ALASKA sample Posteb:by Julian Wicksteed - Angler Walkabout
‘Summer is just around the corner up there,’ I remembered thinking while enduring some cold windy days in Patagonia’s Tierra De Fuego. ‘Why not go from one summer to the next and explore the northern tip of the Americas as well?’ It was as simple as that! My plan to hitchhike and fly fish around Alaska was now set in concrete. With the year of 2009 being Alaska’s fiftieth year as a declared state, what better year to further explore it.
After a cold North American winter, spring had burst into bloom late in the state of Washington. Here I eagerly spent two months preparing for my Alaskan ‘walkabout’. Days were spent meticulously tying flies, preparing lines, rods, reels, and camping gear while enjoying the company of friends.
The month of May turned out to be the wettest on record in Washington, and as my mind drifted from the fly vice north to Alaska, I could only hope that I would encounter better weather up there.
Weather reports gradually trickled down from Alaska, and incredibly, the Alaskan spring was reported to have been one of the best on record. Having also experienced a cold winter with heavy snowfall, the early summer ‘breakup’ of the ice and snow was expected to be a big one. As my departure date drew closer, the expectations of good river levels and clear weather had me excited about the Alaskan summer that lay ahead.
My departure date in early June eventually arrived with blue skies – a good omen for the months ahead. I eagerly boarded my Alaska Air flight from Vancouver Canada to Anchorage. I sat at the window marveling at the spectacular views; the isolated islands, snowcapped mountains, and vast ice fields of the Kenai Peninsula (where I would make my first hike to get amongst the salmon and trout) all had me captivated.
Part I Kenai Peninsula
Prior to venturing down to the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, I first enjoyed a few days catching up with an Alaskan family I had met on my first visit to Alaska, two years prior in 2007.
Lyle and Donna had moved to Alaska with their two children thirty years earlier. As with most people who have chosen Alaska as their adopted home, their love for the place radiates in every word they speak, and in their welcoming smiles. The Alaskan peoples’ obvious wish that I would enjoy their part of the world, meant that I would meet up with some of the friendliest, and the most generous and helpful people that I think I have ever encountered.
My first day fishing, however, wasn’t the kind of beginning one dreams of for an Alaskan fly-fishing walkabout; but it was an experience nonetheless!
Jumping into Lyle’s truck at 7:00am, we made our way through downtown Anchorage to a muddy stream on the edge of town, called Ship Creek.
Flowing over a weir, 30-40m wide, with whitewater gushing through a fish ladder on one side, the stream meanders for less than a mile below the weir before reaching the sea. But Alaska’s powerful tides easily penetrate upstream to the weir, and this is a key factor affecting the fishing.
High tide that day was expected at 10:00am and I was hoping the final few hours of the incoming tide would bring a good number of chinook salmon into the river. The chinook salmon is the largest of the world’s six salmon species; American anglers justifiably refer to them as ‘king salmon’, or simply ‘kings’. Just across the Alaskan border, the Canadians call them ‘spring salmon’, due to the fact that the same salmon are the first species to ‘run’ upstream to their spawning grounds – usually in the late spring/early summer.
I thanked Lyle for the lift, said goodbye, and then quickly realized I wasn’t the only one reading the tide tables and hoping for an early morning fish. Both banks of the stream were packed with people standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Combat fishing at its best I thought! In fact judging by how well set up many of them looked, I felt positively lazy with my 6:30am start.
Although it was a beautiful sunny morning, it was still quite cold, with a persistent stiff breeze.
Next to a duck with her brood of ducklings, I carefully waded out on a mudflat to cast across stream to a deeper channel against the rock lined opposite bank. Lined with fishermen casting spoons and roe, squeezing a cast into the melee of lines took some careful timing. Standing out there alone, knee deep in mud and water, facing the rank of anglers as they fired their casts towards me, I felt like a ‘digger’ caught in the wire on the Somme. Always one to prefer fishing alone in the wilderness, part of me felt like retreating, as the mother duck and her ducklings had done already, in search of a little more peace.
I soon lost half my leader and fly to what felt like a tangle of monofilament, and this gave me the excuse to retreat back to the bank.
As I re-rigged, one of the men on the opposite bank let out a cry of, “GOT ONE!” The other anglers gave him plenty of room, but at 10-15lb, he kept it on an incredibly tight tether directly before him, and quickly wrestled the fish into a landing net.
Quite heavy tackle is usually required for this style of fishing – as a free running fish powering along the bank tends to upset a good few fisher folk. Doubting that I would encounter such a problem that day, I rigged my 8wt with a 15lb tippet regardless, preferring to annoy a few people rather than break my rod if I did happen to hook a big one.
