Fishing Stories – Kanektok River – Alaska
I went to Alaska to fish with the Duncans again this year. They have hosted me on the Kanektok virtually every year since 1987. Why do I return each year? Because the entire experience is so uplifting: fish-catching, friendships, food, facilities, wilderness, wildlife spotting, and overall quality.
This year, late spring, I learn that King fishing is closed. Wow– that specie has been my catch obsession for over 15 years. About eight years ago I hooked 172 on the Kanektok while being Duncan-guided. What to do this year?
Well, the guides put me into slots, runs, and side-channels filled with bright chum, big aggressive rainbow, some sockeye, some dollies, some humpies, and even grayling. And, after I stop grumping about not being able to back-bounce for Kings—which required coaching from my longtime Duncan client buddies—I start catching available fish; lots of them.
Bottom line: I greatly enjoyed my experience. Guides were helpful and friendly—as always. Weather was surprisingly great. So was the food. What I learned after my King fixation was to adapt; to take in the whole environment, to really savor the beauty of the river and tundra. And, to adjust my angling to what’s there to catch.
I’ve already signed up for next year, Kings or not. Judging from the tons of chinook we saw while seeking other species, I suspect Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife will allow fishing for Kings. And, now equipped with better chum-rainbow-dollie-sockeye-humpie skills and equipment, I will be even more able to catch, catch, catch—and hang out with a grin back at camp.
Yep: it took me several days to wake up and smell the coffee. But, I figured I had better see a half-full rather than half-empty cup. And so the trip will go down as one of my best and favorite Duncan-led adventures. And, thank you buddies for helping me through my King closure disappointment. Ultimately, it was all good…SUPER GOOD!
The weather delay was tormenting us. My Dad, from Illinois, was making his first trip to Alaska and had joined me in Seattle for the trip north. There was a low ceiling in Dillingham and we needed a little weather improvement to make the flight into the headwaters lake and begin our float trip.
We spent the time getting to know our fishing partners and were immediately at ease having met “birds of a feather’. With the help of our new friends we made use of our time by tying up some extra fly patterns and generally adjusting to the Alaska scene.
Finally, the weather cleared and we were on our way. We all wondered what effect our delay would have on our river schedule—-surely we will have to make some adjustments. Nope, when the float plane landed and pulled as close as possible to shore Dave waded out to the plane and put my 80 year old Dad on his shoulders for a dry trip to camp and announced that the roast beef dinner was ready!
On that trip to shore some sort of bond or understanding must have been reached because Dave took mighty good care of Dad for the rest of that trip. As it turned out our fishing partners were superb fisherman and made every cast count and read the water well. Dad was an experienced western waters fisherman but the size and attitude of the Chosen River rainbows put an ear-to-ear grin on his face that surely is one of my most memorable moments.
After a few days we were into the silvers and the grin turned to an audible laugh followed by “holy cow!”. Years later as I read Dad’s fishing journal he ends his description of our trip with “it was the best fishing trip of my life”. You can’t beat that.
(Jon Jeffries and my dad Rev. A. J. Jeffries—-1986)
Late June, 2007: 60+ degrees, partly sunny, and a king salmon slot that outdid all my 23 years experience fishing the Kanektok. This particular day, I am with guide, John Duncan. We rip down the river from base camp to a spot a few bends below the familiar “Stinkhole.”
John and I watch fish roll and porpoise in a spot called Experimental, labeled that because it does not consistently produce. We decide to stop there, having caught a few earlier in the week. “Today” proved amazing. 28 king salmon hooked, and 26 landed. This minor miracle underlines the fact that I am not particularly skilled; but John Duncan certainly is! He would encourage me with where to cast, how to control my line, and what colors would attract Mr. King.
We fished Experimental for about six hours. I was unwilling to leave and try other holes. Other Duncan clients with more skill usually try different fishy-looking water throughout any given day. Not me! This was paradise. I can’t say I cleaned out the hole; plenty of fish were still showing when we left. Because each fish, not just the bigger ones, took many minutes to fight-then-release, I felt like I had fish on…nearly every minute of the day.
Duncan guides practice the adage: “If you are hooking fish, don’t move to find fish.” I never, especially that wonderful day, needed to have that coaching repeated. My hookups were usually powerful, occasionally violent. I loved it all: a few fish taped in around 35 pounds. Many were in the 18-25 pound range. I lost one that John estimated at 40-plus, judging from length, girth, and the smirk it showed when it spit, right back at me, my flame-colored spin and glow.
Not every experience on the Kanektok is like that one. I have occasionally hooked more on given days. But, I have not landed that high a percentage. Sometimes, I imagine, the fishing God just decides to display the type of magic that keeps me coming back…striving for a 40 hooked/40 landed outcome.
