COLD BAY STEEL - Randall Bonner

COLD BAY STEEL - Randall Bonner

I kept wondering how many more steelhead were in the area. I moved downstream of where I had been hooking coho and finally connected with a steelhead that cooperated for a handshake and a photograph. In less than a half hour, I landed a rainbow, a Dolly Varden, coho and a steelhead.


The wild steelhead of Russell Creek are aggressive and will strike a wide variety of presentations. This buck bit an R & B Lure spoon.


Cold Bay is not on the radar of most anglers, because it’s a world-class waterfowling destination. When I landed in Anchorage for my connecting flight, I walked across the airport to the Raven terminals and began to notice there were as many labradors and German wire-haired griffons as there were humans on the next flight to Cold Bay, and every last one of us was wearing camouflage (dogs too!). When we got there, I stood in front of baggage claim and got funny looks from all the people retrieving their shotguns as I grabbed a couple rod tubes and threw them over my shoulder to head for Izembek Lodge. I was beginning to wonder if all this fishing gear was overkill, but what I found was a diamond in the rough often overlooked among remote Alaskan fishing destinations.

Cold Bay is located near the tip of the Alaskan peninsula and surrounded by Izembek Lagoon, which provides a little protection from the weather systems of the Bering Sea. Cold Bay was once home to the Unagax Native people of the greater Aleu-tian Islands prior to Russian aggression, an era that ended in 1867 when Russia sold its Alaskan Territories to the United States. In 1942, the U.S. established Fort Randall in response to the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands and served as an Air Force base to protect Dutch Harbor, the only deep-water port in the Aleutians at that time. During its peak of military activity, Cold Bay was home to more than 20,000 U.S. troops and hangars filled with P-40 Warhawks. After the war, the airport was given to civil authorities as a refueling and emergency landing area for international flights.






Today, it’s a hunting and fishing destination with less than 50 year-round residents and 300,000 acres of what makes up Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The landscape is mainly tundra, the tallest trees being alders just high enough to disguise the profile of brown bears. A six-day stream survey conducted in 2021 revealed a “minimum population count” of 162 brown bears, more than triple the population of Cold Bay’s citizens, so being “bear aware” is a necessity. There are very little windbreaks of any kind, and the same wind that makes for great waterfowl hunting often makes casting a real challenge. What the landscape lacks in timber, it makes up for in fish. With a limit of five coho per day and plenty of targets, it’s fairly easy to fill a fish box for the flight home. (The Board of Fish is meeting February 20th-25th to discuss closure reviews and a proposal to reduce the bag and possession limit for Cold Bay drainages so this may change by the time this article goes to print). Wild steelhead are mainly a by-catch seen by anglers floating roe or tossing spinners for silvers, and the anglers that catch them are typically hunters who like the appeal of a fishery that can easily produce salmon for the freezer with very little effort.


A coho caught drift fishing a Western Fishing Operations worm wacky rigged above a Thirsty Fishing bead.


“You’re coming right on the tail end of coho season, so you might just end up catching some dark fish,” everyone told me as I unpacked an absurd arsenal of fishing gear and began questioning if I had made the right call bringing all this extra baggage instead of just using the lodge gear or focusing on hunting. But after a morning hunt for a couple brandt, the world’s most delicious and easy to decoy waterfowl, I headed down to the hatchery hole to wet a line after lunch, which was the typical routine for lodge guests looking to stack some meat for the freezer. 



Support - Guides Across America




The Russell Creek Hatchery has long since been out of operation and is now a private residence. An Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act easement provides access through the private parcel to a 1-acre site where the public can access and fish Russell Creek. When it was constructed in 1977, it had the potential to be one of the largest hatcheries in the world, with a physical capacity of 250 million pink salmon eggs. Now, remnants of the hatchery consist of acclimation ponds, structures, and debris. This is the most popular area for visiting anglers who want easy access to the fishery.


The horizon of tundra with Mt Frosty and the Pavlof Volcano provides a dramatic backdrop for sunrises and sunsets.


