Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Realizing A Dream (Elk Hunting Turned Salmon Fishing)

Note:  This blog entry is my submission for the Red Tuna Shirt Club and Outdoor Blogger Network Writing Contest. The writing contest requests a blog entry discussing your dream fishing destination, who you would fish with, and what species you would fish for.  Since I recently returned from my dream trip, I just had to enter the contest.  Thanks in advance to Red Tuna and the OBN.  If you have never visited the OBN (Outdoor Blogger Network), I would highly encourage you to do so as it is a treasure trove of interesting blogs that span the outdoor spectrum.  

My dream fishing trip started in the most unlikely manner.  It actually began as an Elk hunt.  At the beginning of this year, I declared 2011 to be the year of the Elk.  I was determined to plan and execute an archery Elk hunt no matter what.  Several months into my planning phase, I suffered a knee injury that would eliminate any possibility of me hiking miles and miles up and down the Rocky Mountains.  I was devastated, but not deterred.  I began to research alternatives and continued to dream big.  I asked myself, "If I could go anywhere, where would I want to go."  The answer was easy, Alaska!  After a little research, the trip morphed into a Sockeye Salmon trip at the world famous confluence of the Russian and the Kenai rivers.  This would be a solo trip partly because my fishing buddy had a conflict, but also because I was seeking solitude as a refuge from several months of grueling work at my job.   After much planning and preparation, the day to depart for the trip during the first week of August arrived and I was traveling North!

I awoke from a deep sleep not knowing where I was.  I looked around and realized that I was sleeping in a van down by the river.  No this wasn't a Saturday Night Live skit with the late Chris Farley, I had rented a camper van and was camping at the Russian River campground in Alaska!  Not wanting to waste a single second of precious Alaska time, I quickly grabbed my gear and headed to the river.  As I descended the long trail from the camping area to the river confluence, another group of fisherman coming up the hill yelled "Hey, watch out for that bear!"  I thought, man how do they know I am a new guy?  They are already pulling my leg.  At that instant I looked to my right and realized I was no more than 10 feet from a bear!  I froze in my tracks and then slowly backed up.  The fisherman that had yelled the warning were closer now and we all yelled at the bear to discourage him from approaching.  Luckily for everyone involved, the bear turned and left the scene.

I arrived at the confluence of the two rivers and although I had high expectations of my dream destination, this place far exceeded them.  The waters were crystal clear except for the deepest sections of the river and those areas were a stunning turquoise color that I can only guess comes from the glacier melt feeding these beautiful waters.  Fisherman lined the banks as slugs of Sockeye swam upstream to their spawning grounds.  I jockeyed for my position among them and began to fish.  

As this was my first time Sockeye Salmon fishing, I knew very little.  I had read everything I could find on the subject, but nothing beats experience.  After watching and talking to those that were successful, I began to catch on.  The next few days were filled with the sheer exhilaration of sight casting to Sockeyes as they swam by.  Although the water was filled with salmon, not all the fish are created equal.  Those that have already turned deep red with green heads are already in their spawn phase and are no longer fit to be eaten, but he chrome silver fish and even the purple blushed salmon are among the finest eating fish you will ever take a bite of.  There color phase is determined by the amount of time they have spent in fresh water as they migrate from the ocean up river.  The red salmon are called "Fire Trucks or Tomatoes" and the silver salmon are called "Chromers".  I did catch more "Fire Trucks" than "Chromers", but all of them put up a tremendous fight and were a blast to catch!

