It was one of those days, frequent in Alaska, low cloud, dull and humid, with
rain ever imminent, with the magnificent mountain backdrop threatening to
disappear into tomorrow. The float planes could not fly, so no trips over the
hills were on the cards today-distant rainbows would remain distant, tantalizing
salmon would remain tantalizing.
Don, our pilot, and an avid fisherman, was disconsolate. "There is not much to
do in Iliamna when the weather is like this" he said after breakfast "you can't
fish if you can't fly out, and that is that." He then nonchalantly tossed a red
rag into the conversation. "The only thing that swims within walking distance
are the sockeye at the falls, and who wants them?" To British anglers, starved
of salmon, this was more than enough, as I think he suspected, to get the fishing
bug well and truly aroused. In our eyes any salmon is worthy of interest and
cannot fail to be of excitement.
The sockeye of Alaska, and indeed of the whole Pacific coast of North America,
ascend the rivers in vast numbers. There are ten or so rivers, large ones by our
standards, flowing into Bristol Bay. When the salmon season opens for commercial
netting, a major industry, the trawlers, the factory ships, the five-man boats, in fact anything that floats, right down to Indians in canoes, descend on the bay to reap the harvest of sockeye salmon. After the three-week period, after all these had
their turn there were still two million sockeye ascending the Kvichak River, which
drains Lake Iliamna. That is only one of hundreds of rivers in Alaska, and there
are four more species to follow the sockeye in their turn. There is the Pink Salmon,
fairly well thought of; the Silver Salmon, the connoisseur's fish and the nearest in
looks and fighting qualities to our Atlantic Salmon; the Chum, or Dog, Salmon,
so called because the Alaskans think it's meat only fit for feeding to the dogs!
Finally there is the King Salmon, the giant of the breed. These can, in the Kenai
River, reach 80 or 90 pounds, although where we were the normal, if there is
such a thing in fishing, were in the 30 - 40 class.
While we are talking of sockeye, the Indians (who I suppose should be referred
to as native Americans) living inland and who do not care to venture afloat, still
take their share of fish. Netted in thousands at every vantage point available
on the river, they are treated purely as a food resource. To see hundreds of
salmon split and hung up to dry in the sun is an awesome sight. They are dried,
in the presence of literally millions of flies, to be used in the winter by man and
dog, who by the smell of drying fish in the summer, cannot be too fussy when
the cold weather arrives.
Sport fishermen in Alaska seem to treat the sockeye with disdain, if not open
contempt, much as the British holidaymaker treats the mackerel which teem
around our shores in summertime, or used to. They have decreased greatly in
recent years, probably slaughtered by the scores of French and Spanish fishing
boats which seem to have carte blanche to go where they will and take as they
please. The sockeye are regarded as something to be caught in large numbers,
to be eaten there and then or canned, frozen or smoked for winter sustenance,
although a very careful official eye is kept on stocks and any fluctuation is carefully
examined until the reason is found and can be explained. Oh that we in Britain had
the foresight to do likewise.
Fly fishermen seem to be rare, spinning being a great deal easier to learn, and those
who do use a fly rod have been coaxed into the easiest method of catching fish. We
were shown the standard fly used for sockeye, in the 'sell-everything' store in Iliamna.
A large, very large, bunch of red, orange or mixed deerhair is simply lashed to an
enormous 3/0 hook. That's it! No unnecessary frills such as hackle, body, or tail is
permitted to make this thing too complicated. Attached to a 15 or 20 lb. leader.
Cast this is cast into a pool of fish, a salmon takes it and is hauled out. Awful!
Lose a fish? Never.
Play a fish? Why?
Sport? You must be joking.
Obviously this procedure held few charms for us rather more fastidious tourists
who felt sport and results could happily be combined, but we were solemnly
assured only these flies would take sockeye. The fact that they were the only
sockeye flies sold in the store did not influence the discussion!
The Newhalen River, which flows into Lake Iliamna, drops over a rocky outcrop
near the village of the same name and has formed a pool of lake-like proportions.
