KANEKTOK RIVER KINGS
originally published in the AMERICAN ANGLER magazine
My friend Mike sat on a cooler with his hands gripping the oars of our large raft. After a few days of not shaving or taking a proper bath, he resembled a bear dressed up in waders, cool sunglasses, and a floppy hat. Leaning forward he squinted at the bright fly hanging from the end of my line. He grunted.
“Too small, too light, too ugly. You need to tie on one of my flies if you wanna catch more fish.”
I stared at my small bunny leech fly. I felt deflated.
“It means more to me to catch fish on flies I’ve tied,” I responded.
Mike shrugged and gave a long, slow pull of the oars. I returned to casting my petite, homemade fly while Mike’s two teenaged sons, Mickey and Finn, stood on opposite ends of the raft and continued to catch fish with amazing regularity with their gaudy, yet successful, creations of chenille and yarn wrapped around an ounce of lead crimped to a large hook.
I knew, of course, that Mike was right. His deep-rooted love for southwest Alaska’s Kanektok River had been bringing him back since he was 19 years old. In his youth, his love of fishing was much stronger than common sense and on his first few explorations of the river he floated in hip boots, with a bag of rice for food, and a scant knowledge of how to fly fish for salmon. Much changed over the years, and he’s proud to have made 22 more trips down the Kanektok in the past thirty years. Of course he knew what worked on this river. I was just being stubborn.
A few days earlier, multiple floatplane flights carried our group from Dillingham to Pegati Lake where we started our self-guided, eleven-day amphibious assault of one of the most famous trout and salmon rivers in the world.
Located over 350 miles west of Anchorage, deep within the Togiak National Wildlife refuge, Pegati Lake forms the headwaters of the Kanektok. From there, the river flows 100 miles west to the Yupik village of Quinhagak and further on to the Bering Sea. Between the lake and the sea lies a fly-fishing mecca with more fish than one could possibly imagine - and we were floating right through it all.
Sockeye salmon were already congregating in the shallows of Pegati Lake when we began our float, and the numbers of sea-run Dolly Varden grew and grew with each passing day until the sheer biomass crammed from bank to bank was beyond reason - every shallow area contained armies of “Dollies.” The chum (a.k.a. dog) salmon and the river’s famous “Leopard” rainbow trout also increased in numbers the farther we floated west. We even had high hopes of getting into early waves of pink and silver salmon during the final days of the float, but we set aside special reverence for the red juggernauts of the Kanektok.
A few days into the trip we started catching glimpses of them; Chinook salmon resting in the deep, crystal clear pools or streaking past us like dark, maroon torpedoes, and while their numbers didn’t match the volume of other salmon species we were seeing, their size and power commanded respect. I’d never seen freshwater fish this big. Now in his fifties, Mike was full of spirit and opinions. Every day while other fished, he manned the oars on his bright red raft.
“Red to show support for my Utes!” referring to his beloved University of Utah football team.
He’d row all day, tell long-winded stories late into the evening, and occasionally dispense pearls of wisdom about what to do if one of us was lucky enough to hook into a king salmon. Most days I rode on his raft at his request. I think he secretly hoped he could miraculously improve my fishing prowess to the level of his two sons.
On the fourth day of the trip, I stood on a gravel beach next to Finn during one of our many stops to probe particularly “fishy” runs. Finn quickly hooked a small king resting amongst a group of dolly varden, but moments later, his heavily weighted fly shot out of the water like a chenille covered bullet. Mike shouted from a higher vantage point twenty yards away atop the beached raft.
“Finn! You didn’t set three times!” he yelled, “You should have set three times,” and later finished with, “How many times do you always set the hook? . . . Yeah, three times.”
I made a mental note. Obviously, three is the magic number.
A day later and ten miles downriver, I stood on the edge of a deep ripple when finally, on what felt like my thousandth cast, I felt the definite thump of a large fish chomping my fly. There was a brief pause before the fish started to move - fast!
“Set the hook three times,” an inner voice told me. I raised the rod, anchored the hook with three consecutive tugs on the line, and felt the unmistakable “twang” relief of a broken line.
Mike, who seemed omnipresent whenever someone did something wrong, pushed his sunglasses up his nose and squinted across the gravel beach at me.
“What happened?” he bellowed.
Confidently, I yelled back, “I set the hook three times just like you said, but the line broke.”
“Was the fish running?”
“Oh, yeah he was. Like a scalded ape.”
“Never set the line when the fish starts to run. You’ll break the line every time. The fish is just way too powerful.”
Not so confidently I replied, “Okay, got it! Thanks for the tip.”
I took another mental note. Modified rule #1 - always set the hook three times, but not if the fish is running.
That night, after everyone retired to their tents, Mike and I stared into the campfire. His eyes were nearly at half-mast when he raised them slightly to look at me.
“You lost that fish today because you were trying to stop his run.”
I couldn’t think of a good reply.
“Never stop a King from running,” he continued. “You’ll only get your knuckles bashed or break your line.” He stood up.
“Let the fish run until you get to your backing,” he said turning and slowly walking away.
I called after him. “What then?”
Over his shoulder he replied. “You run.”
“Run? What do you mean, run?” My question remained unanswered as Mike hobbled around the far side of his tent. I stared back at the orange coals of the fire and contemplated Mike’s jewel of wisdom.
The next day, we rotated boat crews and I landed on a boat oared by a guy named Matthew by his mother, but whom everyone else called Predator. He earned his nickname years earlier because of his near legendary ability to stalk and catch any fish at will. Big salmon didn’t pique his interest anymore, so he spent his time either passing on his skills to his son or pursuing the river’s rainbow trout. Often he’d set his hook, then mumble, “Crap. It’s another salmon.” He’d let his line go slack and attempt to shake the hook out. Most people wish they had his problems.
