The state record, a massive 41 ½-inch fish, came out of the Wulik River in 2002. The Wulik isn’t the only option though as several rivers in the Kotzebue area are accessible by bush plane and all have big fish.


The author preparing to land a Dolly the evening of the first day. Jerry Sisemore image.


Jesse Cummings of Golden Eagle Outfitters flew us up the river north of Kotzebue showing us landmarks and looking for pods of fish on the river we’d be floating and fishing for the next five days. Several miles upriver we found the spot where we’d begin our quest for northwest Alaska’s overgrown, sea-run Dolly Varden. He flew low over the gravel bar on which we wanted to land, then circled around to approach upwind and expertly flew the Cessna 206 Super Skywagon onto the bar. We quickly unloaded our gear, bid Jesse farewell, and set up camp while he took off for his trip back to Kotzebue. After we set up camp we began to rig our switch rods with high hopes. We walked to the head of the run and my lifelong friend, Jerry Sisemore, graciously allowed me first water.






Clear water flowed from a narrow channel into a deep, emerald-green pool, with a back eddy on our side of the river and a high bluff on the far side. It was too deep to see bottom in most of the pool; the reverse current on the near side indicated presentation would challenging at the head of the pool. Rain pelted the river’s surface. 30 feet downstream, the influence of the back eddy was lost. That’s where I was, having landed a goblin (chum salmon in spawning condition) and a 20-inch, clowned-up Dolly. I was now in the heart of the hole and I began to feel the mysterious premonition that a big fish was moments away—that inexplicable feeling that is sometimes so strong you know it’s coming. The four-inch purple Intruder I was throwing was a little much for my 11-foot TFO Deer Creek switch rod and I needed to start lengthening casts so I switched to a smaller, more compact, black Deuce Wigalo fly I’d picked up at Mossy’s Fly Shop in Anchorage in the hopes I’d be able to cast closer to the far bank. I also thought this fly would sink a little faster. I performed a reverse snap-T and sent the fly out towards the far bank that was maybe 75 feet away. The fly landed about ten feet from the bank. I threw an upstream mend out to allow the fly to sink. Tension began to grip my line and my conscious-ness as the fly began to swing slowly across the current. A heavy thud on the line was followed by a couple ominously strong head shakes. In a split second I wondered if it was another chum but all doubt was shattered as over three feet of platinum, sea-run dolly exploded through the water’s surface. Adrenaline took over my entire being—vision narrowed, my heart pounded, and Jerry’s voice sounded muffled and far away—I think he asked if it was a good fish. But all I really remember is the fish looked like a mid-teens steelhead from a distance, fought like a summer steelhead in tidewater, and I hoped like hell I’d land it. I wondered if the fish was going to tear downstream and leave the pool. That would have complicated things. But after the first few out of control, cartwheeling leaps and torrid runs the fish settled down not unlike a big buck steelhead, bulldogging in the depths of the pool, occasionally making short runs that made my SpeyCo Switch reel scream. After 10 or 15 minutes, I beheld the Holy Grail of Dolly Varden—37 ½-inches of awe-inspiring, sea-run liquid chrome.

We’d been on the river for maybe an hour and I’d already done what we came for—to catch a sea-run Dolly Varden greater than 36 inches long!


The author preparing to land a Dolly the evening of the first day. Jerry Sisemore image.


We chose to fish the Kotzebue area because of the large, northern strain sea-run Dollies that are known to inhabit streams of the area. The state record, a massive 41 ½-inch fish, came out of the Wulik River in 2002. The Wulik isn’t the only option though as several rivers in the Kotzebue area are accessible by bush plane and all have big fish. Examples include the Noatak drainage and several of its tributaries. This was a very low-water year. We didn’t decide on which river we were going to fish until we talked to Jesse and Jared Cummings who had first-hand information on where fish were being caught recently. Their advice proved to be accurate. We chose to fish for fish that were primarily entering the river to overwinter as they are typically more numerous than those returning to spawn.






Sea-run dollies of northwest Alaska are a little unusual and somewhat unpredictable in their migration patterns. They overwinter in rivers. Fish begin to enter the rivers in fair numbers in July and continue until freeze-up. However, the rivers they choose to overwinter in are often not the river they were born in. For example, fish from Alaska have been found in rivers in Russia. Despite this lack of fidelity regarding overwintering, these fish do return to their natal streams to spawn. Since these fish do not spawn every year, you don’t have to target spawning runs to find big fish. All of the fish enter rivers in summer or fall; some to overwinter, some to spawn and then overwinter. Fish tend to spawn in smaller tributaries, but overwinter in larger rivers. A 15-pound fish that is not going to spawn is still going to head to a river to overwinter.

