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Edition Six Domestic Travel Right Post Archives - FFI Magazine

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

Walrus have a penis bone called an oosik—lighter in hand than a moose foreleg, it makes an excellent salmon bonk. Black bear bile can heal your liver and melt your gallstones—and get you arrested if you’re caught in possession of one. If you are encircled by griz and need to cross homicidal CFS to safety, doff your waders, trap them with air and float to the far bank—but kiss your boots goodbye. Mullets are the most efficient haircut known to man—only the word is pronounced moo-LAY.

In an essential place, one learns essential things.

This July afternoon I am indeed in such an essential place—western Alaska’s Kanektok River. More precisely, I’m up to my waist in a chum salmon pool fighting my fifth fish in as many casts, this one raging like it’s just snorted a full tub of bath salts. This particularly fresh specimen has me feeling less like an angler than a matador—my buddy’s warning to wear a cup on the Kanektok was not wrong—and after charging me twice it turns on a dime and takes off in the direction of the Bering Sea. My fishing mates, Hillari Denny and Doc Rideout, groan impatiently. Though we’ve only been at it an hour, we’ve already learned that one angler tethered to a fresh chum is danger, two is a cat’s cradle, and three is a broken-rodded bird’s nest. One mottled silver rocket at a time, please.

“Must be foul hooked,” I shout, and right on cue the fish breaches to flaunt a hook stuck squarely in its mouth. My guide chortles. Hillari and Doc shake their heads. I crank the knob on my drag and look for a similar mechanism on my arm.

The signs this would be a special trip were there the moment we debarked the plane in Quinhagak, after having flown from Anchorage to Bethel. Our shuttle was the sweetest fish ride I’d ever seen, a refurbished school bus with lightning-bolt cracks across the windshield and a rear cab stripped to make a living-room sized platform for gear. Then there was the gross ubiquity of fish in every stage of life and death—leaping and torquing to shake sea lice, shotgunning through the riffles ahead of our boats, dangling from the eaves of the natives’ smokehouses, hanging in the mouths of raptors and gulls. And finally there was our digs. There’s just something about a tent camp that speaks to the seriousness of the piscatorial endeavor. Many of my best fishing days—char in the Andes, mahseer in India, muskies in Michigan—have started with me staring up at a pitched ceiling in the dark, grasping around for my headlamp, wondering where I am.

Finally, my chum is in the net, and there is much rejoicing. It’s a big chrome male with sea lice for days, which earns it a driftwood bonk and free ride to the smokehouse. In no time Hillari is rearing back into a popper-eater that makes her reel sing like a stuck pig. I watch it thrash and tailwalk as I pick a gnarly bowtie out of my running line, unaware that my fly has slipped off its guide and is dangling in the water 10 feet away. Another big chum slams it like a cheater’s first move in tug-of-war, and I barely free my fingers before the knot squeaks tight, and the fish rips downstream.

That’s another essential thing I’ve learned today: You can lose a finger on this river if you’re not careful.

The Kanektok is a seriously busy river, a conveyor belt of salmonid flesh some 80 miles long, beginning in the gunsmoke blue Ahklun Mountains and ending in Kuskokwim Bay at the native town of Quinhagak, which in the Yupik language means “new river channel.” From June to September, its banks are as close to the center of the salmon universe as you can get without sprouting gills. Kings run mid June to mid July, chums mid June to mid August. Sockeye appear in late June and do their thing until the end of the next month. Every other year, pink salmon patrol the river from mid July to early August. Bringing up the rear of the salmon train, silvers run late July through mid September.

I’m here for the Kanektok kings, which have evolved an affinity for annihilating swung flies that is suppressed in other populations. This is not to say you can’t swing a few up elsewhere—you certainly can—but you are unlucky to land a face cord of chinook per day here—what counts as an excellent outing when the run is peaking around the Fourth of July.

There are many challenges to western Alaska king fishing. The first is abiding by the cadence of the tides. On my swing water back in Michigan the CFS has more fixity than the stars, but the Kanektok heaves and falls to the tune of 15 feet a day. This requires anglers to use their line hand to manage the speed of the swing as a morning progresses. As the tide comes in and the current slows, a pure swing turns to a steady left-hand strip and before you know it you’re bringing the fly back in long, slow pulls, like some grandmother working her triceps at the gym. Then there’s the importance of using your eyes. Down in the distance, between the old moose skeleton and the abandoned snow machine, you’ll see a pod of fish breach, at which point you must throw down your sandwich or coffee or camera and make sure your fly is swimming—but not too low. The tidal bottoms have a fair amount of sediment, and kings like to swim with their chins above the murk. Finally, if you are lucky enough to get bit, the king salmon hookset asks you to be a Buddha and beast at the same time, letting the fish leisurely eat the fly and turn downstream before you drive the hook home with a pneumatic intensity—what the guides call “crossing the eyes”.

After which, best of luck.

The Kanektok has its year-round residents as well, rainbows and grayling and dollies that spend the summer in a living hell of salmon Frogger but are rewarded with endless fatty eggs to feast on in return. Given all this fishing opportunity, Kanektok days are predictable only in their unpredictability. You might start the day swinging kings before the current stalls and you hop in the boat to work the pinch points with a single-handed rod. After lunch on the bank, a chum tows you up a side channel where big rainbows with junkyard dog DNA are sulking in a pool, flesh chunks the size of a Crunch bar in their maws. This gives you a rainbow jones, so you shoot upriver to mouse the afternoon, working logjams and flushing rainbows that chomp behind your mouse like they’ve been playing too much PacMan. But then another boat whooshes by, a guide traces a wavelength in the air with his free hand—the tide is going back out—so you gun it back downstream to where the river meets the sea and the horizon goes on forever.

In short, one thing leads to another.

One of our how-did-we-get-here? excursions finds us 20 miles upstream of camp egging a side channel plunge pool where dollies seethe like mosquito larvae in a storm puddle. After having a mostly quiet morning, Doc Rideout unleashes a one man “char-mageddon,” catching one cartwheeling dollie after another. I ditch my rod and instead focus on capturing some midair pictures, and while I get a few decent images, I feel more keenly than usual the limitations of the camera. The modern angler lives in an era of the photograph—we swipe, scroll and tap more fish pics in a day than we used to see in a year. But, after watching this “char-pocalypse” I’m convinced that what fishing needs is not more photographs, but more sounds, not an Instagram but a Piscaphone. To hear the sizzle of the drag, the stumbling of the angler on cobble, the collective sucking in of breath when a good fish jumps, and the guide sloshing forward to stab the net. To listen to the hoots, hollers and high-fives. To behold that moment when the pool goes quiet and the angler goes quieter—that beautiful sound of an angler finally getting his or her fill.

There’s a politeness some exceptional fish grant visiting fishing writers by appearing on the last and most “fateful” day of the trip, but mine comes just past midweek. It catches me totally off guard. Not only do I not see it coming—no porpoising or breaching gives its presence away—but it’s also questionable as to whether my fly was moving when it took. Like a smallmouth taking a popper, my best king rocketed out of the water just after my fly landed. And then it took off downstream.

Way downstream.

When an angler suffering acute salmonitis in his shoulders, biceps, wrists and obliques comes up on a chrome, well-fed king salmon fresh from the sea, it’s unclear who is going to emerge the victor. The first few minutes of the fight are a blur. And then, slowly, I start to gain ground.

That’s when the anxiety sets it.

I know I have a good fish on when I begin to fear losing it—and that fear shows. Followers of my future Piscaphone account will be able to easily distinguish between tiny fish and tremendous fish. Catching small fish, I laugh through an open smile. Catching giants, I curse through gritted teeth. After 10 more minutes—enough time for me to recite a fairly complete encyclopedia of profanity through clenched jaws—my guide motions that it is time. I do as I have been instructed all week, keeping the fish in waist-deep water—shallow water freaks them out—and lift its head just as the net harpoons forward. I stare at the fish in the net for a minute before we get out the tape measure. Forty inches. After flirting with that number all week, I have finally done it.

After a few quick pics it is time to say goodbye, and I find a quiet, shallow flat for the release. In those last moments before letting the fish go, a familiar melancholy settles in. I’ve never been able to quite explain the feeling, which only happens on the best fish, the ones that push you to tie new creatures at the vice, the ones that keep you very alert and awake at night and very distant and distracted at work, the ones that pull you through more airports than is decent in a single day. They are the dream that held power over you all those months and years—that is, until you are holding that dream by the tail. And then it is as if a god has fallen out of the sky in the middle of the day, and you’re watching its wings flounder as it swims in the net. There’s a sense of vulnerability in this moment of having caught the dragon, an awareness that if this impossible dream is real and mortal, then you, who are far less impossible, are real and mortal, too.

Dusk is coming in purple and the river is streaming silver when my best king swims off. I am done for the day.

There’s a feeling, in the endless twilight of an Alaska summer night, of having wandered into some fashion of afterlife. You glut on king crab and strip steaks and salmon cooked three ways, then stroll back down to the river for just a few more casts before bed, which turn into a few more hours of casting. There’s something different about this extra round of fishing, when the light genuflects and the moon rises above the alders. It feels quieter, more intimate, existing apart from the every day business of fishing. Other spirits mill about. A native from Quinhagak arrives on an ATV to meditatively cast a spoon. A few guides slip away to egg rainbows in the permadusk. Ted Leeson once wrote that modern angling was born when certain of our ancestors, after netting and trapping and cleaning fish all day, snuck back to the water at night with a stick and string, because they just could not stay away. Life on the Kanektok corroborates this theory, and no time more so than on the last night, when even those guests who usually go to bed after dinner find themselves waddling out to the beach and taking up a position in the run. A few guides assemble a bonfire on the beach, giving the blue mercury of the river a golden glow. Bear stories begin to circulate. One of the guides walks around with an electric hair trimmer giving away free mullets. There are two takers. At the edge of the fire, Chum the campdog rests with chin on his paws, ears trained toward the darkening trees and what might lay beyond.

