American Creek Diary

By Scott Richmond

In September 2006, I made a one-week, self-guided float trip on American Creek, one of Alaska's premier rainbow trout streams. This is arguably the best float fishing trip in Alaska. Following is a day-by-day summary of some of the trip's highlights

The rafting and camping equipment, as well as floatplane transportation from Iliamna, was supplied by Rainbow River Lodge. For details on this, see 0934American Creek Logistics.

Sunday, September 10

Chad Hewitt dipped the left wing of his De Havilland Beaver floatplane and pointed at the water below us. "Moose," he said over the engine's roar.

I looked down. Bright sunshine shone on the big animal's antlers, and the dark outline of its body was visible through the water. Mr. Moose was a long ways from shore.

We were on the middle leg of an all-day journey from Anchorage to the headwaters of American Creek. The first leg took us from Anchorage's Merrill Field--a general aviation airport--to the remote but busy airstrip at Iliamna on the Alaskan Peninsula. That leg involved a beautiful flight through the Chigmit Mountains, with craggy peaks, glaciers, and turquoise rivers at every turn. At Iliamna we boarded Chad's Beaver for a trip to Rainbow River Lodge, of which Chad is manager and co-owner.

"We" is the improbably named group of Dan, Dan, Dan, Don, Rob, Robert, Charlie, Jerry, and me. It includes a doctor, a psychiatrist, a college professor, a couple of corporate executives, my wife's high school boy friend, a 13-year old boy, and a hack fishing writer/web wonk (again, me).

Rainbow River Lodge was a waypoint, not the final destination. After an excellent lunch, we left in two groups for Hammersly Lake. Hammersly sits on the tundra at an elevation of 1600 feet. The lake's south end is ringed with treeless mountains, but here at the north end the terrain is gently rolling hills. American Creek begins a hundred yards to our east. Forty miles later it empties into Lake Coville, 1500 feet lower than where we stand.

We are in the Katmai Wildness Area in Katmai National Park. Hammersly and Coville are two of several large lakes just south of enormous Lake Iliamna. These lakes drain into Bristol Bay, and the rivers that flow between them provide spawning habitat for sockeye salmon. Sockeye fry will rear in the lakes before heading for the ocean. When mature sockeye return to the rivers, they are followed by wild, native rainbow trout and dolly varden (an anadromous char) who eat spilled eggs. The trout and dollies grow big and fat on the rich diet of salmon eggs, and we are expecting large numbers of rainbows between three and five pounds, with a few that may exceed that upper limit.

We camp at the lake tonight and will begin our float tomorrow. Chad and his helper Joshua unload the gear and take off. Chad flies low over our heads; we won't see him for another week.

We watch the plane grow smaller in the distance, and soon there is no noise but the cool wind blowing across the tundra.

Monday

We load the three rafts and row to the river. Early in the morning, two floatplanes landed on the lake and disgorged about four anglers and a couple of guides. They are day-trippers.

We know that at the creek's other end we'll also see day-trippers from various lodges. But in the middle, we expect to see no one. This creek was not floated for last two years due to low water. Even this year, no more than six groups will float American Creek. So in the three years, fewer than sixty people, including us, will have visited the prime water. That's what you call "unpressured fishing."

Charlie Chambers, Dan Gordon, and I are the rowers of the three rafts. Rob and his teenage son Robert are in the boat with me. After a couple of miles, we've drifted past the day-trippers and are totally on our own. There is no place to land a plane except at the ends of the river, no one to bail us out of trouble, no one to ask what dangers lie downriver or tell us where/what/how to fish. Self-reliance is the name of the game.

The sockeye run is mostly over, and the banks are littered with rotting carcasses. For the next week, the stench of rotting fish will be our constant companion. The banks are also littered with berry-laden bear scat. There are well-pounded trails along the bank. They were made by bears, not anglers.