After hearing about the potential for steelhead, I decided to start fishing with a bead, figuring it was the best way to efficiently target both species. My first catch was a beautiful resident rainbow trout, an unexpected but pleasant surprise. The next, a Dolly Varden. My guide Brian Whitten told me prior to coming to Cold Bay that the Dolly Varden were plentiful on the tail end of the coho run. The two small fish were a great start to warm up for what was ahead of me, but my expectations were set fairly low. The next fish I hooked peeled drag then swam back towards me in a hurry. I picked up the slack just in time for the line to get tight when a chrome steelhead did an airborne cartwheel, throwing my gear back at me in a rat’s nest of tangles and anxiety, which was quite the welcome of Cold Bay chrome. A few minutes of panic and shaking later, I was finally back in the water and landed my first coho. Then I landed one or two more. As happy as I was to be on the board with some meat to take home, I kept wondering how many more steelhead were in the area. I moved downstream of where I had been hooking coho and finally connected with a steelhead that cooperated for a handshake and a photograph. In less than a half hour, I landed a rainbow, a Dolly Varden, coho and a steelhead. “Ok, I can go home happy now,” I told Brian. Little did I know what was in store for me for the rest of the trip.






After a day of ptarmigan hunting, Brian and I loaded up the rods into “Rusty,” the 1986 Chevrolet Suburban, a standard Alaskan taxi. Rusty took us to “the end of the road,” a boundary for vehicle traffic that begins where the road has been reclaimed by the tundra and closed to traffic. It’s a fairly decent hike down to the water from there, but nothing too strenuous. Coming back when there’s a brown bear who wants his fishing spot back is another story, then it feels like climbing up a mountain to a truck that’s parked on the other side of the planet. Luckily, the first day we had the river to ourselves. I walked down to the shore and stepped in the water to cast towards the opposite bank. After a couple steps, it appeared as if the entire river bottom began to move. The gravel was blanketed with coho. These weren’t spawned out firetrucks either, but blush chrome fish staging mid-journey and huddled together like New Yorkers riding the subway upriver. There were so many, I was cautious about floating a bead through the herd because I didn’t want to foul hook any of them. I made a cast just beyond the flat into deeper water. At the end of my drift, the float dropped and I brought a steelhead to the shore. Then another, and another, and another.


Randall Bonner and canine hunting buddy Bridger. Cold Bay is mostly known for waterfowl hunting opportunities and a premier world-class destination for Black Brandt (pictured) making Cast and Blast adventures a daily occurrence. 


I eventually grew bored of catching steelhead on every cast and switched to a spoon. I brought them for coho, but I had also never caught a steelhead on a spoon. Having admired Bill Herzog for years, catching a steelhead on a spoon was a mis-sion I really wanted to complete. I fished them when I visited Forks, Washington last January. I fished them on my home rivers all season and never so much as got a bite. It took me three casts to mark that off my bucket list on Russell Creek, and I caught several more on the spoon after that. After hugging my guide Brian (nearly a complete stranger the day before), I maniacally laughed and asked him “How long do we really want to do this?!” After several hours of hooking steelhead on nearly every cast, I had to cut myself off so I could get back to the lodge, grab a shotgun and get my limit of Brandt for the day. 

Although the coho in that section of the river were still chrome, it didn’t make sense to harvest them and make the long walk back to the truck dragging fish through bear country. After collecting my limit of Brandt on the incoming tide, we made a quick stop at a culvert where Trout Creek flows under the road. “This is where everybody stops to grab a fish for dinner,” said Brian. The tiny creek has a deep hole right there at the culvert, and it stacks with coho. I sorted through some dark fish before selecting a couple perfect specimens for the Traeger to feed myself, the staff and lodge guests along with a plate of ptarmigan legs and Brandt breasts. The atmosphere back at the lodge is very much like sitting down with family more-so than ordering from a restaurant or bar. The intimate setting is its own welcoming vibe, and very much a part of the experience at Izembek Lodge.





The community of Cold Bay isn’t much different. There are no paved roads, and as lodge co-owner Mike Gregg explained to me, “Driving around Cold Bay is more like cruising around the back 40.” The one general store is only open for a few hours a few days a week, which typically doesn’t overlap with the days the bar is open. To give you an idea of how small the town of Cold Bay is, that store and bar are in the same unmarked building. Walk through the entrance and go right to the store and left to the bar. To the back of that same building is also the only hotel, the Bearfoot Inn. At least while I was there, the store clerk was also the bartender.


Izembek Lodge guide Brian Whitten displays a wild steelhead hen from Russell Creek.


The new owners and managers of Izembek Lodge are retired bird biologists and habitat managers that will be entering their third year of operation during the 2023 season. They are passionate about Cold Bay and the opportunities it provides. More importantly, they enjoy sharing the unique experience of visiting the region with their guests as a labor of love for an area they have admired from afar most of their lives. Their professional backgrounds and education in wildlife conservation make for an encyclopedia of quality conversations over wild game dinners and liquid libations. It’s almost as difficult a place to leave as it is to get to in the first place. Contact info:






Back to blog

Leave a comment

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