The below writing is by Glenn Chen a long time Alaska resident and fishing expert with decades of experience fishing Salmon and Steelhead on the Alaska Peninsula and beyond.
COHO NIRVANA ON THE ALASKA PENINSULA
Glenn Chen 2018 © GF Spey
For a die-hard anadromous salmonid angler, the endless conga line of chrome-sided salmon pouring upriver past me was a truly astonishing sight.
As I stood knee deep in the clear flows, I targeted a group of twenty-plus coho that were swimming closest to me. I cast towards the lead fish and swung my concoction of gaudy feathers and shiny tinsel on a tight line across the current, adding false strips to impart a tantalizing action. A pod of five salmon immediately turned and gave chase, and a stout 13-pound hook-nosed buck attacked, creating a huge surface boil as he savagely clamped his jaws onto the bright pink fly. I swept my Spey rod in a low arc to set the hook – and he responded by immediately blasting across and down the river, followed by yards of backing that rapidly disappeared from the screaming Hardy reel.
I tried to palm the rim of the big Duchess to slow the vanishing coho, but had to jerk my hand away as the friction from the click drag caused the reel to become too hot to touch. The faint odor of burning lubricant wafted towards my nose, and the whirring handle was rapping my knuckles, rat-a-tat sound accompanying the howl from the double click pawls.
The fish finally halted his wild dash far below me, and he violently shook his head as I tried to hold him in the swift current, with my long Winston Spey rod throbbing while the taut line hummed in the heavy flow. Our détente lasted only a few seconds as the big buck then decided that fleeing back towards the vast expanse of the Bering Sea was the best way to escape from his unknown tormentor. Once again the Hardy sounded out in protest, and the rattling howl combined with sound of bones being whacked resumed, as I began to wonder if I could ever land this out-of-control chrome torpedo…
I struggled towards the shore and stumbled through the shallows along the gravel bar as I attempted to give chase, but found myself confronted by a steep drop-off with water beyond that was too deep to wade through. As I evaluated my dwindling options, the fish suddenly veered towards an enormous jam of downed trees. Foregoing caution, I performed a Spey harikari, bending my rod all the way to the cork fore grip, my free hand wrapped around the Duchess in a desperate attempt at preventing the buck from gaining freedom amidst the ensnaring branches. The maximum pressure exerted by boron and nylon finally stopped him only a few feet from the submerged tangle; for what seemed like endless moments, neither of us gave any quarter, as the uncertain outcome of our battle hung in the afternoon sunlight shimmering atop the river’s surface.
At last, the buck finally began to weaken, and I switched to a low sideways rod angle, adding a bit of slack line. The fish, sensing possible freedom, swam slowly towards me and away from the hazards. Nearly 200 yards separated me from my prize, and so I put the tip of the rod underwater, pointed it towards the fish, and commenced to steadily reel. By keeping all of the line in the water, it bellied below the fish, which then induced him to swim opposite of the pressure i.e. upstream against the current. This technique – affectionately known as “Walking the Dog”, and shown to me by my guide and good friend Trevor – can be very effective for landing fish that have run far downstream, especially when pursuit isn’t feasible.
After making yet more cross-channel dashes that took back a great deal of the line I had so painstakingly won, the coho salmon finally yielded, and I gently slid him into the shallows. I marveled at his enormous girth and the powerful muscles that were humped behind the gator-sized head. A coterie of parasitic sea lice copepods hung down near the ventral fin, their dark color and long tails indicating that this salmon had been in the river for mere hours – hence the sheer strength and amazing stamina displayed in his bid for freedom. Taking care to avoid the sharp teeth that would be subsequently used in spawning ground battles with rivals, I removed the barbless stinger hook, and held him upright facing into the current. As his strength returned, he bid adieu with a bold sweep of his broad tail to resume his final journey.
It was the first week of September on the remote Alaska Peninsula, and our group of avid coho anglers had reunited to pursue vast numbers of anadromous chrome at one of the very best spots on the planet to entice Oncorhynchus kisutch with Spey tackle and swinging flies.
