Kings under the Aleutian Volcanoes

WWMF Hosted Trip - July 2018

by Justin Maxwell Stuart

Destination: Alaska

Holiday: Aleutian Rivers

The latest, far-flung WhereWiseMenFish hosted trip, took us to the Aleutian Rivers camp on the Alaska Peninsula, an area which separates the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea and leads to the Aleutian Islands, a region known for its great salmon fishing and frequently inclement weather!  Ever since my first trip to Alaska 12 years ago, I have been intrigued by both the size and brutal strength of Chinook Salmon, more commonly known as King Salmon, a name originally introduced by the New Zealand aquaculture industry.   The largest of all the species of Salmon, they are also the least populous of the Pacific Salmon species.   Typically averaging in excess of 20lbs they will take a swung fly, pull like a freight train when hooked, and for most anglers, will offer a chance at hooking the largest anadromous fish they will encounter. 

Magazine articles, 3rdparty references, social media, the ubiquitous You Tube clips, all serve to give a good indicator as to what one may expect to find at even the most remote fishing camps.  By contrast, the Aleutian Rivers camp is a relatively unknown and unquestionably very remote fishing camp.  Catering to no more than 6 anglers (and a host) at a time it offers a far more intimate feel than some of the larger camps in Alaska.  My inspiration for the WWMF week was simply based on the words or a trusted and very experienced confidante who had proclaimed it to offer the best fly-fishing for King Salmon that he had come across in Alaska.   That was more than enough to set the wheels in motion!

Like almost any trip to Alaska it is no small under-taking to reach the final destination, our route on this occasion taking us via Reykjavik, Seattle, Anchorage and finally via an extremely comfortable private charter to Nelson Lagoon, population 52 according to the 2010 census!  The Aleutian Rivers camp is situated midway up the Sapsuk or Hoodoo river, a 60-minute boat journey from the docks at Nelson Lagoon.   The lower section of the river is tidal water, reverting to smooth and uninspirational ‘canal-like’ stretches.  This all changes as one approaches the camp.   At the same time as the jetboat we were travelling in, started to slew left n right around a series of seductive cut-bank bends, the first of the excellent King holding water immediately below the camp, we were lucky enough for the snow-capped peak of Mount Dana to emerge in spectacular fashion as the typically low-lying clouds dispersed.

The camp itself sits on a bluff overlooking the river with a breath-taking view directly towards Mount Dana, as well as the more distant peaks of Pavlov Volcano which last erupted in 2013 and remains active, all part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.   Although the camp does not have exclusivity of the river, which it shares with Hoodoo Lodge 30 minutes downriver, there is absolutely no question that the camp offers the best access to the prime king holding stretches.  For those seeking to make full use of long daylight hours for some after supper action there is excellent access by foot to some of the very best pools.

View from the camp to Mt Pavalov and Mojo, one of the best pools on the Sapsuk a few minutes walk from the camp

Our two guides, Mike and Joe split our group between the two boats, departing at 7 am each morning after a hearty breakfast.   By the close of our first day everybody in our party had experienced some truly epic fishing, hooking, if not all landing some seriously strong Kings.   For my part I hooked and was towed downstream by a monster.   A monster that by a clever bit of fishing origami managed to wrap my line around a snag that left me holding what turned out to be a completely unmoveable object, the river-bed, whilst it slipped the hook without me knowing!   Similar stories of battles fought and won or fought and lost reflected my most optimistic aspirations for the trip, and this on a day when the sun shone, typically bad news for good King Salmon fishing.

Although our week was the final week of the ‘King Salmon’ weeks at the camp, it had absolutely no impact on the quality of the fishing.   Although a good number of the Kings caught were coloured they were all still in very good condition.  Alongside those we also caught good numbers of dime bright silver torpedoes which included the largest weighed fish of the week, tipping the scales at 31lbs.   Unlike Atlantic Salmon where the largest fish run early in the season, with King Salmon the very largest typically come at the end of the run so even if we missed out on a higher proportion of tide-bright fish we still had the biggest Kings to contend with! 

Double Trouble - Probably a 65:35 split between coloured and silver fish although if you include sockeye and Chum the split was probably the opposite.

The Sapsuk has a very healthy run of Sockeye which streamed past us in what seemed like an unquantifiable stream.   These fish were in fact quantified as they get manually counted as they pass a fish counter at an artificial weir, five minutes boat journey from the camp.  By the end of our week a staggering 120,000 Sockeye had passed along with over 4,500 Chinook, numbers that would make most Atlantic Salmon river managers weep with envy.   Sockeye are known to only very rarely take a fly, flossing being the typical means of catching them.  On the Sapsuk however their run of Sockeye seems to be an exception and with a preference for a pink fly they will provide excellent additional entertainment as well as delicious eating.   The run of Chum Salmon is also unusual in that they typically arrive in the river at the same time as the Kings.   On the Sapsuk they run later, towards the back end of the King run.   Again, a pink fly is all you need to get their interest and the larger ones are easily mistaken for a King, such is the tenacious fight they will put up.  All of the Chum were bars of silver with only the faintest trace of the tiger stripes they prominently display as they reach spawning maturity.

