Welcome To The Chocolate Factory

The silver salmon off Kodiak Island are so bountiful that anglers are in seventh heaven—and close by hell
September 16, 1984

Over the Shelikof Strait the morning sky had the iridescent sheen of the shell of a freshly shucked oyster, steel gray suffused with pink and blue lights that took fire on the snows of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and on Mount Katmai, a 6,700-foot-high volcano 45 miles away on mainland Alaska.

The sea was an oyster shell, too, blue with rose highlights, calm, barely moving until it broke lazily against the monolithic cliff of Tanglefoot, stirring the kelp, pushing by Mary's Creek until the water swirling out of the Karluk River checked and roiled it. This was slack tide, with the water as idle as the fur seals riding the little swells, immobile as the three bald eagles settled on a stony spit in the river.

The Karluk itself, on the west coast of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, looked barren: empty, translucent water slid fast over gray stones until it met the Shelikof in an acre or two of confused chop. On a ridge above, I watched the water for a sign that the ocean was starting to bully its way in again. The seals had vanished, the eagles taken to the air before my senses picked up the change and the daily miracle that would come with it, foreshadowed now by a fretting of the calm water and the silver reflections in it. like the sun catching the shields of an ancient army's vanguard.

And now. though this is my seventh morning on the Karluk, the fly rod shakes in my hand as I scramble up the loose pebbles to watch the army that's surging into the Karluk's mouth—the day's new wave of coho salmon streams out of the Pacific on the turn of the tide, thousands of bright-struck fish leaping, cavorting like circus clowns.

Stripping line as I go, slithering down the stones, I wade clumsily out into the river, launch the garish green and purple streamer fly, flashy with tinsel, into the thick of them. My right hand, gripping the rod butt, is wrapped with half a dozen Band-Aids covering cuts of a week's worth of salmon battles. The past seven days have seen this fly rod bend into more than 100 cohos. Still, I tremble. I am in the finest salmon river in the world, no matter what the people in the rustic lodges along Canada's Restigouche or the tweedy inns on Scotland's Tay or Spey or Dee might think. The Karluk is salmon fishing as known in heaven.

The great fly-fisherman G.E.M. Skues, father of modern nymph fishing, once unbent enough to write a little fiction concerning the late Mr. Castwell, a somewhat bumptious dry-fly purist who, as he thought, had ended up in heaven and been provided with a perfect streamside cottage, the finest tackle and an attendant water keeper. And perfect trout fishing, it seemed, until Mr. Castwell began to grow uneasy after catching fish after splendid fish from the same spot. Skues concluded his tale with this bit of dialogue:

"How long is this confounded rise going to last?" inquired Mr. Castwell. "I suppose it will stop soon?"

"No, sir," said the keeper.

"What, isn't there a slack hour in the afternoon?"

"No afternoon, sir."

"What? Then what about the evening rise?"

"No evening rise, sir," said the keeper.

"Well, I shall knock off now. I must have had about 30 brace from that corner."

"Beg pardon, sir, but his Holiness would not like that."

"What," said Mr. Castwell. "Mayn't I even stop at night? "

"No night here, sir," said the keeper.

"Then do you mean I have to go on catching these damned 2½-pounders at this corner for ever and ever? "

The keeper nodded.

"Hell!" said Mr. Castwell.

"Yes," said his keeper.

Mr. Castwell's hell, though, was confinement to a corner. There was no infinite variety of flies, of techniques, of locations, as there was on the Karluk. Nevertheless, the reports of the spectacular fishing on the Karluk over the past year or two had seemed to suggest a kind of drawback that might best be summarized as the Chocolate Factory Syndrome. It's said that chocolate factories have no pilfering problem because employees are free to eat all they want. After a couple of days few of them retain a taste for sweets. Could salmon, then, turn out to be like chocolate? Was it possible to fish until success became satiety?

Journeying to Alaska in midsummer, that seemed unlikely. No fishing could be that good. There would be someone, you could bet your chest waders, who'd greet you at camp with such time-honored words as, "You should have been here last week." And, indeed, during a stopover at Anchorage, there came a foretaste of such a put-down.