This was my seventh trip to the Sapsuk River and to APICDA’s riverside camp on the western end of the Peninsula. We had arrived aboard an ultra-modern, Swiss-built Pilatus aircraft (chartered from Alaska Air Transit) and our 500-odd mile flight from Merrill Field in Anchorage had taken us over snow-capped volcanoes, thrusting high into the skies along the west side of Cook Inlet and forming the tall backbone of the Peninsula. Vast stretches of rolling tundra pocked with countless ponds and crisscrossed by waterways both large and small, along with glimpses of lonely beaches upon which the Bering Sea expended its fury during fierce storms, appeared below us through breaks in the thick clouds.
Our expert pilot – a former Navy flier who had made hundreds of landings aboard an aircraft carrier – touched down smoothly on the gravel airstrip in Nelson Lagoon. As clouds of dust billowed in the stiff wind, we taxied towards the greeting crew. Waiting for us were wonderful folks Merle, Sharon, and Kenny, who were lifelong Aleut residents of this tiny Alaska Native village. Our gear was quickly offloaded, and as the previous week’s anglers boarded the plane for their return back to Anchorage, they confirmed – to our delight — that the main run of coho salmon had indeed arrived in the river.
We enjoyed the comfort of Sharon and Kenny’s house, and were treated to their warm hospitality and a delicious steak dinner as we waited for the rising tide to flood the Lagoon. As evening approached, we launched and boarded APICDA’s seaworthy vessel for the trip across the breezy estuary, with Merle piloting us across the choppy shallows. At the mouth of the Sapsuk, we were met by the smaller jet-powered skiffs brought downriver by the guides. I waved as I saw Mike and Trevor approach us, and joyful rounds of high fives and bear hugs ensued as we were reunited with our dear friends. We piled luggage, rod cases, and mounds of provisions into the boats, then fired up the Yamaha outboards for the last leg up to camp, arriving at dusk to be greeted by our delightful cook Kathy.
After hastily stowing my gear, I hurried down to the river and headed to the top of Silver Tree — my all-time favorite swing run – to make a few casts in the remaining light. The first throw resulted in a bright 9-pound hen that somersaulted repeatedly across the water, with the 7-weight Winston BIII Spey rod bucking and Hardy Bougle reel howling in response. I managed to hook four and land three more cohos before the descending darkness reminded me to yield the river to the nocturnal bruins (whose large paw prints marked their passage on the very same trails traversed by us anglers). Back at camp, I re-secured the electric bear fence, and took a hot shower before joining my companions inside our sturdy WeatherPort tents.
Early the next morning, my alarm rang just before the camp generator fired up. Grogginess dispelled by another shower, I sat down with Diana, Jerry, Mike, Mark, Kirk, and Charlie in the warm dining tent to enjoy Kathy’s delicious and hearty breakfast. Everyone was eager to begin the day’s fishing, and I hurriedly finalized my gear preparation post-repast, determined to change my reputation of being the last person who showed up down at the boats (!).
The outboard motors on the skiffs were warming up as Mike and Trevor waited for us at the landing, and we cast off in the chilly dawn. Due to a series of early fall rains, the water levels were higher this year, and the guides opted to take us upriver where the silver salmon were more concentrated. We motored past typically productive spots such as the Mojo and Cabin runs, with the other group of Mike, Mark, Diana, and Jerry (guided by Mike) electing to stop at the Weir Pool, while Trevor decided to start Charlie, Kirk, and I at a spot further above.
Through polarized sunglasses, we saw pods of bright cohos holding at every deep run upstream of camp. It took only 10 minutes to reach our first fishing spot, and our initial casts resulted in hookups with chromers that leapt high above the water, bending our rods and yanking line against tight drags. Excited whooping, broad grins, and gleeful fist bumps ensued between all of us – how wonderful to be back in Coho Nirvana!
