Not only is the method in itself very satisfying, but the places in which you fish can be so spectacular. Catching a salmon too is of course tremendous, though I'm afraid that for the most part, if you are only going to be able to fish for them once or twice a year, and in this country, that has to be looked at as a bonus.
I've previously fished for salmon in England, Scotland, Wales & Ireland, though due to constraints of both time and money, that hasn't been very often over the past twenty years. And almost without exception those trips have been difficult. There don't seem to be too many salmon entering British rivers these days, and even if the fish are there, conditions have to be near perfect for you to have any great expectations of catching them. Normally you have to book your week's fishing a long time in advance - and then start praying. Mostly you are at the mercy of the weather, and it rarely turns out to be perfect. I have to say that I do have a preference for the bright silver fish of the spring-time. Many more salmon come up in the autumn now, some silver fish, but many quite dark in colour.
It might be a little different in the spring if there were more salmon in the rivers, but unfortunately numbers are quite low. You hear of massive runs of fish in other countries, places like Russia, Iceland, Canada…. Or Alaska. Maybe they just manage that particular resource better than we do, though some of those countries do tend to have more than one species of salmon running the river, which must help. Nevertheless, if they were harried & netted mercilessly at sea, and then almost every fish caught was killed, which is what has happened for many years to our Atlantic salmon, it might have some impact on the fishing. I had often wondered what it would be like to fish for salmon where they are plentiful, but never thought I would ever get the chance to find out - the cost can be astronomical. It is not unusual to pay £5000 per week for such fishing, possibly more. But earlier this year I was offered the opportunity to fish in Alaska at very little cost. I have never fished abroad before, but this really was an offer I could not refuse.
I hadn't fished much for salmon in recent years, & my tackle was a little dated, not least my fly-lines, some of which were twenty years old! I had re-equipped to some extent for a trip to the Tweed earlier this year, but that was based on using a double-handed rod, and a fairly heavy line. As far as I could see, much of the salmon fishing in Alaska was carried out with single-handed rods, an 8 weight being considered ideal. I spent some time considering & eventually managed to come up with a 5-piece #7/8 Scierra travel rod, a Redington disc drag reel, a wading jacket, a pair of breathable waders and a couple of cheap(ish) lines.. I intended taking the double-hander too, even though not many anglers used them out there.
The next consideration was flies - what to take? Searches around the Alaskan web-sites gave quite a bit of information. Alaskan flies bore no resemblance at all to my Scottish patterns - I would need a few more, but how many? Normally I carry maybe eight or ten standard patterns in two or three sizes, plus a few experiments. It seemed I would need about ten patterns in Alaska, maybe in three sizes, plus a few extra ones to allow for pilfering of the fly-box, and, as ever, those experiments. Then I read somewhere that you could lose a lot of flies out there, one site stating that you could easily lose between 50 and 100 egg flies in a day! My God! I would need hundreds!
I set to work after supplementing my ancient materials with quite a few new ones, in colours quite unfamiliar to my fly tying kit. Pink, purple, chartreuse and cerise were quite prominent. I picked at it for some weeks, tying up batches as and when I had the time, and in the end mustered around 250 flies including around 50 egg-flies. I was worried about the egg-flies. If the information on the website was accurate I might lose all of them in a day, though I must admit, I did wonder how you could do that! When all the flies were finally assembled in my fly-box they looked like a collection of little animals. You might have thought you should be stroking them and giving them saucers of milk before taking them out fishing! Egg-sucking and bunny leeches were there in abundance, in black, purple, pink and chartreuse. Silver flash flies were tied with purple hackles as well as red, and the bright marabou popsicles were there in all colours.
The trip had been booked in early spring. We were due to fly out in mid-August and it was amazing how quickly it came round. After months of preparation and planning, on August 17th the UK contingent, myself, my eldest son Steven & my good friends Matthew and Edward were finally assembled at Gatwick ready for our flight. Our long flight… very long indeed. The rest of the party was made up from American anglers, travelling from all parts of the USA, brought together under the banner of the International Fly Fishing Association, under the auspices of my great pal Bob from Montana.
Some twenty hours after leaving Gatwick we arrived sleepy-eyed in Anchorage. It was around 8pm Alaska time, too late to get the float-plane out to the lodge. We had already planned to spend the night in a bed & breakfast, intending to float-plane out to the lodge around midday the following day. The four of us crammed into a tiny room, which to our consternation had only two double beds! Matthew decided to sleep on the floor, while Steven & I shared one of the beds (leaving a big gap in the middle!!). Edward had a huge bed all to himself. We managed to cat-nap through the most of the night, our bodies needed to adjust.
At breakfast the next morning we had our first meeting with some of the Americans, including my friend Bob. Plans it seemed had gone awry. The food was to have been taken upriver by boat, but the river was now too low. Two extra float planes had to be found. Unfortunately one of them was the one we were supposed to be on, and it wasn't until almost 4pm that we again found ourselves airborne.