A Chromer, Just Right For the Grill

A Fire Truck, Very Pretty But Not Edible

One specific afternoon stands out on this trip and it is something that I will remember forever.  I had returned to the river the afternoon ready to catch my limit of fish for the day.  I noticed that all the fisherman appeared to be doing well as they called out "Fish On!" as this was customary so that others close by would know to give them room to play their fish.  I stepped into the cool clear waters and  I knew I would have my limit within an hour.   I was wrong.  My fishing mojo had left me and it appeared that even small boys were able to out fish me.  As the evening drew near, most everyone left with their limits and  the crowds thinned out.  I had only managed to snag the rocks on the stream bed as I drifted my coho flies down stream.  Also, I was running dangerously low on tackle, but coincidentally I had snagged another fishing line in the stream bed that was attached to several flies that other fisherman had lost.  I checked the sharpness of the hooks and they were still in great shape so I tossed them in with my gear.   The sun began to sink toward the tree tops  of the valley and the air was getting noticeably  cooler.  It is now or never I said to myself as I resumed my fishing.  Just like that, my fishing mojo returned.  The bite turned on for me and I managed to land two long chrome hens one after another.  I then lost my last good coho fly on a rock in the deepest part of the stream.  Things looked bad, but I remembered the old flies I had retrieved from the stream bed earlier.  I pulled out an odd purple looking fly that was a little beat up as it was missing much of the deer hair that had originally been tied onto it, but the hook was sharp and I didn't have anything better to fish with.  I tossed the fly out into the stream where the shadows of the trees hung over the water.  The fly hadn't drifted more than a few feet when the water erupted and my fly rod gave a violent jerk forward.  I had hooked into a really big buck Sockeye and he was a feisty one!  The fish turned on his afterburners and surged upstream taking me with him.  Without notice he turned sideways in the strong current of the Kenai and then headed back downstream.  Again, I was following the fish downstream.  Over the last several days of fishing, although all the Sockeye had been strong, I never had to walk the bank as I attempted to retrieve a fish, but this was no ordinary Sockeye.  Each time I thought I had him close to the shallower waters near the bank, he would get his second wind and surge into deep water.  I had now traveled about 30 yards downstream and the other fisherman near me stopped casting and were watching the battle, waiting to see if they should cheer or groan.  I began to worry about the strength of my line.  "Did I tie a strong enough knot?"  "Were there any abrasions in the line from the rocks that would allow it to break?"  These questions and others flashed through my mind in an instant.  I needed to end this fight and land this fish before my line snapped.  I had learned one trick watching other fisherman and the behavior of the fish.   When a salmon decided he was going to surge forward, there was no stopping him, but if you could get him turned as he started that surge, he would thrust himself right up on to the shore.  I saw my opportunity as the fish gave just enough that I could point him toward land and, as if on command, he gave a  tremendous sprint forward onto the bank.  I pounced on the fish with both hands since I didn't have a net.  I quickly dispatched the fish (as is customary in Alaska salmon fishing) with a quick blow to the head from a river rock and placed him up on my stringer.  
My Most Memorable Catch

With immense satisfaction, I hoisted the heavy stringer over my shoulder and began my journey upstream to the cleaning tables.  As I reached the confluence of the river I sat back and looked at these magnificent fish and the gorgeous sunset that was materializing before me and I just gave thanks for all of my blessings.  I had traveled to the top of the world on a solo trip with no more than a few books and some internet research to guide me.  I met wonderful  people and had tremendous experiences that I will cherish the rest of my days.  This was truly a dream fishing tip, but this is one dream that I intend to revisit!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anticipation and Adjusting Expectations

It may not feel like it.  No, it doesn't even feel like it is remotely close, but Fall is coming.  Crisp cool mornings, chilly nights, and the Fall hunting seasons are drawing closer despite the fact that the dog days of Summer continue to beat down on us all.  As August passes, I am filled with anticipation and engage in preparations for the upcoming dove season.  When I was a boy, I wouldn't do much prep for the season except buy shells and put a plug in my shotgun (as required for migratory birds), but now I seem to do a little more.  This isn't because I need to prepare more.  I do it to feel like I am moving myself closer to the long anticipated beginning of the multiple hunting seasons where I will pursue dove, deer, quail, turkeys, and maybe even some predators.

This August is much like last year, except it is hotter and dryer.  Consistent with last year, I again signed up for a dove lease with DFW Hunt so that I can hunt near my home after work and on the weekends.  There are many dove lease outfitters in the area, but these guys work hard to have detailed aerial maps available for all the fields, provide advice based on their scouting, and are a pleasure to deal with.  Also, I received a discount for buying my lease earlier in the year and by providing them a video I created for their web site.