I have enjoyed catching every species encountered throughout my 50 plus years of pursuing Pisces with rod and reel. It matters not to me whether a four-inch bluegill or 200-pound yellowfin tuna has been hooked: every fish succesfully captured continues to elicit the same excitement as that first, minuscule yellow perch that swallowed a dried minnow head dangled off a Minnesota boat dock by a wide-eyed 5-year boy.
Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch, also known as silvers) are eagerly sought by Alaska fishers: Their widespread distribution, willingness to strike, vigorous fighting abilities (which includes amazing aerial acrobatics and powerful runs), and fine culinary attributes make these fish a prized quarry. Marine anglers catch thousands of cohos in the ocean and estuaries during the summer months, while others target them in freshwater, as they ascend rivers to spawn during autumn.
I have been fortunate to live in the Great North — where salmonids are still relatively abundant — for nearly two decades, and I relish the opportunities to pursue every species of fish that are found here. Our waters host fishers from all over the world, and I continue to be puzzled by the reactions from other visiting fly anglers, when the subject of Alaska coho fishing is discussed. My excited descriptions of constant action, accompanied by fierce swing grabs, tail-walking leaps, and powerful downstream dashes by chrome sea-run fish elicit considerable interest – that is, until I reveal the quarry that I’m pursuing. An awkward moment of silence is then followed by the remark, “Oh… you’re just talking about… silvers”. Pitying looks are cast upon me, before my heretofore rapt audience dissipates; as they walk away, I just grin and say to myself, Hey man, you don’t know what you’re missing…
The Alaska Peninsula’s silver salmon runs occur later than most others, and these fish enjoy additional weeks of ocean feeding before commencing their final journey. Thus, compared to other systems with earlier returns, the average size of the adult cohos caught here can be considerably larger – many are over 10 pounds, and our Sapsuk head guide Mike weighs silvers that exceed 16 pounds every season.
As anyone who has fished for freshwater cohos can tell you, these fish can quickly stop biting once the initial action on the eager fish is concluded – leaving anglers frustrated while watching dozens of unwilling salmon mill about, ignoring all offerings. However, the sheer numbers of silvers spread out over many miles of river on the Sapsuk means that you merely move to the next spot to find fresh biters and resume the hot angling (!).
Having fished in waters throughout Alaska that range from heavily frequented to remote, the coho angling success on the Sapsuk exceeds anywhere else that I’ve visited. Coupled with the opportunity to cast in a moderate-sized river (with easy wading), minimal angling pressure, and hundreds of out-sized silvers newly-arrived from the salt, the Sapsuk offers an unparalleled opportunity for seasoned swing fishers and novices to satiate desires of hooking chrome salmonids, until you’re completely exhausted…
*Note: There are only two operators on the Sapsuk, and APICDA’s camp is situated in the heart of the best water; each day’s angling begins at first light within minutes of leaving the boat landing, and continues until the evening – plus intrepid folks can keep fishing (sans guides) before and after dinner too. Perhaps there’s a river somewhere in Alaska where you can find equivalent angling for silver salmon that’s combined with comfortable accommodations and awesome service (?) – if so, please tell me about another such Coho Nirvana!
The Weir Pool is located just a few minutes by jet boat upstream of the Sapsuk Camp, and this amazing spot was jammed with thousands of cohos during our visit. Each pass through with our swinging flies yielded dozens of fierce grabs, followed by swift dashing runs, frequent aerial displays, and grinning anglers. There were so many fish present that the action here was non-stop, all day; one merely had to change to a different color and/or pattern to keep hooking fresh silvers.
While any flashy fly will catch cohos, we have found that ones tied with a heavy chrome cone head (3/8” or 7/16”size) and long wiggling tail (3”-4”) seemed to be very effective on the Sapsuk. I had modified one of Mark’s patterns — the Sapsuk Chicken — which he used with deadly effect on these silvers: it was similar to a Dolly Llama, but was made with webby saddle hackles (instead of a bunny strip), and sported a marabou collar plus lots of long tinsel. My version was named the Coho Pollo, and I found that all-pink, black and chartreuse, purple, and white/chartreuse were effective colors; my favorite is made with a cerise marabou collar and a purple saddle hackle tail (nicknamed The Purple People Eater, or PPE). Each fly is tied “Intruder” style i.e. using a hook-less shank that’s rigged with an extended loop of stiff line, to which an octopus style hook is attached as a trailing “stinger”.
