One of the best places to target red salmon is the Pasagshak River, a 30 mile drive from town. The scenic drive along the coast is impressive. Lush green mountains rise from sea level, while bright chrome sockeye cruise the bay, jumping from time to time, announcing their presence.
In Kodiak, sight fishing is king and without a good pair of polarized glasses you might as well be fishing blindfolded. Spotting these fish takes place in water depths of 8 inches to 3 feet high, directly at the mouth of the river where fresh water clashes with the salt. This is where technique and presentation is everything. Like hungry bears, fishermen stand on the banks, rod in hand, squinting into the gin-clear water in anticipation for what lies ahead.
Then it happens. Downstream, people start flipping their lead and hooks furiously into the river, announcing to all upstream that a school of fish has arrived. As the school moves up the river, their polished, chrome sides mirror the surroundings, making them eerily invisible except for their ghostly shadow in the current.
Now is the moment of truth, where lead, line, and fly need to work together to produce a clean drift, edible presentation and solid hook-up. I can’t stress enough how important lead is in the equation of hooking salmon—or any other species for that matter. Position your lead (I prefer the split shot type) about two feet or so from the hook. Accuracy is everything as the strike zone can be under one square foot.
These fish are running the last leg of a 4 year marathon and the action is so fast, one must be ever-ready as the fish move up into your stretch of the river. You’ll want to cast ahead and across them. As the lead drops, it drags the fly down in a sweeping motion towards and across your finicky target. Sockeye only take a second or two in the swift current, deciding if the offering is tempting enough to illicit a strike. If not, keep casting and adjust your swing, estimating where your fly will hit bottom in relation to the fish.
In Alaska, most flies, beads, and jigs are made from loud obnoxious colors and materials that more resemble things stripped off a clown’s costume, or an old feather boa from a trunk in the attic. Reds, pinks, purples, and black work well year round for most species of fish, but here on the Pasagshak River, fishing for sockeye, chartreuse is my weapon of choice.
An excellent angler, Kadie Walsh, created a pattern called the Super-Secret Sockeye Fly—simple, but effective—and ever since its introduction I have come home with fillets for the freezer and an aching shoulder. In my mind it looks like a juicy presentation of organic goo that these adults feed on as fry and smolt in their earlier years. The most important thing here is a super sharp hook, like the Gamakatsu Octopus #4 in green. Using chartreuse thread, and in this order stack a pinch of each of the following: UV Minnow Belly, Chartreuse Fishhair, and lastly, Chartreuse Krystal Flash. Now give it a whip-finish, and fish on!
Weighing in between 6 to 10 lbs. these salmon are built for speed and power. With thick backs and broad tails the agility and energy they can produce is unrivaled by most other sport fish.
This all becomes apparent when your drift comes to a dead stop, and then all in one motion, your fly line darts back up-stream and the sound of your line ripping through the water will send shivers up your spine and adrenaline throughout your body. Sockeye are notorious for erupting out of the water and thrashing recklessly through the air, while often throwing the hook in a flash. Only experienced anglers are skilled enough not to get schooled during their blistering and knuckle-busting runs, and it doesn’t matter to them which direction they go. I’ve had fish bolt upstream only to run aground on the sandy bank, beach themselves high and dry, and then flip back into the water full speed ahead. Other times they’ll head for the safety of the salt water, and this is where you’ll get your exercise walking, jogging, and stumbling through fishermen and their lines.
By this time in the fight, you can hear your drag screaming, watching your fly line disappear off the spool. Rest assured, you’ll eventually hear the clicking sounds as your backing knots, (which by the way, probably haven’t seen the light of day in months or years), go shooting through the eyelets. As you watch your backing get towed through the crashing waves, wondering which move to make next, this is truly a time of desperation. Hungry seals and the draw of the ocean’s current are plenty enough to break you off, end your fight, and have you slowly walking back with your head hung low, empty handed, knowing you were beat by the best Kodiak has to offer.
If you’re lucky enough to land one of these prize fish with meat the color of candy apples—job well done! Hopefully you realize what great table fare they make, and to that, all I can say is, olive oil, a hint of soy sauce, a little ginger and pepper, and throw it in the oven and get your bake on!