Last weekend was the "Dove Tour" of the fields available North of DFW and I attended as part of my pre-season scouting.  It was obvious from the tour, that this year will be really tough.  The birds appear to be concentrated in a few areas and it will mean that there will also be a concentration of dove hunters in those same few areas.

This weekend I returned to the dove fields to do some early morning scouting.  I started with my favorite field from last year.  I parked in the center of the pasture, got out my 10X50 Leopold binos, and started glassing.  I saw a sly coyote in the distance trotting through a cut Milo field, slipping in-between cows as he works his way across the field looking for rodents and rabbits.  I saw giant clouds of starlings and purple martins pass over head, but the skies were devoid of dove.  I did catch a glimpse of two mourning doves speeding across a field low to the ground, but they were about a quarter mile away.

No Doves Here

I drove to the next field a few miles down the road.  Last year this field was planted with Milo and had been cut prior to dove season.  The scattered grain left by the harvesters was a feast for the doves and it was obvious as large groups of birds poured into and out of this field.  This year the field had been planted to wheat and the crop was very poor, yielding little grain.  There was little to no activity in this field except for doves moving from a wooded area across the field and traveling to the next dove field South across the road.  This field will be the epicenter of activity come opening morning.  It was planted with Milo, but had been cut for hay due to the poor crop.  Despite the fact that it didn't make enough grain for harvest, the hay bailing process had scattered what little Milo seed there was all over the field.  Massive flocks of white wing doves circle this field and roost along the high lines and in the surrounding trees.

Glassing another field without many sightings

White Wing Doves resting after feasting on Milo

As the sun rose so did the temperatures.  I headed back home to grab a quick lunch and to head down to Irving to get some practice at the gun club.  I grew up shooting skeet and trap, but I have taken up shooting a new game called five stand.  This is much like sporting clays, but you shoot 25 shots from five locations with different combinations from six different clay pigeon throwers.  I like it because it provides multiple shot situations and is good preparation for bird hunting.

a Five Stand shooting field

Eye and Ear Protection, Check!

I also expanded my fleet of dove decoys by 100 percent!  I bought an additional Mojo Dove decoy bringing my total decoys to two (impressive, I know)!  I became a firm believer in this decoy last year and since Cabela's was having a sale and was selling them for $30 instead of $40, I had to purchase one!   That's funny, I now sound like my wife.

The final item on my check list to prepare for dove season is that I must adjust my expectations for this year's season.  In the past I have measured the success of a dove hunting outings based on the number of birds in my bag.  A limit of birds would be success and anything less, well it isn't.  This year looks tough, so I am redefining my terms to harvesting enough birds for a few dinners and enjoying the great outdoors with fellow sportsman.  If I get a limit it will be a bonus.  Good luck everyone.  Shoot strait and most of all, be safe!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

End Of The Adventure (Part 4 of my Alaska Trip)

This is the final installment of my Alaska Fishing trip.

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

Day 4 (A Missed Opportunity, Expensive Lesson, and Tomatoes)
It was cloudy, gray with low hanging clouds covering the mountain tops on Day 4.  I made my way down to the river along the walking path and I saw a guy that looks very anxious but happy to see me.  He recognized that I was carrying a can of bear spray and my 44 Mag on my hip.  He asked "can I walk with you?".  I tell him sure, but ask why and he says that he was just standing on the pathway when a black bear walked right by him.  He was noticeably shaken although it appears the bear was more interested in fish than him.  He walked with me to the confluence of the river without another sighting.

