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(Editor Note; Every angler has “places of the heart” – that is, places he’s fished or dreamed of fishing which loom large in his life. Maybe it’s a deserted flat on a tropic island, a jungle pool in the Amazon or a remote spring creek in Wyoming. The location and the quarry don’t matter; these places of the heart are why we are anglers. The following tale by subscriber James R. Figg describes just such a “place of the heart.” For understandable reasons, Figg does not reveal where his special place is, or how to reach it. Doing so would ruin it forever, he says. We agree. Despite the absence of service information in his report, we thought Figg’s tale was so interesting it deserved being aired in our pages, albeit with a bit of judicious editing. Anyone else have a similar tale to tell?)
How can you see something that can’t possibly exist? You can’t. But there it was, a gigantic king salmon facing upstream in the deepest channel of Porcupine Creek, a short distance above where it dumped into a massive glacial river. This monster had to be eight feet long!
Had the long trip into remote Alaska caused me to hallucinate? Was I seeing a ghost? I rubbed my eyes and looked again. There he was: his head and tail clearly visible through the refraction, his sides tinted crimson. I ran back to the sandbar where my wife and two teenage sons were rummaging through piles of gear attempting to establish camp without me. Excited beyond belief, I implored Barb, Robert, and James to come see this monster! But when we scurried back to where I thought I had seen the behemoth, there was nothing. No head, no tail, no crimson sides.
“I don’t see any fish!”
“Dad, you’re just teasing us.”
We carefully moved a few yards upstream. Eureka! There he was, just as I had seen him before. Now, the doubting voices rang out with excitement: “Wow! That’s huge, Dad!” “Are you really going to fish for something that big?”
A moment later, it all made sense when the back half of this Jurassic fish moved, leaving not one giant fish but two large kings, each perhaps four feet long, lying nose to tail in the deep current.
Thus began a series of epic challenges and piscatorial battles, many lost, some painfully won. Over a period of four full days and two part days I would sightcast large, bright, weighted flies and hook 80 king salmon, breaking off 60 of them and landing only 20.
A king salmon in fast heavy currents does not come easily to the net. I would try everything imaginable to stop their freight-train runs back towards the ocean, running, chasing, crashing, falling, yelling and scrambling to keep up, grabbing line or palming the spool which left me with cuts and line burns on my hands so painful I could barely open the doors of our SUV when we returned home.
The first 15 hooked fish simply raced downstream in a current so dangerously fast that one of the first rules established for this camp was that none of us would venture off the bank more than three steps into the water. To violate this rule would, quite possibly, result in being swept off of our feet and carried to a certain death in water so cold you wouldn’t last long enough to make it to shore even if you could swim in the strong currents.
Although I refer to this stream as Porcupine Creek, that is not its real name. It is not pure selfishness that prevents me from disclosing its exact location, though I must admit there is an element of that in my decision to be secretive. The planning for this trip began four years earlier when I read an article by a fisherman who had broken several fly rods fighting large kings in an unnamed clearwater tributary of an unnamed glacial river.
In my experience, salmon and trout fishing in Alaska is almost always great and often spectacular, but opportunities to sightcast to individual fish in a small stream are the exception. Alaska offers mostly blind fishing to numerous fish, as opposed to New Zealand-style fishing where you hunt for and sightcast to individual fish. This particular stream, where a small run of kings would present themselves in crystal-clear water one or two at a time, promised to be very special.
I eventually tracked down the author of that article; he clearly wasn’t willing to disclose the exact location of the stream, telling me that if the word got out, such a small stream could not handle the pressure. Determined, I continued putting the pieces together. Time went by and I eventually ascertained what I thought to be this stream’s location and name. I called a second time. This time, rather than asking him, I said I knew the stream’s location and name and I was requesting only information on timing, terminal tackle and techniques. He hesitated, then confirmed that I was right. He then told me that he would assist me on two conditions: First, that I would never disclose its location. Second, I would be required to enrich him by a specified amount.
Having figuratively chased these “ghost kings” for nearly four years, and possessing far too little self restraint to turn away from this final obstacle, we struck a deal. After all, if I was going to commit to taking my whole family on a remote, unguided fishing excursion I needed to be sure what I was doing.