Among the guests, talk turns to naming our respective highlights of the week. Answers are predictable. “My 40-pound king.” “When that 28-inch rainbow crushed my mouse.” “The day I caught 100 pounds of fish without moving my feet.” But when it’s time for one of the older Brits to answer, he shakes his head and smiles. “All of it,” he says. “I just like catching.”

I just like catching. Catching. The intransitive act. No object. I’ve never heard the phrase, can’t tell if it’s poetry or a British commonplace, but its purity makes my head ring like a bell. Often we fly anglers fall prey to a “connoisseurship” at odds with the simplicity that fishing promises. We say things like, “I like bugging low-water smallmouth” or “I only fish the first few days of the Hex hatch.” I once saw a homemade bumper sticker that read, “Tricos or GTFO.” But a week on a Western Alaska salmon river in full swing reminds even the most worldly angler what, deep down, fishing is all about.

Before heading to my tent I walk down to the water one last time. I pick up my 8-weight and take up position in the middle of a run between a pile of driftwood and some old grizzly tracks. I’m just here to catch, I tell the river—no objective, no expectation. I make one last cast after another, on this perfect summer night, under a perfect twilit sky, in what feels like the most essential place in the world.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is our man on the ground in Alaska. He fears no bear and fishes with an assassin’s mentality. When not plundering his local waters or heading to the north country, he serves as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Check out more of his work on IG @davekarczynski

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

Walrus have a penis bone called an oosik—lighter in hand than a moose foreleg, it makes an excellent salmon bonk. Black bear bile can heal your liver and melt your gallstones—and get you arrested if you’re caught in possession of one. If you are encircled by griz and need to cross homicidal CFS to safety, doff your waders, trap them with air and float to the far bank—but kiss your boots goodbye. Mullets are the most efficient haircut known to man—only the word is pronounced moo-LAY.

In an essential place, one learns essential things.

This July afternoon I am indeed in such an essential place—western Alaska’s Kanektok River. More precisely, I’m up to my waist in a chum salmon pool fighting my fifth fish in as many casts, this one raging like it’s just snorted a full tub of bath salts. This particularly fresh specimen has me feeling less like an angler than a matador—my buddy’s warning to wear a cup on the Kanektok was not wrong—and after charging me twice it turns on a dime and takes off in the direction of the Bering Sea. My fishing mates, Hillari Denny and Doc Rideout, groan impatiently. Though we’ve only been at it an hour, we’ve already learned that one angler tethered to a fresh chum is danger, two is a cat’s cradle, and three is a broken-rodded bird’s nest. One mottled silver rocket at a time, please.

“Must be foul hooked,” I shout, and right on cue the fish breaches to flaunt a hook stuck squarely in its mouth. My guide chortles. Hillari and Doc shake their heads. I crank the knob on my drag and look for a similar mechanism on my arm.

The signs this would be a special trip were there the moment we debarked the plane in Quinhagak, after having flown from Anchorage to Bethel. Our shuttle was the sweetest fish ride I’d ever seen, a refurbished school bus with lightning-bolt cracks across the windshield and a rear cab stripped to make a living-room sized platform for gear. Then there was the gross ubiquity of fish in every stage of life and death—leaping and torquing to shake sea lice, shotgunning through the riffles ahead of our boats, dangling from the eaves of the natives’ smokehouses, hanging in the mouths of raptors and gulls. And finally there was our digs. There’s just something about a tent camp that speaks to the seriousness of the piscatorial endeavor. Many of my best fishing days—char in the Andes, mahseer in India, muskies in Michigan—have started with me staring up at a pitched ceiling in the dark, grasping around for my headlamp, wondering where I am.

Finally, my chum is in the net, and there is much rejoicing. It’s a big chrome male with sea lice for days, which earns it a driftwood bonk and free ride to the smokehouse. In no time Hillari is rearing back into a popper-eater that makes her reel sing like a stuck pig. I watch it thrash and tailwalk as I pick a gnarly bowtie out of my running line, unaware that my fly has slipped off its guide and is dangling in the water 10 feet away. Another big chum slams it like a cheater’s first move in tug-of-war, and I barely free my fingers before the knot squeaks tight, and the fish rips downstream.

That’s another essential thing I’ve learned today: You can lose a finger on this river if you’re not careful.

The Kanektok is a seriously busy river, a conveyor belt of salmonid flesh some 80 miles long, beginning in the gunsmoke blue Ahklun Mountains and ending in Kuskokwim Bay at the native town of Quinhagak, which in the Yupik language means “new river channel.” From June to September, its banks are as close to the center of the salmon universe as you can get without sprouting gills. Kings run mid June to mid July, chums mid June to mid August. Sockeye appear in late June and do their thing until the end of the next month. Every other year, pink salmon patrol the river from mid July to early August. Bringing up the rear of the salmon train, silvers run late July through mid September.

I’m here for the Kanektok kings, which have evolved an affinity for annihilating swung flies that is suppressed in other populations. This is not to say you can’t swing a few up elsewhere—you certainly can—but you are unlucky to land a face cord of chinook per day here—what counts as an excellent outing when the run is peaking around the Fourth of July.

There are many challenges to western Alaska king fishing. The first is abiding by the cadence of the tides. On my swing water back in Michigan the CFS has more fixity than the stars, but the Kanektok heaves and falls to the tune of 15 feet a day. This requires anglers to use their line hand to manage the speed of the swing as a morning progresses. As the tide comes in and the current slows, a pure swing turns to a steady left-hand strip and before you know it you’re bringing the fly back in long, slow pulls, like some grandmother working her triceps at the gym. Then there’s the importance of using your eyes. Down in the distance, between the old moose skeleton and the abandoned snow machine, you’ll see a pod of fish breach, at which point you must throw down your sandwich or coffee or camera and make sure your fly is swimming—but not too low. The tidal bottoms have a fair amount of sediment, and kings like to swim with their chins above the murk. Finally, if you are lucky enough to get bit, the king salmon hookset asks you to be a Buddha and beast at the same time, letting the fish leisurely eat the fly and turn downstream before you drive the hook home with a pneumatic intensity—what the guides call “crossing the eyes”.

After which, best of luck.

The Kanektok has its year-round residents as well, rainbows and grayling and dollies that spend the summer in a living hell of salmon Frogger but are rewarded with endless fatty eggs to feast on in return. Given all this fishing opportunity, Kanektok days are predictable only in their unpredictability. You might start the day swinging kings before the current stalls and you hop in the boat to work the pinch points with a single-handed rod. After lunch on the bank, a chum tows you up a side channel where big rainbows with junkyard dog DNA are sulking in a pool, flesh chunks the size of a Crunch bar in their maws. This gives you a rainbow jones, so you shoot upriver to mouse the afternoon, working logjams and flushing rainbows that chomp behind your mouse like they’ve been playing too much PacMan. But then another boat whooshes by, a guide traces a wavelength in the air with his free hand—the tide is going back out—so you gun it back downstream to where the river meets the sea and the horizon goes on forever.

In short, one thing leads to another.

One of our how-did-we-get-here? excursions finds us 20 miles upstream of camp egging a side channel plunge pool where dollies seethe like mosquito larvae in a storm puddle. After having a mostly quiet morning, Doc Rideout unleashes a one man “char-mageddon,” catching one cartwheeling dollie after another. I ditch my rod and instead focus on capturing some midair pictures, and while I get a few decent images, I feel more keenly than usual the limitations of the camera. The modern angler lives in an era of the photograph—we swipe, scroll and tap more fish pics in a day than we used to see in a year. But, after watching this “char-pocalypse” I’m convinced that what fishing needs is not more photographs, but more sounds, not an Instagram but a Piscaphone. To hear the sizzle of the drag, the stumbling of the angler on cobble, the collective sucking in of breath when a good fish jumps, and the guide sloshing forward to stab the net. To listen to the hoots, hollers and high-fives. To behold that moment when the pool goes quiet and the angler goes quieter—that beautiful sound of an angler finally getting his or her fill.

There’s a politeness some exceptional fish grant visiting fishing writers by appearing on the last and most “fateful” day of the trip, but mine comes just past midweek. It catches me totally off guard. Not only do I not see it coming—no porpoising or breaching gives its presence away—but it’s also questionable as to whether my fly was moving when it took. Like a smallmouth taking a popper, my best king rocketed out of the water just after my fly landed. And then it took off downstream.

Way downstream.

When an angler suffering acute salmonitis in his shoulders, biceps, wrists and obliques comes up on a chrome, well-fed king salmon fresh from the sea, it’s unclear who is going to emerge the victor. The first few minutes of the fight are a blur. And then, slowly, I start to gain ground.

That’s when the anxiety sets it.

I know I have a good fish on when I begin to fear losing it—and that fear shows. Followers of my future Piscaphone account will be able to easily distinguish between tiny fish and tremendous fish. Catching small fish, I laugh through an open smile. Catching giants, I curse through gritted teeth. After 10 more minutes—enough time for me to recite a fairly complete encyclopedia of profanity through clenched jaws—my guide motions that it is time. I do as I have been instructed all week, keeping the fish in waist-deep water—shallow water freaks them out—and lift its head just as the net harpoons forward. I stare at the fish in the net for a minute before we get out the tape measure. Forty inches. After flirting with that number all week, I have finally done it.

After a few quick pics it is time to say goodbye, and I find a quiet, shallow flat for the release. In those last moments before letting the fish go, a familiar melancholy settles in. I’ve never been able to quite explain the feeling, which only happens on the best fish, the ones that push you to tie new creatures at the vice, the ones that keep you very alert and awake at night and very distant and distracted at work, the ones that pull you through more airports than is decent in a single day. They are the dream that held power over you all those months and years—that is, until you are holding that dream by the tail. And then it is as if a god has fallen out of the sky in the middle of the day, and you’re watching its wings flounder as it swims in the net. There’s a sense of vulnerability in this moment of having caught the dragon, an awareness that if this impossible dream is real and mortal, then you, who are far less impossible, are real and mortal, too.

