Iliamna Lake levels barely high enough for Bristol Bay boat portage

Jun 8, 2017

Ray Williams of Iliamna Transportation Company says the Iliamna Lake and Kvichak River are very low, making the shortcut from the False Pass route a little tricky, but doable.

Chet Williams backs the F/V Eagle Claw into Pile Bay, on the eastern shore of Iliamna Lake, June 14, 2015.
Credit KDLG

Many of the boats which fish Bristol Bay spend the winters docked in Homer. Each summer they make the trip across Cook Inlet where they are picked up and trucked across the Pile Bay road to Iliamna Lake. After a long trek across the Lake, they navigate their way down the Kvichak River down to Bristol Bay's commercial fishing grounds.

“From Cook Inlet we pick them up at Williamsport which is just south of Iniskin Bay, and then we move them over the road system and we put them in the Iliamna Lake here at Pile Bay,” said Ray Williams this week. Williams is the owner of Iliamna Transportation Company, and his family has been hauling boats over the road for 80 years.

This shortcut saves Homer-based boats about 700 hundred miles, said Williams. But this year the waters between Iliamna Lake and Bristol Bay are unprecedentedly low.

“Usually every spring the Kvichak is a little low, because the lake is so low. It’s a little bit different this year, because the lake is not only low, but there’s not a lot of snow and we’ve had virtually no rain to help bring the lake level up,” said Williams. “It has come up in the last month, but when I say it’s coming up we’re usually talking about a foot or a foot and a half; instead we’re talking about five or six inches.”

Despite the low water levels, boats are starting to make the trip down the Kvichak into Bristol Bay. The upper braids of the river, famous for world-class sport fishing, run infamously shallow, and 32-foot drift boats are normally guided down by smaller skiffs who know the river channel.

Williams recommended that drifters whose boats draw more than 36 inches of water should go around False Pass instead of taking the Williamsport Road shortcut.

Reach the author at fish@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.