The Sapsuk is a small to medium sized river and does not demand anything more than a medium length cast to cover the water.   Although there are some deep buckets, for the most part a short, fast sinking tip is all that is required to get your fly down to an appropriate depth.   13-14 ft double handed rods are perfect for the job and when loaded with a relatively heavy floating skaggit head style line they will make easy work of both a fast sinking tip and a larger or heavy fly. 

One oif the deeper Pools which was stacked with huge Kings, Sockeye and Chum. The Kings would lie in the deeper water with the Chum and Sockeye in the shallow or slack water.

Fly choice over the week for Kings ranged from the gaudy to the extraordinary with everything from flashy Christmas tree style ornaments to creatures with bulbous bloated shrimp eyes!    Whatever the fly, hook choice is key, with strong size 2 Gamakatsu or Owner stinger hooks being preferred.   One style of fly that proved to be brutally effective for myself was the self-named MOAF (Mother Of All Frances).   In essence, a Frances tied on a 1-inch tungsten tube.   Where these flies seemed to work incredibly well was against cut banks or deeper buckets, the fly sinking far quicker, when given some slack, than any sink-tip line could achieve.  On one particular day, a cerise coloured version proved unbeatable, accounting for 5 Kings from a single pool, having been fished down behind 3 others who were without a take!

The Aleutian Rivers camp is straightforward but 100% functional.   There is accommodation for seven anglers in three twin rooms and a single.   The tents are sturdy and spacious, each equipped with an oil heater which kept away the very worst of the Aleutian weather and ensured clothes and waders were dry the following morning.  The aptly named Volcano Club, weather permitting, affords amazing views both to the river and Mount Dana as well as providing a great base for pre and after dinner drinks for those who skipped any additional late-night fishing opportunities.  

Views do n ot get much better than this! The weather does not always allow for quite such good visibility!! but when it does it is truly spectacular.

There was no shortage of wildlife to keep everyone interested.   A bear made a number of appearances along the river-bank.  A family of otters was spotted crossing the river below the camp whilst a pair of bald-headed eagles watched over all at Cabin Corner, alongside their nest and young eaglets. The fish, of course, are the real show-stealers.   They could be counted in their hundreds, whether walking the high banks or when viewed from the boat.   On the brighter days, if anyone needed convincing the view from my drone revealed numbers that defy belief to those unacquainted with fishing in Alaska, the silvery green backs of the Sockeye being easily identifiable along-side the darker Kings who would occupy the deeper runs and lies.

It can be hard to tear oneself away from the fishing for King Salmon when the going is good, however, there is some outstanding Trout fishing to be had further up river, a very scenic and exciting journey in the jetboat.  The Trout will come to standard dry flies, however, to have a good chance at the really big fish, mouse imitations are without a doubt one of the most exciting ways to fish and liable to bag you the bigger specimens as well as taking them in an explosive and spectacular fashion. 

In August and September, the Sapsuk fills with both Coho (Silver Salmon) as well as a strong run of Steelhead.   For those in search of a Steelhead river where they can fish in total exclusivity, the camp runs just 4 rods over this period, the only rods on the whole river, an almost unique attribute for a steelhead river in North America.  The river flows over a slightly steeper gradient, the gravel bottom prevalent on the lower river being replaced by small to medium sized stones and boulders, creating runs filled with character and more importantly lies for the Steelhead.

Our team of 7 averaged landed 1-3 King Salmon on almost every day although of course there were exceptions, with both blanks had by some individuals, and equally very prolific days by others.   I would expect an equal or greater number of fish were lost.   Inclusive of takes and plucks, all the days had consistent action, of a quantity you really would never expect to find anywhere outside of Alaska.   King Salmon seem to be very adept at slipping the hook, whether by brute force or simply by the manner of their take.   In return, they exacted their revenge breaking 2 rods and even though a few comments were raised regarding faulty nylon I think the strength of the fish and maybe even user error might have been the cause of a few escapees!  The largest weighed fish was 31lbs although there were a few others of comparable size and several in the mid to high 20’s.  

 

 

Personally, this was my 7thweek fishing for Kings in Alaska and 9thfishing for King Salmon including BC and Chile, and I would say without hesitation that it was my most successful by a considerable margin.  Only one of the others in the group had fished in Alaska before, so the pool of experience was limited.   That said our guides, Mike and Joe, were outstanding in every aspect, from technical skills, assisting / providing us with kit, lines and flies, as well as helping with casting.  I think all would now consider themselves well tested if not competent, having had a chance to play more and larger salmon over the last week, than most will have ever done before over the course of their fly-fishing lifetimes.   Fishing for Kings is not easy, the ratio of hooked to landed fish tells the story, but that does not stop the allure.   They are formidable on a fly rod, powerful beyond compare.  Combined with the huge appeal of the amazing visual backdrop with volcanic peaks reaching to and through the clouds, it was enough to convince me to rebook the whole week for 6 rods over the same week next year! 

Book now to reserve your place!!! 10-17 July 2019

 

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Justin is currently hosting a fishing trip to Los Roques Archipelago and will only ave intermittent email util 27 March 2019. Please excuse any delay in his correspondence.


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