Kings On the Fly: Fishing for Alaska’s Most Sought After Salmon

King Salmon caught in AlaskaArticle Contributed by Field Staff Writer J. McFarland. 

Emerging through the dense alders after following eerie bear trails and bushwhacking for an hour, I took my first glimpse at the stream I had intended to fish. My grip on the fly rod’s cork handle tightened and my heart skipped a beat.  Hundreds of king salmon were schooled up in the gin clear waters before me. The majority of fish were stacked like cord wood and faced into the current, while a few others milled about. The salmon were evidently staging prior to spawning further upstream, and I lucked out by timing the peak of this rare and short-lived congregation of kings perfectly.

Salmon congregate in such areas to stage as they wait for favorable water conditions, such as stream discharge, to swim further upstream to spawn.
Salmon congregate in such areas to stage as they wait for favorable water conditions, such as stream discharge, to swim further upstream to spawn.

Fishing was a dream. With every cast several brutes pulled out of the pack and competed with one another to attack my flashy streamer. Streamer retrieves varied from as fast as I could strip line in, to long pauses and twitches depending on the fish’s response. Often, fish would aggressively pursue the streamer from across the width of the stream, trying to beat one another to it. Other fish were more passive and resembled the predatory nature of sharks, slowly honing in on their prey. Regardless of the king’s preferred method of pursuit, the water was so clear and calm that I selectively targeted individual fish by stripping the fly away from smaller ones and allowing only the largest and most aggressive to inhale.

King salmon averaged fifteen to forty pounds, with several approaching the fifty pound trophy benchmark.
King salmon averaged fifteen to forty pounds, with several approaching the fifty pound trophy benchmark.

Takes were nothing short of spectacular.  Upon hookset, the monster kings would explode out of the water. Acrobatics were followed by powerful runs that stripped line deep into the reel’s backing. Just when I thought I had the upper hand on a fish, massive aerial stunts and relentless runs made it clear who was in charge. Line screamed off the reel and the drag system was tested. In effort to slow fish down I cupped the spool to apply more pressure than the already cranked down drag could offer. Several times the blazing reel handle slammed into my knuckles so hard it felt as if they had broken.

Quality rainbow trout often provide exciting bycatch when targeting kings.
Quality rainbow trout often provide exciting bycatch when targeting kings.

I passionately enjoy catching kings and have a deep respect for them. Although they are among the world’s best eating fish, I rarely keep them. Instead, I get my fix off the challenges of landing them and admiring their splendor while gently reviving them prior to being released. The king salmon’s life-history, and all salmon species for that matter, is nothing short of amazing; from their downstream freshwater migration as juveniles, to mysterious and expansive pelagic ocean travels as sub-adults, and miraculous return to their natal waters as mature spawning adults. Many of these life stages are poorly understood. However, considerable research has shown that after spawning, adults die and their decomposing carcasses provide vital nutrients to both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, which in turn support their rearing young – a beautiful cycle that is truly one of nature’s finest phenomenons.

Bear Track while King Salmon Fishing
Grizzly and black bears rule the best fishing holes on this stream.

Near the end of the day I was fighting a determined male king and looked up to see a big bear staring out of the alders from 30 feet away. Instinctively, the fly rod interchanged with the .454 holstered on my hip. The bear had me pinned against a steep bank with nowhere to back up. The bruin didn’t budge after calmly telling it to move on, so I switched from defensive to offensive tactics and began to yell. Unexpectedly, two unseen and now frightened cubs climbed up a tree between the bear and me. The now angry sow began anxiously pacing in front of me with chomping jaws and ears pinned back. I fired a warning shot into the brush next to her. The deafening muzzle blast spooked the cubs so much that they fell out of the tree and scampered back to the sow that then slipped off into the dense brush. Nervously, I retrieved my fly rod from a tangle of alders that I had thrown it into and landed the king who still remained on the line. Luck was with me this time and you can bet your last fly I was thankful.

Practicing safe handling and proper reviving of fish helps ensure the future of king salmon populations.
Practicing safe handling and proper reviving of fish helps ensure the future of king salmon populations.

There are few streams left in the world with such congregations of wild kings, especially those fished far more by bears than people. King salmon populations have been substantially declining since the mid-20th Century across the Pacific Northwest and recently in Alaska. The population crash is deeply rooted within a complex combination of multiple compounding factors (changing oceanic conditions, freshwater habitat degradation, overfishing, etc.). Therefore it is important to limit the number of kings harvested and quickly release those that are not, to ensure the vitality of the species.

After catching fish after fish my arms were aching. Removing streamers from sharp toothed mouths had left my hands looking like I had been in a tangle with an angry tomcat. My body was exhausted from the high adrenaline rush associated with each and every king hooked, let alone my close bear encounter. I had been fishing for much longer than anticipated, mostly because I told myself about a dozen times that I would leave after catching one more fish. The sky was darkening under the fading midnight sun and more bears would soon be making their rounds. Yet, contrary to these privations, logic had evidently been replaced by fish, as time still remained for that one ‘last’ cast to the kings below.

For fishing large salmon in small and calm water, 9-11 wt. fly rods equipped with floating line and at least 20lb leaders are the norm.  Large weighted streamers comprised of brightly colored and flashy fur and hackle generally work best.  Trick of the trade:  fish smaller and more naturally colored streamers at first and work your way up in size and flash in accordance to fish response.
For fishing large salmon in small and calm water, 9-11 wt. fly rods equipped with floating line and at least 20lb leaders are the norm. Large weighted streamers comprised of brightly colored and flashy fur and hackle generally work best. Trick of the trade: fish smaller and more naturally colored streamers at first and work your way up in size and flash in accordance to fish response.

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