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Editor Note: Subscriber Mike Boden¬chuk gives the thumbs up to this low-cost Pacific salmon fishing on Price of Wales Island. What’s not to like about pinks, chums, and Dolly Varden trout on the same trip?
I just returned from Prince of Wales (POW) Island in southeast Alaska, where I had a very exciting time fly fishing for Pacific salmon. My trip was a combination of blacktail deer hunting and salmon fishing, but I could have only fished if I’d wanted. At any rate, we timed it perfectly for pink salmon. We spent part of every day of our seven days on the island fishing for pink and chum salmon, as well as Dolly Varden trout.
For those not familiar with Pacific salmon, there are five species, and each species has two or more names. The largest, the king or Chinook salmon, is present in the salt waters around POW, but there are no freshwater runs of kings on the island. Sockeye, also known as red salmon, run in midsummer, so their runs were over by the time we reached the island on August 6. Pink salmon (aka humpies because spawning males get a very pronounced humpback) run here from late July through August, and they do so in very big numbers. We saw pinks on Maybeso, Staney, Camp, and Dog Salmon Creeks, as well as the Harris and Thorne Rivers. There are so many creeks and rivers on the island we were able to able to fish only a fraction of them all. I can attest to all of those having strong pink salmon runs.
Pinks are the smallest Pacific salmon. The ones we caught averaged five to six pounds, with some running as large as ten pounds. The chum, or dog salmon, we caught ran a bit larger, averaging 12 to 15 pounds, though we caught a few that were upwards of 20 pounds. On POW, the chum salmon spawn before the pinks, and we apparently caught the end of the chum run. On the Harris River, we found them in the shallower riffles between the deeper pools where the pinks were holding. Chum salmon change drastically when approaching spawning season, develop¬ing colorful patterns on their sides and a huge hook on their lower jaw called a kype. Pound for pound, I think the pinks pulled harder, but some of the bigger male chums really put our 5 wt. tackle to the test, especially those we hooked at the mouth of a river, where the fresh met the salt water.
The final salmon that run on POW are coho, or silver salmon. Typically, they make very strong runs here. We saw a few silver salmon in Dog Salmon Creek one day and made a special trip to Staney Creek especially to target silvers, which we heard were running there. At Staney Creek we found every¬one catching pinks, however. We heard that one angler had caught a silver—but you know how that goes.
To briefly recap my trip, I flew to Ketchikan and met up with two companions. After spending a night in town, we took a Taquan Air scheduled flight to Hollis on POW, where we
rented a vehicle from Hollis Adventure Rentals. The 4WD truck came equipped with an ice chest, and HA Rentals Owner Darren Long provided a second ice chest when he found we were staying at a remote cabin on the island. We had arranged for a rental cabin from the US Forest Service (www.recreation.gov), and we were able to get groceries and get to our cabin in the early afternoon.
A note about transportation may be helpful to anyone contemplating this trip. There is an Inter-Island Ferry that makes the trip between Ketchikan and Hollis daily. The ferry leaves Hollis at 8 AM, arriving in Ketchikan at 11 AM, then starts its return at 3 PM, ar¬riving at Hollis around 6 PM daily. If you can time your arrival in Ketchikan before the 3 PM departure, you can go on to POW the same day. However, if you rely on the ferry to get you to POW, you’ll lose just about an entire day waiting in Ketchikan. By taking the Taquan Air floatplane at 7:30 AM, we essentially got an extra day on POW. While several smaller air companies can fly you to POW, we chose Taquan because they have scheduled flights. Finally, Taquan charges a flat rate per person, and it includes up to 40 pounds of gear. Every extra pound costs $1 each way, so we chose to buy groceries on POW rather than shop in Ketchikan. At the end of the trip, we took the ferry back to Ketchikan and it was a great experience.
As for the fishing, we spent much of the time fishing near our cabin at the edge of the salt water. The tides in this area fluctuated about 15 feet between high and low tides, and the fish lined up at the edge of the freshwater regard¬less of the tide. On rising tides, the fish pushed up across a tidal flat and were cruising in all different directions. On dropping tides, all the fish were concentrated in the creek channel and were facing upstream. While the pink salmon were more concentrated on a dropping tide, it was a bit harder to fish for them then. We had to reposition several times during each tidal shift.
I brought a 9 wt. for the silvers, and a companion brought a 5 wt. flyrod for the pinks and trout. I caught fish on both. Flies included steelhead flies with extended hooks. Anything in pink or purple seemed to work. The most productive flies for me included a Jumbo Critter and a Steelhead Muddler. We also caught a good number of fish on a sparse white and pink flesh fly. Because the water was so clear everywhere we fished, we were most successful at casting upstream or across toward a pod of fish and stripping the fly back in short 6-inch strips. You could watch every follow and every take. There is a lot of speculation as to why a salmon takes a fly, and for my part, it seemed they were taking the fly from instinct. The pink salmon rarely held the fly for long, and we often pulled it out of their mouth as they were facing us on many of the takes. Still, you could catch a pink salmon every five to 10 minutes for as long as you wanted to fish. The fish we kept were fresh at the edge of the salt water and were excellent eat¬ing.
The chums seemed to be taking the fly out of annoyance. I often cast to the same fish 10 or more times before it would take the fly. The big males are hard to hook due to the kype, but when one took the fly it often made a strong run upstream immediately on feeling the hook.
A brief word on snagging salmon may be warranted. Snagging is illegal in Alaska, and when fish are concen¬trated, as they were here, it is extremely unsporting (and unnecessary). When you fly-fish, especially for sockeye salmon, you can pull the line through the kype and essentially snag the fish in the mouth. We tried very hard to avoid snagging fish, focusing instead on get¬ting the fish to chase the fly and take it. Still, some snagging was unavoidable, especially when you lifted your rod to pick up your fly. That would occasion¬ally spook a pod of fish and cause one to become snagged. On other occa¬sions, when you struck a fish to drive the hook home, the hook sometimes pulled out and became imbedded in another fish nearby. If you were aware that a fish was foul hooked, it was often possible to give it slack and have the hook fall out.
POW is known more for its steel¬head fishing than for its salmon fishing. The winter run of steelhead here is extremely popular, and The Tackle Shack at Thorne Bay offers several packages for fly fishermen (room and vehicle from $270/day; guided fishing from $500/day for two fishermen; and room plus guided fishing from $620/ day). Thorne Bay Lodge also offers rental cabins and vehicles for the do-it-yourself fisherman. Offshore fishing charters are available, and if we had chosen to fish one of these, we could have had coho and kings in the salt to complement the pinks and chums we caught in freshwater. I know many look down their nose at pink salmon, but anytime I can catch 10 or more five- to 10-pound fish an hour, I’ll be fishing there. Enjoy!—Mike Bodenchuk.