Kanektok Week

Day 17:  Lost Luggage

After taking the hotel shuttle to ANC, we dropped our bags at the Ravn Air counter and proceeded to our gate.  As we found a spot to sit, we couldn’t help but overhear everyone’s stories of the upcoming fishing trip.  It turns out, if you’re flying to Bethel (AK), you’re either a local native… or you’re going fishing.  As we listened in, we heard JEB Hall’s name mentioned.  JEB was our guide during year 1 on the Davidson River in western North Carolina.   When we turned around, there was JEB, sitting there, headed to the Kanektok for a two week stint of guiding.  Small world indeed.  

When it was time to board, we walked out onto the tarmac to our Ravn Air Dash 8 aircraft, boarded, found a couple of seats together and settled in for the first leg of our trip to the Kanektok.  As they were about to close the door, a ground agent boarded the plane and told everyone that we were overweight, and several bags were being held off the aircraft.  You can see where this is going already as indeed, we were the lucky losers whose bags got held off.  But no problem, they’d be on the next flight out.

We arrived in Bethel where they confirmed it was our bags that got bumped, but, we were assured the bags would be on the next flight to Quinhagak (AK), our last flight leg before we’d be boarding jet boats for the 30 minute trip upriver to camp.  The skies were getting somewhat ominous but we took off from Bethel for Quinhagak.  When we were descending to the Quinhagak runway, if you can call it that, we couldn’t help but worry.  The ceiling was so low, the pilot was motioning and talking with the co-pilot saying “I think it’s over there” as he pointed to about 10 o’clock off our heading.  We couldn’t see the ground at all, but we knew we were getting pretty low.  

As we watched the altimeter going down, down down…. it reached 300 feet and was still going down when finally the ground appeared.  The pilot made a slight left turn and we landed almost immediately.  When we landed, “Chick”, one of our camp cohorts asked the pilot what his “ceiling” was before he wouldn’t land and he told us…. 300 feet.  We were VERY happy to be down.  What’s even crazier, is that the only reason we didn’t fly direct from Anchorage to Quinhagak is that the runway has a “bump” and would only accept smaller planes.  When we landed, you could see the “bump” clearly in the runway and the pilot simply bounced over it, tilting the plane and all of us to the side before setting it down.

We were met at the plane by the guide staff of Alaska West, who took our luggage…. oh wait…. our luggage wasn’t here.  They took us to our boat for the ride upstream to camp.  It was pouring rain, and our raingear was in our luggage… so… we wrapped ourselves in trash bags and jumped in our boat for the ride.  What we didn’t learn until later, as we were waiting for our luggage to arrive on the next flight into Quinhagak, was that there wasn’t going to be a next flight… they’d closed the airport due to weather conditions.   We were shown to our tent, in fairly soaked clothing.  Luckily, there were great heaters in the tents and the beds had numerous blankets on them, so, knowing we’d be wearing our same clothing the next day, we disrobed, hung our clothes to dry and jumped into bed.  What was so funny to Barb and me was that every time Jason, the camp host/guide came to our tent to give us an update about our luggage, we were practically naked laying under the covers.  Priceless!

Day 18:  Kanektok Intro

We got word around 10am that our luggage was indeed on the way.  Everyone else was already out on the river fishing at 8am so Barb and I did get to sleep in and since it was raining hard, we stayed dry for the time being.  Our luggage arrived around noon, we grabbed some lunch, wader’d up, and headed down to the “beach” to meet Jason and go fishing on the Kanektok.

We landed our first “Silvers”.  Silver Salmon are the main event at this time on the Kanektok River.  They are big fish for sure, but what makes them so special is their feisty nature.  When you hook into one, they run and jump like no others.  During the week, I got taken into my backing numerous times by these acrobatic salmon.  We had a blast.

Day 19:  Silver Mania

A “typical” day at the Alaska West tent camp begins with hearing the generator turn on at 5:45am.  It’s not that it’s really that loud, but that it’s really that quiet here.  We’re miles and miles by boat from the nearest “civilization”, the small native village of Quinhagak, population 600, on the Bering Sea.  At 7am, the breakfast bell rings and everyone heads to the dining tent.  By everyone, I mean about 5 staff members, 10 guides and 16 guests.  After a hearty breakfast, everyone waders up and heads down to the boats to meet their guide for the day and heads off up or downstream.  

Our guide this day was Eric, from Crested Butte (CO) who we learned in addition to being a fishing guide here, was a ski patrol member at Crested Butte.  We had great conversations and fun with Eric all day as we were on a quest to catch our “limit” of Silvers, 10 for the day.  We fished several holes for silver salmon and had our limit by noon.  After dropping off our bounty of Silvers and grabbing lunch in the boat, we headed upstream to fish for trout and Dolly Varden’s.  We caught some beautiful rainbows but it was the “Dollys” that blew us away.  Eric called out, you’ve got one “clowned up”, which simply meant the orange and green highlights on these Dollys were in full regalia.  The moment we caught our first, we were quickly becoming Dolly addicts.  

