By Tom Watson
There was something intuitively inviting about the first pool at the second bend in the river. I stood at the edge of the grassy bank and scanned across its glossy black surface for the subtlest of signs that silvers were schooling within its depths. Seeing none but trusting that feeling that all anglers acquire, I whipped out a cast that sent my gold spinner/red bead combo arching high over the water. It broke the surface with a soft “kerplunk” and fluttered down out of sight.
A raised rod tip and a few cranks on my reel and I could feel the tug of the spinner as the lure began to rise slowly on the retrieve. In the instant the faint image of my glittering golden spinner came into view out of the black depths it was savagely intercepted by the glint of a chrome-sided silver. Quicker than the breaking of a shoelace the surface erupted as an ocean-fresh coho exploded skyward only a couple rod lengths out from the muddy embankment where I was standing. I immediately began what was to become a ten-minute contest with a feisty Afognak silver—a battle as graceful as a fencing match and as wild as a Filipino cock fight.
Within a few minutes of landing the first fish of the day, I looked up to see each of my buddies on the working end of arching rods. Each of us had found our own glory hole of returning salmon along the meandering stream that fed this particular bay on the west side of Afognak Island, the second largest island in the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska.
We had booked a week at a floating cabin in a sliver of a bay that faced Shelikof Strait, a tempestuous body of water in the northwestern region of the Gulf of Alaska. Any Alaskan can tell you horror stories of being caught in Shelikof, where it can go from flat calm to all-out sinister in minutes. We opted not to boat the six-plus hours from the city of Kodiak to our remote camp. The air taxi who owned the cabin offered a much safer, albeit more expensive, option for getting all of us and a week’s supply of gear and food to our destination.
Silvers tend to return to their home-water streams on Kodiak from August to September, peaking about the time summer turns to autumn. Since we had scheduled the cabin from the second to third week in September we felt confident that we’d easily limit out on silvers during our seven-day stay. Upon arriving at the cabin, we learned that the party ahead of us had to work hard to find fish during their week’s stay and had not even been able to come close to filling their wet boxes with fillets.
Undaunted, we scrambled to get ready to fish and within minutes of landing we were charging up to the head of the bay and the spawning stream that fed into it. We worked the bends and pools in the river for a couple of hours before deciding to return to our rustic, floating lodging. This particular bay experienced over 20-foot tidal fluctuations during extreme highs so we were eager to reach the deep-water channel even though our tide books reported meager 13-footers during this early part of our stay.
The cabin floated just offshore of an isthmus that connected the mainland to a rocky, spruce-covered island at the head of our bay. The narrow, alley-like passage from the mouth of the meandering river to the cabin was about one and one-half miles long down a thirty-yard-wide sliver of water flanked by a jagged, rocky bank supporting even steeper slopes covered in moss, devil’s club and tall, deep green Sitka spruce. Looking down the long, narrow bay at the cabin was like sighting down the dark barrel of a Kentucky long rifle.
Having the first encounter with silvers behind us, we could take a mental stock of the cabin we had flown into a few hours earlier. Moored to the shore just off a gravel isthmus at the mouth of the bay, the 16- x 20-foot cabin was build upon a floating raft about 22 feet wide and at least twice as long. The interior layout, while not stellar by any stretch of design features, was more than comfortable from a utility standpoint: three-burner gas cooking stove, a couple of open cabinets, large sink basin and a stretch of shelves under the counter that ran the entire length of the “kitchen.” A small oil-burning heater took up little space in an opposite corner. A long picnic table whose top served as the landing deck for anything flying loose in the cabin—pocket tackle boxes, packages of cookies, cameras, a small cache of liquor bottles, knives, lanterns—and still provided enough room for the four of us to sit down and eat.
Sleeping quarters split the rest of the cabin equally. Two L-shaped bunk platforms provided spacious sleeping platforms for four in each bedroom. Furnished with cushiony pads and supplemented by our own sleeping bags, they were quite comfortable.
The cornucopia of Alaska weather served to us each day made us appreciate the wide-open deck during brief bursts of sunshine. The roof, sturdy walls and heater were likewise treasured during the more frequent bouts of the cloudy, rainy, windy snotball weather we endured all those times it wasn’t sunny.
