Having pursued a career in the army I suppose I knew what to expect or rather what not to expect when being given orders to proceed to some far flung destination on the other side of the world. From someone who was organising a trip this might sound a little odd. I should after all have been overflowing with information. Of course to a certain extent this was true. I had been given the all clear by several very reputable sources. I had seen the pictures; I had read/written the pre-trip instructions so technically I was fully informed. I would imagine Montgomery probably thought the same when he embarked on Operation Market Garden, (A Bridge Too Far), in World War II.
Over dramatic? Maybe, however we travelled to the eastern edge of Alaska, to the Kanektok River to do battle with the fabled King Salmon. A fish which regularly tops 40lbs, although weight aside, in comparison to the Atlantic Salmon the King Salmon was something of a unknown quantity. Intel reports from some sources suggested a battle of unimaginable power whilst others referred to it as not much more than a dead weight. Tactics for this adversary were also open to question. Again reports said that in certain circumstances a king would take a typically swung fly whilst others referred to heavy dredging techniques to catch this large slug of a fish.
Like going into conflict I was distinctly nervous. Day one on the river. Leading from the front or simply over eager Philip Walker and I were first to depart and headed downstream to a pool just over a mile or so from the sea and within the tidal range. What happened next changed my perception of salmon fishing immeasurably. Philip went down the pool first and before I knew it he had a battle on his hands. A jack, (grilse equivalent for King Salmon) is landed followed by several other encounters. My fly, however remains untouched and paranoia starts to kick in. Have I got the right fly? Is my sink tip heavy enough? Can I cast the requisite distance?
Tug tug tug…..nothing…..tug tug tug…..nothing….line goes tight and I arch the rod back to set the hook as I have been instructed to do. Moments later there is an enormous boil and I am looking at a very rapidly emptying spool of backing. Our guide Jeff issues instructions, but I am pretty much oblivious. I am probably down to a mere 50-75 yds of backing, in a sort of trance when I realise that I am now waterborne, in the boat connected to a leviathan and chasing it for all it is worth. We catch up with the fish after a pursuit of maybe 500yds in the boat. Arms aching, drag overheating, a stupendous battle later a fish of approx 20-25lbs is netted. I am incredulous. This fish should be 40 lbs it fought so hard
I return over the moon, and before I know it roles are reversed and Philip is attached to something of equal dimensions. He is muttering about Akula class submarines. I am convinced he is right. We seem to have stumbled across a forgotten outpost, a relic of the Cold War where Russian nuclear subs are making the short trip across the Bering Straits and are waging their own private war which we have inadvertently stumbled across.
In the course of that first morning we connected to five of these monsters of which only one was landed. Four of them required ‘naval assistance’ to pursue them back to the Bering Sea. Some of these fish were unseen, some tore around in loops making figure of eights in the fly lines, some thundered out of the surface akin to the most memorable scene from ‘The Hunt for Red October’ when a ballistic missile submarine thunders out of the ocean. They all tore off blistering amounts of line from reels which had drags designed to remove the ‘un’ from ‘unstoppable’.
A day like that described above could give the impression that fishing for King Salmon is easy. It is not. The fishing throughout the week required dedication and perseverance. The takes were not always fast and furious and the Kings seemed to have an ability to throw the hook with repeated regularity whether they had been on the line for 5 seconds or 30 minutes. However the rewards were spectacular. Almost everybody in the group caught fish substantially larger than anything landed before and several fish were in the 35lbs + bracket. No one returned with anything other than stories of epic battles won or lost. In terms of the style of fishing all of the kings were taken on a conventionally swung fly and although fast sinking tips were used, modern floating body lines with fast sink tips allowed this to be done with consummate ease.
Jamie Holt putting the Bruce & Walker Hexagraph to the test
From the European side of the Atlantic I suppose we have always been brought up with the unchallengeable mystique that Atlantic Salmon are the unquestioned king of the salmonoids. Pacific Salmon in their large numbers are often considered a distinctly secondary adversary. I would love to perpetuate this notion, but my prejudices have been firmly and sharply put quietly back in their box. With comments from a team of highly experienced salmon anglers such as those on right the kings of the Kanektok River have rightly earned their title.
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