Updated: May 6, 2020
Dark, humpbacked shadows darted around my wading boots as I made my way upstream through Bird Creek near Anchorage, Alaska. The tide was due to rise a few hours, which would make this lower stretch more difficult to fish, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I had dreamed of catching salmon in Alaska on my own terms, without a guide, and with a fly rod and that dream was about to be realized.
Bird Creek is a small, cold stream about 30 minutes from Anchorage on the Seward Highway. Only the first few hundred yards are open to public fishing, and when the salmon are running, the crowds can be thick. In July, I had visited Anchorage for work and had carved out a few hours one morning to fish the Little Susitna River. The kings were nearly done running and could not be targeted, though a few of their maroon bodies could be seen here and there weaving through rocks. The silvers had not quite arrived, so I found myself catching chum salmon with a guide and three other fishermen in a boat. While chums may not taste as great as their more popular cousins, I enjoyed my time on the river catching salmon after salmon on spinning gear. It was my first time catching anadromous salmon, and I caught the salmon bug in a bad way.
Five species of salmon run in Alaska, and they all have at least two names. King salmon, also known as chinook, are among the most sought after given their genetics to grow to incredible sizes. Forty pounds is considered a respectable fish, but they can grow to double that size or more in some rivers. Silver salmon, also known as the coho, are known for their acrobatics and tendency to chase flies. Sockeye salmon, also known as reds, are smaller, but very good to eat and boast a bright red body with a dark green head. Chum salmon, also known as dog salmon, are not prized for their eating. Many Alaskans catch them to use as dog food. They are fierce fighters and from my unsophisticated pallet, I think they taste fine with lemon and seasonings. Lastly, there is the pink salmon, also known as the humpy, due to the distinctive hump on its purple back which develops as it begins its journey to spawn.
A month later in August, I was back in Anchorage for work again, and this time I packed my fly rod and bought a few Dolly Lama patterned flies, mostly in pink and purple. The silvers were running and I was determined to catch at least one. Over the years I had heard about Alaska’s famous combat fishing streams, and I was soon to experience one first hand. I settled on Bird Creek, partly because it was close to Anchorage and partly because it seemed to be one of the less crowded streams, perhaps more a skirmish and less full combat fishing.
I parked my car and paid the parking fee, geared up, and strolled down to the bridge to look at the water. Bird Creek is narrower and shallower than many of the streams I fish in eastern Idaho where I call home. In fact, it reminded me more of high mountain trout streams, full of rocks and boulders with tall green grass along the shore bordered by towering, shady pines. Fishermen dotted both shorelines, but there was ample room for me on either side. Most fishermen were working the stream with spoons and spinning tackle, though several flyfishermen were also plying the water with large, colorful streamers.
I walked down to my left and began working my way upstream. This would be a lot different than my trip on the Little Su where I had a guide motor me up and down that river. This trip was 100 percent DIY, and I had never tried catching salmon on the fly. I hugged the steep, muddy bank and paused occasionally to watch how other anglers were casting and catching. Without warning, claw marks appeared in the mud in front of my feet, a good reminder that bears also love to use this stream as much as the humans.
I stripped out several feet of 8 weight line and cast across the current, letting my pink Dolly Lama sweep through the current until it was directly downstream of my position. I repeated these casts countless times with no luck, frustrated by the lack of success during the first hour. Looking down by my wading boots, I could see pink salmon everywhere, their humped backs slicing through the water as they made their way upstream following the innate urge to lay their eggs. Anglers across the stream from me were catching them, laughing at how easy it was. What was I doing wrong? I watched my fly again as it worked its way across the stream and noticed that it consistently passed over the dorsal fins of the salmon. I needed to add weight to get the fly right in their faces.
Minutes later, with weight added about 12 inches above my fly, I cast again and almost immediately hooked into my first pink humpy. For the next couple of hours, I caught humpy after humpy, reveling in my new found success. I’ve long believed over my decades of fishing that every body of water has a secret tactic which makes anglers successful, and I now felt I had unlocked the secret to Bird Creek.
As the afternoon wore on, I worked my way upstream. The tide was due to come in soon and I wanted to be in a better position as the water level would begin rising. Those familiar with Alaska and other northern latitudes know that tides can be very large, and 20-30-foot tides are very common in Turnagain Arm where Bird Creek is located. Slowly, I began to notice the roar of the water tumbling over the rocks in the stream subsiding. As I looked downstream, I could see the tide coming in, filling the muddy channel with its brackish water. This was the moment I had been waiting for as I had read that the silvers typically like to ride the tide in.
Most of the anglers below my position had already either left or moved to a new spot upstream. I stood opposite a large boulder with anglers on either side of me. A young boy and his father had found the prime wading spot where he was able to toss his hook into the current and catch a countless number of salmon, most of which he released. The hole was deep and I added more weight to get my fly down deeper, faster. I pulled several chum and pink salmon out of the hole, but no silvers. As the tide rose, the current seemed to slow around me. I was now thigh deep in the water and could see salmon rising, almost like a trout sipping dry flies. It was time for me to change out my fly.
As a boy growing up in Ohio, I fished for bass and really loved catching them with a top water plug. The night before in my hotel room, I had watched several videos of flyfishermen in Alaska tossing hot pink flies shaped like top water plugs with long pink tails. I tied one of these flies on and cast it out into the slow current. The sound of rushing water was now replaced by the chatter of other anglers searching the depths for a legal silver salmon or two. I worked the plug across the surface, waiting expectantly for a silver to come and take the fly. After several casts, a shadow arose from the depths and slowly swam behind the fly. Unlike a bass which smashes a top water plug violently, the salmon reminded me more of a pike on the hunt. After what felt like an eternity, the silver opened its mouth and took the fly, very gently. I set the hook and immediately felt the weight of the fish. It tried in vain to throw the fly, giving me a thrilling fight on a fly rod, but eventually it succumbed to the net. With trembling hands and a grateful heart, I unhooked my first silver salmon. A second silver soon followed as my hungry stomach and stack of emails forced me off the creek.
I followed a trail through the forest on my way back to my rental car, grateful to have spent the late afternoon pursuing a dream I had long had. So often I had imagined casting a fly for salmon in Alaska, but always assuming it would require a float plane, guide and remote lodge to do so. Instead I had enjoyed one of my best days of fishing less than an hour from my hotel, fishing on my own terms and soaking up the beauty of Alaska. As I drove the Old Seward Highway back to my hotel, I marveled that this fishery is available to anyone with a wandering spirit and desire to unhook wild salmon until their hands hurt.