No takes. No more sign of shadows. I snapped a few photos, and then joined the others in the water and we continued working our way downriver.
We worked another hundred yards and two bends in the river before Glen had his first strike. He was drifting his orange flesh fly through soft water, in a deeper stretch below a rip. Oddly, the hit came not as he drifted the fly downstream—imitating the natural drift of salmon flesh—but as he stripped the line slowly back in. It was a soft hit that missed the hook. But he soon had a second hit, and a third, all light taps on the retrieve.
I looked around again, trying to read the river and understand why the fish might be hitting in this particular spot. The sockeye salmon that draw trout out of the lakes and into the river were gone. Or, rather, the living sockeye were gone. What Glen spotted flying over, however, were the carcasses of hundreds of spent salmon in eddies and backwaters near the banks. And dead salmon meant dead salmon flesh floating downriver: an easy river mouthful for a hungry trout. Glen had tied on a gaudy orange pattern. And the trout liked it.
The first fish Glen landed was a smallish rainbow, only 15 inches or so. It would prove to be the smallest fish of the day. His second fish, still in the same hole, was an absolute football, rippling with fat reserves, and muscular enough to put a serious bend in his rod. I didn’t get a good look at his third fish because soon after he hooked it I got busy snipping off my Egg-Sucking Leech and tying on one of my own flesh flies: a body of hot purple zonker strip, two pink beads, and some softer pink marabou wrapped like hackle around a 4X long #4 hook.
Within minutes I was fighting my first bow of day: another football-shaped mass of fat and muscle that had more the girth of a 28-inch fish than the 20 to 21 inches it actually measured. And I was wondering what foolishness had kept me from imitating Glen’s fly selection from the very start.
American Creek is one of Bristol Bay’s remarkable rivers. It sits in the upper portion of the Naknek drainage, which also includes the famous Brooks Camp, where fat bears catch salmon out of the air as they leap the Brooks River falls. American starts at the outlet of Hammersly Lake, at an elevation of 1,599 feet, making it not only the highest point I’ve fished in Katmai, but likely the highest elevation I’ve fished anywhere in the presence of spawning—or spawned out—salmon. It flows some 30 miles total, starting north, then turning east where it wanders through the hills just south of Nonvianuk Lake, before veering south to run its final 10 miles into Lake Coville. Coville drains back toward the east (temporarily moving away from Bristol Bay) into Lake Grosvenor which eventually drains down toward Naknek Lake. The only access to American Creek is by boat or float plane at either end of its 30-mile run.
Alsworth didn’t have American Creek in mind for a late summer/early fall trip but, for a couple years, he’d tried to get me to come in September, his favorite season. Although the weather could get sketchy, the fish would be as fat and healthy as they’d been all year. Dolly Varden char, even at their dullest, are a stunningly beautiful fish, sides dotted with rich, magenta pearls. During fall they are particularly bright and breathtaking, with red bellies that rival those found on a male eastern brook trout’s, and lips so vivid orangish-yellow that you might think they got into their mother’s lipstick. So after reading up about the safest way to fly a commercial airline during a pandemic, I’d taken the leap and purchased plane tickets.
And there I was out casting in a well-known Katmai river, with the notorious September weather tying wind knots that actually were the result of wind. But even when the sky opened up and started dumping a heavy rain on us for a quarter of an hour, I was quite happy. The fish were coming one after another. We mostly found them congregating in big pods in long patches of soft water every hundred yards or so, but I also hooked into a few in the small pockets behind rocks or against the shore.