Dusk is coming in purple and the river is streaming silver when my best king swims off. I am done for the day.

There’s a feeling, in the endless twilight of an Alaska summer night, of having wandered into some fashion of afterlife. You glut on king crab and strip steaks and salmon cooked three ways, then stroll back down to the river for just a few more casts before bed, which turn into a few more hours of casting. There’s something different about this extra round of fishing, when the light genuflects and the moon rises above the alders. It feels quieter, more intimate, existing apart from the every day business of fishing. Other spirits mill about. A native from Quinhagak arrives on an ATV to meditatively cast a spoon. A few guides slip away to egg rainbows in the permadusk. Ted Leeson once wrote that modern angling was born when certain of our ancestors, after netting and trapping and cleaning fish all day, snuck back to the water at night with a stick and string, because they just could not stay away. Life on the Kanektok corroborates this theory, and no time more so than on the last night, when even those guests who usually go to bed after dinner find themselves waddling out to the beach and taking up a position in the run. A few guides assemble a bonfire on the beach, giving the blue mercury of the river a golden glow. Bear stories begin to circulate. One of the guides walks around with an electric hair trimmer giving away free mullets. There are two takers. At the edge of the fire, Chum the campdog rests with chin on his paws, ears trained toward the darkening trees and what might lay beyond.

Among the guests, talk turns to naming our respective highlights of the week. Answers are predictable. “My 40-pound king.” “When that 28-inch rainbow crushed my mouse.” “The day I caught 100 pounds of fish without moving my feet.” But when it’s time for one of the older Brits to answer, he shakes his head and smiles. “All of it,” he says. “I just like catching.”

I just like catching. Catching. The intransitive act. No object. I’ve never heard the phrase, can’t tell if it’s poetry or a British commonplace, but its purity makes my head ring like a bell. Often we fly anglers fall prey to a “connoisseurship” at odds with the simplicity that fishing promises. We say things like, “I like bugging low-water smallmouth” or “I only fish the first few days of the Hex hatch.” I once saw a homemade bumper sticker that read, “Tricos or GTFO.” But a week on a Western Alaska salmon river in full swing reminds even the most worldly angler what, deep down, fishing is all about.

Before heading to my tent I walk down to the water one last time. I pick up my 8-weight and take up position in the middle of a run between a pile of driftwood and some old grizzly tracks. I’m just here to catch, I tell the river—no objective, no expectation. I make one last cast after another, on this perfect summer night, under a perfect twilit sky, in what feels like the most essential place in the world.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is our man on the ground in Alaska. He fears no bear and fishes with an assassin’s mentality. When not plundering his local waters or heading to the north country, he serves as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Check out more of his work on IG @davekarczynski

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

Walrus have a penis bone called an oosik—lighter in hand than a moose foreleg, it makes an excellent salmon bonk. Black bear bile can heal your liver and melt your gallstones—and get you arrested if you’re caught in possession of one. If you are encircled by griz and need to cross homicidal CFS to safety, doff your waders, trap them with air and float to the far bank—but kiss your boots goodbye. Mullets are the most efficient haircut known to man—only the word is pronounced moo-LAY.

In an essential place, one learns essential things.

This July afternoon I am indeed in such an essential place—western Alaska’s Kanektok River. More precisely, I’m up to my waist in a chum salmon pool fighting my fifth fish in as many casts, this one raging like it’s just snorted a full tub of bath salts. This particularly fresh specimen has me feeling less like an angler than a matador—my buddy’s warning to wear a cup on the Kanektok was not wrong—and after charging me twice it turns on a dime and takes off in the direction of the Bering Sea. My fishing mates, Hillari Denny and Doc Rideout, groan impatiently. Though we’ve only been at it an hour, we’ve already learned that one angler tethered to a fresh chum is danger, two is a cat’s cradle, and three is a broken-rodded bird’s nest. One mottled silver rocket at a time, please.

“Must be foul hooked,” I shout, and right on cue the fish breaches to flaunt a hook stuck squarely in its mouth. My guide chortles. Hillari and Doc shake their heads. I crank the knob on my drag and look for a similar mechanism on my arm.

The signs this would be a special trip were there the moment we debarked the plane in Quinhagak, after having flown from Anchorage to Bethel. Our shuttle was the sweetest fish ride I’d ever seen, a refurbished school bus with lightning-bolt cracks across the windshield and a rear cab stripped to make a living-room sized platform for gear. Then there was the gross ubiquity of fish in every stage of life and death—leaping and torquing to shake sea lice, shotgunning through the riffles ahead of our boats, dangling from the eaves of the natives’ smokehouses, hanging in the mouths of raptors and gulls. And finally there was our digs. There’s just something about a tent camp that speaks to the seriousness of the piscatorial endeavor. Many of my best fishing days—char in the Andes, mahseer in India, muskies in Michigan—have started with me staring up at a pitched ceiling in the dark, grasping around for my headlamp, wondering where I am.

Finally, my chum is in the net, and there is much rejoicing. It’s a big chrome male with sea lice for days, which earns it a driftwood bonk and free ride to the smokehouse. In no time Hillari is rearing back into a popper-eater that makes her reel sing like a stuck pig. I watch it thrash and tailwalk as I pick a gnarly bowtie out of my running line, unaware that my fly has slipped off its guide and is dangling in the water 10 feet away. Another big chum slams it like a cheater’s first move in tug-of-war, and I barely free my fingers before the knot squeaks tight, and the fish rips downstream.

That’s another essential thing I’ve learned today: You can lose a finger on this river if you’re not careful.

The Kanektok is a seriously busy river, a conveyor belt of salmonid flesh some 80 miles long, beginning in the gunsmoke blue Ahklun Mountains and ending in Kuskokwim Bay at the native town of Quinhagak, which in the Yupik language means “new river channel.” From June to September, its banks are as close to the center of the salmon universe as you can get without sprouting gills. Kings run mid June to mid July, chums mid June to mid August. Sockeye appear in late June and do their thing until the end of the next month. Every other year, pink salmon patrol the river from mid July to early August. Bringing up the rear of the salmon train, silvers run late July through mid September.

I’m here for the Kanektok kings, which have evolved an affinity for annihilating swung flies that is suppressed in other populations. This is not to say you can’t swing a few up elsewhere—you certainly can—but you are unlucky to land a face cord of chinook per day here—what counts as an excellent outing when the run is peaking around the Fourth of July.

There are many challenges to western Alaska king fishing. The first is abiding by the cadence of the tides. On my swing water back in Michigan the CFS has more fixity than the stars, but the Kanektok heaves and falls to the tune of 15 feet a day. This requires anglers to use their line hand to manage the speed of the swing as a morning progresses. As the tide comes in and the current slows, a pure swing turns to a steady left-hand strip and before you know it you’re bringing the fly back in long, slow pulls, like some grandmother working her triceps at the gym. Then there’s the importance of using your eyes. Down in the distance, between the old moose skeleton and the abandoned snow machine, you’ll see a pod of fish breach, at which point you must throw down your sandwich or coffee or camera and make sure your fly is swimming—but not too low. The tidal bottoms have a fair amount of sediment, and kings like to swim with their chins above the murk. Finally, if you are lucky enough to get bit, the king salmon hookset asks you to be a Buddha and beast at the same time, letting the fish leisurely eat the fly and turn downstream before you drive the hook home with a pneumatic intensity—what the guides call “crossing the eyes”.

After which, best of luck.

The Kanektok has its year-round residents as well, rainbows and grayling and dollies that spend the summer in a living hell of salmon Frogger but are rewarded with endless fatty eggs to feast on in return. Given all this fishing opportunity, Kanektok days are predictable only in their unpredictability. You might start the day swinging kings before the current stalls and you hop in the boat to work the pinch points with a single-handed rod. After lunch on the bank, a chum tows you up a side channel where big rainbows with junkyard dog DNA are sulking in a pool, flesh chunks the size of a Crunch bar in their maws. This gives you a rainbow jones, so you shoot upriver to mouse the afternoon, working logjams and flushing rainbows that chomp behind your mouse like they’ve been playing too much PacMan. But then another boat whooshes by, a guide traces a wavelength in the air with his free hand—the tide is going back out—so you gun it back downstream to where the river meets the sea and the horizon goes on forever.

In short, one thing leads to another.

One of our how-did-we-get-here? excursions finds us 20 miles upstream of camp egging a side channel plunge pool where dollies seethe like mosquito larvae in a storm puddle. After having a mostly quiet morning, Doc Rideout unleashes a one man “char-mageddon,” catching one cartwheeling dollie after another. I ditch my rod and instead focus on capturing some midair pictures, and while I get a few decent images, I feel more keenly than usual the limitations of the camera. The modern angler lives in an era of the photograph—we swipe, scroll and tap more fish pics in a day than we used to see in a year. But, after watching this “char-pocalypse” I’m convinced that what fishing needs is not more photographs, but more sounds, not an Instagram but a Piscaphone. To hear the sizzle of the drag, the stumbling of the angler on cobble, the collective sucking in of breath when a good fish jumps, and the guide sloshing forward to stab the net. To listen to the hoots, hollers and high-fives. To behold that moment when the pool goes quiet and the angler goes quieter—that beautiful sound of an angler finally getting his or her fill.

There’s a politeness some exceptional fish grant visiting fishing writers by appearing on the last and most “fateful” day of the trip, but mine comes just past midweek. It catches me totally off guard. Not only do I not see it coming—no porpoising or breaching gives its presence away—but it’s also questionable as to whether my fly was moving when it took. Like a smallmouth taking a popper, my best king rocketed out of the water just after my fly landed. And then it took off downstream.

Way downstream.

