The Aniak River

A Prolific Playground

There are just some rivers that seem to nuzzle their way into your psyche whether you like it or not. You may not even know that it is happening at first. One day, however, you realize that they are firmly embedded there and you just can’t get themout of your mind.

The Aniak is such a river. Interesting, treacherous, and studded with log jams higher than a three story building, it has a certain something about it that entices you back again and again. Certainly, the incredibly prolific runs of fish promise (and deliver) fly rodding beyond belief, but somehow, it’s more than that. Masking its secrets in constantly shifting channels and gravel bars as well as deep, snag-filled holes beside undercut banks, it’s a river that is always challenging and never quite the same, no matter how many times you visit.

The Aniak is not a river that one would call “gorgeous,” except, perhaps, in its upper reaches where the nearby mountains offer scenic views. Tucked between the Kilbuck and Kuskokwim Mountains, the river originates at the outflow of Aniak Lake about 317 miles west of Anchorage. Initially it is a fairly swift, rushing spate of cellophane-clear water that runs to the north (believe it or not) and broadens considerably upon meeting up with its other branches, the Kipchuk and the Salmon,  sixty miles down from the lake.

The fishing, for grayling and char particularly, is reported to be good in the reaches just above the joining of the three branches because of the extensive spawning areas there. Buckstock Creek, about forty miles from the Aniak/Kuskokwim confluence is another popular up-river fishing area.  The entire stretch from the confluence of the three waterways down to Doestock Creek, about fifteen miles from where the Aniak joins the incredible Kuskokwim, holds the greatest variety of fish.

As the river moves out of the mountains and enters the Kuskokwim lowlands, cottonwood, willow and scrawny black spruce predominate. Here a myriad of back channels and sloughs characterize the sinuous bends of this tundra flow. Then, the water slows and widens and the silt from muddier banks makes it less visually appealing. Less appealing perhaps, but this is where some great fishing takes place.

The Aniak’s Salmon

From Kings to cohos and sockeye to chums and pinks, the fishing in the Aniak offers fantastic opportunities. All five Pacific salmon species return to spawn in the Aniak and its native rainbows, char and grayling grow absolutely porky on all the food that such returns produce. Two other often-overlooked species, pike and sheefish, round out the veritable smorgasbord of piscatorial possibilities here.

Like all Alaska fishing, one has to be alert to the timing of various species to best take advantage of good fishing. Flowing into the Kuskokwim at river mile two-hundred-twenty five (one hundred forty seven miles upstream of Bethel, the region’s major community) the Aniak is not the river for dime-bright fish right at tide-water. It takes the salmon awhile to travel this far up from the sea, avoid the commercial and subsistence nets, and determine whether or not the Aniak is home. Then, of course, the farther up the river toward their spawning beds they navigate, the less desirable they are for eating. So, the lower river can be a prime area for the freshest fish.

“King fishing in early to mid July can be fantastic,” says Woody Wooderson, owner of Aniak-based Hook-M-Up Fishing Adventures, who has guided on the river since 1982. “Three hundred miles from where the road ends, our adventure begins. This is a place where a thirty-pounder isn’t necessarily a keeper.”

He relates the story of some clients who fished the river with him in 2005. “One fly fisher and three spin fishers from New Mexico and New Jersey landed thirty-five Kings in eight hours,” he says. “Finally, the fly fisher decided to try a spey rod that he had brought with him especially for the trip. Within just a few casts he hooked into his first King, and was he ever happy. Lots of the fish that these guys caught were 30-plus pounders. Several were over forty-pounds.”

Woody takes his King salmon fly fishers a bit up river from the mouth where the fish are more concentrated in the holes, which also allows better bank access for fly anglers. He recommends purples, oranges, and white flies with Flashabou and tinsel to provide the sparkle that attracts the fish.

I take anglers to the Aniak River each year in August for the silvers and other bounty that awaits. Running close to the bank on the wide, slow lower river, where we fish during part of our trips, the coho are, at times, easy pickings.  Pods of ten to fifteen pound lunkers roll and fin and disturb the water’s murky surface. When the light is right, and with a good pair of Polaroid glasses, their dark gray shapes can be startlingly visible, just a fifteen-foot cast away.  Bright flies with lots of glitter and flash, easier for the fish to see in the shadowy water, usually do the trick.

A #4 silver and red flash fly or purple egg sucking leech tied with a sparkly cactus chenille body, stripped fast, usually manage to entice one after the other fish to break ranks with the pack and give chase. They’ll follow right up to the bank, and we can frequently watch them open their mouth for the take. What a blast!

