Alaskan Sockeyes

When I was very young I became enchanted by an uncaptioned picture, in an encyclopaedia, of a bear catching salmon atop a distinctive waterfall. Years later, while watching the ABC news, I finally learned where the photo had been taken: ‘Alaska’s globally famous Katmai wilderness, incorporating Brooks Falls, has today been proclaimed a national park and preserve.’ According to the news report, Katmai was originally reserved as a national monument in 1918 in order to protect the site of ‘the cataclysmic 1912 volcanic explosion’. But it wasn’t long before the bears and sockeye salmon became the main attractions. I wanted to go there straight away. Problem was, there were no roads to the Alaska Peninsula: you had to take a commercial flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, then a boat or float plane to Brooks. Everything seemed prohibitively expensive. Last year, I learned that Alaska’s sockeye run, like our Barrier Reef, is suddenly in serious jeopardy, with biologists blaming a combination of climate change, hatcheries and overharvest. Compared to other salmon, sockeyes run in prodigious numbers and have an especially high fat content: they underpin Alaska’s coastal ecosystem. If the sockeye run collapses, so too will the bear population, the forests, even the trout fishery. No more procrastinating. I figured I had to go this coming northern summer regardless of cost. Luckily 2018 would be an ‘even’ year, coinciding with the dominant runs of sockeye. It also happened to be Katmai’s centenary, which seemed prescient. Sockeyes begin running from the ocean into Bristol Bay’s rivers in late June. To get to Brooks Falls they have to negotiate 35 miles of the mighty Naknek River then swim 30 miles across Naknek Lake, so the peak time for bear viewing is mid-July. A daytrip to Brooks Camp from Anchorage is possible, but inadequate. I hoped to be able to rent one of the cabins but quickly discovered they were booked out a year in advance. Then I discovered that the small campground was booked out too. (People like the fact that it’s protected by an electric fence.) In desperation I contacted a number of fishing lodges in King Salmon. There was nothing available. “July is popular because the sockeye are fresh-run, chrome-bright and super tasty.” I’d almost given up when James Johnson of Katmai Trophy Lodge (FL#77) called back to say that they’d had a cancellation. King Salmon Now Frances and I are about to board our flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, and the attendant is explaining why the standard baggage allowance is 3 x 23 kg items. “Everyone hopes to return with their bag-limit of sockeyes.” King Salmon proves to be a rehabilitated military outpost, run down and half-abandoned. Still, it has a general store and hotel, and the locals have decorated all their buildings with moose antlers and salmon logos. I immediately fall in love with the place. James collects us from the tin sheds that count as airport facilities, and drives us a few miles on a mostly abandoned dirt road to his lodge. It’s a family business: his parents, brother and girlfriend all work here, and the guides are mostly close buddies. James is relaxed and flexible when organising the day ahead, which is essential given the fickle weather and varied expectations of the other dozen clients. “What do you want to do?” he asks everyone individually. “Where do you want to go?” He already knows that Frances and I are here primarily for the bears, but I stress that I also want to see how the sockeyes drive the trout fishery. “How about I guide you on the Naknek in front of the lodge tomorrow?” he suggests. “The commercial quotas of sockeye in Bristol Bay have largely been met, so we’re getting the first strong runs up the river.” Sockeyes In the morning we amble down to the lodge dock and hop into a large, open dinghy. The Naknek is clear and shallow, and despite the huge current, we can see much of the cobbled substrate. We are soon distracted by wildlife: a momma bear on an island with her cubs; a moose and calf swimming mid-current; a bald eagle scooping up a live sockeye. We also pass a ‘salmon counting tower’. There’s a researcher up there looking down, and a bear below looking up. The sockeyes can be seen running in dense ribbons close to the banks, like outsized whitebait. “In places like the Kenai rivermouth, Alaskan residents are allowed to catch them with giant dip- nets,” James says. Pulling into a grassy bank, James passes us a couple of 8-weight rods. They’re rigged with floating lines and 12 lb tippets. The fly is merely a small tuft of white or black fluff, but a couple of feet above the fly is a half-ounce sinker. We are instructed to roll cast a short line and allow the sinker to bobble along the cobbles. “Perform a solid sideways strike every time you feel something anomalous.” The method proves hard to master, and strangely addictive. But is it really fly fishing? Smolt feeders While hooking and releasing 5- to 7-pound sockeyes, we notice explosions of baitfish in the middle of the river, and Arctic terns joining the fray. “Rainbows busting up sockeye smolts migrating downstream,” James explains. “They’re quite catchable if we fish a big streamer down and across from the boat.” So out we go. The bursts of activity are always brief, and always 40 yards away. Nonetheless we end up catching a dozen 20-inchers. “Later in the season, when the river’s full of sockeye eggs and flesh, there’ll be 30-inchers too,” James insists. Back at the lodge we join a group of satisfied clients enjoying cigars on the deck. “How can you smoke those things?” Frances teases. “Because our wives aren’t here,” says Rick. Getting into the