So, John and I headed back to camp, my arm super sore and smile super wide. A delicious dinner of New York Steak, followed by good whiskey and cigars in the smoke tent with my buddies…I call all that just an unbelievably good time. Sometimes experiments work.
“Alaska, the last frontier for sportsmen that love to fish and hunt. To me, it means the Kanektok AKA the “Chosen River”, with Duncan & Sons. I have been privileged to be able to fish at their upper base camp the last 3 years. When you book a trip with a new outfitter, you are always somewhat worried about what you will experience on your trip. All our research pointed to great fishing, staff and accommodation; we were not disappointed!
We have booked our week each year during silver season. By doing this we fish silvers, dollys, grayling, and the impressive leopard rainbows of the “Chosen River.” Six full days of fishing, great food and a wonderful staff. It’s the only fishing trip I go on where by the last day my arm says “no more”, I’ve caught so many fish.
Now I want to tell you about a day we spent on the River in August 2009. We fish the mouse in the side channels at this time, but floating on the main river we fish flesh flies 85-90% of the time. At this time of the year the big “bows” are zeroed in on flesh.
During the winter I tie my flesh flies. I like to experiment with color and size. Last year I had some leftover egg yarn and used a 2″ piece for a tail on flesh flies. We caught twice the number of trout with it.
Now back to that day on the River. Drew, our guide, met us at the boats and informed us we would float out of camp. I tied on the flesh and yarn and started casting. By the time we reached the silver slough below camp, we had released 5 rainbows. We knew it would be a great day.
Rainbows orient around structure in the river (log jams and root wads), so you tend to loose alot of flies. I was lucky enough that day to catch 21 bows on that fly I had tied on that morning. We fished the “miracle mile”, Star Wars, and other hot spots below camp. While slipping into the start of Star Wars, my good friend and fishing partner Steve Krueger caught 3 rainbows larger than 23″ on 3 consecutive casts. By the end of the day, when Drew was preparing the boat for the trip back to camp, Steve caught our 80th rainbow of the day.
I know that we will probably never experience another day on the “Chosen” like that August day in 2009, but you will find Steve and I trying our best to better it every August, God willing.
“Hey Bear!” – “Hey Bear!” Derek was out of site around a small bend in the channel when we heard him say it. The three of us were on foot in the Togiak Wildlife Refuge on a beautiful salmon river. Dan, the guide, was with me. “Hey Bear” is what Clint had taught us to say if we were in the willow and alder thickets and wanted the bears, or the guide, to know where we were.
The theory is that these Grizzlies will do anything to avoid people if they know where they are. I always feel a little silly walking through beautiful, pristine, arctic wilderness hollering, “hey bear” at the top of my lungs but I’ve never felt silly enough to not do it. These bears are big and I want them to have options that don’t involve a close-up confrontation with me.
The thing Dan and I both knew immediately though, just from the sound of Derek’s voice, was that he was actually saying “hey” to an actual bear. It wasn’t that he sounded panicked or even scared but he definitely sounded a lot more interested in the conversation than the average guy saying “hey bear” just to make noise.
Dan and I had been pretty distracted for the last few minutes. We were fishing a wide shallow pool in a back channel that was full of spawning Sockeye and Chum salmon. There were big Dolly Varden everywhere and although I’m as big a fan of Dollys as anybody, but there was a nice Leopard Rainbow skulking around the far side of the pool. We had spent half a dozen casts trying to get the Rainbow with an egg pattern but the Dollys were way too fast and aggressive. It was nearly impossible to not catch a big thrashing, slashing, silver Dolly Varden on every cast with the egg fly and the Rainbow was being a little shy.
Next we tried a surface mouse fly but that seemed to make him even more nervous, possibly because of the way I drilled it into the water right over his head. Whatever the cause, he seemed to have vanished.
“He’s up in under the overhanging grass bank on the far side of the pool,” said Dan.
“How do you know? I can’t see a thing.”
“He’s in there. Trust me.”
Today was the first time I had ever fished with Dan but I had learned fairly early in the day not to argue with him about fish. He was right on the money a ridiculous percentage of the time. Now he was tying on an olive green, sculpin, streamer sort of a fly that he had dreamed up and tied for the Rainbows on this river.
“Cast this right to the far bank and let it drift along the grass edge,” he instructed. My first cast, that actually landed in the water instead of the willows, was perfect. The fly plopped gently into the current a couple of inches from the bank and drifted slowly down stream. As the fly sank, it disappeared into the shadow of the overhanging grass.