By the time I made my way further downstream, there must have been at least two hundred people packed along the river in all shapes, colours, and sizes. There certainly weren’t many bent rods to be seen though. ‘More anglers than fish,’ I thought to myself as I squeezed in between a railway bridge and the road bridge. Had I hooked a big fish here, I’m quite certain it would have been a short-lived experience.
I eventually walked on further to the end of a spit that marked the last major bend in the river before the mouth. The raised bank along this spit was still two metres above what were now high tide water levels, and it was still lined with anglers casting roe and lures. I failed to see another fly angler all morning.
At the very tip of the spit some guys were packing up and snapping some pictures of a beautiful fish around the 35lb mark. Taken on a silver spoon just a few blocks from downtown Anchorage, it was the first salmon this guy had ever caught. As with the other fish I had seen caught, this fish was very dark in colour – quite surprising considering they were just a few hundred yards upstream from the sea.
All salmon species become darker in colour as they progress upstream, but they are all invariably sparkling silver as they leave the sea.
Some of the men in the lower reaches of the river reported a few fish being caught around 7:00 am in the earlier stages of the incoming tide, but the action had slowed since then. I persevered in the muddier conditions for an hour or so before returning back upstream.
Walking the entire length of the river to a ‘no fishing’ zone immediately below the weir, I saw just one fish that was gleefully being carried away towards the car park in a landing net.
Thinking the pool below the fish ladder and weir might be a good position to intercept a few salmon before their dash up the fish ladder, I chose to try my luck probing the deeper channels and holes. Around half a dozen other anglers had the same idea, but as quickly as the tide had powered upstream, it abruptly turned and began draining the pool at a rapid rate of knots.
As the channel braids began to reappear in the upper reaches, there was still plenty of room for us all to spread out and fish, yet still it amazed me the manner in which other anglers would come and stand virtually on top of me, or even midstream in the path of where I was systematically swinging my fly in the current. Although I hoped to hike into some more isolated water while in Alaska, I also knew I would need to get used to large numbers of people targeting the salmon.
Unfortunately without a fish for the fridge, I gave Lyle a call to meet me on his way back into town. I was determined to put my Ship Creek urban fishing experience behind me, and move on to tackle the vast state of Alaska in the days ahead.
Anchorage is a unique city! From virtually every corner of town, one can look in any direction and spot mountain ranges that represent some of the most rugged and isolated corners of the United States – if not the world. To the southeast of Anchorage, the weather battered peninsular that’s locally referred to simply as ‘The Kenai’, is one of these amazing places.
The Kenai has a population of around 46,700 permanently living in the towns and villages dotting the valleys and plains of its 16,079 sq miles. Many of the inhabitants are drawn here for work offered by industries ranging from oil production, timber and lumber, to agriculture and commercial fishing, and the associated fish processing industry. It’s believed that over 1600-borough residents hold commercial fishing permits; not to mention the high number of residents who hold subsistence net fishing permits.
As the summer months begin to ‘thaw’ the peninsular, the tourism industry also booms into life, with visitors from all over the world, but particularly the ‘lower 48’ states of the United States. A large percentage of the visitors come for the exceptional salmon and trout fishing, and also the equally good sea fishing for salmon, halibut, and the myriad of other species found here.
It is true that the area can feel a little too busy sometimes. But a large percentage of the Kenai is classified as national park, which boasts over 5500sq miles of water; if willing to brave the bears, it’s not difficult to get off the beaten track and find solitude. That said though, much of the water is frozen year round, with the Harding Ice Field (one of the largest in the world) feeding many of the majestic rivers and lakes from high in the Kenai Mountains.
The Kenai River is the largest river on the peninsular and the primary river that people come here to fish. Arguably, it is one of the best Pacific salmon rivers in the world. Many of its tributaries are fed from lakes in their headwaters, and the Kenai River itself passes through Kenai Lake and Skilak Lake; two large lakes that provide ideal breeding habitat for sockeye salmon – known locally as ‘red salmon’. The river is a big watercourse, but with the presence of the two lakes, it flows clear and turquoise in colour. Kenai River ‘reds’ are some of the biggest in the world!
The king salmon ‘run’ here, was also once one of the best in the world. Over recent years it has unfortunately been in a steady state of decline.
I had first fished the Kenai River and a few of its tributaries in late July of 2007; the king salmon run had been and gone at that time. What’s considered to be the ‘second red run’ was in full force though, and a few silvers were also starting to trickle in. I had instantly fallen in love with the place, the incredible mountain scenery, the water colour and its amazing clarity. When the ‘red run’ is being logged at thousands of fish per day, it truly is a humbling experience to witness!
As I eagerly organised my gear in Anchorage ready for my return to this river, reports were coming in that the kings were entering the river but only in very small numbers. Some of the first reds were also trickling in on the first run. I was tormented by the dilemma – what should I do?