I have about 600 beads in different colors and sizes to imitate stages of sockeye eggs (see 0928Using Beads to Make Egg Flies for rigging and other details). This is gross overkill, but I'm paranoid about running out of the one color/size that the fish want. It's not like I can hop in the car and make a side trip to the local fly shop and pick up some more. Besides, beads are cheap.

This end of American Creek is generally shallow and 75-100 feet wide. We look for places where the water deepens and slows, then drift our beads along the bottom.

We're soon into fish. And what fish! The trout are typically 18-22 inches long, and fat as sumo wrestlers--and about as strong! I expected this. What I didn't expect was the size of the dolly varden. In one spot I pick up a trout that is easily five or six pounds, and a few casts later take a dolly of equal proportions.

Our entire group is getting fish now. We are clearly in fishing heaven. One of the things I particularly like is that we do NOT get a fish on every cast. You have to do it right: pick the right water, present your offering on a good dead drift, detect the strike, and play the fish well. Do it well and you are rewarded. Do it wrong and you get nothing.

That evening we camp at a bench on the tundra. An excellent pool lies below our camp. A bear likes it, too, and after dinner we watch it work the opposite side of the river. The bear finds sockeye carcasses and strips them of the prime parts. Every few minutes it looks our way to make sure we are non-threatening.

All the bears in this area are what Alaskans call brown bears--fish-eating grizzlies. "Lots of bears" is the comment we heard from everyone with any experience on American Creek.

All our food is freeze-dried and stored in bear-proof dry boxes. Bears don't react graciously when surprised, so we give them plenty of warning and call "Yo bear" every few steps when walking on land. Before backing up to land a fish, I look behind me to see if a grizz has moved close. If a bear wants a fishing spot, we will yield; "Let the wookie win" is our motto. We are each armed with a can of bear spray to use if attacked; we have not carried a rifle as some anglers do.

Tuesday

We have entered a small canyon. There is less tundra and more trees. Also, the river has narrowed and deepened, and the gradient has increased.

These are welcome changes. The river has been fishing heaven, but it has also been rowing hell. Yesterday it was difficult to get enough water for the oars to bite, so maneuvering was a challenge. And we frequently had to get out and drag/walk the rafts through extensive shallow sections with low velocity. It took all day to cover seven miles, and there was more traveling than fishing.

Today, however, the boating is easier. There are still shallow sections, but the increased gradient means more flow and we slide on through.

Before lunch we entered a braided section. In the small pockets of deeper water we find rainbows and dollies. It's great fun to pull large fish from small water.

By early afternoon we have covered seven miles and deem that far enough. We find a gravel bar and set up camp. There are several good fishing spots nearby.

I pull many nice trout and dolly varden from the water in front of our tents and from small pockets nearby. I have gotten a good feel for this style of fishing. My rod is hot. I am invincible. I could catch fish in a bathtub. I am a fly fishing god.

Wednesday

I am a doofus and a goat. I cannot buy a fish. I have totally lost my groove today. My rod's formerly hot mojo is in the deep freeze.

The entire morning I have landed nothing and have had few hookups. All around me, people are catching fish. Even Jeff, who is totally new to fly fishing, is hooking trout. Around noon, we hear a loud splash. Jeff has fallen in and dropped his rod. Dismayed, he searches downstream for it, eventually locating it. He picks up the rod and discovers that a nice trout is on the other end. "Great technique!" some call to him. "Just keep doing that!" others say.

But I am getting nothing. I'm always in the wrong place at the wrong time and doing the wrong thing.

By late afternoon I am finally getting fish again. I have switched to a different color bead. I re-tied my leader. I have gone to a single BB shot about 18 inches from the bead, and achieve a deeper drift by doing mini roll casts to put loose line on top of the indicator so there will be less resistance and my rig will sink deeper. I'm picking up fish now, including a bright, hard-fighting dolly that tapes out to 24 inches long with a 14-inch girth; that translates to over six pounds. The size and number of dollies is a big surprise on this trip.