I stood there, bent forward in knee-deep water, frozen with concentration, waiting and preying for any little twitch or stop in the leader. A couple of feet upstream from where I thought my fly would be by now I saw a ghostly, white, triangular shape appear and then disappear in the shadowed water under the grass overhang. By the time my brain was about half way through the deductive process of realizing that the ghostly white shape was the inside of a huge Rainbow mouth, opening and closing somewhere near my fly, I realized that Dan was shrieking “SET, SET, SET” at the top of his lungs and jumping up and down like his waders were on fire.
For reasons known only to the fish, he still had the fly in his mouth when I finally did get around to setting the hook. He turned out to be a lovely, fat, twenty-three inch Rainbow with a spectacular raspberry stripe down his side. We took a couple of pictures and then let him go, and it was just about this time that we heard Derek say “Hey Bear” with such intensity and enthusiasm. As Dan and I reacted to Derek’s voice, we both realized that just moments before we had heard a really loud splash from up that same direction.
Dan, heavily armed with a plastic water bottle and a six-weight fly rod, instantly charged downstream toward Derek, stumbling and staggering through the muddy grass tussocks on the riverbank. I charged after him, possibly in an effort to help out or maybe I just didn’t want to be left all alone when there were bears around. It turned out that the splash had been from a very large Grizzly dropping down out of the willow thicket, into the pool Derek was fishing.
When Derek had announced himself with “Hey Bear”, she had whirled around to face him and stood up on her hind feet. The fact that Derek neither bolted away in terror nor soiled his waders is a continuing source of amazement for me.
By the time Dan and I arrived on the scene the bear was back down on all fours and she and Derek were standing in the river looking at each other.
Estimating distances in a tense situation like this is impossible. At the time it looked like they were close enough to spit on each other.
Trying to look back honestly, and looking at the pictures I took, they were probably sixty or seventy feet apart. The Grizzlies in the Togiak Wilderness have a reputation for being very afraid of humans, something to do with Inuit hunting. They always take off at high speed at the first sight or whiff of a person. But this bear was standing her ground. She wasn’t threatening though. Twenty-five years as veterinarians has given both Derek and me a finely tuned ability to read animal body language. Neither one of us felt the slightest bit threatened by this bear. Everything about her posture and behavior said “leave me alone, I want nothing to do with you people”. But she didn’t leave. As soon as he arrived on the scene Dan had stepped into the river between Derek and the bear.
I figure he was either taking his guiding responsibilities very seriously or he was trying to avoid all the tedious paperwork required by the state of Alaska if you feed a paying client to a bear. Either way I was happy to see him step up and I took the opportunity to take some pretty exciting photos of Dan and the grizzly in the same frame, staring at each other. I figured if Dan got himself mauled doing something brave and noble he would appreciate a photographic record of the event. By now Dan had progressed from “hey bear” to language best left to the imagination of adults, but the bear still wasn’t budging. After a minute or two Dan picked up a rock and chucked it in her direction. She gazed at him distrustfully for another few seconds and then turned and vanished into the willows.
We stood around for a few minutes talking excitedly and taking deep calming breaths and trying to act nonchalant. I think we all needed to pee but none of us were willing to admit it because nobody was going to pull their waders down around their knees. That just leaves you feeling exposed. At this point reasonable people would have returned to the boat and moved on to a different stretch of river but there were two problems with that. Number one, this little side channel had some of the best fishing that any of us had ever seen in our lives. And number two; the bear was between us and the boat. We didn’t think she would bother us but why not fish for a while and give her a chance to clear out.
As we moved on upstream the channel became little more than a medium sized creek but the number and size of the fish in it were mind-boggling. There were hundreds of salmon spawning in every pool and you could catch big, shiny, colorful Dolly Varden on almost every cast if you wanted to. Derek caught two twenty inch Rainbows out of a little corner pool that was no bigger than a king sized bed. Anywhere there was a downed willow providing cover in a foot or more of water, we had a good chance of finding a Rainbow.
Eventually we came to a bigger, deeper pool that looked like the perfect spot for a really big Rainbow. The crystal clear water looked to be about twelve or fifteen feet deep and the pool was about twenty feet across and forty feet long. Dan had me move to the upstream bank and skate a mouse pattern across the surface.
The big Rainbow, that we all knew had to be there, rose slowly out of the deepest part of the pool and, in clear view of all three of us, moved right toward the fly. This fish was magnificent. Huge, fat, darkly colored and perfectly shaped. This is the fish that keeps me coming back to this river year after year. This would be the fish of the trip. My heart was beating far faster and harder than it had when we were facing the bear.
When he got to within about two feet of the fly, the fish slowed and paused. Obviously, he was inspecting the mouse fly to see if it warranted a strike. For what seemed like forever, I kept my cool and kept the fly skittering slowly across the surface while this amazing fish held position just below it, looking, waiting. Finally with no warning whatsoever, the Rainbow exploded through the surface of the pool, slashing at the fly with a huge, wide-open mouth. Only years of experience, and cat-like reflexes, allowed me to snatch the fly to safety before the Rainbow could close his jaws on it.