Once I made it to my favorite stretch of water in the Kenai, I waded into the stream and began to cast in hopes of intercepting another sockeye.  Before long I had a big, beautiful hen on.  She looked like she was just beginning to turn red and was more of a blush or purple color.  After a great fight, she was on the bank and I thought I had her.  I was wrong.  I went to whack the fish when it all went horribly wrong.  She thrashed, the fly dislodged from her mouth, my hands surged forward to grab her, but she could sense that freedom was only inches away.  A few flops, splashes and then silence.  She was gone!  I just stood there, disgusted with my mistake and missed opportunity.   I had caught and landed the fish, but didn't seal the deal.  That really stunk!  Disappointed, I re-rigged my fly rod and stepped back into my spot.  I flipped my fly out into the current and resumed my process.  Often my fly got stuck on the stream floor and I would either be able to dislodge it or I would break my line and re-rig my fly and weights.  Again, I was snagged this morning, but I was determined not to waste any time tying my flies.  I yanked my rod, but the snag wouldn't give up my hook.  I walked out to the deep water and gave my rod more of a jerk and then I made a mistake.  I grabbed my rod mid way up with my other hand as I tried to yank the hook loose and then "SNAP"!  "Oh no, that can't be good"  I said.  I looked at my formerly beautiful four piece fly rod that was now a five piece rod.  I had snapped one of the sections in two.  At this point, I kinda giggled at myself.  Oh, well.  That was an expensive lesson, but I am having the time of my life and I am not going to let this ruin my day.  Lesson learned.

I had a back-up rod, but it was back at the van.  I took the walk of shame back to camp grumbling all the way.  "I should know better than that" I said to myself.  Well, I always have said that mistakes are valuable as long as we learn from them, so I was determined to not repeat this mistake.  Once I got back to camp, I decided to vacuum seal my fish from the day before and take them to be frozen.  I began my process and noticed that the vacuum sealer wouldn't turn on.  "Houston we have a problem!"  I wiggled every wire I could find and still could not get the vacuum sealer to come to life.  I decided I would just have to drop off my fillets and ask the fish processor to vacuum seal them for me.

As I drove to the store I wondered if it was the vacuum sealer that broke, or was it the 12 volt plug-in.  As I pulled up to the Kenai Cache sporting goods store, I grabbed my vacuum sealer and carried it up to a 110 volt outlet on the porch.  I plugged it in and it turned on!  "It's ALIVE" I proclaimed!  Great, that my vacuum sealer will work, but can I vacuum seal my fish on the front porch of this store?   I have seen the owner of the Kenai Cache before and he is a grumpy retired military guy that chews up and spits out nice people, so I was not going to ask him.  I found one of his employees that looked more friendly and explained my dilemma.  Once he figured out I was only vacuum sealing a few fish, he said "sure, go ahead".  So there I was, on the front porch of a sporting goods store, as people are walking by, vacuum sealing my salmon fillets like this is just normal. After a few strange, looks from passers by, I was done.  I also decided to replace my fly rod even though I had a spinning rod back in the van.  It just is more fun to fish with a fly rod and they made me a great deal on a beautiful 4 piece St. Croix rod!

I made it back to camp, had a great lunch and hustled back to the river.  I only had one more afternoon and one more morning to fish and I wasn't about to waste it.  When I got back to the river bank, it wasn't encouraging.  I didn't see many fish on the stringers and they didn't seem to be moving much.  As I began to fish, I could tell why I wasn't seeing many fish on the stringers.  It appeared that almost all the fish moving through the area were all tomatoes.  That is Alaskan slang for red spawned-out salmon that have been in the fresh water for to long and are near the end of their life.  They are pretty to look at, but are not good to eat.  I must have hooked into five or six that afternoon and although they were great fighters, I had to turn them loose.  I decided I wanted to get a picture of one to show everyone at home so I began my quest.  The first one I caught, I had him on the bank and was calling out to the guy next to me to help with a picture.  By the time he agreed and I reached for my camera (in my back-pack) the fish had escaped.  The next one also got away.  Then the third time was the charm!  I pinned this one down and convinced a young fella next to me to quickly snap the pic so I could return the fish to the water unharmed.  Some people say these tomatoes are ugly, but I think they are kinds cool to look at.

Pretty, but not good to eat!

Rain began to come down and got heavier as the evening drew on.  I decided to go back to camp and cook my dinner.  I had to eat in my van due to the rain, but it didn't take long for me to get comfortable and fall asleep.

