Alaska Fly Fishing The Lower Tsiu River
October 16, 2012
They came in waves. They ran the gauntlet through the pounding surf where the dark seal heads bobbed. The surf caught the fish and threw them onto the clean, sandy beach. They flopped and struggled, stranding as the waves receded. We dropped our rods and ran and grabbed their struggling, plump, vibrant bodies as the surf roared and washed up cold and clean around us. We knelt holding fish. We laughed, hoisting our fish high, and shouted to each other above the roar of the surf. Then we dropped them and dashed to catch others. We became boys again, there where the Gulf of Alaska gave up its gift of salmon to the land. We knew we would never have it so good again.
They were silver salmon come to the Tsiu River to spawn. They ran through the surf, creating waves of their own. The schools dashed madly up the river's trough of shallow water sluicing swiftly down that last 200 yards to the sea.
They came at us in waves. They bumped our legs. They panicked and dashed away, shooting rooster tails across the shallows. We waded among them as they came tail-shooting urgently upstream to the left and right. We fished short lines and they took the brightly colored flies savagely. We hooked up in twos and threes. They ran off downstream, their dorsals cutting wakes amidst the bow waves of coming salmon. We caught them fast and released them green, and they shot away. We ran among the newcomers in the soft sandy channels, and caught, and yelled, and released, and ran again and hooked again. The catching melee tired us.
We stood then with limp arms beside the traffic jam of silver salmon and watched the urgent swell of life coming from the sea to spawn in the 10,000-year-old waters weeping from the melting Bering Glacier eight miles upstream on the Tsiu River.
There at the river mouth we could just glimpse Kayak Island, where Danish explorer Vitus Bering made landfall on his ill-fated second Russian expedition (1741) with German naturalist George Wilhem Steller (Steller's eider, eagle, sea lion, and jay). Behind us, the snow-capped Chugach-St. Elias Mountain range gleamed in the sun. Bear tracks in the sand were 8-inch-wide calling cards left by night fishermen. The next morning would belong to the commercial fishermen, who, for the next 12 hours, would set their nets in the first three miles of the river.
We moved two hundred yards upriver to the first great bend, where the Tsiu cut through high sandbanks before dashing to the sea. There, below the stranded flotsam of giant Sitka spruce, the silvers made their first rest stop before swimming upstream to the broad, quiet sand flats and then into the gravelly headwater sloughs where they would spawn.
We took up station on the caving sandbanks beneath dunes garbed in grasses tinged with autumn russet. Silvers flashed and head-and-tail-rose quietly here and there in the bend. We could see the sweet spot, the bucket where our flies on 300-grain heads would swing at just the right speed and depth into the lie. We could fish the bucket from both sides of the river; we had just two hours before the tide went slack and the fish stopped coming.
We threw George Davis's #4 chartreuse Ice Chenille Spankers at them and they took hard at the end of the swing as the fly turned. They hooked themselves and ran and cartwheeled, flashing silver in the sunlight like heavy-bodied, liberated rainbows. Occasionally they took the fly and headed full-bore downcurrent for the ocean and we dashed downriver along the sandbanks as the line melted away and our reels complained. Some silvers gained the bend and the whitewater and we lost them; others we beached on the fine meltwater sand in the channel above the pounding sea. We ran back to the bucket for more. There would always be more until the tide slacked.
The bite was on; we fished urgently. We immersed ourselves in the giant ecosystem life-revival cauldron there below the Rhode Island-size glacier. We caught and released fish in the clean autumn air until our arms ached and we could catch no more. We were changed by the experience.
The nights belonged to the bears, the days to the fishermen. On the days (three a week) when the commercial fishermen plied the lower sections of the Tsiu with their nets, we fished around them. And while we fished, we watched them gun their boats to drive the pods of silvers into the nets staked in the river bends. We could spot the schools — part of an annual 100,000- to 200,000-fish September/October run — as large dark spots in sand-bottom shallows. The commercial fishermen could spot them, too, and they gunned their boats, herding fish, then hauling nets, each fisherman frantically boat-working his stretch of river, grabbing at the struggling salmon in the nets. At night the fishermen would use their boats to chase the bears — who quickly learned where the easy-to-catch fish were snared — from their nets.
Fishing the quiet pools is a different game. The silvers lay in dark pods, sometimes moving, their upstream passage marked by nervous water, bow waves, or dorsals and tails breaking the water. We walked the long sand flats searching for the pods. And when we found them, we cast 200-grain heads and let the flies swing gently down into the dark spot.
The takes were always hard; the silvers hooked themselves. The runs were frantic, powerful — airborne — but a fish seldom took us far into the backing unless it was large (over 12 pounds) and had an urgent escape impulse and shot downstream away from its mates.
Fishing silvers on a fly is not a match-the-hatch event, for, like other spawning-run salmon, they do not feed. As in Atlantic-salmon fishing, it's a one-in-ten game: One fish for every ten in a pod will be an aggressive taker. A silver slams the fly and hooks itself in the jaw scissors. Rainbowlike, it runs and cartwheels and runs again and again in a dogged headshaking fight. It carries the energy of the sea in its belly and the urge to spawn in its head. Released in the cold waters of the melting glacier, silvers scoot away upriver to the braids and sloughs where they will spawn.