We tried for another half hour to get that fish to strike at about fifteen different flies but even in a wilderness, the big fish don’t get big by doing something stupid twice. He had us figured out after one encounter and wasn’t buying what we were selling.
Its not the fish I catch that make me want to return to a river. It’s the ones that get away. Sometimes when I lie awake during the long nights of a New Hampshire winter I see that fish and that strike. I have to go back.
We headed back to the boat after that, about an hours walk. About half way there I saw something blond and furry moving toward the channel from our left.
I stopped Dan and Derek and we stood still and watched two small blond grizzly cubs, maybe fifty pounds each, splash through the water less than a hundred feet in front of us and disappear into the willows. Happy and clueless as only the very young can be. Now we knew why Derek’s bear had stood her ground. She was willing to stand nose to nose with the only thing in her world that was dangerous to her so that the cubs could clear out to safety. Now here they were blundering into us again. It was definitely time for us to leave.
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
After a twelve year absence, it was a relief to climb out of the twin engine Cessna and once again, step on to the gravel airstrip in Quinhagak, Alaska. The short flight from Bethel was the final leg of a three fight trip from Dallas that had begun the day before and I was ready to both stretch my legs and also start the fifteen mile boat ride up river to Brad Duncan’s Lower Base Camp on the Kanektok River. I had been looking forward to this trip since February when I booked the trip which was subsequently expanded to include a second week with Brad’s brother, Clint, at his camp another twenty miles further up river in the Togiak Wilderness.
For the past thirty years Dave Duncan and Sons has operated both float and base camp fishing trips on the Kanektok River which has to be one of the best, if not THE best, freshwater fisheries in the world. Known for its prolific runs of salmon, the Kanektok is also host to Artic Char, Dolly Varden trout, Grayling and Leopard Rainbow trout. On my previous ten trips with the Duncans I had landed more fish on a fly than I ever thought was possible and I knew this trip would not be an exception. By mid-July the river is loaded with spawning salmon and even the most inexperienced fly fisherman can expect to land dozens of fish each day.
Brad and Clint were at the airstrip along with several of their guides to greet the arriving guests. Each camp holds twelve fishermen and most of the guests have been on multiple trips with the Duncans. The scene at the airstrip was, in many respects, more like a family reunion— lots of hugs, smiles and handshakes for the returning guests and introductions for the first timers. Joining me for both weeks, was my good friend, John Dunagan. John and I have known each other since 1974 and we have enjoyed countless hunting and fishing experiences over the past 30 years in a variety of places.
The ride up river was both interesting and exciting. I was curious to see how much the river had changed over the past twelve years. From the air, it seemed like very little was different. The tundra does not seem to change much over time but I could quickly tell that the river itself had changed a lot. A dozen years of spring run-off had cut numerous new channels and left many of the old, more familiar channels and bars behind.
Upon our arrival in camp, we were greeted by the rest of Brad’s guides who helped us carry our bags and rods cases to the Weatherport tents that we would call home for the next seven days. John and I quickly got situated on our tent and then headed to the main cook tent for cocktail hour and dinner. From our past trips, we knew we were in for a gourmet dinner and we were not disappointed. The stuffed pork chops and fixins were as good as any restaurant at home. In addition to the excellent fishing, hot showers and comfortable tents, the food in all of the Duncan camps is way beyond what you would expect for a wilderness experience. I knew I was going to have to watch my consumption if I was to have any hope of fitting into my travel pants for the flight home.
After dinner, Brad gave everyone a brief report on what we would expect during our trip. The fishing had been excellent since camp opened and there were fresh salmon – Kings, Sockeyes, Chums and Pinks—pouring in to the river each day. Although John and I were anxious to catch some large Kings, our primary focus for both weeks was fishing for Leopard Rainbow trout.
The Kanektok River, like some other drainages in Alaska, is home to the most beautiful trout in the world. These trout are heavily spotted and carry a brilliant red stripe along each side. In the summer, they go on a feeding frenzy, gorging themselves on salmon eggs and flesh from the spawned out salmon. Although the trout will typically only grow about an inch a year, thanks to the Duncans and the strict single, barbless fly, catch and release only regulations they worked to have enacted, the trout have flourished and are able to grow to trophy class size. The trout will readily take a variety of fly patterns ranging from salmon eggs and flesh to sculpins and deer hair mice. Depending on which fly is used, a 6, 7 or 8 weight rod with floating lines is preferable.