A short time after lunch we floated through a deep section of river and I hooked into what was either a king salmon or a genetically modified, mutant sockeye salmon on crack. I hedged my bets that it was a king. Predator saw I had a large fish on the line and pointed the raft towards shore.
Just as the boat beached, the fish torpedoed upstream. My reel buzzed like it was going to melt down. I allowed the fish take line as I had been instructed to do; I was confident. I glanced down and saw I was now into backing, but it too was disappearing. I suddenly had little line left; now I wasn’t so confident.
I instinctively put my hand on the outside of the reel and pushed against it. The friction nearly burned my skin. I made my way along the shoreline, reeling and leaning against the line the entire way. I knew something was wrong. Whatever I was trying to reel in didn’t feel alive, just heavy. My confidence completely faded at the sight of the line disappearing into a tangle of submerged tree roots. The fish won.
With his usual knack for perfect timing, Mike floated his red boat right over the tree root as I stood looking into the river.
“You didn’t run did you?” he asked, already knowing the answer. I shook my head.
“Next time, hop off that boat, dog paddle to shore, do whatever it takes, but get to terra firma and run after the beast. Beat him with your feet.”
I nodded that I understood. Even though it was a clear day, I felt like a little cloud appeared and dumped rain over my head, as I stood alone on that gravel beach.
We floated closer to our pullout with each consecutive day. I temporarily gave up my desire to catch a king. Instead, I focused on other more easily achievable goals like catching a fish on a mouse pattern (check!), catching all other salmon species in the river (check!), and not having a life changing encounter with a bear (check!). Overall, the day after day routine of camping, floating, fishing, and catching amazing numbers of large fish made me forget about the idea of landing a king.
On the last day of the float I rode on Mike’s boat, happily floating to the pullout with a smile on my face. I’d just beached the largest, grumpiest looking dog salmon buck I’d ever caught in my life. To make it even better, I’d caught the brute on a little, lightweight, chartreuse Alaskabou fly I’d tied the previous month. I was feeling lucky, so I tied on another homemade creation, a small flash fly, and tossed it in the water. Morale was high. Everyone was chatting and laughing as we casually took turns casting across the river and reeling in the occasional fish. We weren’t quite off the water, but our minds were already obsessed with porcelain toilets, hot showers, and large pizzas.
Rounding a final corner, Mike spotted our pullout. Our landing area was a 10-foot wide area next to three dinghies beached upstream of a short, steep, gravel bank. We all cheered.
As a final farewell to the river, I cast my flash fly one last time and let it sink deep. I stripped twice when an abrupt strike caught me by surprise. At first, I thought the fly was possibly snagged, but when the snag moved side to side, I knew it was a fish. I hoped I learned from my mistakes, so after pausing to see if the fish would run, I set the hook one, two, three times. Then it was off to the races.
The fish blasted up and across the river, but I knew better than to try to slow it down. Mike began rowing quickly downstream towards the pullout.
“What’re you doing?” I asked with line disappearing into the water with lightening speed.
“It’s our only pullout. You may just have to let this one go.”
Did I hear him right? Let this one go? No way!
I held the rod high and tried to slow my rapid loss of line, but was soon down to the backing. Mike coaxed the raft to shore next to the dinghies. The fish was still running. I had to beat this fish on foot, but the upstream shore was covered in a thick mass of impenetrable tundra bracken. So much for running upstream.
I looked at my reel and could see the inside of the metal spool through between the disappearing wraps of backing. If the fish continued upstream I was going to lose it. I pulled hard. I pulled harder.
Then the fish turned, coming downstream as fast as it went upstream. I couldn’t reel fast enough. My hand was a blur, but it wasn’t enough to keep tension on the line. I jumped out of the boat and, without an ounce of athletic grace, hopped from one dinghy to the next. I scampered off the last dinghy, almost tripping over my feet in the loose gravel, and ran up the steep shore.
Mickey grabbed a net, followed my route, and prepared to net the fish. I kept line tension by backing away from the river. Eventually, I backed so far away I could only see the top of Mickey’s head floating above the crest of the gravel bank. I dug my heels into the gravel. My right arm was burning. Mickey looked up at me, confused.
"I don't know what to do with her," he called.
"Well, how about trying to net her?"
"Oh, she's in the net. She's just so huge, there's no way I'm moving her.”
I released the tension on the line, walked up the edge of the gravel bank, and gazed down at the fish. It was a 50-pound female king salmon. Big, maroon colored, glistening, calm; resting peacefully in the net as if simply tolerating us idiot humans for the slight delay in her upriver journey. My ugly, little, silver flash fly hung from her upper lip.
I didn't see it happen. Mickey later told me he’d netted the fish when she turned and attempted to bolt downstream - right into a perfectly placed net.
We celebrated and snapped obligatory photos before I crouched in the water and stroked her massive back. I marveled at her beauty and power; nothing but mouth, muscle, and tail. Ten seconds later she shot off into the deep river with three powerful kicks of her tail.
I couldn’t believe my luck; after eleven days on the river, covering over one hundred miles, I caught the most beautiful fish, on last cast of the trip, standing at the takeout. Mike, the big bear in waders, cool sunglasses, and a floppy hat called over.
“So you caught her on one of your crappy flies?”
I held up the little fly between my fingers. Then it occurred to me – nobody is going to believe me. This kind of luck doesn’t even happen in the movies.