The wild, remote Koktuli River in Bristol Bay and why it’s time for long-term protection

In this interview, we spoke with Colin Arisman, who told us about a wonderful trip he made last summer. Colin spends most of his time these days on the field in Alaska and is an award-winning director, photographer and writer. Follow to hear about a wonderful flight deep into the Bristol Bay watershed he made with some friends last year. Also, learn how you can help protect this special place once and for all!

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

Colin: Growing up in Vermont, all I knew about salmon was that they were extinct in the East Coast rivers before I was born. I was intrigued by the legendary abundance and that curiosity drew me north. My first cruise trip to Bristol Bay was a groundbreaking experience. As much as I love fishing, the best part was just being next to the salmon and watching the hundreds of fish floating under our trap. I promised myself I would be back in Bristol Bay every summer. Now, I’m an Alaska-based director and photographer.

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

Colin: Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest salmon fishery, but it may also have the largest open pit mine in North America. The proposed Pebble mine has been battling for a decade with locals and fisheries scientists completely opposed. After hearing so much news, I wanted to see the sources where the mine could be located. The only problem is that Pebble is 20 miles away while the crow flies from the nearest road.

My friend, Oliver Sutro. unloads a week trap and equipment.

After a few days of visiting, I found a pilot who was willing to drop us off at a lake near the proposed mine. Two friends and I flew from Anchorage to the small village of Iliamna. From there we loaded a raft, fishing tackle, and food on a floating plane for a week.

A pebble mine helicopter doing mineral exploration work.

Almost immediately after it crashed, a helicopter working for the mining company closed over. We walked several miles through the wetlands to get a closer look at the Northern Dynasty Minerals-owned camp. After a day of being shocked by the helis, we thought we had seen enough. We breathed our boat and set off on a 60-mile cruise down the Koktuli River, one of the most contaminated watersheds.

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

Colin: You can not go wrong on a flying trip to Southwest Alaska. We have a tradition that whenever someone catches a fish, you have to give up the stick and line up. Some days it looks like you are playing music chairs.

One of the many rainbows that eat Bristol Bay rodents

The Koktuli River is really narrow, at the beginning of the trip. Coming from a corner, I saw two little brown bears fishing in the river. The cocktail was only about 30 feet wide and I did not like the idea that I had to swim between the bears and their salmon slap. We watched these 2 younger siblings for about an hour as they constantly loaded across the river for fish. Finally, the bears climbed ashore to rest and we passed by.

Colin- “We waited an hour to swim while the bears fished in the middle of the narrow river”

Flylords: This type of travel is not for everyone. Sounds so far away and includes its fair share of danger. But for the adventure crew, how achievable is planning and completing a sailing trip like this?

Colin: I am hesitant to recommend a self-propelled float like this one in Bristol Bay. Between bears, bad weather, fast water and distance – there is so much to learn and practice before a trip like this. A lot can go wrong, and my early raft expeditions to Alaska included some “roughly lost.”

However, there are some really great flying guides. You will have the same quality of fishing, many challenges as cold, rain and defects – plus someone else who will worry about logistics. I would recommend people check out the Wild River Guides ( for dinghy fishing trips to Bristol Bay.

Flylords: After conducting an intimate assessment of the Bristol Bay region, how did the news make you feel that this watershed is now on the verge of permanent defenses?

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

Many people think this move proposed by the EPA could be “coffin nail”. I encourage people to make your voice heard and submit a comment to the EPA before July 5th. The buffalo may be gone, but in Bristol Bay you can come and see 66 million pit eyes swimming in the house. I hope everyone has the opportunity to witness this.

A record 66 million salmon were returned to Bristol Bay last year

Long-term and sustainable protections for Bristol Bay are now in our view. The EPA is in the midst of a period of public comment to formally restore the protection of the Clean Water Act 404 (c) for the Bristol Bay watershed, which would ban mining waste in the region permanently. Colin’s journey gave us a glimpse of how amazing and wild this part of the world is – and why it should remain so. I know it may seem like the tenth time you do this, but chances are this is the last time you are required to advocate for long-term protection for Bristol Bay. So let’s finish it once and for all: Tell the EPA and decision-makers you want protection of clean water law for Bristol Bay’s major resources!

Colin, thank you for contacting and sharing your trip with us. Check out Colin’s work at or on his Instagram @Colin_Arisman.

A dream we call Alaska

Restore protection of the Clean Water Act for nearby Bristol Bay

UPDATE: RAWA progresses through the House of Representatives

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