For many folks whether they have been fly fishing for a week or 30 years there are a few places around the world that are considered a Mecca of sorts for fly fishing. Runnin’ down browns on the South Island in New Zealand, hucking streamers for logs in the rivers of Patagonia in South America, nearly walking on top of salmon while trying to land a big ol’ buck during the silver runs in Alaska; these are a few of the places that people dream about.
I have had the great fortune to take in the Coho runs of Alaska in all its glory. My dad and uncle have been going up there for years to fish for silvers and I had the occasion to tag along a time or two. Alaska is a place that is so hard to describe if you have never been there. It is very similar to my home state of Montana; if one has never been to these types of places it is hard to encapsulate in words just how grandiose and awe-inspiring it truly is. The silvers run every fall and are typically at their peak from the middle of September until early October. There are a few rivers that are rife with salmon during the run but the Italio River is the spot to be. It is situated on the Alaskan Peninsula about halfway between Juneau and Anchorage.
The fishing here brings a whole new meaning to the term “chucking meat”. One time while trying to cast my line in steady 30 mph winds my fly with massive dumbbell eyes drifted directly behind me head and clocked me so hard it felt like I had just been thumped on the back of the head by my grandpa for slipping up. Alaska brings its own set of kinks to work out while fly fishing. The rivers are changing constantly with the tides, the weather is a cruel mistress, and to top it all off you are always on edge watching out for grizzlies who would like nothing more than to steal your fish.
There was one day where we were fishing on a stretch of river where the water runs slow and the fish hold up and rest before continuing their journey to spawn. This section of the river was only about 20 feet wide and on the far bank was tall, thick buck brush that you could scarcely see through. On the far side of the brush I heard the distinct lumbering of a grizzly but it did little to deter me. Afterall, I was fly fishing in Alaska for salmon and what is going to stop that! I was standing in the river looking to hook into a chromer and directly across from me was where the brush ended and it opened up into a beautiful viridescent meadow. From the sounds I could tell that I would soon have a visual of the gnarled beast. As soon as he presented himself the adrenaline spiked. His dish face, then his iconic humped shoulder, his claws kicking up dirt and sand with every step. No sooner had half of his body been made known that the bear turned his head towards me and in an act that I can only describe as purely primal he charged the river towards me. He made it a few feet into the river and then went up on his hind legs and growled with pure ferocity. For a split second I thought about turning and running but the more intelligent part of my brain kept my feet firm. The ball of fur and muscle was close enough to me that I could have touched him with my fly rod. All I could do was flail my rod and slap the water as vigorously as I could; throwing my arms into the air in what seemed a futile endeavor. In Alaska you pretty much can’t shoot to kill unless the grizzly is actively chomping on your leg without serious repercussions. So we went on pretending like we were still on the top of the food-chain in front of this apex predator who to this day probably still gets a laugh at my efforts that day. The bear went down on all fours after some time and went back to the bank; pacing back and forth, snarling and flinging snot. The rest of the day my head was on a swivel as the bear was trying to come in at different points to get at us and our fish.
This is all to say that Alaska is truly a wild place and truly a place that any fly fisherman should have on their list of ultimate places to fish. Yes, you may have to skirmish with a grizzly and you may have to contend with 40-mile per hour winds and horizontal rain that beats against your skin but there is truly no experience like fly fishing for Cohos in Alaska. When you have a salmon hit your fly and rip you into your backing before you even have a chance to think it makes it all worth it. Developing palm bruises to try and slow the fish down because your drag doesn’t seem to do a thing is a thing you won’t soon forget. Do what you can to have those fly fishing experiences that you will cherish. It does not have to be Alaska, Patagonia or New Zealand. The important thing is to do it with those you love and the memories will be that much sweeter.
Written by Erik Barrus
Photography by Eric Fisher - www.ericfisherphotography.com