When an angler suffering acute salmonitis in his shoulders, biceps, wrists and obliques comes up on a chrome, well-fed king salmon fresh from the sea, it’s unclear who is going to emerge the victor. The first few minutes of the fight are a blur. And then, slowly, I start to gain ground.

That’s when the anxiety sets it.

I know I have a good fish on when I begin to fear losing it—and that fear shows. Followers of my future Piscaphone account will be able to easily distinguish between tiny fish and tremendous fish. Catching small fish, I laugh through an open smile. Catching giants, I curse through gritted teeth. After 10 more minutes—enough time for me to recite a fairly complete encyclopedia of profanity through clenched jaws—my guide motions that it is time. I do as I have been instructed all week, keeping the fish in waist-deep water—shallow water freaks them out—and lift its head just as the net harpoons forward. I stare at the fish in the net for a minute before we get out the tape measure. Forty inches. After flirting with that number all week, I have finally done it.

After a few quick pics it is time to say goodbye, and I find a quiet, shallow flat for the release. In those last moments before letting the fish go, a familiar melancholy settles in. I’ve never been able to quite explain the feeling, which only happens on the best fish, the ones that push you to tie new creatures at the vice, the ones that keep you very alert and awake at night and very distant and distracted at work, the ones that pull you through more airports than is decent in a single day. They are the dream that held power over you all those months and years—that is, until you are holding that dream by the tail. And then it is as if a god has fallen out of the sky in the middle of the day, and you’re watching its wings flounder as it swims in the net. There’s a sense of vulnerability in this moment of having caught the dragon, an awareness that if this impossible dream is real and mortal, then you, who are far less impossible, are real and mortal, too.

Dusk is coming in purple and the river is streaming silver when my best king swims off. I am done for the day.

There’s a feeling, in the endless twilight of an Alaska summer night, of having wandered into some fashion of afterlife. You glut on king crab and strip steaks and salmon cooked three ways, then stroll back down to the river for just a few more casts before bed, which turn into a few more hours of casting. There’s something different about this extra round of fishing, when the light genuflects and the moon rises above the alders. It feels quieter, more intimate, existing apart from the every day business of fishing. Other spirits mill about. A native from Quinhagak arrives on an ATV to meditatively cast a spoon. A few guides slip away to egg rainbows in the permadusk. Ted Leeson once wrote that modern angling was born when certain of our ancestors, after netting and trapping and cleaning fish all day, snuck back to the water at night with a stick and string, because they just could not stay away. Life on the Kanektok corroborates this theory, and no time more so than on the last night, when even those guests who usually go to bed after dinner find themselves waddling out to the beach and taking up a position in the run. A few guides assemble a bonfire on the beach, giving the blue mercury of the river a golden glow. Bear stories begin to circulate. One of the guides walks around with an electric hair trimmer giving away free mullets. There are two takers. At the edge of the fire, Chum the campdog rests with chin on his paws, ears trained toward the darkening trees and what might lay beyond.

Among the guests, talk turns to naming our respective highlights of the week. Answers are predictable. “My 40-pound king.” “When that 28-inch rainbow crushed my mouse.” “The day I caught 100 pounds of fish without moving my feet.” But when it’s time for one of the older Brits to answer, he shakes his head and smiles. “All of it,” he says. “I just like catching.”

I just like catching. Catching. The intransitive act. No object. I’ve never heard the phrase, can’t tell if it’s poetry or a British commonplace, but its purity makes my head ring like a bell. Often we fly anglers fall prey to a “connoisseurship” at odds with the simplicity that fishing promises. We say things like, “I like bugging low-water smallmouth” or “I only fish the first few days of the Hex hatch.” I once saw a homemade bumper sticker that read, “Tricos or GTFO.” But a week on a Western Alaska salmon river in full swing reminds even the most worldly angler what, deep down, fishing is all about.

Before heading to my tent I walk down to the water one last time. I pick up my 8-weight and take up position in the middle of a run between a pile of driftwood and some old grizzly tracks. I’m just here to catch, I tell the river—no objective, no expectation. I make one last cast after another, on this perfect summer night, under a perfect twilit sky, in what feels like the most essential place in the world.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is our man on the ground in Alaska. He fears no bear and fishes with an assassin’s mentality. When not plundering his local waters or heading to the north country, he serves as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Check out more of his work on IG @davekarczynski

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

Walrus have a penis bone called an oosik—lighter in hand than a moose foreleg, it makes an excellent salmon bonk. Black bear bile can heal your liver and melt your gallstones—and get you arrested if you’re caught in possession of one. If you are encircled by griz and need to cross homicidal CFS to safety, doff your waders, trap them with air and float to the far bank—but kiss your boots goodbye. Mullets are the most efficient haircut known to man—only the word is pronounced moo-LAY.

In an essential place, one learns essential things.

This July afternoon I am indeed in such an essential place—western Alaska’s Kanektok River. More precisely, I’m up to my waist in a chum salmon pool fighting my fifth fish in as many casts, this one raging like it’s just snorted a full tub of bath salts. This particularly fresh specimen has me feeling less like an angler than a matador—my buddy’s warning to wear a cup on the Kanektok was not wrong—and after charging me twice it turns on a dime and takes off in the direction of the Bering Sea. My fishing mates, Hillari Denny and Doc Rideout, groan impatiently. Though we’ve only been at it an hour, we’ve already learned that one angler tethered to a fresh chum is danger, two is a cat’s cradle, and three is a broken-rodded bird’s nest. One mottled silver rocket at a time, please.

“Must be foul hooked,” I shout, and right on cue the fish breaches to flaunt a hook stuck squarely in its mouth. My guide chortles. Hillari and Doc shake their heads. I crank the knob on my drag and look for a similar mechanism on my arm.

The signs this would be a special trip were there the moment we debarked the plane in Quinhagak, after having flown from Anchorage to Bethel. Our shuttle was the sweetest fish ride I’d ever seen, a refurbished school bus with lightning-bolt cracks across the windshield and a rear cab stripped to make a living-room sized platform for gear. Then there was the gross ubiquity of fish in every stage of life and death—leaping and torquing to shake sea lice, shotgunning through the riffles ahead of our boats, dangling from the eaves of the natives’ smokehouses, hanging in the mouths of raptors and gulls. And finally there was our digs. There’s just something about a tent camp that speaks to the seriousness of the piscatorial endeavor. Many of my best fishing days—char in the Andes, mahseer in India, muskies in Michigan—have started with me staring up at a pitched ceiling in the dark, grasping around for my headlamp, wondering where I am.

Finally, my chum is in the net, and there is much rejoicing. It’s a big chrome male with sea lice for days, which earns it a driftwood bonk and free ride to the smokehouse. In no time Hillari is rearing back into a popper-eater that makes her reel sing like a stuck pig. I watch it thrash and tailwalk as I pick a gnarly bowtie out of my running line, unaware that my fly has slipped off its guide and is dangling in the water 10 feet away. Another big chum slams it like a cheater’s first move in tug-of-war, and I barely free my fingers before the knot squeaks tight, and the fish rips downstream.

That’s another essential thing I’ve learned today: You can lose a finger on this river if you’re not careful.

The Kanektok is a seriously busy river, a conveyor belt of salmonid flesh some 80 miles long, beginning in the gunsmoke blue Ahklun Mountains and ending in Kuskokwim Bay at the native town of Quinhagak, which in the Yupik language means “new river channel.” From June to September, its banks are as close to the center of the salmon universe as you can get without sprouting gills. Kings run mid June to mid July, chums mid June to mid August. Sockeye appear in late June and do their thing until the end of the next month. Every other year, pink salmon patrol the river from mid July to early August. Bringing up the rear of the salmon train, silvers run late July through mid September.

I’m here for the Kanektok kings, which have evolved an affinity for annihilating swung flies that is suppressed in other populations. This is not to say you can’t swing a few up elsewhere—you certainly can—but you are unlucky to land a face cord of chinook per day here—what counts as an excellent outing when the run is peaking around the Fourth of July.

There are many challenges to western Alaska king fishing. The first is abiding by the cadence of the tides. On my swing water back in Michigan the CFS has more fixity than the stars, but the Kanektok heaves and falls to the tune of 15 feet a day. This requires anglers to use their line hand to manage the speed of the swing as a morning progresses. As the tide comes in and the current slows, a pure swing turns to a steady left-hand strip and before you know it you’re bringing the fly back in long, slow pulls, like some grandmother working her triceps at the gym. Then there’s the importance of using your eyes. Down in the distance, between the old moose skeleton and the abandoned snow machine, you’ll see a pod of fish breach, at which point you must throw down your sandwich or coffee or camera and make sure your fly is swimming—but not too low. The tidal bottoms have a fair amount of sediment, and kings like to swim with their chins above the murk. Finally, if you are lucky enough to get bit, the king salmon hookset asks you to be a Buddha and beast at the same time, letting the fish leisurely eat the fly and turn downstream before you drive the hook home with a pneumatic intensity—what the guides call “crossing the eyes”.

After which, best of luck.

The Kanektok has its year-round residents as well, rainbows and grayling and dollies that spend the summer in a living hell of salmon Frogger but are rewarded with endless fatty eggs to feast on in return. Given all this fishing opportunity, Kanektok days are predictable only in their unpredictability. You might start the day swinging kings before the current stalls and you hop in the boat to work the pinch points with a single-handed rod. After lunch on the bank, a chum tows you up a side channel where big rainbows with junkyard dog DNA are sulking in a pool, flesh chunks the size of a Crunch bar in their maws. This gives you a rainbow jones, so you shoot upriver to mouse the afternoon, working logjams and flushing rainbows that chomp behind your mouse like they’ve been playing too much PacMan. But then another boat whooshes by, a guide traces a wavelength in the air with his free hand—the tide is going back out—so you gun it back downstream to where the river meets the sea and the horizon goes on forever.

