Excuses by the pounds: Alaska, Vol. II
There was a time when the promise of air travel was exciting to me. Those days are long gone; any remnant of enthusiasm came to an end 10 years ago this September. Still, despite the hassles of modern day flight, business trips to the right places do occasionally offer an excuse to do some fishing.
Alaska, it turns out, fits the category of “right places.” Two weekends in the Anchorage area this August — in between research on killer whale behavior — offered a wonderful excuse to visit some relatives in Anchorage and cast flies for salmon.
Now, since I don’t get many opportunities to fish for salmon, I needed to visit a fly shop and get stocked up. However my brother’s favorite fly shop was closed when we stopped. And they weren’t going to be open the next day either.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the closed shop turned into an excuse to learn to tie salmon flies. My nephew Michael, a Middlebury College senior living in Anchorage for the summer, started tying flies professionally at the age of 13. We were able to get some necessary supplies, lay them out on the kitchen counter — an act my sister-in-law Susie only begrudgingly excused — and tie up a dozen or so variations of likely patterns: ugly shimmery monsters of chartreuse, bright yellow, and red that would have scared off any self-respecting Vermont trout.
And salmon flies are also remarkable heavy. (We added a lot of weight to ours.) If they catch you in the back of the head, they can practically knock you unconscious. Of course the salmon themselves are also remarkably heavy, at least compared to any trout I catch in Vermont; many of the fish we would encounter could break any of my usual trout rods. Plus, there was a good chance I’d be casting into a heavy wind and would need heavier line to cut through the sea breeze as well as carry heavier flies.
All of which was a good excuse for me to try out a new fly rod in a heavier weight and faster action than anything I currently owned. I went for the L.L.Bean Silver Ghost 9-weight rod with a Shearwater large arbor reel that can let out line (or take it in) more quickly when a big fish runs.
The first day of salmon fishing did not really put the rod to the test. I was hoping for silver salmon. Of the five species of Pacific salmon, silvers are a distant second in size to kings, but they are in my opinion the best game species of the five. Silvers will take a fly aggressively, and when hooked are hard fighters and wonderful aerial acrobats. They remind me very much of the stripers I fish for off the coast of Maine.
Unfortunately, the dates of my business trip were a couple weeks too early for silvers. I had to settle for pinks, which will take a fly, and are excellent as smoked salmon, but are the smallest of the pacific salmon. Indeed, I probably could have landed most of the pinks I caught on my 5-wt rod. And casting a hundred yards above tidewater in the Resurrection River, which is no bigger than the New Haven or Middlebury rivers, I didn’t need to get my fly very far or cut through any wind. The only challenge to the rod was that, when the salmon are as thick as they were, it is inevitable that you will occasionally hook a passing fish in the back or fin. Even average pink of five pounds or so, when fin hooked, can bend a heavy rod over double and take some rod muscle to haul in.
The next weekend, however, our excursion took us to the end of the Kenai Peninsula where we took a three-day sea-kayaking trip down the Tutka Bay, which cuts into the glacier-covered mountains of Kachemak Bay State Park. The river mouths and lagoons of the bay were full of pink and red salmon piling up to spawn. Out in the more open water, we could see plenty of signs of silver salmon.
In general, red salmon won’t eat once they start to spawn and can only be caught in nets or by snagging. And we’d already caught our fill of pinks the previous weekend. If I wanted to catch a silver however, and not just have excuses for why I didn’t, I had to get out of the sheltered lagoon and river mouths and cast for fish that were not spawning.
That was what I did. Taking an afternoon break from the kayaks to explore a waterfall pouring several hundred feet down off the ridgeline into bay, I noticed a school of pink salmon cruising the beach below the falls. I caught one, and was casting for more when I noticed the telltale signs of a silver chasing baitfish just a bit further out.
I finally put the rod to the test, and it passed well. It is important for a rod to be able to shoot a lot of line out quickly. For one thing, lots of false casting with a heavy fly is a recipe for disaster. But more importantly, by the time I spotted the cruising silver I had only a few seconds to get my fly — a red marabou bugger I had tied with massively heavy dumbbell eyes and a red chenille body — out five feet in front of the fish before it disappeared.
The silver hit it hard, and I was able to put the rod to the other type of test, the type I really like to administer: reeling in a nice fish.
That evening, for the first time, I thus also had a great excuse to try out my idea for how to cook fresh salmon over a campfire. I imagine no shortage of people who could have cooked it up a lot nicer, but the combination of the freshness and quality of the fish, the setting, and the company, made for one of the most enjoyable salmon meals I have ever had. Which, in my mind at least, was a good excuse for writing a second column about fishing Alaska.