Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Return to Clarks River

Salmon fishing Chignik Alaska
Return to Clarks River

Each September we pick a day when the forecast is for clear skies, pack up our gear, and head up the lake to Clarks River. In years past, we hiked a three-mile honda trail across a rolling landscape of tundra, berry bogs, salmonberry brakes, meadows and dense stands of alders and willows. This year, we took our scow up the lake and beached it on the sandy shore near the mouth of Clarks.

The Silver fishing here can be phenomenal, though it is seldom as easy as the fishing further downriver. By the time they’ve arrived at Clarks, the salmon have been in the river awhile. Although many are still silvery bright, we’ve found them somewhat less inclined to come to our flies than are newly-arrived fish. Nonetheless, basking under blue skies while presenting flies to 10-pound fish cruising the lake’s shoreline is a pleasant change from swinging streamers in river current. We can often see the takes as a salmon peals off from the pod of fish it is swimming with and turns to inhale whatever combination of fur and feather we’re offering.

At some point, the urge to explore the lower reaches of Clarks River itself overtakes us. As we make our way across the sandy beach and then along the well-worn bear path following the river, we never cease to be amazed by evidence of just how many bears fish here. The trampled, matted down vegetation strewn with salmon parts suggests more of a bear highway than a bear trail. There are always a few eagles hanging around, seals, gulls, mergansers and other ducks, and we’ve come across the tracks of otter, mink, moose, wolf and wolverine.

The salmon are always there in September, so many that at times they seem to carpet the rocky river bottom. Every so often a fresh school of fish enters the river, and when they do they sometimes come in such numbers that the wake they push before them looks like a tidal bore. As with the lake, in Clarks’ extraordinarily clear water, the fishing is not a given. But with the right fly, thoughtful casting and patience, we manage to coax a few. The challenge is part of the enjoyment, as is the knowledge that most probably ours will be the only flies any of these salmon ever see.

It is difficult to make a good photo of Clarks itself and the salmon we catch there. During early morning in September, the mountains that cup Clarks keep it in shadow. By the time the sun rises above those jagged peaks, it shines very bright. The process reverses itself as evening approaches, the valley abruptly transitioning from bright to dark in moments as the sun disappears. Barbra made the above photo in the evening of September 12 along the lakeshore just below Clarks. Shirtsleeve fishing in Alaska in September is not a thing to be expected, but each year we’ve picked a day or two, made the trek to this pristine river, and lucked out. (Nikon D800, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/1000 at f/8.0, 31mm, ISO 400)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: There is a river…

Chinook King Salmon Chignik River
There is a river…

T-shirt and jeans, belly down, bare elbows on scratchy, crazy-red carpet my mother had insisted on, chin propped in cupped hands, I pored yet again over one of the articles in the magazines my grandfather had given to me and that were permanently scattered across my bedroom floor. I had, once again, escaped… to a world barely touched, to wilderness rivers, large fish, peace, calm… quiet.

All of it was fascinating, enthralling to my young mind. It was only 50 years ago, but the world was a different place. Less explored. Less trammeled. Discovery on a grand scale was still  possible. And so whether I was reading for the fourth, fifth or 11th time an article about fishing for the exotic Mahseer of India, skittish Bonefish in the Bahamas, ginormous Northern Pike in a seldom seen Canadian lake or mammoth Striped Bass in the Massachusetts surf, I found myself absorbed in the mystery of possibility and promise.

Early in life, I joined a fraternity whose members’ first contact with Latin was the binomial Salmo salar – “Salmon leaper,” Atlantic Salmon. Back then, there were still lots of Atlantics in the Canadian maritime provinces. They thrived in rivers with magical names: Miramichi, Grand Cascapedia, Restigouche… Scenes brought to life by writers such as A. J. McClane and Lee Wulff.

At the same time, Pacific Coho and Chinook in staggering numbers ranged all the way from northern California to sub-Arctic Alaska. A guy with a car, gumption and gas money could explore the West Coast fishing on his own, following in the steps of legends like Zane Grey and Bill Schaadt. I’d show my dad the articles, the photos of big fish – bass, pike, muskies, salmon, all of it. He’d rattle his Pittsburgh Press newspaper with a shake, look up for a moment, and absently say something like “That looks interesting,” in the way people say something looks interesting when, in fact, they have little interest in it.

Years passed by. Years became decades. As time slipped away, so did the salmon fishing I’d read of. Dams, development, timbering practices, pollution, overfishing, salmon farming, hatcheries… The 70s, 80s, 90s and the first two decades of the 21st century have visited a thousand cuts on salmon and their rivers. Throughout the world, from the Pacific Northwest to the Gaspé Peninsula to Scotland, Norway and beyond, the fish have responded by retreating. As rivers with strong runs of salmon have been pared down, the water that remains generally falls into one of two categories: those accessible only through outfitters, lodge owners and guides; and those where you can expect to fish among a crowd.

Neither option holds much appeal beside the dreams of exploration, adventure and discovery inspired by copies of Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield read in boyhood.

It has been a long, winding, unpredictable path that has brought me to this river. Most days Barbra and I have the fishing to ourselves, save for bears, otters, seals and eagles. We know it is unlikely to last… But for now, we are here and there are fish and there is quiet and solitude and dreams and dreams come true. (Barbra made this lovely photo on August 24, 2020. Tackle: Orvis Helios II 8-weight, Galvan T-8, WF floating line, 10′ leader w/ 20lb tippet, Chartreuse Rocket Man #2. Nikon D800, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/640 at 7.1, 48mm, ISO 800)

 

Silver to Gold: October Fly-fishing on the Chignik

male Coho Salmon Chignik River Alaska

Sea-green shoulders gone to bronze, sliver flanks tinted rose – October on the Chignik

Chignik River Alaska

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.

Fireweed Cotton

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.

Salmon & Fall Reflection Chignik River Alaska

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.

female Coho Salmon Chignik River Alaska

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.

Coho Salmon in Fall Color Chignik River Alaska

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.

Coho Salmon Pink Popper Fly

Streamers are most effective, but small wet flies and even poppers take fish.

Fly Fishing Coho Salmon Chignik River Alaska

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.

Coho Salmon Dill Sauce Chignik River Alaska

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.

Fly Fishing Salmon Chignik River

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.

Devil's Flats Chignik River

*   Upriver   *