September 16, 2017
It’s the last day of my Sitka salmon spree trip, and the forecast is for a steady rain all day. I toy with the idea of calling my guide Tad Kisaka and begging off. My idea of a good day fishing doesn’t include water dripping off my nose. But miraculously, after breakfast I look out my hotel window and see the rain has stopped, and the sun is making a valiant attempt to break through the clouds shrouding Baranoff Island where Sitka is situated.
So I suit up in my warm neoprene waders, pull on 3 layers on top, and descend downstairs to meet with Tad. Our destination today is the Katlian River, only a short half hour run to the northeast.
Like the first two days, the boat ride in is spectacular. As we motor into Katlian Bay, we see rugged peaks lining the shoreline that is cloaked in a mist, conjuring up images in my mind of the Tlingit (p. Clink-It) war chief Katlian leading his fierce warriors into battle against the invading Russians just over two centuries ago.
The Russians first appeared in Sitka in the late 1700s, searching for more sea otters and their valuable pelts. They had trapped out areas to the north, and in a performance that would sadly soon be repeated in the American West by mountain men in search of beaver pelts, were pushing further into Native American territory. The Tlingit lived in peace with the Russians for a brief time, then realized their homeland was being ravished. In 1802, Katlian led a revolt that drove off the Russians and severely wounded Governor Baranoff who ran the Russian-American Trading Company. A contemporary account by a Russian historian captured the terrifying ferocity of the Tlingit warriors as they surprised the Russians:
The Tlingits “suddenly emerged noiselessly from the shelter of the impenetrable forests, armed with guns, spears, and daggers. Their faces were covered with masks representing the heads of animals, and smeared with red and other paint; their hair was tied up and powdered with eagle down. Some of the masks were shaped in imitation of ferocious animals with gleaming teeth and of monstrous beings. They were not observed until they were close to the barracks; and the people lounging about the door had barely enough time to rally and run into the building when the (Tlingits), surrounding them in a moment with wild and savage yells, opened a heavy fire from their guns at the windows. A terrific uproar was continued in imitation of the cries of the animals represented by their masks, with the object of inspiring greater terror.”
Not unexpectedly, just two years later, Baranoff returned with warships of the Imperial Russian Navy, many men, and a contingent of 400 Aleuts and besieged the Tlingits in their winter village in modern-day Sitka. After days of fierce fighting the Russians, with their cannons blazing, could not take the virtually impregnable log fort the Tlingit had built in anticipation of retribution. Then, sensing possible tragedy, the entire tribe—men, women, and children—escaped under cover of darkness in what would be called the Sitka Survival March. They trekked to a fishing camp at Nakwasina Sound (where I fished yesterday), then over the harsh country to the north to Chichagof Island. Surprised by this turn of events, the Russians immediately fortified Baranoff Island and for the next fifty years fought skirmishes against the Tlingit who eventually reestablished themselves on Chichagof Island where they tried to enforce an embargo against the Russians. The story of the Battle of Sitka is told in rich detail in the first-rate National Historical Park in Sitka, a great off-day destination for salmon anglers needing to rest their arms!
As we navigate into the mouth of the Katlian River, Tad and I follow the same drill as the first two days. He ventures as far up the river as possible without running aground, and I jump overboard and wade to a dry patch of land on the shoreline with our gear. Tad motors back out into deeper water and returns in his blue kayak. We then start working up the river methodically, looking for good holding water. It doesn’t take long. Just a few hundred yards up the river, we find a nice deep run that is chock full of pink and chum salmon. The big hump-backed males can’t resist our garish flies.
The action is hot from the get go—just about any showy streamer or bright spinner attracts attention and hard strikes. The lure of the day turns out to be an unlikely simple little orange jig head to which is affixed a little cluster of bright orange plastic eggs .
The theory is that salmon eat salmon eggs to reduce competition for their future offspring. Since the salmon aren’t talking who really knows. Anyway, it works. Oddly, the chum of the Katlian have a case of lockjaw, studiously ignoring all our offerings, even when the flies or lures bump them in the head.
Fortunately, we begin to spot some big silver salmon hiding among the massive schools of pinks and chums. It takes a hawk-eye to ferret them out, but Tad has schooled me well. I look for a shadow that is longer than the pinks, not as deep as the chums, with a black tail. Often the silvers have secreted themselves in tough-to-reach lies—under logs along the opposite shoreline or hidden under overhanging branches. The casting must be pinpoint to lure them out and avoid snagging. But once the fly is within range, the silvers show no hesitation, slashing out to grab the offering.
The most productive stretch where the river pours over a riffle into a deep, long run flanked by a big sandbar. I pull out a nice silver, then happen to look down and notice there are some fresh tracks in the sand that are substantially bigger than mine and are tipped with tell-tale claw marks.
Now I’m reminded why Tad is carrying that big pistol over his shoulder! It’s grizzly country and several have been here just a few hours before us. Always interesting to know you aren’t at the top of the food chain!
We continue up to a fork in the river, and spot a long dark line on the opposite shore—it’s a school of hundreds of pinks waiting to run further upstream. The water is a bit discolored, but we can also make out the shapes of dozens of chums between us and the school of pinks. I’m determined to get a chum so flip my fly diagonally downstream across the water and strip it back in. Immediately something nails it hard, and the fight is on. To my surprise, a big silver erupts from the water, shaking it’s head like a mad dog. Nice fish!
I keep casting for the chums, but the pinks will have none of it. I switch to the spin outfit and the hotshot orange egg jig lure and get 15 strikes on 15 casts, at one point netting seven in a row. Now that’s fun! My technique is to cast in the shallow water a few feet off the far shore, then let the jig bounce through the school which is laying in deeper water. Inevitabley, two or three will bolt from the school and give chase as the lure slides downstream. Not the normal routine when fishing for salmon, but even guide Tad has to approve.
We finally take a break about 2 p.m., just when a light drizzle begins. But we hardly notice, and just as we finish some gourmet victuals, the sun again peeks and the rain stops. The water up above looks thinner, with fewer holding spots, so we decide to head back downstream and hit some of the runs that were productive in the morning. We find the pinks are still willing, especially along the grizzly sandbar stretch, but the chums remain stand-offish, other things on their minds.
Finally, one last silver jets out from underneath a snag on the far shoreline and nails my fly. Tad nets the big boy who poses for a quick pix and release. What a wonderful way to end the Sitka salmon spree.
We make it back to Sitka by 4 p.m., enough time for me to do a little obligatory tourist-type shopping. I find a perfect t-shirt for my son Matthew emblazoned with a gnarly looking salmon and the words “Spawn of the Dead,” playing off the title of one of my favorite offbeat flicks, the British horror film “Shaun of the Dead.” I also pick up a couple of fur-lined pieces of attire for Matthew and my other son Ben in anticipation of their needing some warm undergarments when they accompany me for some salmon fishing in Sitka next summer—I definitely shall return!