In Search of Silver

In honor of our friends at Crystal Creek Lodge kicking off their fishing season next week. This is an account of the incredible time we had in their neighborhood during the fall of 2013. It originally appeared in the December/January 2014 issue of This is Fly Magazine.

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Looking down from 600 feet it appears as if King Salmon, Alaska has been half-carved, half-stolen from its barren surroundings. It seems that at any moment the tundra might rise up and reclaim the land in a Tolkien-esque wave of permafrost and alder. The tiny berg is erected snuggly between the Naknek River and hundreds of formidable, road-less miles of sub-arctic wilderness that separate it from Anchorage. It is rarely the destination on a trip to this region; instead it’s the jumping off point, the last vestige of civilization before a headlong dive into the Alaskan outback.

As our air taxi, a 50-year old de Havilland Beaver, hummed steadily south, King Salmon faded in the distance and the base of the Aleutian Range emerged from the cloud-wrapped horizon. The plane slung low in an attempt to avoid the hazy ceiling that seemed determined to block our path. From our shallow trajectory the area’s omnipresent Brown Bears could be seen lounging in shallow creeks, the water around them highlighted by the crimson backs of spawning Sockeye.

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Dan Michaels, our host and pilot, deftly maneuvered the plane while at the same time working to rid the cockpit of the hundreds of black flies and mosquitoes that had boarded with us back on the tarmac. Collin Witherel sat shotgun, doing his best to catch aerial shots through intermittent splatters of rain. Chris Keig  and I sat against the rear windows with Connor Scott, our intrepid guide, crammed between us.

Dan, his eyes calm behind yellow aviator glasses and his fingers busily tapping on the plane’s u-shaped steering yoke, poked the prop up one valley after another in search of a route to the Aleutian’s southern slope, only to be denied each time by an unforgiving curtain of clouds. When it was evident that a passage was not forthcoming, Dan banked the plane west, back toward the ocean-like expanse of Becharof Lake and landed us softly on its shore. The Beaver’s “Bush Wheels,” massive tires built to withstand the rigors of impromptu wilderness landings, rolled to a stop amongst the ghostly remains of an abandoned bible camp. The buildings of which, now little more than battered skeletons, offered bush pilots, and in this case wayward fisherman, nominal shelter from passing storms.

 

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The conditions showed little sign of easing so we plied gore-tex and fly rods from the plane’s belly and marched up the shore toward nearby Bible Creek in search of egg-addicted Dolly Varden.

Bible Creek is small; it would have resembled a swollen irrigation ditch had there been anything growing around it aside from tussock grasses, moss and arctic shrubs. But between its narrow banks Bible teamed with coral-colored Sockeye and behind them a legion of dollies lay queued up at a caviar buffet. On an adjacent bluff a large male Brown Bear eyed us carefully. He stood on his hind legs, exposing a white-blonde torso, and sniffed the air intently before ambling on in search of a less crowded fishing hole.

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In the ninety minutes we spent on the ground we each landed a pile of fish. Connor even managed to wrangle in a large male, painted tip to tail in bright spawning colors worthy of a Ken Kesey flashback, fluorescent oranges and pinks against a deep green back. Content to end on a big fish we returned to the plane and soon surged off the beach under clearing skies.

From the window of our flying metal rickshaw the coastline glowed like wet coal as the remaining wisps of fog steamed skyward off the ebony cliffs. In the low, but steady, September sunlight it looked as if dry land and the Pacific had not yet decided who held claim to the Alaska Peninsula. Its cliffs seemed at once to be escaping from Poseidon’s clutches only to be pummeled, by waterfalls and still sliding glaciers, back into the maw.

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Next to a long, rough-hewn runway Yantarni Salmon Camp has quite literally been willed into existence and carved from its unforgiving habitat. Owned and managed by Crystal Creek Lodge, it sits amidst the nearly 6,000 square mile Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge within a watershed that offers a unique and, likely unparalleled, opportunity to catch Silver Salmon on the fly.

Yantarni Creek falls hundreds of feet from the Volcano’s snowfields before abruptly evening out onto a tidal flood plain. Its path from hard rock slides to a sand and gravel bed provides little to obstruct or absorb its surge when the rains come. As we hiked across the stream’s braids it had just begun to recede from the previous day’s rain-induced swell. Connor and Aaron, aka “Chinker,” the Salmon Camp’s seasonal manager, lead us to the creek’s deepest channel. We spread out opposite a short, steep cut bank and cast heavily weighted pink, purple, and black buggers across the deepest pools.

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Connor, with the practiced hand of a local guide, hooked the first fish. A ten-pound Silver, fresh from the salt and true to its name, broke from the water and tail walked dangerously close to a submerged log. Connor dug in his heels and bent the fish back into the current where it again torqued skyward in a futile effort to shake the hook. The big hen was the first of six fish to be landed that evening.   A small score by Yantarni standards, where often it’s the anglers who cry mercy, complaining of sore arms from fighting too many fish, or so the story goes.

En route back to camp we passed a flask between us and watched the volcano turn purple in the setting sun. The metronome of the Pacific kept time downstream, the thump and sizzle of every wave a potential signal of fresh fish returning from the deep.

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The following morning we arrived at Yonder Creek’s broad, shallow mouth where we began the mile-long hike upstream to the deeper pools, famous amongst Crystal Creek guides for the sheer number of Silvers that will stack up within them. We crossed the muddy tidal flat and stepped up onto the stubby green grass of the flood plain, in it the still-fresh tracks of bear and wolves marched off in front of us. The sky was cloudless above Yonder’s turquoise riffles as we approached the inside of a sweeping bend.

Within minutes of our lines hitting the water there was an almost constant revelry of, “fish on!” Of the five rods amongst us one was nearly always bent and we soon lost count of how many we landed. We released the lot of them aside from two that our hosts grilled over a fire on the hillside overlooking the beach.

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We ate quietly, each of us a little in awe.

Two days later Dan would return to take us back across the mountains, to civilization, to emails marked urgent and unrequited voicemail messages. But for that instant we were subject only to the drumbeat of the waves and the hope that they carried with them more silver from the sea.

RT