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My wife and I have a tradition of taking a multiday fishing trip each summer to celebrate our July 17 anniversary. We don’t always travel on July 17, but we do go fishing somewhere, sometime during the summer. Our trip this past summer was our 30th anniversary trip. It was also our fifth trip to the Kanektok River with Alaska West, a division of Deneki Outdoors (www.deneki.com). We’ve been there twice in late June for king salmon and three times in August for silvers. Rainbow trout are a constant presence. This was the first time we have been there without our two sons. Their first trip was in 2004, when they were still young teenagers. They are now out of college and involved in their own careers. Even though the boys were more than competent fishermen, they were always assigned guides who were ready to have rock-skipping contests with them, build fires after a cold rain, roast marshmallows, stalk rainbows in backwaters, and explore hidden side channels. The guides at Alaska West clearly realize that there is more to being a good guide than saying, “Hey, there’s a fish.” Even the other anglers at Alaska West are special, in my view. All I have met have been pleasant, mannerly, interesting, and talkative. My sons over the years met and talked with anglers from England, Europe, Russia, South America, and all over the United States. What a great experience for our sons.
The Alaska West camp is six miles upstream from the ocean. You, your fishing partner, and your guide jet boat up or down from camp each day as you desire. Typically, we went downriver when the tide was coming in and then went up afterward. As we expected, king salmon were abundant this past summer. My wife and I landed six between us on our worst day and 14 on our best. Our average king weighed 25 to 30 pounds, but every day we caught or at least hooked a couple in the 40-pound range. My wife caught one monster that our guide estimated to weigh between 48 and 52 pounds. As for chum salmon, you could catch one on literally every cast. All you had to do was put on a pink leech and allow the fly to swing all the way into two to three feet of water, and you would have a chum salmon. Chum are great fighters and quite large. Most of ours weighed between 12 and 15 pounds, but we also caught a few that weighed 20 pounds. Chums are great fun to catch, but on my first night at camp, I went out after dinner and stood on the gravel bar outside and caught chum after chum from 8:00 p.m. to midnight. That provided me a chum fix, so I was ready to focus on kings after that.
One day we went to the neighboring Arolik River, a couple of miles south of the Kanektok. The Arolik is a small, 300 cubic feet per second river that is so crystal clear it is hard to judge visually how deep it is. It is a very isolated and lonely river. The natives don’t go up it because it doesn’t have a significant population of kings. I imagine it is like Alaska 50 years ago. We saw bears, beaver, a fox, eagles, and what I believe was either a marten or a mink. The attraction here is sight fishing to native rainbows and grayling.
We went up the river several miles and spent the day wade fishing and floating back down. Because it was late June, it was mouse fly time. We cast as close to the bank as we could, and even up on the grass bank. When we pulled the mouse fly into the water and swam it, rainbows would attack it with ferocity. Often, we had more than one rainbow in a contest to reach our mouse. It is hard to beat a day of having large rainbows attack a mouse fly on the surface. Grayling would also attack the mouse but most had difficulty getting their small mouths around enough of the fly to become hooked. On one bank, I managed to cast the mouse between two downed trees about five feet apart. As I swam the fly downstream, a rainbow attacked it but failed to get hooked. The current eventually pushed the mouse up on the second log, where a rainbow came out of the water to snatch it off the log. A particularly strong memory my wife and I have of that day was watching mice walk out onto logs, jump in the water, and head for the opposite shore. None of them made it.
Here are some other strong memories:
• One day, my wife caught a king that took her almost to the bottom of a nice run we had been fishing. At the very bottom of the run, there was a backwater slough that jutted about 300 yards away from the river. Out of curiosity, I walked over to it and, to my surprise, spotted kings swimming up and down the slough about two feet under the surface. I moved the indicator on my shrimp fly down a bit and promptly caught a couple of kings, sight fishing to them there in the slough. Just for fun, I put on a popper and moved up the slough about 50 yards, where I hoped the kings were less disturbed. Two different kings followed my popper, though I could not get one to strike.
