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Alaska: Big state, big fish, big fun

Bryan WhitingGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Courtesy of Bryan Whiting
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Kanektok River, Alaska – “Your gear is already in your tent.” “You’ve got 15 minutes to grab your fly rods and get wadered up.””We’re going fishing for Silvers.”That’s all it took. With those magic words from Cameron, our guide, my sons, Eric, 16 and Jason, 14, were at full sprint.Thirty minutes earlier, after flying over hundreds of small lakes and creeks the color of bad coffee, we glimpsed our destination: the crystal-clear Kanektok River. It appeared much as a vision in a dream. In my case, that August day was the culmination of a dream.After landing on a smooth spot between the river and the ocean, we were no more than five steps off the plane when Cameron introduced himself with “I’m Cameron and you must be the Whitings. Jump in my boat. Camp is 20 minutes.”Our minds and eyes were awash with Alaska. The river that seemed to be 10 feet below tundra level; the dense green vegetation on the bank opposite every gravel bar; the casual glance of the bear as we disturbed his quiet salmon lunch; the movement of the boat as it wound its way upriver; and the fish. The river was full of fish.

I had not expected our fishing to begin until the next day, but it was approaching 2:30 p.m. as Eric and Jason, fly rods in hand, bolted from their tent for Cameron’s jet boat. They were hollering “Hurry up, Dad” as Cameron started the engine.Five minutes back downriver and we were approaching Fox Bar. Cam already had tied 2-inch pink streamers with silver lead eyes on the boys’ 8-weights as they had waited for their old man to get to the boat. Consequently, they were halfway out of the boat as we coasted to a stop. “Jason, you go upstream. Eric, you go downstream. Cast to the edge of the current, let it sink, strip it in,” were Cam’s instructions. I took a deep breath. We were fishing in Alaska.Cam was selecting a fly for me as I watched Eric make his second cast. Eric’s strike and shriek of joy occurred simultaneously, followed by the sight of our first silver salmon as it cleared the gentle current by three feet. As Cam laid down my rod, grabbed the net and headed toward Eric, I couldn’t help but smile and give thanks. A father’s dream had come true.After releasing Eric’s silver, Cam was walking back to the boat to continue with my fly when “Got one” echoed from the other side of the boat as Jason’s rod bent at a ridiculous angle.After dutifully netting Jason’s silver, Cam again was returning when we both noticed Eric in full pursuit as line screamed off his reel. Cam tossed me a fly on the way by. “You better tie this on yourself if you want to fish today.”The next three hours we fought, caught, landed and lost more silver salmon than I had envisioned we would during our entire trip.Neither pictures nor Saturday morning fishing shows, not to mention my words, do justice to the silver salmon. Their aerial gyrations and dashing runs are more frequent and more powerful than one can imagine, let alone anticipate. Our many years of catching trout were not adequate preparation for the strength of 15 pounds of silver salmon. At 6 p.m. we were back at camp. As we changed out of our waders in preparation for our first dinner in Alaska, Jason could only comment, “Dad, can you believe we have six more days of this?”At 7 a.m. the next morning, Cam announced, “We’re going wake fishing.” A mile up from the ocean, the “wake” was created as the next wave of incoming silvers came around the corner and proceeded upstream in 2 feet of water. With a floating pink popper fly now attached to his line, Cameron instructed Jason: “Four feet past and four feet in front of the first wake.” “Now strip like crazy.” Much to our amazement the wake turned and followed. Jason’s difficulty was maintaining self-control until the wake engulfed the fly. “Eric, run downstream and intercept the next wake,” was Cam’s next command as he moved to net Jason’s fish. We spent the morning rotating down and then back up the gravel bar meeting, casting, chasing and catching fresh silvers.

It was approaching 1 p.m. when Cam administered the coup de grace’ to a Jason silver. “No sandwiches today guys. We’re grilling fresh salmon.” As we thanked Cam for our sumptuous lunch at Café’ Streamside, he issued the orders for the afternoon. “Back in the boat boys, we’re heading upriver.” Ten miles above camp, each run, gravel riffle and side channel held king, chum and sockeye salmon, respectively, that had entered the river in June and the first half of July. Now, the second week of August, they either were spawning, dying or dead; no longer in prime condition for us to catch or eat. They were, however, perfect for attracting “leopard” rainbows. With a dominant red stripe and black spots covering every inch, these “leopards” didn’t waste their time with insects. They were on an all-protein diet of eggs and salmon flesh, punctuated by the occasional mouse. Eric and I were “nymphing” bead egg imitations behind the few remaining spawning kings taking turns netting 18-20 inch rainbows. With the addition of a floating mouse fly, Jason and Cam were 100 yards upstream kneeling in a foot of water opposite a snag-filled grassy bank. “Cast up and on the grass, pull it off, mend down stream and swim it” were Cam’s instructions. In ever elevating octaves Jason’s “Here he comes” announced anticipated success. Cam’s next words told Eric and I all we needed to know. “We’ll have better luck if you wait to strike until he actually hits your mouse.” Over the next two hours we shared Jason’s experience. As our mice would “swim” the subsequent rainbow attacks were so swift and visual as to make “exciting” an understatement.Our heartbeats were gradually returning to normal when Cam began changing our mouse flies and beads to these 2-inch concoctions of white, pink and a tinge of brown. His response to our quizzical expressions was “18 inchers eat eggs, the beasts eat flesh.” The “30-inchers” lurked in the deepwater dropoffs where the current was their conveyor belt for chunk after chunk of decaying salmon.One broad-jumped a 4-foot snag and was gone. A lost fish, but an image I never will lose. We did land a few that were so stuffed as to be nearly as heavy as the salmon of the morning. Go to Alaska. Take someone special with you not only for unforgettable fishing, but to create special memories. I cannot put a price tag on the ever-present smiles of my sons as each new day brought a new adventure. Even now a new smile is generated as our trip re-emerges in everyday conversation or memory as we remember fulfilling a father’s Alaska dream. Bryan Whiting lives in Glenwood Springs.


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