Royal Wolf Lodge, Bristol Bay, Alaska, Trip Report
(July 21 – 29, 2022)
Our week at Royal Wolf Lodge in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska was to precede our “Trout Week at Lava Creek Lodge”. My wife Lisa and I were really fired up for this trip, especially having the opportunity to visit our son Aidan for a week, who was working at the lodge for his second season, and meet the new owners and manager of the lodge. Our dear friends and cohorts, Chris and Linda Branham, after an over two decade history of operating one of the finest specialty rainbow trout lodges in Alaska’s history, were moving into the next chapter of their lives. It was bittersweet feelings that the Branhams, who were synonymous with sport fishing in Alaska, would no longer be greeting our friends and guests each week of the short summer, but we were extremely happy for them. They will be missed, but never forgotten for their contributions to Alaska sportfishing as well as conservation – NO PEBBLE!
• 2022 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run 79.0 million fish – 81% above the 43.6 million average run for the latest 20-year period (2002–2021)
July 21, 2022 – Thursday:
It took Lisa and I just over a two hour drive to Medford, not counting stopping in Talent for a quick bite. It’s hot up there just like at home. We park the car and make our way into the terminal and get checked in. The flight departs on time and a little over an hour and we land in Seattle. We take the train to N Terminal (have about a 40 minute connection ) and make our way to N19 to catch our flight to Anchorage, which again departs on time with an ETA a bit early. Arrive Anchorage, met by our friend Rich Owens and we head over to his home for the night, long but very punctual day of travel – love it! Stay up late catching up with Rich, but we don’t have an early morning so all good.
July 22, 2022 – Friday:
Sleep into 7:00. AM or so coffee and toast, then off to Lake and Peninsula Air (LPA) by 11:00 AM. First you weigh all your gear including carry on and then yourself. We are flying on a wheel-equipped Cessna 208 Grand Caravan. Off at 12:00 PM sharp fly through Lake Clark Pass, which is amazingly beautiful. Flying along the north side of the Cook Inlet we see a bunch of Beluga Whales in the rivers hounding salmon. Sadly, I notice how much many glaciers have dramatically retreated. Thank you Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia for taking action! In 1 hour and 10 minutes we landed in Iliamna and were met by staff and pilots of RWL. We load the gear and us in a van and then head over to Pikes Lake and the floatplanes. There are three Beavers and one Helio. Two of the Beavers take all the gear to RWL and five guests load up in another Beaver and three of us in the Helio and make our way to the lodge. About a 20 minute flight to RWL’s Big Lake, land smoothly, nice. Unique to RWL is that it is located on 120 private acres in Katmai National Park and Preserve! We are met by the entire crew including Nate and Holly Morrison (new managers) and their two young girls. We are excited to see Aidan – big hugs all the way around. This week we will be joined by Rob and Judah from New Zealand, Al and Diane from California, Milt and Bev from Anchorage and Sean and Kate, a dad and daughter team from Texas. All prove to be wonderful guests, friendships were made.
Lisa, Rob and I walk up with Aidan and get shown to our cabins, we are in Moose, up by the Eagles Nest Cabin.
Aidan shows us to our cabin and we catch up, and get unpacked and loosely organized. Miss Chris and Linda for sure, but looking forward to the week with Nate, Chad Hewitt of Rainbow River Lodge and Bill Betts of Iliamna River Lodge.
According to Aidan, trout are still being caught on streamers, which is exactly what we were hoping to hear.
We enjoy a nice cocktail hour at 5:30 PM, a bit earlier than usual due to changeover day and dinner is served at 6:30 PM. Garden salad, followed by seared halibut with shrimp and asparagus with risotto and dessert. Nate gives us a brief orientation about the week, bears, schedule for a typical day and such. Afterwards, the entire crew comes into the lodge and they introduce themselves, where they are from, and what they do at the lodge, nice touch and very personable. Then it’s the guests turn – Lisa and I introduce ourselves as Aidan’s mom and dad.
Tomorrow we are fishing with Sky on Funnel Creek, the plane is to depart at 8:30 AM. We head back to our cabin and Aidan visits and we catch up, followed by Houston, one of the guides and Aidan’s roommate and we share stories of Alaska and such. Nice to be back.
