Les Palmer: 50 years in Alaska

Fishing and writing have taken me on trips to the wild places I imagined as a kid while reading stories about British Columbia and Alaska.

A fly-in trip to the Kamishak River comes to mind. To reach this remote stream in Katmai National Park, you have to fly in a float plane to the river’s estuary. Once there, you transfer to an outboard-powered skiff anchored mid-stream, and then run several miles up the winding river.

This scenic, glacier-fed river runs through true wilderness. My guide and I passed one boat on our way upstream, and never saw another human being during that day on the river.

We stopped to fish from a long gravel bar. Right off, with an effortless short cast, I hooked a bright chum salmon on a fly. I’d never fished for this species. Didn’t think they were worth the effort. I was in for a surprise.

From my story about this trip in Alaska magazine: “Chums typically weigh 7 to 15 pounds, but can reach 30 pounds or more. On an 8-weight, this fish fought like a small tuna. There was none of the twisting and writhing you expect from a salmon, only a determined run and a bull-doggish unwillingness to be reeled in. The fish never rolled onto its side, but remained upright, in full battle trim, stubborn to the end.”

That few people visit the Kamishak River is obvious from the abundance of fish and wildlife. A brown bear on the other side of the river made our stay interesting. As we were leaving “our” gravel bar to the bear, nearby wolves began howling. A few moments later, they were answered by other wolves, far off in the distance.

Farther upstream, I fished for Dolly Varden with a 5-weight fly rod and an imitation salmon egg. The first one I pulled in would’ve weighed at least six pounds. The second fish I hooked was so big, I thought it was a 10-pound salmon, until it rolled right in front of me, showing me its Dolly spots. That’s when my leader broke. There be monsters at that place.

At the Katalla River, about 50 miles east of Cordova, I found more Alaska wilderness. You get there in a small, single-engine airplane, and land on a strip not much wider than the airplane. You stay in a lodge built on the ruins of a ghost town, the site of Alaska’s first oil discovery. To reach the best fishing holes, you run upstream several miles in an outboard-powered skiff. Due to the Katalla’s short, steep drainage and to frequent and heavy rain storms along the Gulf of Alaska coast, this river “blows out” often in the fall. However, if your timing is right, and the river is in decent shape, the fly fishing for silver salmon can be fantastic. I was lucky enough to see it that good.

Twenty years ago, when the silver salmon returned to Delight Lake, on the remote, outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula, I was there.

From my story in Alaska magazine: “I had seen many salmon return to their home streams, but never any like these. Seemingly unafraid, they swam close to our boats. They jumped and splashed. They rolled, their sides flashing like mirrors in the shallow lagoon. They raced back and forth like colts, full of life.

“My friends were pulling in one silver after another, huge fish, some over 20 pounds. And what was I doing? I was gaping, pointing and generally acting as if I’d never seen a salmon, let alone caught and eaten hundreds. I tangled and broke my line. I forgot how to tie knots. I somehow managed to get a backlash in a spinning reel. I did everything but fish.

“The weird thing was, I didn’t care. I just watched those fish and smiled until my jaws ached.”

Going back though yellowing magazines and newspapers to read about fishing trips past, I find myself again smiling until my jaws ache.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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