If you want to focus on fishing for King Salmon book early! The season is very short and runs from mid June-mid July. Availability is very limited and a wait list applies for most weeks.
We flew out on 1st July with BA via London and Seattle, then Alaska Airways to Anchorage, where we stopped two nights at the Millennium Inn to catch our breath, enjoy their impressive gantry of single malt whiskies, and visit the amazing Mountain View Sports emporium for a bit of retail therapy. "I think I'll buy my wife a present" stated Phil. "Probably a new fishing rod".......
The final leg west was in an old Douglas Dakota DC3 which must be as old as me, but flew us over stunning mountain and glacier scenery to the native village of Quinhagak, whose gravel airstrip and single portacabin was a refreshing change from the metropolis airports of Heathrow and Seattle. We were met at the airstrip by wee Matt Hynes and some of the guides and shepherded onto the Arolik bus, a venerable beast, used to transfer fishing guests, supplies and luggage to the jet-boats for our 20 minute trip up the Kanektok to camp, but also as the transfer bus from Kanektok to Arolik rivers on a daily basis. Kanektok fishes up to 8 guides with 16 rods a day in high season out of Alaska West Camp, whilst Arolik is on a much smaller scale, with 2 guides and 4 rods per day. Arolik may be a small river but is rich in big Chinook, Chum, Rainbows, Dolly Varden and Grayling, with wildlife such as bald eagles and beavers... and one may occasionally catch sight of a big bear in the undergrowth. Luckily they are shy of alien noises and a direct encounter is unlikely. One can fish for kings with a 15 foot rod or for trout etc using single-handed rods and mouse or sculpin flies according to conditions.
Camp Life at Alaska West - Photos by Cameron Miller
The camp itself is on an island, erected and dismantled every spring and autumn, but during the season, it has a small army of cooks, support staff and guides, all of whom introduce themselves, as do the guests, after dinner on the first night at camp; it's a real friendly place. Accommodation is in twin Nissan hut-style fixed tents, with a floor, heater, gas tilley lamp and mozzie nets. Basic but comfortable. There is a huge dining tent and a smaller "club" tent with tv, generator-power and email, via satellite. A fixed shower block is the one true luxury, off-set by the rudimentary plastic portaloo tardis toilets which we came to loathe. Even Harry Houdini would find himself in a few unlikely contortions......
View down river from the 'observation deck' at Alaska West Camp - Photo by Cameron Miller
So, to the fishing...... Our quarry for the trip was primarily Chinook, aka Pacific King Salmon, although other species, notably Chum and Rainbows were not shy of a big king fly; typically Intruders, articulated leaches and other maribou-contstructed temptations, from 2 to five inches long with tinsel tails etc, not subtle. To cast these horribly un-aerodynamic but wonderfully aqua-dynamic lures, our usual spey lines were simply not up to it, so the line to use is the Rio Skagit, basically a shooting head with integral, not jointed, running line. With a 15' or 16' #10/11 rod, a skagit will turn-over a 10 foot or 15 foot T14 sinking tip plus a big fly, with consummate ease, all the while casting to 40/45 yards with a single-spey, double-spey, or circle C-spey cast. Snake-rolls, snap-T's and all the rest have their moment, according to wind-direction etc. Wading is very easy, on fine gravel bars which change annually as the spring floods subtly alter the topography of the river.
Over two weeks, we visited Arolik twice, but otherwise the programme was; night before - meet your guide for the following day and agree refreshments and a strategy for fishing the river, coffee 06.30 delivered to your tent, ablutions, then brekkie at 07.00. Muster at 07.45 by the jetboats, meet guide and load jetboat ready for an 08.00 Le Mans start and mass exodus up- or down-river to selected bars, the best king-bars being Pipeline, Zoobar and S-Bends, for which there is some competition. Luckily there are many other options; hippo bar, candy bar, money bar, but curiously, no crowbar...although there are crows present. The tide times are critical, especially for lower pools. Return to camp for 6 pm sharp, showers, then dinner at 7.30, bed generally by 10 pm.
Philip Walker playing a fish to the net - Photo by Cameron Miller
With a different guide every day, all highly competent, we got to know a variety of people and pools, many of their favourite holes, as well as the prime slots. The weather varied enormously, from baking hot, bright sunny days when king-fishing was hopeless (they are shy of bright light and only come up to fishing depth on grey, overcast days), and were best suited to napping on the bank, to bitterly cold, windy days with occasional showers, ideal for king-fishing. The 650 grain Skagits cast really well in the wind and I am determined to use mine this autumn in Russia and in Scotland.
By the end of week two, a little weary of camp food, which is adequate and nutritious but a bit samey, we had amassed a considerable tally of fish, all except for two bleeders were returned in good condition. We landed 174 fish in total, including 36 Kings, several over 20 pounds and half a dozen over 30 pounds, (lost several bigger kings and Chum), caught no less than 114 Chum although we could probably have nailed nearer 150 had we used their favourite pink flies and not shaken-off a few more persistent ones who took on the retrieve, just as we were trying to launch a long cast for kings. To round-off the total, we got 21 Rainbows up to 24 inches, 3 Grayling and a Whitefish.
Flights to Anchorage can be had via KLM, BA, Alaskan Airways etc from c £1800 return (business class) or from c £800 economy, while the lodge and transfers cost around £3000 per week full board booked with Justin Maxwell-Stuart at WhereWiseMenFish. This compares very favourably with Russia, where weekly prices are creeping inexorably up, although good spring fishing is still available around £5/7,000 per week and summer weeks are available for £3000 plus flights. It's a long way from Scotland to Alaska, so a one week trip perhaps isn't worth the effort and expensive flights. OK if you have limited time and do want to sample the challenge of trying to hang onto a cart-wheeling 50 pound king..........
The Snap T cast - Photo by Cameron Miller
A mean looking King Salmon -Up close & personal - Photo by Cameron Miller
There are many international options for salmon fishing, whether for Atlantic's or Pacific's, including Iceland, Russia, Norway, Alaska, Newfoundland etc, then there's the Steelhead to try. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Having just come off the Junction Pool at Kelso on the Tweed today, frustrated after two hours fishing in dirty dishwater, I'm more and more inclined to save my money and fish abroad; the conditions very seldom make fishing impossible. Count up your lost days over a season due to coloured water or spate and if you put the money in a kitty, it would certainly break the back of the cost of a Russian or Alaskan trip in 2010 or 2011. Plan ahead and book early......
Philip Hinton & Philip Walker-Mission accomplished! - Photos by Cameron Miller
Fishing trips to Alaska can be arranged by destination fishing specialists WhereWiseMenFish, tel: +44 (0)845 603 1552; www.wherewisemenfish.com.