Stalking, spotting individual fish on the clear-water flats, and casting to and hooking them was the ultimate game — bonefishing for silvers.
Camp Kiklukh is located 100 miles southeast of Cordova on Prince William Sound, perched on a slope in the gentle Suckling Hills above the Kiklukh River and overlooking the Gulf of Alaska. The 8-mile river is another slow-moving terminal-moraine glacial outflow that each autumn clogs with from 10,000 to 25,000 spawning-run silvers, some of which top 18 pounds. Reached only by air, the remote river and its neighbors also have sea-run Dolly Varden, cutthroat, steelhead, and resident rainbows.
The camp is part of George Davis's Alaska Gulf Coast Adventures, which also includes the Tsiu River camp operation; summer grand slam fishing excursions for king salmon, sockeye, chums, steelhead, halibut, lingcod, shark, and trout out of Yukatat or Cordova; and autumn hunting for moose, brown and black bear, mountain goat, and Dall sheep.
The Kiklukh's silvers begin their runs in late August and run strong through September and October, finishing their runs in November. The camp, in business for 26 years, is designed for 16 guests, with a main lodge and eight permanent fiberboard cottages. Its Tsiu operation consists of a main lodge and four fiberboard guest cottages. Fly fishers are brought to the operations by Cessna 206 and Cessna 185 aircraft flown by George Davis or his pilots.
Fishing packages include 6 days and 6 nights or 7 days and 7 nights. The lodge offers a 20-minute video of what it calls "Kamikaze Cohos on Drys" for $20, including postage. Fishing is by barbless single hooks and is catch-and-release for both fly and spin fishers. For more information, contact Alaska Gulf Coast Adventures, Inc., Kiklukh Lodge, P.O. Box 1849, Cordova, AK 99574, (800) 950-5133.
Silver salmon, or coho (Onchorhynchus kisutch), are a medium-size salmon, one of five Pacific species that have evolved over roughly the past 50 million years from the coast of California north to the Kuskokwim basin and Point Hope in Alaska. They also range from Hokkaido in Japan north to the Anadyr River in Kamchatka. They are anadromous fish, spawning in fresh water, hatching from eggs spawned into the gravel, rearing for one year in the river, then in spring smoltifying and running to the sea for two years and returning to spawn and die as adults. Their Homeric lifecycle brings nutrients from the sea to the land, as five anadromous salmonid species return to Alaskan rivers in summer and fall to spawn and recharge a vast ecosystem with lifegiving death.
Silvers prefer short coastal streams and are especially abundant on Kodiak Island, the North Gulf Coast, and southeast Alaska, where there are more than 2,000 rivers with spawning runs. The Kuskokwim drainage has the largest runs of silvers, with as many as one million running to spawn in peak years.
Silvers are preferred by fly fishers because they take the fly hard, and they are aggressive toward drys (especially pink deer-hair Pollywogs) skated across the fish's holding lies. They fight and jump like rainbows, to which they are closely related. Their upstream spawning migrations can run from mid-July through October in Alaska, and they provide that last bittersweet touch of seasonal fishing drama for the fly fisher.
Historically, the largest silvers (up to 30 pounds) came from southeast Alaska and British Columbia rivers, but since introductions of the species to the Great Lakes in the 1950s (to help control rampant alewife populations) larger specimens have been taken there. The current IGFA world record is a 33-pound Lake Erie kahuna taken on the Salmon River at Pulaski, New York.
In the rivers near Cordova, Alaska, including the mighty Copper River drainage, silvers continue to thrive because their habitats have not been destroyed and they are not overharvested at sea or in the rivers. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the Northwest and British Columbia. Eighteen Columbia River silver populations have been listed by U.S. fisheries scientists as extinct due to dam building, habitat destruction, and overfishing. And 34 silver populations from northern California to the state of Washington are at risk. In the past decade, British Columbia's Skeena River silver populations have collapsed. Their recovery is doubtful.
Why are silvers so keyed on the colors pink or chartreuse? The pink Pollywog (fished barbless, damp and dry) is the fly that veteran Alaska and Northwest fly fishers have given us. But George Davis's chartreuse Spanker and Fire Tiger Spanker may be the best Pacific salmon flies ever designed. Their recipes follow.
Other excellent flies for this fishing include chartreuse and pink Krystal Buggers (Daiichi 2220), with or without bead heads; and Teeny Nymphs and Teeny Egg Sucking Leeches (lime green #2).
Deer-hair Pollywogs provide heart-thumping visuals. On a small quiet river near the Kiklukh River, 8- to 18-pound silvers run a half mile from the sea into a five-acre stillwater, where they rest in pods of from 500 to 1,000 fish. On overcast days, fly fishers can entice between 50 and 100 takes on "Wogs" chugged and kersplooshed across the glassy surface: A black head suddenly appears in a bow wave behind the high-riding fly; you splurp the Wog and gasp as the head and jaws engulf it. A day of Wogging silvers in air that tastes like clean, new wine makes for nights of dreamless slumber.