It must be 350 yards wide and tapers off for half a mile. We were told sockeye
were only caught right up below the falls, but, applying the previously used yardstick,
we realized that was the only place they fished! The fish are gathered, stacked
would be a better word, in the white water below the rock by the hundreds, perhaps
thousands, but as all salmon tend to do, the density tapered off towards the tail of
the pool. In a pool of this length, while we could not fail to see the fish under the
falls, we could also see the darkening of the water, which indicated thousands
of fish lying all down the length of the pool.
The next local pronouncement really set us thinking. "Sockeye don't take a fly properly,
they attack the lure from the side or rear and are almost always hooked in the tail or flank." We soon realized this version of fishing was no nearer to flyfishing than
the Indians' netting procedures.
Looking over this pool with bubbling excitement, it seemed catching a few fish
was not going to be impossible. More important to us was the way we went
about it. Small flies in 6, 8 or even 10, Hairy Mary, Silver Stoat or Shrimp
seemed appropriate, as did nylon leader of about 8lbs. We were using rods
of 8 or 8 1/2 feet, longer rods apparently being unknown in America, with
fast sinking lines of AFTM 7 or 8.
Wading out into the stream, over a bank of gravel, in about two feet of water,
I was virtually moving through fish and wondered why I had bothered to wade
at all. When I could reach the fast current with a cast, I put out an average
length of line, a little upstream to let it sink to the depth the fish appeared to
be at, and prepared to retrieve line as it approached the dangle. It never did!
As the fly reached fishing depth it was taken with enthusiasm by a salmon so
fresh from the sea he still smelled fishy. With light tackle and fish from 6 to 9lbs., the provision of lots of backing was essential. In water flowing as fast as this the fish has the upper hand to a great degree, and will not hesitate to take full advantage. While the pool was vast and free from obstructions, the strength
of the current meant one could take nothing for granted.
Fifty yards of backing had zipped from the reel before I came to my senses.
First cast and into a salmon of 9lbs! I played it out carefully and reflected
that sore wrists and forearms were going to the price of fishing of this quality.
We had been told there was a limit of six fish per day, and all those could be
used at the lodge, so after six fish had been taken, all were caught on barbless
hooks and returned. At this stage we experimented with lighter nylon and
smaller flies. It certainly made life even more exciting, but there is a limit to
how light one can go with such an energetic fish in fast water, if one is not
to leave even barbless hooks in fish.
While we did not catch a fish on every cast, I finished the four hour session
with 25 fish, nineteen of which had been returned with their dignity fractured
but otherwise unharmed.
One of the most memorable fishing days of my life had indeed left me with
sore wrists, rapped knuckles and the memory of silver fighting fish in crystal
clear water, surrounded by some of the world's most stunning scenery, and
above all, the unbelievable numbers of salmon in these waters.
My great concern, that all this would spoil me for the more mundane fishing at
home, did not materialize. I can only compare this to the difference between
shooting pheasants on a really good estate shoot and walking up grouse by
oneself with a dog. The quantities of game are not what makes both enjoyable
in their separate ways. Regardless of the supply of birds or fish one has still to
hit or land them. It is up to yourself in the end to make the exercise fulfilling
and yet challenging.
When next I fished at home, it was as a different world. I would never forget
the cornucopia of Alaskan fish and fishing, the hospitality of the people and
the astounding, majestic scenery, untouched by man.~ Jim Clarke
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, longer ago than he cares to remember,
and on leaving school went into his family's business - Gunmakers
and Fishing Tackle manufacturers. By the time he joined the firm
it had become more retail than manufacturing , though the history
and reputation of the company was somewhat patrician, which stood
them in good stead in the face of the modern, retail only,
fly-by-night businesses which proliferated in the fifties and
sixties in the climate of leisure time explosion. A few years later,
feeling somewhat stifled in a company run by father and two warring
uncles, he left to take over an ailing gun maker in Chester, England.
He was to stay there for thirty pleasant years, retiring some six
years ago, ostensibly to have more time to fish. He had given up
shooting, but in reality appears to have retired to garden, decorate
and construct THINGS in the garden.†He has, nevertheless managed to
fish in Ireland, Scotland Wales and England, with trips to Sweden
and Alaska thrown in. You will find more of Jim's writing in our
Readers Casts section.