Many years ago when I had just started fishing for salmon and I was at college as a mature student struggling to survive on a grant (we still got them in those days) I managed to scrape
together the £40 for a season ticket on the River Leven which flows out of Loch Lomond at Balloch and into the Clyde estuary via Renton and Dumbarton. The area is pretty bleak, economically and scenically, and as a prime salmon river that carried big fish, which indeed it is, it didn't inspire. I decided to save up more and go someplace else when I had a conversation with a fellow angler who was walking along the footpath with a cracking silver spring fish. I asked him where he’d got it and he said “You know that bit doon there where the burnt oot car was dumped? Well see about 20 yards oot from that there is a shopping trolley caught on a rock. In between the car and the trolley is a great wee lie son, stick yer fly in there and you’ll mibbe get this one’s brother.”
My first sight of the Kanektok river reminded me of that. Not, I
hasten to add, because there were burnt out cars and shopping trolleys dumped in the river; but the nearby village of Quinhagak has a pervasive impact on all things related to the river, with Yup’ik Eskimo fishing camps on some bends and near incessant boat traffic up and down river from the Yup’iks and other sport fishermen. A tranquil wilderness it ain’t and the closer you are to the village the more it feels like you are fishing at the back of an industrial estate carpark.
I’d picked the Kanektok and the fishing camp,
Alaska West, on the recommendation of a good friend, Philip Walker
and booked through Justin Maxwell Stewart, a good bloke and very
helpful, at Where Wise Men
Fish. Phil has been 5 times now and loves it and this year some of the other guys with whom I’d fished on the
Varzuga were also going so it seemed a good idea. Phil loves the river mainly because it is one of the few places in Alaska where you can fish a fly for King (Chinook) salmon in a more or less traditional way. These fish are truly huge, up to 50lb in weight, so you can see the attraction for a
single-minded fishing nut like Phil (no offence big man...but you are!). However I was looking for a real wilderness type experience with bears and moose and caribou and...well...wilderness! I could see all of that as we flew out from Anchorage too: the
aerial views were truly stunning of mountains and lakes and glaciers...but the closer we got to Quinhagak the flatter it became with low scrub, lakes, streams and bogland. The net effect was that when you were in the river you could see pretty much nothing and when you were out of the river all you could see was a wall of scrub bush. As for wildlife there were loads of bear tracks on the river bank but the Yup’ik shoot them on sight so if they hear anything coming, like a boat, they’re off. Same with the moose and other large animals: if any are spotted they’re shot for meat.
So what I was left with was just the fishing which, for me, was a bit of a waste of 23 hours of flights to get to one of the last great wildernesses on the planet and see virtually nothing of it.
But before I talk about the fishing, let’s have a casting lesson shall we?
There was a “famous” casting instructor from Whistler in Canada there when
I visited. Let’s call him
Brian Niska, cos that’s his name. Anyhoo the bold Brian held a class on the first day we arrived. We were to be fishing Skagit lines which are very different in nature to the Spey taper lines I’ve always used. Phil and the other lads fish them so knew what they were doing but I was a newbie
and thought I should go learn how it was done.
Brian started the lecture with an authoritative statement that boiled down to the fact that we traditional Spey casters had really been doing it all wrong for decades, using far too much energy in our casting and generally not conforming to any scientific principle of the physics involved in flinging 45 yards of plastic into the scenery.
We got the impression that if it hadn't been for North Americans
continually improving things the entire fly fishing world would have
been doomed to a spiral of decrepitude. He based his pearls of wisdom
about traditional Spey casting on his impression, for he did admit that he’d never actually been there, that the River Spey had manicured banks
running its entire length, that it was devoid of trees or other
casting impediments and had an even and steady flow throughout.
