Talachulitna River

In July I spent a week floating the Talachulitna River in Western Cook Inlet with my father-in-law, Alain. We took our time and enjoyed the fishing – spending around 10 hours a day on the water and fishing continuously for trout, dollies, grayling and kings.

We saw Belted Kingfishers, Rusty Blackbirds, Bonaparte’s Gull as well as all the usual suspects like Golden Crown Sparrows, Juncos, Chickadees, Gray Jays and Stellar Jays. We saw lots of moose – but only one bear; a young brown bear that on the second day wandered into our fishing hole and stood his ground as we yelled, screamed and held our bear spray at the ready. Thankfully he wandered off without incident but it was enough to make us hyper-bear-aware for the remainder of the trip.

The river had it all: A fun narrow log chocked creek at the start where we were forced to drag, push and pull our raft. 20 miles of flat water teaming with rolling kings, fat rainbows and hungry grayling. A beautiful Class IV rapid, “Hell’s Gate” that I opted to portage after an hour of internal debate. Below Hell’s Gate there is a 15 mile canyon with Class III drops into deep dark pools, all capped by a slow float to the mouth through deep green pools teaming with kings.

It’s a beautiful river. The canyon one of the most scenic canyons I’ve ever floated through, the drops and deep pools surrounded by steep rock walls and the water crystal clear without a hint of the ever present Alaskan glacial silt that we find in most of our rivers.

And the fishing… the fishing is world class. The Talachulitna River was the first Alaskan river to be regulated as catch and release only for rainbow trout. As a result the rainbows bite on every other cast and grow bigger the closer to the mouth you get. When we floated it in early July the kings swam past the boat all day en-route to their spawning waters upstream. Float it later in the year and humpies, chum, sockeye and coho fill the river.

We drifted for 6 days, our days on the water long because we couldn’t seem to pass up a decent fishing hole and we would often land the boat on a gravel bar at 10pm after 12 hours on the water. We’d set up camp, eat dinner, and collapse in our bags only to wake up early and repeat the process. Not a bad way to spend a week.

But before we knew it we were parked on the gravel bar breaking down the raft and the plane was landing on the river and drifting towards us. Bags packed away in the plane we took off and drifted back across the immense wet lands and home to house projects and work and a summer spent dreaming of the next trip where we can float and fish for a week our lives dictated by only the sound of water, the pull of the oars and a fish attached to a line and jumping into the open air.


The Talchulitna River is one of the most famous fishing rivers in the world and people come from all over the world to fish her waters. Thus – it’s definitely not a wilderness float. Expect to see people, except to see lodges and cabins, and expect a wildlife experience shaped by Alaskan politics.

When you fly into Judd Lake you’ll see the famous Chugach Powder Guides Lodge – home of “kings and corn” where people pay $10,000 / week to heli-fish for kings in the morning and then heli-ski afternoon corn in the Tordillos. The helicopter runs all day buzzing up and down the canyons ruining any hope of a wilderness feel you might be hoping for.

The 18-mile stretch from Judd Lake to the confluence of the Talchulitna River and Talachulitna Creek is true wilderness. You’ll float down a narrow creek and will see bear, moose and giant kings. It feels very wild if you can ignore the air traffic. Once you reach the forks it changes again. The 14 mile flat-water stretch between the forks and Hell’s Gate is patrolled by king guides in jet-boats and about 4 miles above Hell’s Gate you’ll float past a group of lodges.

After Hell’s Gate you’re back in the wilderness – but there will be people. Chances are there will be 10 or more people camped out at Friday Creek and a group of boats in the canyon with you. And once you’re through the canyon the last 3 miles floats through a village full of multi-million dollar lodges next to private homes and dozens and dozens of guides.

Coming upon the king guides after 5 or 6 days in a (relatively) wild setting can only be described as a buzz-kill. On a scale of 1-10 for obnoxiousness king guides rate a solid 11. Most are young kids in their early 20s who drive their jet-boats at insane speeds, will deliberately buzz through your fishing hole in the hopes of driving the fish down or upstream to where their clients are fishing and have little respect for the waters as evidenced by the piles of toilet paper and trash you’ll find on every beach they stop at.

