Dog salmon (chum salmon) are terrific fighters on a fly rod.

Maybe it’s the nickname “dog” salmon, purportedly because natives felt chum salmon were not as tasty as the other species and just tossed the carcass to their sled dogs that put chum salmon low on the commercial market scale.  But now anglers are finding that chum can be a terrific fighter on the end of a fishing line.

Runs of salmon species swimming up the river from Bristol Bay past the Alagnak Lodge vary according to the time of the year. Last year my wife Judy and I and our two good friends, Glen and his wife Jackie, fished the Alagnak River at the end of August when silver (coho) salmon were running along with pink (humpback) and a few chum (dog) salmon. It was a great introduction for us to fly fish for three different species and we scored on all counts. This year we opted to try the last week in July, which according to the guide books, would put us in the middle of the massive chum salmon run.

We were now familiar with float plane trip to Alagnak Lodge and the routine. This time the ladies were delighted to find that the lodge had added a retired “scratch” baker to the kitchen staff. This was a rare individual who could take a sack of flour, some eggs, a dash of yeast, etc. and create delectable bread, cinnamon rolls, pastries, Danish and incredible desserts to die for. And his fresh baked goods were just one small addition to the bountiful entrées including tempura halibut, king crab legs, carved roast beef, jumbo shrimp, etc. Listing the week’s menu would just make a reader hungry. Forget diets at Alagnak Lodge.

doggone-it-3.pngUnloading the Float Plane at the Alagnak Lodge dock. © F.J. Fraikor

The daily routine was the same.  Breakfast at 6 am sharp, crawl into your waders over your layered clothing and then slog the famous 48 steps down to the dock where our two guides and the boats were waiting. Glen and Jackie had Michael, a young but experienced Alaskan guide, while Judy and I shared Robby, a southern gentleman and an experienced guide originally from the Florida Keys.

A short boat ride downriver on a cloudy, chilly morning took us to a wide sandbank where Robby and Michael anchored the boats and got our fly rods ready for action.  This year was essentially the same system. Robby tied on a pink tube fly with a dash of Krystal Flash at the tail, added a little split shot for added weight on a sinking leader and then handed Judy and me our fly rods. We were all fishing for chum salmon now but with the same 8 and 9 weight rods that we had successfully used last year on silvers so we confidently waded out on the sandy bottom, four across, about twenty feet apart to a point where the silty water was knee deep. The procedure was the same as it was the year before: cast the weighted pink fly across or slightly upstream, let it dead drift or strip as it swung back with the current and strip or jig the fly at the end of the drift because we learned last year that many of the strikes came with the line straightened at the end of the cast.

doggone-it-2.pngAlaskan Brown Bear on the Alagnak River bank watching wading fly fisherman.
© F.J. Fraikor

Glen and Jackie hooked almost immediately into salmon. But when Judy yelled “Fish On” I thought to myself, “I taught this woman to fly fish when we were dating and now she hammers me when we fish. And keeps score too.”  I watched her 8 wt. 7-piece Orvis travel rod bend dangerously close to a “U” shape until Robby grabbed the leader and released a nice hen chum salmon. Then I finally felt a tug on my line. Cool. My first chum salmon was hooked. I pretty much thought it would be the same experience as last year based on the only two chum salmon I landed that first trip. The two chum were certainly fun to land but weren’t the spectacular leapers and shakers like the silvers. So I put my thumb and finger on the little plastic black handle on my Ross Reel and began to reel in this fish in for a quick photo.

That’s when Hell cracked open underneath the river and Beelzebub rose from Hades and torched my leader. The water around the hooked chum boiled, the line moved at hyper velocity from my 3 o’clock to high noon and the spinning reel handle beat my knuckles to a bloody pulp at the same speed. These weren’t the tired, worn upriver chum of last year; these were bright salmon fresh from the sea only 5 miles away. And each one was absolutely determined to swim undaunted upstream for sex and death. The Fly Fisher’s Guide to Alaska notes that “pound for pound chum salmon could well be the hardest fighting of the five salmon species.”  At that singular moment, I became a devout believer.

