In a far western corner of Alaska, the three distinct forks of the aptly named Goodnews River come tumbling down from the Ahklun Mountains.
They cascade onto the vast flood plain of the Togiak National Refugee and between them, the three forks offer nearly five hundred miles of fishing before they drain into the Bering Sea.
Goodnews River Lodge, on the North Fork, is the only lodge on the river, and it is an ‘old-school’ classic. The hugely likeable lodge owner, Mike Gorton, has been fishing and guiding in Alaska since the 1980’s, and he knows exactly what anglers are looking for: simple, warm and comfortable cabins; delicious and hearty food; affable, friendly staff that create a lively and convivial atmosphere; and fish.
Lots and lots of fish.
My trip to Goodnews River Lodge was inspired by a great mate of mine, Andy Blyth. Andy regularly fishes with his father, Ian – also a great friend – and after an uncharacteristically tough season of Atlantic salmon fishing on his home river in the UK, Andy just wanted to take the old man on a trip where action was pretty much guaranteed.
““You can’t GUARANTEE action anywhere”, but after a little homework, I thought that I might have found a place that could almost – ALMOST – do exactly that.”
Where did I suggest?
I rattled off a few hackneyed platitudes along the lines of “You can’t guarantee action anywhere”, but after a little homework, I thought that I might have found a place that could almost – ALMOST – do exactly that.
Goodnews River Lodge.
When to go?
Well, from the first day to the last, Goodnews appears to provide a million thrills and spills. It’s all good, but, if you are after maximum action, it’s arguably best to head to the Goodnews in the late season to tackle the spectacular Coho run.
Apart from a few stale old silvers encountered while steelheading, I’d never really crossed swords with Oncorhynchus kisutch. Having done so, trust me when I say that these fish are superlative sport fish. The Coho of the Goodnews are of an excellent average size, ranging to twenty pounds and even beyond. They fight hard, often careering high into the air when hooked, regardless of whether they are fresh, chrome-bright arrivals or gnarly, resident “fire-engines”. Best of all, they will demolish big surface poppers with the kind of naked, blood-curdling aggression that would make a Jack Crevalle blush.
After some long, tough days chasing permit in Cuba, it sounded perfect. Along with another great and talented friend, Jack Meredith, Andy, Ian and I headed for Anchorage in early September last year.
With a wild trip over the spectacular Alaskan Range in an eighty-year old DC3, we arrived in Goodnews Bay. The sun was shining as we boarded the sturdy johnboats to be ferried to the camp, but as we headed upstream, a series of dark thunderheads rolled over the horizon. Minutes later, a steady rain set in, and it barely stopped for the next five days.
That evening the river started to rise alarmingly, and at dinner we were advised that the river would be big and colored by the following morning. “Not such Good News” observed Andy archly, and I was obliged to remind him that I had stated that sport was ALMOST guaranteed.
We needn’t have worried.
By the morning, the high colored water in the main river was lapping at the dock, but it had pushed all the silvers into the sloughs and back-eddies, where the water remained perfectly clear.
Once we’d figured that out, Jack and I immediately made hay with flashy, fuschia-coloured streamers, but the fun really started when we swapped to big, neon-pink double-barrelled poppers.
Absolute, unrelenting mayhem.
Each bay came alive, with almost every cast met with one or more big frisky Coho jumping all over the surface flies. Once hooked, they would jackknife into the air and rocket around the slack water with wild abandon. If a good-sized Coho got into the powerful main current, it was often necessary to leap into the boat to chase it down before the reel emptied.
Jack Meredith is a hugely experienced veteran angler, yet to see my old friend’s face light up as he teased yet another big, brawny silver into scoffing his fly was elemental, life-affirming stuff. We spluttered with laughter all day long.
Meanwhile, Andy and Ian were wreaking their own havoc, and when we met up at the end of the day, they were grinning like Cheshire cats.
“Absolute, unrelenting mayhem.”
The sport went on day after day, despite the river level creeping ever higher. Every night, we would sit around exhausted, giggling at each other’s stories of multiple hook-ups and crazy, cricket-score numbers while the rain drummed unrelentingly on the roof above. Every night, we were warned that the river was still rising, and yet each subsequent morning we caught fish after fish, despite the ongoing deluge. If anything, the action was improving day on day.
We rotated guides every day, and each and every one that we fished with or even just drank a few glasses with over dinner was great company and knew the river backwards.
The staff were all warm and attentive, and each moment at Goodnews was an absolute pleasure. It’s unfair to single any one of them out, but in particular, I remember an epic day with Johnny Napolitano, an American Italian with “Stray Cats” hair and an unerring nose for where the wildest action was to be found. One morning, Johnny took us way upriver to a slough that held more Coho than you could shake a stick at, all insanely keen to crush those enraging pink poppers. After catching a sackload, I gave Johnny the rod and watched him tease the Coho like a pro. Too much fun.
Finally, mercifully, on the last morning, after a relentless five-day deluge, and with the river now lapping very close to the camp itself, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Jack and I were with another favorite, local guide Jan Stewart that day. Jan is an Inuit from the local village, and he is full of sparkling humor and mischief. My partner Jack was at first just a little wary of Jan, but very soon they were both getting on like a house on fire, howling with laughter, and even went for a swim together after both losing their footing in a beaver pond.
The fishing on that last day was insane.
With the clouds finally lifting, I sent up a drone and, looking at the transmitted images on my little iPad, I got a true sense of just what a wild and remote spot Goodnews really is. Nothing but the vast wilderness of the tundra sprawling out in every direction. Bathed in the low golden sunshine of the Alaskan autumn, the whole valley was an utterly beguiling sight.
“The fishing on that last day was insane.”
After two casts without a fish, Jack decided he had caught every fish in the little back-eddy that we had been plundering. Jan was in stitches when I showed him the legions of Coho still sitting right in front of my friend via my drone-screen.
As the sun started to sink into the west, Jan started to look at his watch. It is testament to the exhilarating Coho salmon of the Goodnews River that even now, after six long days of incessant knuckle-busting action, both Jack and I were still fishing hard, desperate for just one more dance with one of these cavorting lunatics.
I’ll be honest. I thought I might find the constant action that Goodnews both promised and delivered in spades to be just a little too easy. Repetitive. Perhaps even monotonous.
I relish a challenge: my fly-fishing friends will tell you that I’m happy to spend long hours biding my time for an elusive steelhead or scanning the Caribbean flats for the sight of a big, sickle tail. I’ll happily spend day after day patiently waiting for a shot at just one permit, a fish that, even when spotted, will most likely give my fly the proverbial finger, no matter how well presented.
However, sometimes, it’s great to just take it easy, have a lot of fun with good friends and catch fish. LOTS and lots of fish. If that’s what you’re looking for, I really cannot think of anywhere more likely to deliver both commodities in abundance than Goodnews River Lodge.
Perhaps I’ll see you there.