The moment I’d waited for had arrived: the fly line twitched and moved strangely in the current. I raised the rod and found myself attached to an irate sockeye which flung itself clear of the water and made off in a determined run towards the faster water mid-river. My mentor, master fly fisherman Peter Cockwill was beside me, giving support and encouragement in his unique way.

I was using a favourite 7/8 rod, and that fish really put a bend in it. Eventually I worked the fish to the shallows and Peter obliged by hand-lining it the rest of the way. Two more sockeye, then a decent chum of around 9 pounds which really gave a good account of itself. Not bad for a couple of hours in the evening, especially after a long day spent travelling from Anchorage by airliner to Bethel, then light plane and boat.

It promised to be a productive week ahead on the Kanektok river…
Essentially the week’s fly fishing centred on a camp consisting of spacious two-man tents, toilets, washing facilities and a huge mess tent where traditional American breakfast and nutritious, generously proportioned evening meals were served, and where coffee and tea and soft drinks were permanently on tap. The possibility of starvation or dehydration was non-existent.

The day started with a trip downriver at 08.00 every day in a power boat with a guide and two anglers. The precise destination depended on the species preferred by the anglers. On a given day there would generally be at least a couple of changes in location, and precisely where we were taken to fish depended a lot on the guides’ local knowledge of the river. Quality of guiding can make or break a holiday of this kind, and the guides we had were excellent. But you can read more about the arrangements here:
Unaccustomed to spending lots of time fishing for game species, I was eager to make up for this and catch – not to put too fine a point on it – a shedload; and I succeeded without too much trouble. And then some! The only problem I had was increasing fatigue and a suffering arm and wrist as the week progressed. But these are the sort of problems I am prepared to put up with when clocking up a weekly total of 150+ sockeye and a couple of dozen of other species. One member of the party managed a chinook of around 35 lb.

I noted in my diary for the eleventh of July: ‘already a good day by nine-thirty’. There must be very few parts of the world, if any, where this quality – and, of course, quantity – of fishing is possible. My short entry for another day concludes with the single word: ’Knackered!’

It soon became apparent that sockeye salmon in their thousands were making their way upstream, with spawning in mind. This was best seen from a high vantage point: a narrow, greyish ribbon of sockeye pods stretching as far as the eye could see and following the easiest route through water 3-4 feet deep. Here and there could be seen a bright red shape moving with the others – fish already in spawning colour. It really was a sobering thought that in two weeks or so all of these fantastic fish would have spawned and died.

In among these sockeye ‘marching’ upriver were chum salmon, a hard-fighting species which in the Kanektok can reach double figures. Chum are certainly worthy opponents and they’ll test your tackle without a doubt. A nine or ten pound fish will really pull your string because anything – including anglers of course – which interferes with their biological destiny of running up the river, spawning and dying, will be countered with fierce resistance. A sockeye hooked at close range is a volatile creature. It may opt for the rather dogged, prolonged type of fight, bolting up and downstream without going too far, or may decide – sometimes suddenly and without warning – that the deeper, faster water fifty yards across is the place to be; and it will go there, fast, doing a few cartwheels on the way. A fly reel with an efficient, reliable drag is an essential tool – any attempt to control the fish by braking the reel rim or, even worse, by grasping the line, will result in rapped knuckles or line burns, or possibly both. I know – I tried it. Once.

Given the length of day at this time of year, and so far north (it never gets fully dark) a spot of after-dinner fishing is easily achieved – if you have the stamina that is – along the river by the camp. Personally, the thought of donning chest waders and the rest after an already long and productive day – and a big meal – was just too much.

Above: Peter Cockwill with guide, Jake.

No account of fishing on this river is complete without a mention of mouse fishing for rainbows. This is either done from a boat on the main river or on foot/wading in side channels. The aim, using a floating mouse-fly made of deer hair and foam, is to drop the fly very close to the far bank and retrieve it across the surface. Rainbows will hit a fly like this at top speed – exciting fishing indeed, but exhausting for the angler with the high expenditure of adrenalin.

As you may have guessed, the fishing is catch and release and with a limit of fish to be taken for the table. Salmon featured in two evening meals at the camp – fantastic!

Rod with red rod-bender.

A bit about the local topography. Nothing can prepare anyone for the first sight, from a light aircraft, of the flat tundra around our destination: the native Yupik village of Quinehak, immersed in green and with masses of lakes and rivers stretching away endlessly toward the mountains in the far distance. It’s a sobering thought that this is but a tiny part of the immense and remote state of Alaska, a vast slab of north America with a population of a mere 738,432, most of whom live in Anchorage and into which the UK would fit seven times over. The Capital, Juneau, is accessible only by air, there being few roads to speak of.

It is staggering to think that this land, with relatively few human inhabitants, is one fifth the size of all the other US states combined or, to put it another way, larger than even the combined area of Texas, California and Montana…

No visit to Anchorage is complete without a trip to Cabela’s. For the angler or field sportsman this is an Aladdin’s Cave of north American proportions: hunting store, fishing tackle shop, camping and clothing supplies and anything else you might need for the Great Outdoors rolled into one. The fishing section alone would dwarf most tackle shops as we know them in the UK. The fly tying part has a mouth-watering array of stuff you will never find anywhere else. Cabela’s has approximately sixty outlets in the USA, six of them in Texas alone.

‘Enjoy, but enjoy responsibly’ is the best advice I can give. One option might be to leave your credit card in your wallet, just use cash – and a limited amount at that. But then you might see something nice you have long been looking for, or something really tempting on special offer, or just that certain something, and then you’d regret it big time.

The existence of a chain like Cabela’s is testimony – or so it seems to me – to the fact that fishing is alive and well – in the USA at the very least.
Alaska – state motto: ‘North to the Future’ – was bought from the Russians in 1867 by the far-sighted William H Seward, the US Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869, for the then princely sum of $7.2m. It was soon given the name ‘Seward’s Folly’ and questions were asked as to the wisdom of acquiring such a large liability in the shape of a huge tract of frozen, unproductive land. However, those who supported the move were proved right when, in the 1890s, gold was discovered and the scramble north to go prospecting began. This resulted in the Klondike bonanza. Somewhat later, in 1968, ‘black gold’ in the form of oil was found in huge amounts. No doubt then that ever since, Seward has been held up as a shining example of American go-getting and ‘can do’ mentality. Good on him, is all I can say.
So to sum up: in Alaska I discovered a whole new world and caught a fair few fish in the process. I also made some new friends. I am already looking forward to the next time…
You might like to take a look here to find out about Peter Cockwill’s guided trips:

Rod Sturdy

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