Not with Alaska itself, but with the fact that the silver salmon we had come to catch tended to be in the slower water, not the type of (fly) water so beloved of salmon anglers. Half of the charm in fly-fishing for salmon is in the method.
On the second morning I set off with Bob, and Wendell, to fish an area in which they had had some success in on the previous day. The fish had been mostly chum salmon, but what the hell, it was moving water, and it seemed the chums preferred this. Some of them fought extremely hard too. They are not generally as aerial as the silvers, but with fish up to around 15 pounds they could give you a few anxious moments. I fished up and down the pool, much as you would on a Scottish river, fishing out the cast then taking a step downstream before casting again. I had a chum and a pink, and hooked another silver, fairly too. It looked a big fish, but the hook came out when he was just a few yards from me. The river was clearing all the time by now, and things were beginning to look slightly better. The weather too was improving, so the leaky jacket was not such a problem. What was a problem was that after just two day's use my new Snowbee breathable waders had suddenly become very breathable indeed, a bit too breathable in fact as they were letting in water at the seams on both legs. It was as well that I had a couple of spare pairs of trousers with me, as I had to change them for each session on the river, leaving the wet pair hanging up to dry. I was aware that only a few weeks previously a bear had run off with someone's trousers that were left hanging outside a cabin. I hoped that wouldn't happen to mine!
That evening some of the other anglers reported finding silvers further up the river. Three of us arranged to fish there the next morning. Around 9 a.m. the next day we arrived on the bank and immediately noticed an odd smell. "Bear" said Raven (Raven is a mad woman from Oregon! ;-) ) and began shouting into the wood to scare it off. I'd remember that smell. The pool was indeed full of salmon, mostly silvers, with a few chums and pinks. The chum salmon have very strange markings, and some very nasty teeth. They always seemed to take the fly into the back of their mouth too, and many of us received nasty gashes trying to unhook them. In all of the pools there were fish swimming around that were in a pretty bad state, looking quite near to death. Occasionally one of these half-decayed creatures would surface near your fly like some piscine un-dead, and you would pray your hook didn't find a hold. I pitied them really, wondered if it hurt. They looked pretty sad.
We fished quite hard, and foul-hooked even more fish. However, every now and then one would take the fly properly. Of course even that was spoilt a bit because for a good part of the fight you weren't sure whether you had foul-hooked the fish and watched carefully to see if the fly was in its mouth. But some were properly hooked, and the silver tally was growing.
Earlier in the week we had noticed three anglers camping and fishing by an island. That afternoon however there was no sign of them. As the area looked promising we decided to give it a try. We noticed their tent was still there, but a check showed it was completely empty. Scattered around were a few empty stuff sacks, a single brand-new hiking boot and a bow saw, together with various other items. It looked like they had left in a hurry.
We made sure we had the bear spray handy before wading into the river to fish. The next day we learned that a young American who had joined and fished with us later that day, and who was camping alone on the same island, had been pawed through his tent by a bear that night. Needless to say, we never saw him there again! But we had been right about the area. There were quite a few silvers there - we had by now become quite adept at telling the different species apart, even from a distance. I had swapped rods today, and for the first time was using my brand new 5 piece Scierra, which felt far more comfortable than the ancient 10 footer I had been using up to now. Well, for a while it did - it wasn't long before I hooked the inevitable pink, and just as I got it near the bank the rod converted suddenly into a 6-piece - it had broken completely about half way up. My tennis elbow was giving me some serious problems and I couldn't bear to revert to the older heavier rod, so spent the rest of the week fishing with a #6/7 Shakespeare, a rod I got free with a pair of waders. I have to say it performed admirably, landing many fish, and at times enabling me to put out all but the last yard or two of the WF8 fly-line I had bought for the other rod.
I tackled up again, with the Shakespeare, and continued fishing. Again we had trouble getting the silvers to take the fly, though the sharp-toothed chums obliged more readily and we caught several. When I had a violent take at exactly the instant my fly hit the water I was convinced I had fairly hooked the big silver that was now running and leaping over the pool. But the leaping soon stopped, and I became suspicious. If they didn't leap much, it seemed they were not silvers at all but chums; either that or foul-hooked. I still played the fish carefully - it was a good silver, around 12 pounds. But again it was foul-hooked.