Around 5:30pm we headed back to camp, taking a great ride downstream in the jet boat, enjoying the views of tundra everywhere.  As we arrived, we couldn’t believe the day we had and how it could possibly get any better.  Hors d’oeuvres were awaiting us around 6:30 and we’d brought a 12 pack of Alaskan Amber and a bottle of tequila for our cocktails.  7:30 brought dinner and afterwards…. SLEEP!

Day 20:  Limit by 9am

We were in “rise and repeat” mode each day, so breakfast, wader up, boats, go fishing was the order every day.  However, this day was something absolutely insane.  We met Cole at the boat, launched and arrived at our first hole to fish for silvers, aptly called, “Bay of Pigs”.  First cast, silver on, landed…. I look over at Barb and her rod is also bent… silver on… landed.   Keep in mind, the time frame from “fish on” to “fish landed” with silvers is often 5-10 minutes.  These fish don’t give up early…. EVER!  They run, jump, let you bring them close, before they run, jump over and over… when they see the landing net, you know what they do…. again… and likely again.  By 9:00 we’d caught our limit, which is truly rare given you often will hook these gymnastic masters but not land them because every jump brings the chance of losing tension on the line and the fish swimming away with nothing but loose line in your hand.  

We looked at each other…. Cole, Barb and I…. and said… “well, what do we do now?”  Turns out that’s a very silly question because we could continue to catch silvers, we just couldn’t keep anymore, we’d “limited out”.  We drove up to camp, dropped off our 10 silvers, and headed upstream to fish for trout and dollys.  Now it was about more than just catching dollys;  we were going to have a shore lunch, and NEEDED to catch a few dolls to filet and enjoy.  Turns out, it didn’t take too long, so we set off to gather wood while Cole did the filleting, seasoning and cooking.  It was so special to catch and eat lunch like this; on the river, middle of nowhere, no one around.   

Later on, Barb hooked and landed a 24” dolly which was the biggest of the day in camp.  We also found a nice 20” rainbow among many smaller ones.  Great day… back to camp…. appetizers, drinks, dinner… and sleep.

Day 21:  Getting our “Bering”s

Each evening, our guide for the next day would come by the dinner table and ask us what we wanted to do that day.  When Lucas came by, he had some ideas of what we might enjoy and asked us… “Have you been to the mouth of the river? To the Bering Sea?”  We were so excited to embark on this adventure we said yes in a heartbeat.  So, Day 21 began with a boat ride downstream, past the native village of Quinhagak, to the mouth of the river where we stared out at the Bering Sea.  It was really breathtaking and awe-inspiring realizing where we were sitting.  We sat there and talked for about 20 minutes, about life, shared anniversaries and how small we felt in that moment.

After a brief ride upstream, we started our daily quest for silvers.  At about the third hole we fished, we’d reached our limit and headed upstream, but not before Barb had landed her biggest silver of the week.  The routine continued as before, drop off fish for Doug to do his magic on them, and head upstream to fish for trout and dolly varden.  Before we started to fish, Lucas took us all the way up to the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge boundary…. so cool.  We then found a sweet run on a braid of the river where Clear Creek flowed into the Kanektok and it was game on with landing bows and dollys.  Of course, Barb landed the biggest dolly of the week at this point, 28”.  

Lucas is an accomplished photographer and took tons of photos of us during the day.  A few are above, but, when we get back home and can do it properly, you’ll see even more of his amazing photos!

Day 22:   Tom Tom

Tom was our next guide who took us out hunting for silvers, rainbows, dollys and more.  We landed silvers of course, but also chum and pink salmon.  What is amazing is that Tom took us to parts of the river we’d not yet seen.  This fishery is so vast with braids everywhere upstream.  The highlights of the day were Tom finding more “holy” rocks and I got a beautiful grayling which seems like a prehistoric fish of sorts.  Tom indicated he’d not seen a grayling this big this season and it was likely 25-30 years old.  Tom also introduced us to the term “Tundra Turd”.  

At the end of the day, we’d request to fish for some silvers, so Tom found a good hole and we proceeded to hook into a few.  Tom asked if we’d mind keeping these so the chef could make some salmon dishes for dinner and of course we agreed.  It was going to be special knowing we’d caught dinner for the camp guests and crew.   

