The surest sign you’ve landed in the Alaska, the land of glaciered peaks and midnight sunsets, is the stream of empty Duct Taped coolers clogging up the luggage carousel — even tourist know its the cheapest method of bringing back salmon fillets. And yes, the primacy of fishing here is unquestioned. Come summer, all eyes turn towards the rivers, where the salmon, millions of single-minded torpedoes, begin their upstream migration. And while there are plenty of fisheries that support all five species of Pacific salmon — king, coho, pink, sockeye, and chum — there are only a select few where you can catch all of them, on a fly rod, in single day.
In piscatory circles, the feat is called Salmon Grand Slam, and it’s only possible in late July or early August, when the kings, sockeyes, pinks, and chums overlap on their kamikaze spawning missions with the coho salmon, the last to hightail it upriver. In Alaska, the only single river where stand a chance of pulling off the Slam is the Kanektok, a 90-mile river that courses through the low plains and mud flats of Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, on its way to the Bering Sea. Locals call it the Fish Factory, and it doesn’t disappoint. "The Kanektok is not a real big river," says Bryan Burke, the camp manager at Alaska West, one of a half -dozen lodges on the river’s banks. "But it has everything: deep water, shallow water, a strong main channel, and braids. There’s more traffic here than across the sea in Russia, in Kamchatka, but it’s pretty damn close in terms of its remoteness and numbers of fish."
In July, most fisherman at the lodge are chasing chum and kings in the morning, near the mouth of the river, where the fish are freshest and fight hardest. In the afternoon or early evening, it’s tradition to downsize the rod to reel in a bunch of sockeye, the best-eating salmon, to haul back home. Occasionally you’ll catch a pink, and then all of sudden you’re only a coho away come dinnertime. "Completing the slam: That’s probably the only exception we may for taking clients out at the end of the day," says Burke, "We get just as excited, and someone will likely say ‘we gotta go do this.’" Of course, it’s fishing, which means no guarantees. But if you do miss out, there’s always tomorrow. And what the hell, you’ll still be going home with a cooler-full of fillets.