Using the two-handed retrieve is one of the techniques I recommend to my clients for successful silver fishing. “Just put your reel under your arm pit and strip as fast as you can with both hands right down by the stripping guide,” I tell them. “The faster you strip, the more they’ll chase.” That seems to be all it takes for the hook-ups to start.

On the upper river, Buckstock creek is another coho hang-out. Bill and his wife, Mimi were the first to connect one morning as we found silvers finning slowly in a shallow channel. Using the fast strip technique and one split shot about a foot up on the leader they already had fish on the bank when Donna and her husband, Cliff, waded in near them. They started keeping count of how many times they had fish hooked simultaneously, but they got so excited they kept losing count.  “Once they see the fly they take right off after it,” they marveled.

Red, chum, and pink salmon also populate the Aniak during mid summer, and it is these species’ spawning that produces many of the eggs that keep the rainbows, char and grayling fat and sassy in the upper river. Because these runs are spread out through July and August, the table is always set for their smaller scavenging cousins.

Other Aniak Surprises

Certainly it is salmon, trout, char and grayling that we look forward to on the Aniak, but two other species often give us a real thrill. Even though we are not there in the spring when they usually appear, we’ve been surprised more than once by a large scaled, jutting jaw sheefish on the end of someone’s line. Not a year round resident of the Aniak, sheefish appear at the river mouth while resting during their up-stream migration on the Kuskokwim.

The Sheefish is a true wilderness fish. Known for their incredibly long migratory journeys to the headwaters of their natal river, they are infrequently targeted by sport anglers.  Because of the water discoloration, we can’t actually tell that a hookup is a sheefish by looking at it from the surface. Once someone connects with one and we know they’re around, though, we set out to land them. Large, white flies with lots of silver or gold Flashabou often entice them to strike, and their fight is every bit as dramatic as a coho’s.

Sheefish display some of the same exciting acrobatics as their salmon compatriots. Repeated, twisting jumps and long, strong runs characterize their fight, leading them to be called by some the “tarpon of the north.” We’re not sure when we hook them in August if they are on their return journey to the Kuskokwim’s delta or if they moved up river to feed but not to spawn. It doesn’t matter. An encounter with one of these brutes is a memorable experience.

Pike are another fish treat (in my opinion) on the Aniak. I know that may anglers consider them voracious predators whose only purpose in life is to eradicate the trout and young salmon that we revere. In a large river like the Aniak, however, they are a resident fish and an important part of the eco-system. And, they can be great fun to fish on a fly rod. Particularly in the sloughs and slow water of the lower river, they can be caught ridiculously easily with large flies at the mouths of back-waters or along weedy banks. An angler who has never fished pike with a fly has some fun coming their way. Just make sure NEVER to try to remove a fly or a lure from a pike with your hands. If you can’t get it easily with a needle-nosed pliers, just cut it off.

More Than Salmon and Pike-Fishing Up-river

We primarily fish the Aniak from an up-river tent camp for easier access to a wider variety of water and fish. It’s all set up and waiting for us when we arrive. Woody picks us up at the Aniak airport, and while we may do some silver fishing while the boats get loaded, we’re on our way in no time.

The hour-long boat ride to camp is one I look forward to each year. I love zipping along the twists and turns of the river, watching the moose that trot quickly into the bushes when they see us, and noticing the increasing number of fish we spook as we get closer and closer to camp.

Piloting one of the camp’s jet boats, Woody skillfully navigates the sharp sweeper-studded bends with the ease of a twenty-five-year resident of the river. The oldest guide service using the Aniak River, he knows every inch here including just where the building-high log piles threaten to come loose, where the eagle’s nest is hidden in a large spruce tree, and where a submerged branch could rip the bottom right out of the boat.  He also knows right where the salmon are spawning and, therefore, right where the char, grayling and rainbows will be. Unerringly, he cuts the motor and noses the boat into the bank right above a cache of waiting fish. The sheer number of Dollies always amazes people.

Hannah and Julia had a particularly productive couple of hours one afternoon in spot that he’d selected for us.  Hannah accidentally located a school of char when one of them took her sunken caddis fly that had been hooking grayling on the surface.  (Grayling never completely abandon dry flies.  Even when surrounded by more protein-laden possibilities these spiky-finned beauties with bulging bellies, still sip away at the properly presented surface delicacy.)

“I didn’t know that char will come up for a fly right under the surface,” she said. Just to see if they could make it happen again, the two of them purposively water logged a dry fly and set to work. Surprisingly, Dolly after Dolly took their underwater offerings and they matched each other fish for fish. Then after they had proved their point, they switched to an egg pattern and really turned on the spigot.