He then gave a detailed and technical justification of how the length of the Skagit head had to be 3.5 times the length of the rod (his magic number was the phrase he used) and that the 15ft traditional Spey rods we were using were, if not a complete insult to his art, at the very least a ludicrous implement with which to fish with. He only used a 13ft 5” rod these days which, he assured all of us who were by now hanging onto his every word, was the perfect size for Skagit casting. It was Malcolm who asked the killer question: “How long is the Skagit you’re using then?” The bold Brian answered “27ft.” To which Malcolm added “Errr...who has the maths problem then? You have a 13ft 5” rod and your magic number is 3.5...how does that work?” Moving on...
Next up he asked us all to imagine we were trees. There was, he
said, a place downstream where he could take loads of fish out and
that the guides couldn't even get into because of the trees stopping
the back cast. To demonstrate he executed this very fancy and complex
cast which culminated in him casting right handed over his left
shoulder. There was a lot of swishing about as he chucked the Skagit
around to get it into position for that final cack-handed cast and
although it looked impressive it sort of flew in the face of his
previous position that we Spey casters wasted a lot of energy. So I
asked him "Why couldn't you just do a simple left handed single Spey?
Surely that only involves one lift of the line?" ...erm...there didn't
appear to be an answer to that apart from "We don't use our left hand
to cast and always use the right hand." From that point on more and
more of us drifted away and got on with our own undoubtedly deeply
flawed but nevertheless fully functional casting.
I suppose the guy was only trying to help and perhaps his people skills, not his casting skills, were the problem. And casting a Skagit
is a lot different to a Spey taper. At Alaska West the head guide is none other than
Ed Ward...the man credited with the invention of the Skagit. I learned more from watching him for 5 minutes effortlessly throwing my set up clear across the river than from any of Brian’s witterings. I also learned that Skagit is the name of the river (and incidentally a tribe of native Americans) where Ed guided whilst developing the system.
Ed put the problem perfectly in perspective: “You guys have to unlearn what you already know before you get this technique. That’s always tough.” He broke his cast down into the constituent sections and walked me through it. I have to say that I never managed the fluid execution that Ed demonstrated so effortlessly but I was getting the hang of it by the end of my week and, to be honest, I was able to throw 30-35 yards from the get go anyway and that was plenty enough to cover the fish. I can throw 40-45 yards with a Spey line so the effort involved in unlearning everything I know for an extra 5 yards I never
actually needed on the river didn't really seem worth it.
You need the Skagit for two reasons: the first is the wind which was sometimes hitting gale force and the second is to turn over the huge, often weighted, flies we were using. When I say flies, I really mean something that should by all rights be found hanging from a stripper’s nipples. They were the strangest things made of marabou and soft furs, in all sorts of bright and unnatural colours. Hot pink was a big favourite as was
chartreuse. Lord knows what the fish took them for and every kind of fish in the river ate them: King salmon, Rainbow trout, Chum salmon, Dolly varden...even Arctic grayling took them.
So let’s get to the fishing.
King (Chinook) Salmon
This fish is a real bruiser. You get Jacks and you get Kings – the Jacks being less than 27 inches long – but they are all Chinook salmon. There is even a run of what they call “micro Jacks” and these are like small sea-trout. They are fully mature and are mostly males as far as I could gather. It seems that nature has them as an insurance policy in case something goes wrong with the main run.
A King is a fish over 27 inches and that makes it one helluva salmon. In the USA they tend to use the length of the fish as the standard but that doesn’t mean so much to us Brits who are used to weights. It caused a lot of debate trying to convert one to the other I can tell you. My guide estimated my first fish at almost 40lbs and I agreed. It was 42 inches long by 24 inches in girth; even Ed Ward had this fish in “the high 30’s”. Yet we had access to the internet later and looked up a weight calculator for Pacific salmon: that fish on that scale came out as 32lb. It’s still a monster but I was surprised that my ability to estimate weight, normally accurate to about 10%, was so far out.
The fish are deep of girth you see and you would think when
you see them that they would be heavier than they are. They
range in colour from bright chrome to dark pink or even red once
they are in the river a while. They actually colour up in the
estuary and it is possible to catch pink fish only a hundred yards from the sea in tidal water.
