By Guide Drew Griffith (aka “Machete”)
To tell the story of River X we have to go back to the end of the 2017 season. I was on the last flight out of our bay along with Rus and one other guide and was offered the front seat next to our pilot, Sam. The day was perfect for flying; blue skies with intermittent clouds, an unlimited ceiling and crisp hard sunlight that always seems to be a hallmark of fall in Alaska.
Sam Egli pinned his 206 on the beach and got her off the ground in what seemed like a matter of seconds. We were on our way back to civilization. As we gained in elevation we were treated to a full panoramic view of the harsh country we had just called home for the last two months. The glacial mountains, slumbering volcano, the endless rivers, the rugged coastline of the northern Pacific all stretched out before us in an unending array of wilderness. Finally we crossed over a set of saw toothed peaks that gave way to a narrow valley. I saw the river below for the first time. Craning my neck to see where it went out towards the gleaming Pacific, I saw a river that seemed larger than the ones we normally fished and was instantly intrigued. I had a million questions, but they would all have to wait a year before any could be answered.
When you think about what it would be like to fish a river that no one has ever fished before it’s hard to imagine reaching a higher benchmark as an angler. Isn’t that where we end up in our minds when we find ourselves on our home waters? What would we give to go back in time to be able to have that water to ourselves. To see it for the first time. To see it the way it once was. And just like everything else in the world of fishing it’s fleeting. You can only fish new water once, but for those few who are compelled by that old fashioned sense of adventure and exploration, is there anything that compares to it? To see the perfect run and know that no one else has ever put a fly through it. To walk along a gravel bank and know that your bootprints are the first. This was the great allure of River X. The only problem was how we were going to convince others that it would all somehow be worth it.
It wasn’t until the last week of clients during our 2018 season that the stars aligned and a group of old friends from back east said what the hell, rolling the dice on fishing a river none of us as guides knew anything about. Rus gave me the green light to take them out, and I finally was going to be able to answer a few of those questions that had been haunting me since I had laid eyes on River X nearly a year ago.
The day broke grey and was calm and still. A few glaucous-winged gulls lazily watched as we made our way across the tidal flat to catch a ride. We loaded up and took off over the Pacific, one man riding up front, the rest of us crammed into the back of the helicopter. Metallica played through our headphones as we left the known universe of our bay and the bay beyond it and entered the uncharted wilds of remote Alaska. We were finally on our way.
There are a few notable things to consider when making an exploratory trip in remote Alaska. The first of which is if something goes wrong while you’re on the ground you’re pretty much totally screwed. No one’s going to come to your rescue, there’s no cavalry. The second thing is unlike the other rivers we frequent on a regular basis every season there are no provisions on this river. If you have to stay the night for some reason, you’re going to do so without food or shelter. The helicopter was our only life line to the outside world.
Once we were on the ground there was something immediately obvious that made River X stand apart from any other drainage I had ever seen on this side of the coastal range, it was deep. Most of the rivers we fish are not. At least not like this. The channel cut hard against bedrock where scree strewn cliff sides dropped down right into the water. This reminded me of the rivers of the west coast, where hard corners feed into deep buckets. The river valley narrowed down towards the mouth, and unlike a typical estuary that fans out and shallows into braids this mouth is hemmed in by high-sided canyon walls. It terminates in dramatic fashion at a bottleneck we took to calling Heaven’s Gate. There was another specific quality to this river when compared to other drainages on this rugged coast, its color. The water was a radiant glacial turquoise that almost glows like a jewel. This heavy stain after nearly three weeks of no rain was noteworthy. Finally, an ominous sign; the absence of bear traffic on the gravel bar we had landed on did not exactly instill a sense of confidence in me as a guide. Where there are lots of fish, you should see lots of bears. We bid farewell to our pilot, geared up, and headed up river.