John and I were up early the next morning and we were anxious to get on the river. After a couple cups of coffee and a very filling breakfast, we loaded our gear on Brad’s boat and were ready to go. Since we had told Brad the night before we wanted to go “Bow Hunting”, we began drifting down river with the current. We were the last boat to leave camp as the other guides and fishermen were headed down river to fish for salmon. The sound of the outboards quickly faded and the still quiet of the wilderness soon returned. With Brad expertly directing the boat to the best water, John and I quickly hooked up with several rainbows in the 20” class using peachy king eggs. After a coupe of pictures, we were back floating and catching fish that were holding along the cut banks, behind “root wads” (sunken trees) and below riffles where the fast water transitions into deeper pools. By the time we stopped for lunch, John and I had both landed over 20 Bows ranging in size from 16” to 22”. We had also lost a lot of flies to the root wads and other snags. On the Kanektok, if you are not losing flies, you are not catching fish. A well stocked fly box is a must on this trip!
After lunch, Brad suggested we switch flies to “make things more interesting”. I tied on a deer hair mouse and John decided to try a white Zonker. Unlike fishing with eggs, using surface flies is a lot more work. Constantly casting to the bank requires concentration, effort and a lot of accuracy. Brad made things a lot easier for us by keeping the boat a constant distance from the bank and our collective efforts were soon rewarded when a large Bow violently attacked my mouse as it created a “v” wake along the bank under an over-hanging tree branch. The fight was now on as the big Bow tried to break off in the brush and then jumped out of the water three times as the fight continued out in to the main channel. This fish was definitely a “picture fish” so Brad quickly pulled the boat over to a gravel bar. Kneeling in the water, I carefully cradled the massive Bow in my hands while both Brad and John clicked off a couple of pictures on their digital cameras. Pictures done, the Bow rested calmly in the water until it signaled it was ready to go. A quick flip of its tail sent it darting back to the deep water and left me with a refreshing shower of water and the need to dry my face.
We continued to drift down river for the remainder of the afternoon, enjoying the warm sun, multiple hook ups and an on-going discussion of our shared love of hunting and fishing. As the day drew to a close, John cast his Zonker towards a small root wad along the bank of a gravel bar that held dozens of red King salmon. The root wad could not have been more than three or four feet from the bank and I doubt the water was more than 18” deep. John’s line suddenly stopped indicating he had either snagged the root wad or a fish was on. When the line began to zip towards the main current, we knew it was a good Bow. I quickly pulled in my line and began to get my camera out for what we knew was going to be a good picture of a large Bow. As luck would have it, the fish jumped and the line went slack, a pattern that would repeat itself numerous times during our two week adventure. It was a great way to finish the day and we headed back to camp for dinner, a few drinks and dreams of more fish the next day.
The next morning, John and I headed down river with Albert Hunter to fish for Kings and “marching” Sockeyes. Albert is a year round resident of Quinhagak and knew exactly where we could find some good fish. After a 30 minute boat ride, Albert dropped anchor where a small side channel empties in to the main river. Using a Scott 8 weight rod coupled with a Billy Pate Bonefish reel that my wife, Sandy, gave me for our 10th anniversary, I cast a purple Egg Sucking Leech using a sink tip line up the side channel. The slow current carried the fly towards the main river and in the direction of at least half a dozen large Kings that were holding in the slack water just out of the main current. I repeated this cast several more times until the line went tight and the fight was on. The large, chrome colored King headed straight for the current and down river towards the ocean. The Billy Pate whined as the line and then backing quickly disappeared downstream. In spite of my best efforts, it was evident that we would need to fire up the motor and chase after the fish before I was spooled. About 20 minutes later, the mighty Chinook was wrestled to the bank. Albert estimated the fish weighed 25-30 pounds, although it seemed more like 135 to me. Exhausted, I told him I was going to take a break while he motored us back to where the fight had started, almost a mile back up river. John and I continued to catch Kings for the remainder of the morning until we broke for lunch.
After a couple of freshly made sandwiches and cold soft drinks, Albert said he knew where we could catch “marching” Sockeyes. Since we were pretty worn out from fighting big Kings, John and I were ready for a change of pace and frankly, a little less work. A short ride in the boat delivered us to a long gravel bar. As we stepped out of the boat, we could see exactly why Albert had suggested the change in venue. Hundreds of migrating salmon were “marching” (swimming) up river creating huge “v” wakes in the process. Sockeyes, Chums and Pinks were all mixed in with each other and it was possible to catch a fish on every cast on any fly that was pink. John tied on a pink Teeny Nymph and I tied on a Pink Alaskan Bug-Eye. In the clear water, we were able to see the fish peel off from the group and take the fly. Although the Chums and Pinks would put up a good fight, the Sockeyes were the most fun, repeatedly cart wheeling out of the water before being released to continue their journey.