That was in Northwest Outfitter's, the city's major tackle store, aglitter with trays of salmon flies. The salesclerk was confidently buoyant about the patterns as such men always are—the Polar Shrimps, the Skykomish Sunrises, the Bosses, the Skunks. "Figure on one fly for every hour you fish," he said alarmingly, scooping up a dozen Purple Fishairs with Mylar. "You'll want a box for all these and..."

"Did you hear how the silvers are running?" I interrupted him—cohos are often called silvers.

"And you'll need something in green and orange," he said.

The silvers, he was reminded. "Uh, I didn't get word yet," he said offhandedly.

From a tackle salesman, this was the equivalent of a cynical laugh, an indication that the fish were still offshore. I got the same message at the departure lounge for Kodiak, where people were lugging rod cases around as they do garment bags in other airports. "Early for silvers," a rod-bearer said to me. "Where are you heading?" I told him the Karluk. He'd never heard of it.

I needn't have worried. The next morning, 45 minutes after the light airplane headed out of Kodiak, over Womens Bay and across the hills and tundra, I looked down onto the thread of the Karluk as it broadened into a lagoon, down onto fish erupting everywhere on its placid surface. Hello, chocolate factory, I said to myself as we landed.

And a factory, it turned out, where there was no need to report for work unconscionably early. The lagoon fish, well, they were sort of semipermanent residents, said Robin Sikes, the elderly Alaskan (elderly at 28, that's to say, in a state where 26 is the median age) who greeted the group of which I was now one. Better to breakfast at leisure, wait for fresh fish to run in from the sea on the tide and enjoy the balmy summer's morning with the temperature in the 60°s.

So there was time to make acquaintance with the other anglers in my charter: Drs. Hamada, Habu, Hatasaka and Inouye and Mr. Okazaki, all Japanese-Americans, all from northern California, all but one dentists; more California dentists, Drs. Cosca, Wagner and Angel, with his son Jacob; and the odd men out, Mr. Channing, a physical therapist, once a trainer with the 49ers, Mr. Sopwith from his Sacramento rice farm, and Mr. Lindner and Mr. Miley, retirees.

Later they would become Teds, Stans and Leos, et al. Now, as they assembled their gear on the grassy slope in front of the lodge, they divided neatly into two groups—the fly-fishers and the men with, well, the hardware, the spinning gear, the heavy spoons. I was no fishing snob, I told myself, but I knew which group I would go to if it came to an emergency root canal job during the week.

We strolled down to the river together to clock in. Salmon were breaking everywhere in the lower pools, and before I'd even made a first cast I could see one of the spin fishermen with his rod bent into a fish. I took my time, made a short throw or two to get the feel of a new graphite rod, then put out a long cast at the classic angle, across and downstream. The Skykomish Sunrise must have swung by a whole school of leaping fish.

An hour later the silvers were still passing it by, as they had the Purple Fishair I substituted later, and later again the Polar Shrimp. There was a moving belt of salmon, but I hadn't sampled one; nor, so far as I could judge, had the other fly-fishermen. Mortifyingly, the spinning rods were enjoying heavy action. Jacob, 11 years old, was just about keeping his foothold on the pebble bank as a thick-bodied silver, 15 pounds maybe, tried surging for the volcanoes on the far side of the strait.

When it was clear the run had ended for the morning, I walked back with Jacob to the lodge.

"He was kind of big," Jacob said. "I couldn't reel him in. I thought he was going to win."

"Oh, really," I said.

"I was kind of relieved when I had him on the shore."

"Oh, you landed him, then," I said.

"I wanted to keep him," said Jacob. "Very much. But, see, there's an Eskimo legend that if you kiss the first fish you catch and then you throw it back, it tells its buddies and you can catch more fish."

"And did you kiss it?" I asked Jacob.

"Yeah," he said.

I told him that was terrific as I glanced at the fat spoon now clipped to the keeper-ring on his spinning rod. I tried to smile, but I'm fairly certain it came out like one of those tortured Humphrey Bogart grimaces.

Sikes had said there was a good chance of taking salmon that afternoon in the big lagoon higher up on the Karluk, but the prospect of blind casting into the deep holes up there was unappealing to one nurtured in the white turbulence of northern Atlantic rivers. So I hiked yet farther upstream where the Karluk became a river again.

