Reading the Water

The rivers of Kulik will tell you what is and what is to come.

[by Russ Lumpkin]

“THE KULIK… will tell me where to fish,” said Kelly Burmeister-Petz, a Midwesterner who spoke out loud but as if he didn’t expect anyone to hear. I sat near the front of the boat with Bryan and Sara, whom I’d just met. Kelly stood at the stern with one hand on the tiller, and if eyes are a window to the soul, I couldn’t see his. His sunglasses, and thick unkempt beard and hair hid all expression save a steady facade overlooking the river. I recall thinking, This guy is a trout shaman.

He swung the boat wide around a group of anglers—including someone into a fish, and we continued upstream. All around, the Aleutian Range rose to meet the sky and created a beautiful and exhilarating atmosphere for fly angling. Soon, KBP (as his fellow guides called him) slowed the motor and we glided to an easy stop on a sandbar. He tied a Morrish Mouse on my line, pointed straight down the river, and said “Fish in that direction.”

Under gray skies, Patty Moe drives a boat upstream on the American River, not far from where it terminates into Lake Colville. By noon, the skies had cleared, and this spot not only made a nice picnic area, but also delivered a couple of rainbows. (Photo by Russ Lumpkin)

Looking into an early-July sun, I made several casts that came back empty. On cast four or five, a trout rose to take the mouse but missed. I kept stripping and the fish connected on its second attempt. Soon, Kelly netted the fish, and I thought, Shaman indeed.

He lowered the net to release the trout, and I asked, “So, what did the Kulik tell you?”

Looking confused, he replied, “What?”

“On the way here, you said, ‘The Kulik will tell me where to fish.’ And I was wondering what it said to you.”

He burst out laughing and said, “I was just looking for rising fish.”

“Oh. So you weren’t just divining a plan out of the atmosphere. I thought you must be a seer or something.”

He laughed again. Real hard. And said, “Naw, man. I was just looking for rising fish—and I didn’t see very many.”

“I see.”

“I think you’ll be okay without me. But you can fish across river. . . . Just be careful near the grassy area. The bottom drops over there. And when the fish do begin to rise, fish this.”

With that, he handed me a salmon fry imitation—nothing more than a size 10 hook with 8 to 12 strands of bucktail under light wraps.

“That’s the sparsest fly I’ve ever seen,” I said.

“We’ve found eight to twelve hairs covers the range of tastes. Seven is too few and thirteen is too many.”

For the next 30 minutes, I fished across the river with the mouse but never made it to the grassy area. Trout began rising around me, I tied on the fry pattern, stood in one spot the remainder of the evening, and hooked and caught fish just every few casts.

(Photo by Russ Lumpkin)

Behind me, KBP, who’s guided out of Kulik for nearly 15 years, worked with Bryan and Sara, who were there with a PR company doing some work for Kulik and its two sister lodges—Grosvenor and Brooks. Bryan had fly fished some. Sara never had. From my vantage point, Bryan caught fish pretty often. Sara, too, found luck on the Kulik—she really needed only to hit the water to catch a trout, but under Kelly’s tutelage, her casts sailed 25, 30 feet, and she caught a few fish.

Perhaps he’s a shaman after all. On the way back to the lodge for dinner, we passed the same group of anglers we’d passed going in. A couple of them battled trout but looked our way as we zipped toward the lodge.

Beefy streamers catch a lot of trout on the Kulik and American. (NICK HALL PHOTOGRAPHY)

THE KULIK RIVER FLOWS WESTWARD FROM LAKE KULIK, a little more than a mile to Nonvianuk Lake, and the lodge sits overlooking Nonvianuk, just a few hundred yards south of where the river empties into it. During my brief stay, the Kulik remained busy with anglers. Some fished the Kulik in the morning, and after dinner each evening, anglers had the option to either retire, relax at the lodge, or fish the Kulik—being as good fishing is about five-minute boat ride from the lodge and long hours of great Alaska sunlight affords good fishing deep into the evening.

Most days during the fishing season, the Kulik supports any number of fly anglers—from one or two to maybe a dozen. And yet people catch fish—all the time. Back home, even the bluegills would grow wise.

So, I asked one of the guides, another Midwesterner, Patrick “Patty” Moe, “Does the Kulik see anglers every day?”

“Oh yeah. Every day.” “And the fish are always biting? Guests always catch fish?”


“How so? Is there that much competition for food?”

“Well the Kulik is a short river, and there are so many trout swimming between the two lakes, or moving into the rivers and back into the lakes all the time. There’s a constant flux of fish, but always high numbers and rarely the same fish over a period of days.”

I FOUND OUT JUST HOW MANY TROUT DURING A MORNING OF FISHING. I woke up at 5 a.m., had eggs and bacon at the lodge, and met guide Ned Spratt at 6 on the lakeshore. Off we went.

Heading upstream, I pulled my coat tight, zipped it, and put on a wool hat that covered my ears. The temperatures had dropped into the 40s—the coldest morning during my stay. Ned moored the boat, and I’ve never seen a more beautiful morning—a wisp of a cloud crept over a far mountain, and the sun had just begun to shine on the river valley. Ned, a North Carolinian, tied on a small but weighted sculpin pattern. Immediately, I began catching fish. We fished across the river, swinging that sculpin and trending toward the scattered islands in the middle, all the while hooking a lot of trout. We wound up below a wide grassy sandbar where two large braids of current came together to form a rip that stretched 100 feet or more downstream. Silt had piled to the right of the rip and fell off into a deep pool to the left.

Guide Ned Spratt looks on while the author fights a fish sometime between 8 and 10 p.m. The long hours of summer sunlight are another reason trout fishing in Alaska is about the best in the world. A beat-up thermos is standard issue to Kulik Lodge guides. (NICK HALL PHOTOGRAPHY)

I stood at the head of the rip and cast about 15 feet, into the current to the right of the rip, and when the sculpin began dropping into the pool, I caught a nice trout. I made another drift, but cast a few feet farther, with the same result. And over and over, in increasing increments of a few feet, I cast to the right of the rip and let the current carry the sculpin into the pool—and I dealt with fish on just about every cast.

We waded the edge of the rip downstream and worked the entire seam. Catching trout—hefty and shiny fish that ran from 16 to 20, 21 inches—the full length of the rip, getting bites about 8 out of 10 casts. Overall, that morning on the Kulik, I can say I never made more than three casts without experiencing a trout on the other end.