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Salmon Fishing the Tsiu River

by Jeff Varvil

A happy client with fresh silver salmon  

Photo courtesy of Jeff Varvil      

Few men know the tributaries of the Tsiu River country as well as Sam Fejes, an Alaskan Master Guide and Outfitter, who has been flying and hunting the Tsiu River and its numerous drainages since his early teens. His uncle flew the mail route across the vast sodden Alaska wilderness between the Chugach Mountain Range and the Gulf of Alaska and would drop his nephews off for weeks at a time. Soon Fejes’s Forty-Five years of knowledge of the Tsiu country and the animals it held became legendary among serious sportsman. When it came to flying this country he was simply the King. So there was no question about whom I wanted to fish silvers with when the opportunity arose in the fall of 2005.

Getting there

Era aviation and Alaska airlines both offer daily flights out of Anchorage to Cordova for around $250 round trip. From there, Sam will pick you up with one of his three airplanes and take you on a once in a lifetime scenic flight to the main lodge. Cordova does offer full lodging and amenities for around $100 a night for those of you who decide to stay and fish the abundant road system rivers. Fejes picked me up in Cordova in late August and we flew east in his DeHavilland Beaver, the workhorse of all the classic Alaska bush-pilot aircraft, toward his lodge, which is located a mere two miles from the Tsiu River. The constant drone of the big throaty engine mesmerized me as we soared across miles of mud flats and river courses, over bays choked with floating ice, over flooded brown bear infested thickets thousands of yards wide. To the north, the second largest glacier in North America, the Bearing Glacier, swept down from 13,000-foot mountains. To the east, I could see the largest glacier in North America, the massive Malaspina Glacier. To the south, thirteen-foot surf pounded a black sand coastline that was deserted for hundreds of miles. This is truly the most beautiful place on earth.

I was snapped out of my self-induced coma by Sam’s voice in my headset.
“It’s rugged country out there, eat or be eaten,” Fejes said as he tipped the wing and pointed out the window at two brown bears feeding on a dead whale that had washed up on the beach. I strained to look at the magnificent sight. He knew he had my attention. “Lets get a look at the river,” and with that he made a hard turn that sent my breakfast on a roller coaster ride. “Sorry buddy, I forgot about your weak stomach,” his laughter boomed over the sound of the engine and into my ears.

Sam and I have been best friends for about 13 years now, and he had just evened up an old score he had with me. He had caught me daydreaming about my son Josh who had been staying out at the lodge for the summer; I was anxious to see him. Josh plays hockey with Sam’s son Hunter. The only thing eleven year old boys are better at than hockey, is fly-fishing. What a way for two boys to spend a summer. Our kids, just like many Alaskan kids, live a life others only can dream of.

I had little time to plan getting even for the dipsy-doo plane ride when this time he gently tipped the wing to reveal the famed Tsiu River. Its clear waters wind like a lost snake through the black sandy beach until it finally flows gently into the ocean. Every turn of the river revealed black shadows thrown by thousands of ocean fresh coho returning to complete their life cycle.

The Rivers:

Sam lands Cub on beach after lunch run.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Varvil

The headwaters of the Tsiu and Tsivat Rivers begin as small creeks 103 miles east of Cordova deep within the Yakataga State Game Refuge. They flow gently out of the Robinson Mountains slowly picking up size as they are fed from about two dozen smaller tributaries. They run gin clear most of the year and range in depth from 2-6 feet with obstruction free sandy bottoms. The black sandy dunes resemble the Sahara desert, and the likewise sandy river bottom provides a fly fisherman’s heaven, as both rivers are easily wadeable, with very little current. According to Glen Holowell, at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Cordova office, the Tsiu has around six thousand silvers in it at any given time. Both rivers also see great numbers of red and pink salmon and a small steelhead fishery. From early August until freeze up the giant silver salmon continue to migrate into the rivers daily. When asked about the fishing potential of Tsiu silver salmon in any one day; fly-fishing guru Tony Weaver said, “Bring a thousand flies; and you could break off a thousand fish, that’s how good it can be.”

