Roadtrippin’: Brooks River, not just for bear viewing

Updated: Jun. 14, 2021 at 8:34 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - While Brooks River may be world renowned for gargantuan brown bears catching leaping sockeye salmon, it has other notable attractions.

For fly fishermen, trophy rainbow trout are the drawcard.

Victor Evans, standing waist-deep in crystal clear water, said the fishing was lousy last Saturday morning.

“Still, caught half a dozen fish,” he said. “A 23-inch rainbow, where are you going to get one of those?”

The river opened for trout fishing on June 8. Fishermen outnumber bears that don’t typically come to the river in large numbers until sockeye salmon arrive later in June, along with a rush of tourists.

It was the world-class trout fishing that inspired Ray Petersen to pioneer fly-in fishing lodges in Alaska in the 1950s. Brooks Lodge became one of several “Angler’s Paradise Lodges” in the region.

In recent decades, the bears have stolen the show. The popularity of the spot means summer bookings at the lodge are awarded by lottery.

Rebecca Nourot, Katmai’s chief interpretive ranger, said the park’s one campground near the river books out for the entire summer within five minutes when spots become available on Jan. 5.

Backcountry camping, available anywhere from a couple of miles outside the developed area around the lodge, is an option year-round without a permit.

The lodge’s 16 cabins are rustic but comfortable with bunk beds, toilets and showers.

Jason Whiting, the operations manager at Brooks Lodge, said guests have plenty of activities to choose from apart from fishing and bear viewing: they can canoe and camp on pristine islands on Naknek Lake. There is also hiking and bikes available and the camp acts as the gateway to the nearby Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

In early June, resident brown bears prowl around the river, munching on grass and looking for old salmon carcasses to eat. Others look to mate.

Don Fleming and his friends have been coming to fish Brooks River for 40 years. The fishermen describe the brown bears as a nuisance, but a beautiful nuisance.

Fishing lines need to come out of the water when bears get close and bears can come out of nowhere.

“Well, yeah, you have a huge carnivore pop out of the woods 10 feet behind you, it’s a little unnerving,” Fleming said.

The lodge offers an all-you-can-eat buffet three times a day. Lunch is announced by a ringing bell, audible for fishermen from the river.

A large, crackling fireplace sits at the heart of the lodge, acting as a central meeting place for guests and the spot to share tall tales from the river.

“No, just facts,” Fleming joked.

The fishing may be the biggest drawcard before dozens of bears arrive for the annual sockeye salmon migration, but so is the camaraderie. Old friends catch up with fellow fishermen they haven’t seen since their last trip the year before.

The river — exciting, picturesque but also peaceful — can be restorative, Fleming says.

“It seems that a few days on the Brooks that all of the troubles of your life melt away and that you really get a chance to connect with people at a deep level,” he explained.

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