Entering the final frontier
The Prof takes his sons, James and Tom, fishing in America’s ice box: Alaska, the 49th state
David Profumo fishes in Alaska
CONCEIVABLY because their father spent their formative years relentlessly extolling the virtues of the pastime, my sons James and Tom have managed to reach their thirties without ever having fished for salmon. This summer, I resolved to remedy that— but where in the world to take them with a virtual guarantee of success?
Twice the size of Texas, with more coastline than the lower 48 states put together, and famously sold by the Russians in 1867 for less than two cents an acre, Alaska takes its name from the native alaxsxag, meaning ‘great country’. There are also several thousand salmon rivers and we were heading towards the Bristol Bay area, to the mighty Alagnak river. It’s a longish schlep to get there (six flights for one of the boys) and wasn’t overly helpful of Icelandair to leave most of our kit in Keflavik, but, eventually, our bush plane left the little airstrip at King Salmon—where, aptly enough, we had been waiting for another guest named Mr Salmon. Below us was endless green hinterland pocked with lakelets and scribbled across with streams.
Now in its second year of operation under the father-andson ownership of Wayne and Jacob Mcgee, the Alaska Trophy Adventures Lodge is located some 50 miles up from tidewater on the remote Upper Braids area of the river, which boasts some of the most prodigious runs of Pacific salmon on the planet. Fully equipped from the lodge’s tackle room, we sped downstream in a jet boat the first morning to find a chum bar that I last fished in 1998 with the late angling swami Arthur Oglesby.
We didn’t have to wait long there for Mister Salmon. Within minutes, the boys were both hooked up into feisty chums (or ‘tiger’ salmon)—real dragbust- ing bruisers, some of which weighed about 15lb and eagerly chomped the vast tandem cerise zonkers we were throwing off single-handed rods. The chum is hugely powerful for its size and, although some of the old stagers looked as if they’d been in a barroom brawl, they provided great sport. Our team of five probably hooked up 100 fish that day—one heck of a curtainraiser for the expedition.
There are five species of Pacifics here and their profusion can be astonishing. Kings grow the largest (you can catch them to more than 50lb), but, this season, the run was sparse and late. For sheer numbers, the sockeye (or ‘red’) is the one to seek and we were lucky that they were still coming into the
‘We had a two-day bonanza before the run began to dwindle ’
river at the end of July. On day two, veteran guide Justin took us up to a sidestream nicknamed Costco, where, in the deliciously clear water, you could see them swimming steadily, often four abreast— part of an estimated migration of three million this summer. It was an awesome spectacle.
Although, as they approach spawning, the sockeyes develop epigamic humps and zombie dentition, with garish spinach-and-carrot coloration that makes them look like fish painted by Matisse after a tumbler of calvados, when fresh and coin- bright like this from the ocean, they’re as lithe and lovely as our grilse—and fight as vigorously. Being plankton feeders, they won’t chase your fly and there is a knack to the hook-set, but the boys excelled themselves (claiming, of course, to have outfished the paterfamilias). It was hard to be sure, because we genuinely lost count, but we had a two-day bonanza before the run began to dwindle, hooking literally hundreds. As they say, it was a truly ‘sockeye-delic’ experience.
The bears love reds and, on occasion, we had to beat a judicious retreat—a big brown can cover 50 yards in three seconds. Up at the Black Hole pool, one specimen ambled round behind me as I was playing a big male sockeye, but it seemed unimpressed.
The camp is homely and informal, although some of the amenities are still a little makeshift (they have no liquor licence, so be sure to bring supplies). There were 13 guests staying and the guides put everyone onto multitudes of fish.
We landed eight species, including the Pacific pentarchy— James caught the camp’s first coho of the season, friend Todd bagged a smallish king, I managed to hoodwink a humpy and we also took numerous grayling and rainbows on dry caddis and nymphs. On the last day, we enjoyed a float trip in two inflatable rafts, which is an ideal way of silently seeing the riverscape.
My own most memorable fish was a resplendent 2ft-long Dolly Varden—a char named after a colourful character in Dickens’s
Barnaby Rudge, its quicksilver flanks prinked with madder. In six days here, we had the equivalent of six seasons of fishing anywhere at home.
Back in Anchorage, we celebrated at Humpy’s seafood joint and the boys bought me a bumper sticker saying ‘I Got Crabs at Humpy’s’. Not sure that quite counts as another species.
Above: A triple hook up by the Profumo family. Right: The outcome of a morning’s work in the Black Hole pool