It wasn’t long before my arms and hands were beyond the aching point and I was looking for something less tiring to do. Albert suggested that we walk up to the head of the gravel bar and see if we could “mouse up” a Bow in the small side channel that was fed by the current from the main river. As we walked up to the small side channel, I suggested to Albert that he take a few casts first. Gladly accepting my offer, Albert cast the mouse towards a sunken log not more than 10 feet away. The water exploded moments after the mouse hit the water and after a brief fight, Albert landed a beautiful 27” Leopard Rainbow trout. It was one of the most beautiful fish I have ever seen and I was shocked that a fish that size was holding in such a small piece of water.
Our life on the river developed a very distinct pattern—eat, drink, sleep and of course, fish. Each day we would fish with a new guide and try different parts of the river for a variety of fish. Two days after fishing with Albert, John and I went down river to Quinhagak with John Duncan to see if we could find some large Kings just in from the ocean. The water in the bottom of the river is no longer clear, having picked up sediment from the tundra banks along the way. John dropped anchor in the middle of the river and we rigged up with our heaviest rods. I was using an 11 weight Sage RPLX-I that John (Dunagan) had given to me for my 50th birthday along with a Tibor Riptide reel and a Teeny T-400 fast sinking line. The Teeny T-400 is not easy to cast but it will take your fly, in this case a purple Egg Sucking Leech, straight to the bottom of the river. It is a “chuck and duck” line in all respects and it takes a little practice and guidance to figure out how to cast it without wacking yourself in the head. John (Duncan) had such little confidence in my casting that he hunkered down in the boat and put a life preserver over his head.
Once I was able to stop laughing, I made a quartering cast up river, promptly mending the line to insure the fly would reach the bottom. The fast and deep current quickly pulled the fly down river. Suddenly, the line stopped and I knew I had a King on. I was quickly in to the backing and the fish was still heading towards the ocean and showing no signs of slowing down. John slowly motored the boat after the fish while I frantically worked the reel in an effort to get the fly line back on the reel. It seemed every time I made any progress at retrieving my line, the King would make another powerful run in an effort to get away. The fight continued for what seemed like forever to me until we were finally able to get the massive fish near the boat. As I pulled the fish closer to the boat, for some inexplicable reason, the fly simply came out of its mouth. It was, and still is, a mystery to me how this could happen but it does. I guess that’s just part of fishing, but it sure was disappointing to lose a good fish after working so hard to land it. John and I continued to cast for Kings and in the process, landed several Chums that seemed to have developed an interest in our flies. It was at this point that we decided to take a break and stop for a latte at the coffee shack across the river. Although it was not Starbucks, the latte was pretty good for a mobile stand operated by a young woman earning money to pay for college. I couldn’t help but think that some things had changed a lot since my last trip in 1994.
Our week at the Lower Base Camp was rapidly coming to a close. We were very fortunate to be able to spend a second day floating the river with Brad. A tireless worker, Brad made sure we fished all the good water, rowing and walking the boat as needed. As was the case earlier in the week, we were catching Bows immediately after leaving camp. Our good luck continued throughout the day and although we lost count, John and I each probably landed over 30 Bows. The highlight of the day for me was catching four very nice Bows on four consecutive casts in a side eddy with the mouse. I was also surprised to catch a Chum on the mouse as well. And the real highlight of the day? Remember the big Bow John lost on our first day? Well, I landed him on a peachy king colored egg just before it was time to head back to camp. The fish measured 24” and was in the exact same place as he had been earlier in the week.
The next morning marked the end of our week in the Lower Camp and the beginning of our week in the Upper Camp with Clint and his crew. Bags packed and ready to go at 8am, John and I were picked up by one of Clint’s guides and we started our 20 mile ride up river.
From a note received from Jim Spence about fishing the Kanektok River in Alaska with the Duncansr:
My office wall is lined with framed pictures of Leopard Rainbows, Salmon and scenery from my many float trips on the Chosen River with the Duncan family. When things get hectic around here its nice to push away from my desk and look at my pictures while I reflect on all of the great times and incredible fishing I have experienced while floating with the Duncans.
To say the Duncans have me ‘hooked’ would be an understatement. My secretary knows that I do not like to be disturbed when I am working on a project. She also knows that there are a few people that I will accept a call from at any time. My wife or kids, my helicopter ski guide, or anyone from the Duncan family. It is simply a matter of priorities.
Monday morning was shaping up to be a typical Monday when my secretary buzzed me to tell me that Clint Duncan was holding on line two! I needed a break from what I was doing and I eagerly picked up the phone. Clint was very excited about a new permit the Duncans had been awarded by the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge!