The Lodge

The familiar grass runway appears on the horizon and Sam gently sets the big Beaver down and taxi’s us to the door of my cabin. My son greets me with hugs and the two boys cart off my gear just like they had been doing the entire summer. They return and I give them both $5 and they immediately disappear to stash their lute. If only we could all grow up with this kind of life and this kind of work ethic.

Started in1981 primarily as a hunting lodge, the Tsiu River lodge is tucked onto a small heavily wooded peninsula a mere 2 miles from the river. It boasts 5 deluxe cabins. It also has a full showering facility and a sauna. It has a separate “drying” building where guests can hang their wet clothes. If there is one thing you can count on in Cordova; it’s wet clothes.

His chef Diane fixes a first class homemade meal and we talk strategies for the upcoming week. The following day I was to have six clients flown in that were to be my charges. But tonight I would fish with the young boys, as they would try to show the old man why youth is still king. Sure enough, after fifteen minutes the boys appear rods at the ready.

Part of the excitement of a trip with Feje’s is that he fly's his clientele and lands on the beach next to the river daily. My stomach did not want to purchase another carnival ticket that afternoon so I opted to ride the Honda ATV’s down the beach. We loaded up the fly rods and Hunter and Josh expedited the way through the tangled web of trails in the southeast spruce forest. Sam told me it took six months to blaze this 2 mile trail from the lodge to the beach. The trees are as big as the Redwoods I have seen in Oregon. They have prehistoric looking moss-hanging ten feet off the branches to the forest floor making it impossible to see more than twenty yards at a time.

As we popped out onto the beach it could not help but remind me of Lake Superiors sandy beaches where I grew up. Rolling dunes of sand, grass and surf as far as the eye can see. The ocean broke into eight-foot waves on our right and would be a surfer dude’s dream. I mean except for the salmon sharks and orcas that frequent the beaches in search of easy meals. Seals bobbed in the ocean occasionally coming up with a fresh salmon. Hundreds of giant brown bear tracks and scat were washed away daily by high tides and frequent thunderstorms. The water collects on the sandy waterlogged surface making it impossible to tell if the water was an inch deep or a four foot hole.

The boys knew the trail well however and after a half hour of dodging tremendous waves and sink holes we arrived at the river following it to the ocean. The tide was just beginning to roll in and a small bore tide wave was actually coming up the river. Riding that wave was hundreds, maybe thousands, of silvers. We had hit it with perfect timing.

The Fishing

I broke out my nine foot TFO 8 Wt. 4 Peace fly rod and began assembly. I brought two reels. I chose a TFO 375 large Arbor Reel and loaded one spool with a 425-sink tip and one with a weight forward floating 9 Weight REO line. Not a purest by any means, I use 20 lb Maxima mono as a leader. A good drag is a must here as fish over twenty pounds are the norm, not the exception.

Josh with the surf behind him

Photo by Jeff Varvil

The boys having already assembled their rods and being the seasoned veterans they are begin hooking fish immediately. There was a fish to be had in every retrieve. When they missed a strike they simply stripped off line and began again. Each of them carried pliers in their pocket and while fighting silvers with one hand; they would reach down and release each other’s fish with the other. They worked as a team. I sat on the machine for a half hour watching the young Princes methodically work that section of water.

There was a group of elderly German fly fisherman on the opposite bank who had been there all morning. They would hoot with excitement every time the boys would land and release a fish. They were perhaps recapturing a distant memory of their youth again through the boys.

“When are you going to fish Coach?” Hunter would ask me. I was content just watching the two of them master what took me twenty years to learn. On every cast they would power through with their shoulder as if throwing a football into the wind. They would cast to the ocean and then in that moment turn and face the river launching that green Deceiver fifty yards or more into the river using the wind’s power. By the time I tied on a green George Davis special the duo had landed ten fish.

