December 02, 2021
This article was originally titled "King of Thrills" in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
The guy standing on the remote airstrip was a competent fly fisher. He was middle-aged, trim and tan, with sandy hair and graying temples. He radiated confidence, and you knew he could probably tell you about sea trout in Tierra del Fuego, Atlantic salmon on the Kola, and steelhead on the Kispiox. You also knew that once hushed word of a hot new venue leaks from privileged sources, and you scramble to put a trip together, he’s the guy who’s
already been there.
He was part of an eight-rod group departing Lava Creek Lodge, and we were arriving. He shook hands with my fishing partner, Joe Turano, then turned and smiled. “You boys are hitting it just right. The king salmon run started showing strong during our week, and the chromers are piling in now!”
Joe and I exchanged a significant stare—we seldom hit anything “just right.” We had booked two consecutive weeks starting late June into early July through The Fly Shop in Redding, California. In addition to our COVID vaccination cards, mandatory air-travel masks, duffel bags, rod cases, and twin paper sacks of survival rations purchased the night before at the Brown Jug liquor store in Anchorage, we were “armed and equipped as the law directs” to allow for a bump or two in the road. As any seasoned adventurer will agree, regardless of destination, you need Lady Luck and Old Man Weather to come arm-in-arm to the dance.
Lodge owner Phil Byrd loaded our gear, and we squeezed aboard a Piper Cub fitted with massive Alaskan Bushwheels. This was a plane intended for reaching the remote and rugged regions of Alaska.
Phil was born in North Carolina, but has spent the past 20 or so years flying and outfitting in Alaska. He’s 40-something, wiry and energetic, at the top of his game as an angler and big-game hunter.
“Several years back I was guiding in the Bristol Bay area, mainly for brown bears,” he crackled through the Cub’s headphones. “I started flying farther down the Peninsula and doing some exploring, checking rivers and looking for something that would be really good for king salmon and late-season silvers.
“The silvers are a slam dunk. The August/September silver season on this river is excellent. All you want, and great topwater action.
“Kings are different. They like bigger water. For a quality fly-fishing camp, it’s not just enough to find a river with a good run of fish. You’ve got to find a river that the average client can safely wade and reach fish. That means shallow bars with a low gradient and a hard bottom, no deep currents, no tricky boulders, no 100-foot casts.
“And you want bright chromers right out of the ocean, not red salmon way up the tributaries. The right river can be hard to find.” Phil glanced over at us and smiled, “We’ve found one.”
After several exploratory trips, Phil and his wife Beth found the perfect river and started Lava Creek Lodge. The eight-rod operation started as a tent camp in 2019, but continues to upgrade each season. Now, four double-occupancy cabins provide more comfortable accommodations. Each cabin has a gas heater and a private bathroom with dependable hot water. A large lounge/dining cabin and various smaller structures for staff and supplies round out the camp.
The small lodge is booked completely full during the height of king season. The Byrds don’t need any more guests, and want to preserve the solitude for the existing returning customers.
Twenty minutes later, along a vast stretch of green and gray wildness rimming the Bering Sea, the tiny row of the camp buildings appeared below us. The panorama of emptiness was overwhelming.
Phil circled and then landed on a strip of dark volcanic sand. When he cut the engine, he nodded to a nearby creek and said, “We’re on high ground here, and the boats are beached right there on that side channel.”
Fly Fishing for King Salmon
The first day dawned clear and calm. Almost all fly fishers here use two-handed rods with Skagit-style lines to deliver big flies deep and slow. My setup was a 15΄2˝ CF Burkheimer rod fitted with a 4/0 Hardy Cascapedia reel and a 650-grain Skagit head. A 10-foot sinking RIO MOW sink tip and a stubby 2-foot, 20-pound Maxima leader completed the big rig.
King salmon here average about 20 pounds, with fish in the 25-pound class a daily possibility. A bragging fish might top 30. They can get twice as large in some other major Alaska drainages, but that’s often a much different type of fishing. A 20+ king salmon is still a lot of salmon when you are wading and fly casting.
The king salmon (often called a Chinook salmon in Canada and elsewhere) is the largest salmonid in North America, and the biggest freshwater fish most of us could dream of catching on a fly rod. These sea-bright kings are thick and deep, silver and green, peppered with small black dots, impressive to the experienced eye.
My partner Joe and I were teamed up with guide Christiaan Pretorius. He wears two professional hats, one as a guide, one as a photographer. We loaded into an aluminum johnboat with a Louisiana marsh sweep-type propeller shaft capable of crossing shallow sand bars or mud. Much of the lower river is shallow and wide, making it easy to locate the deeper slots where the kings prefer to hold.
The basic tactic is to wade a midriver bar adjacent to a deep run—often along a grassy cutbank. These places provide narrow trenches for anadromous salmon to move and hold en route to their upstream spawning gravel.
Christiaan buzzed and churned and threshed downstream, and anchored in the moderate flow. We eased over the side of the boat and found shin-deep water with firm sand. The wading turned out to be mild in most spots.