In short, one thing leads to another.

One of our how-did-we-get-here? excursions finds us 20 miles upstream of camp egging a side channel plunge pool where dollies seethe like mosquito larvae in a storm puddle. After having a mostly quiet morning, Doc Rideout unleashes a one man “char-mageddon,” catching one cartwheeling dollie after another. I ditch my rod and instead focus on capturing some midair pictures, and while I get a few decent images, I feel more keenly than usual the limitations of the camera. The modern angler lives in an era of the photograph—we swipe, scroll and tap more fish pics in a day than we used to see in a year. But, after watching this “char-pocalypse” I’m convinced that what fishing needs is not more photographs, but more sounds, not an Instagram but a Piscaphone. To hear the sizzle of the drag, the stumbling of the angler on cobble, the collective sucking in of breath when a good fish jumps, and the guide sloshing forward to stab the net. To listen to the hoots, hollers and high-fives. To behold that moment when the pool goes quiet and the angler goes quieter—that beautiful sound of an angler finally getting his or her fill.

There’s a politeness some exceptional fish grant visiting fishing writers by appearing on the last and most “fateful” day of the trip, but mine comes just past midweek. It catches me totally off guard. Not only do I not see it coming—no porpoising or breaching gives its presence away—but it’s also questionable as to whether my fly was moving when it took. Like a smallmouth taking a popper, my best king rocketed out of the water just after my fly landed. And then it took off downstream.

Way downstream.

When an angler suffering acute salmonitis in his shoulders, biceps, wrists and obliques comes up on a chrome, well-fed king salmon fresh from the sea, it’s unclear who is going to emerge the victor. The first few minutes of the fight are a blur. And then, slowly, I start to gain ground.

That’s when the anxiety sets it.

I know I have a good fish on when I begin to fear losing it—and that fear shows. Followers of my future Piscaphone account will be able to easily distinguish between tiny fish and tremendous fish. Catching small fish, I laugh through an open smile. Catching giants, I curse through gritted teeth. After 10 more minutes—enough time for me to recite a fairly complete encyclopedia of profanity through clenched jaws—my guide motions that it is time. I do as I have been instructed all week, keeping the fish in waist-deep water—shallow water freaks them out—and lift its head just as the net harpoons forward. I stare at the fish in the net for a minute before we get out the tape measure. Forty inches. After flirting with that number all week, I have finally done it.

After a few quick pics it is time to say goodbye, and I find a quiet, shallow flat for the release. In those last moments before letting the fish go, a familiar melancholy settles in. I’ve never been able to quite explain the feeling, which only happens on the best fish, the ones that push you to tie new creatures at the vice, the ones that keep you very alert and awake at night and very distant and distracted at work, the ones that pull you through more airports than is decent in a single day. They are the dream that held power over you all those months and years—that is, until you are holding that dream by the tail. And then it is as if a god has fallen out of the sky in the middle of the day, and you’re watching its wings flounder as it swims in the net. There’s a sense of vulnerability in this moment of having caught the dragon, an awareness that if this impossible dream is real and mortal, then you, who are far less impossible, are real and mortal, too.

Dusk is coming in purple and the river is streaming silver when my best king swims off. I am done for the day.

There’s a feeling, in the endless twilight of an Alaska summer night, of having wandered into some fashion of afterlife. You glut on king crab and strip steaks and salmon cooked three ways, then stroll back down to the river for just a few more casts before bed, which turn into a few more hours of casting. There’s something different about this extra round of fishing, when the light genuflects and the moon rises above the alders. It feels quieter, more intimate, existing apart from the every day business of fishing. Other spirits mill about. A native from Quinhagak arrives on an ATV to meditatively cast a spoon. A few guides slip away to egg rainbows in the permadusk. Ted Leeson once wrote that modern angling was born when certain of our ancestors, after netting and trapping and cleaning fish all day, snuck back to the water at night with a stick and string, because they just could not stay away. Life on the Kanektok corroborates this theory, and no time more so than on the last night, when even those guests who usually go to bed after dinner find themselves waddling out to the beach and taking up a position in the run. A few guides assemble a bonfire on the beach, giving the blue mercury of the river a golden glow. Bear stories begin to circulate. One of the guides walks around with an electric hair trimmer giving away free mullets. There are two takers. At the edge of the fire, Chum the campdog rests with chin on his paws, ears trained toward the darkening trees and what might lay beyond.

Among the guests, talk turns to naming our respective highlights of the week. Answers are predictable. “My 40-pound king.” “When that 28-inch rainbow crushed my mouse.” “The day I caught 100 pounds of fish without moving my feet.” But when it’s time for one of the older Brits to answer, he shakes his head and smiles. “All of it,” he says. “I just like catching.”

I just like catching. Catching. The intransitive act. No object. I’ve never heard the phrase, can’t tell if it’s poetry or a British commonplace, but its purity makes my head ring like a bell. Often we fly anglers fall prey to a “connoisseurship” at odds with the simplicity that fishing promises. We say things like, “I like bugging low-water smallmouth” or “I only fish the first few days of the Hex hatch.” I once saw a homemade bumper sticker that read, “Tricos or GTFO.” But a week on a Western Alaska salmon river in full swing reminds even the most worldly angler what, deep down, fishing is all about.

Before heading to my tent I walk down to the water one last time. I pick up my 8-weight and take up position in the middle of a run between a pile of driftwood and some old grizzly tracks. I’m just here to catch, I tell the river—no objective, no expectation. I make one last cast after another, on this perfect summer night, under a perfect twilit sky, in what feels like the most essential place in the world.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is our man on the ground in Alaska. He fears no bear and fishes with an assassin’s mentality. When not plundering his local waters or heading to the north country, he serves as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Check out more of his work on IG @davekarczynski

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

Walrus have a penis bone called an oosik—lighter in hand than a moose foreleg, it makes an excellent salmon bonk. Black bear bile can heal your liver and melt your gallstones—and get you arrested if you’re caught in possession of one. If you are encircled by griz and need to cross homicidal CFS to safety, doff your waders, trap them with air and float to the far bank—but kiss your boots goodbye. Mullets are the most efficient haircut known to man—only the word is pronounced moo-LAY.

In an essential place, one learns essential things.

This July afternoon I am indeed in such an essential place—western Alaska’s Kanektok River. More precisely, I’m up to my waist in a chum salmon pool fighting my fifth fish in as many casts, this one raging like it’s just snorted a full tub of bath salts. This particularly fresh specimen has me feeling less like an angler than a matador—my buddy’s warning to wear a cup on the Kanektok was not wrong—and after charging me twice it turns on a dime and takes off in the direction of the Bering Sea. My fishing mates, Hillari Denny and Doc Rideout, groan impatiently. Though we’ve only been at it an hour, we’ve already learned that one angler tethered to a fresh chum is danger, two is a cat’s cradle, and three is a broken-rodded bird’s nest. One mottled silver rocket at a time, please.

“Must be foul hooked,” I shout, and right on cue the fish breaches to flaunt a hook stuck squarely in its mouth. My guide chortles. Hillari and Doc shake their heads. I crank the knob on my drag and look for a similar mechanism on my arm.

The signs this would be a special trip were there the moment we debarked the plane in Quinhagak, after having flown from Anchorage to Bethel. Our shuttle was the sweetest fish ride I’d ever seen, a refurbished school bus with lightning-bolt cracks across the windshield and a rear cab stripped to make a living-room sized platform for gear. Then there was the gross ubiquity of fish in every stage of life and death—leaping and torquing to shake sea lice, shotgunning through the riffles ahead of our boats, dangling from the eaves of the natives’ smokehouses, hanging in the mouths of raptors and gulls. And finally there was our digs. There’s just something about a tent camp that speaks to the seriousness of the piscatorial endeavor. Many of my best fishing days—char in the Andes, mahseer in India, muskies in Michigan—have started with me staring up at a pitched ceiling in the dark, grasping around for my headlamp, wondering where I am.

Finally, my chum is in the net, and there is much rejoicing. It’s a big chrome male with sea lice for days, which earns it a driftwood bonk and free ride to the smokehouse. In no time Hillari is rearing back into a popper-eater that makes her reel sing like a stuck pig. I watch it thrash and tailwalk as I pick a gnarly bowtie out of my running line, unaware that my fly has slipped off its guide and is dangling in the water 10 feet away. Another big chum slams it like a cheater’s first move in tug-of-war, and I barely free my fingers before the knot squeaks tight, and the fish rips downstream.

That’s another essential thing I’ve learned today: You can lose a finger on this river if you’re not careful.

The Kanektok is a seriously busy river, a conveyor belt of salmonid flesh some 80 miles long, beginning in the gunsmoke blue Ahklun Mountains and ending in Kuskokwim Bay at the native town of Quinhagak, which in the Yupik language means “new river channel.” From June to September, its banks are as close to the center of the salmon universe as you can get without sprouting gills. Kings run mid June to mid July, chums mid June to mid August. Sockeye appear in late June and do their thing until the end of the next month. Every other year, pink salmon patrol the river from mid July to early August. Bringing up the rear of the salmon train, silvers run late July through mid September.

I’m here for the Kanektok kings, which have evolved an affinity for annihilating swung flies that is suppressed in other populations. This is not to say you can’t swing a few up elsewhere—you certainly can—but you are unlucky to land a face cord of chinook per day here—what counts as an excellent outing when the run is peaking around the Fourth of July.

