Personal History

Personal History

Ladies First ... This Time In which the author’s “chivalry” comes back to bite him.

  • By: George Cook
  • Photography by: George Cook
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jDeep in the blurry throws of engagement, I stepped out of a skiff on Alaska’s Nushagak River and said to my fiancée, Jen, “Yeah sweetie, you get first water all week long on this gig.”

Why worry about it, I wondered. She could have first shot and it wouldn’t matter, because I could cast farther than her, especially with the heavier and longer sink-tips that we’d use for the river’s king salmon. I was so confident that I could reach the fish that she couldn’t, I didn’t even take a second to think through the “all week” portion of my promise. But I should have.

We’d planned this week for a long time and I knew the river well, having guided this region in the 1980s. I maintained a great relationship with one of the river’s more exceptional operations, Alaska’s King Salmon Adventures, which includes a dedicated group of longtime guides who flock north each summer to tackle the largest king run in The Great Land.

The Nushagak is a monster of a river system that’s located in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. The lower river, below its forks, is big, like almost Columbia River big. Even the respective east and west forks are plenty big-ass water, and to step up there for kings, even with a Spey rod in your hands, is akin to being armed with a club, a spear or a recurve bow when trying to take down a grizzly. The successful angler here breaks the big ditch into smaller, workable pieces where he or she could reasonably expect to swing a fly in reach of a traveling king.

Armed with Sage One and Method rods, plus Skagit lines and T-14 and T-17 sink-tips, we had a fighting chance. Flies? Hell, we had flies, like boxes and boxes of them, because fly color does matter here—you need chartreuse and more chartreuse. My personal favorite for the Nush is the Bjorn Super Prawn tied in a custom Kelly green/chartreuse combination that I’ve dubbed “The Leprechaun.” Mr. King likes Ol’ Leppy in a big way, so we put him in the starting lineup on day one.

After a slow morning we stopped at a run I call Joshua Tree and we brought four fish to hand, two each, but Jen found the big fish and posed for round one of “camp champ” photos. Day two found us hitting various haunts, with Jennifer repeatedly making the most of her first-water privileges. By day three her luck was wearing on me, and I was relieved to know that she and her ladies-first routine wouldn’t be following me to the Brooks Range a month later, for a Dall sheep hunt. Day four was Jennifer’s moment of legend, as she tallied five hookups with four beasts landed, including a couple that she could add to her 28- to 32-pound photo montage. We’d already crowned her camp champ with a day to go.

Like steelhead fishing, the Spey game for kings is a cast, mend, swing-out affair. The persistent are rewarded so the theme, even during long bouts between bites, is to keep hucking. During the down times there’s still reason to be hopeful, because with each tide change there’s the chance that swarms of chromers might be ascending the river. In fact, a spot that was unproductive at 9:00 AM may come alive, post tide, at 3:00 PM. If it does, enjoy the ride and don’t leave when the action seems to tail off—fish traveling on the last of the tide may be just reaching your post. Often it truly pays to go through the water again and again, knowing that the upper river is always there if needed. When fishing kings, or any other species for that matter, remember the Alaskan guide’s first creed: Don’t leave fish to find fish.

When day five arrived we tagged it “Big Finish Friday.” After a harrowing, fog-filled, 35-minute boat ride that almost required Instrument Flight Rules, we beached at Joshua Tree. After saying thanks for not having encountered Boo Boo or Bullwinkle on an early morning swim, I said, once again, “Babe, you get first crack at it, so start at the front end of that bucket.” Then I murmured, just loud enough for Jen to hear, “But you don’t get the best fly in the box.” No surprise. She’d heard and seen it before, Mr. Geo rat-holing the inner sanctum of flies. Unfortunately for me, she had four Leprechauns left and first crack at the best water.

Shortly after the tide the fish arrived big-time and by the end of it we’d hooked 13 kings and landed nine. And I’d had my day in court—Miss First Water hooked three and landed two; Ol’ Georgie picked her pocket with 10 hookups and seven kings to the beach.

Don’t say you didn’t see that coming. And don’t tell me you wouldn’t think about doing the same thing. We’re fishermen, and although we might offer the first pass to our gals, we’re not above hoarding the best fly in the box, in this case a pink-butted Leppy that I’d held back from the Champ, a fly that every king in the river wanted. w

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