Another surprise is a streamer pattern that neither trout nor dollies seem able to refuse. I'm not supposed to talk about this fly, but if you go to Countrysport Limited in Portland and schmooze Jacob Lund, he might tell you about it. It's useful for faster water and reaching undercuts. It's also good for beginners who have trouble mastering a good dead drift with a bead.

I have some flesh flies, but I'm not fond of them and really prefer to work it out with the beads and a good dead drift.

We decide to spend two nights on this gravel bar. The weather has been fantastic--"miraculous" says Dan Gordon, who lived in Anchorage nearly twenty years and knows of what he speaks. This is the second week of September, the time of year when Alaskan weather usually rolls off the edge and heads quickly for winter. We have had better weather than we had any right to expect. Sunday through Wednesday noon has been mostly clear and cloudless. At times it has even been warm, with temperatures in the mid sixties.

By 3:00 p.m. today, however, there is clearly a change. The wind has picked up and changed direction. Clouds are moving in. By evening, the tents are flapping in gale-force gusts, and rain occasionally rat-a-tats our little gravel bar. Most of us do not sleep well due to the noise. Alaska's weather can be impersonally malevolent, and we may be in for some nasty stuff.

Thursday

The wind has died down, and the rain was never steady. It is an overcast day, but not cold. Our weather luck is still with us.

Our plan today is to cover a lot of miles. There is a deep canyon several miles ahead. From the topo map, it looks like 300-400 foot cliffs drop straight to the water. We plan to float through that canyon and camp on the other side where the terrain flattens out a bit. We've spent two days fishing hard, but this day will be a travel day and the rods will get a rest.

After a 45-minute drift, we take a break. Due to the river's steep gradient in this section, we are making good time, covering four miles already. Perhaps we'll have some fishing time today after all.

We set off again and I am the lead boat. Ahead, the river divides. This is a frequent event here, and the rule is to go with the main flow. I take the left channel, which is moving at a fast pace. Within 100 feet things look odd. The river is deep and fast. More puzzling, the bank on either side is starting to look flooded: water is over the bases of the trees and into the willows and grass. Something is wrong, and the river is moving too fast for me to take time to analyze it. I have an uneasy feeling.

Ahead, I hear a roar of water. I search for a path through the water, but there isn't one. The way is blocked by a logjam, and I pull hard for the left bank before we are swept onto it.

Once out of the boat, it's clear what has happened. Sometime in the last couple of weeks, an intense wind blew through the river canyon and knocked down many trees. A pile of broken cottonwoods has formed a dam, hence the mini-flood along the bank. Below the logjam, the river drops 20 feet and rushes madly at 15-20 miles an hour.

Of all the whitewaters situation you face, logjams and unexpected waterfalls are the most dangerous. Earlier this year, two rafters drowned on Washington's Klickitat River when they were swept into a logjam in spring flows.

Here, the water is rushing, and even falling in could easily prove fatal. I am a quarter-mile down the wrong channel. Heavy water lies upstream from me, and the way ahead is blocked. There is nothing to do but wave the other two boats to the bank as they follow me into this watery dead end.

"Guys," I tell them. "We're hosed. Big time."

It's times like this that test a group's mettle, and I'm never prouder of this crew than I am at this juncture. Dan Gordon and Charlie Chambers, the other two rowers, look around and quickly realize the seriousness of our situation. There is a recognition that there is danger, but an optimism that somewhere, somehow, we'll find a solution.

After reconnoitering we decide on a plan. All the heavy gear is unloaded and portaged downstream 200 yards through a tangle of willows to a gravel bar where the river channels come back together. Then six of us push a raft upstream 150 yards. That's as far as we can go before the downstream flow is too heavy to move a boat against. Then three people on the other bank throw us a line, which we tie to the raft. They pull the raft across into an eddy on their side.