When in the river proper they run the deep channel, normally in the middle, and so the presentation has to be right. These are running fish in the main and they are not hanging about either. The fly virtually has to smack them in the face before they will take it. They don't rise for a fly the way an Atlantic salmon does so getting down to them is critical, hence the heavy flies and the Skagit system which manages long sink tips with ease.
You make a 45 degree cast, throw a large mend into the line, hold the rod up and feed the tip slowly down to allow the fly to sink, then take 4 steps to keep it in the channel at the correct depth. The Americans endearingly call this “swinging”.
The take from a big King is an unmistakeable bang! You have to strike them hard too – none of this feed them a loop nonsense – you hit them as hard as they hit you. Then it becomes even stranger...they are so strong that you have to give them absolute dogs abuse from the second they are hooked up. To do that you have the reel almost on maximum drag and you put the rod tip into the river. This has the effect of throwing a big belly into the flyline and fools the fish into thinking that it is being pulled from behind therefore making it swim upstream and towards you. They will sometimes turn and take off at high speed of course and that is when you want your knuckles as far away from that fly reel as possible. On one fish we had to get into the boat and chase it downstream as there simply was no stopping it. After five fish the drag on the reel I was using simply fell apart.
The experience reinforced my belief that fly rods and reels
are not really designed for big game fishing. I treated the
Kings as big game fish and fought them accordingly, but the rod
was simply not the right tool for the job and more than once my
heart was in my mouth that I was about to break a tip when
trying to lift an unwilling fish into the net. I am often
harangued by “purists” who say that the only way to catch a
marlin or a sailfish is on the fly. It baffles me: the technique
these purists use is to tease the fish to the surface on a
hookless teaser then roll (it has to be a roll because a cast
isn’t possible on a big game boat) the hooked lure out to the
hot fish (it is a lure - a fly would be too small)...the fish is usually so excited it will take anything and so a quick strip and you get a hookup. So basically all you do is fight the fish on a fly rod – it’s not fly fishing by any stretch of the imagination. At least with these Kings you are casting a (kind of) fly, but the physical properties necessary to have a fly rod act like a spring to cast your fly make it almost completely useless as a lever to play and tire a big fish out. So, for me, although a King salmon was a very exciting thing to catch it was rather dull after a while because, like most big fish, they eventually just went to the bottom and sulked and the fight became one of minor tactics and brute strength. If that’s your thing that’s fine by me...it’s just not mine.
In all I caught 8 Kings in my week up to 42 inches long. The smallest probably weighed 25lbs and the biggest 32lbs. I only fished for them on three days also so I could maybe have got more if I’d tried harder. I had two Jacks in addition.
I lost two: one that broke the hook and another that pulled the knot into a piggy tail...the guide got ragged for that. Most of the other guys lost a lot more fish than me and I think that it was to do with the way they fought them. Like I said, I fought them as I would fight a big game fish and made them work for every inch; pumping the rod to gain line and winding down on the fish. It’s possible that other folk were being a little less ruthless and letting the fish run or take control. Their mouths are hard and the single hooks really locked in there but on a prolonged fight they would be working their way out – especially since the barbs were flattened. On my final fish, a 40 inch brute caught right on the tide, the hook was straightening out as we got the net under it, such was the force I was applying.
There is no finesse or elegance required in Alaskan fishing.
Wish I could get Varzuga salmon to stay on like that.
Chum (Dog) Salmon
The first Chum I caught was when I was actually fishing for Kings and it hit the fly in the main current with a bang. Once again, you have to hit them right back...and then hang on! What a fabulous little salmon they are. They fight and fight and fight and fight some more. They fight in the net, they fight whilst you are unhooking them and then when you put them back they shoot off as though nothing had happened. The best fishing of my week was definitely to be had fishing for Chum.
I had taken my 12ft 6” double hander and it was perfect
for them. It let me roll out a line even in the wind and kept the heavy flies away from me when I was casting in sometimes rough conditions. The weapon of choice for the American guests was a single hander trout rod and we used them too on occasion – when you have a 10lb Chum salmon on a 6wt 9ft fly rod you know you’re gonna get your ass kicked. It was huge fun.
