December and January are excellent months to reflect back on a year of fishing and to plan for the next year. For the last four years the Kanektok River in Alaska has been a “must do” for me, and I look forward to visiting the river again in 2019.
Paul Jacob, owner/operator of Reel Action Fly Fishing tells me that the Kanektok River in southwestern Alaska was probably dubbed “The Chosen River” as a code to keep it a secret. It’s no secret that this beautiful river can hold all five species of salmon at once, along with leopard rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, arctic char, and grayling. Depending on which week of the fishing season one visits, the river can present itself as a high, fast water challenge for chinook/king fishing, to a double digit day of bright chrome silver/coho salmon…and everything in between.
The Kanektok River originates in the Ahklun Mountains at Kagati and Pegati Lakes in the Togiak Wilderness. It flows westward for about 75 miles into Kuskokwim Bay on the Bering Sea though the village of Quinagak. Access to the lower river is by air via the village of Quinhagak. There are no roads in or out of this Yup’ik settlement. After landing at the short airstrip near the town, a van transports guests for a 10 minute ride to the bank of the Kanektok, followed by a two minute motorized boat ride to the Reel Action camp across the river. Home for a week is a comfortable tent camp with hearty food and hot showers. The weather here is changeable, often with a stiff wind coming right off the Bering Sea. Bring warm layers, but you will be humbled by the site of the village children swimming for fun in the chilly river, heedless of the weather.
The fishing week does not allow any time for exploration of Quinhagak, although one sees glimpses of it while fishing the lower river. Reel Action employs several Alaska Native residents in the camp, offering guests a pleasant and relaxed interaction with these individuals and their families. Paul Jacob and his crew treat the villagers and their customs with the utmost respect. One aspect of that respect is maintaining a “dry” camp, as Quinhagak has very strict rules banning alcohol from the village. Cultural differences do sometimes arise during the week on the river, so it is important to remember that we are just visitors here.
Quinhagak is pronounced something like “Kwin – a – hawk” to a non-native ear. The name of the village has evolved over the years, from “Quinchahamute” to “Quinhaghamiut” to “Kwinhagak” to its current spelling in 1975. It does have a Central Alaskan Yup’ik name of “Kuinerraq”, meaning “new river channel.”
The village is a study in modern technology imposed on native traditions. One might see children dressed in traditional kuspiks over a Batman tee shirt. Behind the open air fish drying racks rise wind turbines for power. This is an old village, with an origin dating back to about 1000 A.D. Centuries later, it was one of the first villages in the area to have contact with Caucasian people. After the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the Alaska Commercial Co. sent annual supply ships to Quinhagak. Subsequently, a Moravian Mission was built in 1893, and a mission store opened, followed by a post office in 1905 and a school in 1909. In 1928, the first electric plant opened; the first mail plane arrived in 1934.
Quinhagak has its own K-12 school and some small businesses. This is a place where the fabled sky-high Alaskan prices rule. Tomatoes were $6 each this summer. Most households practice subsistence hunting and gathering. Families will dry salmon and put up gallons of salmon berries each season. Very little work for wages is available in the town. People live very modestly here.
In the shadow of that village the salmon arrive. The Chinook or king salmon run from about mid June to mid July, with an escapement goal of 3500- 8000 per season. The first week of the season can bring high, fast water and kings covered with sea lice. Kings are the largest of the salmon family; you might hook up one in the lower river over 45 pounds. These fish have spent two to seven years in the ocean before returning to the river to spawn.
The chinook here tend to run very deep in the river, where the challenge is to get the fly down to them. Blue-black intruder style flies with a barbless 1/0 hook work well. The recommended equipment is a 9 weight double hand rod with a 650 grain intermediate Skagit head, 12.5 feet of T14, and a short 20lb straight or tapered leader. Cast across the river, throw in a stack mend, then hold the rod up over the river to reduce drag while walking downstream to drop the fly into the “bucket” to finally swing. Alternatively, a 10WT single hand rod with 30 ft of T14 on a running line can be used. Kings can smash the fly or just sit there like an old tire at the bottom. They seem to be able to roll like tarpon and dislodge the hook (barbless) with little effort. I lost four in a row one morning and kicked myself all day. Fresh from the ocean kings are bright silver, but after a few days in the river begin to turn a very bright red. If you catch a big red one, just think of how much weight it has lost on its journey up the river.