But these encounters can be managed if you plan accordingly. Take your time on the creek. It’s wild and the fishing is spectacular with rainbows and grayling on dry flies at every stop and the bigger holes might even hold some kings. As I mentioned, guides will patrol the flat-water stretch from the forks to Hell’s Gate, but you’ll only see a few. Take time floating from mile 18 to around mile 28. The king and the rainbow fishing is excellent and you’ll pass a number of large gravel campsites. However you’ll want to try and do a single push from around mile 28 all the way to Friday Creek (approx. mile 32 – or about a mile below Hell’s Gate). This stretch is flat and you’ll be floating past lodges and people and you really don’t want to camp around here.

You must stop at Friday Creek. There will be people here but the kings are stacked like mad. We camped on the beach (with 3 other parties) but it was worth it. If you push it you can get from Friday Creek all the way to the Skwentna confluence in a day – but it would be better to break it into two days. The canyon is amazing and the rapids fun, but there are few campsites in the canyon proper. One potential campsite is just below Flipper (the obvious class III rapid that is recognizable by a pinnacle of rock on river right just before the first drop ) on river right (approx. mile 36). The fishing isn’t so great but it’s a wonderful campsite in a deep canyon. If you miss all the campsites in the canyon then stop at the first beach when you exit the canyon (approximately mile 45). If you continue to float you’ll reach the final flat-water stretch where you’ll encounter lots of lodges and guides.

You can easily float from the mouth of the canyon to your take out point in half a day. The final stretch from the mouth of the canyon to the confluence will take about 3 hours and the stretch from the mouth to the takeout (if you are picked up at the gravel bar in the Skwentna Canyon) will take 20 minutes; if floating further plan accordingly.

So in summary… Assuming you are taking 7 days for the trip (which I think is a good length of time) and using the attached river miles GPS coordinates as a baseline for distances consider the following points as days:

  1. On day 1 try and float to somewhere around mile 8. Look for a good gravel bar next to a deep hole. There are holes with kings in this area if you know where to look and the grayling and rainbow fishing on dry flies is super fun. Be aware that this is the spot where you’ll most likely encounter bears so be warned.
  2. On day 2, camp somewhere around the river / creek confluence (mile 16); there is a good gravel bar just below the confluence and the rainbow and king fishing should be good right at the fork. By now you’ll probably start to have better luck with sinking flies (the black and white Dolly Llama is a favorite).
  3. Take your time on day 3. The river will be flat and slow the fishing as good as it gets. Every single hole will be packed with rainbows and larger holes will have kings. Look for deep holes with large ponds and channels branching off of them and try to camp around mile 25.
  4. On day 4 try and move from your campsite all the way through Hell’s Gate to Friday Creek (around mile 32). Hell’s Gate is the crux rapid of the trip but it can be easily scouted from a trail on river left and if you want it can be easily portaged if you take the left channel just below the first large rock and pull hard into an eddy just above the main drop. From here the portage is all of 50′.
  5. Take your time on Day 5. The fishing is good up high but once you enter the canyon it’s not so good. There will be few campsites in the canyon with the exception of a few small beaches here and there. As mentioned before one good beach is just below Flipper (if you have the extra time) but for the most part the campsites aren’t good until around mile 43. By now the river gradient will have picked up quite a bit so you an easily float 20 miles in a day so you don’t have to worry as much about making the miles as you have to on the first few days.
  6. You can easily get from the mouth of the canyon (mile 44) all the way to the pick up in 3/4 a day. The king fishing in the lower river is excellent – but you’ll be around a lot of people and boats so you may or may not be into it. You can camp right at the Skwentna confluence but be aware that it will be noisy and crowded. Consider either camping on a gravel bar a mile above the confluence (keeping in mind that you’ll be near lodges and cabins) or just push all the way to your pick up. Be aware that once you leave the Talchulitna there is no fishing.

With all that said I can’t help but write a bit about the issue to predator control on the Talachulitna River and the surrounding areas (known as Game Unit 16). Visitors to Alaska might be under the impression that they’re in true wilderness when they float and fish the Talachulitna. When you visit from the lower 48 chancing upon a lodge 3 days into your trip might not seem out of place – and to be honest – if you follow the float itinerary above then you can mitigate the encounters with motorized users and development. What’s less obvious is the fact that this area has become the center of a highly controversial experimental predator control program.

We spent 6 days on the Talachulitna River. During that time we saw 1 live bear and 1 bear carcass (a skinned brown bear tossed into the river and caught under a log). Even bear signs were few and far between with only a few signs of scat here and there – I see more bear signs on the trails behind my house. We saw lots of moose and birds, but only 1 predator.

