Alaska Salmon

by Christopher Tan S.G., Kuala Lumpur

Publisher's Note: An angler from Southeast Asia takes on Alaska salmon without guides, outfitters or other help. Just a Zodiac and a considered approach lead to the action. Good planning or good luck? You make up your own mind.

Thump! Another solid hook-up! The eight pound fish with bizarre vertical purple bars takes off to the other side of the stream, unstoppable! It stops and I start pumping with short power strokes. Making some headway, the chum salmon turns towards me and I recover a few feet of line-- not for long though. With powerful dogged sweeps of its tail the fish moves to the deepest part of the inlet and sits there. Almost unmovable!

Changing the angle of pressure, I manage to get it moving again by putting the pressure side on or forward of the chum salmon. I retrieve some line, only temporarily.

This goes on for about ten minutes before I triumph! Bringing the chum salmon to the bank I produce my pliers to unhook, and release it. I watch my first salmon of the year slowly swim away back to the bottom of the inlet.

Half an hour later I have another fish on! This one tears up to head of the inlet, doing an aerial somersault, throwing water all around in its attempts to throw off its hook. This fish is easily identified as a sockeye or red salmon by its silvery body. However this time, the red salmon turns around and heads downstream. Despite all my efforts, it continues powering downstream, towards small rapids. I hold my rod tip up, as high as possible to keep it clear of the of line cutting rocks. That is not my only predicament, I am stuck! I can't run down stream with the fish as I am standing on a rocky ridge in the middle of the small river with the icy cold water swirling inches from the tops of my waders. So I can't move quickly enough to the bank without flooding them!

Jaw hanging, I watch in astonishment at the raw power of this red salmon peel off thirty yards of line with ease. It powers around a corner, then past a huge rock sitting in the middle of the rapids. The line goes slack! Heart pounding fiercely from the awesome encounter, I reel in what is left of my line. I cut off the frayed and nicked portion, and rig up again for the next thrilling affray!

Well! I had been here just a few hours and already was battling these monsters! However the journey here took at least forty five hours! Yes! more than ten thousand kilometers away from my normal fishing grounds. Fishing in the rain and cold! Oh for the hot sun of Malaysia!

My lengthy journey to this isolated paradise took me through quite a few countries. Flying to Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A. from Kuala Lumpur through Singapore, Tokyo, Seattle and Anchorage took about thirty-five hours including some long transit times awaiting the connecting flights.

My sister, Tan Oon Ai, picked me up at Fairbanks International Airport. Its nice to have a sister that enjoys fishing! We spent the next few days getting our gear ready, purchasing my two week fishing license, sending the pickup to get its electrical system modified to cope with the additional electrical load of a camper, attaching a new tow bar to the camper, for the Zodiac (the inflatable boat) and fixing their CD player thus saving them heaps of $$$! In between all this Kim (my brother-in-law) and Oon Ai had to work too, except for the last two days before our trip.

Finally we left Fairbanks for our seven hour trip to Anchorage. We had planned to get down and purchase my tent from REI, an outdoor supplies shop, and catch the first train to Whittier the following day. Whittier, from where we launch our zodiac, is only accessible by rail, sea or seaplane. The railway line goes under a mountain range and glaciers, a forty minute ride.

Murphy's law says ....... . Well guess what! Numerous delays due to battery charging problems en route, combined with hunger stops and lure buying stops delayed us. When we got to REI, it had just closed!

We spent the rest of the evening browsing around a sports shop and a book shop before spending the night at Elemendorf AFB camper park. By the time we had all the shopping done the next morning, we barely made the 1:20 p.m. train. We were the last vehicle to board it!

After cooking our very late lunch in the camper at Whittier, we proceeded to prepare for our departure. While Oon Ai filed our trip plans with the harbor master, Kim and I packed our gear into dry (waterproof) bags. We then launched the boat, loading it up and ensuring all the items were secure. Our journey to Long Bay of just over an hour was pretty uneventful. Fortunately the rain held off from the dark overcast sky.