When all three rafts are on the opposite bank, we pick them up and haul them another 150 yards through the woods to the next channel. The path we take has been recently cleared. Apparently, another group encountered the same logjam. We are grateful for their efforts; they've saved us some labor (and if they read this, we'll buy them dinner).

Once the rafts are portaged, we float down to the gear and reload.

By now it is past lunchtime, and we are exhausted. But not too pooped to fish, and a few dollies and trout find our beads. Interestingly, some of the dollies grab beads as they are being retrieved. Figure that one out!

The rest of the day we float downstream without incident. The drift through the steep canyon is spectacular. In addition to the rugged scenery, golden eagles and an occasional osprey fly overhead. There are some excellent fishing pools, but we by-pass them all. It took three hours to portage the boats, and we need to cover some ground today.

Near 4:00, I am again the lead boat. A gravel bar forms on my right, and two downed cottonwoods have fallen from the left bank to the gravel bar. Once again, our way is blocked.

We will have to unload all the gear, then drag the empty rafts around the trees. We decide to camp here and move the boats in the morning.

Friday

We begin the day by dragging the boats across the gravel bar, then loading the gear into them. After Thursday's logjam and tough portage we have a new tactic, one we admit we should have been using all along. Charlie and Dan brought three two-way radios. Each boat takes one and leaves it turned on. We send a "scout" boat first, and the scout tells the other two which channel to take. Had we done this yesterday, we would have had only one boat in the dead-end instead of three; we could have saved a lot of work. Too soon old, too late smart.

The river has turned south and the gradient has lessened. With a lower gradient, there are more channels and braids. The good news is that the fishing is outstanding. The area abounds with pocketwater: small depressions and places where the water slows and deepens. Every one of these holds several large, willing trout. I have recovered my groove and am catching lots of fish.

The bad news is that with less water, the river is more easily blocked. We face more portages and we have to drag the boats across gravel bars to get around the downed trees. They're short portages and we don't have to unload the gear. In all we make four portages today.

We are now into the flat country. Every day the river has been different, going from tundra, to small forested canyon, to steep, rocky canyon, to flat grass-and-willow country.

We see bears everywhere in this flat land. I spot a sow and her blond cub. They leave the water as we approach, the cub making plaintive "uh-uh-uh" noises as they waddle up the bank. After we pass, we hear snapping twigs along the shore, and the pair returns to the water behind us.

Charlie is the lead boat and takes the left channel. Suddenly he is backing up furiously. The current was carrying his boat straight to the right bank, which is occupied by a large grizzly bear. How big is the bear? "I saw this big furry ball up ahead," says Charlie, "and I thought it was his butt. Then he lifts up. It was his HEAD!" Charlie spreads his hands about four feet apart. "It was this big!" he adds. It is a phrase, complete with hand gestures, that he and the others in his boat repeat several times over the next couple of days, always referring to this same bear. I never saw it, but it was clearly an impressive beast.

We all take the other channel and stop about 200 feet into it where a gravel bar supplies our camping space for the night.

Near dusk, Rob spots a large bear where the channel divides. A little later a smaller bear is seen just below camp. Thus surrounded by large furry critters with claws and teeth, we spend a restful night.

Before dinner I catch some trout, then take a break for dinner. After dinner, I catch a few more. They are very nice fish. I consider them both a blessing and a present. Today is my birthday; I'm sixty years old. What a way and what a place to mark a milestone!

Saturday

This is our last full day of fishing. We are within six miles of our takeout, and the plan is to fish until our arms fall off.

However, in the back of everyone's mind is the concern that we might have more portages. There were four yesterday, and each one is tiring.

Last night, Dan Gordon and I explored the braided channels near camp and decided on the best course to take.

We are walking the boats through the narrow, mostly shallow braids. Dan is in the lead and radios back, "There's a big f---ing bear up ahead."

"Dan," I radio back, "Could you be more precise? When you say 'a big f---ing bear,' are you using 'f---ing' as a verb or as an adjective?"