Around this time Wendell joined us. He seemed to be catching silvers wherever he went, fairly too. He waded in just below me and in no time had hooked a silver, in the mouth. He was to make a habit of this over the next few days. It wasn't just the fly either, as he gave some to us, yet still we couldn't emulate his feats, even though we would appear to be fishing in much the same way as he was, and certainly for the same fish. Uncanny it was….
That evening there were even more silvers to report. The river was still clearing and things were definitely getting better. Over the next few days some of the anglers went off to fish for rainbows, and grayling. Though the Alaskan grayling is a glorious creature, with a dorsal around twice the size of the British version, and the rainbows there can grow exceptionally large, I had really gone there to fish for silvers. My plan had been to fish for silvers until I was "sick of catching them" (sic!) , then maybe try for trout and grayling. I was a long way from reaching that point. And not a little put off by the methods used to catch the rainbows - almost float fishing with a fly-rod. So I stuck with the silvers, after all, I can catch trout and grayling at home. Not these trout, and not these grayling I know, but then, not these salmon either!
It was now Wednesday. That morning I fished a pool known as the S bends, with Edward and Wendell. I think Bill was with us too, for a while. Wendell continued his tricks by nailing a good silver, a fish into double figures with his second cast. We all had a few salmon from this pool, which was enjoyable to fish as it had a bit of flow on it. Just beyond it the slack water held a large amount of silvers. I had a few casts at these fish, but mostly they were frustratingly disinterested. Wendell managed one, but then he would, wouldn't he!
We smelt bear on the far side of the pool twice while we were there. Edward moved cautiously back to the near bank after realising he was standing very close to what looked very much like a bear's fishing spot. I gave a couple of blasts on the aerosol siren I had bought in Anchorage. I also made sure the bear spray was handy, but both times the smell faded after a few minutes. Bob, fishing the Beaver hole further upriver actually saw a bear approaching the spot he was fishing. It disappeared into the bushes and he never saw it again. It must have made him very uneasy as most of the banks were thickly covered in what looked like small saplings, which grew to a height of around six feet. I’m not sure if bears do actually creep, but it would have been very easy for one to creep up on you, especially if you were intent on fishing. Bob took the safety off the bear spray just in case. It seemed the bears were moving down the river. I’m not at all surprised that long-session carp angling never caught on in Alaska!
That afternoon we were taken a good way up-river, but dropped off in a place I didn't fancy at all. The water was static, black looking, and there seemed to be no signs of life. From what we had seen so far there ought to have been silvers there, but to me it just didn't feel right. After a few casts I wandered off downstream, first fishing a shallow streamy run that held some chum salmon. I soon hooked a big one, on a leech pattern, landing it after a good scrap and managing to unhook it without injury (injury to myself that is!). It had taken a purple egg-sucking leech, a fly the chums seemed to like, and weighed probably 12 pounds. There were several more fish in the pool, but I left them and went further downstream, fishing some lovely fly water. I was out of sight of the others, and with a heavily wooded island behind me, and an equally heavily wooded bank in front. I couldn't smell any bears, but to let them know I was there (the worst thing you can do is to surprise a bear) I sang loudly to myself the whole time, while for at least 20 minutes an eagle peered curiously down on me from his perch in the tree directly above. Maybe it was because I was singing Eagles songs - I really was…. But if the eagle liked the songs, the bears, thank goodness, didn’t, and kept away. There were no silver salmon in this faster water, but there were chums, and pinks too, all of which put up tremendous fights in the strong flow. I had a very enjoyable couple of hours there before rejoining the others.
Thursday was, for me at least, the best day. We went up to the Beaver hole in the morning, and I actually saw a beaver swimming by the side of the river. He crash-dived as the jet boat bore down on him. The Beaver hole was a big pool, and with flow too. The silvers were still in the slacks, but you could cast across the faster water and allow the current to bring the fly round. I hooked a big silver almost straight away, on a red/silver flash fly. It ran up-river and then under a sunken tree. The line broke. It was the first fly I'd lost. In fact, it was the only fly I lost all week. We obviously didn't fish the spots where you could lose 50-100 flies in a day! I put on another fly, and soon after hooked a big chum salmon which ran a long way down the pool. Strange fish, some of them fight like bream, while the odd one would put the silvers to shame. They seemed to fight better as the week went on. Maybe it was to do with the increasing clarity of the water. Now they could see where they were going… This one was successfully landed and looked around 14 pounds.
