Charles St. Pierre is one of the best spey instructors in the Northwest, and we’re lucky to have him join us each year during kings at Alaska West on the Kanektok to teach our anglers the finer points of spey fishing. He’s also a super guy.
Charles was kind enough to write a guest post for us that’s a lot more than a fish story. Have a read!
It has been a year almost to the day but I’m back and feeling confident this is exactly where I’m supposed to be at this very moment. The rain has temporarily stopped but the wind is still moving upstream with intent, its path well defined by the low white and soft grey clouds that hover wide through the afternoon sky. Bubbling schools of rolling chum and traveling sockeye salmon are on the first 25 feet of soft inside water just above the start of the long and faster tailout and against the willowed bank. It was obvious, along with the path of least resistance, that their presence here was “en masse” with fish showing themselves eagerly as they continued their trek up river with the early season migration as water levels continued to clear and recede.
But past experience had shown me that the choice king lies here on this run were just beyond this soft water when the activity levels from the other salmon species native to this river reach a fevered pitch like this. The quarters would be tight and every cast would threaten to reach back for an errant, green-leafed sprig or a short stick protruding from the shallows but a two hander and a small “D” loop will do the trick. Don’t rush it – cast and take two full steps down river as the mend upstream is made with the rod held high, slowly lowering the rod tip first, to allow the fly to sink deeply and then swing so very slowly just a few yards to the outside of the bio-mass rodeo directly below me. A few minutes later the line stops abruptly just as the fly’s swing begins and instantly the rod becomes extremely heavy with the throbbing and tearing pulse of a large king salmon attempting to destroy metal, marabou, monofilament, and eventually muscle. He hasn’t turned away yet but if I wait any longer the rod may leave my hands without me and the reel is already “gagging” to life with the weight and power of this fish. So I set the hook. The fish sets back…
I get my share of strange looks when I show and tell people I fish for king salmon with a click and pawl salmon reel made in England but after seven king seasons here, I’m used to it. If anything, style points and a proper cup of tea count – ha ha ha. Nothing wrong with cork or disc drags and many anglers use them here; I just like “simple”. I’ve been fortunate to have hooked and landed my share of kings in the high 20’s and a few in the mid 30 pound class here fishing the same reel and rod on the Kanektok but something about this fish tells something is going to be very different. I don’t know how, but definitely different. Instantly, my Hardy Bougle Mark IV squawks to life with its metal springs reaching speeds and growling pitches never before uttered or heard as long as I’ve owned and fished it. The only other time I’ve seen line leave any fishing reel this fast I was standing on the stern of panga nursing a Corona/Tequila hangover trolling rapalas for wahoo near the Sea of Cortez. Within the mere seconds it took to move the rod to my left hand for the fight, my backing is coming off my reel at light speed and leading the way, along with the heaviest and hottest fish of the week, is 100 feet of shooting line attached to my 45 foot shooting head and sink tip. A few seconds later, I feel the backing knot/splice that joins 250 yards of 50 pound Micronite to 150 yards of 30 pound Dacron hit my finger then hot pain slice into my skin. What knot? The 30 pound dacron is gone; the 50 pound micronite has turned into piano wire as it too is now disappearing at a rate never before seen or heard. Jim Palmersheim, who has been standing quietly on the rivers edge watching over my right shoulder, gives the pain in my finger and the sudden thought of the fog horn from the lighthouse at Point No Point in my mind a sound as he exhales, “Uh oh…”
One of the great gifts of being a guest speycasting instructor and honorary crew member here at Alaska West is opportunity to fish the Kanektok River. The spey program works here but it’s not just because of the instructors and our weekly guests. Besides working with what is without a doubt the best professional crew the business of remote destination fishing has to offer, the river makes the program work. And every year this river shows us a little more of how special it really is. Surprisingly, one of the first impressions I had the first time I visited the Kanektok ten years ago was that because this region of Alaska is so vast it seemed to be “empty” and not especially beautiful. I could never have been more wrong. The sense of “emptiness” I mistakenly felt was really the “openness” of a place that fills itself with what the human eye is not used to looking for, yet alone seeing. Besides the sky itself, it is the small things that fill and overflow the landscape here by sheer volume and variation. The beauty was the surprise of that revelation. The rest filled the eye and imagination with everything small. Everything except the fish, the smiles of the company you keep, the flies you fish, and grabs they elicit. Winter steelhead junkies beware…
Jim asks me, “Do you need the boat?” which happens to be parked about 125 yards upstream of where we presently find ourselves. Despite the rate things are progressing, or deteriorating, I calculate that I would probably run out of backing before he and the boat could get back to me. Optimistically I respond, “No time.” and hang on ready to check the run of this chrome bright thunderbolt for the very first time. With the rod tip in the water and bending four inches into the cork, I begin to apply light pressure to the drum of the reel in an attempt to slow its frenzied pace and bring it smoothly and gradually to a stop. And this works. The fish has stopped and is beginning to turn toward me instead of the estuary located 5 miles downriver. This is only a feint more common with the tactics of bare knuckle boxer. As I begin to turn the handle to start retrieving line, the pace of line leaving the reel with the acceleration of a shuttle launch resumes as abruptly as it began nearly one minute ago. The rod, reel, and universe begin to expand and bulge collectively and my mind is spinning blank as my jaw drops again. A few more seconds of free falling fish, then “Bang!” As suddenly as it came, the weight is gone, the rod straightens, the reel is silent, and the universe contracts. I tremble as I begin to breathe again.
The entire “event” has lasted approximately one minute but I spend the next seven minutes reeling up my backing and fly line knee deep in the suddenly cool water curious to see what is left of it. Fly lines lost, exploded reels, and fractured graphite are common daily occurrences here. But not this time. The rod and reel are intact and functioning perfectly. Then the running line, the head, and finally the sink tip all come back to me intact. The fly is gone and when I get to the leader I find a clean break midway in the 18 pound monofilament – no pigtails from a poorly seated knot.
Sixty seconds can seem like an eternity in moments of urgency and instant adrenaline when each second is taken fully one at a time. But I will remember each one of those seconds and re-live each of them one by one in my mind over and over until I return next year and again, be exactly where I should be. Strange, one minute seems kind of small for sixty seconds that will last a lifetime…