Dries For Big Rainbows and Char on American Creek

I live in Montana where trout are king. When I travel to Alaska I usually do so for salmon and steelhead, which I can’t find in Big Sky Country. Oh, I’ve leeched up some big fall rainbows on the Kenai Peninsula and the Naknek River, but I’d never really fished early summer around Bristol Bay . . . until last month.

That’s when I grabbed a flight from Missoula to Anchorage, and another from Anchorage to Kulik Lodge, via Katmai Air. From there I wiggled into a floatplane and cruised another 20 minutes to Grosvenor Lodge, which is located on a small spit of land partially separating Grosvenor Lake from Coville Lake. The structures, including three guest cabins, a main lodge, and a cookhouse, are situated in lush, tall grass with an abundance of willows and moss covered moose skulls surrounding it. Quaint. Unique. Beautiful.

It’s the only lodge in this particular area and offers the best access to American Creek and other tributary streams, despite being located deep in Katmai National Park. When other area lodges are grounded by weather, Grosvenor guests simply climb into a boat and take a 20-minute jog to the American Creek outlet.

From mid-July through August it’s all about drifting beads behind spawning salmon on American Creek. While that’s a productive method and puts plenty of trout in the net, guides and anglers sometimes tire from the routine, maybe thinking, Isn’t there something else? The answer is yes, if you hit Grosvenor before the sockeye salmon arrive, a time when those rainbows, plus lake trout and char, smash salmon fry in the lakes and streams. In addition, this is a time when they may get after some big, meaty insects, including stoneflies, caddis and drakes. When they do just that, a day on American Creek might feel like a Rocky Mountains trout trip, except you’re way more remote, the fish average 19-to 26 inches long, and they are line-burners of a unique brand. Don’t bring the dainty 3 and 4-weights here—you’d be lucky to hold a 20-incher on American Creek with a 5-weight. Or it would fight itself to the point of death before you could get it to the net.

I didn’t really consider the dry-fly option when I headed to Grosvenor, but I did pack a mix of dries that proved very beneficial when we saw a head pop up along a deep bank. Guide Todd Emerson, who started guiding the Katmai area in 2004 and serves as Grosvenor’s manager, said, “I’ve seen that fish before and we haven’t been able to hook him yet.”

Well, then we might just have to hook it, right?

I spent an hour or more trying to lodge a cast between a log that was about four feet off the bank, and a stack of willows a few yards upstream, all waving in an unruly 20-mile-an-hour wind. Let the line go at the wrong time and it ended up in the willows. Make a bad cast and you would paint the log with flies. Which is just what I did. In the end, we moved in on that big, picky fish, Emerson holding the boat just above the log while I dabbed a Caddis Variant (the closest match I had for some grayish colored drakes) over the log and along the bank. Got the fish to eat. Held a brief moment of hope when it took off downstream, only to realize I was cooked when it swapped ends and ran back to its lair, wrapping my leader on the log in the process. Ping! Probably would have gone 28 inches.

We spent the rest of the day catching some nice dolly varden, chasing more rainbows with the dry, and talking about what makes Grosvenor and American Creek such an absolutely unique fishery in a Bristol Bay region teaming with options.

“Katmai is an amazing area and I’ve fished the majority of streams that you can feasibly get into from a small lake and a float plane,” Emerson said. “American Creek is my favorite trout stream on the planet. It reminds me of Michigan—the trees, the sweepers, all the snags on the lower end of the creek. The upper creek is totally different. All low tundra, no trees, boulder picking, beautiful rocks . . . just a whole different system. But dry-fly fishing is spectacular up there as well. The whole thing is 49 miles from top to bottom.

“These trout here act like trout,” Emerson added. “Some of those larger systems, and even on the Moraine, those trout act like steelhead, which at times is a fun game to play. But these trout orient to structure and key in on bugs. In the early season you can get them on dries, you can get them with the mouse, get tricky with the leech. It’s an intimate stream where you can take a section and just dissect it. It’s a stunning place to be and the trout are gorgeous.”

Those fish are particularly beautiful right now, mostly because they are big, maybe even at the top end of cycle where each seems to be trophy size, camera-ready, and a big-time test on a smallish river with roots and deadfall around every bend.

