The Kings of Swing

The last time I fished Alaska’s Kanektok River, boot-foot neoprenes were all the rage and most anglers were chasing king salmon with one-handed rods. That was 1993; which seems like eons ago.

On my low-hanging flight from Bethel to Quinhagak, last week, it was comforting to re-visit a barren piece of tundra that hasn’t been overwhelmed by time and progress. The Bering Sea Coast is still an inhospitable place to eek out a living, and it appears that the locals are still catching salmon just as they always have: rickety boats, smoky outboards, setnets, and fish boxes.

The plan for this trip was to tag along with my friend Michael Gracie and shoot a ton of images for Alaska West. But, since we were fishing for kings, and because that ain’t a high numbers game, it became apparent that an additional line in the water might result in additional photos at week’s end. Darn the luck.

I started off with my trusty single-handed 10-weight, but it didn’t take me long to realize why everyone else in camp was fishing two-handers. They were swinging sinking lines and weighted flies through runs that I’d never reach, and those were the runs that held the majority of the salmon in play. At the end of the first day (while munching Advil like M&M’s) I sheepishly asked my guide if I could borrow one of his spey rods.

Now, I’m in no way claiming mastery of the two-handed game after only five days of fishing, but I did learn a few maneuvers that sometimes behaved like a spey cast, even though the trained observers in our group likened my efforts to an odd marriage of ribbon dancing and tree trimming. Results are what matter, though, and I’m proud to announce that I actually caught a king salmon on a swung fly, on a spey rod. Now I need to figure out how to justify the purchase of a 14-footer for my local redfish flats and bass ponds…

Alaska West is owned by Andrew Bennett of Deneki Outdoors. After visiting his sister lodge in the Bahamas, last spring, I was anxious to see if Andrew’s finely-tuned outfitting machine applied to two different fisheries that are worlds apart. It does, and they do, and you should visit both places.

Making a seasonal fish camp sprout from tundra each spring is a daunting process. Especially when that camp hosts 24 guests and a staff large enough to attend to their needs. There are a lot of moving parts, and myriad chances for snafu, but Andrew and his Deneki crew have learned over the years how to focus on the things that make their guests comfortable when it rains for five days straight (which it did) and the wind blows hard enough to peel off stocking caps (which it did). It all starts with warm dry tents, hot showers, and a place to hang wet gear where it will magically turn dry overnight. Stir in reliable boats and motors, a cheerful staff with a tireless work ethic, and meals that will keep your engine fueled, and you’ve got the makings of a great week in the Alaskan bush.

And the fish? Besides kings, we caught scads of rainbows, chum salmon, dolly varden; the occasional grayling, and a rare starry flounder that was apparently yawning (or laughing) when Gracie’s fly swung past.

Thanks to Michael, Andrew, and the entire Deneki crew for a great week of fishing and photography. If you’d like to see the entire shoot, please click here.

Adam Kryder guided us on the sunny day

Passing the torch: 11-year-old Charlie gets a spey lesson from Nick

Biggest rainbow of the week, on the gravel bar right in front of camp

Michael Gracie demonstrates the Two-Handed Contrail Parabola cast

Gracie and Ben getting close on a spey-caught king

Not the camp dog

Tidewater king

When chum salmon are shiny like this…

…give them to Dan and he’ll turn out smoked fillets that dash their reputation as marginal table fare

Do they get any prettier than this?

“Clang Clang!” goes the firetruck

Hawkeye tends his jet sled before the morning rush

Gracie and Jeff nabbing a rainbow

Walking trout

A slice of each and a small shovel, please

Kanektok dry fly

Ocean fresh

The Steak and Egg rig

Now get back to feeding. You’ve got two months until freeze-up

Final round of The 2013 Tundra Throwdown: Jordan Sly (USA) versus Geir Magne Johnsen (Norway). Film coverage to follow…

No baggage fees in Quinhagak…or security lines, or snippy gate agents, or $6 cookies…

2 Responses to “The Kings of Swing”

  1. […] you click through to his story, let me first set the record […]

  2. Nic Jepson says:

    Great summary of your trip that describes your trip perfectly. And of course superb photography. Thanks Tosh.

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