Alaska: The Chosen River
I joined eleven others (some old and dear friends, others friends of those friends who have become friends) for 6 spectacular days of fishing in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska. We all had a wonderful trip! We really meshed as a group and plan to get together again for a repeat, probably in 2014. Not only did we enjoy great fishing, but also perfect weather, superb food, hard-working and accomplished guides and a camp that worked like a fine Swiss clock! Thanks to all: guides, guests and to the fish who were very cooperative!
Here is the report on our trip:
More photos of Alaska: The Chosen River are posted at Scott's blog:
FLY PAPER at:
When you venture into western Alaska anywhere from the Bristol Bay in the far west to legendary Lake Iliamna in the east, you enter the land the Yu’pik Eskimo have called home for at least 2000 years. The Yu’piks guttural names for the mountains, rivers and villages are used today and more than dot the landscape. These names dominate the maps and the thoughts of fly fishermen around the world. This is the land of the ‘gaks and the ’giks and the ‘neks and the ‘toks. When studying a map or discussing river options, these sharp Yu’pik sounds quicken my pulse and send me back to thoughts of stupendous past fishing experiences.
From the Alagnek to the Togiak and from the Nusagak to the Kanektok, the Yu’pik’s wet and harsh landscape is drained by countless brightwater rivers. In these rivers are natives who could rightly call the Yu’pik interlopers. They are the Pacific salmon: the pinks, chum, kings, silvers & reds. These five species make the Yu’pik's land tick. They flood these rivers when they return to spawn... and die. With their first and only act of reproduction, they bring life to all the animals, plants and people that live along the river banks, as well as the young they produce. These salmon support other species of fish too. Rainbows, dollies, char and grayling are only too happy to dine on the salmon’s eggs, their young and eventually, their rotting flesh. The fish that follow the salmon are the real draw for me. A trip to Yu’pik country is like entering a grand stage drama with me costumed in drab layers of olive, brown and tan on a set that may not see true sunshine for weeks. But it is a set not without color. With props like glo-bugs, beads, flesh flies, and huge streamers, we chase a colorful cast that includes rainbows with their spotted bodies and bright red slashes, garish dolly varden char all decked out in pumpkin and purples and grayling in their elegant pastels. Get a sunny day and the whole stage seems to have a spotlight on it. But these days can be rare and yet I return year after year, hell... decade after decade, to see the show in western Alaska.
Given my history in the region, I am pleased to report that in 35 years of fishing Alaska, I’ve never had a better fishing trip than this year’s trip to the Chosen River... or better weather! I’ve had fishing as good, but not better... and that’s a good sign both for the health of these rivers and the chance that I return yet again.
How good was our trip? Let’s go through this trip day by day and I’ll describe some of the highlights. When I describe these moments remember that each day was great with salmon, rainbows and dollies caught in huge, almost obscene numbers.
I was fishing with Dan Cronin. We spotted a small channel that bled into the main river creating a long, slowly swirling seam. Along this seam and up into the bleed, silver salmon were porpoising provocatively. We knew this would be a good place to try a surface popper and see if we could get a “dry fly” take. Often when silvers are fresh from the ocean and all fired up, they will take a surface popper before you throw a streamer at them. This technique is called a "pollywogging" in these parts. Usually, a holding spot can be good for a couple of “surface” silvers before an angler is forced to go subsurface to get a hook ups. Silvers just seem to eventually figure out pollywogs so one or two spectacular surface takes is usually all you get.
Not on this day. Initially, I tried to raise a ‘bow on a streamer at the seam’s tailout. While I searched, Dan was nailing silvers on a ‘wog. If he didn’t get hooked up, he got an aggressive strike or heart-stopping follow. It didn’t take long for me to abandon my rainbow quest and join him “wogging.”
I had no traditional hot pink, spun deer hair, pollywogs with me so I tied on a green & white deer hair frog. I added a pink bead to the tippet so it was technically an egg-sucking frog. Good Gawd, you gotta love Alaska! This was one screwy idea! And yet, it worked! I got a chase on almost on every cast - until it was destroyed and eventually lost.
Huge 10 - 12 lb silvers would charge the blipping frog. With black tails and blue chromed bodies, often they would miss, but many other times they would connect. The fight was great, but the follows were incredible. You could see their massive jaws snapping at the frog. These were all bright silvers fresh from the ocean, some still with sea lice. These fish were the winners in the tremendous battle waged to bring a proud species' genetic material back to their homeland. These salmon would be the winners at the first and final homecoming. And they behaved like winners. Hard runs, tight turns and bright leaps kept us engaged us for hours. After going through two frogs, I switched to an egg sucking mouse and had similar results.
Incredible when you think no silver has ever seen a frog - let alone an egg-sucking frog. And an egg-sucking mouse is just plain silly. Dan and I hooked up with 30 or so silvers before we left the spot. We kept one silver for the smoker. What an incredible experience!
Dan and I went upriver with Clint Duncan, the manager and one of the owners of the camp we were visiting. Clint has been fishing these waters since he was practically a boy which is when I first met him. The year was 1979. He’s been on this river every summer since then. He knows it like no other man alive.
We motored awhile upriver... long enough to be happy when Clint cut the motor. He stepped from the stern to the middle of the skiff and manned the oars.
He said "We'll duck in here and float a side channel that hasn't fished in weeks".
I could see nothing but a small bleed... certainly it wasn't big enough to get a boat down! The side channel was overhung with sweepers and choked with debris. Clint jumped out of the boat and grabbed the gunnel.
He said "It opens up once we get aways down the channel, but we left the opening overgrown so that no one would know there was a floatable channel ahead. I'll walk us through it".
