Alaska is a VAST wilderness. During much of the year it represents a tough and totally unforgiving environment, for nature as well as those who call it home and make their living here. It is also an area with quite incredible natural resources, of which the Salmon migration is one aspect that sustains, as well as bewilders, those who have not experienced it.
The State of Alaska has more than its share of history and in particular its tenuous geographic connection with the USA. Whilst staying at Bristol Bay Sportfishing, a fly out lodge on the banks of Lake Iliamna, the 3rd largest lake in the USA, I was surprised to see a Russian Orthodox church. This, on reflection was unsurprising as Alaska was originally part of the Russian Empire. Due to concerns that the British would occupy it as an annex to British Columbia, in 1867 a treaty was signed between the then US Secretary of State, William Seward and Russia, ceding the territory to the USA. For a while opponents to the purchase referred to it as ‘Seward’s Folly’. It was after all a barren and unforgiving wilderness which on initial inspection yielded little by way of value.
Three decades later, in 1896 a gold nugget uncovered by George Washington and two Indian friends yielded one of the most frenzied Gold Rushes in history. That proved to be the tip of the Iceberg in the discovery of the vast natural resources that Alaska has provided ever since.
The runs of Pacific Salmon have fluctuated over the years however what is unquestionable is that the numbers of returning fish across the five species of Salmon is simply mind-boggling to anglers from Europe. Over the week we fished, in mid-July, the Sockeye run was in absolute full flow. This translates to a motorway of fish that surge in a thick seam up either side of the riverbank. It is worth noting that these are the ones that have escaped the 500+ boats which have sought to scoop them up at sea. For 2017, the run is estimated at around 45 million fish of which the escapement is 12.5 million, those fish that the state authority deems sufficient to maintain the size of the run for future years. It seems to be working!
My previous experience of fishing for Sockeye has not been all that favourable. Sockeye rarely ever take a fly. They will follow it but in my experience, with the exception of a Black Leech, and then only maybe on 2 or 3 days in a year, they will rarely, readily take a fly. The technique to catch them is by flossing. This involves a non-specific fly with a leadshot, adjusted to the speed of current and depth that the fish are running, being cast in front of the fish, allowed to drift in front of them, and in between their open mouths. On resistance you strike firmly which should hook the fish in or just outside of the mouth. Done with less tact and with no need for detailed explanation it is a snagging fest. Not what you might consider proper fishing!!
My perception of all this changed on a float trip down the Copper River, one of the most highly prized rivers for Rainbows. The 8 mile section of the river we floated was exceptionally beautiful. It was also very low for the time of the year. A free-stone river, the water had perfect clarity, allowing us to see the fish as they surged up stream, exploding like a school of startled Bonefish when spooked. We fished with single-handed 6 wt Trout rods.
Suitably light tackle will get the best out of any fish regardless of comparitive size. The means above over-simplifies the process. Although long casts are typically not required, as the water was thin the fish had spread out across the river so it required you to try and spot the seam of fish, somethimes just a grey streak in the water and then get you fly cast at the right angle to allow it to sink, with the right lead so that it had swung in place to intercept the fish and at the right depth. As mentioned they will not move to take a fly so you had to position the fly with significant accuracy. This can be relatively easy in some conditions but here on the Copper River it was an exhilirating process, as fun as any I have had in recent fishing adventures. On hooking a bright silver fish in such surroundings they would not just tear off but leap acrobatically and energetically from the moment hooked until the moment finally tamed. Action was non-stop. We lost as many as we hooked and we were happy to return all those that we did. It is a day I will not forget and a day that placed Sockeye firmly on my radar.
Along the way we came across Rainbows, striking scenery in abundance and bears! The first encounter was at a distance and an inquisitive Grizzly came to eye us up from the far bank. The second encounter made the day beyond special. Initially I caught sight of two bears charging across the river. I turned excitedly to my companion Nico and encouraged him to avert his eyes from the Sockeyes that were running in between our feet. As we made our way a little further down, the two turned into three, a mother and her cubs, firmly blocking our route down river as they hunted amidst the shallows. For 15-20 minutes we watched them go about their hunt, totally oblivious to our presence and very much enjoying right of way over our passage down river. Finally, and much to the bears unamusement we pushed our way downstream, as a group, with some banging and a few words of encouragement. All in all the day was as spectacular and enjoyable as almost any I have fished.
King Salmon were also very much on the agenda, however as is often the case nature was not making things easy. The runs of Kings, for this year in the Bristol Bay drainage, seemed to be late but also diminished from last year. The plan had been to intercept them at a junction point on the Mulchatna river. On arrival and within 30 mins we had landed 2 Jacks (grilse equivalent for a King/Chinook) as well as a decent fish of around 18lbs. Things looked very promising. That however was to be the last of our King Salmon action. That was not true of the Chum or Alaskan Tiger Salmon as they are more respectfully called. Carl and Nico set about the slack-water pockets where they typically hold with relish and gusto, both landing in excess of 20 salmon each. You cannot always catch what you specifically want to catch in Alaska but, with an open-minded approach, you can always have a huge amount of fun.
On our 5th day we were due to go on another float trip to the Gibralter River, however low lying 'smoke' (fog) around the lodge refused to lift, temporarily grounding our Beaver floatplane. Instead we set off by vehicle to fish the Newhalen River. This is a large and powerful river with a formidable set of rapids just short of the mouth. At the launch point for our boats we again came across a veritable aquarium of Sockeye. It was the start of another terrific day of mixed action with the dual aim of ensuring we had our own freshly caught Salmon for supper that evening, to be turned into a sashimi feast with accompanying wasabi and soy sauce, as well as picking up Rainbows, Grayling and Lake Trout. Some beautiful scenery and again some fantastic action.
Our final 1/2 day, due to an international flight schedule change, had us fishing the lower section of the Newhalen River. I had had my eye on a formidable set of white water rapids since our first day when we had flown over it. Having made our way a little way up the rapids we came across a small seam, sheltered from the main flow, that literally boiled with fish. It only took a couple of casts before the first fish was hooked. Unprepared, it was allowed to break into the full force of the current and the first of many absolutely exhilarating battles ensued with 100’s of yards of line stripped from the reel. It was a completely exhilarating final session.
All fly-out lodges have their pros and cons. It is possible to get fogged in and to a certain extent they have to follow a more rigid schedule of timings, although in reality Jerry and his team at Bristol Bay put timings second to our enjoyment. Neither are you necessarily going to be as remote as you might think. For all its vastness Alaska can on occasion feel like a busy place. Where a fly-out trip does however win hands down is in the diversity of water you will see and fish. Embrace the diversity of options, species of fish and means by which you catch them and you will have a truly remarkable experience.
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