One cannot ignore what is happening: During the Palin administration the Alaska Department of Fish and Game declared an open season on predators in Unit 16. Citing a sharp decrease in moose and caribou numbers (without acknowledging that this area is overhunted) ADF&G began exterminating wolf pups in their den with poison gas and opening up the area to aerial wolf hunting (between 2004-2009 195 wolves were slaughtered by aerial hunting). When this method failed to boost the population of caribou and moose ADF&G began targeting bears. The first step was removing the date restrictions on hunting seasons followed by upping the bear limit to 3 black bears per season and 2 brown bears per season. When this failed to reduce the numbers the state took the next step: legally allowing hunters to bait and snare black bears. High Country news has an article about this program and I cite the following in regards to numbers:

In the first two years of this program, 143 black bears were lured in, snared and shot (usually in the head). In the same time span, 279 black bears were killed through other so-called “predator control” methods, and private hunters enjoying loosened bag limits killed more than 600 black bears in the 12,255-square-mile unit.
– Tracey Ross. (February 21, 2011). Palin, politics, and Alaska predator control. Retrieved from http://www.hcn.org/issues/43.3/palin-politics-and-alaka-predator-control/

In March of 2011 the Board of Game voted to add brown bears to the snaring program. They also voted to allow hunters to access their bear baiting and snaring locations by helicopters and allow hunters to sell the hide, claws and skull from all bears killed in Unit 16 – which essentially takes predator control and turns it into a commercial enterprise. All this is for the sake of artificially boosting the moose population with the state citing subsistence as justification for these programs.

However… float the Talchulitna River and the subsistence argument becomes moot. Subsistence hunters don’t staff these huge lodges and the people visiting them aren’t hungry trappers living in the woods. The predator control program isn’t about boosting the moose population so staving hunters in Tyonek can feed their families. They’re reducing the number of bears (not to mention capitalizing on this predator control) so they can offer more moose hunts to nonresidents who are paying upwards of $22,000 for a week of hunting and the chance to kill brown bear and moose.

In other words – your pristine float down the wilds of the Talachulitna is in reality a float down a highly regulated experimental predator control area where wildlife has been shaped by outside interests and a strong hunting lobby, flush with funds that that reach all the way to DC.

So what can you do about it? Not much. That’s what’s so aggravating about predator control in Alaska. You can join the Alaska Wildlife Alliance or send a letter to the governor but history has shown that public efforts to limit predator control are repeatedly undermined by state officials. Remember when we voted to stop aerial wolf hunting in 1996 only to have the voter referendums overridden in 3 years? Or when Knowles vetoed aerial hunting legislation only to be overridden by the legislature? Or when Palin approved $400,000 for ADF&G to conduct a “public education campaign” on predator control just prior to the 2008 election where attempts to limit predator control was on the ballot once again? The truth is – money talks and when guides are getting $20K for a week of hunting and then turning around and dumping money into pro-hunting lobbying groups, people who don’t hunt have no voice.

When we camped at Friday Creek on the Talachulitna I spent a morning standing around a group of fisherman from North Carolina, Alaska and Quebec. Inevitably the subject turned to bears – as it often does in Alaska. But what surprised me about the conversion was that it wasn’t the usual “I’ve got my .45 and I’m ready” bravado. What everyone was asking was “Where are the bears?” Here we were fishing one of the most productive salmon streams in Western Cook Inlet and of the 6 people standing around I was the only one who had seen a bear. “They’re killing them all,” a guy from North Carolina said. “Hundred and hundreds of them.” A collective shocked and sadden look appeared on everyone’s face. But for me that collective depressed look meant a lot. It meant that people outside of Alaska are noticing our predator control program and that they’re unhappy with it. And most of all – they’re talking about it.

Things are only going to change in Alaska if people start talking about it and the money stops flowing. Hunters and fishermen bring in millions to the state of Alaska and the sport fishing and sport hunting in Western Cook Inlet is big money. Maybe if outsiders start taking notice of our Draconian predator control practices and voicing concern – or even better, start boycotting guided hunts in areas where predators are being decimated or boycotting fishing trips to lodges that cater to these practices (and boycotting air taxis that offer such hunts) then the state will reconsider their practices.

Addendum 09/13/11: Last week Rick Sinnott publsihed a excellent piece on predator control in the Alaska Dispatch. You can read that piece here: Does science back up Alaska’s policy of killing grizzly bears?