When Clint said that the Duncans new Base Camp would be located in the middle section of the Chosen River it took awhile for the idea to sink in. To many of you this would not sound like incredible news but for an old die-hard Chosen River Rainbow fisherman to spend seven days in this section of the river is like a dream come true. The Duncans Base Camp would be located right in the heart of the best Rainbow trout fishing on the Chosen River, which many anglers feel (myself included) is the best trout fishing in Alaska. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of my float trips down the Chosen River. The scenery in the upper river, the fantastic dry fly fishing for Arctic Char, Dolly Varden and Grayling, the great Salmon fishing and the camaraderie that develops on these Float trips.
All of these great memories are somewhat overshadowed by memories of large “Leopard” Rainbows taking mouse patterns off of the surface. These heavily spotted and brilliantly colored fish can really get into your blood. Clint kids me about having tunnel vision because on my last float trip down the Chosen River, I threw mouse patterns from the lake all the way to the take out.
By casting a mouse pattern all week I sacrificed some great fishing for other species. In the last 12 years I have caught thousands of Salmon, Arctic Char, Dolly Varden, and Grayling while fishing with the Duncans and while each of these species are a lot of fun, I now prefer to concentrate my efforts on stalking and enticing “Leopard Bows” to take a mouse pattern.
Clint went on to say that the Duncans small Weatherport Base Camp will be limited to just six guests with two anglers and one guide per powerboat. They will use these powerboats to access the best side channels and stretches of the river, where guests will have the option of walk and wade type fishing or float fishing from the boats. Although there is an abundance of 10 different species available from this camp I know what I will be spending the majority of my time doing.
In my mind there is nothing better than wading down a small side channel of the Chosen River hunting for ‘Leopard Bows.’ Spotting these unique trout laying in front of a root-wad, a snag, or laying under a cut bank is half of the challenge and excitement. The Duncans have noticed that once I have spotted a nice trout my casting really goes downhill. After I have untangled the fly line from around my ears if I am lucky enough to plop the mouse pattern down so that it swims within the visibility of the trout the take is almost inevitable.
Unfortunately as I watch a big “Leopard Bow” swim to take my mouse pattern my excitement level oftentimes peaks just after the trout breaks water and just before it closes its mouth. The result is I set the hook too soon and watched the big trout chomp at the place where my fly had just been.
The object of fishing is to hook, land, and in this case release the fish, however, it is enough for me to just see one of these magnificent fish try to take the fly. Oh sure I like to get pictures as much as the next guy and I do some cussing when I choke on a big Bow and set the hook too early. Regardless of whether I hook the trout or not my heart rate still goes up a few notches, my hands get shaky and my knees feel a little weak.
I guess that is why I return to the Chosen River to fish with the Duncans at least once each year. Because the Duncans specialize in small groups space is limited. If you are interested in fishing for Leopard Rainbows and nine other species with the Duncans you should contact them soon. My advice is to watch out or it will get in your blood. That once in a lifetime trip will become a yearly outing.
Jim Spencer is an avid outdoorsman. He has been on 15 trips with the Duncans.
Alaska’s Chosen River (AKA the Kanektok River)
Excerpted from an Article by Dick Mitchell, Appearing in Salmon, Trout and Steelheader Magazine.
I was attempting to connect my line to a pink Woolly Bugger with a palomar knot when my wife Sheila yelled ‘fish on’ and was fast into a dime-bright silver. She hooked the fish on her first cast with a 5/8-OZ. orange Pixie spoon. The more she shouted, the more complex the knot became. “God, why don’t they make the eyes on fish hooks bigger?” I thought to myself. Finally the fly was secure, and I waded into the water to join Sheila. I stripped some line from My 8 weight Sage RPL 11 and began false casting. Why wasn’t it working? After a quick inspection I discovered that I had missed a rod guide when I had strung up my rod. Most fly fishermen can well imagine my thoughts at this moment. Sheila lost her first fish, but was now firm into another, and to top off my frustration, two other boats from our camp were on their way to join us at the ‘Hershey Bar.’ I was now convinced that I’d be the last rod on the water. I was right, I was the last rod on the water. When I did get it together, it didn’t take long to set the hook into a nice “buck” silver. When I looked around, I saw that Gary Hunt and his sons Steve and Greg were into fish. Italo and Anna, who were camp guests from Italy, had bent rods also. All seven of us had silvers on. I lost track of fish that were lost or carefully released. Fishing was fast and furious because a high tide had brought in plenty of fat, feisty silvers that were starting their long trek up to their spawning beds.
Sheila and I were fishing with Dave Duncan and Sons on the ‘Chosen River.’ Brad Duncan and his wife Mechelle were our hosts. Everybody should have the opportunity to run this 20-mile stretch of river with Brad in his Willie Boat. It blew our minds, making us wonder if we were fishing or riding a roller coaster at Disneyland.