July 23, 2022 – Saturday:
Up early, slept okay, down to the lodge at 6:45 AM. Coffee is on at 7:00, overcast morning with zero wind. Breakfast is served at 7:30 AM, frittata, hash browns, cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, orange and apple juice. Back to our cabin, “Moose”, suit-up and walk down to the big lake. Forrest the pilot (FLY FOREST, FLY) departs on time, 25 minute flight to Crosswinds Lake, drop off Rob and Judah, they are floating the Morain with McKinley. Once they are unloaded we take off and fly to Funnel Lake, and then hike to the creek which is clear, low and LOADED with sockeye. The wind is howling, 20 – 25 MPH. We start with streamers, try an egg (bead) indicator rig, a dry fly and nada. Sockeye are moving hard and filling in fast, I think I got one grab for the day. LOT’S of bears, sows with triplets, old bears, young bears, one nasty bear that didn’t want to play nice, bears at lunch…bears, bears, bears… We fish fast looking for fish but soon enough we know it is not going to happen and kinda focus on getting back down to the mouth of the Funnel and fish the Moraine some. Sky says the rainbows were here last week but moved way upstream and out of the way of 10,000’s of sockeye storming the creek.
More bears, more Bear-Frogger lots of photographers in big groups taking pictures of bears swan diving in the river, it’s a rodeo. So Skye calls the lodge for an early pick up. All the RWL guides have a Garmin inReach Mini with texting, linked to their cell phones. We see a bunch of photographers looking at something on the hill by Crosswinds and it looks like a dead bear. They leave, we go check it out and it is a dead bear, guts ripped out, eyes still in, tongue hanging out. It looks to be a juvenile bear, probably picked a fight with a big Boar and lost. Weird… Lunch was excellent, homemade beef barley soup, ham and cheese sandwich, chips, Gatorade, sodas, and homemade granola bars that are the BEST! A meal in itself… Russell picks us up in the Helio, it’s very windy, but he does a great job. Back at the lodge, Aidan picks us up in the quad and we are back at our cabin. Nice day, tough fishing, cool bear opts, although a bit manic, nice company. Skye is a pro, and a very good guide. We see a few mergansers, a couple of mallards, ptarmigan, plovers and yellow legs. I suspect we walked, hiked and waded about 4 to 5 miles or a bit more for the day.
Dinner started with a wedge salad followed by lamb chops cooked rare with a cauliflower-something followed by a mocha ice cream dessert. Very tasty and well prepared. The Appetizer was a Tuscan cheese platter. Wine is served with dinner, both white and red in carafes. There are some spirits at the bar for clients if desired along with beer.
Tomorrow we are fishing the Home River with Houston, a boat day swinging streamers or possibly dead drifting beads. This is definitely a transition week with Sockeye making big pushes to their spawning grounds and trout, to me, seemed freaked out, moving upriver to wait for the feast or just getting the hell out of the way from the invaders.
July 24, 2022 – Sunday:
On the Nonvianuk today and as a bonus Aidan joins us. We start up by the outlet, it’s blowing pretty good with waves crashing in the mouth. We are all swinging weighted streamers on floating lines. Fishing is slow… We fish in some super fast water that surprisingly holds some fish and some absolutely beautiful, walking speed water that I cannot buy a fish on. I fished one run twice because it was so nice. Lisa, fishing out of the boat does manage to catch half a dozen rainbows, in the 18 inch and a few larger, she is thrilled as she should be. Aidan and I for the most part are blanked for the day. The other guests do pretty well. The food is over the top delicious, prepared by chef Ryan and his lady Opal, the sous chef, and they have it going big time. I wonder how Argotti is doing in Mongolia. Tomorrow we are fishing the middle Moraine with McKinley “Mac”. Fly to Crosswinds and take out at Pot Hole.
NOTE: One of the guests tested positive for COVID – ugh! They planned this trip for two years and drove their RV to Alaska. Nate offers a make-up week for the lost week this season – VERY cool! They are going to tool around AK for a couple of weeks before heading back to RWL.
July 25, 2022 – Monday:
Departure at 8:30 AM with Milt and Bev, super nice folks from Anchorage, friends of the Branhams. Milt moved from Washington to Alaska in 1961, both art teachers, and Bev is a sprint musher. Super cool people. Fishing is good, real good. Fish are on the beads and we catch some fat lake-run fish that are hot. We lose a fish at the unhook that is 27 inches. Lisa lands a rainbow on a bass popper, well done! The wind is howling 30 – 35 MPH all day with rain, quite blustery and chilly. A ton of bears on the Moraine, an all day circus. We use a 9.5 NRS raft with small takedown aluminum oars. It’s a bit cramped for three, but works well, when transporting strapped to the floats of the plane and rowing downstream, in the wind. A big raft would have been brutal in the upstream wind that is gusting 35 MPH. We take out at Pot Hole without having to shuttle due to the wind. Get back to the lodge at 6:15 PM. Long but fun day. Dinner is again delicious, scallops with bacon, and veal medallions with mushroom pasta followed by a chocolate, strawberry ganache, Mike Mercer would be very happy with the desserts. Tomorrow we are fishing lower American with Chip, husband of Sky. We are down to six guests right now, but a fella named Sean and his daughter Kate (15) arrive today, so we are back to 8 guests. Forrest is the Beaver pilot. He is an excellent pilot and says the newly rebuilt RWL Beaver performs better than 30 previous Beavers he has ever flown…we like that!
