September 5 -12 2013 – The Sapsuk has become an annual pilgrimage for me, a journey to a week of spey fishing for salmon. It’s not often I have the chance to indulge in spey casting for 10-15 lb salmon amidst the stunning desolation of the Sapsuk River in the Aleutian Islands, but each year I’ve made the trek, it has left an indelible mark. This year was no exception.
Getting to the Sapsuk is no easy feat; it hinges on unpredictable tides and weather conditions, especially around Nelson’s Landing at the river’s mouth. However, despite the challenges of reaching this remote and primitive camp, there exists a close-knit group of friends, many of whom I’ve fished with for over half a century, who eagerly converge on the Sapsuk during the middle week of the three-week salmon season, which is prime time for Silver Salmon.
This year, the lucky crew consisted of Jerry, myself, Preacher Mike, Tom from Texas, and Dave. Dave defied his doctor’s orders by joining us despite a recently broken right arm humerus. Dave fished the Sapsuk 10 years ago. Anticipation for this trip runs high every year, but this time, a series of unfortunate events added a last-minute layer of fear and loathing.
Things took a turn for the worse when several regulars decided to skip this year’s expedition. I missed Mark, Charlie, and Kirk, who informed me early on that they wouldn’t be returning. Even my buddy Steve, who’s 94 this year and previously raved about the trip, canceled. I thought filling these spots would be a breeze, but my regular fishing buddies had various reasons for passing this time, from bear concerns to the absence of flush toilets, conflicting travel plans, and cost considerations. Jerry and I also caught up with Glen Chen for dinner in Anchorage. Glen wrote a great piece on the Sapsuk in Swing the Fly Magazine called “Coho Nirvanna” a couple years ago and is the reason I learned of the Sapsuk from Mark Won. Glen, Jerry and I use to work together at the Millpond in the 70s.
A couple of months ago, I received a cryptic email warning about unusual tides that might require us to spend the night at Nelson Landing Bunk House while awaiting higher tides for the boat transfer to camp. To complicate matters further, just days before our departure, we learned that two camp residents had contracted Covid during the first week, and they were scheduled to stay for our week as well. Sweetwater travel assured us there would be no refunds but implemented precautions and sent a waiver. Diana wisely canceled her trip, considering her previous near-death experience with Covid too risky to repeat in such isolation. Jerry and I, despite our fear and apprehension, were willing to take our chances to fish in our beloved Sapsuk.
In addition to the Covid threat, the tides, winds, and rain were on the brink of hindering transfers. Conditions were constantly changing. The Bering Sea is notorious for windstorms, and sometimes, even if there’s enough water, the wind and rain make the journey impossible. River boats, 20-footers with 80 HP jets, are used for the run from Nelson’s to the mouth of the Sapsuk through 5 miles of shallow, turbulent open ocean. I wouldn’t dare attempt it in my Crestliner. But with experienced guides like Eli and Mike, who know the route well, we safely navigated the shallow tides, 15mph crosswinds, and rain. I once experienced a ride so shallow that we had to push the boat over sandbars—a chilling experience. Fifteen mph winds in low 40-degree temperatures feel like 30 degrees. I’ve learned to wear four layers of clothing under my waders and protect my neck, head, and ears during these rides.
The camp staff remained the same as last year—Mike and Eli were our guides, and Jake handled the meals and camp breakdown on changeover days. This small, tight-knit group of repeat guests and staff is one of the things I cherish most about this camp. The two individuals with Covid stayed in their tents and received meals via room service from Jake. They fished together all week, with Mike taking on the hazardous duty. In my brief conversations with Tom and Preacher Mike, they seemed in good spirits and fished almost daily. It appears that silver salmon fishing somewhat mitigates the severity of Covid. I believe it’s time for the world to treat Covid like the flu. One of the two outhouses was reserved exclusively for Covid-positive individuals, and Jake sterilized the showers after each use by someone with Covid. The staff and those infected did an excellent job isolating themselves in our small camp. It felt like just another day at the office for me, surrounded by potential infections, taking precautions with masks and hand sanitizer. Despite a third person testing positive during the previous week’s changeover, we never encountered him, and no one in our camp contracted Covid during our stay. Kudos to Jake and Mike for their efforts in containing Covid in camp and staying infection-free. Jerry and I collaborated to keep each other vigilant about infection control, and after spending a week with him in Baha just two months ago, it was like rooming with family.