After half a mile, we encounter another blockage. It's the easiest of portages, though, being only 20 feet long. Shortly after, we come to a spot where a large tributary joins American Creek. As soon as we enter the confluence, a jet boat comes up river. It's the first time in five days that we have seen another person.

The jet boat is good news as well as bad. It's presence means the river is clear and there are no more portages. The bad news is we have to share the river. The jet turns around and goes downriver. We know exactly what to do: we park the rafts and walk back into the braided water, exploring every pocket for trout.

Again, it's a good news/bad news thing. The good news is that every corner has a deep spot that holds trout; and there are lots of corners. The bad news is that nearly every corner has a bear on it; and there are lots of corners.

In all, we see over a dozen grizzlies today. We just give them time to amble off, which they always do.

I was concerned about the bears before we came. My biggest worry was having one ransack the camp in search of food. But these bears are well fed, and we keep a tidy camp that doesn't have attractive odors. The bears are not aggressive or threatening. Give them time, and they move away. We just need to be alert and "bear aware." As I said before, let the wookie win. It's a big help that there are nine of us. We stay in groups and no one goes far alone. There's never been a bear attack on a group of four or more people.

Toward evening, we drift the final section. the creek is now broad and straight as it nears the lake. For the first time in six days, I surrender the oars. Rob rows while I sit on the edge of the raft and sidedrift my bead through likely water. I hook and land two five-pound trout in about 15 minutes. It's a good way to end the trip, and I reel up.

Epilogue

At 8:30 Sunday morning, Chad flew in along with Gary, his other pilot. They landed their Beavers on the frog water and took us and our gear back to Iliamna where our charter plane returned us to Anchorage.

Over lunch--"anything that's not freeze-dried, please"--we discussed the trip. Everyone agrees that it was fantastic, but why?

First, we admit that we prefer rainbow trout fishing to anything else Alaska has to offer. Chinook salmon are big and powerful, but it's tedious work bringing in those huge fish. Sockeye are . . . well, let's face it, you don't hook sockeye; you snag them in the mouth. Coho (silvers) are fast and acrobatic, but like other Alaska salmon you're fishing over a huge migrating school, and when you're in the right place at the right time you're going to get a fish on every cast; boring.

The rainbows, on the other hand, take a little more finesse. And you have to search for them. They're plentiful enough that you can catch some, then take a break, then go catch a few more. It's a leisurely-paced fishery, at least the way we did it.

Second, the weather was unusually good. This time of year it can be 43 degrees and raining with a 15 mph wind for a week. Or worse. When your tent, sleeping bag, and clothes are wet, and you can't dry anything out, you can start to feel miserable in a hurry.

Third, by-and-large we were reasonably fit and stayed healthy and whole. Injuries can easily occur when you're dragging rafts through shallow, boulder-strewn water. A broken ankle or even a strained back would have been a problem, and no solution would be in hand until reaching the other end of the creek.

And fourth, this was a cohesive group. Four of the guys were college buddies, and four (there was overlap) were fishing friends from the White Salmon/Hood River area. Except for me, everyone else was a relative of someone in the two main groups. So there was a spirit of camaraderie that would not have been present if you'd taken nine strangers and thrown them together.

But the real reason for our immense enjoyment and satisfaction was because we did the trip ourselves. You can go to Alaska and stay in a nice fly-out lodge, enjoying great food, a nightly shower, a warm room with a soft bed, and a guide who takes you to the best places and tells you what to tie on and where to cast. That's a valid experience. It will cost you about $1,000 a day.

While we had a plane to drop us off and pick us up, and an outfitter who supplied the rafting and camping gear, we reached our water through hard, physical work and whitewater skill. Willingness to take risks and expend effort got us into country where man is a rare visitor and the trout see around 50 anglers a year. Money didn't buy those fish. We earned every trout, and to us that makes them the most valuable fish on the planet.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).