It's quite an experience flying in one of these small planes. It feels very slow, and is amazingly smooth, both on take-off and landing. After a forty-five minute flight over a very unfamiliar landscape we were taxi-ing towards the lodge. Lake Creek, or Three Rivers is situated on the Yetna river, but very close to the junction with Lake Creek river (a confusing name we could never quite understand - how can a lake be a creek or a river??!), a smaller tributary that we were to fish.
The river holds several species of salmon. Giant kings that run earlier in the year, pink or humpbacks, chum, sockeye, and the fish we had come for, the silver or coho salmon. When fresh run these fish are very similar in appearance and fighting qualities to our own Atlantic salmon. It was too late to fish that evening, so we spent the time unpacking in the wooden cabin that Steve, Matthew, Edward & I were to share for the next six days. After a late dinner, we turned in for the night, myself wondering when jet-lag would hit me.
We were up around 7am the next morning, and quickly into the lodge for breakfast. The intensity of the mosquito attacks meant you didn't spend too long in the shower-house! They were everywhere - they even bit you as water cascaded over you in the shower. After breakfast, and meeting up with a few more anglers, we were ready to fish. You travel up the rivers by jet-boat, and that too is an experience as the drivers really know the river, and don't hang back, sweeping around bends, swerving to avoid tree-stumps at the last second to take advantage of the deeper water. Here we met one of the guides, Willie, a wonderful character who you could only have found in a place like that. Willie & his pack of huskies spend the whole year out there, generally keeping an eye on things.
After a short but sharp ride upriver the UK contingent were dropped off at a likely spot, a side-stream entering the Lake Creek river, to make our first Alaskan casts. It wasn't what we expected. The water in the main river looked to be perfect fly water, if a little coloured by recent rains. The area we were told we should fish was sluggish, you would have to retrieve by hand to make the fly move. We set to it, casting and retrieving.
Matthew was the first to make contact, hooking up with a pink or humpback salmon. Unfortunately it was foul-hooked. He must have been on top of a pack of them, because during the morning several more fish were hooked, but mostly in the back. It seemed unavoidable. Fishing further round into the slightly faster water at the mouth of Lake Creek river, I landed a couple of fish that looked like big trout, fish of 4 pounds or so. I wasn't sure what they were, but they turned out to be female pinks, and they had taken the popular purple egg-sucking leech pattern. The morning progressed, we caught between us several pinks, many of which were foul-hooked. Of silver salmon there was no sign. We had heard that we might get sick of catching them. On the basis of the first morning there would be no chance of that! That was OK though. We really didn't want it to be too easy, just a little easier than back home.
Around midday our boat arrived to take us back to the lodge for lunch, a good arrangement, and one that gave everyone a chance to fish a different part of the river in the afternoon, and to share their morning's experiences. In the afternoon we were taken out by the other guide, Tyson, who drove even faster than Willie. Definitely time to hang onto your hats! He took us to an area of water that looked be to superb for fishing the fly. But then he pointed to a small slack area lying by the side, almost like a back eddy, but with little flow. That, apparently, was where the silvers were. It didn't look too inspiring, like being taken to the best pool on the Spey and then being told to fish the duck pond in the field next to it..
We had to wade in up to our thighs, in some places among sunken trees, and cast our flies to within inches of the other bank. We soon found out that the closer you got the fly to the bank, the more likely it was you would get a take. And to my surprise, I did. After a few false alarms with chum or pink salmon, some fairly hooked, some not, I connected with my first silver. Although it seemed reluctant to run out of the slack and enter the fast water nearby, it still fought spectacularly, with sizzling rod-flattening runs and many leaps. I had my hands full, especially when it neared the areas of sunken trees. Eventually I was able to contain and beach him, a beautiful fish, not bright silver but just tinged with the most delicate shade of pink. He weighed I suppose around 8 pounds. We never actually weighed any of our fish, it seemed irrelevant somehow, and this one, like all the rest, was returned.
Through most of the day it had been raining, and after the euphoria of the salmon, I sensed that I was getting a bit wet on the inside as well as the outside. A quick check revealed I was right - my brand new (Ron Thompson) wading jacket was leaking badly around both shoulders. Nothing I could do - I just hoped the rest of the week wouldn't be as wet at they said it would be in Alaska… which is bloody wet! I hooked and lost a few more fish that afternoon, and think I also foul-hooked one or two, as did the others.
During that evening I became a little depressed about things. First, I was disappointed to find the silver salmon inhabiting what seemed more like little ponds adjacent to the river than what you would think of as salmon water. And secondly, I was fed up with foul-hooking fish. What ever you did, it seemed inevitable, and such a waste. As soon as a fish was seen to be hooked in any place other than the mouth, all the joy went out of the capture. I would just grab the fly-line & hand-line the fish in as quickly as possible, which wasn't always that easy. The way things had begun, I was beginning to form the impression that the huge catches of Alaskan salmon one hears about were mainly foul-hooked fish and that they behaved much the same as Atlantic salmon in that they hardly ever took a fly. You just foul-hooked most of them, simply because there were so many. Certainly, if you set out to snag the fish, then it would be quite easy to bring home 30 or 40 fish a day. These were the thoughts going through my head at the end of the first day. I loved catching the silvers, but I didn't like much the places they were at, and I really hated foul-hooking them, as did we all.
But things were to get better….