Day 5 (Hunting For Gifts and Supper By The Lake At Sundown)
The next morning the fishing was nearly the same as the evening before.  Very slow with lots of tomatoes swimming by.  I wasn't able to "weed" through them to find any chrome salmon, but it was a beautiful morning of fishing.  I had to head back to the camp by 11:00 AM and pack up all my gear and be out of the campground by Noon at check-out time.  As I turned out of the Russian River campground, I was sad.  My salmon fishing had come to an end, but now I needed to head down the road and find a few gifts for my daughters and nephew.  I drove toward Soldotna, but ended up stopping in Sterling at a gift shop that was inside a huge log cabin.  The banner outside said "Going Out Of Business, Everything 50% Off".  Now I wasn't trying to be cheap, but this looked interesting.  I was amazed at what I saw.  Although it was obvious much of their inventory was gone, what they had was cool.  The store was entirely native made art.  There were carvings, knives (mostly ulus), pelts and all manner of things.  I found a moose antler that had an awesome carving weaved into the center of the palm.  I looked at the price and it was $2,000!  Wow, I may have wandered into the wrong store.  I continued to look and found just was I was searching for.  My goal was to bring back something that was truly Alaskan and not something manufactured in China that had Alaska slapped on it.  I spotted some small walrus tusk carvings that looked interesting.  I found an owl and a bear head and these just happened to be my daughters favorite animals!  Now for my nephew, there wasn't anything that a little boy would find exciting in this store, so I went down the road to the next gift shop and hit pay dirt.  This gift shop was also a taxidermy shop and they had skulls, claws, and teeth of all manner of fierce Alaskan animals!  I settled on a wolf claw necklace.  If I had gotten that when I was my nephew's age, I likely would have never taken it off.  I hope he likes it.

Now that my shopping was done, I headed back toward Anchorage.  I stopped off at the Kenai Cache and picked up my frozen fish.  They were a sight to behold!  Beautiful reddish orange fillets, laying in my cooler.  I took the clothes I didn't need for the remainder of the trip and lined the bottom of the cooler with them.  I then placed my fillets in the middle and then covered them with more clothes.  Then I duct taped the cooler shut so it would stay cold.  I drove back to Anchorage and dropped my cooler off at the Ted Stevens Airport Freezer Storage and then headed for Wasilla.  Along the way I had stopped for a few pictures but I really wanted to do something my last evening in Alaska.  I decided for a road trip North!

Not a road sign I see in Texas

I knew that I didn't have enough daylight to drive all the way to Denali, but I thought maybe I can drive North of Wasilla and see the mountains in the distance and fish some of the streams along the way.  My first stop was Willow State Park.  The park seemed very empty and there was no one in the guard shack to collect the day use or camping fee, so I continued on.  If I stayed, I would just deposit my fee in an envelope and place it in a collection box, but I wasn't convinced that I was staying here.  I walked to the river and found a couple ladies fishing the river and I struck up a conversation.  I said, "you catching anything"? They replied, "yes!"  "Yesterday, my fiend caught a chum salmon".  I said, "and nothing else?"  They replied "No, not today".   Well it was clear that this wouldn't be a productive spot, but I marveled at the determination of these ladies.  I was also surprised at the cloudy and almost muddy water.  It looked nothing like the clear streams of the Kenai.  I asked about the water clarity and they said that the water was higher due to recent rains, but this river wasn't very clear most of the time.  Wow, glad I didn't decide to fish here all week.

Willow River

I continued down the road and discovered that, despite the fact that the sky was clearing, Denali mountain and all the other mountains up North were completely shrouded in clouds.  I continued North and stopped at Sheep creek to check out the fishing there.  There isn't an official campground there, but there were a lot of people camping.  There was a bon fire going with loud music playing and a bunch of guys talking loudly to each other.  This doesn't look like a picture of serenity to me.  I walked down to the river and saw the same cloudy water conditions and saw many people fishing, but nobody had any fish.  Well this wasn't looking good. It was getting late, so I got back in the Van and headed South.

