The Nanek to El Norte to Baja Shuffle

As the first big chill of the ’09 winter has come in gone in western Oregon, I have had some time to look back at a remarkable fall. In September, our little AK lodge on the Naknek had a few last minute cancellations, resulting in unrestricted river time for us guides. And in late October I made the journey again to the NorthCountry.

The Naknek in September and October is home to a unique biological event: a small run–estimates in the low thousands–of lake-bred rainbows leave Naknek Lake and enter the Naknek River to feed. Some years, if the water is right and the food sources available, the trout will stick around until freeze-up, some even overwintering in the river to spawn the following spring.

These are big trout–with the average size between twenty-four and twenty-seven inches and fish over thirty inches encountered almost daily. A notable aspect of their size, is the sheer girth. By comparison, a steelhead of twenty-nine inches will typically have a girth somewhere around thirteen or fourteen inches, and weigh seven pounds, while a Naknek rainbow of the same length may have a seventeen or eighteen inch girth, coming in at well over ten pounds and sometimes closer to fourteen.

After guiding the sockeye spawn for the previous month in small creeks, fishing the big river is always a welcome change of pace. We swing big flies, steelhead style, fished behind heavy tips, and cast as far as possible. On the Naknek, fish will be holding close to shore in “typical steelhead water,” but also in the fast stuff near the middle. This fall a good buddy of mine visited the lodge with his girlfriend to fish for a few days during their annual AK trout assault. One morning, as I was landing the sled in popular run, he commented on how fast and deep the water was. Our flies were landing in water over ten feet deep, but even with heavy tips and weighted flies we weren’t coming close to the bottom. I told him to give it a shot anyways just to see what would happen. As he reached the sweet spot, a twenty-seven inch chrome projectile grabbed the fly and ran.

When I describe swinging flies for rainbows on the Naknek, I tell people it’s like really good steelheading–enough fish a day to keep things interesting and the ones you catch are going to be ass-kickers. I have had more Naknek rainbows, on average, take me into my backing than I ever have while fishing for steelhead. As a steelhead enters the river, every day the fish looses a little strength–it isn’t feeding, rather resting until spawning time rolls around. The way a steelhead strikes your fly can vary from fish-to-fish, and also depend on the time of year. But by late October in the NorthCountry many takes are like a toddler tugging on your shirt sleeve throughout the swing. Eventually the fish grabs ahold, sometimes sooner. The steelie take is more pluck than it is attack. Naknek rainbows attack your fly. Most times your line will be peeling off to the center of the river on first contact.

This fall, I was lucky. I got to fish just enough to keep me stoked though the last three weeks of the season and feed the steelhead itch that was beginning to build. I knew that come October 15th, when I was Seattle-bound, I would only be a few days away from steel Vahalla, the NorthCountry.

I had been watching the state fishery counts since Mid-August. High water, low water, bitter cold, a few fish here, six fish there. It sounded like overall the season was going like most: some folks getting them, others not, with some shitty weather between the gaps. Within two days of touchdown at Sea-Tac, and after the necessary obligations (friends, family, bills…), the camper was loaded and the dashboard compass pointed north. We drove most of the night, found a lakeside park to grab a few hours rest, and continued in the morning, reaching El Norte the following evening just as the sun dropped. My buddy was just getting off the water, and had hooked six. We had arrived.

The next four days were spent fishless. We explored great water, some of it recommended by other steel vagabonds. All of the features were there, the speed, rocks, color, and though the temperature was a little cold, it seemed like they should be there. To make matters worse, we were still getting reports of “hooked four yesterday”, “got seven today”, “my wife got a thirty pounder….” So we kept swinging.

A buddy of ours was traveling from Ketchikan to Seattle in his newly purchased, twenty-four foot, 1982, Toyota truck/RV, dubbed the Eagle 6–apparently the sister ship to the Eagle 5 of Mel Brooks’ “Space Balls” fame. He had nine cases of beer with him, so we invited him along due to the obvious economic benefit, and that he was a steelhead fishing pal from a few years back.

Two additional days pass, fishing great steelhead water and fishing it hard and well. More hard-to-swallow reports followed. Though no one in our crew would be considered an expert or zen-master, none of us are beginners either, so spending six days without a grab is not totally unrealistic. It goes with the territory, the mental shut-off-switch that somehow helps one realize that logic and common sense don’t apply to steelhead flyfishing.

We are all used to it. We understand that hours and days may be spent without a pull, and if we are fishing light–not even the bump of a rock to break the rhythm. But dammit, it’s tough to keep getting skunked while your buddy tells you he’s “somewhere down river” laying the wood to them.

Lessons were learned, eventually we stumbled onto some productive water, fished some productive flies, and caught some beautiful wild steelhead. This season we fished many days on the big river, taking five or more steps between casts, fishing our flies back into the shallows, waiting, and hoping for a fish to take on the dangle. Some did, some were missed, a few landed. Nothing to set the interweb afire, though numerous fish in the fourteen pound class were tailed during the three week trek.

Towards the end of the stay, the tug of the so-called real world started to sink in. I hadn’t been home since April before leaving for Baja. I wanted to stay up north, but had also made commitments stateside, so we journeyed home.

I wish it hadn’t ended so soon, but a truly enjoyable fall.

Coastal steel now, back to Baja in spring, up to NorthCountry again early summer. More lessons to learn.


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