The Kenectok River was quite an experience, culture shock really, after spending so much time alone fishing on the Igushik River. It seemed strange to be around the vast number of guides, and clients, boats racing around competing for places where the guides felt confident their dudes would be able get into some fish.
It was my first experience in Alaska dealing with such a busy river, the amount of traffic on the Kenectok at times was over whelming, and remember, this was 1985. There was a reason why there were so many guides and clients fishing, the fishing was incredible. On my last day I moved down by the Airport on the lower river to wait for my plane to retrieve me. We did not have a specific time, so I felt it best to be near and fish just around the runway. Within two hours of fishing I landed numerous amounts of salmon, most fresh, just in from the salt. It may have been a strange year, I do not know, but, I remember catching Kings, Chums and Sockeye. It was late summer, but indeed all the salmon were present, even a few “Pinks” were making a showing, and the silver salmon were just starting to inhabit the lower river.
The silvers are a perfect fish for a fly rod; they are very aggressive and will attack a fly. The silvers vary from area to area on size, but, usually they range from 8-12 lbs., and they fight with every pound. The silver’s are great leapers, jumping and attaining air trying to dis-lodge the hooks in their mouths. The very first salmon I caught in Alaska was silver just outside of the Capital Juneau. I just had arrived to Alaska and could not wait to get out fishing, so I hitch–hiked out to a stream well know for its silver run. An Eskimo in his late twenties in an old van picked me up and told me he was just released from prison, and he too wanted to get out and do some fishing. He told me how hard it was for him to be incarcerated, he said he felt like an animal in a Zoo, caged. I offered him a fresh orange, and he declined, saying that he only liked fruit from a can; he said it was just what he was use to eating. This was my first encounter with an Eskimo, little did I know, in a month’s time I would be living just above the Arctic Circle on the Kobuk River teaching and living with Eskimo’s.
We arrived at the creek and there were just a few other fishermen, we were both happy to know that it would not be crowded, and we both assembled our gear and started fishing. The creek was tidal; it was low tide so it made it easy to get the fly in a zone where the fish could see the artificial. The creek itself was only 25 feet across, slow moving, three to four feet deep in the pools, and had a dark amber color, which meanders through a large meadow that is lined with a thick forest of Ceder Trees. Along the creek was huge piles of very pungent, grey bear scat. The bears would eat salmon and walk along the creek depositing what they were eating, and leaving half eaten salmon up and down the sides of the creek. The smell is just awful; it was the only downside to such a remarkable environment to fish.
My first salmon was something I will never forget, for many reasons, but mainly due to the great size of the hard fighting silver salmon. I was using a six weight Sage, and it always makes landing a large fish more interesting when your using an under sized rod, not that I recommend this practice, I‘ve always been one to advocate “right tool for the job”. But, I was not sure of the size of the quarry; I’d just arrived and wanted to catch something, anything. I was using a light sink tip line with some flashy flies I had tied, my new buddy was getting fish on a pixie, he had never seen anybody fly fish before, and thought it looked strange. Just then, I finally hooked up, my sink tip line started screaming off my reel, but due to the dark color of the water I could not tell which direction the line was going. Off to my right, up stream around 70 feet, a huge fish became airborne, shaking and bending like a fish possessed. I pulled up on my line and much to my amazement to find that this beast was indeed at the end of my line. This being a small creek, there is not a lot of room for a fish of this size to run and fight, so it was airborne most of the 15 minutes or so it took to land the beauty. It being my first big fish caught in Alaska, I measured this big male, and it came to 34 inch’s long and had a girth of 26 inches. Weight, who knows , 17, 18 lbs., maybe, it was big, and fought like crazy, and it was my first, yes, I was glad to be in Alaska.
Upon my return to Manokotak from the Kenecktok River, I found a busy Village full of people of all ages, walking, riding four wheelers, kids playing, and the beach full of boats, everyone was back from camp. I’d run into Leroy and he’d said the upper river was full of Silvers, and that everybody was catching them. I couldn’t wait to get up stream and get into the last run of Salmon for the season. My freezer was full of Red salmon, so, I’d only eat fresh fish from now on, or just release them.
My first summer after teaching in Noorvik (Kobuk River), I decided to spend the summer in the Village and fish. This is in Northern Alaska on the Western part of the Brooks Range, just east of Kotzebue. I’d fish on the beach down from where I was living, there were Sheefish, (looks like a tarpon, but fresh water fish that can tolerate estuary water mixing with salt) that would migrate by the Village to spawn up stream. In addition, were the salmon, and, the Pike were everywhere. I had a small boat to move around some, but the fishing was good right off the beach. Here I would catch mainly salmon, but always pike, all sizes; most were around 24 inch’s. After releasing around 20 salmon (Chums), and many pike, I went up to the house to take a rest, when there was a knock at my door. It was an elderly native man who looked puzzled. We drank some coffee, eat some salmon, and then he asked why I throw the fish I catch away. At first, I was confused; I didn’t know what he was saying. Then it hit me, “catch and release” was a concept that was not even in the thought process of a native of this generation. So, I explained that I was releasing the fish to live, and not throwing them away. He stared at me for maybe a full minute, and then he asked, then why do you fish?
I met many people in the days before School started; Stella at the post office would introduce me to folks when I would go in and retrieve my mail. I thought with the rumor mill of the village that everyone knew who I was, but I was wrong.
I couldn’t wait to return to the upper river, it had been my personnel fishing spot for months, and I’d grown quite fond of the environment of the upper Igushik. There were a lot more people on the river, coming and going on the lower and upper river, just more people all over. By the time I reached middle stretch, I was starting to run into boats netting salmon in all the mouths of the channels where the silvers love to rest. They would siegne the slower water and take a net full at a time, most of these fishermen were around my age, but, I’d not met any of this group. In the nets along with the silvers would be huge rainbows and char, I felt sick to see a rainbow of around eight pounds being taken along with the silvers.
I was fishing one of the mouths of a channel and catching quite a few silvers, when one of the boats came right into where I was fishing, and ran a net right through the spot where I was fishing. The three native men were acting quite aggressive, saying nasty things towards me, I felt saddened to see this behavior after spending the whole summer alone fishing the same water. I returned to the village, I’d seen enough of that; it was a different ride back than my normal euphoric frame of mind.
The next day, while walking through the village I ran into the three men I saw the day previous. They apologized, and told me they did not know who I was, and that they had heard that white outfitters were starting to fish the upper river, they thought I was scouting the river. They all turned out to be good guys, they just wanted to protect what they had, and nobody can blame them for that. What the people in the village really did not want, was the same scenario that had taken place on the Kenectok, and Togiak Rivers, with out of state outfitters running up and down their river with wealthy clients, and the people of the village getting nothing, or at least they use to get nothing. I have heard from some of the outfitters today that things have changed, and the outfitters do work with the villages in a positive way.
I have not been back to fish Southwest Alaska for over 25 years, after this school year ended, I took a year of from teaching and traveled and fished in Australia, and New Zealand. It was 1986, the year of the oil embargo, upon my return, I found that there were many cut backs within the schools in Alaska.The schools receive funds from the oil profits generated within the state. There were cut backs for teachers all over Alaska, I decided to head back to Montana and teach and coach there. Instead , I started guiding fly fishermen year round, guiding the summers in Montana, that winter, I was hired as a consultant helping a man start a fishing lodge in the lake district of Chile. This was my introduction to the place and frame of mind they call Patagonia.