Fulfilling a Dream: Wiluk River Dolly Varden
The flight out of Kotzebue aboard two small bush planes packed with our self-bailing raft, fishing gear, and provisions seemed surreal. I had dreamed of making a self-guided trip to the Wulik River for more than a decade, sport fishing for large sea-run dolly varden which seasonally migrate from the untamed Chukchi Sea into the braided fresh water to spawn. My long time quest with two fishing buddies was actually happening, soaring high above Alaska’s tundra, about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Our final destination would be just south of a section known as “The Forks”.
The 45 minute chartered flight took us over some breathtaking landscape before the two seasoned bush pilots from Golden Eagle Outfitters safely landed us on a gravel bank alongside the river, and after helping unpack our gear they provided suggestions on where to place camp for the first night. It was a short goodbye as each of the pilots mounted their single engine airplanes, got the props spinning again, and maneuvered into a position for a short taxi and take off. Listening to the two small planes rev their noisy engines, speed up and lift off the ground in short succession gave me an instant realization my Wulik River fishing adventure had finally begun.
Hatching a plan to go fish remote Northwestern Alaska was done in the spring. Fellow sport fishing fanatics Paul Ferreira and Chris Cox happen to both be in the big city of Anchorage while I was visiting my in-laws, so connecting over adult beverages was in order. Little did we know our evening at the Flight Deck Lounge would end with a unified commitment for floating and fishing the Wulik. Our agreement had us on the river for 8 days during mid-August, a perfect time to find plenty of sea-run dollies in the river system.
My vision chasing the dolly varden of the Far North actually began before I ever met Chris or Paul. Seeing photo images about 15 years in the past of big bold colored fish, often called “char”, being hoisted by grinning anglers fishing the Wulik is what first ignited my desire. Not to mention the current state record fish came from the river in 2002, a 27 pound giant. I craved the experience of catching my own glory from those pictures. Wulik Dolly’s are large dynamic fish with bright red polka dots covering the sides against hues of aqua which blend into a bold reddish orange underside, with solid white stripes on the leading edge of each fin, and an elongated kype covered with shades of orange, like lipstick.
Wulik Dollies certainly exhibit two unmistakable qualities; uniqueness in looks and a strength to match the bold coloring. All of us were excited to begin floating the river to try and catch & release a few of our own.
Priorities of work began before the aircraft were out of view. Pitching the tent, gathering firewood, and unfolding the 14 foot raft for inflating with a foot pump. Once the raft was inflated, an aluminum frame was assembled and attached, holding the captains seat in the center for oaring the chariot, and two side-by-side passenger seats towards the front. The rear section of the raft was reserved for personal dry bags and camping equipment under a cargo net.
We decided to stay overnight at the drop off location, hike upriver the following day a short distance to look for fish in the river, before actually launching the raft. Our efforts, however, on the next day were fruitless. We were hampered by gusting winds, thick underbrush, and a lack of fish found in the section of river in which we fished upstream against a nice bluff. We did however see plenty of evidence that we were not alone. Numerous large paw prints, partially eaten salmon, and plenty of scat. During the return hike to the tent we got to see the first bruin of the trip. A large brown bear some 500 yards from us foraging in low bush berries alongside a mountainside. Thankfully he kept a distance and never came into our camp. It was a good reminder for us, as we needed to keep our situational awareness in focus in such a remote location.
Our next morning had better weather greeting us at rivers edge. The wind was gone, the sun was out, and the raft was loaded. We pushed off the bank to begin our 60 mile trek to the village of Kivalina. Floating with the current, Chris piloted the oars, while Paul and I sat in the forward seats. I was primarily using a casting rod with a large in-line spinner lure, casting and retrieving as we drifted. Hoping to hook a fish as an indicator, which would clue us when to paddle towards the river bank, exit the raft, and target a section of the river for more fish.
In addition to casting on the drift, we also knew that feeder creeks and side channels merging with the main river would make excellent locations for holding fish. It was a short distance traveling from the initial start when we approached a first small tributary creek, and we decided to beach the raft to work the water.
Paul and Chris each unloaded with fly rod set ups, while I remained conventional, using an 8.5 foot long bait caster. I have had much confidence in fishing large bladed spinning lures in Alaska, and in addition I thought I could cover much more water with that method rather than fly casting a heavy streamer. Spreading out along the gravel Paul and I headed towards the mouth of the intersection and Chris waded across the hip deep water to the opposing bank, remaining upstream to work a natural bending high bank which formed a deep hole. The water of the confluence certainly looked fishy.
I launched my lure with focus, making sure to avoid putting it in the overhanging brush on the far side, reeling the bright pink colored lure at a moderate speed. Success came quickly, it was only my third cast when I felt the unmistakable strike of a fish during my retrieve, instantly reacting, I raised the rod tip skyward and set the hook. The fish immediately revolted with head shakes and aggressive shouldering trying to escape.
