Coho Nirvana – Another Day in Paradise 2019

September 5-15 2019 – In a recent article in Swing the Fly magazine, Glen Chen called the Sapsuk “Coho Nirvana”. Several years ago, I bumped into a fishing buddy, Surf Fishing legend, Mark Won at the Orvis store in Santana Row and he told me of a wondrous place in the Aleutian Islands with amazing runs of Salmon and Steelhead. It took me much to long to venture to the Sapsuk to see for myself if the stories were true. Last year the subject of the Sapsuk came up again when my cousin Wayne asked me to edit some of the video footage from his trip. Wayne let me book his return spot for this year to which I will be eternally grateful. There are 5 weeks of Coho fishing and two week of King Salmon season that can be booked through Sweetwater Travel but nothing as phenomenal as the Sapsuk is without a catch. The catch is that 70 to 80 percent of Flyfishermen who experience the river rebook for the following season. Mark Won (the man in the Yellow Raincoat as he is known) has fished for Kings and Silvers on the Sapsuk for a total of 14 weeks over the last 10 years. Jerry and Diana have fished 4 seasons and Glen Chen has a hole named after him on the beat. To start of describing the unique fishing on the Sapsuk, I begin with, writing a deposit check for next year, despite this year being the worst year on record on the river.

Flyfishermen have different ideas about what makes a fishing destination great.  I’ve heard a destination can be  “too easy”,  “too hard”,  “too expensive”, or  “too uncomfortable”.   Criteria like quantity of fish hooked and landed, quality of fish, comfort of lodge,  quality of the food and cost value,  are all common subjective criteria when rating a fishing destination.  In our group of 7 (typically the lodge books only 6 at a time) ,   only two of us were first timers.  The veterans agreed that it was the worst year for numbers of fish and weather that they have every experienced.  The camp changed chefs this year.  Heather, the new camp host and chef, made some of the best meals I have ever had at a remote fishing lodge which included, rolled Sushi Hors d’oeuvre, Smoked Ribs, Salmon and Steak dinners, Meatloafs to die for, and hot stews and soups for streamside lunches. It is hard to describe how great if feels to have hot food and coffee streamside on a cold day. My accommodations were comfortable and well heated although the beds could be longer. The camp has a very nice heated shower and two comfortable outhouses.   Mike, Kirk, Mark, Jerry and Diana were all returning clients with a cumulative experience of over a year of fishing days on the Sapsuk.  One would think that we were doomed when they described the fishing as unremarkable.   The locals at Nelson Landing  complained about the low number of fish in commercial nets, and the guides seemed worried about finding fish which would be normal anywhere else but on the Sapsuk.  What I experienced this week were concentrations of fish in the river that blocked out the bottom that extended city blocks.  The fish were big and fresh with long tailed sea lice from the ocean (long tails means less than 24 hours in river system).  Some fish were so hot that they were nearly unlandable in the fast water.  Sapsuk Silvers are special-big and fresh.

Armed with a quiver of rods every day, the hardest decisions we made all week  was weather to catch fish swinging flies with Spey Rods,  or casting single handed rods with bladed subsurface flies, floating gurglers or pogs,  or dead drifting weighted flies or to cast a Vibrex till  you needed more Mortrin.   My observation was that there were many ways to catch Cohos all day long despite the low  and cloudy water conditions that we faced upon arrival.    And yet, at dinner there were stories about how much better past years have been with more fish.  I can’t imagine that fishing could be better than what I experienced;  maybe different but not better.    I felt confident that I could catch fish at any time and most of the fish I caught this week were site fished.   For me, sometimes a little challenging is better than automatic.  Then Mark Won remarked that his idea of good is when you accidentally hook fish at your feet while messing with your reel.  For Mark, it is all about the hookups.  He is a fishing machine and well known on the river. On a good day,  Mark lands 30-50 fish a day.  Our trip averaged 20 to 30.   The guides at the other lodge on the river know Mark as the guy in the yellow rain coat which is turning out to be his trademark here and in the California Surf at home.  Mark loves the tug. He also land lots of 20 plus stripers of the local beaches – maybe more than even the Delta and San Luis die hards.   Landing fish is anticlimactic for him unless it’s extremely large or a personal best.   I would have to agree with Mark that these hot fish rip and I have line cuts to prove it.    For me,  like other destinations, the Sapsuk is as easy or hard as you want to make it.    For Mark it was hard to catch 50 fish a day although I bet he could if he had to and for me it was easy to catch a dozen fish over 10 lbs on topwater till I was tired.    The Sapsuk has many ideal sections at all water levels  for surface fishing with its long shallow riffles with large concentrations of fish.    I thought the food and accommodations were very good.  If Heather the new chef isn’t there next year,  I might not go back.  She was awesome.    I also think the price for this trip is reasonable, considering it is not international travel,  you can bring back 25 lbs of salmon fillets and roe, and you can travel Alaska Airlines which caters to flyfishermen  and allows carry on Spey Rods with no extra fees.  It is the same latitude as Kamchatka and a hop skip and a cast from British Columbia.   Only  BC competes with the value of this trip with the strong dollar and quality of fishing,  I definitely see why Wayne prefers this place over a trip to Jurassic Lake  or Kamchatka at 2/3rds the cost and half the distance on domestic flights.