There are many challenges to western Alaska king fishing. The first is abiding by the cadence of the tides. On my swing water back in Michigan the CFS has more fixity than the stars, but the Kanektok heaves and falls to the tune of 15 feet a day. This requires anglers to use their line hand to manage the speed of the swing as a morning progresses. As the tide comes in and the current slows, a pure swing turns to a steady left-hand strip and before you know it you’re bringing the fly back in long, slow pulls, like some grandmother working her triceps at the gym. Then there’s the importance of using your eyes. Down in the distance, between the old moose skeleton and the abandoned snow machine, you’ll see a pod of fish breach, at which point you must throw down your sandwich or coffee or camera and make sure your fly is swimming—but not too low. The tidal bottoms have a fair amount of sediment, and kings like to swim with their chins above the murk. Finally, if you are lucky enough to get bit, the king salmon hookset asks you to be a Buddha and beast at the same time, letting the fish leisurely eat the fly and turn downstream before you drive the hook home with a pneumatic intensity—what the guides call “crossing the eyes”.

After which, best of luck.

The Kanektok has its year-round residents as well, rainbows and grayling and dollies that spend the summer in a living hell of salmon Frogger but are rewarded with endless fatty eggs to feast on in return. Given all this fishing opportunity, Kanektok days are predictable only in their unpredictability. You might start the day swinging kings before the current stalls and you hop in the boat to work the pinch points with a single-handed rod. After lunch on the bank, a chum tows you up a side channel where big rainbows with junkyard dog DNA are sulking in a pool, flesh chunks the size of a Crunch bar in their maws. This gives you a rainbow jones, so you shoot upriver to mouse the afternoon, working logjams and flushing rainbows that chomp behind your mouse like they’ve been playing too much PacMan. But then another boat whooshes by, a guide traces a wavelength in the air with his free hand—the tide is going back out—so you gun it back downstream to where the river meets the sea and the horizon goes on forever.

In short, one thing leads to another.

One of our how-did-we-get-here? excursions finds us 20 miles upstream of camp egging a side channel plunge pool where dollies seethe like mosquito larvae in a storm puddle. After having a mostly quiet morning, Doc Rideout unleashes a one man “char-mageddon,” catching one cartwheeling dollie after another. I ditch my rod and instead focus on capturing some midair pictures, and while I get a few decent images, I feel more keenly than usual the limitations of the camera. The modern angler lives in an era of the photograph—we swipe, scroll and tap more fish pics in a day than we used to see in a year. But, after watching this “char-pocalypse” I’m convinced that what fishing needs is not more photographs, but more sounds, not an Instagram but a Piscaphone. To hear the sizzle of the drag, the stumbling of the angler on cobble, the collective sucking in of breath when a good fish jumps, and the guide sloshing forward to stab the net. To listen to the hoots, hollers and high-fives. To behold that moment when the pool goes quiet and the angler goes quieter—that beautiful sound of an angler finally getting his or her fill.

There’s a politeness some exceptional fish grant visiting fishing writers by appearing on the last and most “fateful” day of the trip, but mine comes just past midweek. It catches me totally off guard. Not only do I not see it coming—no porpoising or breaching gives its presence away—but it’s also questionable as to whether my fly was moving when it took. Like a smallmouth taking a popper, my best king rocketed out of the water just after my fly landed. And then it took off downstream.

Way downstream.

When an angler suffering acute salmonitis in his shoulders, biceps, wrists and obliques comes up on a chrome, well-fed king salmon fresh from the sea, it’s unclear who is going to emerge the victor. The first few minutes of the fight are a blur. And then, slowly, I start to gain ground.

That’s when the anxiety sets it.

I know I have a good fish on when I begin to fear losing it—and that fear shows. Followers of my future Piscaphone account will be able to easily distinguish between tiny fish and tremendous fish. Catching small fish, I laugh through an open smile. Catching giants, I curse through gritted teeth. After 10 more minutes—enough time for me to recite a fairly complete encyclopedia of profanity through clenched jaws—my guide motions that it is time. I do as I have been instructed all week, keeping the fish in waist-deep water—shallow water freaks them out—and lift its head just as the net harpoons forward. I stare at the fish in the net for a minute before we get out the tape measure. Forty inches. After flirting with that number all week, I have finally done it.

After a few quick pics it is time to say goodbye, and I find a quiet, shallow flat for the release. In those last moments before letting the fish go, a familiar melancholy settles in. I’ve never been able to quite explain the feeling, which only happens on the best fish, the ones that push you to tie new creatures at the vice, the ones that keep you very alert and awake at night and very distant and distracted at work, the ones that pull you through more airports than is decent in a single day. They are the dream that held power over you all those months and years—that is, until you are holding that dream by the tail. And then it is as if a god has fallen out of the sky in the middle of the day, and you’re watching its wings flounder as it swims in the net. There’s a sense of vulnerability in this moment of having caught the dragon, an awareness that if this impossible dream is real and mortal, then you, who are far less impossible, are real and mortal, too.

Dusk is coming in purple and the river is streaming silver when my best king swims off. I am done for the day.

There’s a feeling, in the endless twilight of an Alaska summer night, of having wandered into some fashion of afterlife. You glut on king crab and strip steaks and salmon cooked three ways, then stroll back down to the river for just a few more casts before bed, which turn into a few more hours of casting. There’s something different about this extra round of fishing, when the light genuflects and the moon rises above the alders. It feels quieter, more intimate, existing apart from the every day business of fishing. Other spirits mill about. A native from Quinhagak arrives on an ATV to meditatively cast a spoon. A few guides slip away to egg rainbows in the permadusk. Ted Leeson once wrote that modern angling was born when certain of our ancestors, after netting and trapping and cleaning fish all day, snuck back to the water at night with a stick and string, because they just could not stay away. Life on the Kanektok corroborates this theory, and no time more so than on the last night, when even those guests who usually go to bed after dinner find themselves waddling out to the beach and taking up a position in the run. A few guides assemble a bonfire on the beach, giving the blue mercury of the river a golden glow. Bear stories begin to circulate. One of the guides walks around with an electric hair trimmer giving away free mullets. There are two takers. At the edge of the fire, Chum the campdog rests with chin on his paws, ears trained toward the darkening trees and what might lay beyond.

Among the guests, talk turns to naming our respective highlights of the week. Answers are predictable. “My 40-pound king.” “When that 28-inch rainbow crushed my mouse.” “The day I caught 100 pounds of fish without moving my feet.” But when it’s time for one of the older Brits to answer, he shakes his head and smiles. “All of it,” he says. “I just like catching.”

I just like catching. Catching. The intransitive act. No object. I’ve never heard the phrase, can’t tell if it’s poetry or a British commonplace, but its purity makes my head ring like a bell. Often we fly anglers fall prey to a “connoisseurship” at odds with the simplicity that fishing promises. We say things like, “I like bugging low-water smallmouth” or “I only fish the first few days of the Hex hatch.” I once saw a homemade bumper sticker that read, “Tricos or GTFO.” But a week on a Western Alaska salmon river in full swing reminds even the most worldly angler what, deep down, fishing is all about.

Before heading to my tent I walk down to the water one last time. I pick up my 8-weight and take up position in the middle of a run between a pile of driftwood and some old grizzly tracks. I’m just here to catch, I tell the river—no objective, no expectation. I make one last cast after another, on this perfect summer night, under a perfect twilit sky, in what feels like the most essential place in the world.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is our man on the ground in Alaska. He fears no bear and fishes with an assassin’s mentality. When not plundering his local waters or heading to the north country, he serves as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Check out more of his work on IG @davekarczynski

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

Walrus have a penis bone called an oosik—lighter in hand than a moose foreleg, it makes an excellent salmon bonk. Black bear bile can heal your liver and melt your gallstones—and get you arrested if you’re caught in possession of one. If you are encircled by griz and need to cross homicidal CFS to safety, doff your waders, trap them with air and float to the far bank—but kiss your boots goodbye. Mullets are the most efficient haircut known to man—only the word is pronounced moo-LAY.

In an essential place, one learns essential things.

This July afternoon I am indeed in such an essential place—western Alaska’s Kanektok River. More precisely, I’m up to my waist in a chum salmon pool fighting my fifth fish in as many casts, this one raging like it’s just snorted a full tub of bath salts. This particularly fresh specimen has me feeling less like an angler than a matador—my buddy’s warning to wear a cup on the Kanektok was not wrong—and after charging me twice it turns on a dime and takes off in the direction of the Bering Sea. My fishing mates, Hillari Denny and Doc Rideout, groan impatiently. Though we’ve only been at it an hour, we’ve already learned that one angler tethered to a fresh chum is danger, two is a cat’s cradle, and three is a broken-rodded bird’s nest. One mottled silver rocket at a time, please.

“Must be foul hooked,” I shout, and right on cue the fish breaches to flaunt a hook stuck squarely in its mouth. My guide chortles. Hillari and Doc shake their heads. I crank the knob on my drag and look for a similar mechanism on my arm.

The signs this would be a special trip were there the moment we debarked the plane in Quinhagak, after having flown from Anchorage to Bethel. Our shuttle was the sweetest fish ride I’d ever seen, a refurbished school bus with lightning-bolt cracks across the windshield and a rear cab stripped to make a living-room sized platform for gear. Then there was the gross ubiquity of fish in every stage of life and death—leaping and torquing to shake sea lice, shotgunning through the riffles ahead of our boats, dangling from the eaves of the natives’ smokehouses, hanging in the mouths of raptors and gulls. And finally there was our digs. There’s just something about a tent camp that speaks to the seriousness of the piscatorial endeavor. Many of my best fishing days—char in the Andes, mahseer in India, muskies in Michigan—have started with me staring up at a pitched ceiling in the dark, grasping around for my headlamp, wondering where I am.

Finally, my chum is in the net, and there is much rejoicing. It’s a big chrome male with sea lice for days, which earns it a driftwood bonk and free ride to the smokehouse. In no time Hillari is rearing back into a popper-eater that makes her reel sing like a stuck pig. I watch it thrash and tailwalk as I pick a gnarly bowtie out of my running line, unaware that my fly has slipped off its guide and is dangling in the water 10 feet away. Another big chum slams it like a cheater’s first move in tug-of-war, and I barely free my fingers before the knot squeaks tight, and the fish rips downstream.

That’s another essential thing I’ve learned today: You can lose a finger on this river if you’re not careful.