July 26, 2022 – Tuesday:
We fish Lower American Creek with Chip, super nice guy and a pilot; he wants to start flying bush planes. We have a full load in the Beaver, Lisa, Aidan and I, Chip, Rob, Judah and Scott O’Donell, they are fishing Brooks today. Six to eight minute flight to Lower American where they have a 18’ jet boat stashed, get unloaded and rigged up. The Lower American reminds me of Fall River in Northern California, slow meandering water with tall grass and cut banks. We start off with heavy streamers on floating lines, Dali Lamas variations, mostly in olive. Cast 90 degrees to the bank, make a big mend and let it swing slow, almost dead drifting. Aidan hooks a nice rainbow and lands it, about 24 and half inches, well done. We move up stream and the river changes dramatically, winding with lots of rocks, riffles, shoots, root wads, log jams, undercut banks, surrounded by cottonwoods and willows, very cool and beautiful. We continue to fish streamers and a bead rig. I move a nice fish on a Skopper at a log jam but don’t connect. We see some very nice trout, nothing small. There are other guides with sports in jet boats above us. You can only jet boat six miles up according to Park Service rules. There are rafters as well, three rafts and about a dozen anglers and non-anglers; nice folks, they are doing an 8 day float from the Hammersly Lake down about 60 plus miles. Enjoy a nice lunch of hot soup, roast beast sandwiches, lettuce, tomatoes, condiments, chips, drinks, candy bars and brownies, everything you need and want. We fish some runs and buckets upstream with a bead and streamers and then start to head downstream to the slow water to finish the day. We fish a run we fished in the morning and Aidan hooks a lake run fish that is hot and takes him into the backing twice, lands a nice fresh and fat rainbow right at 24 inches or so, great fish. We continue to fish down stream with streamers and see some swirls on the surface which are rainbows eating dries, green drakes and callibaetis and Chip immediately switches a rod to a dry and we are in the game. Lisa is up and makes a great cast and mend in the feeding lane and a rainbow immediately takes her dry.The fish goes deep and bulldogs for a while then takes her into the backing downstream for a big run and she fights it well and then a violent head shake and the #14 Parachute Adams pulls out, game over, but a valiant battle and one not to forget. Perfect cast and perfect drift that gets the “eat”, well done… We see a few more trout taking dries and try them with no success. Aidan tries a steamer with no luck. It’s time to meet the plane and we head downstream to the meeting place. A six to eight minute flight back to the lodge. Dinner tonight is an Asian buffet, seating where you want, we eat outside, slight breeze, sun and GREAT food! Very chill, great crew, everyone is happy and it shows… Nice vibe… I feel RWL is headed in the right direction, and its legacy will live on. Scott O’Donell is head guide and does a great job orchestrating the fishing program.
July 27, 2022 – Wednesday:
Today we are going to Gibraltar with Nate Morris, manager of RWL with 8:30 AM sharp departure and take out at 2:00 PM, then off to visit Rainbow River Lodge and Chad Hewitt, then hop on over to Iliamna River Lodge to meet Bill and Mel Betts. Fishing is okay, slow up top with not many rainbows, but we find them down lower, but with an early extraction we don’t have much time. We hook and land a few fish, most of them are pulled out of the main current and runs and are close to the banks in skinny water away from the Sockeye, which are thick – a river of red. After fishing a nice run for better than an hour, we push down to the take out in time for Ben to pick us up. He is flying Dave Egdorf’s Cessna 185, sweet plane, very high performance. We load up quickly and head across Lake Iliamna toward Intricate Bay and RRL. Chad is there to catch the plane and meet us and gives us a nice tour of the complex, very nice and super dialed in. They are building two more guest cabins and Patrick, who was head of maintenance at RWL way back when is now at RRL, finishing the new cabins. All the staff have their own private cabins with shared baths, part of the retention strategy of keeping staff long term. Very nice guest rooms, nice lodge, not big, but well laid out. They have a big covered area with a hot tub and chairs to relax, lakeside. The grounds are manicured and quite nice and inviting, good first impression. They have a nice drying room that is headed by air from the generator room, handy in the fall season. Chad is buying some native land across Pike Lake and wants to build a strip for a beaver on wheels to access the Cook Inlet fisheries, that no one fishes, nice move.
