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Salmon Paradise Under Fire
September 29, 2008
Salmon Paradise Under Fire
by Hal Herring There are places in this world, if you are a hunter and a fisherman, that own a kind of mythical power, places where every one of the basic elements of what drives us are intact, and present. If we are lucky, some of those places are close to home. But most exist far away, in the vibrating silences of unbroken wilderness. One of these is the Mulchatna River in southern Alaska, where giant salmon, predatory veterans of lives spent in the far blue reaches of the oceans, roll in the shallows. These are fish that answer a call to come home to reproduce, to leave the oceanic vastness for the narrowing of fast Arctic waters, exchanging the threat of bluefin tuna and great white shark for sure death, after the spawn, in the jaws of bears and eagles. It is truly a passage between worlds, one only the strongest and luckiest fish ever complete. Fishermen come to the Mulchatna to tap into this, to experience the adventure of being in a place where the old powers - fish, bears, wolverine, caribou, wolves, rain, and wind - still own it all.
The Koktuli River rises in the flatlands at the base of the Jackrabbit Hills and winds like a snake to join the Mulchatna. Not far downstream from this bend, splinter bands of a herd of caribou, 45,000 strong, cross on their way to summer range. The sockeye run here in July, lighting the waters a brilliant ruby red, and even a few giant kings end up in its deeper holes. Chum salmon roll and thrash in the shallows, spawned out and waiting for the bears. You can hear the wolves that follow the caribou herd, howling in the endless summer afternoons. In the wide open country here, from a bush plane, it's easy to see how it all really works. Thousands of trails made by caribou vein the land. Rivers wind and braid, shifting everything southward, to the great magnet of the ocean. The Koktuli pours into the Mulchatna, the Mulchatna pours into the Nushugak, the Nushugak (born in the Alaska Range from the glaciers of 20,000-foot Mount McKinley over 200 miles away) delivers all the waters of the interior to Bristol Bay, and on to the ocean. All five of the Pacific salmon spawn in this watershed: the kings, silvers, sockeyes, chums, and pinks, the accumulated energy of the seas, pouring upstream every summer and back into the land.
The Jackrabbit Hills separate the headwaters of the Koktuli River from all the creeks and rivers that flow south to Lake Iliamna, one of the largest and most pristine freshwater lakes on earth. 75 miles long and 20 wide, Iliamna is home to the world's only freshwater seals, and to giant rainbow trout, king salmon, and grayling. Lake Iliamna drains out down the Kvichak River, famous for its catch and release fishery for rainbows in late summer, behemoth predators that can run thirty inches long. The Kvichak flows 60 miles into Kvichak Bay, an arm of Bristol Bay, where the tides thunder in at thirty feet deep, one of the highest tidal changes on earth. The flat area in this photo is close to the center of the proposed Pebble Project, the largest combined open pit and underground gold and copper mine ever planned. The mining company proposes building a 250 mile-long road into this roadless region, which will open up the surrounding country, all of it public land controlled by the US Bureau of Land Management, to scores of smaller mining claims. Supporters of the Pebble Project say it will bring 2000 jobs to the region, along with much needed revenue. The Pebble Project is extremely controversial, opposed by commercial fishing groups, outfitters and guides, many native communities that rely on subsistence hunting and fishing, and by environmentalists across the globe. Exploration for the mine is already using water from the Koktulie River. If the mine becomes a reality, the Koktulie will be the major source of water for what will be a tailings storage dump in its headwaters, with an earthen dam estimated to be 740 feet tall and 4.3 miles long, the longest such dam ever built. The area to be mined could be as large as 1000 square miles.
The workhorse of the bush, the DeHavilland Beaver, on Lake Iliamna, near Iliamna Village. From here, the flight across the Jackrabbit Hills to the Mulchatna River takes about an hour. The site of the Pebble Project is only a fifteen minute flight by helicopter, and the tiny town of Iliamna (population 92) is buzzing with them every few minutes. There is much excitement and speculation in town, and much worry. If the mine is permitted, things will never be the same here, or anywhere else in this part of southwestern Alaska.
After dropping off guests of Alaska Trophy Fishing Safaris on the Mulchatna, the plane heads back to Iliamna. Weather permitting, the pilot will return in four days or so. Until then, the river, and the camp perched above it, is the whole world.
Fishing starts early - after breakfast, at seven AM, rain or shine. The season is short, only a month or so, but the days are long, and if you want to fish at eleven o'clock at night, you can do that. Here Janis Bonds fights a big king on medium-weight spinning tackle, while her son, guide Matt Bonds, gets in position with the net. The methods seem simple once you know them: on this part of the river, you can use salmon eggs as bait, and you run the boat to the head of the hole, and drift back, bouncing the bait and whatever attractors you add to it along the gravel of the bottom. Tap, drift, tap, tap-tap...the hit can be only a pickup, a shift in the way things feel at the end of the line. Or it can be a sudden, wrenching downward force. As the hook sinks home, it is like you are tied tight to the liquid force of the river itself. The fibers of your rod groan. The reel starts to scream. In a boat, with which you can chase big fish, the chances are with the angler. From the bank, the odds are much with the fish.
