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In Humpy Heaven

Littlest salmon provides world-class fly fishing action

Posted: Sunday, August 07, 2005

"So how do you like Alaska so far, John?" My longtime friend curled a wide grin behind a magnificent set of silver whiskers, holding a bucking 8-weight bent deep under the weight of a determined salmon's runs.

"It's growing on me!"

Just beyond John Thompson, his long-suffering bride, Joyce, also was battling another salmon.

Before us, everywhere I looked, the little creek trickling toward Berners Bay was swarming with long, dark shapes - migrating salmon.

And there wasn't another fisherman in sight - except for an eagle perched in the hemlocks behind us, and a pair of harbor seals trolling the creek's mouth.

At Joyce's elbow, fly fishing guide Luke Woodruff was coaching her.

"Luke, is this as good as it gets!?" I hollered.

"Naw," he answered with a sly grin. "In a few weeks it will get better!"

•••

John and Joyce Thompson are dear friends I've known in Texas for a couple of decades. On this day they were well into their first week of a near-month vacation throughout the Great Land.

John was outdoor editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram throughout the '60s and '70s before opening his own business. He "retired" July 1, then promptly packed the bags and headed to Alaska for three weeks, the trip he'd been promising himself for 40 years.

And their timing was perfect for the action we were enjoying.

Early August is a little late for king salmon, a little early for silvers except trolling, but right at the peak of the spawning runs of pink salmon in Southeast Alaska.

Pink, or humpy, salmon are the most abundant of the five Pacific species, and also the smallest. While other species remain at sea for four to seven years, pinks are back to their birthplace creek to spawn in two years. Pinks average three to six pounds, with a whopper 10 pounds or more. They make up a huge portion of the commercial salmon fishery. But most pinks wind up in canned salmon or are shipped overseas, as most Alaskans favor king, silver or sockeye salmon for the freezer.

They are also aggressive fighters and feeders, quick to hit any bright-colored bait, especially pink flies. So you've got huge numbers of aggressive fish, in a size manageable on light tackle. Can you spell "great fly rod quarry"?

Although I often carry a 9-weight on the off-chance a hulking chum or silver will happen along, a 6- or 8-weight will handle almost any pink fishing situation. Since they are not leader shy, a 10-pound tippet is strong enough to muscle fish out of brushy creeks and let you land fish before they are exhausted. Although sea-bright pinks are entirely edible, they have less oil content than other salmon and hence are usually released in favor of other species.

True to their moniker, they're partial to any pink fly, although black is sometimes a good second choice. A combination of spare and heavier bead head pink streamers and egg-sucking leeches will handle almost any situation.

Pinks have another great attribute - accessibility. In Southeast Alaska, there are good runs of pinks on many easily accessible roadside streams in the Juneau area. Kowee Creek is the best-known of these. There are also huge numbers of pinks schooling along the beach at Echo Cove, north and south, from now through August.

Anglers willing to motor or fly to Admiralty or other nearby islands can find creeks choked with pinks and harassed only by bears, eagles and seals.

During John and Joyce's week in Juneau, we'd made a couple of quick sorties to Kowee Creek, at the end of the Juneau road system.

The creek runs for several twisting, tree-lined miles from saltwater.

On our first visit to the creek, John and Joyce fished close to the highway while I wandered down the trail, until a wide flat curve in the creek beckoned.

In the fast water, I knotted on a larger, heavier egg-sucking leech, bright pink. It dropped quickly in the water, bumped bottom for a few feet, then stopped. At the lift of the rod tip, a head-shaking pink surged against the rod.

It was the first of a dozen I caught from the gorgeous little pool, all within a 20-foot stretch.

Then I relented, realizing that my companions might not be finding as many fish. I sprinted back down the trail, to find John and Joyce still trying to catch their first fish on conventional tackle.

"Come down here with me and catch some of these fish," I offered.

They quickly gathered flyrods and followed me down the trail.

Back at our new favorite spot, I positioned Joyce and John at the head of the pool, where a dark swirl of pink salmon gathered beneath the dark gray-green water.

We didn't catch a pink on every cast. But darn close. And on light fly tackle, even a small pink salmon is a handful.

Many of these were bright just-out-of-saltwater fish, powerful and prone to jump. The bigger humpbacked males often would run downstream, demanding a rock-stumbling pursuit until they settled in slower water and eventually succumbed to the long rod.

We fished the creek two different times and caught 40 or 50 pinks each time in just a couple of hours.

•••

Now back to the morning at the beginning of this story. We'd driven to the end of the Juneau road, launched Luke's skiff at Echo Cove and cruised some distance into gorgeous Berners Bay.

Luke Woodruff is Juneau born-and-raised and has been guiding fishermen here for the past eight years, the last few strictly for fly fishermen.

After a quick run up the bay, he nosed the skiff into the shoreline near a rushing creek.

It was still near low tide, and the mouth of the creek, where it dumped into the bay, was rippling with salmon porpoising through the surface. Luke gave John and Joyce a quick fly casting refresher course, while I waded to the mouth of the creek.

On my second cast, a bright 4-pound pink, sleek as a rainbow trout, slammed the spare pink streamer and tore yards of line off the fly reel before I could bring it under control. It was the first of a half dozen I'd hook and land before my companions waded alongside me.

The next four hours were the most incredible fly fishing day of my life. As the flooding tide filled the creek, we waded further and further upstream, keeping pace with hundreds of pinks, swarming up the clear water.

The flooding saltwater was murky and offered few strikes. But staying ahead of the off-color water, we could spot and cast to and quickly hook the salmon, often watching them turn, chase and inhale the pink bead head streamers.

On many occasions all three of us were hooked up at the same time. Many of the pinks uncharacteristically jumped again and again, and all fought like green, pink and silver tigers.

We could have caught fish until dark, but when Luke headed out to retrieve the boat at mid-afternoon, we were all worn out from catching fish, and ready for a bite of lunch and a cold drink.

"Sorry we couldn't get you to the good spot," I said sadly.

They just grinned.

• Call Luke Woodruff at Sea Runner Guide Service for information on fly fishing near Juneau, through Juneau Flyfishing Goods, 907-586-3754 or e-mail flyfishing@alaska.com.

• Lee Leschper is an award-winning outdoor writer who now lives in Juneau and is the regional advertising director for Morris Communications Alaska. E-mail him at lee.leschper@juneauempire.com.



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