With salmon fishing, timing is everything, if you’re trying to cover a lot of ground as I was; it is very difficult to be on every river at the peak of their respective runs. Then there’s also the added question of deciding which species you wish to be there for. I knew I wanted to get down to Kodiak Island to fish there for a few weeks, but I decided I just couldn’t bypass the Kenai River on the way; for all I knew the first ‘run of reds’ might start powering upstream in just a few days’ time.
Donna and Lyle insisted that they would take Ace and their four foster kids for a drive down that way for the day, and drop me off on the river while there.
It would be hard to find nicer people, and as we wound through the snow-capped mountains, I knew I would miss their company. The drive over the summit above the upper Kenai River had been wet. Unlike the previous five days in Anchorage, thick clouds now clung to the mountains, delivering a relentless drizzle across the craggy peaks and deep valleys.
I eventually jumped out at the spot on the Kenai that I remembered from my previous visit, bade farewell to Lyle, Donna and the kids, with plans to see them on my way back through Anchorage in about a month. Lyle and their eldest son Jeff, I would see in a bit over a week, for a day at sea halibut fishing, before I sailed further south to Kodiak Island.
It was damp underfoot as I beat my way through the bush towards the river. I was to learn later, from Lyle and Donna, that as they turned around they had seen a reasonable sized ‘brown’, or grizzly bear, just twenty yards on from where I had jumped out. As it turned out I would meet him soon enough!
Dealing with bears is a debatable topic amongst most people living in, and visiting Alaska. I have personally never been one to concern myself with worrying about them too much; if I see a bear in the wild I’ve always felt myself privileged. I’ve always made it a policy to make a reasonable amount of noise to let them know I’m in the area, perhaps light a campfire on arrival, and I keep food well separated from my main camp area. After these simple precautions, I’ve always been comfortable with the fact that I’m in their environment. The risk of a fatal encounter is minimal and it was one I was comfortable to take.
I whistled my way down through the bush, trying to retrace my steps from years earlier to a mid-river island that had proven productive. Reaching the water, I took delight in how little things had changed over the years. A small tree stump that had remained after a beaver gnawed through it in just one day, while I was fishing, had now disappeared, and the water seemed a little higher, but generally things looked much the same.
Quite possibly due to the handiwork of the beaver’s ancestors, two narrow islands about twenty five metres in length and fifteen wide, angled downstream on my side of the river like two segments of a finger. With the powerful main flow on the other side of the islands, rapids ran around the top and bottom of the upper island, where the knuckles might have been, before flowing into a calm slow flowing lagoon.
The downstream end of the lower island sat virtually midstream, the tail end of the lagoon on one side, and the main river flow on the other. I had managed to catch a few ‘reds’ and silvers from here on my first visit, and again I knew it would be my preferred spot to start fishing. Fishing from the main bank at the lower end of the lagoon had also been a hotspot, with waves of scarlet reds clearly seen drifting out of the main flow to take a breather in slower water. One of the difficulties with this spot though, was the lack of space for a back cast, particularly with heavily weighted flies. The water was also quite deep, and so difficult to swing a fly in front of the fish.
Another problem with both these locations was that they were at the ‘end of the line’! If a really big fish decided it wanted to go downstream, there was very little ‘terra firma’ on which to chase it.
I had learnt this the hard way! Hooking what was probably a big red or silver from the bank, it had taken off downstream around a logjam. Being a warm sunny day, I had been fishing in just a pair of shorts, and ordinarily not one to give up too easily, I had jumped in after the fish. Bouncing my way around the logs with rod held high, I had managed to get up onto some more logs, but by the time I did, I could feel my brand new fly line knitted through unseen logs deep underwater.
I had learnt there and then, that on a thickly vegetated river like the Kenai, I would need to put the ‘brakes’ on from the word go, and hope to turn their heads, or pop my tippet.
Now on my return to the river I again had two 8wts with me as my heaviest rods, but one of them had a significantly faster action and I knew if the fish were hooked in the mouth it would handle the conditions better, unless of course, I did manage to encounter a truly big king salmon.
When salmon are running in number, it’s not uncommon to hook them in the body, or the fins and tail. This results in an inability to turn their heads; stopping them becomes all the more difficult. The majority of salmon will have gorged themselves with food just prior to entering the rivers, building fat reserves to survive their incredible migration up the river, and to develop their eggs and milt. Instinctive determination to reach their spawning beds becomes their sole purpose in life. Strikes from all salmon species once they’re well upriver, are virtually always a result of simple aggression, and perhaps a feeding instinct that has lingered. The red salmon represent an even greater challenge to achieve a true ‘take’.
