Kevin and John's Two Week Adventure on the Kanektok River

by Kevin Stewart


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After a twelve year absence, it was a relief to climb out of the twin engine Cessna and once again, step on to the gravel airstrip in Quinhagak, Alaska. The short flight from Bethel was the final leg of a three fight trip from Dallas that had begun the day before and I was ready to both stretch my legs and also start the fifteen mile boat ride up river to Brad Duncan’s Lower Base Camp on the Kanektok River. I had been looking forward to this trip since February when I booked the trip which was subsequently expanded to include a second week with Brad’s brother, Clint, at his camp another twenty miles further up river in the Togiak Wilderness.

For the past thirty years Dave Duncan and Sons has operated both float and base camp fishing trips on the Kanektok River which has to be one of the best, if not THE best, freshwater fisheries in the world. Known for its prolific runs of salmon, the Kanektok is also host to Artic Char, Dolly Varden trout, Grayling and Leopard Rainbow trout. On my previous ten trips with the Duncans I had landed more fish on a fly than I ever thought was possible and I knew this trip would not be an exception. By mid-July the river is loaded with spawning salmon and even the most inexperienced fly fisherman can expect to land dozens of fish each day.

Brad and Clint were at the airstrip along with several of their guides to greet the arriving guests. Each camp holds twelve fishermen and most of the guests have been on multiple trips with the Duncans. The scene at the airstrip was, in many respects, more like a family reunion--- lots of hugs, smiles and handshakes for the returning guests and introductions for the first timers. Joining me for both weeks, was my good friend, John Dunagan. John and I have known each other since 1974 and we have enjoyed countless hunting and fishing experiences over the past 30 years in a variety of places.

The ride up river was both interesting and exciting. I was curious to see how much the river had changed over the past twelve years. From the air, it seemed like very little was different. The tundra does not seem to change much over time but I could quickly tell that the river itself had changed a lot. A dozen years of spring run-off had cut numerous new channels and left many of the old, more familiar channels and bars behind.

Upon our arrival in camp, we were greeted by the rest of Brad’s guides who helped us carry our bags and rods cases to the Weatherport tents that we would call home for the next seven days. John and I quickly got situated on our tent and then headed to the main cook tent for cocktail hour and dinner. From our past trips, we knew we were in for a gourmet dinner and we were not disappointed. The stuffed pork chops and fixins were as good as any restaurant at home. In addition to the excellent fishing, hot showers and comfortable tents, the food in all of the Duncan camps is way beyond what you would expect for a wilderness experience. I knew I was going to have to watch my consumption if I was to have any hope of fitting into my travel pants for the flight home.

After dinner, Brad gave everyone a brief report on what we would expect during our trip. The fishing had been excellent since camp opened and there were fresh salmon – Kings, Sockeyes, Chums and Pinks—pouring in to the river each day. Although John and I were anxious to catch some large Kings, our primary focus for both weeks was fishing for Leopard Rainbow trout.

The Kanektok River, like some other drainages in Alaska, is home to the most beautiful trout in the world. These trout are heavily spotted and carry a brilliant red stripe along each side. In the summer, they go on a feeding frenzy, gorging themselves on salmon eggs and flesh from the spawned out salmon. Although the trout will typically only grow about an inch a year, thanks to the Duncans and the strict single, barbless fly, catch and release only regulations they worked to have enacted, the trout have flourished and are able to grow to trophy class size. The trout will readily take a variety of fly patterns ranging from salmon eggs and flesh to sculpins and deer hair mice. Depending on which fly is used, a 6, 7 or 8 weight rod with floating lines is preferable.

John and I were up early the next morning and we were anxious to get on the river. After a couple cups of coffee and a very filling breakfast, we loaded our gear on Brad’s boat and were ready to go. Since we had told Brad the night before we wanted to go “Bow Hunting”, we began drifting down river with the current. We were the last boat to leave camp as the other guides and fishermen were headed down river to fish for salmon. The sound of the outboards quickly faded and the still quiet of the wilderness soon returned. With Brad expertly directing the boat to the best water, John and I quickly hooked up with several rainbows in the 20” class using peachy king eggs. After a coupe of pictures, we were back floating and catching fish that were holding along the cut banks, behind “root wads” (sunken trees) and below riffles where the fast water transitions into deeper pools. By the time we stopped for lunch, John and I had both landed over 20 Bows ranging in size from 16” to 22”. We had also lost a lot of flies to the root wads and other snags. On the Kanektok, if you are not losing flies, you are not catching fish. A well stocked fly box is a must on this trip!

After lunch, Brad suggested we switch flies to “make things more interesting”. I tied on a deer hair mouse and John decided to try a white Zonker. Unlike fishing with eggs, using surface flies is a lot more work. Constantly casting to the bank requires concentration, effort and a lot of accuracy. Brad made things a lot easier for us by keeping the boat a constant distance from the bank and our collective efforts were soon rewarded when a large Bow violently attacked my mouse as it created a “v” wake along the bank under an over-hanging tree branch. The fight was now on as the big Bow tried to break off in the brush and then jumped out of the water three times as the fight continued out in to the main channel. This fish was definitely a “picture fish” so Brad quickly pulled the boat over to a gravel bar. Kneeling in the water, I carefully cradled the massive Bow in my hands while both Brad and John clicked off a couple of pictures on their digital cameras. Pictures done, the Bow rested calmly in the water until it signaled it was ready to go. A quick flip of its tail sent it darting back to the deep water and left me with a refreshing shower of water and the need to dry my face.

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