What kind of place is Katmai Lodge, a bucket-list fishing destination carved out of the Alaskan tundra, six times closer to Russian than Seattle?
Operations Manager Bob Kantor starts telling stories.
A single caretaker watches over the lodge in the heart of the region’s bone-chilling winters. One day, Kantor heard news of an earthquake rocking nearby Kodiak Island. He called to ask if the property had been affected, but continually failed to reach the man.
Kantor asked a friend to fly to the lodge, which is accessible only by boat or plane. It was clear that the caretaker’s dog, who generally roams outside, had been trapped in the cabin for days.
The man left the lodge to do some trapping when his four-wheeler broke down. Alaska Troopers found him wandering the wild, white unknown after four days in the elements. At one point, a dozen wolves treed him — causing him to sleep among the branches overnight as temps plunged to minus-10.
“If it wasn’t for that earthquake, he’d be dead,” Kantor said.
When the lodge began work on a gravel runway that opened in 1993, they shipped a bulldozer as far up river as possible before abandoning it on the shore. In February, they returned with a fresh battery and drove it the remaining 20 miles … along the surface of the frozen river.
The response to anything strange, unexpected or breathtaking that happens in Katmai National Park is the same: “It’s Alaska.”
That was the appeal for a group from San Diego County that made a recent trip to Katmai to chase five types of salmon — silvers (coho), sockeye, pink (humpy), chum and kings — along with hulking rainbow trout, dolly varden and arctic grayling.
And they found all of them, along with moose and more bears and eagles than you could count.
“It’s like you’ve been to all the county fairs and then you went to Disneyland,” said Kurt Ramey, 62, of Alpine. “You see wildlife up close and personal and you catch different types of fish, all day long.
“I literally typed ‘best trout fishing in the world’ into Safari. The first thing that popped up was Katmai this and Katmai that. It definitely lived up to that.”
In the main channel of the Alagnak, a 64-mile tributary that is part of a veiny waterway system that feeds into Bristol Bay, silver salmon were easily tempted by both fly rods and spinning gear. The soft gravel and sand bottom, easily walked in waders, allows anglers to work a lot of water with little trouble.
The lodge also offers fly-out trips to even more remote locations, including a trip many in the group made to Margot Creek — a few miles from bear central, a place named Brooks Falls.
A short flight under the clouds in a 12-seat de Havilland Otter, last produced in 1967, softly ends on the milky-blue surface of the Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake. From there, a full day of fishing in a creek that ran red with sockeye awaited. The fish are so bountiful, that they often rammed into the legs of those casting strike indicators, split-shot weights and beads that mimic fish eggs.
The experience also included routine run-ins with grizzly bears, including what a pair of guides insisted was a first for them: There were at least five groups of mothers and cubs among the 20 or so bears sighted.
“You get dropped off and told, ‘I’ll be back in 10 hours’ and all you hear are eagles and the sound of water,” said Mike Kusler, 45, the owner of Kusler Yachts at Kona Kai Marina. “The bears were intense. When you see footprints and scat and fresh kills, you had a pretty good idea what was around the corner, and it usually was.
“I’m not a religious person, but it’s about as close to heaven as you’re ever going to get.”
Pete Giacalone, a long-time San Diego boat captain who now works with Kusler, has fished the Pacific extensively. He’s made long-range trips to Fiji, Somoa and the Cook Islands. On a commercial albacore tuna trip at age 18, halfway between New Zealand and Chile, he spent 153 consecutive days without touching dry land.
The fishing veteran found himself impressed, all the same.
“I thought it was incredible,” Giacalone, 41, said of the fly-out. “Where else can you do that? The scenery. The wildlife. It’s like a National Geographic trip.”
The lodge includes a range of unique treats for those who wind their way to the isolated elbow along the Alagnak. A photo slideshow of that day’s catch is displayed during a nightly happy hour. At the end of the trip, each visitor leaves with a flash drive of pictures.
There’s a well-stocked fly-tying work space, a small bar, top-notch menu and routine sightings of bear and moose directly across the river. The lodge also vacuum-seals and freezes salmon for home, packed in boxes that can be flown as checked baggage — saving on pricey shipping costs.
The spot has developed a reputation. A group that included NBA icon Rick Barry was scheduled to hit the water the week after the San Diegans.
“If you wanted to go to a lodge right next to a road, there are plenty of places to do that,” Kantor said. “This is unique. Everything, from jet fuel to toothpicks, has to be flown or boated in.”
The star of the show, of course, is the fishing. Ramey landed a 26-inch rainbow. Giacalone wrestled in a 27-inch dolly varden. The silver salmon, as August faded, proved powerful and plentiful.
Guides aided every moment on the water.
“A lot of people are intimidated by fly fishing,” Kusler said. “There’s a stigma about it. But I wouldn’t hesitate to send anyone of any skill level up there.”
Bears. Fish. Unrelenting sunsets. More bears. More fish.
To learn more:
- Online: www.katmai.com
- Call: 800-330-0326 (Tell them Kusler Yachts sent you!)
*This article was originally run in the San Diego Union Tribune on September 7, 2018.