Swinging up Kings on the K’tok

It’s been three seasons now of swinging up king salmon on the Kanektok River for me, mostly a steep learning curve of spey casting heavy lines in often windy conditions. Year one my major casting fault was over rotation; year two was the dreaded dip, and this year I added a bizarre new “creep to a premature stop.”  Year one I stuck a few fish but landed fewer; year two I stuck more fish and landed a big red king; and year three, well….

For those three years guide and co-owner of Reel Action Fly Fishing, Paul Jacob, and I have been saying that one day we need to fish for kings together. Paul is the fishiest person I have ever met.  Fishing partners and guides are rotated during the week at the camp, so while we had some days together of excellent trout fishing in previous years, the stars had not yet aligned for king fishing together.  We hoped to make it happen this week.

The fishing had been very good during the week.  Most of the guests had gotten a few kings over 20 lbs, along with plenty of jacks to keep things interesting. The chum salmon had just started to enter the river, and a couple of us had gotten sockeye and trout on our king flies.

The night before the last day of fishing for the week, Paul suggested that we try to fish together for kings in the morning, leaving the tent camp at 4:30 AM.   I knew Paul was not feeling 100% that day, so I was especially appreciative of the effort he was putting into making this happen. We took off to a favorite spot of his upriver in the eerie pre-sunrise light. There’s 24 hrs of light this time of year, so while it’s never dark, it’s not quite light enough before sunrise to read a newspaper and not quite dark enough to need a flashlight or convince yourself that it’s time to sleep or wake.

I had hoped for a spot that would favor my best cast, a snap T from river left, and so lobbied for that when the wind started to pick up. Paul persisted gently, saying that we were in the best place on river right. At least I could do a double spey with my right hand on top there. I was using a 650 g floating Skagit head with 10 ft of T14 on a 13 ft 9 wt rod with 200 ft of backing and a chartreuse king fly.  We waded into position, and I made a shaky cast or two that maybe were not “fishworthy.”

And then it happened, on cast number 3 or 4.  Midswing, slam, screaming reel, 5:10 AM.  Paul had set my drag much lighter than I had been using all week, which made me think that maybe I had muscled fish too much earlier in the week. Lesson learned.  We saw the king’s back and wake as it took off downstream.   I was ready to jump in the boat to chase it down, but Paul calmly coached me as to how to play the fish and how to steer around the many snags near shore.   Every foot of backing came into play as Paul said encouragingly, “You are making progress, I can see the fly line now,” as I reeled it in.  My arms were falling off by the time the fish had finished its runs and it was close enough to net.

I’m enough of a novice to not know if a fish is “good” or not.  Hey, it’s a big fish to me and I’m just thrilled to have made it happen. Paul netted the fish and chuckled a bit.  “Is it a nice one?” I asked, not having a clue.  Paul just nodded, we did some high fives, and got down to photography.  I rarely take “hero shots,” but this fish definitely merited a photo.  I knelt down behind Paul, where he instructed me to put my hand over his on the tail so the fish would not feel the transition.  He then stepped away and told me to put my other hand under the belly to lift it out of the net. I could barely lift it, so his instructions to turn it this way or that for the photo pretty much went unheeded as I held on for dear life and tried not to lose the rod tucked under my arm.   The end result did indeed at least capture my goofy “big fish” smile.  Paul kindly asked to have his picture taken with it, for which I was grateful.  He definitely knows how to hold a fish for a photo, water still dripping from its body.

After our moment of sharing this fish and thanking the fish and river gods for this blessing, we released this beauty.  I got a bear hug from Paul, after which I dared to ask, “How big?”   Paul just said, “Over thirty lbs, maybe one of the top five guests have ever caught here.”  Obviously, a personal best for me.

We got back to fishing, not wanting to waste a minute of fishing time. In the next four hours I landed another four Chinooks over 20 lbs, plus a number of jacks, a sockeye, and a good handful of hard grabs.  We had worked out way downstream to the next hole, with Paul coaching me on my casting all the way.  At one point I did cast from the boat to get around some of the structure in the way, definitely a casting challenge to D loop around the motor, and hooked up another nice fish.  A few anglers were beginning to fish upstream of us by then.  By noon the bite had slowed, but geez, we had amazing fishing for 7 hours already, and had virtually had the river to ourselves.

Back at the camp that evening, there were tales of last day fishing, of “dragons” missed, chums moving in, trout and grayling here and there. I never talk about the fish I catch, other than to say it was a good day or a slow day or that I had gotten a nice fish.  I never want to diminish someone else’s best day. It’s not a contest to me, but when the guide says, “Let’s see that photo” at the dinner table, well, yes, I caught the big one that day, that week.  Booyah, mic drop!  The next morning, as we were preparing to leave the camp for home, I remarked to Paul that might have been the Chinook of a lifetime for me.  He just said sagely, “I think you have another big fish or two still in you.”  A memorable day, a memorable fish.