Sea-green shoulders gone to bronze, sliver flanks tinted rose – October on the Chignik
Found the hint of a honda trail overgrown with willow, alder. Hacked it open with anvil loppers and a handsaw, rode in as far as possible, parked, hiked to the crest of a hill blanketed in moss-like crowberry and ankle-high low-bush blueberry, tiny leaves candy-apple crimson, took in the view. Bear trail worn deep into the berry flat. Centuries? Millennia? Willow and alder thick, had to stoop, then crawl. Small creek, nearly hidden, then the bear trail again. Bear scat packed with berries, disc-like salmon vertebrae. Paw prints. Large, medium, small cubs. Otter scat. Fox scat. The river. Gulls crying, eagles gliding, kingfishers rattling, so many salmon ascending the shallow riffles, their splashing like a cataract. Retraced steps. Hacked out the trail thinking of fly rods, camera gear, companions. Fresh bear pile at the trailhead – must’ve heard or smelled this human and turned back. Morning’s work.
Next morning. Frost, fly rods, icy fingers. We pause on the hill crest, listen for bears, watch the brush below for movement. Breathe deeply. Sift the damp air in cold noses for bear scent, tap cans of pepper spray secured in wading belt holsters. Mist curling, rising, sun peeking over mountains. Gulls, kingfishers, magpies, chickadees, downy woodpecker. Thin, wispy murmurings… kinglets? Interludes of silence. Near silence. Always the gentle language of the river, primal score to everything here, song. New bear scat, prints punctuated by five sharp claw marks piercing ice-laced mud by the creek.
Creek mouth, muddy cove. More bear tracks a foot under water. Wade in, cross the channel behind Dolly Island, shoals of startled salmon wake the water into soft, liquid surface folds ahead of us, gulls cry and lift from a rocky bar.
We follow a bear trail among a maze of bear trails across the island, through fireweed gone to cotton, yellow grasses, russet burdock husks, gray-brown cow parsnip seed crowns sunlit, wet with dew, glistening spider silk. Steamy breaths precede us as we stride toward our place along the stony shoreline. Yellowing cottonwood leaves. We have come here before, always by scow, noisy engine. Different hiking in. Quiet. Intimate. Assemble rods, thread line through guides, choose flies. Looking intently at the water, at first only reflections appear. We relax our vision to see past the surface, into the water, finding bottom. Stones. Then salmon. Lots. Males flanked in crimson, pink, maroon; females tarnished silver, blue metal, coppery backs.
The salmon are plentiful, but catching is not a given. Lifeless, finger-sized fish scattered here and there across algae-slick orange-brown bottom rubble – char, salmon parr, sculpins, sticklebacks. Some bitten through. Most whole. Salmon no longer feeding sometimes snap at small fish in their path, each day in the river teeth growing longer, sharper. Annoyance? Testosterone aggression? Memory of joy cutting through schools of anchovies, sand lances, herring? Or is it something more practical yet more mysterious… an instinct to eliminate whatever might later prey upon the salmon’s progeny, an itch in their jaws only scratched by the snap of a small fish’s spine, a tiny skull crushed?
Flies are chosen with these thoughts in mind. We lack the decades – or centuries – of accumulated experience some possess. Our choices are guesses. Bright flies. Flies that pulse enticingly in current. Pink, chartreuse, strawberry, plum, marine blues and greens, streamers that sparkle and dart like panicked fish, flies that breathe with rhythm and the illusion of life even when held steady against the current. Double check knots. Flatten barbs. Step into the river as quietly as deer.
From the silver of summertime to the colors of autumn… they’re gorgeous fish. It may be true that pound for pound, no species of salmon fights harder than Chinook. Hard to say. The kype-jawed buck Coho in this photo made five spectacular, cartwheeling leaps and two long, blistering runs.
Streamers are most effective, but small wet flies and even poppers take fish.
In this, our fourth year on the river, the flats above Devil’s Nose have drawn us. Sockeyes in June and July, Pinks and Kings in July and August, Silvers from August through October. Dolly Varden char whenever salmon are present. Steelhead pass through here. A few. The river is the road connecting the three Chignik Villages; an occasional boat cruises by. Seldom another fisherman, even in summer. In fall seldom becomes rarely.
Winter soon. Months of dark and absence. Fly-fishing days of summer and fall relived over meals of salmon and bottles of wine… It is a time when speculation, plans, hopes for future seasons begin to take form. Newly fledged hawks, baby owls, sows and cubs, massive male bears chasing down spawning Reds, upcountry hikes and flowers, the wolverine at the mouth of Bear Creek, the big Chinook we saw lace reflections together.
Terminal dust – summit snow marking the end of summer. A cloud you might surf, if only… Alders clinging to green, willows giving themselves to gold. Shafts of sunlight illuminate a shaded pool. Illuminating salmon. False cast to measure the distance. Back cast to load the rod as a powerful spring, then the forward cast. Quick, calm upriver mend. Strip, strip, strip… Eyes searching for the bit of purple and flash pulsing at the end of the leader. Scarlet flank catches the light as a buck salmon turns to follow. Anticipation pulls knees into a crouch. Lean forward, hopeful. Line abruptly taut. Quick strip followed by another to be sure, rod lifted into a satisfying arc, alive, water erupting in a geyser. Mind suddenly empty, free, thought vanished except for this moment of being. October on the Chignik.
* Upriver *