mood, Bob tells Frances how Jeremy’s dog retrieves live salmon from the water. “At one stage he had more fish than me.” And Jean-Claude tells how a mink jumped into the boat and started chewing his salmon. That night, despite the midnight sun, Frances and I sleep like babies. We’re the only ones who don’t hear the 800-pound bear breaking into the garage and freezer. Next morning Hunter, the chef, explains how the bear destroyed 400 pounds of food supplies. “I’m tempted to treat the replacement food with traditional bear repellents: bleach, naphthalene and piss.” Brooks Dana and Mitch — the youngest clients, here on their honeymoon — have opted to come with Frances and me bear watching, so today we have two guides, Jeremy and Chris. They drive us up to the lake outlet, then take us across Naknek Lake in a motor launch to Brooks Camp. Before we walk to the falls we must attend ‘bear school’. The ranger tells us that we can’t take any food with us, and explains how to respond to bears on the trail, proudly noting there have been no ‘incidents’ in 30 years. Out of school, we cross a floating bridge at the river mouth, then walk through a forest of dead spruce, yet another victim of climate change. Half a mile later, after pausing for a bear or two, we climb an elevated boardwalk and register for time on the upper viewing platform. While waiting for our names to be called, we move onto the crowded lower platform, where we jostle for a view. We’re 100 yards downstream of the falls, but there are bears and salmon everywhere. This is the culmination of a lifelong ambition, and it’s even better than I’d hoped. My eyes prickle. After an hour or so, we are called forward to take our places on the upper platform, right beside the falls, where we enjoy unobstructed views of twenty bears catching innumerable salmon. Our allotted hour goes too fast. But, hey, there’s still time for fishing. Jeremy and Chris lead us off the boardwalk into a thicket of head-high grass laced with bear trails. Above the falls the water is crystal clear and full of catchable sockeyes. But mindful of all the dangers these salmon have somehow survived, we opt instead to target rainbows and Dolly Varden char. Egg feeders That evening I ask James if there’s anywhere we might find trout feeding on sockeye eggs. “It’s too early for spawning sockeyes, but there’ll be spawning chums in the wilderness streams. Same thing, just less intense.” So next morning Jeremy takes Frances and me — and another client, Bob — on a fly-out across the vast tundra to Contact Creek. While assembling our rods on the grassy riverbank I spot some well-worn trails. “How much fishing pressure does this place get?” I ask suspiciously. “Those aren’t people trails,” Jeremy replies. “They’re bear trails.” As if on cue a mom bear with a cub walks into view. When she’s just 25 yards away she stops, stares over the bank, and plunges into water. And suddenly she’s on the bank again, a 15-pound chum sideways in her mouth. Frances notices that Jeremy carries a handgun in lieu of bear spray, and this does little to put us at ease. Bob is so taken aback that he somehow snaps his rod tip while removing it from its cloth wrap. Jeremy is blasé about these particular bears, though, and gets us to cast an egg fly — a glass bead — down and across. “You can use a bobber if you want, but it’s better if you do it by feel.” We catch countless 4-pound Dollys, quite a few grayling and a dozen leopard rainbows. The fishing is so intimate and easy that Bob manages to fish successfully despite his damaged equipment. At the end of the session, I press Jeremy about targeting trout feeding on sockeye flesh. “It’s too early here in the Bristol area. Maybe try the Kenai Peninsula after you get back to Anchorage. They’re having a bugger of a year down there – the sockeye runs are way down – but I’d go anyway. I mean, it’s one of the world’s iconic salmon and trout fisheries.” We spend the rest of our time at Katmai catching kings, chums and pike. It would have been nice to get some silvers and pinks, but they won’t arrive until late July. Kenai The hundred-mile drive from Anchorage to Cooper Landing, on the mid-reaches of the Kenai River, takes two hours. The Kenai is not as big as the Naknek, and is discoloured with glacial flour. Another difference is that it’s crowded with dozens of outfitters and hundreds of anglers, most hoping to fill their freezers with sockeye fillets. Combat fishing, they call it. Josiah Brown (JJ) has been guiding on the Kenai for 19 years. He says he can show us what flesh-fly fishing is all about even though the salmon aren’t yet spawned-out and falling to bits. “Anglers have been throwing guts and carcasses into the water for weeks now.” We end up drifting from the Russian River confluence down to Skilak Lake, using 7-weight rods, floating lines and 10 lb tippet. The flesh fly is unweighted but JJ attaches some split shot 18 inches above the fly, and a bobber 7 feet above that. All we have to do is maintain natural drift. We’re happy to hook a bunch of 18-inch rainbows and some small Dollys, but JJ is disappointed with both numbers and size. “The sockeye run has been poor, so I guess there aren’t so many frames being thrown into the river.” The next day Frances and I drive to the Kenai rivermouth to photograph the dipnet fishing, but the season has been closed early. “We’re not going to achieve the escapement target,” an officer explains sadly. “We’re probably going to have to close the rod fishery too.” How’s that going to affect guides like JJ, I wonder. Upshot The Alaskan sockeye event is mindboggling. Go experience it while you still have the chance.

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