I wanted to swing flies with two-handed rods on this trip. As such, I wanted to fish bigger water. That led me to choose a good-sized river and to target primarily overwintering fish. I only caught a few fish on this trip that had any hint of spawning coloration. The vast majority where bright, silvery fish with pale pink or orange spots and streamlined in shape—very similar to steelhead.


Fish like this 37.5-inch sea-run buck are not common, but we caught several over 30 inches on this trip. Jerry Sisemore image.


We were unguided on this trip and our game plan was to keep an open mind, find fish, and then don’t leave fish to find fish. We executed well, but we learned some things that will change our approach next time we go. And trust me, this trip was good enough that I plan to go back.

Since these Dollies are sea-run and can be quite large, we approached the river much like we approach steelhead rivers. These fish were going to be spending the next several months overwintering in the rivers. We rightly guessed that they would be in water that provided cover (depth, in most cases) and even, walking-speed current that would allow them to hold without burning too much energy. For the most part this held true, though we did find one broad tailout and subsequent shallow riffle that didn’t seem to offer much cover, but certainly held numerous fish.





The water was quite clear with about seven feet of visibility, if not more. Despite this, these bright, sea-run Dollies were very difficult to spot. Polarized glasses were essential. I used a couple different pairs on this trip. Smith Chief sunglasses with amber, polarchromic lenses worked exceptionally well for low-light periods and cloudy days. Guideline’s Eclipse sunglasses with amber lenses also worked very well. For the few sunny periods, I used a pair of Guideline Rogue bifocals with brown lenses to good effect. Even with these great glasses, it was still very difficult to see fish without gaining elevation.

We spotted the fish in the shallow tailout mentioned above by accident. We were walking along the river on a low bluff, not planning to fish that water at all. Out of my peripheral vision I thought I saw a flash, so I stopped to look. To my surprise, I counted at least twenty fish in the next minute or so. Though many were in less than three feet of water, they were invisible for the most part. However, they would occasionally roll over slightly in the water, producing the flash that gave away their locations. We began to look for this as the trip went on. In the river we fished, sea-run Dollies also rolled occasionally in the larger runs, and these areas usually yielded several fish. The larger fish were typically in the larger, slower, deeper runs of more than four feet.


Grayling weren’t shy about smacking Silvenators meant for Dollies.


The only strategic mistake we made is that we stayed at our first camp location for a day and a half—far too long. We learned as the trip went on that if fish are present, they will bite and you will hook most of them the first time through. Going through a second time is worth the effort if you change flies, but you won’t catch as many the second time. If you fish the hole a third time, you might not catch any at all. The lesson learned is to fish thoroughly, but don’t camp on a hole waiting for more fish to come to you. You’ll be wasting precious time if you do. Stick and move. You are fishing for holding fish, not travelling fish.

Though I planned to use two handers, all the pictures I’d seen of the rivers in the area led me to believe a switch rod would be adequate and perhaps more rod than necessary. This proved to be untrue. The rods I had with me varied from 11 feet to 11 feet nine inches and were for six- to eight-weight lines. They worked well in most of the runs we fished but the best runs were long and fairly wide, and I couldn’t cover all of the water well with the switch rods. Additionally, I would like to have used some rather large flies (four- to five-inch sculpin patterns, large Intruders) but the light switch rods couldn’t cast those dead rabbits and chickens very well. When I go again, I’ll be taking a 13 foot seven-weight as well as the switch rods to be able to cover the far-off water.





The setups I used were as follows: An 11’, 7-weight TFO Deer Creek Switch rod paired with a SpeyCo River Switch 3 ¾-inch reel with a 450-grain Airflo Skagit Switch line; an Echo Classic 11’, 6-weight switch rod with a 390-grain Airflo Skagit Switch line with an Echo Ion 7/9 reel; a Redington Dually 11’3”, 7-weight switch rod with a 420-grain Skagit Switch line and a Ross CLA 5 reel; and an 11’9”, 8-weight Redington Dually with an Airflo 510-grain Skagit Switch line and a SpeyCo Skagit four inch reel. All of these setups were suitable for these fish. I used the Dually 8-weight most because it could handle the widest range of flies and sink tips, plus the longer length gave me more distance and line control. All reels had at least 100 yards of 30-pound Dacron backing. Fish ranged in size from 18 inches all the way up to 37 ½ inches. The average fish was around 23 inches. We caught four fish that were over 30 inches and numerous fish in the upper 20s. It was common for average fish to run out all of my running line (75 feet) plus many yards of backing on the initial run; you’ll want to ensure you have 100 yards of backing in case you hook a hawg in one of the longer runs. You might need it. I used Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics Lazar Line in 30-pound-test for running line on all of the reels except the Ion. Tim Rajeff of Rajeff Sports sent me the Echo Classic switch rod with an Echo Ion 7/9 with Airflo Ridge running line already spooled on the reel. The Ridge running line worked great but I prefer mono running lines.