The idea of this trip was conceived while fishing with Brad’s brother John Duncan at their Yakutat base camp. We had a short four-day stay with John, and I thought we did quite well on silvers. John explained that his father and four other brothers had been fishing Alaska’s remote wilderness areas for more than 20 years. Discussing their locations, John told me about the Chosen River and its strong run of all five species of salmon. John felt the Chosen River offered the best overall fishing in Alaska.
Four years later, and a lot of wishing in between, I called Brad to put together a trip for kings, sockeye and chum during early July. No luck, all dates had been booked years in advance. Suggestion to readers: the best dates and Alaska outfitters book quickly. Don’t wait around until the last minute to book your trip. Plan your trip (if you can) a year or two in advance; put a reasonable deposit down and get what you want. However, Brad was able to confirm the last two remaining spots for August 17th, and promised good silver fishing. His promise proved to be accurate.
When we stepped from the plane, two things happened. Brad Duncan greeted us with a big firm handshake and said, ‘the fishing has been great.” I liked that! Just about the same time it started raining. I didn’t like that! We got used to the rain which fell on us for the next eight days.
The silvers were in the river by the thousands just as Brad had promised. Most backwater holding spots would produce a dozen or more fish before the salmon would go off the bite. With polarized glasses and calm water, you could easily spot schools of silvers. The first five or six would fall to a colorful Flash Fly pattern, and then they wouldn’t hit a fly for anything. Changing to spinning gear, we would pick up another half dozen silvers before they stopped biting completely. This method proved successful all week.
Probably the most memorable day of our trip was the afternoon spent at Battle Bar. The fish followed their script. After hooking a couple with a fly rod, they went off the bite. Sheila was fishing with her spinning gear about 10 yards away. Then something changed. She just kept ripping lips with spinners. I became a spectator for the next three hours, sitting in the boat and watching the fun. I wondered who would tire first, the fish, or Sheila. By the time we left the Battle Bar, we appropriately renamed it ‘Sheilas Glory.” By evening’s end it was decided unanimously at camp that Sheila’s new name was ‘Killer.’
Everyone has a favorite fishing hole, and Brock had his: Hole in the Wall. Every night on the way back to camp we pulled up to a gravel bar. Then a short walk brought us to a well-hidden piece of gin-clear backwater that held about a hundred or so silvers. Kneeling on the ground, you could cast a fly right over the school, and by using a fast sink tip the fly would sink right in the middle of them. After a short strip you could actually watch a couple of fish pull away from the school. They looked like torpedoes. You could see their big mouths open and inhale the fly before you ever felt the strike. Talk about a high! After two or three fish, they would ignore any further offerings. Wow! What a way to end a day.
Sooner or later, all good things have to come to an end, and our trip was no exception. I’ve been home for a couple of months now, and my thoughts continue to go back to that beautiful river. I’ll return next year in July (God willing) and give the king salmon a go. Truly the Duncans renamed this famous river appropriately – “The Chosen.”
Excerpted from an Article by Dick Mitchell, Appearing in Salmon, Trout and Steelheader Magazine.
The fishing was superb. We found that out even before leaving the lake to start the float by catching sockeye salmon up to 12 pounds and sassy humpback (pink) salmon in the 3-5 pound class. The first day on the river turned up good quantities of arctic char, dolly vardens and grayling on spoons and spinners, as well as egg flies. The second day saw even more quantities of these fish. By the third day, we began to pick up several beautifully colored ‘leopard’ rainbows mixed in with the char, dollies and grayling, some weighing up to five pounds.
Our fourth day of floating on the Kanektok River saw some of the most exciting fishing of the trip. I cast big deer-hair flies imitating voles towards sweepers and snags near shore, where the’bows like to hang out. Slapping the big ‘mice’ flies down with a splat, we would pull them back slowly, so they created a v-wake on the surface and rainbows up to five pounds suddenly materialized and sucked down the bulky offerings. When we pulled in to set up camp, 37 rainbows had struck our mice flies, many more had looked them over and refused at the last minute.
On the fifth and sixth days of the trip, more rainbows, dollies and humpies came our way, plus a sprinkling of chum salmon. But the premier fish for the trip’s culmination was the silver or coho salmon. These fish avidly take spoons such as Pixies and brightly colored streamer flies and fight tremendously. By the trip’s end, everyone had caught hundreds of strong gamefish, but more importantly, enjoyed incredible scenery and the fine companionship of Clint’s crew of friendly, hard-working guides.
If you prefer a lodge-type setup instead of a float, the Duncans offer that as well on the Kanektok.
Author Gerald Aimg is a writer for Sports Afield Magazine.