Alaska is famous for its rivers which fill with salmon each summer. Each species comes at an expected time, first the kings (chinoook), then the reds (sockeye), and finally the silvers (coho) and pinks. Anglers throughout the state pursue them by boat, rod-and-reel, and nets depending on the location and intent. A specific section of the Alaska fishery is deemed a “personal use fishery”. Even more so than other fishing regulations, harvest in these regions is meant to fill freezers for the upcoming winter. Alaskan residents are allowed to use a variety of nets on poles to harvest up to 25 salmon each.
Chitina River is a 112 mile tributary of the Copper River. As of July 28th, 2015, 1,341,545 sockeye salmon had made the run upriver (adfg.alaska.gov)!! The abundance of fish attracts hundreds of fishermen each day. The Chitina River is highly braided and variable in depth, and flows out of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park from the Chitina Glacier. Because of the glacier melt, the water is chocolaty brown all year. Chitina drainage is a truly rugged and beautiful area; the banks of the river are renowned by the anglers who walk down them for their steepness.
I had a lot to learn before hitting the trail to the river. I was lucky that on a Friday evening it was packed wall-to-wall with fisherman. Most were standing around recounting the action of the day, cleaning fish, or planning for the next morning. I heard a group of four guys giving out tips to a fifth guy standing with them, and inched in to listen and then ask a few questions. The first thing the leader of the group emphasized was safety. Fishing in the “canyon” can be particularly treacherous due to the steep walls. Many fisherman choose to tie themselves to the rocks when fishing the canyon. Second, be ready to stay out for awhile because the fish come in pulses based on the flow of the water among other factors. Last thing was to find an eddy behind a bolder or point where the current was headed back up stream. Placing your net in the swirling, upstream current ensured it stayed open for passing fish using the eddy as an energetic rest-stop. Visibility was 0 inches due to the turbid waters from melting glaciers, so it was necessary to wait for the “bump” which signified a fish in the net. As he described the bump I could only hope I would know what he meant the next day.
Early in the morning we skittered down the steep banks of the Chitina River. I picked an eddy that seemed fitting, and as I dipped my net in the water its pocket billowed out perfectly. I perched expectantly on the shore and leaned lightly on the net to keep it turned open in the rushing current. As it turned out the bump was pretty distinct! Although I could not see the salmon swim into the net, I could imagine its nose hitting the mesh, it becoming disorientated, and lying flat in the mesh bag as it was pushed sideways by the swift current. It was at that moment that I raised the net out of the water to catch my first sockeye from the Chitina. It only took 7 minutes from the time I started fishing, and I had visions of completing my 25 fish limit quickly! However, the second piece of advice became very evident to me as I stood on the banks of the river. The fish only trickled into my net, and then after 4 stopped completely. I did not catch another for the entire day.
After two days of fishing I ended with seven beautiful sockeye salmon, and although I did not “catch my limit”, I felt very grateful and blessed to be able to partake in this unique, Alaskan fishery! As important as it is to put what you need away for the winter, it is important to save a couple for the grill too! These fresh salmon on the grill with lemon pepper and olive oil, and grilled sweet potatoes was as good as it gets, and a gratifying way to celebrate a successful trip to the Chitina River.
This story is about fishing and how we get to places. It’s also about how advice and the kindness of others shape our experiences.
When the drive south started with Kassie, Andy, and Jenny for our first salmon fishing trip we were headed to the Gulkana River. Online reports and an early push of “red” salmon in the river that summer gave us hope for good fishing. When we arrived we found an incredible camping, a beautiful rushing river, no fisherman, and no fish. If the salmon are running well it would make sense for the river banks to be dotted with rods, lines, and men. Our attempts there proved what could be assumed, we did not catch a fish. We had a great night at the campground with a fire, s’mores, and chatter.
The next morning we were ready for a change of pace. Heading to the local gas station we stepped inside to hunt for some information. The gas station was small, but well kept. A basket of coho flies sat near the cashier’s box tended by a woman in broad rimmed glasses. Her shock white hair gave little doubt that she had been in Alaska for quite some time. After telling her we tried fishing the Gulkana she explained the fish were not there yet. But, she continued, if we headed to the Klutina they were doing pretty well on salmon. This information was good enough for us! We headed south.
