Casting creeks on the Alaska Peninsula
The greatest day I’ve ever had as a fisherman was not while standing in a river with a fly rod in hand. Instead, it took place years ago, back in 1987, when I was 21 and commercial fishing on a boat named the Elding. This boat was just 32 feet long, had sunk twice in the harbor before I started fishing on it, and was the smallest in a fleet of trollers working the south end of Baranof Island.
On that day my boss and I landed more than a hundred king salmon that averaged 20 pounds each, including a behemoth that weighed 65 pounds—dressed. I’d never heard a sweeter sound than my gaff coming down flush on that king’s head, just before I swung the quivering fish aboard. A day later, when we pointed our bow towards a buying scow in Gedney Harbor, we were low in the water and carrying more than 200 shiny kings in the hold. I never forgot that experience, and my appreciation for kings never waned.
Kings, also called chinooks, are the largest of five Pacific salmon species and can grow to a hundred pounds or more. They are serious game on a fly rod and can destroy an angler’s tackle as well as their soul. When I first fished kings with a fly rod—a six-weight of all things—I ran out of leaders, flies, and finally my fly line before I called it quits. I’d landed exactly one fish in a few days of effort. Fortunately, that king was a 40-pounder, something I’ve yet to match in an additional 30 years of fishing.
I tried to beat that record a few years ago when I traveled from my home in Montana to Anchorage and then on to Cold Bay before catching another flight to Nelson Lagoon, which is nestled along the Bering Sea, way out on the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.
A friend and I had permission to fish 40 miles of a remote, weather-beaten and brown bear infested coast. We had our sights set on the Steelhead River, but would also fish Black Sand Creek and a couple other streams along the way. We accessed those waters in a Jeep and slept at night in Weatherport-style tents, all surrounded by some heavy-duty electric fencing.
During the course of the week we saw a couple dozen brown bears, some wandering just outside the fence. This was a little unnerving for my friend and me, and our guide, and it was perfectly terrifying for our camp cook, who quit on the second day and drove a Jeep back to her village. I never knew that hash browns and scrambled eggs could taste so good for breakfast, lunch…and dinner.
During our trip we found kings, but not in the numbers we’d hoped. Water conditions were marginal at best—low and clear, which made the fish spooky. Slap a cast down on the surface and the whole pod would blast back to the ocean. The fish might hold in the lower ends of these rivers for only short periods before shooting upstream, into narrower slots that weren’t ideal for fishing. Besides, that’s where the bears hung out and I wasn’t willing to trek into their territory whether a 60-pounder might be found or not.
Between incoming tides, which we hoped would bring in fresh fish, we scoured the beaches, digging with trowels wherever we found exposed string and rope sticking out of the storm-pounded banks. We pulled more than a hundred Japanese glass balls from the sand and clay and discovered whale vertebrae, bear and walrus skulls, and other interesting debris. Once, when I looked toward the glass-calm ocean, I discovered a gray whale scratching itself in shallow water, just yards away. I walked to the edge of the ocean and looked directly into the whale’s eye and it into mine, before it tilted on a side, raised a fin, and seemingly waved goodbye before gliding away.
On the third day, a storm came in and the ocean turned violent. And on the fourth day, with wind gusting to 70 miles an hour, and the tops being blown right off of the waves, the fish streamed in. Kings stacked up in the Steelhead. We chased those kings up and down the lower river, losing some, landing and releasing others—perhaps 30 fish total—before a coastal grizzly sent us back to camp. Once it wandered away, we hit those fish again.
We hooked 30-pounders that leaped three feet high, and followed fish, with fly rods bent over, from the top run back into the Bering Sea, where seals nearly chased them onto the beach. We may have landed a dozen fish ranging between 15 and 20 pounds and several more that nudged 30. Kings are an ultimate angling goal and to catch them in such a remote setting, on the edge of the Bering Sea and under one of the most active stratocone volcanoes on the planet, Pavlof, is as wild as it gets.
Check out more photos from Greg Thomas’ story HERE.
Greg Thomas is the editor-in-chief of American Angler magazine and owns the website anglerstonic.com. He lives in Montana with his two daughters and visits Alaska as often as possible.