This mix of species enjoying the banquet is typical on the upper Aniak. On a different trip two women and two other couples had formed our group. The gals had tired of fishing for silvers in a nearby slough where we’d spent more than an hour. While the guys stayed put with the silvers, they went back to the boat to get their 5-wts to fish something lighter. It was Maggie that decided to head down below the outflow of the slough where she figured that rainbows, char and grayling should be waiting along the steep gravel bank for the eggs being brought down by the current. She was right! “Come on down here,” she invited the others, “I’m catching a fish every cast.”

In no time at all, so were her three companions. I could hardly believe that the four of them, standing just a few feet apart, had triples after triples after triples. On a few occasions all four of them had a fish on at the same time. Most were Dollies, but the occasional fish was a grayling or a rainbow just for some variety. All were in prime condition. “Wow,” someone would say, “look at this color,” as they landed a fat, feisty char with its flaming red belly, spots, and mouth or a chunky, rouge-cheeked rainbow.

We generally find Dollies in quite large schools on the Aniak, unlike the rainbows. The bows seem to be more solitary feeders, scattered among the other fish rather than bunched up in one area. The really large rainbows are thought to stay up behind the still-spawning kings until quite late in the summer. Nevertheless they are well represented among the fish feasting on the smaller eggs of the chums, sockeye, and pinks.

One particular day Dorothy seemed to have a magical knack for finding the rainbows in amongst the spawners and other feeding fish. “Here’s another one,” she’d say, lifting her rod tip to set the hook before treating us all to yet one more display of skill in playing and guiding a crimson-cheeked beauty to the bank. After a quick picture she carefully returned each one to the water, as is required for all rainbows on the Aniak. I lost track of how many gorgeous fish she landed that trip.

Regardless of which species we target each day, we look forward to Woody’s great camp cooking each night to fortify ourselves for the next adventure. Whether it is his excellent shish-ka-bobs grilled over the ever-present camp fire, the lip-smacking good egg, cheese and veggie breakfast casserole, or my favorite, the caribou stroganoff, we never go hungry. His fresh salmon shore lunches are to die for!

At the end of the trip we head back to the main lodge reluctantly, but look forward to a little more silver fishing on our last night and last morning there to be able to take some fish for the freezer.

Accessing the Aniak

The Aniak is a river that is reachable in two ways, with a raft, or with a guided jet boat. Either way, people arrive in Aniak by either Alaska Airlines jet or Penair or Frontier Flying Service commuter flights. Rafters then make the thirty-minute bush plane flight to a small gravel landing strip and the put-in at Bell Creek a short distance from the Salmon River. This is the easiest access and most navigable water of the three branches that form the main stem Aniak.

The towering log-jams and unexpected sweepers make most of the river a very dangerous float, and only the most experienced attempt it. The one-hundred-ten mile distance from Aniak Lake to the village requires a six or seven night trip. An article in the November, 2003 edition of Fish Alaska Magazine contains a good description of the hazards and difficulties (as well as the rewards) of such a float.

More frequently, fishing access to the river is by guided jet boat.  Hook-M-Up Fishing Adventures is located right at the confluence of the Aniak and the Kuskokwim rivers where the prime fishing for king and silver salmon takes place. Bank fishing on their property can also be excellent for both chums and silvers.  Other guides and outfitters are located across the Kuskokwim at the village of Aniak.  With such close access, the mouth of the river is often dotted with skiffs when the fish are running.

Gear for the Aniak

Fly anglers who fish Kings on the Aniak use a ten-wt rod with a tough, reliable reel equipped with an exposed rim for drag-reducing palming. These fish hold deep, so sink-tip lines are recommended. The deep, snag-filled pools eat flies like a dog eats table scraps, however, so the very line that gets your fly down to where the fish are may also send it into oblivion.

Silvers, chums, sockeye and pinks can all be fished on an eight-wt rod. I fish only with nine-foot long rods to help manage a larger than expected fish and to punch a #2 fly into the wind. All my rods are equipped with Ross Reels because of their excellent drag systems and exposed rim palming features.

Rather than debate the pros and cons of floating vs. sinking tip lines, most anglers take both. There are times when a floating line weighted with heavy split shot makes for the better choice.

No matter which line you use, you’re going to lose flies when fishing the Aniak. Be prepared with plenty of #4-#2 and even #1/0 weighted everglows, flash flies, and egg-sucking leeches, some with lead dumbbell eyes and some without. The starlight leech is another good choice, but it might be too heavy for some areas. The old reliable Fat Freddie is a standby fly that works well on Aniak Kings.

All the flies recommended above, except for the Fat Freddie, can be counted on to take the Aniak’s silvers and chums as well as can my Mardi Gras fly and the Little Red Riding fly that were featured in the August, 2005 and May, 2005 editions of Fish Alaska Magazine.