We had a great morning up at the Beaver hole, myself Steve and Norm landing several silvers and chums. I had my biggest silver of the trip there, a fish of around 14 pounds, and Norm hooked a chum that ran out quite a bit of his backing before diving into a submerged tree some distance downstream. Often there were double hook-ups, two anglers playing fish at once. One time I had to duck beneath Norm’s line as his salmon ran across in front of me, while the one I was playing ran the opposite way, across in front of him. There were plenty of fish crashing out further upstream, but as this was the exact spot Bob had seen a bear the previous day, and discretion definitely being the better part of valour where grizzlies are concerned, we left them alone…
A strange phenomenon was the hooking of dead fish. Every now and again this would happen and you would rake up a rotting corpse from the bottom of the river, much to your dismay as you would then have to get your fly back. I have mentioned how many fish we foul-hooked, but you might be surprised (we certainly were) to know that a large percentage of the dead fish that we hooked were hooked in the mouth. That morning Steve had three. Stone dead….
In the afternoon we once again fished the S bends, taking some lovely silvers. I'm calling them silvers, but by now many of the fish, and particularly the cock fish, were quite red. Not a dull boring red though, but a glorious vibrant colour, beautiful fish. As I was unhooking one of the better fish, a silver of around 13 pounds, I failed to notice the line was wrapped around the fish's mouth. I pulled the fly free but at that moment the fish started jumping around, driving the hook deep into my finger. Worse still, I had forgotten, in my hurry to change flies earlier, to crush the barb. I couldn't get it out. Fortunately the line (14lb b.s.) had broken when the hook went in, which gives you some idea of the force involved. Norm was instantly on hand with all sorts of potions; antiseptic, iodine, everything. But first the hook had to come out. He wrapped a strong mono loop behind the shank, told me it was coming out on the count of three, counted one, and pulled it out on two. I hardly felt a thing, but there was now a serious amount of blood pumping out, bright red to match the fish. Steven quickly applied one of his (curiously) blue plasters and that seemed to do the trick. You can see the plaster in the photograph. It didn't spoil a memorable day though. I think I had landed 6 or maybe 7 silvers by now, all fairly hooked. It had been fantastic sport. Everyone was now catching fish.
As we arrived back at the lodge some of the locals were playing a game of horseshoes on the riverbank. They made the mistake of asking Steven to join them and a USA versus UK battle ensued. I should have warned them, you don’t take Steven on at anything sporting… he is a natural! The result… a convincing win for the UK. I wonder if we will ever have a return match? Perhaps a game of "knock down ginger" on Brighton beach?
After our evening meal Matthew and I went back out to fish an area of the main Yetna river, just below where Lake Creek river entered it. This was nice water. Though the silvers were in the slack, again you could cast across the moving water and let the current bring the fly round. This sort of fishing really does get you on edge - at any moment you expect to feel the solid thump of a taking salmon, followed by a run that almost pulls the rod from your hands. Contact is direct, violent and very, very exciting. We caught a couple more silvers, and some chums.
I was really beginning to enjoy myself now. The water had dropped a little and the fish weren't taking so freely as during the previous day when quite a few silvers had been caught in this area. I think maybe they had just moved upriver on the previous day, and were now becoming settled as water levels dropped. We fished into the dusk expecting the boat to pick us up around 10pm, by which time we had had enough. My arm was aching from all the casting, and my hand was stiff and had blisters on it as well as line burns, and cuts from the fish.
By 10:20 we were getting a little concerned. It was getting dark and they seemed to have forgotten us. Just after 10:30 we heard the welcome drone of a jet-boat. At last. John pulled the boat in near to where we stood and greeted us with the news that a ten-foot grizzly was roaming our camp. He (John.. not the bear!) was carrying a huge .44 magnum, plus a smaller pistol, something akin to a .38, which he called a pea-shooter. As we drove back to camp we saw the bear standing by the river, about 100 yards from where we had been fishing. The whole width of the Lake Creek river had been between us, but we had heard bears can skip across ten foot deep rapids as if they weren't there. And in this case, they weren't there - it was pretty easy water between us and the bear.
We were glad they hadn't forgotten us….