The Kanektok is a seriously busy river, a conveyor belt of salmonid flesh some 80 miles long, beginning in the gunsmoke blue Ahklun Mountains and ending in Kuskokwim Bay at the native town of Quinhagak, which in the Yupik language means “new river channel.” From June to September, its banks are as close to the center of the salmon universe as you can get without sprouting gills. Kings run mid June to mid July, chums mid June to mid August. Sockeye appear in late June and do their thing until the end of the next month. Every other year, pink salmon patrol the river from mid July to early August. Bringing up the rear of the salmon train, silvers run late July through mid September.

I’m here for the Kanektok kings, which have evolved an affinity for annihilating swung flies that is suppressed in other populations. This is not to say you can’t swing a few up elsewhere—you certainly can—but you are unlucky to land a face cord of chinook per day here—what counts as an excellent outing when the run is peaking around the Fourth of July.

There are many challenges to western Alaska king fishing. The first is abiding by the cadence of the tides. On my swing water back in Michigan the CFS has more fixity than the stars, but the Kanektok heaves and falls to the tune of 15 feet a day. This requires anglers to use their line hand to manage the speed of the swing as a morning progresses. As the tide comes in and the current slows, a pure swing turns to a steady left-hand strip and before you know it you’re bringing the fly back in long, slow pulls, like some grandmother working her triceps at the gym. Then there’s the importance of using your eyes. Down in the distance, between the old moose skeleton and the abandoned snow machine, you’ll see a pod of fish breach, at which point you must throw down your sandwich or coffee or camera and make sure your fly is swimming—but not too low. The tidal bottoms have a fair amount of sediment, and kings like to swim with their chins above the murk. Finally, if you are lucky enough to get bit, the king salmon hookset asks you to be a Buddha and beast at the same time, letting the fish leisurely eat the fly and turn downstream before you drive the hook home with a pneumatic intensity—what the guides call “crossing the eyes”.

After which, best of luck.

The Kanektok has its year-round residents as well, rainbows and grayling and dollies that spend the summer in a living hell of salmon Frogger but are rewarded with endless fatty eggs to feast on in return. Given all this fishing opportunity, Kanektok days are predictable only in their unpredictability. You might start the day swinging kings before the current stalls and you hop in the boat to work the pinch points with a single-handed rod. After lunch on the bank, a chum tows you up a side channel where big rainbows with junkyard dog DNA are sulking in a pool, flesh chunks the size of a Crunch bar in their maws. This gives you a rainbow jones, so you shoot upriver to mouse the afternoon, working logjams and flushing rainbows that chomp behind your mouse like they’ve been playing too much PacMan. But then another boat whooshes by, a guide traces a wavelength in the air with his free hand—the tide is going back out—so you gun it back downstream to where the river meets the sea and the horizon goes on forever.

In short, one thing leads to another.

One of our how-did-we-get-here? excursions finds us 20 miles upstream of camp egging a side channel plunge pool where dollies seethe like mosquito larvae in a storm puddle. After having a mostly quiet morning, Doc Rideout unleashes a one man “char-mageddon,” catching one cartwheeling dollie after another. I ditch my rod and instead focus on capturing some midair pictures, and while I get a few decent images, I feel more keenly than usual the limitations of the camera. The modern angler lives in an era of the photograph—we swipe, scroll and tap more fish pics in a day than we used to see in a year. But, after watching this “char-pocalypse” I’m convinced that what fishing needs is not more photographs, but more sounds, not an Instagram but a Piscaphone. To hear the sizzle of the drag, the stumbling of the angler on cobble, the collective sucking in of breath when a good fish jumps, and the guide sloshing forward to stab the net. To listen to the hoots, hollers and high-fives. To behold that moment when the pool goes quiet and the angler goes quieter—that beautiful sound of an angler finally getting his or her fill.

There’s a politeness some exceptional fish grant visiting fishing writers by appearing on the last and most “fateful” day of the trip, but mine comes just past midweek. It catches me totally off guard. Not only do I not see it coming—no porpoising or breaching gives its presence away—but it’s also questionable as to whether my fly was moving when it took. Like a smallmouth taking a popper, my best king rocketed out of the water just after my fly landed. And then it took off downstream.

Way downstream.

When an angler suffering acute salmonitis in his shoulders, biceps, wrists and obliques comes up on a chrome, well-fed king salmon fresh from the sea, it’s unclear who is going to emerge the victor. The first few minutes of the fight are a blur. And then, slowly, I start to gain ground.

That’s when the anxiety sets it.

I know I have a good fish on when I begin to fear losing it—and that fear shows. Followers of my future Piscaphone account will be able to easily distinguish between tiny fish and tremendous fish. Catching small fish, I laugh through an open smile. Catching giants, I curse through gritted teeth. After 10 more minutes—enough time for me to recite a fairly complete encyclopedia of profanity through clenched jaws—my guide motions that it is time. I do as I have been instructed all week, keeping the fish in waist-deep water—shallow water freaks them out—and lift its head just as the net harpoons forward. I stare at the fish in the net for a minute before we get out the tape measure. Forty inches. After flirting with that number all week, I have finally done it.

After a few quick pics it is time to say goodbye, and I find a quiet, shallow flat for the release. In those last moments before letting the fish go, a familiar melancholy settles in. I’ve never been able to quite explain the feeling, which only happens on the best fish, the ones that push you to tie new creatures at the vice, the ones that keep you very alert and awake at night and very distant and distracted at work, the ones that pull you through more airports than is decent in a single day. They are the dream that held power over you all those months and years—that is, until you are holding that dream by the tail. And then it is as if a god has fallen out of the sky in the middle of the day, and you’re watching its wings flounder as it swims in the net. There’s a sense of vulnerability in this moment of having caught the dragon, an awareness that if this impossible dream is real and mortal, then you, who are far less impossible, are real and mortal, too.

Dusk is coming in purple and the river is streaming silver when my best king swims off. I am done for the day.

There’s a feeling, in the endless twilight of an Alaska summer night, of having wandered into some fashion of afterlife. You glut on king crab and strip steaks and salmon cooked three ways, then stroll back down to the river for just a few more casts before bed, which turn into a few more hours of casting. There’s something different about this extra round of fishing, when the light genuflects and the moon rises above the alders. It feels quieter, more intimate, existing apart from the every day business of fishing. Other spirits mill about. A native from Quinhagak arrives on an ATV to meditatively cast a spoon. A few guides slip away to egg rainbows in the permadusk. Ted Leeson once wrote that modern angling was born when certain of our ancestors, after netting and trapping and cleaning fish all day, snuck back to the water at night with a stick and string, because they just could not stay away. Life on the Kanektok corroborates this theory, and no time more so than on the last night, when even those guests who usually go to bed after dinner find themselves waddling out to the beach and taking up a position in the run. A few guides assemble a bonfire on the beach, giving the blue mercury of the river a golden glow. Bear stories begin to circulate. One of the guides walks around with an electric hair trimmer giving away free mullets. There are two takers. At the edge of the fire, Chum the campdog rests with chin on his paws, ears trained toward the darkening trees and what might lay beyond.

Among the guests, talk turns to naming our respective highlights of the week. Answers are predictable. “My 40-pound king.” “When that 28-inch rainbow crushed my mouse.” “The day I caught 100 pounds of fish without moving my feet.” But when it’s time for one of the older Brits to answer, he shakes his head and smiles. “All of it,” he says. “I just like catching.”

I just like catching. Catching. The intransitive act. No object. I’ve never heard the phrase, can’t tell if it’s poetry or a British commonplace, but its purity makes my head ring like a bell. Often we fly anglers fall prey to a “connoisseurship” at odds with the simplicity that fishing promises. We say things like, “I like bugging low-water smallmouth” or “I only fish the first few days of the Hex hatch.” I once saw a homemade bumper sticker that read, “Tricos or GTFO.” But a week on a Western Alaska salmon river in full swing reminds even the most worldly angler what, deep down, fishing is all about.

Before heading to my tent I walk down to the water one last time. I pick up my 8-weight and take up position in the middle of a run between a pile of driftwood and some old grizzly tracks. I’m just here to catch, I tell the river—no objective, no expectation. I make one last cast after another, on this perfect summer night, under a perfect twilit sky, in what feels like the most essential place in the world.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is our man on the ground in Alaska. He fears no bear and fishes with an assassin’s mentality. When not plundering his local waters or heading to the north country, he serves as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Check out more of his work on IG @davekarczynski

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

Walrus have a penis bone called an oosik—lighter in hand than a moose foreleg, it makes an excellent salmon bonk. Black bear bile can heal your liver and melt your gallstones—and get you arrested if you’re caught in possession of one. If you are encircled by griz and need to cross homicidal CFS to safety, doff your waders, trap them with air and float to the far bank—but kiss your boots goodbye. Mullets are the most efficient haircut known to man—only the word is pronounced moo-LAY.

In an essential place, one learns essential things.

This July afternoon I am indeed in such an essential place—western Alaska’s Kanektok River. More precisely, I’m up to my waist in a chum salmon pool fighting my fifth fish in as many casts, this one raging like it’s just snorted a full tub of bath salts. This particularly fresh specimen has me feeling less like an angler than a matador—my buddy’s warning to wear a cup on the Kanektok was not wrong—and after charging me twice it turns on a dime and takes off in the direction of the Bering Sea. My fishing mates, Hillari Denny and Doc Rideout, groan impatiently. Though we’ve only been at it an hour, we’ve already learned that one angler tethered to a fresh chum is danger, two is a cat’s cradle, and three is a broken-rodded bird’s nest. One mottled silver rocket at a time, please.

“Must be foul hooked,” I shout, and right on cue the fish breaches to flaunt a hook stuck squarely in its mouth. My guide chortles. Hillari and Doc shake their heads. I crank the knob on my drag and look for a similar mechanism on my arm.

