A quest to find the fish of a lifetime on one of Alaska’s most revered rivers.
[by Chris Morgan]
MY FRIEND MIKE SAT ON A COOLER with his hands gripping the oars of our large raft. After a few days of not shaving or taking a proper bath, he resembled a bear dressed up in waders, cool sunglasses, and a floppy hat. Leaning forward, he squinted at the bright fly hanging from the end of my line. He grunted.
“Too small, too light, too ugly. You need to tie on one of my flies if you wanna catch more fish.”
I stared at my small bunny leech fly. I felt deflated.
“It means more to me to catch fish on flies I’ve tied,” I responded.
Mike shrugged and gave a long, slow pull of the oars. I returned to casting my petite homemade fly while Mike’s two teenaged sons, Mickey and Finn, stood on opposite ends of the raft and continued to catch sockeye with amazing regularity with their gaudyyet successful creations of chenille and yarn wrapped around an ounce of lead crimped to a large hook.
I knew, of course, that Mike was right. His deep-rooted love for Southwest Alaska’s Kanektok River had been bringing him back since he was 19 years old. In his youth, his love of fishing was much stronger than common sense, and on his first few explorations of the river, he floated in hip boots with a bag of rice for food, and a scant knowledge of how to fly fish for salmon. Much changed over the years, and he’s proud to have made 22 more trips down the Kanektok in the past 30 years. Of course he knew what worked on this river. I was just being stubborn.
A few days earlier, multiple floatplane flights carried our group from Dillingham to Pegati Lake, where we started our self-guided, 11-day amphibious assault of one of the most famous trout and salmon rivers in the world.
Located more than 350 miles west of Anchorage, deep within the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, Pegati Lake forms the headwaters of the Kanektok. From there, the river flows 100 miles west to the Yupik village of Quinhagak and farther on to the Bering Sea. Between the lake and the sea lies a fly fishing mecca with more fish than one could possibly imagine – and we were floating right through it all.
Sockeye salmon were already congregating in the shallows of Pegati Lake when we began our float, and the numbers of sea-run Dolly Varden grew and grew with each passing day until the sheer biomass crammed from bank to bank was beyond reasonevery shallow area contained armies of “Dollies.” The chum (aka dog) salmon and the river’s famous “leopard” rainbow trout also increased in numbers the farther we floated west. We even had high hopes of getting into early waves of pink and silver salmon during the final days of the float, but we set aside special reverence for the red juggernauts of the Kanektok.
A few days into the trip, we started catching glimpses of themchinook salmon resting in the deep, crystal clear pools or streaking past us like dark, maroon torpedoesand while their numbers didn’t match the other salmon species we were seeing, their size and power commanded respect. I’d never seen freshwater fish that big.
Now in his 50s, Mike was full of spirit and opinions. Every day while others fished, he manned the oars on his bright red raft.
“Red to show support for my Utes!” referring to his beloved University of Utah football team.
He’d row all day, tell long-winded stories late into the evening, and occasionally dispense pearls of wisdom about what to do if one of us was lucky enough to hook into a king salmon. Most days I rode on his raft at his request. I think he secretly hoped he could miraculously improve my fishing prowess to the level of his two sons.
On the fourth day of the trip, I stood on a gravel beach next to Finn during one of our many stops to probe particularly “fishy” runs. Finn quickly hooked a small king resting amongst a group of Dolly Varden, but moments later, his heavily weighted fly shot out of the water like a chenille-covered bullet. Mike shouted from a higher vantage point 20 yards away atop the beached raft.