And a different river, the obverse of the tidal water downstream through which the bright battalions of cohos from the sea had poured in the morning. This was a battlefield in its hideous aftermath. Salmon, dead and dying, leprously white, patchworked in virulent yellows and reds, lolled and drifted in the slack water close to the banks. Fish, sock-eyes and humpbacks, that had spawned and were now spent, finished. And hanging on the flanks of this broken salmon army were river guerrillas, Dolly Varden char, pink flecked on their sides, predacious, vicious-hitting, in character absurdly unlike Dickens's delicate heroine of Barnaby Rudge, for whose pink-spotted gown the species is named. They gobbled now on the profusion of ripe salmon eggs that dribbled from the stony redds, as four weeks later they would gobble salmon fry. They gobbled also any small bright fly I threw at them, like Mr. Castwell's trout, two-and three-pounders hitting on every cast. I had released maybe 30 of them, and I was ready to admit that this wasn't even a chocolate factory. It was a peanut farm.

That evening after supper there were no dentists to be seen, for a seminar was in progress. In businesslike style they had chosen the Karluk River for a convention. Left in the clubroom, among a few others, was a gentle-featured man of 65, Bob Miley from Red Bluff, Calif., a retired telephone company repairman, who said he had saved for two years for this trip. Now he was hunched over a vise in a corner, under a reading lamp, tying flies, notwithstanding the fact that he'd brought 200 or so with him.

It was a mild emollient to one's self-esteem to discover that Miley, almost 50 years a fly-fisherman, had also found the Karluk no chocolate factory, at least on the first day. "What are we doing wrong?" I asked him.

Miley gave his answer some thought. "Don't believe it's the pattern," he said. "Just tying these 'cause I like tying flies." He thought again. "We've got to go deeper," he said. "Those fish we're casting to, the ones leaping and slashing on top? They're not the hitters. Hitting fish are underneath. Those men got 'em on heavy spoons, right? We got to get our flies scratching the bottom. Reckon that's the way they want it."

What I'd been doing, what we'd been doing, was fishing conventionally downstream, forgetting that the cohos and the mighty chinook salmon of the Pacific were a different kettle offish from Atlantics. At this moment I couldn't help feeling nostalgia for the fish of that other ocean, the ones the Romans, in admiration, had named salar, the leaper. "Trouble is," I said, suddenly, petulantly and illogically, "these damn silvers have no history."

Robin Sikes overheard me and said, "Come with me a minute."

This August evening there was light to spare. We walked away from the lodge to a steep earth bank. He took out a knife and started to probe at its side. Soon he had worked free a small, smooth oval stone, flat with a broad groove at each end. He handed it to me.

"Fishing equipment," Sikes said. "A sinker—6,000 years old maybe." He pointed at the cutaway bank. "See the layers?" he asked. "That's a kitchen midden. We had five anthropologists up here this summer from Bryn Mawr. They found slate knives, axheads and sinkers. They reckoned the early people, the Koniags, moved in here right after the first glaciers had gone through, found the big fish run and stayed." Sikes took some string from his pocket and hitched it around the stone. A sinker, self-evidently. "No history?" he asked. "Man, this has been one of the hottest fishing areas in the entire world for hundreds of years now."

Thousands, more precisely. Sikes warmed to his lecture. The native people had had it to themselves, he said, for most of those 6,000 years, until the Russians came in the 18th century, pushing the empire forged by Peter the Great to its ultimate eastern frontier. In particular, it was Alexander Baranov who first swashbuckled onto Kodiak Island and the Karluk, seeking furbearing sea otters. What he found was perhaps the mightiest salmon run in the world—chinooks, sockeyes, humpbacks (pink salmon), dogs (chum salmon) and cohos—that lasted from May until September. "There must have been 20 million fish moving into the river," said Sikes. "And there were no laws."

Massacring many of the Koniags as a prologue, the Russians salted salmon in barrels, then, shipped them west. Later they were joined by free-booting Americans, and then came two events that almost destroyed the most prolific salmon resource on earth. The canning process was invented in the 1790s, and in 1867 the U.S. purchased Alaska.

When that purchase became known, men fought with crowbars on the spit across the Karluk River, for favored netting locations. "At the peak, in the 1890s," Sikes said, "there were seven canneries working at the mouth of the river, and they shipped in around 5,000 Chinese laborers, paid them something like $125 for working the entire summer, five months of hard labor, 18 hours a day, six days a week. The beach gangs would stretch the nets across the river and when one was full they'd set another. All day long, for five months. They threw away the humpbacks. For the sockeyes, the reds, they got a penny a fish. They'd catch so many the canneries would clog."