As we walked across the bridge over the Klutina River we met a couple who went out of their way to inform us of a path that ran down the river for almost a mile. We fished the troughs, holes, and eddies on the way down with the expectation of a tight line; we were never gratified. As we moved down the river we came to a spot where large pool swirled and seemed a natural place to fish. To add to the beauty of the spot a large snow covered peak held guard at the downstream end of the river and only one older man fished the area. I stationed below this man about forty yards and Andy fished above him. 5…15…..45…. 90 minutes we fished-and-fished, dropping small casts upstream and floating our flies. Sockeye salmon, also nicknamed ‘reds’ for the color they turn as they go upstream, swim up the rivers with their mouth open and do not eat. The only way to legally catch the fish with a hook and line is to drag a line through their mouth, effectively ‘flossing’ the fish and hooking it in the corner of the mouth. Any fish snagged in the side or belly must be released. Before you object that it sounds like catching fish in a barrel remember that due to high rain the river ran fast and was cloudy. You simply play the odds that enough fish are going up river and that sooner or later your line will pass through its mouth. …100..110….120 minutes we fished. Neither of us could catch a fish, but in that time the man between us had pulled out his limit of six beautiful sockeye salmon. He had lost just as many as that. Both Andy and I were wide-eyed. I have never felt so inadequate as a fisherman, or more strongly that wisdom comes with age.
After packing up his rod and net the man sat on the bank with his head down. After holding that pose for 5 minutes, Andy and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows; was the man having a problem? I walked over to him.
“Are you alright?” I asked him tentatively.
Looking up at me he replied “Oh, bless you, yes I’m OK. I have a heart issue, so I just need to take it slow”.
“Well” I stated, “I would gladly haul those fish to the bridge for you in trade for a secret or two on how you did that”.
“Oh, bless you”, the man replied again, “if I can’t haul these fish out of here I might as well quit. This might be my last season as it is and I’ve been fishing this river for forty-two years. Here, let me show you.”
We walked downstream to where the man had stood for two ours and had caught six beautiful red-salmon. He instructed me to stand five feet straight downstream of a rock. In front of me, a large ‘pocket’ of water eddied behind a brawny boulder eight feet upstream of me. Adding a ‘more weight’ to my line, he instructed me to cast to an small piece of water about 2×2 feet wide.
“Don’t cast too far”, he advised, “there’s no need, and you’ll get a better drift”
I thanked him and he moved upstream to clean his salmon. Andy was the first to hook up. The fish took off downstream and Andy played it back and forth. Jenny helped by running the net helter-skelter over slippery rocks and around hanging alders to where the red splashed in the shallows. With a few pokes of the net the fight was over. Fish was on the menu! The man watched from his pile of fillets and cheered along with us.
I was the next to hook up on and the fish got off. However, the following sockeye to be flossed by my fly took off downstream. With my nine-weight fly rod bending over, the fish turned downstream stealing line from my hands and headed for the middle of the rapids. I pulled him back towards shore before the salmon peeled off more line from my spool. Back and forth we went for 5 minutes. In the end, the net which was pinched between my knees during the whole fight was unsheathed and the salmon scooped up. Finally, some success! And all thanks to the gentleman.
I missed several more fish that day before disaster struck. While pulling out a snag the top of my rod snapped. I was not doing anything irresponsible with the rod. In fact. I had the line grasped in my had and was pulling on it. I must have exerted enough pressure to break the rod. Believe it or not, this was only the first fly-rod of the trip to be broken pulling out a snag like that. The next day, relegated to using my 5 weight fly-rod I broke the tip off doing the same thing!! I was pulling on the line with my hand to get the snag out when the tip of the rod broke off. I must admit, I’m pretty confused by how it happened. If anyone reading this now or in the future has had this same issue, I would love to hear your feedback!
The second morning we arrived at the fishing hole at 6:30 AM. It took two hours, but finally I hooked up with a large red on my 5-weight fly rod. The rod had a far different feel than the stiff 9-weight. It bent hilt to tip fighting the strong salmon in the current. Back and forth it went in the current. Twice it almost wrapped up in the alders on the bank which surely would have released it. I drug it away from there each time. After 5 minutes of play, I tired the fish, but the rod did not have enough strength to pull the fish upstream. Andy headed downstream with the net and scooped up the fish. Just for the record, I thought he might knock it off 😉
The fish was the last red to be pulled from the Klutina River. All four of us regarded the trip as a huge success. We could not help but to appreciate the destiny-like chain of events that led up to our catches and feel thankful for it. The old woman at the gas-station, the couple on the bridge, and George, the old man who out-fished us with his forty-two years of knowledge, made it all happen. I felt George was passing the torch to us like we were his grandchildren. His feeling that he would not be on the stream again was sobering, as it was obvious how much fishing meant to him.
I dedicate this blog entry to George and to all who’s kindness and patience direct their recipients to success. We all know who you are.