I hadn’t touched a Spey rod in several years, so my two-handed game was sketchy to start. But with some prodding and coaching from Christiaan, I began banging out a fishable snap-T cast with a black-and-blue Intruder fly. Our first spot was an easy stretch to cover with a 60- or 70-foot quartering downstream cast. Hero casts are not required, and that’s a good thing because repetition is a key to success.
The goal is to drop the streamer tight to the steep bank on the opposite side of the river. If you are not occasionally plucking a strand of overhanging grass, your casts are likely too short. Getting the fly right on the opposite shoreline allows the fly time to sink and settle into the narrow slot where bottom-hugging kings gravitate.
Kings are not nearly as “grabby” as silver salmon (coho salmon). Silvers will smash topwater flies, or chase your wet fly into the shallows. But when you are fishing for kings, the fly needs to pass within a few feet—or better yet, a few inches—of the salmon.
Kings strike the fly from aggression, irritation, or curiosity. Who really knows? It’s hard to peer into the thought process of a salmon. Most often, the salmon just ignore your fly with magnificent disregard. Change your fly, the depth, the speed of the presentation, and suddenly a king might change its mind.
At our first run, Joe and I waded about 100 feet apart and methodically worked down the run, casting and stepping down to cover all the water. Joe had the first pull of the trip, and I watched as a 20-pound chrome hen ran downstream, taking Joe and Christiaan with it. Ten minutes later, Christiaan put the big net on the gorgeous fish. It hosted long-tailed sea lice around the anal vent—a common parasite in salt water that quickly drops off in fresh water.
“See those lice?” Christiaan asked. “This fish is as fresh as they come. It’s not more than a day out of the Bering Sea.”
Fresh, silvery kings are not only the most beautiful to look at, they are also more powerful and energetic than older kings that turn pink and then red as they move upriver and prepare to spawn. Because the kings rapidly progress toward spawning and death, the fresh chromers are also rare, ephemeral moments for both salmon and fly fishers, when everything comes together at the right moment.
After two hours of swinging, I was getting a little frustrated until Christiaan coached me to “try casting a bit more square to the bank, and throw a quick upstream mend.” This angle and the upstream mend helped the fly sink a little deeper, and sure enough, 10 minutes later, I made great presentation, great swing, and thought, “Right about now I should get a pull!”
The line surged tight with a sensation I can only describe as the king of thrills. It is a gathering storm of life through the rod and into the grip, one of the high moments in all of my angling life.
The proper procedure on a solid grab like this is to pull the low rod straight back—like the saltwater strip-strike on a single-hand rod, and then powerfully bend the rod to the upstream side in an attempt to control the head of the fish.
The fish will invariably turn and run downstream with the current. Hold on, make the fish work for every foot of line, and once the run stops, use constant low-angle pressure to pump and reel, and coax the king back upstream. During this process, the kings have the alarming tendency to violently shake their heads—a nerve-racking, heart-pounding, hook-pulling exercise.
If the fish gets across from you, shift the rod to the downstream angle and use pressure to work it close. Of course, a big king will blast off again. And again.
Switching directions tires the fish out quickly, and when the fish gets closer, you should always be pulling in the opposite direction of the fish to make it work harder. Low side pulls are key to using the more powerful butt section of the rod. If you lift the tip of your Spey rod high, any guide worth his salt will start barking at you.
Our opening session yielded three kings apiece. My best was a long buck in the upper 20s. We each hooked two jacks (immature 5- to 6-pound kings), lost three solid fish, and had several other bump-bump-bump followers. We were stoked of course, but optimistically thought the fishing could have been even better in different conditions.
“Maybe it’s too calm, and too bright and sunny,” Joe offered at the end of the day.
“Yeah, we could definitely use more cloud cover and some wind riffle on the water,” I agreed.
As they say, be careful what you wish for, pilgrim.
That evening Phil pointed to the strange-looking horizon.
“There’s a weather system coming in tonight,” he said. “It might get a bit windy.”
In addition to being a first-rate bush pilot, he is a master of understatement.
The front hit us at 1 A.M. Our cabin shook as though we were loaded onto a railway car. The wind howled and thrashed and whipped our waders hanging outside. The long rods carefully racked on pegs along the wall were scattered on the ground like $1,000 pick-up sticks. Joe and I scrambled around in the wet blackness of the storm to secure our gear.
By breakfast, the wind was gusting to 35 MPH. The low ceiling was punctuated by chill drizzle. Most discouraging, the upstream mountains were shrouded in heavy rain clouds. I am a poor judge of coordinates in the wilderness, but I was correct in concluding that the river originated amid those gloomy crags.
Phil shook his head. “Not good. By tomorrow it’ll be up at least a foot and running mud. Try to make today count.”
We did. Despite the wind, Joe caught five kings, topped by a pair of chrome 30s. My day was decent, one 25 and two smaller fish. And, of course, we each lost several.
