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Edition Six Editors Note Row Two Archives - FFI Magazine

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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

Superior pike are, literally, a handful. They are aggressive, they grow to large size, and they tear up gear. Dan Favato and fishing guide Tyler Dunn put it all together to catch this beast.
(Dan Favato)

Pike are fierce, coldhearted and primal. They are ambush predators and use the element of surprise and disguise to capture prey. Then they crush it in long jaws filled with jagged teeth. When a pike takes a large streamer in shallow water, the surface explodes. This is not dry-fly fishing in spring creeks. Pike don’t do subtle. They are smash-and-grab artists. And that makes them an exciting beast to catch on a fly.

You can catch small and medium-size pike about anywhere in Canada and the northern United States, but most anglers want to tangle with pike that are the length of small alligators. Huge pike, however, are not common or easy to find. These fish grow slowly and are vulnerable to over-harvest. In addition, most trophy pike fisheries are remote and not easily accessible. This writer has flown all over Canada for large pike, including the northern extremities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in the Northwest Territories. Yet the best trophy pike fishing I’ve seen is actually right on the doorstep of my home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is the domain of some truly giant pike.

Superior pike average in the high 30-inch range, with many fish measuring 40 inches and up. That’s due to the lake’s cold water, an incredible amount of forage fish, and a lack of real angling pressure—a perfect scenario to grow huge pike. My largest Superior pike measured 47 inches long and was as thick as a small tree. It came out of two feet of water in a bay that is a 40-minute drive from my home. Accessibility and huge pike are rarely things that go together but here, in Thunder Bay, it works nicely.

I grew up catching pike right inside the Thunder Bay harbor. In those days, I didn’t know it was unusual to catch massive pike right off the shore in urban areas. Only as I grew up and began to travel did it become clear that a pike of 40 inches or better was a rare animal.

Lake Superior has a huge basin and a lot of deep water, but there are many bays, inlets and river mouths that provide the shallow stuff that pike require for spawning. This thin water, especially if there is weed growth, is where you’ll find pike. The majority of fly-caught pike will be in water 10 feet deep or less. I’ve caught pike in water so shallow you could see the top of their tail fin sticking out.

Superior pike move into the shallows shortly after ice out and spawn. Creeks, swamps, and reed beds in back bays all attract these fish. The pike spawn quickly, but hang around for weeks afterwards. These shallow spots hold fish well into early summer as the warmer water also attracts baitfish like shiners and suckers.

Pike are aggressive and active when they spawn, so it’s not uncommon to see huge boils where fish are chasing or even biting each other. Superior pike tend to be deep bodied and powerful. These fish are awesome fighters in shallow water and can destroy fly tackle.

I’ve found that simple patterns work well for these pike, with streamers of four or fives inches long getting the nod. The Lefty Deceiver is a classic pattern, as are the Pike Bunny and SeaDucer. Any basic streamer pattern with white, pink, yellow or red will catch pike. Pike flies take serious abuse so the more basic the tie the better. Adding a weed guard reduces the collection of salad (weeds) on the fly.

Using a white or light-colored fly makes it easier to sight fish for pike. Not all of Superior’s water is crystal clear. Yet even in slightly stained water, you can often see pike sitting in the shallows. A quality set of sunglasses helps a lot when spotting pike. A bright, sunny, calm day is prime time for sight fishing. Sometimes these pike will seem completely dormant, as if in a deep sleep. This is particularly true in the morning. Pike sitting on the bottom are easily spooked by traditional gear like spoons and spinners. Yet the fly angler can gently drop a streamer in front of these pike without spooking them. The trick is to slowly strip the fly in front of the pike, allowing it to pulse enticingly. Many times, pike simply suck the fly in, barely moving to do so. A flash of white when the mouth opens is often the only clue the fish has eaten. When that happens, strip set and hang on.