• Another day we fished hard all morning. We changed locations, changed sink tips, and changed flies, all to no avail. We did not even have a hookup. We were upriver eating lunch when we decided to make a drastic change. Downriver we went, all the way down to within a mile of tidewater. High tide had been at 8:30 a.m. and it was now 1:00 p.m. The fresh push of kings should have been long past Slash Bar where we stopped. I was barely out of the jet boat, however, when my wife hooked up on her first cast. As Trevor was netting her nice king, I cast out and also hooked up on my first cast. Not long afterward, my wife was again into a king. We alternated back and forth for the next two hours, each landing four kings that weighed more than 30 pounds. Then my wife hooked a fish that headed straight back for the ocean. She was 100 yards into her backing by the time Trevor had her in the boat, ready to chase her salmon. Soon, they were more than a quarter mile downstream, around a corner out of sight. Not out of sound range, however, as I soon heard a scream of delight by my wife. Momentarily, they reappeared around the corner with her fish still in the net, in the water because I had the camera and they wanted to get a picture of it. Little did they know that not one minute after they left, I hooked up with a significant king of my own. Trevor jumped out of the boat and netted my fish while my wife held hers in the water. It made for a great anniversary double photo of two large kings. That afternoon we each caught five kings and a large rainbow.
• The last morning, we were fishing a small one-fisherman spot with our guide, Jeff. There was a deep, fast, 100-yard-long current there with another fast current adjoining it at about a 45-degree angle. Above the juncture of the two currents, there was a “V” of slower water. We were not swinging our flies into this area but sort of dangling them in the calm water, where kings were slamming our fly time after time. Jeff felt the kings were fighting their way up the fast current and when they saw the slower current, they headed for it. Our fly was then in their road and they would strike to get it out of the way. We took turns catching kings in that spot. I was eating a sandwich on the gravel bar when my wife hooked into a fish that rolled on the surface, making it obvious it was more than normal size. It was so large even Jeff was excited. He immediately got Kathy into the boat, waiting for the fish to take off. It moved up and down the river 50 yards in each direction for about 10 minutes before it was finally in the net. Because we chose not to kill any kings larger than 20 pounds, we will never know what it weighed for sure, but Jeff estimated it to be between 48 and 52 pounds. In the slide show that evening, everyone agreed my wife’s fish was the biggest of the week. A highlight of this trip was learning to spey cast. On our first day, we arrived at camp at 3:00 p.m. By 4:00 p.m., everyone was on the gravel bar in front of the camp getting instruction from Brian Niska, that week’s resident spey guru. Each week during king season, Alaska West brings a spey instructor of note to instruct. In an hour, we were proficient enough to get 60 to 70 feet of line out, which was more than enough to catch a king. Each day after that, Brian would fish half a day with each pair of anglers, coaching them as they fished. Also, all of the guides were more than adequate spey casters. By the end of the week, my wife and I could get more than 100 feet of line out on the water. The experience of spey casting and fishing the swing was especially invigorating. The “pull” of a king is something unique. They don’t hit it like a rainbow, nor do they mouth it like a silver inhaling a leech. They seem to grab it and settle back in the current, creating the famous king salmon pull, which is nothing short of addictive. My wife has already given me orders that we are returning to catch kings in 2014.
The only problem at Alaska West is leaving, knowing you will not return for at least a year. The fishing on the Kanektok is so good, you tend to take it for granted. The Weatherport tents one sleeps in are dry, heated, and tall enough to stand up in. The beds are comfy and the food is top notch. The best part, though, is the people. Somehow, Alaska West recruits and hires guides that truly enjoy fishing. All of them work very hard to provide you with the experience you want. If you want to target a specific fish, fish in a certain manner, fish a certain part of the river, or share a shore lunch of fresh caught salmon, just tell them and they will make it happen. When our boys were younger they had a contest with their guide to see what was the strangest thing they could use to catch a silver salmon. One year the winner was a kernel of corn, another year, a piece of white leather from a baseball that our youngest son had brought.
We learned on our first trip to the Kanektok to give one of our cameras to our guide and let him take tons of pictures. That way we could fish and not worry about getting enough photos. All of the guides at Alaska West have their own cameras, mind you, and they take pictures, too, throughout the week. When you get in on the last day, they collect the memory cards from all the guides and anglers and put together a slide show everyone watches that night. It is great to see the others’ experiences, as well as your own. When you leave, the lodge presents you with a CD of all the photos taken during the week. It’s a nice touch.
If you are thinking about going to Alaska, stop thinking and just do it. You won’t be disappointed. We felt our first trip in 2004 was our trip of a lifetime, but we soon found that when something is special you not only can, but must, make it happen again. – Bryan Whiting.
Postscript: Whiting gives the cost of his trip last summer as $5,000 per person for a half day of fishing on arrival, followed by six full days of fishing. He warmly recommends the experience to fellow subscribers.