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Destination X: Alaska Zipperlip River 07-31-2009

In Alaska, as it does everywhere on earth, water flows downstream. Invisibly and relentlessly gravity pulls at the water. It sucks it from winter's snowbanks and herds it into tiny feeder creeks. This runoff is combined with fresh summer rain. All is driven into riffle, oxbow and slough. Gravity never quits and it never gives in. Smaller forks join up to make wide tributaries which flow into main branches. Eventually gravity shoots it all into the briny waters of the Pacific ocean. On this journey from rivulet to estuary, leaves, limbs, soil and sod are pulled along as partners and eventually help to nourish life downstream. These nutrients are inexorably lost to the salt and if one wonders about such things, one might ask why the headwaters of Alaska's rivers have not become barren places. If nutrients are constantly lost to the oceans, why are these headwaters not devoid of life.

The simple answer is salmon. Pacific salmon... so familiar, so common, yet so remarkable. Salmon deliver the nutrients that were stripped by gravity back to the rivers of their birth. They accumulate these lost nutrients in their bodies during their years in the ocean and return them at their death. By surrendering their payload of precious chemicals back to the headwaters of these clear cold streams they complete a magnificent circle. Year after year, the salmon return to Alaska's spawning grounds what gravity steals. Bears, birds, trees and flowers, not to mention, their own progeny, owe their survival to returning salmon.

Perhaps like no other species on earth and certainly like no other freshwater species, salmon transform their environment. In the air, in the water and on the land, animals from bacteria to apex predators owe their existence on these beautiful Alaskan rivers to the salmon's compelling life story.

After 2-5 years, depending on the species, of gorging and growing strong in the ocean something as strong as gravity itself begins to pull at the salmon. It is then that they leave the salt and begin their suicidal mission back literally to their childhood digs. Once they reentered freshwater, these salmon have sealed their fate. Guided by a mysterious mix of polarized light and magnetic forces, salmon single-mindedly move back into the current of their birth. In the faster water, they fin upstream in long columns or as lonely singles and then join up to rest in the eddies. Day after day, they march on. This is their one and only chance to breed, and virtually nothing short of bear or fishermen's net can stop them.

On their journey upstream, their bodies change dramatically. They go from bright and shiny strong to diseased and ghoulish in short order. It starts with a pale blush. In some species the male's backs can hump-up and their jaws kype and become studded with menacing teeth. The females will devote 20% of their body mass to eggs. Neither sex will eat again once they begin their terminal plans upriver. On their journey, they will live on the fat stored in their flesh. The same fatty flesh so prized by chefs. By the time redds are dug, competitors and nest robbers are chased off and eggs are fertilized, salmon have gone from hydrodynamic silver rockets to grotesque red and green rotting hulks. They are now monsters and hardly recognizable from their oceanic form. At the end, with fins mutilated from battles and fungus rotting away at their skin, their death knell begins. Their corpses soon litter back eddies and beaches. The bears and wolverines now find easy pickings.

But there is another part to this upstream migration. Following in the parade's wake are the species so prized by anglers. They come following the natural chum line of first salmon roe, then salmon flesh and finally the young salmon themselves. Below the redds these species include:
Grayling... Like the grizzly bear, grayling are indicators of wild places. They need cold pure water. They sip insects off the surface, chase eggs and jam salmon flesh in their tiny mouths. They are the elegant little sailfish of the north.
Arctic char and Dolly Varden... in the same family as brook and lake trout these two Alaskan species cannot be easily distinguished. Char and dollies show up in prolific numbers on some rivers and often account for the quantity for visiting anglers, as well as some pretty good meals!
Rainbow trout... In Alaska, rainbows are the real deal! This is their home range. There are no transplants or hybrids or hatchery fish on these rivers. These undiluted slabs of muscle are beautifully colored and spotted. They are the strongest of the four species that follow the salmon upriver.

The same gravity that drives the spawn also provides hardy anglers the opportunity to float these waters as they make their way to the ocean. Like all great fisheries, Alaska presents an encompassing adventure. River trips offer the most intimate look at this realm of salmon and the fish that follow them. As they say, if you're looking for "up close and personal", complete with the good and the bad including mosquitos, bad weather and local wildlife, an Alaskan river trip provides the strong-souled angler the best opportunity.