By way of background, I have a history of researching wilderness streams and lakes and planning fly fishing expeditions, in both fresh and salt water. I’ve made 28 pack trips into the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming pursuing California golden trout. I study topographic maps and aerial photographs, access libraries, on-line blogs and chat lines, contact guide services and pour over every article I can locate in magazines and guidebooks, including the Trip Reports and articles published in The Angling Report.
In Alaska, weirs located on many of the larger streams provide the run counts for the five Pacific salmon species. These counts are available on-line from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us). Kings typically return from the ocean after four years, so you look for a comparatively heavy weir count in a given year, count out four years, and time your trip during an anticipated above-average run for that given river system.
Of course, many other factors can play havoc with even the best laid plans, including weather patterns which can hold up, delay or even cause the run to be early. Additionally, barriers such as waterfalls and the distance from the stream’s estuary to your targeted location can affect the timing and arrival of a particular run.
But back to my experience on Pocupine Creek…. It didn’t take me long to become very frustrated with the fishing. The good news was that every king that turned the corner and came up their clear natal tributary was taking the same route through the deepest and heaviest current, bringing each one to a temporary holding lie approximately 100 yards upstream from our camp and 15 feet out from the stream bank. Even more fortuitous was a flat rock topping out just a few inches below the surface of the stream and only five feet out from the near bank, an elevated casting platform which made spotting my targets and casting easier. The bad news – I was hooking these monsters on the downstream swing of my fly. As soon as they felt the sting of a 2/0 Teimco saltwater hook, they would turn and race downstream back towards the ocean. What a treat it was for my family members – hearing me yell, then seeing me half jump half fall off of my perch, sloshing towards shore, then tumbling, running, falling onto the rocks only to watch as my quarry would quickly gain far too much line. Fifteen times in a row I had no choice but to aim my rod directly at the fish, tighten my drag all the way down and pop my 17-pound Maxima tippet.
I had absolutely no hope of landing one of these large kings unless I could somehow force them to run upstream rather than down. I decided to try casting from a different position, presenting my fly at a 90 degree angle to the fish from a casting position closer to the bank. Then, I would try to make them run upstream by giving them an initial downstream pull with my 10- to 11-weight Powell rod. Amazingly, it worked! All of a sudden, I was able to increase my ratio of landed to hooked fish from 0 out of 15 to 1 out of 3. Feeling the initial pull from downstream rather than upstream caused most fish to race upstream against both current and the drag system of my reel. Occasionally, a fish would run directly across rather than upstream on its initial run; however, all I had to do then was quickly run a few yards downstream, giving them more downstream pulls with the result that their next run would inevitably be upstream.
This improvement in my technique helped tremendously, but it did not mean I had figured out completely how to control and land these huge fish. At some point, perhaps 200 feet upstream, my line would always go slack, meaning the fish had turned and was now racing back towards the glacial river. I would chase them down the tributary into the main river, where the current was far too strong to hold them even with a strong tippet. An even greater problem was that I had a total of approximately 300 yards of rapids from the point where I would hook each fish to an impassable cliff. The only quiet water in the entire stretch was against that “last-stand” cliff where you either had your fish where you needed him to be (no more than 20 feet from the bank) or all was lost and you would have to quickly aim your rod at the fleeing king, turn down your drag and pop the tippet.
During my downstream run over the rocky shoreline I would try to keep up with the fish and, at the same time, try to keep its head turned toward the shoreline by keeping my rod in a low downstream position and straining to turn my reel handle. Inches at a time, I would force the fish, now tired, as close to the bank as possible. I had brought the largest collapsible net available and left it at the base of the cliff. That way I could net the fish myself, assuming, of course, that the fish ended up in the small pocket of quiet water when I reached the cliff and not further out in the heavier current.
The kings in the drainage I fished are larger and heavier than most in Alaska, although not as large as in the Kenai system. The fish I hooked were all large, ranging from an estimated 30 to 55 pounds. I hooked two kings which I believe were larger than the largest two I landed.
On my return, I had a replica mount made of my largest “Ghost King.” Unfortunately, my taxidermist could not find a form large enough, and the replica measures five inches shorter than the actual fish. It hangs on the wall in my office next to an antique bamboo fly rod.