Top water patterns also are effective, especially during the gray of early morning (or when clouds subdued the overhead light). As anyone who has used these flies on cohos can attest to, it’s electrifying to watch the fish stalk, then grab your faux offering on the surface. A low-profile “gurgler” pattern (with a foam strip back) typically produces more solid takes, compared to poppers made with deer hair or Styrofoam (as these bulkier flies tend to bounce off the fish’s snouts).
During our daily trips above the Weir Pool, we had seen a section of river with oodles of coho jammed up along a steep bank. This particular run had been untouched, due to the deep, soft mud on the nearside entry spot which discouraged wading anglers. I finally decided that these particular silvers couldn’t be ignored any longer, and I convinced Trevor to drop me off here before he anchored his boat at the next downstream corner.
A stout stick helped me to traverse the clinging muck along the bank, and to my pleasant surprise, the bottom grew firm (albeit deeper) as I waded out within casting distance of the steadily rolling fish. Although my first throw fell short, I let the Coho Pollo swing across the river, and saw a wake follow the fly before a big boil, strong tug, and throbbing rod indicated that the salmon had taken it. Flashes of chrome emanated through the water as the minty hen shook her head back and forth, and she blasted off in a sizzling run towards Trevor’s distant boat, grey hounding atop the surface in a dazzling display of power and grace. The howl of the Hardy, combined with the deeply bent Spey rod and ripping noise of backing tearing through the current… need I say more to stir the blood of any devout swing fisher?
After releasing the 12-pound hen, I continued to work my way down the fish-packed run and managed to hook dozens of additional silvers. Multiple cohos eagerly chased my Pollo on every swing, resulting in scores of wildly leaping and madly dashing chrome-sided salmon, until the hot action finally ceased. As I climbed back aboard Trevor’s jet sled with icy feet and woefully sore arms, I was tired yet extremely elated by the astonishing angling I had just experienced during the last 90 minutes.
To those anglers who “poo-poo” fishing for cohos: your lack of interest in the vicious strikes, astonishing aerial acrobatics, and powerful dashing runs of these wonderful anadromous salmonids means that there’ll be more of them for me to catch. Even after coming to Sapsuk for a number of years, and hooking thousands of silvers here, I never get jaded — nor take for granted how amazing and special this place is… if you nevertheless decide to pass on this marvelous fishery, you have my deepest sympathy for missing out on such a spectacular experience!
Even after a long and fulfilling day hooking dozens of powerful salmon, a few incurably addicted anglers always seem to desire yet more action. The Sapsuk Camp has an easy remedy for such afflictions, as there is superb swinging water located at, below, and above this facility.
I (and fellow addicts Mark and Charlie) decided to satisfy cravings for additional yanks by chrome salmonids every evening. Due to the higher river levels, the cohos were holding in softer water, and I quickly learned that allowing the fly to swing all the way into the shallows below me, then letting it dangle for a bit, would result in hard takes — albeit I wasn’t able to successfully pin many of these “hang down” biters, due to my over-eagerness and lack of patience which resulted in too many whiffed strikes (!).
One holding lie near camp — tucked against the near bank with an impenetrable mass of tree branches hanging a few inches above the surface – provided an interesting angling challenge. I finally solved this fishy riddle, which required a stealthy approach (keeping a low profile so as to avoid spooking the fish) and patient waiting to succeed.