Alaska Salmon have never had a summer like this. July was Alaska’s hottest month on record and abnormal rain totals caused downpours in some parts of the state and fires and water restrictions in others. The average temperature in July was 58.1 degrees (14.5 Celsius), 5.4 degrees (3 Celsius) above the historical average with records maintained since 1925. Salmon kills have been recorded in rivers all over the state linked to the hot weather.  The commercial  Salmon fishing at Nelson lagoon saw record low numbers of salmon.

Despite the doom and gloom,  what salmon are left to spawn still make their way up the river.  What I witnessed in the upper section of the Sapsuk was still amazing.  Areas of the river were black with salmon.   With a little forethought and casting skill, salmon can be caught at will.   An average day for me was 20-30 hookups with 12-20 fish a day.   My biggest of the trip was around 13 lbs and the average fish ran around 8-10 lbs.  Comparing it to other coho rivers I have fished,  I especially enjoyed fishing Sapsuk with floating flies and bladed flies just beneath the surface – a technique that Wayne discovered last year that simulates a Vibrex Spinner on the surface.  I also brought a bait-casting rod expecting the worst conditions and  discovered that fishing a pink size 5 Vibrex Spinner with a pink plastic tail is as close to a sure thing as I have ever experienced with Cohos outperforming (slightly) my favorite half ounce pink marabou jigs.  Also, the river is a perfect river to Spey fish. An accurate 100 foot cast with upstream mend ,  a  tungsten head fly,  to within 2 inches of the opposite bank was a money cast almost every time.   The flies of choice are heavily weighted tube style flies fished with 10 foot t-14 heads.  I found tungsten coneheads useful but were warned how dangerous they are to your rod it they hit it.  It was tricky casting for me  but when you are surround by competent and experienced Spey casters like this group,  you learn quickly by watching others.  Morning fishing seems best for topwater and I fished all sorts of topwater every morning with success.  There is nothing as visually exciting as watching  huge waking salmon charge your swinging gurgler or spinner fly across current;   It is nothing short of fantastic.    Even though the fish were moving up higher in the river with the rains,  I would spend the hours after dinner from 7-10pm  catching  fish moving through the lower river  holes around camp.  The lead fish in the migrating schools were the most likely biters.    Mark Won taught me that it was ok to eat dinner in waders and fish afterwards till darkness around 10 pm.

This year the salmon were higher up the river than in previous years. Mike and Ian did a great job of getting us to the best spey runs in the river and netting fish.  There is some competition for the prime runs from the HooDoo lodge that fishes 4-5 boats on the same water but they are located further downriver. The Sapsuk Camp is the highest camp on the river.  We were lucky this week to finally get some significant rain.  The river rose and occasionally got muddy but despite the cloudy river, there were thousands of big fresh salmon along the deep banks and gravel runs – plenty of opportunities to catch fish all week.  For a weeks before the trip, we prayed for rain so that the Coho salmon would fill the Sapsuk. The river had been very low the last couple weeks before we arrived. Our prayers were answered as we arriving to a storm that delayed our 500 mile charter flight to Nelson Landing where we shuttle for two hours through the lagoon and up the Sapsuk River to our camp.