As I reeled the spunky fish closer, I got my first glance, I could tell right away in the gin clear water I had hung into a classic spawning colored male. I was elated; my very first dolly caught from the Wulik was exactly what I had been dreaming about for so many years. All I had to do was land the fish. Thankfully Paul reeled up, secured a landing net, and quickly scooped my prize. I was overwhelmed with emotion in harnessing the beautiful dolly varden, accomplishing my angling goal had me on the verge of losing composure with tears of joy. Paul was patient for me to regroup, before taking photos with my precious catch. The fish went about 25 inches in length, which is about average for the river. Although average in size, the markings and coloration were exactly what I was hoping for in catching a dolly above the Arctic Circle.
After a short pause in savoring the moment, I went back to casting my lure, trying to find a larger dolly. But nothing else wanted my offering. Chris also managed to catch and release a gorgeous colored two foot long dolly varden from the confluence. But with only two fish between the three of us, after fishing the area for about an hour, we decided to move on. Loading back up in the raft, and shoving off for hopefully a more productive section of the river. As we drifted along I replayed the event of catching my first dolly over and over in my mind, I couldn’t let go of the moment. Eventually I was able to get back to present time, finding many more fish in the Wulik willing to take my offering.
Our 8 day trip found all of us catching and releasing many fish, including personal best dolly varden for each of us. In addition to the countless sea run dolly varden we caught, the Wulik also hosts pacific salmon and many large resident arctic grayling. Paul managed to hook into the largest chum salmon I have ever seen with his fly rod. The hog he caught and returned to the river had an outrageous girth, easily going about 20lbs in size, and another personal best. Chris not only caught some fat and heavy grayling, but his personal best dolly was a big bright trophy caliber fish that went 30+ inches in length.
The countless number of sea run dolly we caught and released was amazing, well over 200 fish between the three of us during the 7 day float. Even more incredible was the average size of the fish went about 24-25 inches in length (probably 7-9lbs in weight). Most difficult was finding fish that met or exceeded the 30 inch mark, which is why that mark is set by ADFG for the 49th State’s Trophy Fish Program.
Of course my chance at catching a fish of equal caliber to that of Chris’ big beast was dwindling by the last day of our float. Not to mention rain began to fall with the overcast sky, and the chill of the Chukchi Sea was begin to be felt as we neared Kivalina. We still made the most of the last 7 miles of river, pulling out and fishing locations that looked promising.
I was feeling very content with what I had accomplished, knowing the trip was ending soon, I was still thinking of that very first fish. So on the pull out, found us at a very fishy looking confluence with a back channel, I decided to sit in the raft for a short while and let Paul and Chris work the water. I sat in the rain watching them, Paul just downstream of me at the mouth of the tributary and Chris upstream from the raft.
Paul worked the water for a few minutes and walked his way back to the raft, continuing upstream towards Chris. That’s when I decided to go cast a couple where he just left. Using my bait caster I sent my colorful spinner across the current, let it sink a bit, and then swung it low and slow through the deep trough of the back channel. I felt a thump with my first swing, but I missed the fish. So I quickly reeled the lure in and cast it a second time.
Just like the previous cast, I let the lure sink, and then swung it across the channel. At mid-point during the swing I felt a heavy chomp smash the lure, and promptly lifted the rod and set the hook. I could tell right away I had a special something, heavy throughout the spine of the rod, vicious pulling, bouncing and bending the 8.5 foot long medium-heavy rod as if it were an ultra light model. A combination of the quick water current also increased the action felt in my fishing stick.
To make the issue in landing the fish more dramatic, two days prior we had unintentionally left the landing net on the bank, so we had been having to rodeo fish and lost a couple in the process. I was doing my best not to have it happen with this fish. I could sense I was going to lose the fish if I kept it in the current much longer, so I slowly backed up, steering the line towards an area of shallow standing water adjacent to the heavy flow, and slid the giant out of the river, thus beaching him.
Without hesitation I went for the pull, dropping my jaw as I could clearly see it was a huge dolly as it slowly slid out of the river. My buddies quickly stepped in to help rodeo the fish, allowing me to tail the fish and hoist the trophy. I was in shock; ending my Wulik experience could not have been any better with landing a personal best 30+ inch monster size dolly. Ironic that my biggest fish of the trip would be my last, Hollywood could not have written a better script.
We finished floating the last few miles of the Wulik with a shivering cold paddle across the lagoon to Kivalina. Deflating the raft, and setting up the tent one more night aside the dirt runway, before flying out for Kotzebue. Our evening was spent reflecting on all the fish we caught, time spent together on the river, and even hints of a next time.
Catching a glorious colored dolly as my first fish and a huge trophy sized brute as my last, made for perfect bookends in my Wulik River experience. It would certainly be hard for me to top those efforts. Maybe the only way to best those fish would be to catch a fish with colorful appearance and size combined… an all-in-one. Not sure when I will be back fishing for an all-in-one, but you can bet I will make sure to bring plenty of large bright colored spinners.