Our trip to Brooks Lodge and the Brooks River this year proved to be a little too early for the salmon. Plus, the bears were just arriving for their summer feast. Alaska had one of its toughest winters in 2011-12, with record snow falls everywhere and a very late spring. Brooks was no exception, so we found the water high, cold, and somewhat off-color, which was really no surprise. In addition, we also found ourselves in a series of low-pressure systems where rain & wind storms piled-up one after the other and put down our fish.
We arrived on our first day in a veritable monsoon, where the waves were so high on Naknek Lake, where the lodge is located, that the plane had to land on Brooks Lake a few miles away. We were anxious to get fishing right after lunch, but the fish goddess had other plans. Casting was absolutely impossible due to 40-50 mph winds, so we decided to hike up to Brooks Falls to see if there were any bears around.
The Falls trail had apparently been covered with blow-down trees this spring, as we saw lots of dead spruce trees on their sides and lots of splintered stumps left behind. We even found a tree that had sheltered a mother humming bird and her chicks the year before that was now just a shattered base with the nest remnants still inside.
The falls were as beautiful as usual and we took lots of pictures, but no bears appeared. On the hike back we encountered a Park Service ranger and we stopped for a discussion with him about all the hordes of tourists that would arrive just days away. Since the wind still hadn’t declined enough for fly casting, we went to the Park Service educational program that night after dinner.
Thank goodness the next day was much better so we slogged through flooded tundra to reach one of my favorite spots on the river and got casting. It was pretty cold for any rising fish but we held out hope that the tiny salmon smolt would be out-migrating in small pods, so we put on smolt imitations and went to work. We saw just a few rainbows chasing smolt, and Leslie (for whom this was her first ever fly fishing experience) had a fish on for a few minutes as she waded along a new channel that had formed in the river, so we called it a pretty good morning as we headed back to the lodge for lunch.
That afternoon we saw our first bear across the river and finally backed away as he started swimming across towards us. The rangers had reported sightings of three or four “courting” bears around, but only that one was visible to us.
The next morning our fortunes changed. The rain stopped, the sun came out (sort-of), and the rainbows were popping on smolt in several spots along the river. Since there were no bears around we also got to fish in one of my favorite spots on the river that was protected from the wind. Sherry was the first to hook up but lost her first rainbow. As it turns out that was the small one, and just a short while later, she connected with a beautiful, large fish. She had given the trip to herself for her birthday, so she reminded us that this was her birthday fish. And, a beauty it was! An absolutely perfect 23-inch hen rainbow, just in from the lake, finally came to hand and she proudly displayed it for the camera.
Leslie also lost a fish as she was learning how to set the hook and manage a running fish, but other fish gave her a good chance to practice those skills. Her very first fish on a fly rod turned out to be a Dolly Varden char about 24 inches long. I was somewhat surprised because we don’t often see such large char in the river. She was doing a great job of applying what she’d learned, and finally brought in a super fish to claim as her “first!” Several other fish, mostly char, also got hooked up that morning, but after lunch another storm rolled in and the fishing slowed way down. After having to get up on the observation platform because a bear appeared, we finally called it a day and headed back to a glass of wine in front of the fire at the lodge.
We made periodic visits to the mouth of the river and scouted for salmon. Even though one of the pilots told us that he had seen salmon coming up the lake towards the river, they never arrived in time for us to fish for them.
On the last day of the trip the gals opted to take the tour to the Valley of Ten-thousand Smokes to see the remains of the largest volcano eruption in North America. Because it was raining, the water in the river just kept rising and getting dirtier, so they probably made a good choice. In fact, the place where we had been standing our first day was completely under water. The only thing they missed was the eagle that hung-out at the lodge all morning wowing the guests and a bear on the beach in front of the lodge. They also saw bears on the tour, so they weren’t too disappointed.
Our flight home was absolutely spectacular. Augustine volcano was crystal clear, and, as we got closer, so was Mount Spur. In one way or the other, Brooks never disappoints. Join us next year and see.