Our first priority was to set up camp before it rained. We set up our two tents near each other close to the water. Our kitchen and dining room had to be a hundred feet away from the sleeping site, because of ..... BEARS !!!

Bears like food! Food stuff, anything with scent of fragrance, even toiletries, had to be kept there. Waking up and finding a nine foot tall bear tearing into my tent to get to my toothpaste is not my idea of a fishing trip! Maybe for a hunting trip. The only suitable site found a hundred feet away was four stories high above our tents!

After a hasty meal, we gathered our fishing gear and walked up to the higher "lubok" just below the first falls. The water was crystal clear. We could clearly see the salmon scattered around the lubok. Wasting no time, we commenced fishing.

Kim quickly showed his skill in hooking salmon. His first catch was obviously a chum salmon. He had a good time fighting it for five minutes. While he continued to land more fish, I still was casting away. However, I was getting smart. Watching Kim, I observed the way he fished and by imitating him, I finally managed to hook up my first salmon!

Playing and Landing Salmon

Landing these sea going fish is not easy. They are used to battling the ocean currents, so what is so difficult about battling an angler, using 12lb line!?. Going head on against these big fish will leave the struggle a draw as they can hardly be moved! Meantime, the quarry typically recovers energy faster than the angler. As long as the fish is headed away from the angler it uses the least energy. Turning the fish's head around as soon as possible is crucial to bring the fish in early, eliminating an unnecessary long drawn battle.

Even if the quarry is pulling out the line, keep pumping with short smooth strokes. This pressure which constantly increases and decreases tires out the fish quickly. Imagine a rope was tied to your waist. If the rope was slipped at a steady drag while you ran away. You would be able to continue running for some time. But if the drag was constantly changing, you would tire out twice as fast compared to a steady resistance. Short smooth pumps enable the resistance put on the fish, to vary without changing the drag setting on the reel. Naturally the reel drag system must be operating smoothly to do this.

Release When Possible

That night we released all the salmon we caught. We were not sure of the exact variety of salmon we were catching. There were three different types of salmon moving up into the river - pink, red/sockeye and chum/dog. Chum is the least desirable of all the salmon in Alaska. It is caught in fish wheels by Alaskan natives who fillet, smoke and save the fish for dog food. The commercial fisherman sell them to fisheries who process the fish for canning and for roe. The male chum salmon are obvious - the vertical magenta bars. However as to the identity of the silvery sided salmon, we were not sure whether it was a red or a female chum. Later we discovered that what we suspected was red salmon, was confirmed through careful study of the fishing regulations booklet, which also provide the pictures and details for identification of the five different salmon found in Alaska.

I caught the only pink salmon of the trip that night. Not being certain which variety of salmon it was, I released it. Since we had another four more days in this fisherman's paradise. There were plenty more fish to be caught!

We called it a night at about midnight. The next morning, I woke at six. The beauty about fishing in summer in Alaska is the nineteen hours of daylight. It does not get really dark till midnight and after five in the morning it gets pretty light.

Kim and Oon Ai were still asleep. I had come so far and with so much effort, that I was not going to spend it sleeping! Crawling out of my borrowed sleeping bag, I struggled into my many layers of warm clothes: two pairs of thermal underwear, of which one was the heavy weight expedition type used in the arctic winters, woollen shirt, fleece vest, fleece top and a jacket. Brrrr. It may be hot and sticky in Malaysia, but getting dressed to go fishing is so much easier!

Back at the bottom of the falls I managed to get some Dolly Varden, a kind of sea going trout. The trout family, I learned, consists of several sea and fresh water varieties, and the saltwater trout do come up into the freshwater to spawn. But in this case they came up here to eat salmon eggs from the spawning salmon. I could see that the dollies were grouped together waiting for any loose fish roe to drift their way!