From RRL we load up in the 185 and fly to Iliamna River lodge for a tour. We land in the river in front of the lodge and are greeted by Bill and Mel Betts. The lodge faces the river, as do the guest cabins, all very nicely finished with tongue and groove lots of elevation with steps and pathways. The lodge front is all windows, small but quaint with a nice feel, homey and intimate.
The views are amazing! They can accommodate up to 10 guests, but 8 will take the lodge exclusively. We got a nice tour of the lodge and facilities and it gave me the visual I was looking for. Both lodges are unique with great infrastructure and strong fishing programs. It’s about a 45 minute flight back to RWL, a beautiful day with stunning views.
July 28, 2022 – Thursday:
Today we are fishing Big Ku with Houston, departing at 9:00 AM with Ben in the 185. We start fishing at the outflow of Kukaklek Lake, Houston fishing Lisa out of the boat, walking it down the run, while I am wading fishing the 5 weight Spey rod. We pick up quite a few fish with streamers, nothing big. I hook two sizable fish, but lose them. We move downstream and continue to get some action on steamers and then head up to Big Ku Lodge, sister lodge to Royal Wolf. We take lunch on the bluff and watch bears move and fish up and down the river, at least half a dozen, two sows with cubs. We haphazardly fish the afternoon down stream, move back up to the mouth and fish it through. Houston agrees to let me run the skiff and we take a ride down to the boulder garden, checking out bears and such, a pretty chill day, we are a bit fished out, but very happy. We meet Ben and the plane down stream for pick up, as the wind is up with significant swells on the beach of Kukalek Lake. Quick flight back to RWL and get organized for packing and then head to the lodge for cocktail hour and dinner. Dinner is filet mignon cooked to perfection, really good with lots of delicious sides and an amazing dessert. We need to be down at big lake at 8:45 AM for a 9:00 AM departure back to Pikes Lake in Iliamna and onto Anchorage via Lake and Peninsula Air.
July 29, 2022 – Friday:
We are up at 7:00 AM, breakfast is locks and bagels with all the fixings. Fly with Forest to Iliamna and then onto Anchorage via LPA. We got diverted from Merrill Field to a landing strip at Lake Hood because of the air show. Rich picks us up and we drop our bags off at his house, then drive over to the base to get our air show passes and then set up the 540 sundaes for tomorrow. Tomorrow we are going to attend Arctic Thunder, the air show at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage (JBER). Rich, Lisa and I would be serving 540 ice cream sundaes to the 176th Wing of the National Guard – the Arctic Guardians. It was their 70th anniversary and we were honored and humbled to be part of the celebration.
Then we head to Witter to pull shrimp pots, four good hauls. Back to the Tastee Freeze and run some errands. Long day and we are all exhausted… Sunday we head down Lava Creek Lodge on the Alaska Peninsula for a week of chasing wild rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.
Royal Wolf Lodge is in good hands! Chris and Linda Branham are a hard act to follow, but Nate and Holly are doing a great job and have big plans on updating the program Chris and Linda built from the ground up. They have a very solid core of guide staff in Scott O’Donnel, Chip and Sky, McKinley and Anthony, as well as the new guides they are breaking in. The chef and sous chef are awesome and they love being in Alaska, cooking and wowing guests. I hear they are planning on coming back – yeah! The other lodge staff were fabulous, friendly, always on hand to help, love what they are doing and where they are and fun to be around! Nate and Holly are engaged managers, motivated and have big plans for the future. Everyone is always smiling – a very good sign.
Nate’s list of future upgrades and changes:
• Remodel the main lodge with a new entrance as well as extend the deck and eventually add a smaller deck below the main deck overlooking Branham Lake with a seating area and hot tub. Put double french doors opening onto the deck and build a proper bar inside the lodge.
• They are going to add tongue and groove in all the guest cabins, including the soffits on the porches.
• Replace the propane heaters with oil (diesel) – Totomis.
• He would also like to improve the staff lodging, similar to what Rainbow River Lodge offers.
• Nate has already ordered half a dozen new welded jet sleds and new Yamaha jet-equipped outboards.
• Nate and Scott O’Donnel also are expanding the fishing program to include other regional trout fisheries. Gibraltar being one, as well incorporate more day floats for improved access and coverage of fisheries.
A few things at Royal Wolf Lodge will not change with the new ownership:
• A dedicated staff committed to meeting and exceeding expectations.
• The most strategically located spot in the entire Katmai Basin.
• A talented guide staff, some of the best in all Alaska.
• A fleet of float equipped aircraft, including two credibly versatile Helio Couriers and of course their de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver.
We couldn’t be happier where Royal Wolf Lodge is headed and looking forward to being a part of the next era.
Director of International Travel
The Fly Shop®