Flies for sockeye and pink salmon are a little different. Like reds everywhere, the Aniak’s sockeye prefer a small, sparse fly. A #6 sockeye orange is usually a perfect choice as is a Fish Candy fly, (just some bright colored cactus chenille wrapped around a hook). Many people rely also rely on the same size Comets in any color, the Montana brassy, and the Red Hot, all of which can be found in the Alaska Fly Fishers’ book Fly Patterns of Alaska.

Many of the flies recommended for sockeye will also take the pinks. The color just should be pink. “Pink for the pinks” is not an idle saying. It really works. Pinks are not very fussy takers. Just put something the right color and with a little flash in front of them, and they’ll usually step right up to the plate.

Gear for the Aniak’s rainbows, char, and grayling is basically a nine-foot five-weight rod with a good reel and a floating line. I take along a few sink tip lines for my clients just in case, but we seldom use them. Since we are generally fishing dry flies, egg imitation flies, or beads in the fairly shallow water that spawning salmon prefer, there isn’t much call for anything more than the right amount of split shot on the leader to get the fly to the fish.

Like egg-imitation fishing anywhere it’s important to have a variety of colors and sizes for the flies and beads. I never go larger than a #8 hook or a 6 or 8 mm bead size. (I either attach the beads directly to the hook or make sure that they are pegged no more than an inch above the hook-eye to avoid harming fish.) You can fish with a strike indicator, if you prefer, but I find that using a nymphing technique with a short line to keep in contact with the fly is a better way for people to develop a “there’s a fish there” instinct.

Besides egg flies and beads, I always have small black woolly buggers and leeches available to let the fish see something different from time to time. Bunny/flesh flies are also in my arsenal as are egg-sucking bunnies. At times the fish seem sated with eggs and we discover that the fly that will catch them will be a flesh-imitation. Other proven rainbow/Dolly flies like a Battle Creek Special take a lot of fish as well.

#12 dry Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams, and red and yellow Humpies are all you’ll need in the way of dry flies for the grayling.

What a Place

Besides having enough fish to satisfy even the most die-hard angler, the Aniak also has some great wildlife and bird watching to offer. Its vegetation is perfect moose habitat and we see them, or their tracks everywhere on the lower river, particularly. We watch the side sloughs intently for sightings of cows and calves back in the shallow water as we move up or down the river.

Bears are, of course, a fact of life on the river. Their tracks dot every gravel bar we fish from and every slough where the salmon rest. We see them occasionally as we round a turn in the river, but they usually take right off at the sound of the motor. We take pains to keep a clean camp and to pitch the tents well away from any cooking areas.

Last year, a juvenile bear emerged from the bushes right across from us as we were finishing one of Woody’s great shore lunches. Worried that he had smelled our cooking, we quickly cleaned up and prepared to launch the boat.  He ambled along sniffing the dead fish lying on his bank.  Then, as we watched, he crashed into the river and quickly emerged with a wriggling fish in his mouth. Surprisingly, however, he didn’t eat it, but just dropped it and charged back in for another, which he didn’t eat either. After playing with them for awhile he finally waded nonchalantly across to our side. We waited for him to emerge from the bushes, but we never saw him again. That’s the kind of bear encounter I prefer.

We’ve also seen and heard the sand hill cranes on the river, and watched ‘day-care ducky” mergansers with their and their friends’ huge contingent of babies floating along. One misty morning, rising earlier than the rest of the group, I heard the calls of swans and stood mesmerized in the golden, misty light as their great wings took them just over me and on down the river on the start of their southerly migration. It was just another example of how the Aniak entices me.  It’s an intriguing river.

Fish Species Running Times on the Aniak River
    June   JulyAugustSeptember
Kings      X-     X(still present upriver)
Silvers     X(still present up river)
Sockeye      X
Chums      X     X
Pinks      X
Rainbows     X      X     X      X
Dolly Varden Char     X      X     X      X
Arctic

Grayling

     X      X     X      X
Pike     X      X     X      X
Sheefish

(occasional)

     X     X      X

A Short History of Aniak

Location: On the South bank of the Kuskokwim River at the head of Aniak Slough, 92 air miles northeast of Bethel and 317 miles west of Anchorage

Community area: 5 sq miles of land and 2 sq mile of water

Yup’ik meaning: “the place where it comes out,” which refers to the mouth of the Aniak River

History: the river played a role in the placer gold rush of 1900-01. Homesteading began in 1914 with the opening of a store and post office. The Yup’ik village of Aniak was reestablished about that same time. A Russian-era trader, Semen Lukin, is credited with the discovery of gold near Aniak in 1932.  The Territorial school opened in 1936. (Alaska Dept. of Community and Economic Development)

(Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Fish Alaska magazine)