When birds dive for salmon smolts, know that rainbows lurk.
[By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.]
Nothing in nature rivals the excitement of multiple species suddenly going insane, especially when some of the participants are 10-pound rainbow trout.
I’ve seen this happen. The season was late June, the place the middle reaches of Alaska’s Naknek River. It was already nine o’clock in the evening, but at that latitude and time of year, one can fish all night. I would like to report that we’d anchored the skiff in a specific location based on our years of experience in Southwest Alaska, but that would be inaccurate. We had the experience, but we’d positioned the boat mid-river in a spot chosen nearly at random. There’s less science involved in fishing smolt balls than some like to pretend.
But there is some, which I’ll review for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with Alaska. The key species driving the Bristol Bay fishery is the sockeye salmon (O. nerka), known in Alaska as red salmon. The word sockeye is an Anglicization of the Coastal Salish name for the fish. I’ll stick with red salmon out of habit.
Juvenile reds behave differently from the young of our other four Pacific salmon species, in that they live and grow in lakes for one or two winters before starting their downstream migration to the sea as smolts measuring several inches long. That’s why red salmon only inhabit drainages containing a lake. Larger than out-migrating juveniles of other salmon species, red salmon smolts attract a lot of attention from local predators. That night, my wife, Lori; our friend Trent; and I were there to join the party.
We could have passed the time casting blindly into the current, but we chose to conserve our energy. Then I began to notice birds gathering slowly upstream—gulls and terns, at least one osprey—like an outtake from the Hitchcock movie. They didn’t seem to have a plan at first as their pale wings glided against the coloring sky. Then they coalesced into a vortex just above the current surging past the first bend upstream. “Here they come!” Trent shouted unnecessarily, and all three of us began to work out line.
Nature dictates that instead of trickling downstream and relying on camouflage like other young salmon, red salmon smolts migrate from their rearing lake to the sea in concentrated balls. They expect to take a collective hit from predators, but only a fraction of them need to survive the journey in order to propagate the species. As usual, the disturbance coming downstream toward us was moving quickly, eager for the relative security of the sea. Also, as usual, we’d anchored in the wrong place to intercept them. The boiling water swept past us 50 yards away, with birds keening, diving, and fighting over fractured pieces of smolts. Big rainbows’ silver backs flashed intermittently in the sunlight as they attacked from below. All we could do was watch.
Chance soon gave us a second shot. “They’re going to go by on the outside!” I guessed aloud, correctly for once. Then we were all firing streamers toward the leading edge of the chaos. There would be no second chances. Lori whooped from the bow. Trent cursed a missed fish. I stripped as if I were casting to tuna at sea. As much as I hate tired clichés, the strike felt as if the rod were being ripped from my hand.
By the time we had a semblance of order restored aboard the skiff, Lori appeared to be under control in the bow. I, however, had a problem. The rainbow was big even by Alaska standards, and it was headed straight downstream with the full force of the Naknek behind it. My backing was evaporating at a worrisome rate, and I had to bail out in pursuit. Rod tip held high, over the gunwale I went.
Wading the Naknek at that time of year is not for the faint of heart. I didn’t have enough time or enough hands to grab a wading staff. Fortunately, we had anchored above a small island that split the current in two. I gauged that in a worst-case scenario, I’d get wet but wouldn’t drown. With my feet bouncing off rocks, I bobbed downstream until I hit the island’s shore, dry and upright. I even landed the fish, which I later claimed to break the 30-inch Alaska trophy benchmark even though I didn’t have a tape. No one ever argued the point.
We had a dozen more smolt-ball encounters and several more huge fish that night, before declaring victory and pulling anchor. When I glanced down at my watch, I saw that it was already tomorrow. —E. Donnall Thomas Jr.