Silver Riches of the Tsiu River
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
The staccato pelting of wind-driven rain was impossible to ignore and wild storms like this one offered no mute buttons.
"So this is Alaska," I mused against the storm's noise while stripping a section of floating fly line from the reel attached to my Orvis eight-weight rod.
With the early morning monsoon pounding down upon our position on the Tsiu (Sigh-you) River, I burrowed deep into my rain jacket and Simms waders and put the fly line into the air.
Storm or no storm, I was here to fish.
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Thankfully, it wouldn’t take long before I was hooked up with my first fish of the day, one of Alaska’s famed late summer and early autumn migrators, the silver salmon.
After the fish – a seven-pound female hen heading for last rites and the specie's mysterious spawning grounds – was brought to hand, I wondered out loud about getting a picture.
After all, this was my first ever Alaskan silver – or Coho, as some call them - caught on the fly.
“Nope,” said Chris De Los Santos, a Houston fly shop operator and the annual salmon season head fishing guide for Charles Allen’s superb Alaska Expedition Company (www.alaskaexpedition.com).
“Trust me,” he added. “That’s not really a big one. This is Alaska my friend. Even with this rain, you’ll have plenty more opportunities at even bigger fish.”
Choosing to obey rule number one of a successful outdoors adventure – always listening to your guide’s sage advice – I let the fish slip from my fingers back into the dark, cool water.
With a slap of its tail, the silver departed upstream and I stood up to get the fly line airborne again.
A double-haul later, my next search for a wild salmon coming back home to Alaska was underway. And as before, it wouldn’t take long before the gaudy fly found resistance out in the current.
True to De Los Santos’ prediction, the second one was bigger. Bigger to the tune of 10 pounds of hard fighting muscle fresh from the Pacific Ocean, a salmon that against the odds, had made its way back to its ancestral spawning grounds to complete the specie’s unique life cycle.
With this Coho at hand, my new found friend and guide finally relented and allowed me to dig the Nikon out of the recesses of the dry-box for a photo.
As it turns out, that would be the first of numerous “grip-and-grin” shots, the cheesy kind where yours truly sported a goofy grin after landing yet another big Alaskan-size fish on the fly.
Despite the unrelenting rain that continued to beat against us – thanks to a pesky Gulf of Alaska low-pressure system crawling through the region – I couldn't help but smile.
While thinking of my dad, who more than four decades earlier had enjoyed parts of the Alaskan wild thanks to Uncle Sam stationing him in Fairbanks for a military tour of duty.
Dad didn't get to do much fishing while he was stationed at the Army barracks of Fort Wainwright in the early 1960s, but he did get outdoors enough to fall in love with the nation's 49th state.
Years later, hearing his tales of Army life and of the Alaskan terrain was all that was necessary to cause big dreams to be born within the heart of a young son. Wild dreams that grew, or so it seemed, with the arrival of each outdoor magazine that appeared in our mailbox.
As I flipped wide-eyed through the pages of the latest outdoor rag, numerous pictures of giant rainbow trout, migrating salmon and moose, caribou and other big critters worked to fuel my youthful dreams.
And somehow put myself within those pictures. Finally, as a forty-something dad of my own, here I was, living out my childhood dreams.
Except that so far, there was very little sun, midnight or otherwise, in this wild spot situated a couple of airborne hours to the east of Cordova.
At least the salmon didn’t seem to mind. How could they; they were already wet.
As the week progressed, rain or shine, windy gales or flat calm, the Tsiu River slowly churned on its journey toward the nearby Gulf of Alaska.
All the while as consistent migratory runs of silver salmon – 8-pounders, 10-pounders, 12-pounders, and even a few in the 15-pound or better range – all pushed upstream against the current. Past a wall of waiting seals positioned just beyond the pounding, chilly surf lying at the mouth of the river. And past the form of a damp Texas angler all smiles as he lived out the angling adventure of a lifetime.
A few days later, lost somewhere in my train of thought about all that I was experiencing here in God’s wildest North American playground, I felt a sudden and fierce jolt at the end of the fly line.
The gaudy Pacific Rim salmon fly – tied by my East Texas fly fishing guide friend Rob Woodruff – had proven to be too tempting a sight for a big hook-jawed male moving upriver.
When I strip-set the hook into the maw of this aquatic journeyman, there was instant heavy resistance at the other end, strength unlike any that I had experienced thus far on the Tsiu.
The big silver, which would later push the Boga Grip scale past the 12-pound mark, began stripping line off my reel at an alarming rate, causing me to wonder if this was a winnable fight.
For the better part of 20 minutes, a seesaw battle occurred on the Alaskan river as the Coho tried to see just how deep into the fly reel's backing that he could go.
All the while as I tried to see how steadily I could gain that lost line back onto the big reel without putting too much pressure on a tippet that was already being strained in the direction of its breaking point.
Finally, after one of the longest and most memorable fishing battles of my lifetime, most of the lime-green fly line had begrudgingly made its way back onto the reel.
With most of the line in hand and the leader almost within reach, I finally began to believe that this fight would be won. And that’s when I saw the big fish swirl, an angling sight that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
As De Los Santos grabbed the fish's tail and scooped up the heavy buck with his other hand, the sight of this huge silver responding to the DNA urges swimming within its piscatorial genes brought an even bigger smile to my face.
Not to mention giving me another reason to pause. Because my guide had indeed been right, that there would be plenty more fish during this memorable week. And plenty more big fish too.
Along with a few tackle-busters that would do their best to test the limits of my angling skills, some through battles that I would win and others that the fish – a handful weighing into the mid and upper teens – would eventually win.
Because this was wild Alaska, a place where the fishing dreams of a lifetime can – and usually do – come true.
Especially those dreams planted deep within the heart of a youngster sitting next to his dad, listening to tales spun about a wild and mysterious land that seemed far, far away.
Until now, that is.