by Brad Hanson
Photos by the author ©1999
"With a broad perspective, having pursued fish from the Florida Keys to Alaska, I consider sightfishing for king salmon one of fly-fishing's greatest and most thrilling quests. The rugged beauty of salmon country and unparalleled size and strength of the king makes for a freshwater experience to rival all others." -BH-
Every year as salmon pour into south central Alaska waters, fishermen from around the world hit the rivers in pursuit of a king. Within easy driving distance of Anchorage anglers can access many notable salmon fisheries on the road system with the chance of hooking into this trophy fish.
Unfortunately the combination of easy drive, access, and kings present sets the stage for what many flyfishermen consider a distasteful experience. It's not a snobbish arrogance that flycasters are occasionally labeled with. Fly tackle often restricts the ability to get in sync with the combat rhythm required to fish in close quarters. The results can often be a negative experience for the fly angler and spinning counterparts alike.
My own experience with this dilemma caused me to just walk away. It was the best thing I could have done because little did I know around the next bend was heaven. An obscure pocket of kings holding contentedly in a small group that the crowds had obviously overlooked. Or did they? I was after all a half mile from the road now and most of those people didn't look like they were into 'bush whacking' much. Maybe these fish weren't really overlooked but simply under pursued. Bingo! The further I hiked the more I was convinced that this stream was full of kings; they were just here and there, two's and three's.
I worked my way slowly downstream looking intently into the shadowy water, dead drifting the recommended pattern. I felt free, no longer plagued with the frustration of the combat scene. This fishing struck deep into my trout fishing roots and felt natural. It was an exciting and ground-breaking day. I had numerous hookups, but it was quickly apparent I was seriously undergunned in the equipment department. I lost numerous fish for various reasons and left with an optimistic realization that I had a lot to learn, but have been an attentive student since that day. Anglers willing to sacrifice some of their fishing time to on-the-hoof travel and use a pair of polarized glasses may have their eyes opened.
Longtime friend and fishing buddy Todd Petersen lucked into a break at work this summer and was able to get a flight to Anchorage on relatively short notice. It was early July and the kings were all over south-central. I picked him up at the airport after a 3 leg journey that spanned 20-some odd hours. He was bleary eyed but his enthusiasm to chase kings for the first time was undaunted. After picking up some last minute supplies we rolled north on the Glen Highway, happy to be alive in paradise.
A few hours of scenic highway travel later we stood looking at a stream I'd done well in the week before and optimistically anticipated another good trip. We took the "get away from the crowds" idea one step further and loaded heavy backpacks for the two hour hike into our target area. We started off hiking in the stream bed as the summer undergrowth was impenetrable and no established trail was visible. As we worked our way downstream we began to absorb the sense of distance we were putting between civilization and ourselves, gaining respect for the wilds the further we trekked.(Author at right.)
We passed numerous pockets of holding kings as we trudged along, each time resisting the urge to break out the rods agreeing we should press on toward the mouth in hopes of larger numbers. Eventually we made it and all our efforts appeared to have paid big dividends. The mouth was literally choked with kings. We could see LOTS of fish holding as we approached the stream but had no idea until they moved. When they spooked, the entire surface of this stream raised, then boiled, sending little waves onto both banks. I raised the obvious if not stupid question "do we fish or set up camp?" Well it took it us about 2 seconds to figure that one out! We figured we had 3 days to set up camp and we already didn't have enough fishing time, so we strung up.
Todd hooked the first one; a 25 pounder I'd guess, that went ballistic when hooked, breaking the surface with an acrobatic display that would rival any self-respecting rainbow. It sounded like a bowling ball dropped onto the water when it landed and I had to laugh watching Todd attempt to recover the line he'd stripped onto the beach. I think he had that one on for, oh, five seconds or so, then it was gone. Broke off, oh well.
Todd was fishing a 9 foot 9wt. Loomis GLX he'd specifically built for Alaska. I was using an 11 wt. Sage a friend had built for me as a gift. I'd say the 9 wt. is generally adequate for kings, but just barely and a lot depends on the fish and the water. We both used good quality reels suitable for large fish. Todd loaded floating line and a 6' tapered leader down to 20 pound. I used a sink tip with a 4 foot piece of 25 pound mono. I ran the tapered leader gamut for a while and it seemed that the kings would eventually break me back to a pretty short piece of butt section which usually held up OK, so now I just go with it. Kings aren't leader shy so what the heck.
Line selection depends on the water you're fishing. There are so many variables to consider but one constant. YOU HAVE TO GET DOWN. How you do it is up to you, but line can help, especially if you're not fond of chucking tons of lead. Kings lay low, on the bottom really, and can be coaxed to hit but often times won't move much to do it. When I started, I had to spend hours drifting everything in the box over fish I could clearly see to finally realize I may not be getting down. Kings are so large that they look closer in the water and the depth can be deceiving. If you combine depth and water speed you end up with an over-exaggerated need to get down quickly.