Into this realm, our group of 9 met in Dillingham, Alaska on the shores of famed Bristol Bay. The three guides, Chuck Ash, Eric Berger and myself, flew into the river the night before to assemble rafts and sort gear. We were quickly reminded that we had arrived at our wilderness home for the next seven days when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye as we were ferrying our first load of gear from the small lake where the Beaver had dropped us off to the river's edge about a quarter mile away. I said to Eric, "did you see what I think I just saw"? Just in that instant a large grizzly sow accompanied by her two yearling cubs stood up on her hind legs to see who had invaded her territory. She must have been about 200 yards away when we spotted her, but it appeared that her intended route was similar to ours. Being an ever protectant mother, she let out a loud huff and took off running, quartering away from us with both youngsters following closely behind. However, she must have been focused on a salmon dinner somewhere in our neighborhood because for about the next 3 hours we could see her and her cubs off in the distance as the evening light disappeared. I wondered to myself, was this going to be another trip like last time when we encountered somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 bears? It would be what it would be, but the sign of this sow with her healthy youngsters was a good one for those who love wild places.

The next morning, the six anglers met us. We quickly put the finishing touches on the rafts and ferried the remaining gear from the small lake we had landed the De Havilland Beaver on to the river some 200 yards away. Soon we were off - three to a a raft. The river was very small up high and we scraped along initially until a few small creeks added volume and we began to float properly. That first day it was mostly grayling, but BIG grayling... up to 20" on glow bugs, beads and parachute Adams. We had some spectacular dry fly fishing late in the day when a sparse drake hatch really got the grayling looking to the surface. We did manage a few char, but in the cold skinny water of the upper river, grayling predominated. As we got further downriver the following morning, we started to see the spawning beds of chum salmon. It was obvious the chum spawn was well on its way and therefore a bit early this year. Below the chum, char, grayling and rainbow trout jockeyed for position hoping to cash in on the bounty of eggs that were escaping from the salmon redds. As the second day wore on and we moved further downstream, we left the more austere taiga and entered the braided spruce forests that spread out away from the hills that defined this river's valley. In this section, we began to see some kings and a few sockeye, but chums were still the go-to spawners for the best fishing.

After we rowed thru a braided section festooned with log jams and sweepers, we began to see water bleed off in small rivulets on river left. With threatening skies and an increasing upriver wind, we decided to check out this side channel hoping to find a chum boudoir.

We tethered our raft to an ancient bleached stump and slogged upstream through the sandy mud over chum carcasses and bear tracks - always encouraging if not a bit menacing predictors of what lies upstream. The guys in my boat seemed unconvinced that this nondescript side channel would be productive and lingered downstream reluctant to make the walk upstream. The channel was a bit off-color from last night's rain and it wasn't until I saw a chum buck roll that I was sure that I had made the right decision. I dead-drifted an apricot glow bug thru the shallowest part of the run and it stopped dead. I lifted my rod and a bright char materialized in 8 inches of mocha-colored river water. This buck char twisted incessantly, as his species are wont to do, alternatively flashing silver and orange as he wrapped my leader around his kyped jaw. I walked him backwards onto the gravel bar and measured him at 23 inches. Let the games begin!

With a confidence only success brings, Charlie Hendren and Steve Hoffman dove in landing big char after big char with a few 20" rainbows and fat grayling thrown in for spice. This spot made for a great afternoon especially when considering that by the time we were sated, rain was falling in sheets and an ever increasing wind was blowing not only whitecaps, but our raft upstream. By the time we had managed to find a camp in this mess, we were in a full on gale. We ate a quick dinner and dove into the tent for the night ready to relax and get a good night's sleep.

By the time we left the braided section the next day, the chum salmon were beginning to thin out a bit, but the sockeye and more importantly the kings, were becoming more abundant. On what would become the rule for the last 20 miles of this river, find kings on redds and you'll find fish. If you could spot a bunch of kings in for instance, two to four feet of water at the tailout of a riffle or along a cut bank, you could always find big char, grayling and some feisty rainbows below. These game fish usually held on current breaks like eddie lines, ledges or pot holes just downstream from the redds. Here you could see these predators, especially char, follow the 20-40 lb. kings looking to make a quick meal of their potential progeny. The pecking order usually went something like this: char right below the kings where they darted and dashed eating eggs and snapping at any competitors like grayling or ‘bows. By their shear strength of numbers, char relegated the ‘bows to the faster water downriver where their strong quick bodies could outcompete the char. Next came the grayling who were usually on the fringes of the redds and many that we caught had cuts and gashes either from the salmon or the char. The grayling drifted in and out always willing to eat whatever we offered even if their mouths were too small to engulf it.