Later I would read in a report on Alaskan fisheries published in 1899 by the Government Printing Office in Washington, "The waters surrounding the outlet to the Karluk Lagoon are probably the most remarkable in salmon production in Alaska, not only in numbers but the length of the run."

It couldn't last: The real miracle was that it continued as long as it did. But 1901 saw the last huge harvest, four million sockeye. By then the demeaningly named Iron Chink was in operation, a machine that automated the gutting process, making many laborers redundant. It only enhanced the dramatic decline. "Boomtown to ghost town in 50 years," Sikes said of Karluk. The White Act of 1924, one of the first federal laws to concern freshwater fisheries in this country, was enacted specifically to protect the Karluk and other Kodiak rivers; it required that only half the run could be taken commercially, and it may well have saved the salmon run from extinction. The last cannery closed down in the late 1920s. Still, by 1938 a big run numbered just over two million sockeye. By the time of Alaska's statehood in 1959, the run was down to 666,000 sockeye—the nadir had come in 1956, when the run numbered only 229,000.

And now the slow climb back, the river nurtured again by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Last year 2.6 million—including all species—had come up the river. "It's taken them 50 years," Sikes said, "but we're on our way. The state is limiting the commercial fishing until at least 250,000 reds have gone up the river. Even out in the ocean here, from Cape Karluk to Rocky Point, they've stopped the netting."

The valiant efforts of the Department of Fish and Game, though, couldn't persuade those silver salmon that if they wanted to be considered truly aristocratic, like the Atlantic's Salmo salar, then they'd better start thinking about hitting flies. The next morning, this was still an unsolved problem.

We even had discovered a potential defector in the fly-fisher ranks. Dennis Cosca, a Sacramento dentist, had already confessed to heretical, revisionist practices committed the previous day. "I became convinced that if I used a spoon I'd get a fish," he said. "I went down to the river mouth. My very first cast I hooked a salmon on a spoon. I...I landed it."

He was heard without comment. "I was so frustrated," Cosca continued. "I caught several, in fact. But then it lost all its luster. The excitement went. No skill was involved, so I trudged up and rejoined you. I knew I wouldn't be spin-fishing anymore."

He'd fallen from grace, all right, but the tribunal felt able to overlook the lapse—the man clearly had the right stuff in him and he rejoined our group of purists as we followed Miley, the Golden Gate Club veteran, who now made for a narrower, smoother stretch of river than we'd fished the previous day. Then it hadn't looked deep enough to hold fish, but the clarity of the water had deceived us. It was five feet deep there, and there were silvers, too, unperceived until they slashed open the glassy surface.

This time I sent my cast 10 degrees upstream and deliberately snaky, so that I could strip off an extra yard of fly line. I flicked the rod top over and downstream and fed out the extra line—with the high density weight-forward line I was using the fly would sink fast and swim down close to the bottom.

I missed my first silver hit because I was expecting the sudden wrenching pull of an Atlantic. Instead, there came a faint pluck, like the touch of bottom grass, and I let go. It was my last mistake, though. Casting again, I saw that Miley was playing a salmon 30 yards downstream from me. "They're taking very soft," he shouted—and the next time I touched "grass" I tightened up hard.

And there was my silver, holding position for the first seconds, jagging its head, then breaking loose, screaming away downstream with the devil on its tail as I scrambled to shorten the line, stumbling to get below it, Miley burying his line in the water to let me get by. All 90 feet of my fly line was out and a lot of the backing, and the fish was rolling on the far side of the river. That was fine by me because now I could get pressure on it from downstream, convincing it that it had to go up the river to escape danger, thus forcing it to use up its strength heading against the current.

After that it was pure attrition, the side strain pulling the salmon off balance, working it by degrees into shallower, slower water where its strength ebbed as it fought air, found no purchase for muscles and tail, until I could slide it easily over the wet stones and into my element.

My first silver, first coho salmon, Oncorhynchus kisutch, thicker in the body than an Atlantic, with the same iridescent silver sides but without the neat black X marks of salar, instead, a dusting of small black spots; surely, though, the salar's equal in power. I removed the hook and cradled it in the shallows again, head upstream, swinging it slowly so that water forced its way through its gills. The fish had given much. Five minutes passed and then, with a sudden muscular spasm, it shrugged free and sped into the dappled water. In this chocolate factory, I thought, you had to work hard for your candy.