“The number of quality size fish—meaning 25 to 30-inches long—is astounding right now,” Emerson said. “The chance to catch a fish of that magnitude on a dry fly is mind-blowing.

“Kvichak, Naknek,” Emerson said. “Yea you can swing the spey rod and get them on a leech, which I love. But to have these big heads coming up and sipping dry flies like we have right now, you aren’t going to see that on those other rivers. There’s tons of water to probe in the (lower) sections where I can fish with the jetboat. But there is also the option of hiking into what we call ‘the braids’ where I park the boat, we throw on the backpacks, and we just go sight-fishing, just cruising through all these channels and braids. You are looking at mid-to-upper 20-inch fish where you have to figure out, first off, how am I going to make the cast without getting caught in the tree. Ok, let’s say you make the cast. How you going to get the drift? Then let’s say he eats it. Set the hook and where is he going? When it all actually happens and (the angler) puts the wood to it, and the fish turns away from the logjam, and we run 50 yards downstream, and finally get ahold of it . . . it’s pretty cool.”

But, as mentioned, American Creek isn’t just about rainbows. Dolly varden/char are available all summer and fall and they reach 30 inches long. Early in the year they are silver and sleek, moving out of the lake to eat fry patterns and anything else those aggressive dudes can find. As the salmon move in the dollies stack up behind them, chowing down on eggs. They put on weight quickly and start taking on their spectacular spawning dress.

“They are stunning,” Emerson said. “White-tipped fins and just colored up beyond belief. The males get kyped-out and they are just really cool looking fish. Most people who come to Katmai just want to catch the biggest rainbow they can catch. I get it. But when you’re holding onto a 27-inch dolly varden that is colored up, and it’s eight pounds in your hands . . .”

One reason you might fish Grosvenor versus another lodge is because it is the only stick-built structure on the planet offering access to lower American Creek without the use of an aircraft. It gives Emerson an advantage over other lodges, guides and guests who might be tapping their fingers on a table—instead of fishing—when weather comes in.

“There are situations where King Salmon and Igiugig get fogged in and I can slip in here and we can have access to American for ourselves, with bright blue skies overhead,” Emerson said.

As for the actual lodge and location, Emerson feels like it’s unrivaled.

“We are a concession within Katmai National Park and we are responsible for preserving the place (including the structures) as it’s always been,” he said. “So when you get off the plane it’s like stepping back in time. There’s no air traffic. There are no people. The location is so tucked away it makes you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. We are off the beaten path, literally, but it’s just a quick boat ride to American Creek. 

“The other direction, across Grosvenor Lake, we can go to tributaries that fish well. We also have the Grosvenor River which has some very sizable pike. And one special feature is the Hardscrabble. This is a stream that not many people get too see and we are the only people who can access it because we are the only people that have a jetboat to go up and fish it. That’s pretty special—exclusive access to locations other people don’t have.”

When fishing at Grosvenor, especially in the early season when it doesn’t really get dark in Alaska, you can fish after dinner or before breakfast, with the possibility of catching some lake trout and maybe even a rainbow.

At times the lake trout chase smolt, often cartwheeling out of the water to catch their prey. The gulls and mergansers see the fracas and charge over for scraps. It’s a spectacle and if the fish cruise close enough to shore, a smolt pattern is sure to get them.

“It’s such a cool phenomenon to witness,” Emerson said. “It’s a spectacular scene. The lake trout average about 22-to 24 inches, but we’ve landed a few 15-pounders on the fly. You can literally be a cast away from marauding fish while you’re standing there drinking coffee.”

Surely there are reasons to fish Alaska in late July and August—more bears, maybe even more fish in the rivers, all following sockeye salmon. There are those colored up dollies and possibly better weather. But, after fishing Grosvenor in late June and early July I don’t know that I could suggest a better time to hit Katmai. Emerson is right—seeing those big snouts breaking the surface on American Creek, watching the lake trout cartwheeling for smolt, catching fresh dollies that are full of fight, all while staying at an intimate lodge on a forgotten patch of the world, is very, very cool.

Want to book this trip? Talk about it? Check availability? Give me a call or visit our travel website Gil’s Fly Fishing International.

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