The river is constantly shifting and moving as the soft sand gives way to the rivers course. The river bottom is also made of fine sand so there are no snags or structure to lose expensive tackle. Green and red were the preferred colors of the day but I honestly think the Tsiu chrome silvers would have hit a bare hook under those conditions. They would violently slam streamers and immediately leap and dance upon the waters surface and more then once were escorted by twenty-pound fish back to the ocean. The seals kept a constant visual; I told the boys they were mermaids. I don’t think they bought it.

We caught and released at least 100 fish just at the mouth that day. Moving upstream about a mile the water slows to giant pools that resemble small lakes where silvers can be seen on the surface tailing. The boys again knew right where to go as this particular pool had well over a couple hundred fish in it. I changed out my sink tip reel and put on my weight forward floating line. I tied on a popper and mimicking the boys, I cast into the wind with my forehand and turned and launched the giant fly with my backhand. The trick is to not be afraid to lay the fly on the beach on the ocean side before sending it into heavens on your backhand. My line immediately went taught and my reel was screaming “NO MAS” into my backing within seconds. After a ten-minute battle I landed the smallest fish of the day at around eight pounds, which brought jeers from my young crew. At the end of the day there were too many stories to tell and too many fish landed to count.

We high-tailed it back to the lodge to get another one of Diane’s home cooked meals. With a full belly and sore arms I sat quietly in the lodge sorting through fly’s and reels preparing for my clients arrival the next morning.

The Clients

Five thirty in the morning and I had just finished another gourmet breakfast when my clients rolled out of their cabins and into the main lodge. The giddy smiles on their faces told me they were anticipating a great day of fishing. They had spent half the night talking strategies and techniques with the boys. James Lund, an accomplished fly fisherman in is own right, who is the district president for Wells Fargo, had invited some clients and their wives out to the lodge for some great salmon fishing. This was to be a freezer-filling trip as the Tsiu has a liberal limit of 4 fish each. The high tide was perfect that morning, due in at 8 am. After the proper introductions were made, I let them get some homemade waffles, and the boys and I loaded up the ATV’s, complete with the fish tote trailer and we began our journey down to the Tsiu.

Seven AM and the plane appeared on the horizon and Sam again gently tapped the tires down in the soft sand along the beach and taxied the plane up to the banks of the river. The girls were armed with nine foot ugly sticks with Shimano spinning reels. Green pixies were their ammo of choice. The men used Temple Fork Outfitters new Tri X 8 and 9 Weights fly rods with a fast sink tip line. The boy’s anticipation was heavy in the air and contagious. The green and silver deceiver was their fly of choice and the massacre began as soon as the flies and lures hit the water. All six of the rod tips immediately were bent to the water on each of the first casts.

Watching the boy’s coach their newfound friends was worth the ticket price, as fish after fish was landed on the beach that morning. Hunter and Josh would politely ask if each client wanted to keep this particular fish. If the green light was given they immediately bled the fish, knocked it over the head and put it on a stringer. I was simply there to retie flies and lures and give instruction when applicable. The boy’s were natural born guides in the making. They had reached the point in their young lives where they were just as happy to see someone else succeeding, than catch fish themselves.

Six very happy comrades.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Varvil

Around noon, Sam flew down a shore lunch and we all ate greedily upon the ocean sand. I released the boys from active duty and they went beach combing with the girls. The beach is a treasure chest as every incoming tide brings in new found jewels such as 100-year-old glass Japanese fish floats and other odds and ends.

The fishing stayed good all afternoon as the men spread out along the beach searching for their own private piece of Alaska. Sam flew down at 4 pm and flew our very happy charges back to the lodge to get showered up for dinner. The boys and I loaded all 24 fish in the tote and drove back to the lodge. We filleted and vacuumed sealed all the fish and dropped them into a freezer for later consumption. These are the trips that memories are made of. What more can a man ask for?

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage. 

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