While in the ocean, virtually all salmon species feed primarily on small fish; red salmon are the only exception to the rule. The reds feed almost entirely on zooplankton; small, at times microscopic animals, which are usually devoured by schools of smaller fish such as herring, and of course many whale species. As a result of the reds unique feeding characteristics, they have
no teeth and have a soft jaw, which can often result in pulled hooks and lost fish.
Being the middle of summer, I still had twelve hours or more of fishing light left to me, and even then, the hours between 1:00am and 4:00am were not going to get too dark anyway. My first priority was to choose a suitable site to pitch my little one-man tent. I found a spot nicely concealed among trees above the high bank adjacent to the gap between the islands, and pitched my tent there. The rapids between the upper island and the bank at this point offered a nice deep pool at the downstream end, but the rapids were shallow enough at the top to give easy access to the islands. I hoisted my unsealed food up a tree around 40 metres away, and got myself ready to fish.
For my first session, I rigged up an 8wt to target salmon, and a 6wt for any possible rainbow trout and dolly varden (dollies), that might have been lurking in the slower water.
First I headed downstream towards the bank above the logjam that had proven both productive (and disastrous!) on my first visit.
Straight away I could tell that the salmon weren’t in the river in as large numbers as they had been the last time. Although the salmon of all species appear to move upstream in waves, there were still usually one or two stragglers to be seen edging along the bank in these slower stretches. Scanning the water along the bank I briefly spotted the dark back of a few reasonable sized trout. Using a fly pattern known as an egg sucking leach, I failed to achieve any interest from them.
Eventually I decided to head back upstream and wade across to the upper island.
From high on the bank near my campsite, I could spot two logjams on the opposite side of the island that reached out into the main flow. From a distance, it looked like both logjams would provide an ideal location for bank hugging fish to take a rest in slower water. An added bonus with the logjams was that the water below them was only around knee-deep, a suitable depth for salmon to hold in, and also the perfect depth to swing a fly. There was also plenty of room below the logjams to work a fish towards shore (at least I thought there was!).
Wishing to cover all options available to me, I started fishing from the top of the island, and worked my way down to the lower logjam where I took up position for the ‘blind flogging’ – that salmon fishing often amounts to using flies and lures.
Mending the line upstream to allow my sinking tip line to sink, I would then submerge the tip of my rod to further allow the fly to get within a foot of the bottom; into the ‘strike zone’! On around the second or third cast, I was stunned to have my line spring tight and a bolt of silver explode towards me. At around 10lb, there was no way I could have kept tight to the fish, and it easily dislodged the hook, rocketing past me virtually unhindered on its way upstream.
‘Wow, they really are here,’ I thought to myself with adrenalin pumping through my veins.
My next cast produced a slight ‘bump’, and then on the next I came up tight to a heavy fish at the end of the swing.
I struggled to clear line fast enough as a big silver fish broke the surface, then turned tail and took off downstream. Palming the spool and doing my best to run after it, I crossed the small rapid above the second island and managed to turn the fish into slightly calmer water beside the island. Now on slightly more equal terms (as yet another drift boat passed me), I gradually worked it to my feet.
Unfortunately I had hooked the fish at the base of its anal fin. There is little one can do to avoid the frustrating, yet common occurrence, of foul hooking salmon. It is illegal to keep fish that are hooked in this manner, and so for responsible anglers, it is usually of the utmost importance to quickly get the fish in hand, while keeping it from damaging itself on rocks, and then to release it as soon as possible.
Being in such a hurry to release the fish (perhaps in excess of 10lb and sporting bright silver colours), I quickly assumed it to be a king salmon. Although I had foul hooked it, for my first afternoon on the river, it was a positive start…
With the evening twilight hanging in the sky for what seemed an eternity (summer in Alaska!); the river was now ‘coming to life’. Aside from the persistent mosquitoes, the river’s terrestrial occupants were also coming to life. In quick succession, two black bears revealed themselves just a stone throw away on the opposite bank, and a beaver was industriously working in the calm water of the lagoon below my tent, dragging lilies to be stuffed into its submerged den.
Upstream on the opposite bank, many seagulls dotted a shallow inside bend of the river, a spot where many of the drift boat anglers stopped to clean their catch. A number of bald eagles, their brilliant white heads glowing, could also be seen sitting atop their look-out tree of choice, surveying the area knowingly. Although it’s requested by parks and fisheries personnel that anglers cut their fish frames into four or more pieces before discarding them in the river, many anglers and guides fail to do so, and eddy areas such as this one become a smorgasbord for the local wildlife.
Unfortunately, beneath the surface, the river itself wasn’t quite so full of life at this time. I saw a few more fish occasionally break the surface, but it seemed I was unable to get my fly close enough. A few bumps here and there did feel like fish, but could also have been rocks. It was a promising start though, and with my body clock telling me it was around midnight, I headed back to my camp, optimistic about the following day.
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