Chasing king salmon along the Bering Sea.
- By: Greg Thomas
- Photography by: Greg Thomas
I have adventure-seeking in my blood; my great grandfather hunted sharks for their oil from a wood skiff during World War II and was a market hunter during the Klondike gold rush; my sister used to cruise around Alaska on commercial fishing boats and now runs fish-buying operations there; my father was a part-time commercial fisherman and hunted mountain goats and brown bears in Alaska; and an uncle and a cousin are cut from that mold, too, one brewing moonshine and prospecting for gold in Idaho, the other a trapper, a bow-hunter and a sailor who now wants to ride a horse, solo, across Mongolia.
That blood makes it difficult for me to say “no” to trips that stretch the boundaries of reason when, at this point in life, I could just as easily spend time at posh lodges, snacking on caviar and drinking high-end scotch.
That’s why I paused when a friend, Kent Sullivan, recently asked, “Do you want to go to the wildest place in Alaska?” He added, “It won’t be easy and we won’t be pampered. We’ll get three square meals a day, plus a tent and sleeping bags. But, we’ll fish rivers where we won’t see another person and the salmon should be big and chrome-bright.” Coming from Sullivan, who’s known for taking “calculated” chances that rattle the rivets out of his boat and scare the heck right out of his friends, i.e., me, this sounded unreasonable, a setup for mental anguish and possible physical harm. Being the father of two young daughters, the responsible choice was clear.
Three weeks later, we lifted from an airstrip in Cold Bay, on the very tip of the Alaska Peninsula, closer to Kamchatka, Russia than to Seattle, while being buffeted by, perhaps, 70 mph wind gusts. As we’d folded into that four-seat single prop, a native woman said to me, “I scream and cry when I fly, but don’t let it bother you.”
About halfway between Cold Bay and our destination, Nelson Lagoon, we peered down at the fuselage of a small plane, the wings and tail scattered across the tundra. “The weather came in quick on them,” Sullivan explained. “They flew too low and just ran into the ground. Happens all the time out here.” The wailing went up an octave, then peaked as we made a herky-jerky descent and sideways approach to the runway at Nelson, population 60. I closed eyes and pictured my daughters’ faces as that woman’s screams melded with the engine whirl, creating a sound that made me think the tires were disintegrating.
There’s reason to roll the dice and visit such places, not least being an interest in true wild. And the tip of the Alaska Peninsula—with the wind-battered Bering Sea on one side, and the hungry Gulf of Alaska on the other; with active stratovolcanoes, such as Pavlof, Shishaldin and Amak, towering 9,000 feet overhead, and the Aghileen Pinnacles, a unique mountain range that gives the Tetons a run for their money, looming in the distance; and 10-foot-tall coastal grizzly bears waltzing by your tent—is as wild as it gets. In an instant you could be a bear’s next meal or get swept away by a tsunami. There’d be no warning; if you saw the ocean retreat you could run like a pronghorn for Pavlof, but I’d place my money on the wave.
Shortly after landing in Nelson Lagoon we were in a Jeep headed down the Bering Sea coast with our guides, Kevin Atkins and Bill McMahon, of Nelson Lagoon Adventures (NLA). NLA operates under the native-owned Nelson Lagoon Corporation, which oversees thousands of acres of raw land. With that arrangement, NLA is the only outfit that can legally traverse above the high-water mark on the Sapsuck and Steelhead rivers, the area’s two most intriguing fisheries.
When fishing with NLA half your time is spent at a tent camp on the coast fishing the Steelhead and other small streams; the other half is spent at a beautiful tent camp, atop a lengthy wood staircase, perched on a bluff above the Sapsuck, just yards from productive water. You’ll see other anglers on the Sapsuck, but when fishing the wind-battered coast, 40 or more rugged miles away from the village, you won’t see another soul and you can get a real strange long-way-from-home feeling.
Sullivan visited the fledgling operation in fall 2009 and found great fishing for silver salmon and Dolly Varden. He suggested a repeat of that trip, or a fall visit for steelhead, but I had king salmon on the brain in July and wanted to throw a two-hand rod for those beasts.