Getting to the Sapsuk involves flying to Anchorage International, staying the night in a hotel and getting the Charter Air Field the next morning.  The Charter flies to Nelson Landing (a two hour flight)  where boats meat you to shuttle  to the Sapsuk Camp (another 2 hour ride).  The camp consists of 4 comfortable tent cabins, a galley and a clubhouse.  The food was great and the accommodations were comfortable and warm despite some very radical weather with temps in the high 40’s and gale force winds at times.  It felt at times very much like Jurassic lake. We only got one day of sun as it rained most of the week. On the fly out day, the winds reached gail force delaying our boat transfer to Nelson Landing and charter to Anchorage till the next day.  Thank god I brought the Gamin Explorer Plus which most of us in camp used to rebook our flights from Anchorage home.   Alaska airlines waived rebooking fees because of the weather delay. I think next time I will book a day on both sides at the Hampton Inn in Anchorage  located walking distance from my now favorite Golden Corral Buffet & Grill all you can eat. The Hampton Inn is very close to Merrill Field and Ted Steven International with free shuttles. We also checked out Mossy’s Fly Shop, a great place to visit and get the word on the latest flies and conditions .   Also, there is a great place to store frozen fish and large luggage for a couple hours or a day .  Huntleigh USA, (907) 248-0373, Level 1, next to Bag Claim 4 is a great place to store fish and luggage on the way home.    . I was delighted to find out that the lodge prepares fish to take home. They also let me process Salmon roe to bring home.

The Aleutian Rivers Angling Lodge on the Sapsuk is mainly a Spey Fishing Lodge.  Glen Chen who lives in Alaska and where he works in Fisheries Management,  considers the Sapsuk to be possibly the best Coho Rivers in all of Alaska because the fish are unusually strong and fresh from the ocean.   Most fish we caught this week were  bright chromers,  many with long tailed sea lice.   Glenn has lived in Alaska for over 20 years, earned a Phd in Fisheries Science and has been a federal fisheries biologist  for over 30 years.  Plus he is an expert Spey Fisherman.  Glen and I use to work at the Millpond in the 70s when we were kids.  Hopefully one of these years we will end up at the Sapsuk at the same time.    Being a novice Spey fishermen,  I was extremely interested in gear that the guides and veterans were using.  Last year Trevor Covich was guiding at the lodge.  Trevor use to represent OPST which makes the Commando Fly Line Heads that I have come to love.   Everyone at the lodge was throwing OPST Commando heads with  Mono Lazar line.    In addition, most were using rods over 13 feet long.   I felt short with my 12.5 Loop Cross ST 7 wgt.   I think a 13 foot or longer Spey rod is in my future.  I brought 4 rods – the loop Cross 12’4″ Travel Spey,  A 10wgt 9 foot Helios 2,  A Winston Jungle rod 9 ft, 9 wgt, and a two piece med heavy bait casting rod.   Lots of rods were broken this weekend at the lodge because these fish dont give up after you beach them.  The Seamaster anti-reverse worked well but I did grind some gears on some large fish not letting go of the handle quick enough.  It takes a couple 10-23 lbrs to get the hang of it.  I didn’t find the anti reverse to be an asset.    The Mako reel was perfect for the Sapsuk,   I also brought a Lampson LightSpeed that handled large fish perfectly.  Lampson makes a great inexpensive reel.    I broke my baitcasting rod on a fish trying to land a fish treating  it like a fly rod.   Shorter rods get bent faster when fish get crazy at the net.    Next year, Im bringing some rod repair stuff for sure.  Four rods were broken in our group.

Shooting video and stills at the Sapsuk was problematic because of the rain, winds and light.    I got the best footage from my Gopro 7, the Mavic Air Drone and Jerry’s Footage from his Olympus Waterproof Camera.  The Sony handheld was also pretty useful.   A longer pole for underwater stuff  with a Hero Session 4K is the ticket   Current makes larger underwater cameras harder to control. I didn’t use the DJO Osmo pocket or the Lumix pocket camera much.   Too much rain made keeping things dry difficult as well.


Stuff for next year.

  • Rod Repair tip tops and inserts crazy glue
  • Mosquito repellant, head net and bed net if its stilll weather
  • Cold weather buffs and gloves for transfers.
  • Roe Sieve
  • Better thermos for coffee
  • Dont bring soap, shampoo, wet wipes,
  • Tuperware with insulation.  or Thermos for Roe
  • Vibrex pink ONLY with rubber pink tails
  • Tube Flies with changeable head weights
  • Tube gurglers
  • Mavic Pro 2 drone with longer flight time and maybe some goggles for spoting
  • Waterproof Olympus vs Lumix,
  • One GoPro, Sony 4kCAM,  Mavic,
  • Big Lithium buffer charger
  • Garmin Explorer Plus was critical
  • Spey, spare Spey, Helios 2 Single Handed,  long Baitcaster.

 Flickr Album (downloadable original copies)
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