A father’s dream fulfilled
By Bryan Whiting
“Your gear is already in your tent. You’ve got 15 minutes to grab your fly rods and get wadered up. We’re going fishing for silvers.”
That’s all it took. With those magic words from Jeff, our guide, my sons, Eric (16) and Jason (14), were at a full sprint.
Thirty minutes earlier, after flying over hundreds of small lakes and creeks the color of bad coffee, we glimpsed at our destination: the crystal-clear Kanektok River. It appeared much like a vision in a dream.
After landing on a somewhat level spot between the river and the ocean, we were no more than five steps off the plane when an Alaska West guide introduced himself with, “I’m Jeff, and you must be the Whitings. Jump in my boat. Camp is 20 minutes.”
Our minds and eyes were awash with Alaska. The river which seemed to be 10 feet below tundra level; the dense green vegetation on the bank opposite every gravel bar; the casual glance of the bear as we disturbed his quiet salmon lunch; the movement of the boat as it wound its way upriver; and the fish. The river was full of fish. Everywhere we looked we could see salmon resting against the bank, swimming upriver or moving away from the boat — everywhere.
I had not expected our fishing to begin until the next day, but it was approaching 2:30 in the afternoon as Eric and Jason, fly rods in hand, bolted from their tent for Jeff’s jet boat. They were hollering “Hurry up, Dad,” as Jeff started the motor.
Five minutes back downriver we were approaching Joe’s Bar, a 400-yard stretch of curving gravel around which the Kanektok created a deep flowing run. Jeff had already tied two-inch pink streamers with silver lead eyes on the boys’ eight-weights as they had waited for their old man. Consequently, they were halfway out of the boat as we coasted to a stop.
“Jason, you go upstream; Eric, you go down. Cast across to the edge of the current, mend once to let it sink, strip as fast as you can,” were Jeff’s instructions. I took a deep breath. It was true. After years of dreaming, planning, trying to figure out how to make it happen, our boys were fishing in Alaska.
Jeff was selecting a fly for me as I watched Eric make his second cast. Eric’s strike and shriek of joy occurred simultaneously, followed by the sight of our first silver salmon as it cleared the gentle current by three feet. As Jeff laid down my rod, grabbed the net and headed toward Eric, I couldn’t help but smile and give thanks. A father’s dream had come true.
After releasing Eric’s silver, Jeff was walking back to continue with my fly when, “Got one,” echoed from the other side of the boat as Jason’s rod bent at a ridiculous angle.
After dutifully netting Jason’s silver, Jeff was again returning when we both noticed Eric in full sprint as the line screamed off his reel. Jeff tossed me a fly on the way by. “You better tie this on yourself if you want to fish today.”
The next three hours we fought, caught, landed and lost more silver salmon than I had envisioned we would during our entire trip.
Neither pictures nor Saturday morning fishing shows, not to mention my words, do justice to the silver salmon. Their aerial gyrations and dashing runs are more frequent and powerful than one can imagine, let alone anticipate. Our many years of catching trout were not adequate preparation for the strength of 12 pounds of silver salmon.
At 6 p.m. we were back at camp. As we changed out of our waders in preparation for our first dinner in Alaska, Jason could only comment, “Dad, can you believe we have six more days of this?”
At 7 a.m. the next morning, Jeff announced, “We’re going wake fishing.” Downstream, a mile up from the ocean, the “wake” was created as the next wave of incoming silvers came around the corner of Church Bells bar and continued upstream in two feet of water. With a floating pink popper fly now attached to his line, Jeff instructed Jason, “Four feet past and four feet in front of the first wake. Now, strip like crazy.” Much to our amazement the wake, of at least a dozen silvers, turned and followed. Jason’s difficulty was maintaining self-control until the open mouth of the lead silver engulfed the fly. “Eric, run downstream and intercept the next wake,” was Jeff’s next command as he moved to net Jason’s fish. We spent the morning rotating down and then back up the gravel bar intercepting, casting, laughing and catching silvers.
It was approaching 1 p.m. when Jeff administered the coup de grâce to Jason’s silver. “No sandwiches today guys. We’re grilling fresh salmon. As we thanked him for our sumptuous lunch at Cafe’ Streamside, Jeff issued the orders for the afternoon. “Back in the boat boys, we’re heading upriver.”
Nine miles above camp, each run, gravel riffle and side channel held king, chum and sockeye salmon that had entered the river in June and the first half of July. Now, the second week of August, they were spawning, dying or dead; no longer in prime condition to catch or eat. They were, however, perfect for attracting “leopard” rainbows, appropriately named because black spots cover every inch, including their eyes. A wide, bright red stripe made them easily visible as they sat behind spawning salmon gulping down eggs. These unique “leopards” didn’t waste their time with insects. They were on an all-protein diet of eggs and salmon flesh, punctuated by the occasional mouse.
I was “nymphing” a bead egg imitation behind two Kings spawning in the current. Eric was 50 yards below doing the same behind at least 30 sockeyes spawning in a flat. We took turns netting 18–20-inch rainbows. Having replaced the bead egg with a floating mouse fly, Jason and Jeff were upstream kneeling in a foot of water opposite a snag-filled grassy bank. “Cast up and on the grass, pull it off, mend downstream and swim it” were Jeff’s instructions. In ever elevating octaves Jason’s, “Here he comes,” announced anticipated success. Jeff’s next words told Eric and I all we needed to know. “We’ll have better luck if you wait to strike until he actually hits your mouse.”
Over the next two hours we worked a half mile upriver as we shared Jason’s experience. As our mice would “swim” the subsequent rainbow attacks were so swift and visual as to make “exciting” an understatement. Many times, it was a race between two or three rainbows to see who would get to our mouse first.
Our heartbeats were gradually returning to normal when Jeff began changing our mouse flies to three-inch concoctions of white, pink and a tinge of brown. His response to our quizzical expressions was “18-inchers eat eggs; the beasts eat flesh.” The “30-inchers” lurked in the deepwater drop-offs where they felt more secure from the ever-present raptors. The current was their conveyor belt for chunk after chunk of decaying salmon.
One broad-jumped a four-foot snag and was gone. Another tail walked for 10 seconds before landing on the leader. Lost fish, but images we will never lose. We did land a few that were so stuffed with protein as to be nearly as heavy as the silvers of the morning.
Go to Alaska. Take someone special with you not only for unforgettable fishing but to create special memories. I cannot put a price tag on the smiles of my sons as each new day brought new adventures. Even now a new smile is generated as our trip reemerges in everyday conversation or memory as we remember fulfilling a father’s Alaska dream.