You can also catch these pike on topwater flies, especially as the water warms in early summer. When the surface temperature tops 60 degrees Fahrenheit, pike start looking up. There are few strikes as heart-stopping as a mammoth pike taking a fly off the surface. Once again, the top surface flies are simple and tough. A giant popper called the Banger is great, as is the Dahlberg Diver. Anything that sits on the surface and makes a disturbance when stripped gets a pike’s attention. A guy I know from Wawa, Ontario makes his surface lures out of foam he reclaims from flip-flops. No need to get fancy.

One of the charming and frustrating aspects of pike fishing is their terrible aim. A pike can come roaring out of the water and completely miss your popper. Few sights make the heart stop like an airborne 40-inch pike, even if it’s just missed your fly.

Tackle for pike is relatively simple. A 9 or 10-weight rod of at least 9 feet with a floating line, is all it takes. Leaders need not be long and should be constructed of at least 20-pound test monofilament. Use a foot of bite-proof leader material or just tie on a thin wire leader. Casting large pike flies can be hard work, so a beefy rod really helps. Thankfully, casts need not be super long. A medium-fast strip works well when pike are active, with a nice straight retrieve. Strikes are generally hard and as often as not the pike hooks itself. It can be tricky to land large pike in weeds and reeds as they invariably swim right through the thickest stuff.

Picking a location for pike in Lake Superior should not be terribly difficult, especially if you are fishing with one of Quebec Lodge’s experienced guides. There are several easy-to-reach locations, including a great one on the waterfront of Thunder Bay. Pike are quite common along Thunder Bay’s shoreline with Marina Park, the Neebing River Floodway and Fisherman’s Park—at the mouth of the Current River—being prime locations. Other top areas include Sturgeon Bay and Cloud Bay, west of Thunder Bay, and Black Bay and Nipigon Bay east of the city. The mouth of the Nipigon River, and the Nipigon Marina are also well-known pike hotspots. Although Lake Superior bays are huge, a look at Google Earth reveals the shallow areas and inlets where pike congregate. Some spots are easily accessible and can be fished from shore, while others require a canoe or kayak, at the very least. I’ve seen some very large pike caught by kayak anglers over the years, and it is never boring to watch.

As for numbers, your tally can vary widely, from sheer mayhem to a half a dozen a day, depending on timing. Colder water usually means fewer bites. The action picks up as soon as the surface temperature tops 50 degrees. When conditions are prime, anglers generally catch a dozen pike during a four-hour fish, with some large ones mixed in. As already stated, the average Superior pike is in the mid-to-high 30-inch range, which is a good fish anywhere. Yet the reality of a 40-inch plus pike—and numbers of them—is very real. I’ve not personally seen a 50-inch pike caught from Superior, but I know people who have taken them. A huge-bodied 50-inch Superior pike on a fly is the stuff dreams are made of.

Spring and early summer are prime times for pike. The lake is generally free of ice by mid-May, and the angling begins soon afterwards. Pike stay shallow well into June and even July, depending on water temperatures. Once the surface temperature reaches the mid-60s, pike start to move into slightly deeper water. That doesn’t mean pike can’t be caught, they just tend to be more scattered. Summer pike in Superior are found around weedbeds, points and river-mouths well into the fall. More than a few fall steelhead anglers have cast to a river-mouth in September and hooked an enormous pike. Current always holds baitfish, like suckers, whitefish and smelt, and that means pike will be close by.

Getting to the north shore of Lake Superior is not difficult. You can drive to just about any fishable part of it via the Trans-Canada Highway. You can also fly into Thunder Bay from a large number of destinations. From there you will fish out of the historic Quebec Lodge, which was built in the 1930s and is nestled on a high point overlooking Nipigon Bay. By day you will fish with excellent guides who know the places where the biggest pike swim. In the evenings you’ll feast on home-cooked meals. A great room also beckons guests for fly tying, drinks and conversation.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, photographer and fly-fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ellis has worked as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s. In 2018 Ellis was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

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 ou