Kings Of Kodiak
First published Flylife Magazine ’03
The departing roar of a floatplane from bear country is enough to send a shiver up your spine. Its not the chill North Pacific wind that leaves you suddenly cold but rather the realization that your decision alone that has planted you here. Its no–ones fault but your own.
You can attribute the adrenaline tingle to the flight in through high mountain passes, wingtips spooking the sheep clinging to the precipices. The wobble in your knees can be put down to the sudden correction of the mistaken impression that aircraft landings are accomplished best in a straight line. Not so on the snakelike Ayakulik River.
Then again it could be the your first sighting of a grizzly, impossibly large, galloping out of the river startled by the roar of the plane overhead. You know there were hungry hordes just upriver from where you now stand, the biggest brown bears anywhere.
You remember the statistics; the Kodiak Island Wilderness contains more grizzlies than the entire continental US. There is a bear for roughly every square mile here, even more crowded if you care to discount the vertical mountains and abundant lakes as natural habitat. Tonight you will sleep in a nylon-walled tent, hoping beyond hope you’re your 7’x4’ square chunk of Kodiak river bank isn’t wanted by its true owners. For now we are hunting the king of Pacific Salmon.
Its early summer and the bears are hungry. Ten yards to your left, and alongside your campsite, is the equivalent of a grizzly smorgasbord, courtesy of the summer spawning run of the biggest salmon in the world, the Chinook or King Salmon. The salmon are why you are here. Pewtered, muscular fish, fresh from the mysteries of the North Pacific, driven by an iron will to return to the freshwaters where they were born. It is a minor miracle that the salmon are here at all.
They fish we are hunting left here small fingerlings, dodging nature’s finest marine predators as they roamed across the North Pacific as far south as Los Angeles, feeding voraciously building in size and strength. Man too takes his toll, first on the Chinooks sustenance, then on the Chinooks themselves in nets and on lines.
Fly fishing for any salmon species, unless you strike a red-hot bite, can be a lesson in perseverance. Pacific salmon go through significant metabolic changes once they enter the fresh. Most distinctive is the “blush”, a marked color change which ranges from the tomato red of the sockeye to the dirty dark pink of the Kings. The jaws curve, the teeth pulled into a gnarly bite, and some gain a distinctive hump. Ultimately they will fall apart from the inside out and die here.
For anglers though the most significant change is the fact they stop eating, and instead have to be what is often likened to annoyed to bite a lure or fly.
Keeping your fly in the water swimming correctly, hoping it is in the right place at the right time, is how you shift the odds in your favor. The rhythm of cast and cast again is hypnotic.
I can say you don’t settle into the normal salmon fishing trance on Kodiak. Every couple of minutes – as you are instructed- you look around, head revolving left, right, front and back, eyes peeled for movement.
Nerves already on edge, the splashing, as a 40-pound free-swimming fish leaps it way up a still pool, is enough to make you jump clumsily in your waders, head revolving for an ursine figure on the lupin-studded banks.
My companion, local fly-tier and guide, Jeff Ruppart, instructed me on bear lore; “Make lots of noise to let them know your coming, you don’t want to surprise a bear. If one is walking along the bank towards you get out of the water, get out of their way, and let them know you are there. Never ever run.”
When we stepped onboard the floatplane that morning I couldn’t help but ask had he remembered his gun, a large chromed 357 magnum. Its only here, miles from the nearest armory, he grins and tells me “its not really enough gun”. It might tickle but I don’t reckon it will stop one.”
Ruppart was a Coast Guard gypsy until he found Kodiak Island, now guiding in the summer and ties superb flies for local and mainland lodges during the long dark winters. He’s tall and broad, and doesn’t look like he ever missed a decent feed, but his shopping for our trip is hardly gourmet. Apparently, beer and caffeinated soft drinks are food groups in their own right. Everything else is tinned too, which actually helps on rule two with bears. Don’t let your camp give off food smells. Even my cough drops, to counter a previously unknown and ferocious allergy to cedar pollen, are stuffed into our Parks provided bear proof safe every evening, the electric fence around the depository carefully closed.
You are correct, the food gets a fence and a bear-proof box and we sleep unguarded.
There are more rules but everything goes out the window at your first sighting of a grizzly, walking heavily, slowly, hugely along the bank. The bear is vastly less interested in you than in an easy meal from the salmon filled waters, but it still doesn’t alter the adrenaline jolt and realization that you are just another potential meal out here. Eventually your heartbeat slows and you can take in the sheer wonder of a mother catching salmon for her two cubs _ just three bears doing bear things. Two other teenage bears, which are as equally well-known for the unpredictable as those of our own species, wander up the river through the camp itself around midnight.
Ruppart mutters in my ear as we roll in our sleeping bags to try and ease fatigued muscles sometime after 1am, that being here is “Just like Discovery Channel.” Both of us are aching for sleep, and craving some darkness. Helpfully one of the French flyfishers in the tent nearby decided a tuneless George Zamifir impersonation on a panpipe is what is needed. Ruppart is less than impressed. fall asleep chuckling at the oaths coming from the other sleeping bag
We sleep like the dead, through the panpipe serenade, through our own bearanoia. We also discover over breakfast we sleep through the “Battle Of The Ayakulik”, one of the other tents issuing a shotgun warning to a couple of encroaching teenage grizzlies.