Kings are the largest of the five Pacific salmon, with recorded weights up to 126 pounds. The heftiest I’ve landed was 65 pounds dressed, but that was caught on commercial trolling gear off the coast of Baranof Island. In the mid-1980s I landed a 40-plus-pounder on a 6-weight. Since that time a major king salmon decline has occurred throughout their range, and I haven’t had many decent shots. Emergency angling closures are placed on many Alaska streams each year. Finger-pointing is rampant, with digits being directed at Bering Sea pollock fisherman (who retain kings as bycatch); others say anglers are overharvesting the fish; the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is blamed for mismanagement; and on some waters the finger points at a parasite that attacks the organs of fish.
Sullivan and I crossed our fingers as we cruised down the beach toward the tent camp on the Steelhead, passing whale bones, dead seals and bald eagles, plus live coastal grizzly bears. Commercial fishing debris littered the black sand beach: wood pallets, all shapes and sizes of buoys, rope and even the treasured hand-blown glass ball. Those glass balls floated Japanese high-seas drift nets between 1910 and the mid-1980s, with a peak between the ’20s and ’50s. The balls are highly sought by beachcombers and finding even one is considered high success. At one point I asked McMahon to stop the Jeep. I’d seen something odd, maybe a glass ball. I got out of the rig, hiked 20 yards and extracted a walrus skull, minus the ivory tusks, from a jumble of rocks and driftwood.
When we reached camp—three weatherport tents set on wood platforms, all perched within 80 yards of the Steelhead—waves battered the nearby beach, 50 or 60 mph gusts blowing their tops into froth. In that weather you couldn’t have waded five yards into the Bering Sea and made it out alive. Atkins pointed in the distance and said, “There’s Pavlof and the Cathedrals. This is the first time the clouds have lifted and I’ve been able to see those mountains.”
I asked, “How long you been here?”
Atkins replied, “More than a month.”
Shortly, I was swinging a chartreuse Intruder through a nice run when the guide, McMahon, said, “Look! A bear.” And sure enough, another grizzly was parading over the tundra a hundred yards away. I looked up, saw the bear, felt a tug, turned, and saw the lesser half of a big, bright king—perhaps a 30-pounder—disappearing. I’d missed my first grab. Another hour or two of it and Sullivan and I were still fishless.
After a steak dinner, we stood on the small deck in front of our tent and watched eight grizzlies lumbering across the tundra like dinosaurs. “Land of the lost,” I mused. Then, right after I’d crawled into my sleeping bag, Sullivan said, “Look right here!” I ran to the door just as a grizzly gave us the eye, passing a few yards from the single-wire electric fence surrounding our tent. Biologists say there is an average of one brown bear per 15 square miles in the area. By the end of the week our tally was 34, suggesting that, umm, the biologists are grossly mistaken.
We spent the next day prospecting on streams that may or may not have been fished previously. On Black Hills Creek, at low tide, just a hundred yards from the sea, I cast toward a surface disturbance and watched the water explode with king salmon, a fresh pod that had moved in on the previous high, but was now super spooky in the thin water of low tide. Those fish bolted upstream to Sullivan, but his cast sent them scooting my way again, a roundup that quickly lost its luster. Why harass? Sullivan managed to cut one buck out of the pack, a 15-pounder that probably smacked his fly out of anger.
At the Cathedral River I hooked and lost a salmon and Sullivan caught a few Dolly Varden, but it was obvious the fish weren’t really in. Were we early? Too late? Wrong year? Basically, we’d contracted that awful affliction called the Anadromous Issue that so thoroughly beats the optimism out of anglers. That evening we huddled and decided to cruise back to Nelson Lagoon. In the morning we were in a jetboat headed across the lagoon and up the Sapsuck, hoping to do better on that bigger river.
The Sapsuck runs through a beautiful, willow-lined valley with high tundra bluffs filled with willow ptarmigan and brown bears. One evening at Sapsuck camp Sullivan and I watched four grizzlies feed in a distant meadow. And then I said, “Look right there.” A young sow grizzly, which the guides nicknamed The Crackwhore because of some odd black circles around her eyes, walked right by our electric fence.
The Sapsuck was ideal for my Spey rod, and that boosted spirits. Sullivan hooked and lost a few kings and I missed one great eat on the swing. But, again, it didn’t seem like many kings were around. Sockeye, on the other hand, were moving up the river in waves, perfectly visible just a few yards from shore.
Sockeye. I wasn’t too fired up about these fish and, truth be known, I didn’t care if I landed one of them during the trip. I was after big kings with a Spey rod. Sockeyes are pretty small, four to seven pounds on average. And they rarely eat a fly.