The next day, under glowering sky and whipping wind, the water visibility in the side channel at the lodge was 6 to 8 inches,
and the swollen river promised to be worse.
Being an astute judge of fishing water, I informed Christiaan that, “Unless you’ve got some bait for catfish, we’re screwed.”
The only action occurred during a brief midday burst when the fish mysteriously turned on. Naturally, during that magic window, I was hunkered forlornly in the skiff sheltering from a chill, damp wind, and waiting for a 50 mg Tramadol to kick in to numb my lower back.
I watched with a mix of admiration and envy as Joe waded past, loose and smooth, unfurling excellent loops within inches of the grass. I was half hoping he would hook a fish, and half-hoping he would overshoot and snag an irritable wolverine. Christiaan was trying my rod as I convalesced. Joe caught a 20-pounder, then 15 minutes later Christiaan hooked and landed its twin. I was on the net—the highlight of my day.
Weather conditions fluctuated day to day, with the only constant being the shrouded mountains. Occasional upgrades in water clarity were measured in scant inches. But kings were jamming into the river and rolling in the runs. Rising dirty water is a boon to migrating salmon, and they took advantage of it. Even when we weren’t catching fish, we saw pods of high-tide runners plowing with staccato splashes across the gravel bars.
Our well-traveled informer back on the landing strip was correct about our timing. The run was indeed peaking. But he forgot to factor in a mutinous meteorologist. Despite the weather, all the rods in camp were enjoying consistent fishing. Everyone knew that if you put swings tight to the bank in the proven runs, a pull would come.
And the grand solitude of wild Alaska remained. We had the river literally all to ourselves. There are few places in the world where you can have such quality fishing, and so few other fishermen.
My only outside competition occurred during the second week. I caught a pair of chromers, and prospects were looking strong for another grab when, down in the tail-out, the dark head of a seal popped up.
I glared at the intruder and felt like the unwilling participant in an old Aleutian indigenous fable: Brother Seal warns Brother Salmon of the nearness of the Evil Fisherman by lunging and splashing upon the sparkling waters.
Of course, Brother Seal did not give a rat’s ass about the Evil Fisherman;
Brother Seal was trying to poach the hole and snatch a fresh king for dinner. Our guide shuffled over. “We’ve got to move. That seal is scattering the fish all over the river.”
On our final day, the black upcountry clouds once again belched another flush of frog water down the main channel. But it was all we had.
I switched to a smaller 14΄2˝ Burkheimer rod fitted with a classic Edward vom Hofe 4/0 reel spooled with a 570-grain Skagit.
The old reel sported a flowing S handle, hard rubber sideplates, and silver rims, elegant in its simplicity. It was state-of-the-art equipment 100 years ago. I appreciate the people and things that went before, and my final day was dedicated to at least hooking a king on the vom Hofe reel and a smaller rod.
Christiaan uncertainly eyed the ancient reel and affixed a jazzy pink-and-blue tube fly he had whipped out the night before on the lodge’s bench. Joe was using another muddy-water killer, a chartreuse-and-blue tube.
My two-handed game had tightened considerably during our trip, and the tailwind casts were smooth and smart; to a certainty, I would qualify for my Junior Woodchuck Spey Casting Merit Badge. Two hours into our muddy wade, the improbable but electric drama of a pull rang up the line. The fish flurried, and a small boil stirred the roiling surface.
“A jack. Think I’ve got a small jack!” I shouted. “At least it’s a fish on this bitchin’ old reel!”
A major king showed itself with a mighty splash and tore 100 yards of line off the reel as it raged downstream. The vom Hofe handle blurred and squealed, but nothing silver flew off, and the detent drag lever was holding.
“Yeah, acting just like a small jack,” Christiaan said with a solemn nod.
Fifteen minutes later, following a frantic race downstream, we had the big buck close. My rod was locked in a huge arc, and I felt the chugging king roll and yield. Christiaan made a smooth stab, and the fish filled the mesh.
“Hell of a jack!” he laughed. “A conservative 30.”
The only blemish was a slight blush on the flanks. We released the king and shook hands—my best fish, taken on the last day and with classic gear under adverse conditions.
Christiaan held the rod and studied the reel. “Cool. Stepping back in time like that . . . very nice. Not normal but very nice.”
Running against a chill wind back to camp, I pawed through my dry bag to find a small flask filled with George Dickel Barrel Select. We took a pull and agreed the trip was great. The experience of wading and fly casting for chrome-bright king salmon in a remote Aleutian stream ranks among the best experiences a fly fisher can find. Over the course of two weeks, we averaged better than three kings landed each day, with many others lost. Next year we intend to find out what the river is like in perfect conditions . . . if there is such a thing way out there in the Bering Sea.
Joe Doggett lives in Houston and was a full-time outdoor columnist for the Houston Chronicle for 35 years. He has been fly fishing more than 60 years, and has made nearly 40 trips to Alaska. He retired in 2007, and at age 75 still enjoys fishing, hunting, and surfing.