Above a fishy looking riffle where two channels met, we picked up a few nice char, but the fishing was far from cracker-jack hot. We had all agreed to seek a campsite a bit earlier as we had been stretching our days and running out of daylight with which to cook in the evenings... but that was before I saw a king jump and another roll below a string of willows some 200 yards upstream. I reluctantly started the trek upstream not sure how I would get there or whether I could negotiate the heavy riffle in between. Conveniently, a gravel bar emerged that made the wading much easier. Soon I was making good progress upriver. As I got closer, I could see more kings. I waded across the slower water in the tailout from the pool above finally reaching the willow eddie I had seen from below. It was then that I realized that my left wading show was untied. What to do now?

The prudent thing would be to wade all the way back to the shallows and tie my shoe. But, knowing I had little time before we needed to seek a camp, I stood my ground and decided to try a few casts. The results were immediate. On my first 6 casts, I caught 6 fish. Two were ‘bows, two hen char and two buck char - all over 20 inches with the biggest 23-24 inches. I yelled to Al Longfellow to join me, but the water was too heavy where he was fishing to hear me. Luckily, Dean Kalmbach was able to hear my yells and soon both were on their way upriver to join me. Al waded above me and Dean fell in below. We had 45 minutes of superb fishing mostly for big char made all the tougher to land because of the heavy current and thigh deep water. During the whole time my boot became looser and looser and when I had to move, I shuffled to make sure I didn't lose it downstream. Stupid I know, but the fishing was soooo good! Soon we reeled up our lines and joined our compatriots to find a good campsite and enjoy some char filets and a roaring campfire. And yes, I never did lose my boot.

This delightful drill continued for the remaining four days of our trip. If we found kings and sometimes fresh sockeye either in the main river or in side channels, we found our preferred quarry. Fishy looking runs and riffles could be unproductive and it was important to not get bogged down with good looking water.

One evening as we approached our intended gravel bar that would be our campsite for the night, Eric's raft floated closely next to mine and he had a big grin on his face. I knew something was up! Soon he reached down and tugged on a cord attached to his raft where tied securely was a big bright silver salmon. I instantly knew what was on his mind and why he had showed me on our first night, the wasabi and soya sauce he has stuffed in his pack. I had forgotten all about it. Yes, we all would enjoy the finest salmon sashimi on the planet that evening even without having shopped at the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Funny thing though, this fish must have been an advance scout, because it was the only silver salmon caught or even seen on our trip. We knew that it was just a matter of timing though and just as mother nature directs the kings and sockeye to their native nesting sites, the silvers would soon follow.

Days drifted beautifully by. Our only responsibilities were to safely ride gravity downstream, to have fun and to catch fish. We were successful on all counts!

On our last day, Danny Sheldon, Steve Peskoe and I hiked up a beautiful little side channel until we found some kings in a sidewalk-sized run. We immediately hooked a few big buck char and two hot little rainbows. Steve, who was bringing up the rear, raised his rod and yelled. It was obvious this was a good fish and Danny, using his long athletic stride, took off to help. He dashed thru the heavy riffle to cross the river while moving downstream. Soon he was helping Steve. I watched as Steve carefully fought the fish with the body language that only a big fish can engender. after a good battle, I watched them land what would be a 20+ inch ‘bow. A great fish and a great place to land such a big ‘bow. Small channel, big fish... an intoxicating and addicting combination!

We continued to nail char until I smelled the distinctive swampy, wet-horse smell of a bear. I thought digression the better part of valor. We fished uneventfully back to the raft safely concluding an excellent pre-lunch session.

This was the way this trip went. Great periods followed by slow followed by great. The constants were the beauty of the river and the enjoyment we got from one another's company. While we had both neophytes and 30 year veterans on this trip, we all caught fish and laughed our way down the river. Camps were a joy and our meals were wonderful. I've never been with a group that could get so much done so quickly. Everyone pitched in to help from doing dishes to packing rafts. This translated into more time to fish during the day and more time to relax at night while in camp. So to Steve Peskoe, Steve Hoffman, Dean Kalmbach, Charlie Hendren, Al Longfellow and Danny Sheldon, thanks for another wonderful adventure and I look forward to our next hoping it isn't too far off!
Written by Scott Heywood








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