But these Sapsuck fish were different, as Sullivan discovered when throwing a tandem rig of three small chartreuse flies he’d tied the night prior. By the time he’d landed his, like, 500th fair-hooked sockeye, and just as The Crackwhore walked above him on a high bank, I decided that a fish is a fish and that I better get to the opposite bank and plead for some of those flies. An hour later, Sullivan and I were laughing our heads off, catching and releasing one sockeye after the other on light rods.
And then, as if specifically assassinating my good mood, a boat from the other lodge anchored in our run and an angler quickly hooked up and landed a big king on his Spey rod. That night a faulty seal on the base flap of our tent allowed more than 1,000 mosquitoes inside. By morning I wore at least a hundred mosquito bites...on one elbow alone. Sullivan glared at me from his bunk and said, “Worst night of sleep ever because those blood suckers buzzed my ears and you turned that stove up too high.” He added, “I saw your arm outside the sleeping bag but I knew I’d get bit fewer times if they had that piece of meat to suck dry.”
The next night Sullivan fell asleep first; the mosquitoes infiltrated again. I quickly gathered my bag and moved it to a cot in the storage tent. Just before closing the door I glared back at Sleepy Head and then said to my army, “There’s your carcass.”
It’s amazing how four men spending multiple days in proximity can get on each other’s nerves when the fish aren’t cooperating and grand expectation turns into minor regret. Here is where every angler, and especially a writer, must confront his deficiencies and understand how fortunate we are to just be out in the wild world, experiencing landscape and fauna, with the possibility of catching a fish. I wasn’t worried about having a story to tell, but I was concerned about a lack of quality images, especially of king salmon, to support the piece. So far, I had nothing.
The next morning we moped back to Nelson Lagoon and packed the Jeep for another run at the coast. And that afternoon, standing on a high bank above the Steelhead River, Sullivan said, “There’s a fish. And another, Greg.” Then he added, “This run is loaded with kings.” Right time. Right year.
For the next 24 hours Sullivan and I fought one king after the other, never farther than a couple hundred yards away from the Bering Sea. We watched packs of bright fish move in on the tide, their backs carving the surface in shallow water. And we saw kings “daisy chaining” in a deep corner pool. We watched big, dark backs and the shadows of grand fish move by our location, headed upstream to spawning grounds. Just beyond the river mouth a dozen seals bobbed in the surf, and waves pounded against the beach. Wind blasted me at 50 mph, occasionally knocking me off balance or throwing sand against my face. And cast after cast, whether throwing a single-hander or the Spey rod, whether casting a chartreuse Intruder or a pink Bunny, the kings kept grabbing and my camera kept snapping. We landed fish that weighed 30 pounds. We lost others estimated to be larger, all of this within a hundred yards of our tent. The bears stayed out of the way, the weather cooperated and when it was over, as we headed up the beach, Sullivan remarked, “Isn’t it crazy in fishing how a good trip can turn into a lifetime experience in a few hours.”
Along the coast we kept eyes peeled for flashes of green and blue, the coloration of those Japanese glass balls. We hiked into pockets where the Bering Sea blasted through the coastline, “holes” where storms deposit debris. In those pockets we lived a beachcomber’s dream, carving glass balls out of the mud and sand and driftwood piles. Halfway to Nelson Lagoon, with a hundred glass balls stacked in the Jeep, I saw something I couldn’t believe. I said, “Bill, slow down.” And then I saw it again; the spray from a whale’s blowhole just yards off the beach. I jumped out of the Jeep, ran to the edge of the sea and walked within casting distance of a gray whale taking advantage of a high incoming tide and calm seas to rub barnacles off its fins and fluke.
I turned toward the Jeep and saw my Spey rod. I turned back to see the whale’s eye above water looking directly at me. I believe it sensed my intent and quickly swam to deeper water before I could take a shot.
Nelson Lagoon and the wildest coast. A long way from anywhere, that is true. Difficult to reach, weather beaten. Infested with grizzlies and mosquitoes. Will I be there again? I can only hope. And if I do visit, let me swear, I’m packing a better life insurance policy and I will get spooled by a gray whale.
Greg Thomas is Fly Rod & Reel’s editor. He lives in Missoula, Montana.