Day 23:  Kanektok Krazy

Every day we’d say “It can’t possibly get better” or “I feel sorry for our next guide given what our guide yesterday put us on”….. yet every single day we were amazed with the fishing experience each guide at Alaska West gave us.  When we found out Cole was again going to be our guide for our final day on the Kanektok, we wondered how on earth he could top the day we limited out by 9am…. but read on.  

We started the day fishing poppers for silvers at a hole called the “Silver Hilton”… yes, most big holes on the river have names.  After hooking into several silvers on poppers and streamers we decided to head upstream even further to fish for rainbows and dolly varden.  We decided to eat lunch first before grabbing our rods and beginning to fish.    

We were standing on this huge rock/gravel bar that ran on one side of the river which made an almost horseshoe bend.  Cole put me at the head of the run and walked across the rock/gravel bar about 40 yards with Barb which put her about midway through the run.  If you’d followed the river between us, it would have been more like 80-100 yards.  On my first or second cast, boom!  My strike indicator jerked down, I set the hook and had a good sized fish on.  Most of the time, we never know what we’ve got until it jumps or until we get it closer to us.  Unfortunately, Cole was over with Barb 40 yards away with the net so I hollered, he saw my rod bent and came running across 40 yards of rocks to help net a nice 20+ inch dolly varden.  About this time, we hear Barb and her rod is bent good, so Cole high tails it across the 40 yards of rock/gravel bar to help Barb.  I’m guessing by now you see where this is going and my emphasis on 40 yards of rock separating Barb and me.  This went on so long we’d hear Cole yelling “Can you wait a sec…. keep it wet and I’ll be there soon”.  It was so crazy that one time I had a really big fish on and waited for Cole to help get a big dolly off for Barb before yelling for help with the net.  He called back, “What is it?”…. and I knew he was thinking…. if this is another dolly, I’m going to take my time…. but it wasn’t.  You should have seen his eyes light up when he saw it was this huge, 22” leopard rainbow.  He sprinted the last 15 yards with the net to help me land it.  

After countless trips back and forth, Cole taught both Barb and me a trick to help us get our fish off the hooks more easily when we had a big fish on and no net to land it.  It worked great and I’m sure Cole regretted not showing us this trick before he’d run enough 40 yard sprints to equal a mile easily.  Finally, Barb decided to walk over to where I was fishing and watch for a while.  This obviously relieved Cole from his back and forth exercise but not from continuing to help land fish.  At one point, I cast six times and caught six fish…. hence Kanektok Krazy, but it got even better.

At this point, we were laughing so hard and having so much fun we decided not to push our luck and call it a day early.  However, since this was our last day, we wanted to each catch one more silver salmon before calling it a day.  The first spot we stopped on the way back toward camp was one we’d fished earlier in the day and had landed several silvers.  This time, nothing…. not a bite, not a tug…. nothing.  But we were on a mission, so we jumped back in the jet boat and headed to another spot.  On my first cast out, boom, fish on and after a moment, there came the jump and it was a silver.  I looked over at Barb with a big smile on my face and as I was just starting my fight, I see the line snap tight on Barb’s line and then a huge jump out of the water.  We both had silvers on…. if only we could land them both, this would be epic.  After about a 5 minute fight, Cole netted mine and we both looked over at Barb to see she’d coaxed her silver in close, but it had a couple more runs and jumps before it ultimately surrendered to the net.  Two huge silver salmon in the net Cole was holding.  We snapped a picture of these two big, beautiful fish in the net and was ready to say goodbye to them and call it a day before Cole said “NO WAY!”  He was determined to have a picture of us holding our fish together.  Now realize, we’d always had our guide hold the salmon for us…. they’re huge and we knew we’d drop them.  But again, Cole was determined to have this picture.  He taught us how to hold them and hoist them up for the photo and lo and behold, they cooperated.  We had a double walk off silver picture.  What a way to end our last day of fishing on the Kanektok.

That night, we had a special celebration where everyone shared their pictures courtesy of Lucas, one of our guides for the week.  He had some great music playing as the background for some incredible pictures from everyone’s cameras and phones.  I promise when we get back to Bozeman, we’ll put a bunch of the pictures from Lucas and others up to music to celebrate our time on the Kanektok with Alaska West.

The third leg of our Alaska adventure had ended, but the fourth leg was about to begin, and we were so excited because James Kelley was joining us to fish our 100th river of the TU Greatest 100 Trout Streams.  It was hard saying goodbye to the Kanektok, which is absolutely one of the most amazing fisheries in the world.  Only one member of our group got the “Super Slam”, which is catching 8 species of fish in one day; king salmon, pink salmon, chum salmon, silver salmon, sockeye salmon (that’s the “Slam”) – AND – rainbow, dolly varden and grayling.  Throughout the week, Barb and I had caught all but the King.  The Kanektok will always hold a special place for us on our River Ramble.

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