His plan was to walk us down the swift, but shallow water while we cast to the banks for rainbow. The fishing was a bit slow at first where the waters were deep and channelized, but when the braid opened up the stuff of dreams stretched out in front of us. Along the banks chum salmon were either on redds or actively digging them. Big bucks chased other males or saddled up behind females to bump them with their toothy, grotesque snouts. Dollies dashed in and out of the melee and were often bitten by male chum as a reward for their thievery. And behind all this or next to the bank taking a break from eating eggs were the bows. From the stern, I led with the mouse and Dan played clean-up from the bow with an egg sucking flesh fly. We caught dozen and dozens of 16” - 23” bows. I pulled most of my fish from their resting spots just offshore or from thick and tangled root wads. Dan got many of his fish from behind redds where the bows were actively feeding. The majority of our fish were spotted and sight fished. It was enthralling fishing and with Clint’s running commentary on everything from fish biology to mousing techniques to his own personal history - the day was an absolute ball. I’m not sure how it could have been better.
I was very tired when we got back to camp. Skating a mouse is hard on the shoulders and wrists. You must lift the leader off the water and wiggle the rod tip to impart action to the fly. I was worn out. Clint must have been exhausted - he spent 8 hours wading in 49 degree water manhandling his broad linebacker of a skiff downriver. He seemed no worse for the wear and was as enthusiastic at dinner as he had been at the beginning of the day. This is a man who is perfect for his job.
This was my ho-hum day. Nothing unusual, just lots of fish all day long. Ho-hum!!! Riley and Dan Cronin and I explored the river below camp We threw big streamers, "gut-shot"mice and eggs. Our dollie fishing was incredible and at times we were getting a hook-up on every cast. By 4:00 pm I had caught so many fish that I had to quit - My son's 11 week old dog had given me a playful bite with his puppy teeth before the trip and all this "catching" had aggravated the injury. I finally just put down my rod and took in the scenery. What a day!
Anna Riggs and I went upriver with our guide Dan to walk and wade a side channel. Bear sign was everywhere and we made as much noise as possible. We went slowly through the little shallow channel hoping to spot 'bows behind the hundreds of chum that were on redds in the braid. Anna and I traded fish while Dan enthusiastically searched for the biggest 'bows he could find. We started at 18” went to 20” and kept going up in size from there. Some of the bows were dark-backed while others were blond and bright. All were gorgeous with spots everywhere even in their eyes and lower lips. My biggest bow of the day was a 23” male and Anna’s was a 22.5” female; both were strong and deep bodied. All the rainbows were caught on glo-bugs and were spotted before being cast to. Does it get any better than this?
Simply a fantastic day. It was sunny, warm and calm. It was perfect. Marcia Dorsey and I fished with Riley. Early in the morning, Marcia railed on dollies while I raised, but was unable to hook, a 25”- 26” 'bow from below a pourover shelf. Mesmerized by this fish, I was nonetheless ready to catch something when we arrived later at a long, marshy side channel. There were bear tracks, partially eaten salmon and bedding spots punctuating the high grass banks. We nervously made conversation.
While Riley fished with Marcia, I threw a mouse for bows. I hooked two 20” bows near some sockeyes in a long slick below a beaver dam. Then I caught a 23” dollie on a mouse in a small bathroom-sized riffle/run. This dollie was bright and beautiful and strong. I photographed him and tossed my mouse into another bleed that was coming back into the channel. After a four foot drift I lost sight of my mouse. I struck, not quite sure what had happened. I came tight to a big fish. Usually a mouse is savagely slashed at, but this mouse had been sipped in like a dry fly. The fish jumped showing the bright red slash of a bow. Riley rushed over to hold the fish for photos! It was a beautiful 22” bow. Small water, big fish... on a mouse - ahhh you gotta love Alaska!
The Last Day
With our guide Aaron, Dan Cronin and I we far upriver and finally cut the engine at a falcon’s cliff just below the mountains. Here we caught fresh silvers while the falcon chicks squawked, anxious for a lemming or Arctic hare for breakfast. It was feast or famine up here for us too. If we found chum or kings, we found dollies or rainbows. If no salmon - there were no fish. Some bars were so loaded with dollies that a seemingly dark river bottom turned to a light grey as our boat passed over the massive carpet of fish. Here you would catch a fish on every cast. The river was beautiful; swift, gin-clear water flew over a cobblestoned bottom. We could see ruby colored kings in the deeper runs, dark dollies below them, green chum in the shallow slicks, grotesque pinks intermingling with the chum and a few bright red sockeye scattered about. The rainbow were tough to spot, but we knew they were there. Soon it was time for lunch.
While Aaron made sandwiches, I tried one of his wino flies on my silver rod for a quick go at skating his “dry” egg. I tied two feet of 3X on a 4 foot butt of 30 lb. leader all attached to my 8 wt. Certainly not a conventional dry fly rig. I cast across the river, made a mend downstream and skating the "wino". Jaws appeared tracking my fly like a heat seeking missile. With jaws snapping, the fish usually caught up to the swiftly swinging egg. This was repeated dozens of times over the next two hours. What came out of this was 22 - 25” dollies that fought like thugs and looked like drag queens. It was one of the most amazing two hours of fishing I’ve ever experienced.
At one point, the dollies started taking naturals off the slick surface and I switched to a humpy with similar results. So let’s recap: I’m catching 23 - 25” dollies on an 8 wt. rod with 3X tippet that barely fit thru the eye of a #12 dry fly! I love Alaska!
Thanks to all my fellow anglers for making this such a great trip! Thanks to Marcia and Neal Dorsey, Steve and Cindy Peskoe, John and Anna Riggs, Dan Cronin, Nat and Melodie Rowe. Bob and Paul Stiles. I'll see you in 2014!!
Written by Scott Heywood