The only drawback with Chum is that they are heartbreakingly easy to catch. They stack up in the little backwaters (slews) and seams of current and when I say stack up I mean in their hundreds. When stacked up like that they prove to be very obliging and fond of almost any pink fly. You can stand right beside them and simply flick 10ft (or less) of line into the school, strip it slowly back and almost every cast one will grab it. I had 10 fish in 14 casts one time...The Americans call these spots Chum holes. We were chatting to a couple of them and one guy said “Yeah, I just found the Chum hole and cleaned it right out” to which Nick Moody responded “I hope you cleaned your teeth after.” No clearer example of two nations divided by a common language need be sought.
The number of fish is stupefying. You can see them pushing through the shallow water on the sand bars by the thousand. There are so many of them that they actually put a bow wave in the current as they swim upstream. A river like the Kanektok can expect anything up to 500,000 of them in a year and every single one of them,
like all Pacific salmon, will die after spawning. The smell, I am told, is appalling at that time.
When they enter the river they are bright chrome with a green back. They rapidly develop vertical bands on their flanks and redden up. Their meat is delicious but doesn't freeze well.
Like anything in life that comes too easy, its value diminishes rapidly and most of the anglers at the camp didn't bother to count the Chum and actively tried to shake them off when they hooked them. However if you’ve been out in numbing cold wind blowing horizontal rain and catching absolutely nothing it is very heartening to know that there will be places very nearby where you can tie on a pink fly and remind yourself of just how much fun fishing can be.
Chum bring out the little kid in me...the one that was up at the crack of dawn every weekend to go trout fishing and who just wanted to put a bend in the rod, no matter what.
In my week I caught 47 Chum and could easily have doubled or even tripled that...it's
not what you'd want to do every day but as a backup plan it had
a lot to commend it.
This is the classic Pacific salmon: the bright scarlet one with the green head. When they enter the river they are not unlike the Chum in that they are silver bodied and green backed, but they get the characteristic red colouring really quickly.
Up on the Arolik River I waded through a small school of them and they were very pretty to see in the water gliding effortlessly past me like huge Koi carp.
The Sockeye run on the Kanektok is vast. This year they reckoned a million fish would come upstream to spawn
and die. At sea they are krill feeders and they pretty much refuse to take a fly in freshwater. They can be caught, but it is basically by foul-hooking them. The Americans call it “flossing them”, more to assuage the guilt than anything else I suspect, because they are actually foul-hooked in the mouth believe it or not. They have this obliging habit you see of swimming upstream with their mouths open so the rig of choice is a small fly with a train of split shot spaced about nine inches apart up the leader. This is cast into the pods of running fish which are easily seen and then stripped back. Almost inevitably one will get hooked and almost inevitably it will be on the outside of its mouth.
They fight well – I only caught one whilst I was fishing for Chum but I immediately knew it was a different kind of fish because it took off in a searing run just under the surface of the water which is, I’m told, classic Sockeye behaviour. Very exciting.
The big run hadn’t really started when I was there much to the disappointment of most of the Americans, many of whom had come to specifically target these fish.
Rainbows, Grayling and Dollys
The Kanektok has a famous type of Rainbow trout called a leopard rainbow. It is a very beautiful fish with dark spots and a vivid red stripe down its flank.
We targeted them on the Arolik River.
The Arolik is a bit of a hassle to get to: you need to take a boat, then load up stuff from the boat onto a bus, drive through Quinhagak to the river, unload it from the bus and reload it into other boats over there. But it’s worth it.
It gets runs of exactly the same fish as the Kanektok but it is much wilder. There are no other boats for a start so when you’re on the river all you hear is the river itself.
We went very high up into the headwaters, almost an hour’s boat ride upstream and closer to the mountains which made it feel more like the experience I had signed up for. The day before
we went, one of the guides had been charged by a grizzly in this area. It had run straight at him and took a swipe before being scared away by an elderly lady angler who screamed her lungs out. That was a very dangerous moment; that far upstream if the guide had been hurt, or worse, it would have been a huge issue. They don't carry radios or sat phones and even if you got the jet boat started...what then? You don't know the river or the channels. Didn't bear thinking about...no pun intended.
