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Sockeye the Easy Way

By Jim Clarke


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.

Male Sockeye

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!

However!

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.

Sockeye in the Pool

Awesome!

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


About Jim:

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.


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