Seven Species Series: King Salmon (cont’d)
Part Five: King Salmon (continued)
Who wants to go first?
We had walked back a ways from the creek to where the open gravel bar runs up against a shrubby tree line and laid down there in a little hollow to have our lunch. We ate mostly out of the weather, still a soupy mix of heavy grey skies with light rain and enveloping fog. Out here there’s nothing to impede low pressure fronts from rolling across the sixty plus miles of wide open nothingness when it blows in off the shores of Bristol Bay.
After we’d finished with our makeshift picnic it was back to business. I knew what was waiting for us in that pool, but I had kept it to myself while we ate. It was between Leonardo and Dave to decide who would go first. Leonardo had fished with us before during the season prior, and while he lives for the chance to cast a delicate dry fly to a discerning trout he is a fishermen’s fisherman; not one to shy away from any opportunity to shake hands with any fish. He might have suspected what lay in store underneath the obsidian surface of that deep pool, but it is safe to say that Dave did not. Being the gentlemen that he is, Leo insisted Dave take the first shot.
A solid grab
We rigged up a big chartreuse bunny leech and walked over to the water’s edge. Dave stood perched on the bank facing off against the bucket of the pool like a batter stands on the plate with the bases loaded. I gave him simple instructions: cast all the way across and let it sink for a moment. Then start stripping. When you set, set hard and low to the bank. Not high and up river.
It only took one cast. One strip, two strip, and then a deadening stop. Suddenly his line was stretched taught, unmoving, as if snagged on some immovable object. Then a series of throbbing head shakes, slow and brutal. This is usually when it sinks in for the angler. The “what have I done” moment that washes over you as the creature on the other end of your line comes alive and you realize that it’s a monster. Maybe this is more than you bargained for?
Dave fought his fish well. Leonardo and I stood back giving him encouragement and instruction in kind, like two corner men yelling at a boxer in the ring. When you fight a big king you do it with your whole body. Knees bent, hunched forward, flexing all the muscles of your fighting arm for the duration. All the while your rod hangs in the balance, and if you don’t have one that is up for the challenge you’ll be sorry for it. We typically run 9 and even 10 wt rods for battling kings, although in our small creek an 8 or even a 7 wt can work as well.
It is hard to express how much physical effort is expended fighting these fish until you’ve experienced it for yourself. They are stubborn customers, making you fight a give and take game of inches when doing battle with them. Eventually we landed Dave’s fish, and many more. Leonardo and Dave went on like that for most of the afternoon, each bringing to hand several leviathans. In our creek we see kings that range from 10 – 25 pounds with a few exceptionally large specimens caught every season that are simply “really really big.” There is something about holding a king in your hands that is unforgettable. I always remember the immortal words of Russel Chatham describing this very thing in my head when I get the opportunity to do so. Simply said, “This is something.”
Time gets away from you on the water. It is apart from it, yet suddenly we found ourselves pressed to make up for it. We had to quickly hump our way from the deep pool to the mouth of our creek where Rus and his two sports would be waiting for us with the jet boat, our ticket back to camp. Luckily we were in close proximity to a convenient shortcut that takes you through an alder maze and into a boggy meadow before leading you to the ridge and game trail that mirrors the course of the creek.
Finally we approached the game trail’s terminus. An elevated mound covered in head-high sedge grass that rises prominently over the confluence of where our creek spills into a much larger glacial river. It is here that the vague traces of an ancient people have been left behind. There are a series of dug outs notched into the hill top. Now hidden by the overgrown grass, they have turned into precarious pitfalls. We carefully skirt around them, coming to the cusp of the ridge, giving us a clear view down to where Rus and his two sports are working the last section of our creek.
From up here you can easily envision the ancient fish camp that once adorned this lonely hill. You can see the thatched roofs and small cook fires billowing with smoke as strips of salmon hang out to cure under the high arctic sun. And even though a thousand years or more may have passed between now and then, looking down on the water below, where even now untold numbers of king salmon are rolling before our eyes as they stage at the door of our creek, you realize that what you are looking at has not changed in all that time.
OUTPOST signing off
That’s it for the OUTPOST segment of this multi part series where we will be profiling the various fish species we target at our two remote Alaskan wilderness fly fishing camps. Tune back in for a helicopter ride across the rugged Aleutian mountains to the Pacific Ocean and our second camp, SAFARI!
Written by Drew Griffith (aka “Machete”). June, 2020
Find more Machete articles here.