We had come to fish for silvers so our focus was to religiously examine the tide charts and develop a plan of attack to put in play as soon as the tide changed each day. Arriving too early and we’d have to either wait out the incoming tide or drag our 14-foot Lunds across several sand bars that were exposed at lower levels. Late departures merely meant we’d have less time to fish as we had to work our way farther upstream with every passing day and still beat the retreating tides that reduced the river’s mouth to a broad, tidal sand bar.
Part of our third day was spent scouting the surrounding bays, bights and shorelines of nearby Panamarof Bay. This Y-shaped bay opens onto Shelikof Strait but runs deep enough back into the coastal mountains to quickly diffuse whatever fury Shelikof might conjure up at its mouth. We explored several shorelines and bays for stream flowage and settled for a textbook stream towards the head of one arm of the Y.
Spent salmon carcasses, expansive fields of grass and the meandering freshwater stream had all the traits of classic bear country, including tracks in the shore mud and stone loaf-sized scat piles deposited squarely in the center of well-worn trails along the river banks. Even with scores of ocean-bright salmon glistening in a pool at the mouth of the stream we couldn’t coax them into striking roe clumps cured at the cabin the day before. Breaking free from three solid days of silver fishing we tried using old GPS waypoints from an earlier halibut trip one of the guys had been on but even with satellite coordination we couldn’t find any hungry ’buts, either. We resigned ourselves to pressing forward and working our salmon stream to its fullest. By the fifth day there was no other world than our meandering stream full of mostly elusive silvers.
Each day we pushed farther and farther upstream, into even shallower water than we trudged through during the last tide change. Even though Afognak is known around the world for its abundant elk herd, it’s still in the Kodiak Island chain, and as such carries its own healthy population of coastal brown bears. The previous guests warned us that a yearling bruin had poked around the shore-side mooring ropes at the cabin. During our second venture ashore upstream we had landed on a stretch of beach that clearly showed the imprints of a recent bear visitor. One night as I gazed lazily down the long, narrow slice of water stretching out from the deck of the cabin, I noticed an object situated midway between two protruding rock outcroppings that gave the channel a waistline—like a long, slender hourglass. The darkness began moving across the water. Since our two skiffs were secured at the dock and no one else was around, it was apparent that a brown bear the size of my VW Beetle was making a crossing—only about six hundred yards from our camp.
Most of our wildlife encounters were photo opportunities to capture close and personal images of myriad sea otters, seals and bald eagles. Each bay had a healthy population of each. I counted over 25 mature bald eagles in a 200-yard stretch of the estuary fed by the stream we fished. Still it was the population of coho that continued to be the most evasive during our week’s stay.
The final days of fishing were a combination of charging upstream and lining boats through the shallows to reach some of the upper pools we had not yet fished. Silvers were returning in such small numbers that once a half dozen silvers were pulled from a particular pool, it quit producing. I remember looking out across the expanse of tidal grass to see my friend, Ken, returning from a distant bend in the river. He was drooping at the shoulders as he lugged four large salmon, two in each hand, tails dragging across the matted down grass.
We pressed the stream hard right up to the last evening of our stay. Our bellies were full, we had gotten plenty of sleep and the two buddies from off island would at least go away with a couple ofcoolers full of well-earned salmon. Our processing line from filleting fish to zip-locking portions gave us a satisfying level of accomplishment each night. The choice of a fly-in trip meant we had the ability to bring a few luxuries along: an ample assortment of spirits, a few choice cigars and even a guitar my friend Ken insisted on including.
A trip out the road on Kodiak can be an adventure to someone outside the state. For homeboys and buddies sharing a floating cabin in the heart of silver salmon waters in a remote bay in the wilds of Kodiak it is a special adventure for residents and guests alike—even if you have to work at changing the fishin’ to catchin’!
# # #
Planning Your Own Trip:
Travel from Anchorage to Kodiak:
Era Aviation- www.flyera.com
Alaska Airlines – www.alaskaair.com
Floating Cabin Reservations and Air Service:
Sea Hawk Air/Rolan Rouse, Pilot/Owner – www.seahawkair.com
(Expect a 1-2 season backlog on reservations!)
Information on Services, Activities and Events in Kodiak:
Kodiak Island Convention & Visitors Bureau – www.kodiak.org
Fishing Information while in Kodiak
Mack’s Sport Shop – www.mackssportsshop.com