The signs this would be a special trip were there the moment we debarked the plane in Quinhagak, after having flown from Anchorage to Bethel. Our shuttle was the sweetest fish ride I’d ever seen, a refurbished school bus with lightning-bolt cracks across the windshield and a rear cab stripped to make a living-room sized platform for gear. Then there was the gross ubiquity of fish in every stage of life and death—leaping and torquing to shake sea lice, shotgunning through the riffles ahead of our boats, dangling from the eaves of the natives’ smokehouses, hanging in the mouths of raptors and gulls. And finally there was our digs. There’s just something about a tent camp that speaks to the seriousness of the piscatorial endeavor. Many of my best fishing days—char in the Andes, mahseer in India, muskies in Michigan—have started with me staring up at a pitched ceiling in the dark, grasping around for my headlamp, wondering where I am.

Finally, my chum is in the net, and there is much rejoicing. It’s a big chrome male with sea lice for days, which earns it a driftwood bonk and free ride to the smokehouse. In no time Hillari is rearing back into a popper-eater that makes her reel sing like a stuck pig. I watch it thrash and tailwalk as I pick a gnarly bowtie out of my running line, unaware that my fly has slipped off its guide and is dangling in the water 10 feet away. Another big chum slams it like a cheater’s first move in tug-of-war, and I barely free my fingers before the knot squeaks tight, and the fish rips downstream.

That’s another essential thing I’ve learned today: You can lose a finger on this river if you’re not careful.

The Kanektok is a seriously busy river, a conveyor belt of salmonid flesh some 80 miles long, beginning in the gunsmoke blue Ahklun Mountains and ending in Kuskokwim Bay at the native town of Quinhagak, which in the Yupik language means “new river channel.” From June to September, its banks are as close to the center of the salmon universe as you can get without sprouting gills. Kings run mid June to mid July, chums mid June to mid August. Sockeye appear in late June and do their thing until the end of the next month. Every other year, pink salmon patrol the river from mid July to early August. Bringing up the rear of the salmon train, silvers run late July through mid September.

I’m here for the Kanektok kings, which have evolved an affinity for annihilating swung flies that is suppressed in other populations. This is not to say you can’t swing a few up elsewhere—you certainly can—but you are unlucky to land a face cord of chinook per day here—what counts as an excellent outing when the run is peaking around the Fourth of July.

There are many challenges to western Alaska king fishing. The first is abiding by the cadence of the tides. On my swing water back in Michigan the CFS has more fixity than the stars, but the Kanektok heaves and falls to the tune of 15 feet a day. This requires anglers to use their line hand to manage the speed of the swing as a morning progresses. As the tide comes in and the current slows, a pure swing turns to a steady left-hand strip and before you know it you’re bringing the fly back in long, slow pulls, like some grandmother working her triceps at the gym. Then there’s the importance of using your eyes. Down in the distance, between the old moose skeleton and the abandoned snow machine, you’ll see a pod of fish breach, at which point you must throw down your sandwich or coffee or camera and make sure your fly is swimming—but not too low. The tidal bottoms have a fair amount of sediment, and kings like to swim with their chins above the murk. Finally, if you are lucky enough to get bit, the king salmon hookset asks you to be a Buddha and beast at the same time, letting the fish leisurely eat the fly and turn downstream before you drive the hook home with a pneumatic intensity—what the guides call “crossing the eyes”.

After which, best of luck.

The Kanektok has its year-round residents as well, rainbows and grayling and dollies that spend the summer in a living hell of salmon Frogger but are rewarded with endless fatty eggs to feast on in return. Given all this fishing opportunity, Kanektok days are predictable only in their unpredictability. You might start the day swinging kings before the current stalls and you hop in the boat to work the pinch points with a single-handed rod. After lunch on the bank, a chum tows you up a side channel where big rainbows with junkyard dog DNA are sulking in a pool, flesh chunks the size of a Crunch bar in their maws. This gives you a rainbow jones, so you shoot upriver to mouse the afternoon, working logjams and flushing rainbows that chomp behind your mouse like they’ve been playing too much PacMan. But then another boat whooshes by, a guide traces a wavelength in the air with his free hand—the tide is going back out—so you gun it back downstream to where the river meets the sea and the horizon goes on forever.

In short, one thing leads to another.

One of our how-did-we-get-here? excursions finds us 20 miles upstream of camp egging a side channel plunge pool where dollies seethe like mosquito larvae in a storm puddle. After having a mostly quiet morning, Doc Rideout unleashes a one man “char-mageddon,” catching one cartwheeling dollie after another. I ditch my rod and instead focus on capturing some midair pictures, and while I get a few decent images, I feel more keenly than usual the limitations of the camera. The modern angler lives in an era of the photograph—we swipe, scroll and tap more fish pics in a day than we used to see in a year. But, after watching this “char-pocalypse” I’m convinced that what fishing needs is not more photographs, but more sounds, not an Instagram but a Piscaphone. To hear the sizzle of the drag, the stumbling of the angler on cobble, the collective sucking in of breath when a good fish jumps, and the guide sloshing forward to stab the net. To listen to the hoots, hollers and high-fives. To behold that moment when the pool goes quiet and the angler goes quieter—that beautiful sound of an angler finally getting his or her fill.

There’s a politeness some exceptional fish grant visiting fishing writers by appearing on the last and most “fateful” day of the trip, but mine comes just past midweek. It catches me totally off guard. Not only do I not see it coming—no porpoising or breaching gives its presence away—but it’s also questionable as to whether my fly was moving when it took. Like a smallmouth taking a popper, my best king rocketed out of the water just after my fly landed. And then it took off downstream.

Way downstream.

When an angler suffering acute salmonitis in his shoulders, biceps, wrists and obliques comes up on a chrome, well-fed king salmon fresh from the sea, it’s unclear who is going to emerge the victor. The first few minutes of the fight are a blur. And then, slowly, I start to gain ground.

That’s when the anxiety sets it.

I know I have a good fish on when I begin to fear losing it—and that fear shows. Followers of my future Piscaphone account will be able to easily distinguish between tiny fish and tremendous fish. Catching small fish, I laugh through an open smile. Catching giants, I curse through gritted teeth. After 10 more minutes—enough time for me to recite a fairly complete encyclopedia of profanity through clenched jaws—my guide motions that it is time. I do as I have been instructed all week, keeping the fish in waist-deep water—shallow water freaks them out—and lift its head just as the net harpoons forward. I stare at the fish in the net for a minute before we get out the tape measure. Forty inches. After flirting with that number all week, I have finally done it.

After a few quick pics it is time to say goodbye, and I find a quiet, shallow flat for the release. In those last moments before letting the fish go, a familiar melancholy settles in. I’ve never been able to quite explain the feeling, which only happens on the best fish, the ones that push you to tie new creatures at the vice, the ones that keep you very alert and awake at night and very distant and distracted at work, the ones that pull you through more airports than is decent in a single day. They are the dream that held power over you all those months and years—that is, until you are holding that dream by the tail. And then it is as if a god has fallen out of the sky in the middle of the day, and you’re watching its wings flounder as it swims in the net. There’s a sense of vulnerability in this moment of having caught the dragon, an awareness that if this impossible dream is real and mortal, then you, who are far less impossible, are real and mortal, too.

Dusk is coming in purple and the river is streaming silver when my best king swims off. I am done for the day.

There’s a feeling, in the endless twilight of an Alaska summer night, of having wandered into some fashion of afterlife. You glut on king crab and strip steaks and salmon cooked three ways, then stroll back down to the river for just a few more casts before bed, which turn into a few more hours of casting. There’s something different about this extra round of fishing, when the light genuflects and the moon rises above the alders. It feels quieter, more intimate, existing apart from the every day business of fishing. Other spirits mill about. A native from Quinhagak arrives on an ATV to meditatively cast a spoon. A few guides slip away to egg rainbows in the permadusk. Ted Leeson once wrote that modern angling was born when certain of our ancestors, after netting and trapping and cleaning fish all day, snuck back to the water at night with a stick and string, because they just could not stay away. Life on the Kanektok corroborates this theory, and no time more so than on the last night, when even those guests who usually go to bed after dinner find themselves waddling out to the beach and taking up a position in the run. A few guides assemble a bonfire on the beach, giving the blue mercury of the river a golden glow. Bear stories begin to circulate. One of the guides walks around with an electric hair trimmer giving away free mullets. There are two takers. At the edge of the fire, Chum the campdog rests with chin on his paws, ears trained toward the darkening trees and what might lay beyond.

Among the guests, talk turns to naming our respective highlights of the week. Answers are predictable. “My 40-pound king.” “When that 28-inch rainbow crushed my mouse.” “The day I caught 100 pounds of fish without moving my feet.” But when it’s time for one of the older Brits to answer, he shakes his head and smiles. “All of it,” he says. “I just like catching.”

I just like catching. Catching. The intransitive act. No object. I’ve never heard the phrase, can’t tell if it’s poetry or a British commonplace, but its purity makes my head ring like a bell. Often we fly anglers fall prey to a “connoisseurship” at odds with the simplicity that fishing promises. We say things like, “I like bugging low-water smallmouth” or “I only fish the first few days of the Hex hatch.” I once saw a homemade bumper sticker that read, “Tricos or GTFO.” But a week on a Western Alaska salmon river in full swing reminds even the most worldly angler what, deep down, fishing is all about.

Before heading to my tent I walk down to the water one last time. I pick up my 8-weight and take up position in the middle of a run between a pile of driftwood and some old grizzly tracks. I’m just here to catch, I tell the river—no objective, no expectation. I make one last cast after another, on this perfect summer night, under a perfect twilit sky, in what feels like the most essential place in the world.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is our man on the ground in Alaska. He fears no bear and fishes with an assassin’s mentality. When not plundering his local waters or heading to the north country, he serves as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Check out more of his work on IG @davekarczynski