Kanektok Memories

 

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I remember the first time I went to fish the Kanektok River in Western Alaska. I had stayed overnight in Bethel, on the Kuskokwim River, to see what that was like, and the next morning went over to Grant Aviation to see about getting to Quinhagak where I was to meet my guides, the Duncans.

Although I had visited much of Alaska over the years ( from Southeastern to Fairbanks and points in between), I’d never been to Western Alaska—beyond the end of the North American forest, into the regions of tundra and muskeg. At the Bethel airport, finding signs written both in English and Eskimo told me that this would be a different experience

While waiting at Grant Aviation, my horizons were broadened by seeing native Alaskans arriving from or departing to places like Umkuiut, Eek or Kasigluk. Presently, what seemed like service from a by-gone era materialized as a bush pilot came into the small waiting area, called my name and said that he was taking mail to Quinhagak and was ready to go if I was.

The two of us climbed into a small Cessna and headed south on a forty five minute flight to Quinhagak, an Eskimo village of about 600 on the banks of the Kanektok River a couple of miles from the Bering Sea. From our thousand foot height, we could see an unending expanse of tundra lakes and potholes as we dodged showers and followed on our right the Bering Sea shoreline.

Landing on an airstrip along the river, the pilot pointed to a couple of small storage sheds at the edge of the village and indicated that I should wait there. No one else was around except for a Fish and Wildlife person who had opened the door of a steel container to get something and let me step in from the light but persistent drizzle. He told me about the Kanektok which has its origin in a lake about forty miles upstream and consequently had a nice run of sockeye salmon just about to start. As he left in his boat, another person who was waiting to fly out came by. He asked if I would be with the Duncans and said that I would enjoy being with them. He added that I would likely have a twelve fish (King salmon) day before I left.

Not long after he disappeared, a number of 18’ long fishing boats began to arrive, off-loading empty 55 gallon gas drums and taking on boxes of food and other provisions. These were the guides from the Duncans’ Lower Base Camp getting ready to meet their new group of clients who were due to arrive within the hour. They were surprised to see me, figuring that I’d be coming in with the others. They quickly opened their storage building where I could wait out of the rain and use the time to get on my rain gear for the 40 minute ride upriver to camp. When Brad Duncan introduced himself to me, I told him that I couldn’t believe that he was lifting those 55 gallon steel drums out of the boat by himself. Built like a football guard that you’d never volunteer to block, he just grinned. That’s Brad.

Within a short time the other plane arrived with about fourteen fishermen. Some, like me, were planning to concentrate on Kings and would stay at the Lower Base Camp with Brad and John Duncan. The others had large rainbows in mind and, with their fly poles, would head further upriver with Clint Duncan, Soon we were all on the river heading upstream, two to a boat. The 40 minute ride flashed by as we took in the new landscape, seeing native salmon drying racks here, caribou antlers there, and bear tracks on a gravel bar as the guide expertly navigated the freshet high main channel or one of the twisting side channels.

At our destination, we quickly picked a tent that would be our home for the coming week, stored our gear, had lunch in the cook tent with an orientation from Brad and then hit the river two fishermen and a guide to each boat. Some of my companions were using ten weight fly rods for Kings. Others, like me had graphite poles and would use deep diving plugs, spinning glows and other lures that would hug the bottom of the stream. Within minutes, all the boats had scattered and we had a stretch of river to ourselves to prospect as we would for bright Kings just out of the salt chuck.

I always like to hold my rod, even when using diving plugs, because I don’t want to miss the pleasure of that sharp, powerful strike as the King announces his arrival. On this particular afternoon, whether because of the low pressure front that was with us, or for whatever reason, the strike didn’t come. This in spite of the guide’s gallant efforts to put us on excellent holding water whether in drifts, runs or holes. The river was high, but pretty clear. We could see dark masses of eulachons in the thousands outlining the river bends. And just about on every gravel bar a long-tailed Jaeger or Arctic Tern would rise into the air and dive down to pick up a eulachon for its mate on the nest. We had time to watch the eagles, ospreys and beaver going about their business before we returned to camp at 6:00 p.m. for dinner, fly tying and yarning.

The following days provided plenty of fish, not only Kings but bright chums and sockeyes along with the occasional humpie or large rainbow. On another day I caught and released more than the dozen Kings that the fisherman at Quinhagak had predicted. All of our fish were released except for the odd one that would take the hook too deeply. That one we’d take back to camp to smoke or barbecue. The days passed most enjoyably and all too quickly. Soon I was heading back to Bethel, Anchorage and home.

Being with the Duncans changed my game plan. Having spent five years in Alaska as a young man, I had decided to get to know the rest of it by returning each year to a different place to fish. This went on satisfactorily for some twenty tears, but my first stay with the Duncans was so great (with their serious attention to fishing, with the quality of my fellow fishermen, the abundant fish, and the great guides and their respect for the river) that I’ve returned there every year since. The seven years that I’ve been doing that is exceeded by many others. Jim Teeny, for example, recently told me that he hasn’t missed a year there in 27 years. ‘Nuff said.

Bob La Du

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