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“Kanektok Slam” – A Story from Alaska West

Posted on April 23 2016

Western Alaska Leopard Rainbow Spots by Tosh Brown.
The leopard rainbow – Species one of nine. Photo: Tosh Brown.

Today we present to you, a blast from the past, with an eloquently written story of an epic day on the Kanektok River dating all the way back to 1996, recently sent to us by Alaska West guest, Ridr Knowlton.

If you’ve ever spent time on the Kanektok, chased a grand slam, or just simply like to fly fish, grab another cup of coffee because we think you’re going to enjoy the story below.

“Kanektok Slam” by Ridr Knowlton

I don’t know if I was truly first, but I was lucky.  In August of 1996, I was invited to tag along on a silver salmon fly-fishing trip to Alaska West’s Kanektok River camp, located near the mouth of the Kanektok River, on the remote Bering Sea coast of western Alaska.  And by “tag along”, I wasn’t troop leader, activity coordinator, or even that guy who gets to come along because he tells great jokes.  I was just filling the last spot. 

Our group included Raz Reid, George Cook, and Ed Ward, three of the best fly casters of the day.  Raz and George both work for Sage, and Ed was guiding for Alaska West.  In other words, I was a local hacker joining Fred Couples, Ernie Els, and Tom Watson, on a trip to Pebble Beach.  This would be one of those trips where you can only go down in status, and are probably better off simply focusing on maintaining. 

It is amazing how real talent puts your own fragile skills in perspective.  I confidently consider myself the best caster on my street.  My wife would say that’s because I don’t get out enough, and haven’t actually met most of the people on my street.  Either way, I can be a big fish in whatever size pond I desire.  The challenge occurs when you meet real fly casters, like these guys, and you realize that your own self-rating of a 9, is actually a weak 2 or 3, maybe, in the bigger pond. 

Raz had let my dad and I tag along on trips before, on the flats of Ascension Bay in the Yucatan.  I wish iPhones had existed back then.  It would have been easier to video Raz casting, and just hit “replay”, without becoming a nuisance.  “Hey Raz, can I watch that double haul one more time?”  George and Ed were equally impossible to emulate.  I am never going to dunk a basketball, unless my son lowers the adjustable rim to 8 feet, nor will I ever launch a king salmon fly, and 100 feet of line, across a river with a single motion roll cast like George Cook, or conduct a symphony of fly line perfection with a spey rod, like Ed Ward. 

So, it was with a confident burst of denial that I left the damp warmth of the bush tent and prepared to go fishing our first morning on the river.  My dad was on the trip as well and, after breakfast, we grabbed our two and three-piece Sage RPL rods, and I donned my teal colored Simms Guide jacket.  My attire was “cool” in 1996, “totally uncool” when I wore it back to Alaska in 2000, and then “retro cool” on a return trip in 2006.  I’m not sure where 2016 would fit in.  “Of course I need a Simms jacket!”, I had told my wife years ago, “I’ll use it forever.”  It turned out I was right, I just need to wear it every other ten years. 

My dad and I shuffled our felt soles down the gravel beach toward the river, past the salmon cleaning tables, remnant scales still sticky from the day before, and met Mark Stephens, our guide for the day.  Mark, who still guides out of Anchorage today, was preparing his boat for the excursion. 

Of course, first on the agenda is showing the guide your brand new $80 fly box, complete with $100 worth of sparkling new salmon flies that you just purchased a few days prior in Anchorage.  As pride beams from your face, you know you have already outsmarted your quarry back in the fly shop.  Browsing the well-lit, colorful, aisles of fly trays, you had confidently selected just the right size streamer.  “I think an 8…… a 10 will be better.”  You filled your complimentary plastic cup to the brim with light tan and pink flesh flies, only to pour them back, into the wrong tray of course (kind of like placing a library book back on the wrong shelf), to select a darker shade of rabbit hair.  “Yes, the darker tan will be better.” 

You glow with anticipation and smugly tell the guide, “I picked up a few flies back in town I thought we could use”.  The guide nods politely, and opens the box.  “Nice… these are great…I tell you what…let’s save these, and use a few I tied up last week, I have plenty…nice box though.”  Your new fly box closes for good, never to be mentioned again…until the credit card bill arrives. 

The Kanektok, and nearby Arolik, rivers are magical, natural, places, making you feel privileged just to be there.  We motored up river in the crisp, early morning fog.  Hoods pulled tight, hands in pockets.  The river channel losing volume as we went further upstream.  Our target that day was trout and char, including sea run dolly varden, all voracious predators of the salmon eggs and remains that littered the river system during the spawn.  We soon left the main channel, pushing up smaller feeder streams.  Mark eventually turned off the jet boat engine and we coasted to the current edge, re-engaging in the new-found silence. 

