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Leggett: Cherry red colors and a stocky slab of muscle - snagging salmon in Alaska

Mike Leggett
American-Statesman Correspondent
Andy Sansom shows off his first good rainbow caught on the Copper River. The fish hit a glass bead fished under a salmon fly late in the day.

COPPER RIVER, Alaska – Cold, wet and tired, Andy Sansom and I split up as we walked off the tiny gravel bar where we would wait for our ride off the river and back to the plane waiting on Lake Iliamna.

Sansom went left and I went right, looking through the clear water at the sockeye salmon that were slowly trudging – if a fish can trudge – against the current on their inevitable end of life spawning trip where they will die in the shallows of the creeks where they were born.

We’d been seeing unbelievable numbers of salmon for three days, thanks to a record run of returning salmon that Newhalen Lodge owner and Alaska legend Bill Sims said was filling rivers with the fish, which were taking on a classic cherry red color caused by the pheromones drive them to survive the eagles and bears that enjoy a feast on their dying bodies.

Days of rain had left the rivers around Newhalen running high and fast, leaving us waiting out super heavy morning fogs and steady rain that made air travel tricky. We took small boats over to the nearby Tasimina River and short plane rides to a large lake that boasts a healthy population of large northern pike.

Sansom and I had each landed rather heavy pike larger than 30 inches during a day fishing there but had to give in to cold and wet to call it a day shortly after lunch. A long plane ride had taken us to the Copper River, a beautiful and scenic river that has always produced good numbers of very nice rainbow trout.

Now, at the close of another day of constant rain that had seeped down my neck and through my sweater, I could feel the effects of creeping hypothermia that made just casting the heavy rigs we were using. An egg bead rigged below a salmon fly gave us double chances to land fish as we hopscotched our way down the river.

When we reached the end of our run and beached the inflatable boat on the gravel bar, we dodged huge mounds of bear scat to walk down to the water and make a few casts before our ride arrived.

I stopped short of the water to take advantage of the of the elevation and peer down to the salmon that were forming a sinuous line of green and red as they slipped slid along the gravel and sand of the shallow ledge that dropped off into deep, emerald green water toward the far shore.

Before I could walk down and wade off into the river, Sansom shouted, “Hey, I got one!” I looked up to see his fly line tearing downstream past me and into the deep water of the opposite bank, where alders dipped over into the river. Sansom was kicking rocks and splashing through the shallows trying to keep up in order not to lose what would turn out to be his largest fish of the day.

The fish screamed past me and on down into deep water where he set up a strong fight, using the current to aid his bulk and speed. But Sansom, who was enjoying his first trip to Newhalen Lodge, took his time and made careful, intelligent adjustments to the fight, was victorious and landed the stocky fish without incident.

He wasn’t the 30-inch blockbuster kind of rainbow that anglers will land here in September but a stocky 24-inch, solid slab of muscle already made thicker and stronger by the diet of salmon eggs the fish had been enjoying.

I was busy tamping down the envy I was feeling by congratulating Sansom on a fine end to a wonderful day on the river when he hooked and landed another nice rainbow. And then another and then another.

I knew when my butt had been kicked and decided it was time to begin breaking down rods and getting ready for the trip on down the river to the plane.