In retrospect, Jerry and I both agreed that we caught 15-30 fish a day and hooked twice as many, making this trip as good as any we’ve experienced in the past. We were fortunate when the B Run started appearing on the second day, bringing larger double-digit fish. Dave also landed a nice steelhead this week. In the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid breaking rods. Last year, there was a morning when five rods were broken. When the action heats up, and there’s only one net, I prefer to land my own fish, allowing me to fish independently of the guide. However, this year, I decided to bring a couple of new rods to try out. I brought three: a Lost Coast Outfitters Golden Gate (5 wgt switch), an Ocean Beach (7 wgt switch), and a Meisner 13-foot 7 wgt. The switch rods are lightweight and designed for overhead casting short heads long distances, and I thought they might be perfect. They were, except for the Golden Gate, which proved inadequate for a 15lb Coho that I blew up on the hookset just above the rod handle. The Ocean Beach seemed robust enough for handling larger coho, but while landing a big one by hand with the rod in the belt clip, I lost my grip, and the fish made a dash between my legs and butt flossed me. I couldn’t grab the line fast enough, and the rod tip snapped. I had to wade to shore and jump the line to land that fish. From that point on, I made sure to wrap the line around my hand whenever I needed to hand line a fish. The 9mm gloves I wore for warmth and tactile sensation were plenty strong enough to handle line wraps.
I’ve never been particularly confident in my spey casting skills despite years of practice. However, on this trip, Eli provided invaluable on-stream guidance, and I had the opportunity to try various rods from camp, each with perfectly balanced lines. Many experienced spey casters now advocate shorter lines, 1.5 to 2 times the length of the rod. The camp’s rods featured 20-foot lines on their 13-foot rods. The preferred lines for the guides at the Sapsuk are 20 ft Airflo Skagit Scouts and Commando Heads, along with 40lb mno running line. My reels were loaded with braided mono which I usually use for striper fishing. For spey fishing, Proline 40 lb Mono proved to be the superior choice. My favorite camp rod was the Redington Dually 11’6″ 8 switch which can cast bombs with short, tight, “in the box” casting strokes that are easier for me to evolve to from one handed rods. Im just bumbed that it took me so long to discover short spey lines but Ill never go back to long spey lines.
The selection of flies this year brought some exciting changes. We had success with Copper Prom Dresses, Black Flashy Leeches, Chartreuse Black patterns, and an array of Pink variations. My bladed flies proved effective though harder to cast, especially when the fish were less active during the day. We also had some thrilling moments experimenting with Vibrex spinners, spoons, and lead jigs. One memorable evening, Jerry, Eli, and I collectively landed over 20 fish in just half an hour. We also had luck backtrolling tiny plugs, similar to Wayne’s technique in the Sacramento River. Fishing with Jerry and Eli is always an adventure, and there’s never a dull moment. I tried using Egg flies under an indicator over fish pods but didn’t manage to land any. The Sapsuk provides an excellent testing ground for fishing gear, which is one of the reasons I hold this place in such high regard.
This year, Jerry Wang introduced a groundbreaking innovation for the Sapsuk – the JW Versatube Fly System. Essentially, it involves tying our favorite Coho flies on dual-diameter tubes that allow for various heads to be inserted on the front of the tube. These heads range from heavy weighted cones to foam floating heads, propellers, and Smiley Blades. I’ve never seen anything as innovative as this, and I believe he may have created a unique fly system. Next year, I plan to tie these types of flies because having the ability to adjust a fly’s weight or buoyancy without lugging around a ton of different patterns is a significant advantage.
As always, the food this year was exceptional. Jake is evolving into quite the chef, displaying enthusiasm for creating outstanding meals. We were treated to delightful desserts, and Jake demonstrated an impressive ability to transform leftovers into delicious dishes. One standout experience was a sushi night, and on the final day, we indulged in hearty steaks. Another year of outstanding wilderness cuisine at the Sapsuk.
A monumental change for the camp this year was the introduction of Internet access. The camp now boasts a new Starlink dish. While electricity is only available from 6:00 am to 10 pm, this still provides ample time to make FaceTime calls home, check the stock market, and stay updated on current news. A day before our arrival, Preacher Mike was already texting us about hot fly patterns to tie. On Saturday, Jerry and I had a blast streaming a recording of the 49ers game that played in the morning while we were out fishing. It turned out to be the most enjoyable non-fishing experience I’ve had at camp. Jake prepared some delicious guacamole and salsa for us to enjoy as we “tailgated” in the Volcano Lounge. We set up my laptop, allowing us to eat while watching the game, which turned out to be an exhilarating matchup as the 49ers triumphed over the Steelers. Perhaps I can help them modify the dish to run all night on 12 volts like my Camping Van setup so that we can still text family when the lights go out.
There was other weirdness to Fear and Loath in Alaska while we were fishing. The Shishaldin Volcano is actively erupting in the Aleutian Islands as I write this and for some insane reason President Biden decided to join us in Alaska to commemorate the anniversary of 911. At least there is one thing I can count on and that is if there are Salmon in the Sapsuk, Jerry and I will have a blast trying to catch them in September no matter how bad the fish counts seems to be.
Things for Next Year.
Pen Tac – BC Steel Spoons. 2/5 ounce
Eagle Claw® TroKar® Open-Eye Siwash Hooks
Yakima Bait Mag Lips 3.5 Hot Rocks, glitter pink, flourescent red
4 piece lamiglass baitcaster 9.5 feet. HS94MC. 8-12lb. 1/4 to 5/8