Kevin Bonds with a big king. This one fell to a Vibrax spinner with an egg sac on the single hook. Regs are strict, and strictly followed, and only one big king per day can be kept. Although this one looks like a keeper, a more silver fish (called a chromer), which is fresher from the salt, makes for even better eating. Holding these fish is like holding the muscled-up essence of the planet, packed with thousands of eggs that will make sure it all goes on. Some of the big ones are criss-crossed with net scars, hook scars, scars from seals and bears and otters and oceanic predators. They're warriors, and they've come a long way. It's some of the best meat in the world, but killing them feels like serious business, a handshake deal with creation.
Alaska resident and Air Force Master Sergeant Bob Tarbox, with a big chromer. This fish took an egg sac bounced on the bottom with an attractor.
A heavy skein of eggs taken from a big king. When you use them for bait you first cure them with a borax solution, and then tie them into small fabric bags so they will stay on the hook. Alternatively, a piece of the skein is attached to the hook with a knot called an egg loop, which makes for a more natural-looking presentation. The eggs catch everything, from char (one of the world's most beautiful fish) to kings to rainbows to grayling. They taste like butter when you eat them raw.
A nice char, taken on a ceramic bead that looks just like an egg, from the hole in front of camp, which also yields grayling and rainbow and, every once in a while, big kings. The spots on the char are light pink, with white halos. This fish, and many like it, were taken on the flyrod.
The landing at camp on the Mulchatna. The hole (called the Generator Hole, named after the camp's generator perched into the hillside above the landing) starts at the current line just in front of the lead boat and continues in a long sweep out onto the shoals below camp. Here, a guide records the fish take of the morning.
Cooktent and eating tents, on a bench above the river. Sleeping tents are dry and warm enough, and keep the swarms of mosquitoes at bay when the wind quits and they rise out of the tundra. We spent much time fishing the hole at the landing when we were in from the boats. Caribou crossed the tundra out beyond the outhouses, and the firepit was always good for a conversation with fellow fishermen.
Anders Gustafson, Bob Tarbox, Hal Herring
In a country with this much feed in it, you are never truly alone. Inland brown bear sow, Koktuli River, either crossing or hunting salmon. One day, fixated on trying to get a small pink fly into a thick school of sockeyes, I heard a wild ruckus in the alders behind me. Turning, a bald eagle soared free of the brush, its wingtips ticking in the leaves. I thought I was had. Guides along the Mulchatna and Koktuli are wary of the bears, but not as wary of them as we are near where I live, south of Glacier National Park, where there is not as much to eat, and the bears seem quicker to take offense. A sow and two cubs visited the fish cleaning table each night, which is wisely situated on a gravel bar, a long ways downstream from camp. Fish are cleaned with someone always on the lookout.
The wolves that follow the caribou are big, just like the bears that follow the salmon.
And this is why they are all on these rivers; meat, the wild essence of the river and the sea, distilled into protein and fat. Outfitter John Carlin (not pictured here), who has been on the Mulchatna for the past sixteen years, said this: "When we come in to set up, a month before the season starts, all our new guides always remark on how quiet it is, and how there doesn't seem to be much life on the river. Then one day, you'll start seeing the eagles, or hearing the seagulls squawking. You'll see the arctic terns, then maybe a bear. And pretty soon after that, you'll see the splashing in the river, and suddenly, it's all happening, the fish are coming up. Everything depends on them, and everything follows them."
Kathy Hadley trying to turn a 40 plus pound Koktuli king on a nine-weight fly rod. The fish took a large orangish fly at the tail of a small shoal well upstream from here, and the fight lasted almost half an hour. I climbed up the cut bank and had a tern's eye view of the giant fish, rolling, almost whipped, when the fly popped loose from its jaw and it turned and rocketed out of sight, as if nothing had happened. And yes, you are supposed to get downstream of very big fish, if you want to land them. But that is much easier said than done, when the reel is showing through the backing and you are running in waist deep water.
Matt Little on the Koktuli with a big sockeye taken on the fly. The sockeye don't really want to eat, and the fly has to be painstakingly presented - polarized sunglasses are necessary to get the fly in front of the fish, to agitate it enough to make it bite. Snagged fish are not legal to keep. It is a trial, to see the great red fish there in front of you, and pass the fly before them over and over. You end the day exhausted, still seeing them in your mind's eye, all that red, in that clear water, remembering the times that it worked, the green hooked jaws of the fish, the heavy splash from the broad tail, the scream of the reel.
The learning curve. Me trying to figure out how to hold a powerhouse sockeye on a nine weight without breaking him off.
A wild day's catch on the Koktuli River, sockeyes and kings. As much as I loved the fly rod, the blue spinning rod (labeled "The Whuppin Stick"), was my all-around weapon of choice, especially when it came to fighting the kings. Shown here, Matt Little of the National Wildlife Federation, Kathy Hadley, who helped develop Montana's Block Management Program - one of the best public hunting access programs in the US - and me.
Exploration underway on the Pebble Mine copper, gold and molybdenum deposit, near the Koktuli River.
Beaver dams and sloughs on the Koktuli River. The proposed Pebble Mine complex is just on the other side of the Jackrabbit Hills, on the horizon and still showing snow at the end of July. On August 27th, a bitter fight ended with Alaskans voting down a clean water initiative that would have made it almost impossible to develop the Pebble Project. Mining interests are believed to have spent over $9 million to advertise against the initiative, while proponents spent an estimated $3 million. It was the most expensive political campaign in Alaska's history. John T. Shively, the chief executive of the global consortium that wants to open the region to mining, was quoted in the
New York Times
; "Perhaps it was God who put these two great resources right next to each other, just to see what we would do with them."
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