The combination I've found that works best for me in most situations is a sink tip and weighted flies. If you have the luxury of carrying numerous sink tips in varying densities, great. For the type of fishing I do I'll usually overline my rods by a weight, for example an 11wt. line on a 10wt. rod. For relatively short casting situations it loads stiff rods quicker and improves the castability and pleasure of the rod.
When contemplating fly selection, the best general advice I can give is to take a variety to the stream, as kings can be fickle and downright ignorant (like all fish). By variety I don't mean a variety of orange flies per se, but orange, purple, chartreuse, fuchsia, and black. Take large and small, subtle and fluorescent.
Todd and I caught kings on a number of different patterns but for whatever reason they showed a definite preference for a fuchsia bunny leech with dumbbell eyes and crystal flash. This fly worked so well that we found the necessity to replenish our stocks, tying in camp while we rested our arms, shoulders and backs. Actually that fly had produced well all season long and another group of friends that had been visiting affectionately named it "purple death" due to its exceptional catching powers but a little misleading since its not really true purple. Learn how to tie the fly.
Once you get the fly down "in the Zone" how do you present it? As much as flyfishers and tyers in particular like to think a certain fly is the ticket, PRESENTATION IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL. It's impossible to say that any given presentation is "the best." The angler needs to be adaptable to the fishing situation and present the fly how conditions dictate, or alter presentations to fish that aren't responding favorably. Most of the time I find myself "high stick nymphing" which is simply a method of obtaining a dead drift. I can effectively get the fly down and achieve a long drag free drift and detect subtle strikes. It's amazing how delicate a forty pound fish can be.
Another method is to cast down and across, letting the fly drift and sink, then swing through holding fish at the appropriate depth. This often times triggers a more aggressive strike as it swings into their space. Once the swing is complete and the fly is hanging directly below you in the current, don't be in a rush to haul it in as I've had numerous fish slam it when it hung motionless. Of coarse it's not really motionless dancing in the current.
Accomplished fly-fishing authority Jim Teeny coined a phrase, "if I spot 'em - I got 'em" and I agree. If you see the fish your odds greatly increase because you are in fact fishing where there are fish, and can adjust your drift to target individuals. If I use a fly that remains visible in relation to the fish I can simply overcast the fish then pull the flyline back until my drift lines up with the fish. If you bump a salmon on the nose enough times, he's bound to snap at it. You can call it dogging the fish or encroaching on their space. Whatever you call it, sightfishing can be extremely effective, visually exciting, and a method that will overwork your adrenaline glands.
So the fish ate your fly, you saw it. Now what? Well of coarse we set the hook. The problem is that as flyanglers we customarily use finer tippets. Heck we pride ourselves on the fine diameter, and have conditioned ourselves to set the hook lightly if not just raise the rod tip on the take. "It don't work for kings!" Because of the diameter necessary for suitable king hooks and the incredible hardness of the fish's mouth, a solid hook-set can be difficult. Essentially the hook must be driven into the tissues of the mouth with a surprising amount of force. (Frequent sharpening of the hook will improve your hookup success.) When I have visitors that have never caught kings before, I instruct them to set the hook 3 times, and hit 'em hard. I figure if they get 3 hard hook-sets without breaking off they've probably hooked up solid.
Of coarse once you get the hooksetting business out of the way things usually get interesting real quick. A king on is where the rubber meets the road. If you were on the ball you'd have adjusted your drag before this moment. Kings are such huge and powerful fish that weird things happen (like Todd's GLX exploding) and landing these behemoths can be a challenge if not outright impossible given stream conditions. I've learned that there are some fish I just look at and walk by because I know I could never land one in the position I was in. Of coarse positioning is a strategy in it's own respect. Try to fish from an inside bend where you have some shoreline to play with. Chasing these fish is usually part of the routine, welcomed or not.
I've heard of people claiming to have spent hours landing a king. I don't think that's at all necessary unless you're going for some kind of line class record. To land a king you need to employ every advantage you can gain in the battle that ensues. Attempt to position yourself at a down stream angle. This way he's fighting you and the current both. Try to avoid lifting straight up on the rod. All you're doing is lifting the weight of the fish, allowing him to wallow in the current taking a needed breather. Lower your rod to the side, parallel to the ground and apply a sideways pressure in an attempt to work him toward the shore your standing on. If the fish seems to gain a foothold in the current where he's difficult to move, change the angle of pressure forcing him to lose the balance he's found. This is a relentless effort to tire the fish and if you catch yourself giving your burning muscles a break, you're giving your opponent one too! As with any large fish, if you attempt to land him before he's ready, you could be in for trouble. Many a fish have been lost in inches of water. I'm not suggesting that you tire any fish to complete exhaustion, but only to the point that you can control the inevitable run which ensues when you attempt to approach the fish.
Many of the waters which provide road access to king fishing contain complex regulations with specific sections that are open and closed to fishing. King salmon seasons can also vary from one stream to the next so its important to familiarize yourself with the regulations before setting out. Scouting is also an important factor in this game and it may take several trips to different streams to find one which provides ideal conditions. Although weekend crowds can be a discouraging factor, you may find the solution just around the next bend.
Keep your hooks sharp and good fishing!