Picture this: Yours Truly hiding in the tall grass next to the bank, with the tip of my Spey rod sticking out over the water. I’m keeping the Pollo above the surface, with several feet of coiled line held in my hand, ready to drop it front of a coho when the opportunity presents itself. The group of bright silvers holding beneath the branches begins to bump each other, and a large buck with broad shoulders peels away from the bunched up fish, seemingly annoyed… he then re-positions himself a yard downstream of my rod, whereupon I release the fly, then gently wiggle it enticingly in front of him… his jaws yawn open as he swims forward to eat my pattern… I lift the rod, and the surprised fish shakes his head violently, then tears off across the swift current while I arise with numb legs and attempt to clumsily follow…
Earlier in the week, as I stood in the shallows along a gravel bar below the WeatherPorts, I was pleasantly surprised to see the PPE Pollo disappear in a massive boil while it dangled from my Spey rod. Somehow — and in spite of being completely unprepared for this fortuitous circumstance — I managed to remain attached to the 11-pound chrome-sided hen, gratefully landing her after a spirited battle replete with body twisting leaps and tearing runs. Closer inspection of this unlikely spot revealed a short and narrow slot with soft water and just enough depth for salmon to rest in, after negotiating the long, swift rapids below. I thenceforth made sure to swing my fly through this hidden lie every evening, which produced jarring strikes from the small group of salmon that were always holding there.
Quite a few of the fish I hooked in this particular location elected to bid adios muy pronto by immediately blasting back down the long rapid that they had so strenuously negotiated. This created a curious mixture of exhilaration and despair as I tried to unsuccessfully slow the departing cohos with my palm held against the chattering Hardy reel. The backing melted away as the sprinting silvers emptied the spool, saluting me far downstream with their tails raised high (a.k.a. the piscine version of an outstretched middle finger). While I did manage to coax a number of these fish back up to me by employing Trevor’s “Walk The Dog” technique, many of them gained their freedom after the hook pulled out (likely due to excessive pressure from fighting against the heavy current).
My last two days on the Sapsuk passed in a blur of Spey casts, protesting reels, and acrobatic salmon dashing about. All seven of us ended up at the Weir Pool during the final afternoon, and we were constantly hooked up as yet more fresh, sea-lice adorned cohos continued to pour into the run. Diana fished off the stern of Mike’s parked boat, and caught fish after fish from this comfy casting platform without having to get her waders wet, while her husband Jerry spanked the silvers with his Coho Death Star fly/spinner combination. Mike and Mark also had their rods constantly bent by grabby silvers that tore across the pool like wild demons. Meanwhile, the Three Coho Amigos of Kirk, Charlie, and moi fished the lower end, working downstream in unison, and our triple-headers were announced by gleeful shouts of “Fish On!”, “Fresh One!”, and “There’s No Ho Like Coho!” (this last phrase borrowed from a slogan on our favorite Ray Troll fish t-shirt). For three hours straight, I tried to make a swing without a grab, but failed to do so – there were so many eager biters. Nearly all of the fish were dime bright, and there were lots of double-digit sized silvers landed by everyone.
That evening, we took the opportunity to compliment our wonderful camp staff for all of their dedicated efforts during the week. I gave Kathy jars of homemade wild raspberry jam (which she was delighted to receive), and I augmented Trevor’s après-guiding beverage supplies (he was also pleased with the gifts of a hoodie and aluminum fishing pliers). We knew that our head guide Mike would turn 50 in a couple of weeks, and he had a broad grin as I presented him with a 9-weight Spey rod (a classic Sage “brownie”) for his birthday, which would be put to good use during next year’s chinook salmon season on the Sapsuk. Charlie added a beautiful filet knife (custom made by an Alaska craftsman), and all of us laughed at the pile of black balloons strewn about the floor of the dining tent, in honor of Mike’s half-century milestone.
During the angling session that final evening, my penultimate silver salmon turned out to be the largest, strongest, and fiercest of all the ones that I caught this trip. The mongo buck grabbed at the top of Silver Tree, where he smashed my PPE at the end of the swing mere feet from the bank. I was (fortunately) using the heaviest Spey rod in my arsenal – a Winston BIII 13.5’ 8-weight — which immediately doubled over from the vicious strike, and it throbbed as the angry fish strove in vain to dislodge the annoying hook with shakes of his massive head. Failing to free himself, he then turned into the heavy current, and powered toward the far bank. The hair-raising run ended in a series of yard-high, aerial cartwheels followed by stupendous crashes back into the flows, before he bolted downriver in an unstoppable run. The Hardy screeched noisily as he tore off, causing the handle to spin wildly while the pale backing whipped through the rod guides. I could not follow the fish because it was too dangerous for me to wade beyond the outstretched alder branches; I would have been instantly swept off my feet into the swift current, and I thus had no choice but to hang on and hope that he wouldn’t spool me.
