arrive with the silver salmon; consider packing a head net and bug repellent, just in case.  A range of traditional dry flies can work in these channels, along with smaller streamers. This is also good place to try out a microspey rod in places where there is enough current to swing a fly.

Of course, both trout and dollies will gladly take a bead.  Paul Jacob will somewhat reluctantly put a bead on a client’s line, tell them to cast, and then counts, “One, two, three.”  Slam! Rinse and repeat for nonstop bead action, or make it just a little more challenging for yourself with a streamer.

In the main river the wading is not difficult, especially along sand and gravel bars.  All five species of salmon, along with grayling, dollies, and char, can be found in the river.  If targeting kings and silvers, bring at least an eight weight single hand rod.  Chum/dog/keta/tiger salmon are big and abundant, seem willing to take almost any fly, and put up a good fight.  Small slack water bays can offer the opportunity for top water fishing for resting silvers and chums.

Paul Jacob always emphasizes how special this wilderness area is, reminding clients that the purpose of the Togiak Wilderness is both conservation of natural resources and the opportunity for continued subsistence uses by local residents, mainly the Yup’ik people.  At the end of the day, back at the camp, the pair of anglers that had the blessing of fishing the Togiak Wilderness that day returns later than everyone else, with stories to tell that the other guests envy.  It’s not uncommon for an angler to wistfully ask, “If someone doesn’t want to go there, could I go again?”