LONG LIVE THE KING
The king, or chinook, is one of nature’s grander creations, and its annual migration from ocean to river spawning ground is among nature’s most mysterious and breathtaking events. Silver with black spots in the sea, kings turn a deep red as they near the end of their mating cycle. Driven by a tyrannical imperative to breed, guided by homing mechanisms scientists have yet to figure out, the salmon navigate hundreds of miles of open ocean into the mouths of Alaskan rivers, then swim upriver by the millions, school after school breaking off to travel up tributaries, and tributaries of tributaries, never resting until they reach the waters where they were born. There they lay and fertilize their eggs. Kings have been found 2000 miles up the Yukon. All Pacific salmon (chinooks, chums, sockeyes, pinks and silvers) make these astonishing journeys, but the kings capture the angler’s imagination because they’re the biggest. They average 20 pounds, but fish of 30 and 40 are not uncommon. Some grow to 60 pounds, and a few approaching 100 pounds have been caught.
The previous week, on the Fish River near Nome, we had caught chums regularly, but the giant chinooks had eluded us. Now I saw them, lying in channels and shallow pools, sometimes in mating pairs, sometimes in pods of four or five, the fish long, heavy-bodied and the color of lobsters as they held in the swift current. I forgot about bears, but had to practice deferred angling gratification before I could rig up. Marc was still a novice flyfisherman, but coming along nicely. Leslie and Jeannie were new to the sport. Oswald was busy taking photos, so I became designated bear-watcher as well as fishing guide, meaning that when someone needed a leader tied on, or a new fly, I was called in.
I enjoy watching people catch fish almost as much as catching them myself. And it was fun to see Jeannie land a fat grayling, Marc hook a chum, Leslie a big Dolly Varden. We worked upstream, fishing a run or series of pools for 10 or 15 minutes before moving on. The tracks of the big sow and her cubs were on almost every gravel bar. The air grew heavy–sometimes it felt like July in Georgia–and a light drizzle began to fall. We came to a succession of “S” bends, where Oswald, laying his cameras down, caught a female king of some 20 pounds.
I’d earned my turn, so I grabbed an 8-weight Loomis, tied on a bright-red streamer–a variation of the Clouser Minnow–and proceeded upstream. Ahead lay six kings in water less than two feet deep, four of the six lined up as if in tow, the others hugging the far bank. They would lie completely still for a few moments, only their tails lanning, then move slightly upstream or to one side to lie still again.
Oswald offered a lesson on technique. I was to present the streamer about six feet in front of a fish, throwing in an upstream mend to let the fly sink. The rod tip had to be kept low to avoid raising the fly toward the surface. As it swept past the salmon, I was to push the tip downstream, to make sure there was no slack in the line in case the fish struck. If it did, I had to set the hook hard three or four times, because a salmon’s mouth is hard and bony. That was the general method. Then came the fine points: Because the fish kept changing positions, I would have to shorten or lengthen the cast accordingly, two inches here, six inches there, and I might have to make up to 50 casts before a salmon struck, probably out of anger.
And so I began, making short casts (the stream was only 40 feet wide at most). It was precision work, and the tension and concentration were tiring. No matter how I tried, I could not induce a strike. The salmon had sex on their minds, and we all know how distracting that can be. Because I am an idiot writer, I stopped fishing, my attention captured by the mating ritual. Every few minutes the female would turn sideways and cut a redd for her eggs, scooping the gravel with flutters of her tail. Her mate would circle around her and the nest, sometimes touching her with excited tremors running through his body, sometimes lunging to drive off other male suitors. It was fascinating and beautiful and tragic. Soon after mating, the salmon would die. I had seen a spent chum on the Fish River, rolling listlessly in the current, swimming erratically, its colors growing mottled. Its long journey from the sea, its heroic leaps over rapids and up waterfalls, its escapes from nets, hooks and the jaws of bears–all of that was ending in a slow, sad death. Somehow, the salmon seemed to deserve a reward–a kind of piscatorial golden years–after going through so much. But the natural world doesn’t work that way.
I hiked farther upstream and found another school–a mating pair and several other fish–holding in a riffle below an overhanging alder. I had made only a few casts when I saw an explosion of milt in the water as the male fertilized the eggs.
“All right,” I said aloud, “you’ve got that done, now hit this streamer.” He only lay in the water, guarding the redd against the graylings and rainbows that would try to feed on the eggs. The fly drifted past him again, in the same way it had a dozen times before; this time, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, he turned on it and struck. As soon as the barbless hook was set, his dark back rolled out of the water, and he streaked downstream perhaps 20 yards, where he held for a moment. I set the hook twice more, hard, jogging along the rocky bank to get below him. When you’re onto a king, you need to peel line off the reel and let the current take it; feeling pressure from downstream, the fish will run in the opposite direction; then it, instead of the fisherman, has to fight the current.
Well, I was a little slow. The salmon took off before I could get into position. He ran in earnest this time, cutting a V-shaped wake, with me running after him as fast as I could in waders, reeling up slack as I ran. I was deep into my backing when he jumped, clearing the water, and my heart caught seeing him suspended for an instant in the somber light of the Alaskan evening. He looked to be 25 pounds, possibly more. Then we were off to the races again. The fish and my line vanished around a bend, and now, alone, I wondered if that sow bear was there with her cubs. That added a certain poignancy to the experience. I came round the bend. No bear. The fish streaked across the mouth of a slough, headed for a willow hanging in the water. He was going to try to cut me off! The water was too deep to run in. Shoving half the rod underwater to keep line and leader free of the willow’s submerged branches, I slogged through a pool to a gravel bank on the far side. Abreast of the salmon, I thumbed the spool, putting maximum pressure on him. For a couple of seconds we were locked in a standoff. He couldn’t run downstream against full drag, but I couldn’t move him. My heart was thundering. Finally, I was able to turn the fish. It took a while to work him to the bank. He thrashed in the shallows, solid-looking, his back almost black, his flanks more burgundy than the bright red they had showed in the water, the kype on his lower jaw jutting as if in defiance. I tailed him, the first chinook I’d ever caught. The experience had been as thrilling as catching my first trout, tarpon or bonefish.
Although the fish was doomed, I decided to release him–not entirely for sportsmanlike motives, either. With so many bears around, it didn’t seem prudent to carry 25 pounds of dead salmon across a mile and a half of tundra. One of the few smart decisions I’ve made in my life. Only a couple of minutes after the revived king swam off, Leslie said in a low, tight voice, “Bear.”
Fifty to 75 yards downstream, the big sow came lumbering along, three yearling cubs in tow. She was the first brown bear Leslie, Marc and I had seen in the wild, and she was charcoal-brown and enormous. We gaped at her as she splashed into the creek to start fishing–she had mouths to feed.
“Okay, here’s what we do,” Oswald instructed. “We cut into these willows at a right angle to her, then we walk upstream a ways, cross, and hike back to camp. We don’t want to get between her and those cubs. We’d be shredded wheat in 10 seconds.”