Our first species would be leopard rainbow, a local color variation found only in certain rivers and one of the most uniquely beautiful fish, anywhere.  The dominant color is black, with the dark, blood red, lateral sides of a rainbow.  Both my dad and I had luck quickly, each landing a few nice leopards in the 16-18 inch range, as well as several dolly varden, their pale orange spots sea washed into silver sides.  Further upstream, I caught some spectacularly colored, clowned up, native char with fire colored bellies.  We then worked our way down to another channel, finding a pod of crimson sockeye, pooled up in a bend of the river, a classic Alaskan image.  We both landed reds from that pool, mine a big male with the extended hooked jaw.  One final cast yielded one of the day’s surprises, a two inch sculpin, which had taken my three inch purple streamer.  Last I checked, the sculpin was not one of the super slam species.  Maybe it should be.   

It was nearing 10:00 am when Mark decided to move to a new area.  We rode the channels downstream, back to the main river, where we drifted, hoping to cross a pod of silvers.  A cold downpour began as we entered the center of the river current, swinging streamers out each side of the boat.  I soon landed what I thought was a small silver, and Mark brought the 18 inch fish into the boat.  “What is that?” I asked.  It looked like a large brown trout, but I was pretty sure European stocking programs had never reached Bethel, Alaska.  “That’s a jack,” said Mark, “a juvenile king, that came up with the silvers, a one in a million fish.” 

By August, the kings are all spawned out and, unless you foul hook one casting for silvers, chances are you will never actually hook one during the silver run.  Of course you can always try to lasso one, by casting over their massive back.  “I wonder what would happen if I did that?”  Famous last words, as you actually snag the giant fish, and watch $80 worth of fly line, slowly disappear up river with the dying leviathan.  “Why is my leader not breaking!  A twelve inch trout breaks off if I break wind, but for the life of me…I can’t break off this fifty pound salmon!”  Not that I have ever done that.

The jack was a one in a million fish, and the only reason I got the slam.  As we released the jack, Mark whispered to me “You know, I don’t think an amateur fly fisherman has ever landed all the salmon, trout, char and grayling in the same day.  Do you want to give it a shot?”  It was 10:30 in the morning, and I had landed a rainbow, dolly, native char, sockeye and king salmon, five of the nine.  “Sure, let’s give it a shot,” I told Mark, so we turned around and started the long run to the furthest destination of the day, the headwaters, in search of a grayling. 

The wide river fell behind once again as we diverted to smaller and smaller channels, eventually giving way to freestone current.  We pulled the boat out, and began walking up beautiful small streams.  This was classic grayling country, and we fished every run we could find with tiny dry caddis and adams.  No grayling.  We pushed further upstream.  An hour turned to two, when I finally half landed, half flung the world’s smallest grayling out of the water.  The fish was as surprised as I was.  I held up the tiny sail, confirming for Mark that I had, indeed, caught a grayling, and not snagged a larva.  He also checked the hook set.  Somehow that four-inch grayling had managed to eat a size 14 caddis, but it counted.  A proper hook set, and, while a little unconventional for both fish and fisherman, a properly landed grayling.  Six down, three to go, and we were, once again, racing downstream, back to the main river channel.     

It was now about 2:00 pm, and I had yet to catch either a silver or pink salmon, the two most prevalent fish in the river.  It was an even year, and the pinks were running with the silvers.  First, however, we had to land a chum.  Now, no one goes looking for chum salmon.  You hook them while fishing for other species, kind of like carp fishing, before it became “cool”.  The truth is, the chum’s spawning colors are among the most striking of any salmon, with dramatic paint brush slashes of black, purple and pink.  They are also one of the best fighters.  How many times have you “hooked” a huge silver, only to “land” an average size chum.  In either case, we were now chum salmon fishing. 

I figured the chum would be the easiest of all to get.  How wrong I was.  Mark was getting more intensely focused as we entered the final stretch of our quest, and was monitoring each cast, hook set and landing, like a hawk.  He wanted the record, and he wanted it done per the book.  “Mark, I have one on” as I quickly pulled a chum out of a pod of several hundred fish in a barrel.  “You hooked him in the nose, that does not count,” said Mark.  “Got another one,” I announced.  “You hooked him in the tail…have fun with that one.”  I stabbed, hooked and generally harassed every one of those chum salmon before; finally, one surrendered his lip to get me to leave.  “Yes,” said Mark “that is a proper hook set.  Now, land him and let’s get going.” 

By then, it was late afternoon, and we headed back toward the main river, and camp, with seven down, and two to go.  We went to one of Mark’s coho honey holes, and unceremoniously caught silver after silver, until the inevitable pink came to shore.  We had done it!  All five salmon species, a rainbow trout, a native char, sea run dolly varden, and grayling, all properly mouth hooked, and landed, on fly, in one day.  An “Alaskan Super Slam.”

We returned to camp before dinner, having slayed the beast, with Mark as excited, if not more, than my dad and I.  Alaska West’s manager, Mike Sanders, met us as we arrived, and heard about the day, conceding with Mark that it might indeed be a first.  And what a day it was…big water, small streams, an unbelievable variety of fish, all shared with a great guide, and my dad. 

As the day waned, and the other fisherman returned with stories of their own we shared tales of new locations explored, giant leopards landed, and sore shoulders from endless silvers.  Of course, I was still low man on the totem pole but, that night, at dinner, I did get the big piece of chicken.

Ridr Knowlton is a weekend outdoor sporting writer, and still fishes in that teal Simms Guide jacket.

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