Of course the incident allowed everyone to trot out the old bear gags: I don’t need to outrun the bear, I only need to outrun you...to scare bears away you throw shit at them, where do you find the shit? Don’t worry, at that moment there will be plenty of shit...etc...
Our guide for that day blew a bear whistle constantly so the tranquillity of the wild was sacrificed for safety and he got no argument from us.
We fished for the rainbows by either wading or being floated down the river and casting into the edges of the banks, the closer you got
to the banks and overhangs the better it was. I had a fish on my second cast which gave me a false sense of how easy it would be. There was virtually no fly life to speak of and these rainbows really were more scavengers than predators. They gorge on salmon eggs and then on the putrefying flesh of the decaying salmon. Like I have already said – there is no elegance or finesse to fishing in Alaska.
I started by using a sculpin minnow fly but then moved onto the far more entertaining mouse. With a mouse pattern, you basically try to almost bounce the fly off the bank and then you work it across the current as though it is a little mouse that has fallen in the river. It is great fun but not as productive as sculpin rigs as not every rainbow will go for it. But it does stir them up so the idea is the guy in the front of the boat has the mouse and the guy in the back has the sculpin. I stirred up many a rainbow for Mr Moody. Still, when that dark shadow every so often shoots out and grabs the mouse it makes up for being down on the numbers.
My biggest rainbow on the Arolik was about 2lb but I did catch one at about 5lbs when I was fishing for King salmon. That was a shame because on the big rod it didn't give much of a fight.
I never caught a grayling but I did see plenty. Once again, they are focussed on the salmon run and its by-products of eggs and salmon flesh. One actually took the mouse fly but couldn't get it all the way into its mouth. Basically, that far north everything is an opportunist. There was a small creek beside the camp that held some big grayling and if it was a still morning you could see them rising to dry flies. I thought about it more than once but still mornings mean mosquito hell and no fish is worth that I’m afraid.
Dolly varden are a pretty kind of char. The two I caught were again caught on the big rod when targeting salmon. There are sea-run Dollys and those that stay in the rivers – much like our brown and sea trout. The two I caught were sea-run. We planned on trying for the river ones one afternoon but got into Kings in a big way and so it never happened. I’m told that when the salmon are spawning the Dollys are everywhere and if you cast an egg fly (oh yes...they have egg flies and flesh flies just for those occasions...) then you’ll get a Dolly, a rainbow or a grayling with every single cast.
Not sure I can see the fun in that.
Pinks and Silvers
These are the final two salmon species in Alaska and they weren’t around when I was there. Pinks only run on even numbered years (grilse on the Spey used to do that actually) and it was 2 weeks too early for Silvers (although one guy claimed to have caught one).
The good thing about these fish is that they will chase surface flies and poppers in particular. That makes it potentially a great combo and it was something that Chum salmon are not so keen on, although I was told that under certain ideal conditions Chums will chase poppers and riffle hitched flies. I tried both but got no takers.
The bad thing about these fish is that, like Chum, they stack up in their hundreds and you can simply stand on a spot and get one with every cast.
And since by that time the Kings have gone through and they are
the only show in town it all becomes less like fishing and much more like catching. It
would somehow feel wrong to me to just get gratification so easily because you’ve paid to be there. It’s a bit like going to a hooker: you get
what you pay for but it kinda cheapens the experience. Maybe
that’s just me – I prefer the possibilities offered by a well
executed cast over the certainty of a take even if my line lands in a heap. As I said in the Chum section, it’s fun just to catch fish every once in a while, but it’s much more fun to be fishing.
Still, Silvers are big news in
Alaska West and if that floats your boat you can catch hundred of them in your week...possibly even in a day.