I hadn't had dinner yet and I needed to organize all my gear and pack for my trip home the next morning.  I was planning on pulling into the yard of the people who had rented me the van and sleeping there for the night, but I wanted to be out in the bush for a little while longer.  I was driving along and said out loud"That's it"!  There was a beautiful lake by the road and there was a nice pull-out area that appeared to be there for access to this small lake.  I decided I would drag all my gear out here, get organized and packed and then cook dinner.  It was a perfect evening.  Almost no one came down that road, there was no wind, and the temperature was perfect.  I had a blast cleaning out the van, packing up, and cooking dinner.  As I ate my freeze dried chicken and rice, I watched the sun go down over the Alaska horizon (at about 10:30 PM).  It was a perfect ending to my first Alaskan adventure.

Dining like a king in Alaska

A perfect ending to my trip

Day 6 (The Journey Home)
I said good bye to this wonderful spot and headed back to Wasilla.  I rolled into the backyard of the people renting me the Van at midnight and went straight to bed.  I awoke the next morning at 7:00 AM to have some breakfast and get ready.  I went up to the house to return the Van and my hosts (Sabine and Joe) were excited to hear about my trip.  They were even gracious enough to allow me to take a much needed shower (that was wonderful)!  Sabine took me to the airport and I began my journey home.  I flew into Seattle and then on to the DFW airport where my family was waiting for me.  Along the way, I was even able to snap a few more great photos.  Some of the coast of Alaska and also some really close pics of Mount Rainier.

Mount Rainer Up Close

It was midnight when I arrived back in Texas, but my wife and two daughters were kind enough to meet me at the airport to pick me up.  My girls were so excited to see me that it almost made me cry.  I had missed my wife and daughters so much and I was so excited to tell them about all that I had seen and done.   They loved their gifts and proudly displayed them in their rooms that night.  The fish fillets were transferred to the freezer, still rock hard I might add, and we all went to bed since I had to go back to work the next morning.

As I reflect upon this trip, I marvel at the raw wilderness that is Alaska and count myself lucky to have seen a glimpse of it, even if I never ventured far from the road system.  I am so glad that I decided to take this trip and I hope this is the first of many visits to the last frontier.  Hmm, I wonder if there are any books on caribou or moose hunting in Alaska on a budget.  I should research that!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Big Fish At Sundown (Part 3 of My Alaska Trip)

This is the third installment of my Alaska Salmon fishing trip:

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

Link to Part 4

Day 3 (Hey isn't that a Bear in the pathway!)
Since I was able to get to bed at a decent time the night before, I was up early on Day 3.  I gathered my gear and headed down to the river.  It was a little after 6:00 AM, but there was plenty of light since the Alaska sun rises at about 5:00 AM (and by the way it sets at 10:30 PM and there is twilight till midnight).  As I made my way down the stairs and onto the path, I have my bear spray ready in my hand just as a precaution, I also have a loaded revolver on my hip (a 44 Mag) and I am very loud on the path.  I am doing all of this because I am traveling through a densely wooded area adjacent to a river with a lot of bear chow also known as salmon.  Sure enough, not more than 40 yards away, a bear steps into the pathway.  I immediately stop my progress, but I can tell that the bear isn't interested in me.  He hesitates for only a moment as he glances my way and continues on to the nearby stream.  I quickly reach into my pack for my camera, eager to get a picture of the bear in the stream.  I slowly advance to the point along the path were he crossed, but I have to be cautious, he could still be in the brush close by.  As I walk up, other fisherman are coming back from the river and I let them know that a bear just crossed.  They called back that they could see him in the stream and that the path is safe.  I quickly jog up to their position to see if I can get a glimpse, but it is almost too late.  As I looked back I saw the bear crossing the other side of the river with a very large salmon dangling from his mouth.  There was no time for a picture, dang-it!

I arrived at the section of river that I preferred to fish and was delighted to see that there weren't many fisherman there yet and there were large number of salmon moving through.  I was amazed how close to the shoreline the fish were passing.  I have read that Sockeye Salmon prefer to swim in the shallower water of a stream along the edge because the current isn't as strong there.  Normally fishermen feel the need to wade out until the water is over their knees, but this morning you barely needed to get your feet wet.  As people show up later in the morning, I would see the salmon being driven into deeper waters by those that didn't know better.