For a little fish that size, they are real spunky fighters, never giving up, constantly jumping and twisting, trying to escape! Each struggle took several minutes to subdue them. The average size caught was about a pound and a half. After several spats with the Dolly Varden, I gave up trying for salmon, and took one back to camp for breakfast. Yum! Fresh fish!

So far I had caught all the fish on my baitcasting gear. After breakfast I decided to try for salmon on my new fly tackle. I had one lesson from the fly fishing "sifu" Christopher Chandran back home, and had only put in probably a total of two hours of practice before coming to Alaska! Nevertheless I was going to attempt to try and catch my first fish on a fly rod in Alaska!

Numerous casts later I was on! My first fish on a fly rod! It felt huge! Seconds later it jumped, a dolly! Well I must admit dollies can give rather strong pulls! On a six weight fly rod it took me longer to land it than on my baitcasting outfit. At any rate I managed to land my first hook up on fly tackle! After taking the customary photos it was let back into the water to eat more salmon roe. Still full of energy it sped back to its friends.

Since I had not managed to hook up a salmon on the fly rod, I went back to my baitcasting outfit with the fly and a heavy sinker, so the fly would be able to get down deep to the holding salmon.

It did not take long to get hooked up several times!. Sometime that morning, I landed my first red salmon! Action was fast and furious, with many salmon released, not to mention of those that released themselves! There came a point when my left arm, which held the rod during the fight, cramped up! My sister who had not landed her own fish yet, was passed the rod to continue the fight, while I had to give my arm a much needed break! Phew! Needless to say, Oon Ai landed her first salmon of the trip!

The different fighting characteristics between chums and reds soon became obvious. Chums stay deep and slowly power around the lubok. They fight like bulldogs, never giving up or an inch of line, whereas reds tear off as soon as the hook is set! An aerial display with water flying all around is the norm for the first minute! Subsequently they settle down to slug it out. Both take just as long to land.

The main danger is when they start taking off downstream. If they do so, all is lost. So maximum drag is applied to turn its head around. Once I tried to stop a fish from heading down stream that my sister was fighting. I tried standing in the rapids to scare it into turning around. Undeterred, it avoided my hands and waders in its determination to get downstream and to freedom! As soon as the monofilament line brushed against my waders, the line snapped, much to Oon Ai's disgust!

Then we decided to tackle the river mouth, as the tide was out and the salmon were more concentrated, holding in the deeper holes. I decided to give my fly rod a try again.

Hundreds of casts later, a bump! Was this it? Taking in the little slack in the fly line I firmly lifted the fly rod to set the hook in the hard mouth of the possible salmon! Nothing moved! I felt that I had hit a snag! Then this snag decided to move. The battle was on! Initially all I could do was hang on as the salmon just swam around where it willed. Any line I could retrieve was soon taken out again!

By the behavior of the hooked fish, this was probably a chum, but we still had not seen the fish. My sister and brother-in-law had stopped their fishing to watch the entertainment and offer encouragement.

By and by the fish was tiring, but so was I! Trying to catch salmon this size on a six weight fly rod without a butt extension is not exactly the recommended tackle. Alaskans use at least eight weight tackle for this type of fishing. They thought I was crazy. Actually, I was just too poor to buy an eight weight rod!

With the salmon in closer and in shallower water I could see it! A big chum. Now I could start bringing the side pressure techniques into play! Every time it turned I would quickly swing the rod around, maintaining the right angle to pressure it. In doing so, I tired it expeditiously. Every time I retrieved line, it would take off whenever it got close to me. This technique tired it out quickly as it was given no opportunity to rest.

During this fracas, my audience told me I would not be getting any help in landing this fish. I was handed a small landing net. Some brother-in-law! Twenty minutes had passed. This was one tough fish! In due course it got more tired than I did, and I got it within range of the landing net. It would not fit in! The chum took off again! Then bringing it in again, I got the head and slid half the body in! Lifting the net it sort of folded up, and most of it was safely in. As I dragged it to the shore edge, I felt relieved, and ecstatic! A real trophy sized fish on a six weight fly rod!