Other bits worth knowing
From the UK it is a heck of a long way and, perversely a longer trip home involving two overnight flights unless you stay over in Anchorage or somewhere, which is probably sensible. I banzied it there and back which left me exhausted and jet lagged on both
journeys. When I got there I was told of a flight with Condor
Airlines in Germany out of Frankfurt which do a direct into Anchorage in 9 hours. Much better plan. I will go back, but not to the Kanektok, so this flight will be the one I will book I think.
Alaska West, has the most professional and dedicated guides it has ever been my pleasure to fish with. They rotate them every day and that works
out great as you get to meet up with lots of different guides and pick up different things from each. They are all great though – you won’t be disappointed and with guys with the pedigree of Ed Ward on the team it would be difficult not to gain a lot from the experience.
One thing that I didn't particularly like was that there was
absolutely no connection between the camp and the local Eskimos. This
explained quite clearly the fact that on a number of occasions the
locals in their boats would come within 10 ft of you whilst you were
wading and, one time, even went out of their way to run between us and
the bank when I was playing a fish tight to the bank. Guys
occasionally had their lines chopped. It wasn't exactly open
hostility, but to me it seemed the natural (and age-old) silent
protest of an indigenous people getting their own back on rich white
folks who were hell bent on exploiting their resources, whilst giving
nothing back, just because the law allowed them to. When asked, a camp
guide explained that the locals weren't employed because they were
"unreliable". Well give me that unreliability any day if it
creates value in fishermen coming to remote areas. Take nothing away
but photographs and memories and leave nothing but footprints and
money - that should be our modern mantra.
It is a peculiar preference that Americans seem to have the world
over when they travel and/or fish: they have to find the familiar when
they arrive because the familiar breeds certainty and Americans love,
above all else, certainty. If they know that there will be Americans
guiding them and that there will be American food and folks will speak
American then they are good to go. So much so that sometimes you
wonder what happened to that pioneering spirit they keep banging on
The camp food is fantastic. Restaurant quality, that is no exaggeration, and there is plenty of it. I gained 10 lbs in my week there depsite the 10 hour fishing days which, with double handed rods, proves to be very physically demanding. There is no booze in camp which is a drag. They brought in a small allowance for all of us but to be honest the place needs a liquor license or something. The reason is that the local Yup’ik people have a banning ordinance on all alcohol within 5 miles of the village, which is no bad thing in and of itself as like most indigenous folk they don't do so well on white man’s ruin. It would be good to have some beers for the guides and some wine with dinner though.
You sleep in two man tents which have a wooden floor, carpets, two beds, some clothes hangers and a gas heater. They’re adequate but not somewhere you would want to hang out. There is a large hut for that and that has a camp PC with wi-fi and internet access.
The toilets are disgusting however. At first glance they look like the chemical loos that you see at game fairs etc. Except they lack the key ingredient that makes these appliances even mildly acceptable...chemicals. Basically what you have is a toilet
seat and a large plastic bin bag suspended beneath it to catch everything. It is foul. They aren’t cleaned every day either. Have I painted enough of a picture? There will be some nutty US Wildlife law that is insisting on this because I saw something similar in
Yellowstone National Park where they were equally disgusting. But if they can provide flush toilets and showers in your cabin in
Russia nearer to the Arctic Circle then I fail to see the problem here.
The mosquitos and white socks will drive you absolutely nuts. There are 20 species of mosquito in Alaska and they are very heavily involved in pollination of wildflowers and plants believe it or not. It’s the females that need that blood meal before they can lay their eggs. What the hell they feed on when there are no Scotsmen available is a complete mystery to me. The white socks I didn't think were biters until I discovered little hard lumps coming up behind my ears and on any scrap of skin I had missed with the deet.
Trust me: you might hate fishing in it but you will pray for wind.
As often happens, what started as a hobby website grew arms and
legs until it eventually became a full-blown book. In February 2004
it was published under the slightly enhanced title Game Fishing Diaries: Details from Fishing in Life and is now available from most outlets from as little a $2.99
on Amazon Kindle. In November 2011 Volume 2 made an appearance also
available on Kindle
Game Fishing Diaries - Volume 1
Game Fishing Diaries - Volume 2