5 Rivers Odyssey, Part II: A Bounty in Bristol Bay

Written by: Anthony Ortiz

Anthony Ortiz with a gorgeous, streamer-eating Dolly Varden on the Koktuli River.
Photos courtesy Trout Unlimited

Editor’s note: In July, Trout Unlimited sent four of their brightest college club leaders in the TU Costa 5 Rivers Program to explore the home of the world’s largest runs of wild salmon: Alaska. The students explored the Kenai Peninsula, Bristol Bay, and the Tongass National Forest in pursuit of the five species of Pacific salmon and other native salmonids that call Alaska home. Their missions was to unearth, document, and share the challenges facing the largest salmon fisheries in the world. They also went fishing, and we will share some of their stories over the next few weeks.

The eight-day float trip focused on the abundance of life in the river system.

A sleepless night, two flights, and one hell of a portage later, I found myself on the Koktuli River in the heart of Bristol Bay. We inflated our rafts and prepared for the eight-day float trip that was ahead. After we strapped down our gear and put on our waders, we slid into a back channel and pushed the rafts over beaver dams, bushes, and logs in our way to get to the main channel of the river. From my perch on the raft, I saw camo-colored submarines and bright red torpedoes in the water. My first glimpse of wild salmon in Bristol Bay! Everywhere I looked, I could see king, sockeye, and chum salmon making their journey upstream to spawn. Opportunistic Dolly Varden, grayling, and rainbow trout followed the salmon upriver with hopes of gorging themselves on loose salmon eggs.

The chum salmon is easy to identify by the slashes of color on its sides.

Before the trip, I expected the fishing to consist mostly of throwing beads, which mimicked the loose salmon eggs. To my surprise, we caught fish on everything we threw. I watched graylings’ colorful dorsal fins come entirely out of the water to chase down any dry that hit the water. I couldn’t believe the aerial show that I was witnessing; some fish jumped out of the water and crushed the dry as they came back down into the water. Dry-fly fishing in Alaska was amazing, but my favorite thing to do was throw streamers. For me, true exhilaration is stripping in a big streamer and feeling a voracious smash on the end of the line. Nothing was as exciting as tying on large pink-and-purple Dolly Llama and tossing it into a pool with the possibility of catching kings, chum, and sockeye. Sometimes, Dollies and rainbows would even take the large streamers.

The Dolly Llama streamer was Anthony’s favorite pattern.

The float trip on the Koktuli river was a slice of heaven. It was an escape to truly untouched wilderness. Connecting with the fish that keep the entire system thriving was an experience that I’ll never forget. Bristol Bay is the epitome of a truly wild ecosystem, and we have the chance to keep it wild. Many places in the lower 48 no longer have the chance to prevent destruction of watersheds, and people are now focusing on restoration because damage has already been done. We need to work to conserve salmon habitat while salmon runs are still strong to keep these unique ecosystems thriving. Salmon are vital to Bristol Bay’s economy, ecosystems, and cultures, and I’ll never forget my experience with these powerful creatures on the end of my line.

Fellow Odyssey member Kylie Hogan shows of a chum of her own.

Anthony Ortiz is a junior at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he studies business and is a member of the fly-fishing club. After graduation, he hopes to start his own business with a focus on sustainability. I have Trout Unlimited and fly fishing to thank for my goals.

Interested brown bears looked on curiously as the flotilla headed downstream.

Protection from sun, wind, water, and bugs is important in the Alaskan bush.

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