Chum/dog/keta salmon are next to arrive in the river with a run of 50,000-200,000 until the beginning of August. How not to catch a chum is the problem – they seem to take just about any fly in any water. They do fight hard, and a 15 pound fish with an attitude can brighten any day. Chums are also amenable to surface flies skated, popped, or swung on an 8 wt single hand rod. Chums develop a characteristic purple “camo” like color as they mature in the river. We caught so many that we had a chant going, “Mr. Chummie chum chum chumola.”
On even years, this river can have a run of over 100,000 pink salmon in mid to late July. These fish tend to be more petite than the other salmon. They are not picky, and can be caught on the surface, on the swing, or on a stripped streamer. The males develop characteristic dorsal humps, hence the nickname “humpy.”
Mid July is also the time of the sockeye, to the tune of 50,000-200,000. Sockeye salmon do not easily take flies; catching one on a fly is almost by accident. Reel Action does not “floss” for sockeye, so these fish, while numerous, are elusive. Sockeyes do not like to be touched in the water. If they bump each other, in a pinch point in the river, or another fish bumps them, the pod tends to explode in the water. They fight like crazy when hooked. They are also delicious; catch one and the chef will serve it up for dinner.
Sea run Dolly Varden begin to appear to mid July and run through the end of the season. The Dollys here are beautifully colored, what a friend of my described as a “Dr Seuss” fish because of its unexpected palette. Dollys are especially fun on a lighter rod, although a trophy fish can be many pounds An egg pattern when fishing a “Dolly bar” can get you a “numbers” day. Dollys are actually in the char family, and are rather delicate fish. Handle them gently when releasing them. There are also grayling in these waters.
For many, trout fishing on the Kanektok is the end goal. There are indeed trophy sized fish in the river, but one is more likely to catch fish in the 20 inch range. These beautiful leopard rainbow trout are all about eating eggs after spawning begins. In mid July they will still take streamers, especially a Dali Llama, and mouse or wake flies; later in the season flesh flies can be very productive. The braided parts of the river, or side channels, can hold these fish. A 5WT may not be enough rod for these heavy flies, so bring at least a six weight single hand rod for throwing streamers.
The run of silvers is just beginning in late July, and continues into the autumn. No question, silvers are beautiful fish. There are two populations in the river, a smaller, 3-5 lb fish, and a larger, 10-15 pound fish. A big push of silvers is typically associated with an incoming tide. If the conditions are just right one can see the “vee” of a pod coming into the lower river and sight fish to the pod. Silvers will take surface flies, especially in slack water, and seem to prefer pink flies stripped over their heads, taking the fly “on the drop.” Some silvers will take a fly on the swing, but single hand rods seem better suited to a stripped retrieve. An 8 wt with a floating line works well.
The particular week I spent this year on the Kanektok was hosted by Simon Gawesworth, who offered the opportunity for a spey casting lesson on the river. Simon is a wonderful and generous teacher, and in this setting provided the unusual experience of getting some instruction, time to practice it on the river with Simon’s eagle eye on you from upstream, followed by the next “chapter” of instruction and practice while fishing on the river. After Simon caught a 45 pound beauty of a king during my “lesson”, he took the heavier Skagit head he was using off his reel and transferred it to my reel, stepped back on the sandbar, and coached me right into the bucket where that king had lurked. That line is now mine to keep, complete with his “mojo!” Every morning he would ask me if I had what I needed for the day, and every evening would ask me for a “report card” on my casting. What a week! While expert casting still eludes me, I have a checklist from him for my cast that will serve me well in the future. I’m no longer intimidated using “a big stick” and heavy line for targeting kings; in fact, chinook have now become my preferred species in the river.
No angler during my week got a “grand slam” of all five species in a day, but overall the fishing was very good, with something for everyone and a variety of fishing experiences to choose from. There is a good chance during this month on the river that until a fish shows itself when hooked, you will not know just what is on the end of your line. Guides are rotated among the guests each day, with the ritual each evening, after dinner, of asking anglers, “What would you like to do tomorrow?” July truly offers anglers a choice of species to target on the Kanektok. And, what would you chose, on “The Chosen River?”