We set a hard pace as we made our way from one tail-out to the next in search of the first good run. Time was against us. It had taken more time to get here than a normal heli-fly out and we wanted to see as much as we could with the little time we had. The heavy glacial stain meant that sight fishing was out. We needed to fish water blind and hope that we would find holding fish sooner or later. The first few runs left us empty handed and we were all quickly realizing another unique characteristic of River X; it was pushy. Even after a rainless September the lower runs of this river were cranking, and they were big and deep. I knew what was needed, or at least I knew how I would fish a river like this; with a spey rod and a sinking tip. And while this realization was more of a revelation because I had always secretly hoped that that’s what I would find if and when I ever got to see this river from the bank, it wasn’t going to do us a damn bit of good for the time being. We needed to push on. We needed to find a hole where we would have a shot at holding fish.
As we forged ahead I was amazed at the canyon land that came right to the water’s edge. This was a stark departure from the shallow snaky rivers I had become accustomed to on the Peninsula. It reminded me of places I’d seen in Colorado or Utah. Steep arroyos filled with dry brush, the country looked better suited to house mountain lions rather than grizzly bears. We baked under a relentless sun, and pondered at water that still had not offered up one of its secrets.
Finally, after wading across a few more huge tail-outs and passing under the shadow of a monolithic rock face that could only be given the name Gibraltar, we found it. Once we passed Gibraltar the landscape splayed open in dramatic fashion, giving us a view that made us stop for a moment and take in the splendor and scale of the valley before us. In the far distance a waterfall dropped down into the valley below, disappearing into a thick viridian wall of shrubs and stubby Alders. We found ourselves surrounded on all sides by an endless kaleidoscope of mountains leading to untold side channels and high glacial lakes. It was a bear who tipped us off. We spotted him, the first one we had seen all day, up river, peering intently into the water before him. He’s fishing. We all knew it and when we got close to where he had been we knew we had finally made the discovery that had dominated our minds for the past week. Before us were a series of deep pools that were interrupted by long gentle riffles. The main stem of the river seemed to vanish beyond this point, with shallow braids dumping into each pool. The boys went to work, and soon each had hooked into a Dolly Varden in the shallow riffle. I walked up, got to where the bear had been, and yelled for Al to come up to me.
It didn’t take long, maybe two casts. You could see their shapes through the milky stain, appearing and disappearing like specters as they darted up from the depths of the pool, swiping violently at the pink and white Dolly Llama. Finally Al set hard to one and after a good fight we pulled our first Silver out of River X. We called the others over, and for the next few moments we lived what most fisherman will only ever dream of. We had a run full of beautiful sea run fish all to ourselves on a river with no name in a place that is as wild and beautiful today as it has always been. It was all worth it now, in the shadow of the steep canyon wall opposite us, to have come so far and risked so much for just a few moments of pure fly fishing zen. We caught so many we lost count, time getting away from us, before we knew it we had to go.
We lifted off the gravel bar and shot the narrows of Heaven’s Gate. I caught a few fleeting glances of some of the lowest runs on the river as we banked hard from one side of the canyon to the next. They looked amazing, and I was already thinking about what I would do differently if I ever had another shot at this river. It was an epic ending to an epic day. We felt like conquering hero’s, like we had all just been a part of something that would endure in our memories from this day until the last.
Ultimately the journey to River X was a success, but it still remains a mystery in many ways. We only scratched the surface of that fishery with the limited time and gear that we had at our disposal. My one big remaining question is what exactly makes up the run of this truly singular watershed on a coastline that is mostly comprised of smaller, shallower drainages. We expected to find Dolly Varden and silvers, and so we did, but are there other salmon species that choose to enter this deeper, more glaciated river? It is not out of the realm of possibility that River X has a run of fish that are uncommon in nearby systems. It offers habitat that other rivers lack in this region, namely an abundance of deep channelized runs in its lower stretches. As an angler I immediately saw the potential for spey applications on this river, and that excites me, because there are very few rivers in the region that fit that shoe. Yet this river almost demands it with water that is both big and deep. It is enough of a mystery to keep me awake at night, remembering those azure runs glimmering under the autumn sun, dreaming of what remains hidden below.
See more of Drew’s work, or book a guided Northern California steelhead trip, at Fine&Far.