As the morning progressed it seemed that each hooked fish used its own individual technique to toss our barbless hooks. One would stick to submarine tactics, dive deep, plow forward against a full drag on the reel and pit bull upstream. Another would be a leaper, one even “tail walked like a tarpon at Biscayne Bay” as Robby described it. All of them though, at one point or another would churn and roll over in an attempt to pull that barbless hook from its jaw and often succeeded with that ploy. I figured I had a 60% success rate that first morning in getting a fish close enough for the guide to grab the leader and lead the fish to a quick release. Robby had his homemade hook release gadget, a simple wire hook with a wooden handle. A flick of his wrist and the chum was deftly off my hook and heading back upstream.

Several times that extraordinary morning all four rods were bent with tight lines,- a “double-double” that sent the guides in a Chinese Fire Drill running in the water between us trying to quick release fish. Even Judy lost count, but certainly 40 salmon in the 10 to 15 lb. range for both of us were at least hooked and fought. My bet is that Jackie and Glen did even better. When we finally crawled back into the boat for lunch it was with smiles that said “It can’t get any better than this can it?” Ditto for the afternoon session.

Typical chum salmon caught and released on the Alagnak River above Bristol Bay.
© F.J. Fraikor

On Thursday afternoon with skies clearing and hope rising for a fly out the next day, Robby took Judy and me back to the downriver sand bar to conquer more chum salmon. As we beached the boat, Robby pointed out moving waves of chum salmon very close to shore so we started wading only ankle deep and began casting with success. By late afternoon, Judy was taking a break and I was about to give up with a sore arm when I got a hookup simply resting the fly below me in the current. It rolled over, then jumped out of the water high enough that Robby saw it was a good size chum, maybe the best of the day. So I worked the fish trying to keep its head up and turning it from side to side hoping to wear it out and reel it close enough for the guide to grab the leader. By this time we knew that if a salmon spotted a guide or his shadow wading to the leader, it would instinctively make a strong burst away from the menacing predator. Judy aptly nick named Robby “The Bear” from this instinctive fish response but you became accustomed to that and just let the salmon run against a full drag and hoped the barbless hook would hold.

Ah, but this critter must have been a rodeo rider back in the ocean because as Robby reached for the line, instead of the usual run away from The Bear, this salmon cut between us and then  slashed a 360 degree circle behind and around me. For a split second I thought I might be turned into a Maypole with a yellow ribbon of 9wt. fly line wound around my body. Somehow with my boots stuck in river sand, I managed to whip the fly rod over and around my head while the big salmon tore completely around me, put its head down two feet in front of my wading boots and then barreled straight for the bank on the other side of the river

At that point I lost every firing neuron in my old feeble brain. Instead of letting this heavyweight run I jammed the fighting butt of my rod into my gut determined to stop this blanket- blank fish and in a moment of sheer stupidity I reached up and grabbed the middle of the rod for more leverage. Dumb, dumb and dumber. Now, instead of the stress running down as designed by Orvis to the thick butt section of the graphite, the force was suddenly concentrated in a much thinner section of tubular graphite. Oh yeah…..snap! My 7-piece travel rod became a seven and a half piece stick. Professor Glen, who retired from a successful career of doing failure analysis on materials, could only chuckle when I displayed the classic fracture over a big glass of wine at the lodge. But no matter, Orvis could repair the rod and we would be using our 6 wt. rods anyway for arctic char on the fly out the next day. (And of course I’m not above turning my idiocy into a fish story to my grandkids. “Yep, son, that monster fish was sooo big and sooo heavy it just bent my rod and broke it into little pieces!”)

doggone-it.pngMr. Bear decided to grab his own dog salmon lunch. © F.J. Fraikor