After that the fly rods could more than match the spinning sticks and bring into play all the fascinating complexity of skills that the latter didn't require. I had 10 fish that morning.

The tide eased and the run with it. We straggled back, the sun catching the spire of the old Russian Orthodox church. It had been built by ships' carpenters in 1888, the last building left from the old cannery days when the great stone spit, from which the nets were set, stretched almost across the lagoon.

Years ago an expansion bridge had linked the spit to the far side, but in 1977 a three-day, 130-mph blow had swept away the bridge, most of the spit and all the detritus of the old cannery buildings. Now a new Karluk village of 200 people is built upstream from the church. Today only the old people speak Suqcestun, or more properly, a Suqcestun-Russian patois, and few even bother to fish for the 60 salmon, a year's subsistence, that are theirs by federal right. "Nobody heads up the valley to trap anymore," Herman Malutin told me one evening. He's in his 80s, remembers the canneries and still relishes the ukala, the wind-dried salmon that had been his people's staple winter fare for centuries, fare despised by the younger generation. "Hamburgers," he said expressively. "Monday Night Football." He'd looked curiously at the rods laid out in racks. "Never saw one of those until six, seven years ago," he said. He himself favored a spear, he told us.

It would be repetitious to describe the minutiae of the rest of the week's sport, once the secret of the chocolate factory had been revealed. Probably all of us, spinners and fly-fishers alike, realized that nothing like this would ever happen in our angling lives again. We gorged ourselves on sport. Twelve, maybe 15 salmon could be expected to each rod each morning tide. If not sated by then, an angler could head up to the lagoon and continue to fish from a boat.

Oddly, few were sated, even though our party's total catch, we estimated at the end, was in the neighborhood of 1,500 silvers averaging about 14 pounds each, better than 10 tons. If you like to visit the wilder shores of statistics, that would cut up maybe into 15,000 generous steaks, which, in turn, a posh Manhattan restaurant would convert to about a quarter of a million dollars—including sauce, but not veggies.

But for six days, except for an unfortunate few that Dr. Stan Inouye, orthodontist, had sliced up into Sashimi, all the landed, beaten salmon had been nursed and eased back into their river alive. The chocolate had been admired, not consumed, which probably accounted for the fact that satiety had never been reached, that Mr. Cast-well's hell had been turned into a salmon fisher's heaven. Even Day Seven, billed as the Black Friday (because it was the last morning and it would've been less than human not to take a few fish home), turned out to be no massacre.

Even though the generous possession rule was 12 salmon per angler, we'd learned the chocolate factory lesson. A decorous cooler full of coho fillets suited everyone and scarcely scratched the surface of the world's greatest salmon river. Next morning, scarred veterans all, we lined up at the Kodiak airstrip as the bush plane dropped off a new group of anglers. "Are the silvers running?" called an eager voice.

"The chocolate factory," I said, "is down the hill and to your right."

ILLUSTRATIONROBERT M. CUNNINGHAMFly and spinning rods bend to silvers on a gravel spit near the mouth of the Karluk. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT M. CUNNINGHAMAs spawning time nears, male silver salmon develop a kype (hooked jaw) and a humpback. SIX PHOTOS TEN ILLUSTRATIONSROBERT M. CUNNINGHAM ILLUSTRATIONROBERT M. CUNNINGHAMAnglers not sated by the morning tide's salmon run could continue to fish on the lagoon ILLUSTRATIONROBERT M. CUNNINGHAMMost fish were set free, but on Black Friday the author kept these.

KARLUK ARTIFACTS

NETSINKERS
ASSORTED ULUS
STONE AXE (WOODWORKING)
ULU OR WOMAN'S KNIFE (BUTCHERING)
BONE POINTS (FISHING)
WOOD THROWING BOARD (TO PROPEL SPEARS)

KARLUK RIVER FLIES

SKYKOMISH SUNRISE
THOR
BOSS
BATTLECREEK SPECIAL
SKUNK
GOLD COMET
GREEN HEAD
RED HEAD
SILVER STREAKER
POLAR SHRIMP

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)