|The Kwethluk River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim River, is a fly-fisherman’s paradise|
|The Kwethluk River is remote, beautiful, and an undiscovered fishing hot-spot|
As we motored from the harbor, Bethel got smaller and smaller behind us, while the waves in front of us got bigger and bigger. It felt as if we were in a washing machine as the Kuskokwim River tossed our skiff from side to side and up and down from the crests of the waves to their troughs. But, before long we turned off the main river and were zipping up the calm Kwethluk River on our way to a weekend of fishing, camping and good company.
Rafe Johnson, owner and operator of Alaska Fin and Fur Adventures, was at the wheel, and Mike Stamper, Fin and Fur’s first overnight client of the season was sitting across from me in the boat. Stamper lives in Bethel, but this was his first chance to fish in the state and he was excited.
|Rafe Johnson helps his client, Mike Stamper, retrieve a rainbow trout from the Kwethluk River.|
“I moved up to Bethel less than a year ago as a pharmacist,” said Stamper, originally from Lewiston, Idaho. “I heard from friends that (Alaska Fin and Fur Adventures) were a great company to come with and learn the river, learn how to salmon fish.”
Johnson regaled us with stories about Bethel as we made the three-hour trip to camp. He told us about trapping in the winter, making log rafts in the spring, delivering books to rural villages by boat in the summer, and the cost and hassle of normal things in a remote location.
“A thousand dollars,” he said, “it costs a thousand dollars to fix anything out here. You learn to do it yourself.”
On our way to camp, we passed a few traces of civilization: the village of Kwethluk, a few fish camps, a fish weir used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to count the number of salmon in the annual run on the Kwethluk. But after that, nothing but water and wilderness.
The only other signs of human life we would see in the next three days were two boats and an Alaska State Trooper plane that buzzed overhead.
“Usually we don’t see anybody here,” Johnson said. “We’re a small operation, but real secluded, real isolated. We have the river basically to ourselves.”
Soon, we arrived at camp: a wall tent with a kitchen area, camp chairs, fire pit, an American flag on a tripod made of skinny birch logs, a six-man tent where I would sleep, an eight-man tent for the men and, to my delight, an outhouse tent with kempt honey bucket, complete with toilet seat.
We met our second guide, David Crunk, who was already at camp and settled in. But we were soon back in the boat; Johnson doesn’t take his job lightly, and he was going to make sure we wet our lines that first night. Johnson and Crunk switched the prop motor for a jet boat motor so we could squeeze into some great fishing spots.
“Once the jet is on, we have the ability to go wherever we want,” Johnson said. “The boat will go in probably less than five or six inches of water.”
It was my first time in a jet-powered boat, and I was surprised to look over the stern and see bare rocks where the jet was pushing the shallow water out of the way.
“There have been times when the bottom of the boat will hit, but the jet boat will not, and we still keep going,” Johnson said, at my concerned look. “We’ll be fine.”
Fin and Fur usually offers king salmon fishing, but ADF&G had recently closed king fishing for the season because of low returns, and it was too early for silvers, so we aimed for the next best thing on the Kwethluk—chums. And it didn’t take long to get them on the line.
Shortly after stringing three No. 3 Vibrax lures behind the boat, Stamper had a bite. Like a kid on Christmas morning, he reeled in while Crunk got the net. Stamper caught his first Alaska salmon.
“Back home in Idaho there is steelhead salmon fishing, but it doesn’t compare at all to this,” he said. “Back home it would take four or five hours between fish and here, every cast, you have potential to catch one.”
Then it was my turn. A few minutes after we released the lines, we had a bite, and I grabbed the wiggling pole while Johnson and Crunk reeled in the other two. I fought the salmon until it was next to our boat, but it dashed underneath, snapping the line on the bottom of the boat. Johnson showed me how to lean over the side of the boat and lower my rod so I wouldn’t make that mistake next time, and we dropped the lines again.
After fighting the next salmon on the end of my line, I managed to get it close enough for Crunk to net, and I landed my first catch of the trip.
Satisfied that he had given us a good introduction to the river, Johnson handed out a snack of homemade smoked salmon and turned the boat back to camp where a dinner of burgers, and bed, awaited us.
|Alaska Fin and Fur uses a 20-foot Woolridge Alaskan X-L to buzz around the Kwethluk River in search of fish.|
The Kwethluk isn’t only good for salmon, it’s also a great place to land a rainbow, Dolly Varden or grayling. So, in the morning, we jetted to a new spot and enjoyed a view of tall grass, low alders and meandering streams.
I had been fly-fishing a few times before without any luck, and I was determined to hook a few on this trip. Over the weekend, my expectations were met tenfold. Not only did I catch my first fish on a fly rod, together with Stamper, who was also new to fly-fishing, we caught 82 fish!
Stamper was fully satisfied with his introduction to Alaska angling at the hands of Johnson and Crunk.
“Fly-fishing, it’s a first for me,” he said. “They taught me how to fish using a fly rod, and to actually hook into a big rainbow was great, something I’ll remember forever.”
I agreed, Crunk and Johnson were great instructors, not only teaching the basics, but helping us improve our technique as well. By the end of the weekend, I could tie a fly, read the river, and use different casts, techniques and flies for different fish habitats.
“We love to fish. We will fish like crazy if need be,” Johnson said. “If we were just doing it on our own without clients, we would fish from dark to dark, basically, and we have before.”
The setting was just as good as the company. Clear water, beautiful scenery, the peaceful trickling of the stream, and the excitement of wrestling a chum salmon or reeling in a dainty grayling on a homemade fly, made the experience outstanding.
“I’m going to tell everyone I know about it,” he said. “And hopefully get some of my friends and family up here and take them out again and let these guys show us a good time and show us how to catch these big Alaska salmon.”
The Kwethluk River is a gorgeous setting for a fishing camp, and I hope to return again soon. And while Alaska Fin and Fur Adventures wouldn’t be the first choice for someone looking for a luxury lodge with the chance to relax in a Jacuzzi or drink brandy next to a glowing hearth, it’s the kind of real Alaska fishing experience you can’t get anywhere else.
“If you’re looking for something without crowds, lots of fish, good food, and good camp life, and you don’t mind sleeping in a tent on a cot, we’re it,” Johnson said.
Serine Halverson is associate editor of Alaska magazine.