For the terminal end of things, we used Airflo Flo tips in T-7 and T-10, and RIO MOW tips in T-8 and T-11. Since this was a low-water year, we used the lighter T-7 and T-8 tips most. On the shallow tailout I mentioned previously, I used an Airflo 10-foot intermediate polyleader. We used four or five feet of 15-pound-test Seaguar STS leader material. This stuff has become my new favorite leader material. It’s very clear, very strong, and knots better than some other fluorocarbon materials I’ve tried. We didn’t break off any fish during this trip aside from the occasional goblin gone berserk which we broke off intentionally to save time. We used a non-slip loop knot to attach flies to leaders.


If I had to pick one fly for this trip, it would probably be Brian Silvey’s Silvenator. Pink/purple and orange/black both produced well.


We used a variety of flies the first few days but found in time that the fly pattern didn’t matter much. What mattered was getting it in front of a fish. Sculpin patterns, Intruders and similar steelhead-type patterns in purples and blacks were what we used most. The venerable purple Egg-sucking Leech with lead eyes worked really well, but the hooks on this traditional pattern rapidly dulled. Tube flies and flies tied on shanks are the way to go for this fishery. Some proven winners on this trip were John Silvey’s Silvenator in purple and pink or black and orange, John Hazlett’s Deuce Wigalo in black, and Bob Andres’ Thumper (an unweighted, wooly bugger-type fly with a black tail, brown body, brown furnace hackle and pale pinkish-orangish Glo-Bug style head). Of these, we used the Silvenator in purple and pink most, with a size two Gamakatsu octopus hook. Size four hooks would work too, but for fish that can exceed 15 pounds, a size two is a better choice.

We spent much of our final half day of the trip looking for a fish-holding run that had a gravel bar long enough and smooth enough to land and take off in the 206. We found a great hole with a deep plunge pool at the head that dropped into water we guessed was well over 10 feet deep. We pulled over and began preparing gear for our pick up. Once our Water Master Grizzly and Kodiak rafts were packed and the gear stowed, I dug out the satellite phone Antonio Garza from the Surveyor’s Exchange in Anchorage had rented us and made the call to Golden Ea-gle Outfitters to confirm our pick up. The phone came packed in a water-tight case and the instructions inside were simple to follow. After the call, I returned to the river. I treated a quart of river water with my SteriPEN and drank most of it down while I studied the pool.



For more information:

541-444-5166 - leave message




The deep head of the pool was roily and produced no fish. As I was fishing through it I saw a few large Dollies roll downstream. The inexplicable feeling of an impending grab was again upon me. I fished down toward the rolling fish, sending out 75 foot snap-T casts from river left to deal with the increasing upstream wind. I was covering the water rather quickly as I knew I’d hear Jesse approaching in the 206 soon.

The take was unmistakable; a jarring yank and I was fast into a better-than-average fish. It ran down and across and I hung on while backing flew through the guides. The fish erupted through the surface at the end of the run and I knew I had another fish in the 30-inch class. The noontime sun cut through wind and warmed the left side of my face as I played the fish. A few minutes later Jerry was taking pictures and I had the familiar feeling of joy over the experience as well as regret that another outstanding adventure was coming to a close. I released the fish and headed to shore to pack up my remaining gear, my mind already working on when I would, in the words of the late Roderick Haig-Brown, Return to the River.


Water Masters worked well for this nearly week-long float.


When To Go

Some Sea-run Dolly Varden are present in the streams around Kotzebue from break-up to freeze-up but the best time to target them is during the spawning and over-wintering migrations from August to October, weather permitting. Contact Jim, Jesse or Jared for more specific information.


How to Get There

Fly Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to Kotzebue. Contact Golden Eagle Outfitters to book your flight from Kotzebue to and from the river.

Golden Eagle Outfitters Jared, Jim and Jesse Cummings


George Krumm is the Editor of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. He can be reached at






Back to blog

1 comment

Expertly written and a pleasure to read. Thank you!

Pat Okonek

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.