So you go on the fishing trip of a lifetime. When you get there, your guide hands you a kind of fishing rod you’ve never used before. How much success can you have?
Quite a bit, apparently.
Using Spey rods for the first time, four anglers from Cross Lanes and Poca had a wild week catching salmon, trout and grayling from a remote Alaska river. John Starcher, who organized the trip, said it started out as a conventional fly fishing adventure but changed just about as soon as he and his companions got on the water.
“The guides asked if we’d ever used Spey rods,” Starcher recalled. “None of us had. Fortunately, they were good instructors.”
Spey rods — named for the River Spey in Scotland — are longer and heavier than conventional fly rods, and are meant to be cast two-handed. They allow anglers to cast farther, cover more water with less effort, and to make casts in places where riverside vegetation would snag conventional backcasts.
Even though the big rods require special casting techniques, the West Virginians’ guides had their clients covering the water effectively in no time.
“It was almost like they were Orvis [Co.] casting instructors,” Starcher said, invoking the name of one of America’s foremost fly fishing retailers. “My son, Trevor, hadn’t had a fishing rod in his hand in 10 years. Within 15 minutes, they had him catching 40-pound king salmon.”
The fishing trip was a gift for Trevor, who recently graduated from Ohio University. The anglers included the Starchers and two friends, Bill and Debbie Howard. Most of the fishing took place on the Hoodoo River (also known as the Sapsuk River), 350 miles out on the Alaska Peninsula.
The fish they caught included chinook (king) salmon up to 45 pounds, sockeye salmon in the 7- to 8-pound range, coho (silver) salmon up to 8 pounds, chum salmon in the 10- to 15-pound range, and pink salmon in the 5- to 8-pound range. In addition to the salmon, the Starchers and the Howards also caught steelhead, rainbow trout and grayling.
In mid-July, when the trip took place, the spawning runs of sockeyes and kings were near their peaks. Starcher said an estimated 600,000 sockeyes were gathered at the weirs near the river’s mouth, waiting for a chance to head upstream. “Where they were gathered at the weir, you probably could have walked all the way across the river on their backs,” he added.
With the waters of the Bering Sea so close, many of the salmon were “chromers,” silvery fish that hadn’t yet been in fresh water long enough to change into their spawning colors.
The 12- to 13-foot-long Spey rods the anglers used not only allowed them to present their flies more effectively to the salmon, they also allowed them to more easily fight the hard-fighting fish after they were hooked. Even so, the fights often were frantic.
“Some of them would take off downriver,” Starcher said. “One minute you’d be trying to let the line go so the fish could run, and the next minute you’d be reeling as hard as you can because it changed directions and is coming back upstream.”
On one occasion, Starcher’s son hooked a salmon that ran him all the way downriver into Nelson Bay. He landed the fish in the surf just outside the river’s estuary.
Starcher said the fishing was slow on the first day, but picked up as the week went along.
“It seemed like every time you put a cast right where you wanted it, you caught one,” he continued. “But if you didn’t hit the right current seam, or if you didn’t get the mend in your line just right, they wouldn’t take it.”
He recalled one 2- to 3-hour period when he and his companions caught a salmon every five to six casts.
“Now, that was a lot of fun,” he added.
He also fondly remembers his party’s last day on the river.
“It was 35 degrees and sleeting,” he said. “We fished from 8:30 to 10:30 in the morning. We caught seven kings, had two or three get off, and missed four or five.”
No fishing trip to Alaska is complete without a bear encounter or two, and this one was no exception.
“Debbie was fighting a king one time, and a 3- to 4-year-old bear was walking up and down the bank, watching her,” Starcher said. “And one day we sat and watched a grizzly play in the surf. We couldn’t see if it was fishing, but it probably was. We saw bear tracks the whole time we were there.”
Another highlight of the trip involved a memorable shore lunch.
“We like sushi,” Starcher said. “We couldn’t keep the kings we caught, but we could keep sockeye. We’d catch a couple of them and bake them over wood, but we’d also take one filet and sashimi it with soy sauce and wasabi. Man, that was good.”
Starcher had kind words for the Hoodoo Fishing Lodge, the outfitter that provided the guides, lodging and food.
“They totally over-delivered,” Starcher said. “We were expecting to fish five days. We got in camp the first day, not expecting to fish until the next day, and they asked us if we wanted to go fishing right then. The same thing happened on the day we flew out. The guides were great, and the food was great.
“The great thing about the trip is that anybody could do it. You don’t need great fishing skills. We were four people who don’t fish a lot, and we went out and caught 45-pound kings.”