Senor Coho Grande finally stopped his mad headlong dash, and held amidst the boulders far below. In response to my predicament, I directed a string of choice phrases at the fish, finally deciding that a Hail Mary maneuver was my only remaining option. I stripped a few yards of the severely depleted line and tossed it out with a flick of the rod tip. Although the current quickly pulled it tight again, I hoped that there had been sufficient time for the thick Skagit head to belly below the fish and induce him to swim back upstream. The fish gods smiled upon me as my desperate tactic worked, and I felt an easing of tension as the mighty salmon powered steadily against the flow. I lowered the Spey rod into the water, reeling slowly to take up the slack while not alarming him, and in such fashion, I managed to retrieve most of the running line — only to have the fish dash back downriver when he realized my feint. The chatter from the Hardy grew to a banshee howl as he blitzed towards the safety of the rapids below, while I could do naught but hang onto the pulsing rod with grim determination.
I was about to concede defeat when, for some odd and still unknown reason, the big buck suddenly stopped at the very lip of the distant tail-out below. Scarcely daring to believe my luck at this unexpected turn of events, I did my best to avoid provoking yet another frantic response from the fish… Hey, I’m The Coho Whisperer I muttered to myself as the salmon succumbed unwittingly to the “Walking the Dog” technique. Yards of Dacron backing, then the RIO ConnectCore running line followed by the AirFlo Skagit head, were slowly wound back onto the spool, until I glimpsed his enormous form flashing in the depths only a rod length away.
As the huge coho held in the current, I looked around me and suddenly realized that options for landing him were extremely limited: I saw that there was only a small indentation in the high bank with a tiny, steeply sloping beach a few yards away where I might be able corral this fish. Fearing yet another bolting run, I nevertheless pushed him as much as I dared, using the combination of heavy nylon leader, straining boron/graphite rod, and quivering hand locked onto the aluminum reel. Time and time again, I would pull him downstream and towards the bank into the miniscule cove – but as soon as his ponderous belly would touch the gravel, he’d flex his powerful body and swim triumphantly back out into the river. This cycle repeated itself at least a dozen times before his stubborn strength finally ebbed, and he surrendered as I held him submerged against the narrow ledge with my wader-clad legs. I marveled at the shiny scales atop his thick flank winking in the setting sun, and watched the massive hooked jaw working tiredly to pump water through his crimson gills, as he gazed at me with an upturned, pearlescent eye. The wrist in front of his tail was so big that it took both of my hands to grasp it, as I knelt and gently nudged the fish a bit further towards the bank. I managed to snap two photos as the stinger hook slid out of his jaw, whereupon he took advantage of his sudden freedom to re-right himself, then swim between my legs and completely soak me with an indignant departing splash from his broad tail.
The next morning, I finished packing my gear, then ate one last yummy breakfast before boarding the boats for the return trip back to the village. After bidding farewell to our camp crew, we spent a few delightful hours again at Sharon and Kenny’s home, and flew back to Anchorage via the swift Pilatus (stopping briefly in Dillingham to re-fuel). From my lofty vantage, I marveled at the vast waters of Illiamna Lake sparkling in the sun, and gazed longingly at Aniakchak volcano beneath us, vowing to someday float through the gorge carved by the river exiting from its lake-filled crater. The broad sand flats filled with delicious razor clams on the west side of Cook Inlet beckoned to me, and I felt an urge to ask our pilot to set us down next to one of those clear water systems flowing into the sea… surely, there must be anadromous chrome in them worthy of seeking with a Spey rod and swinging fly…
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