Floating Bristol Bay’s Wild, Remote Koktuli River and Why It’s Time for Long-Term Protections


In this interview, we spoke with Colin Arisman who told us about an amazing float-trip he took last summer. Colin spends most of his time these days on the ground in Alaska and is an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, and writer. Follow along to hear about an amazing fly-in float deep into the Bristol Bay watershed he did with some buddies last year. Also, learn how you can help protect this special place once and for all!


Flylords: Colin, first off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Colin: Growing up in Vermont, all I knew about salmon was that they’d been wiped out in east coast rivers before I was born. I was intrigued by the legendary abundance, and that curiosity drew me north. My first float trip in Bristol Bay was a revelatory experience. As much as I enjoy fishing, the best part was just being around salmon and getting to watch hundreds of fish swim under our raft. I promised myself that I’d come back to Bristol Bay every summer. Now, I’m a filmmaker and photographer based in Alaska.

Flylords: Now let’s hear about this epic float trip you did last year. Where’d you go and what was the plan?

Colin: Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, but it could also have the largest open pit mine in North America. The proposed Pebble Mine has been fought over for a decade with locals and fishery scientists squarely opposed. After hearing so much in the news, I wanted to see the headwaters where the mine could be located. The only issue is that Pebble is 20 miles as the crow flies from the nearest road.

, Floating Bristol Bay’s Wild, Remote Koktuli River and Why It’s Time for Long-Term Protections, Salmon Club Iceland
My buddy, Oliver Sutro. unloads the raft and a week’s worth of gear.

After a few days calling around, I eventually found a pilot who was willing to drop us at a lake near the proposed mine. Two friends and I flew from Anchorage to the tiny village of Iliamna. From there we loaded a raft, fly fishing gear, and a week’s worth of food into a floatplane.

, Floating Bristol Bay’s Wild, Remote Koktuli River and Why It’s Time for Long-Term Protections, Salmon Club Iceland
A Pebble Mine helicopter doing mineral exploration work.

Almost immediately after getting dropped, a helicopter working for the mining company zipped overhead. We hiked a few miles across wetlands to get a closer look at the camp owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals. After a day of getting buzzed by helis, we figured we’d seen enough. We inflated our raft and set off on a 60 mile float down the Koktuli River, one of the watersheds most at risk of contamination.

Flylords: How was the fishing? Any good stories you want to share?

Colin: You can’t go wrong on a flyout trip in Southwest Alaska. We have a tradition that everytime someone catches a fish, you have to give up your rod and row. Somedays it feels like you are playing musical chairs.

, Floating Bristol Bay’s Wild, Remote Koktuli River and Why It’s Time for Long-Term Protections, Salmon Club Iceland
One of the numerous rodent eating rainbows of Bristol Bay

The Koktuli River is really narrow, early on in the trip. Coming around a corner, I caught sight of two small brown bears fishing in the river. The Koktuli was only about 30 feet wide and I didn’t like the idea of having to float between the bears and their buffet of salmon. We watched these 2 young siblings for about an hour as they charged again and again across the river for fish. Eventually, the bears climbed up onto the bank to rest and we floated by.

, Floating Bristol Bay’s Wild, Remote Koktuli River and Why It’s Time for Long-Term Protections, Salmon Club Iceland
Colin–“We waited an hour to float by while bears fished in the middle of the narrow river”

Flylords: This type of trip isn’t for everyone. It sounds so remote and has its fair share of risk involved. But for the adventure-minded crew, how accessible is planning and completing a float trip like this?

Colin: I’m hesitant to recommend a self-guided float like this in Bristol Bay. Between the bears, inclement weather, swiftwater, and remoteness – there is so much to learn and practice before a trip like this. A lot can go wrong and my early raft expeditions in Alaska included a few “near-misses”.

There are some really amazing fly-out, raft guides though. You’ll get the same quality of fishing, plenty of challenges like the cold, rain and bugs — plus someone else to worry about logistics. I’d recommend that folks check out Wild River Guides (www.wildriverfish.com) for raft based fly fishing trips in Bristol Bay.

Flylords: After developing an intimate appreciation for the Bristol Bay region, how did the news that this watershed is now on the verge of permanent protections make you feel?

Colin: This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed protections that would prohibit the disposal of mining waste in several watersheds including the Koktuli River, which we got to float last year. I’m currently in Dillingham Alaska, working on a documentary film, and I got to attend the EPA hearing recently and listen to Bristol Bay residents’ testimony. It was powerful to hear how deeply local people care about protecting fish and the watershed.

A lot of people feel like this proposed action by the EPA could be the “nail in the coffin”. I encourage people to make your voice heard and submit a comment to the EPA before July 5th. The buffalo might be gone, but in Bristol Bay you can still come see 66 million sockeye swimming home. I hope everyone gets the opportunity to witness that.

, Floating Bristol Bay’s Wild, Remote Koktuli River and Why It’s Time for Long-Term Protections, Salmon Club Iceland
A record 66 million sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay last year

Long-term, durable protections for Bristol Bay are now in our sights. The EPA is in the midst of a public comment period to officially reinstate Clean Water Act 404(c) protections for the Bristol Bay watershed, which would prohibit mining waste in the region for perpetuity. Colin’s trip gave us a glimpse into just how amazing and wild this part of the world is–and why it must remain that way. I know it may seem like the tenth time you’ve done this, but there’s a very high chance that this is the last time you are asked to advocate for long-term protections for Bristol Bay. So, let’s finish it once and for all: Tell the EPA and decision-makers you want Clean Water Act safeguards for Bristol Bay’s headwaters!

Colin, thanks for getting in touch and sharing your trip with us. Check out Colin’s work at www.colinarisman.com or on his Instagram @Colin_Arisman.

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