Sharing the sunrise on the Kenai with a few other fishermen

Much like the morning before, I had early success.  With the help of my polarized sunglasses, I was able to pick-out a group of fish to cast toward and successfully hooked up with a chromer.  After landing my first fish, more people began to show up and fewer chrome salmon were coming by.  I began to catch more salmon, but they were fire trucks or tomatoes as the Alaskans refer to them.  These are salmon that have been in freshwater for a long period of time as they return to spawn and they are nearing the end of their life cycle.  As a result, the fish undergo a metamorphosis from a bright silvery or chrome color to a deep red color.  Their features also become exaggerated as they develop humps on their back and hooked snouts (for some species).  Their flesh also deteriorates and becomes mushy and not desirable.  Regardless of the fact that I caught many fish, only one that morning was fit for human consumption.  I left for the morning to vacuum seal my fish and deliver them to the freezer for storage.

This year was a historic one for the Sockeye Salmon run in the Kenai river and this is a bit of a paradox for the fishing at the Kenai and Russian River confluence because it was not one of their best years.  If I can digress a moment from my travels, I will explain.

The Kenai river on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska is described as having three parts: the lower, the middle, and the upper sections.  For our discussion we will only really discuss the lower and upper.  There are fish counting sonars installed at different points on many rivers to assist the Alaska Fish & Game Department in managing the salmon runs for commercial fisheries, as well as subsistence and sport fishermen.  Each year salmon return from the ocean to the rivers that they originated from (when they hatched) and these runs can be huge or small depending upon the mortality of the original hatch of fish and/or how well they fared in the ocean.  The Fish & Game Department has a goal (actually it is a range) of how many fish should return to the spawning grounds to reproduce.  Too few fish would mean that not enough salmon will hatch and too many would mean that there could be a shortage of food to support the young salmon as they hatch.  In either case it could be disaster.

The goal for the number of fish to enter the Lower Kenai river is 700 thousand to 1.2 million fish.  This year they have had nearly 1.6 million fish pass through the sonar at the time I was writing this blog.  On one day alone there were 230 thousand fish moving up the river.  The Fish & Game responded by doubling the sport fishing limits for Sockeye and also liberalizing the restrictions on the commercial fisherman as well.

Cumulative Sockeye Count in Kenai River

Daily Count of Sockeye in Kenai River
 When I saw this data on the Alaska Fish & Game web site, I was elated!  This looked to be a banner year for Sockeye fishing!  Well there was a catch (pun intended).  A record number of fish did enter the Lower Kenai River.  They then swim through the middle section and should arrive at the Upper Kenai River and pass by my fishing location in large masses or that is what should happen.  This year this "record number" of fish just stopped for an extended period of time in Skilak Lake (just before they arrived at my fishing location).  Now many people have theorized several reasons for this.  Some think that most of these fish were originally hatched from Skilak Lake and that is the reason they didn't continue their journey upstream and others have said that the water conditions (including temperature) just weren't right for them to move up river yet, but they will.  Whatever the reason, many of the Sockeye spent a longer than normal amount of time in this lake and as a consequence when they arrived in my area, many of them had turned from a beautiful silver color (ready for my dinner table) to an also beautiful red color but they were no longer any good to eat.  Hence you will see fishing reports where people say that they had to sort through the tomaters to find a few good chromers.  This is what I had been doing as well with limited success.

Lower and Middle Kenai River

Upper Kenai River

After heading back to camp to vacuum seal my fish, I deposited them with Kenai Cache freezer services and picked up a few more flies and weights (you lose a lot while fishing on the rocks in the stream).  I was then ready to get back at it again.  The afternoon was the clearest sunny day we had yet.  The bank was packed with fisherman and there were fish on everyone's stringers.  They were really moving through.  Even small boys were having great luck.  It appeared everyone was calling out "Fish On" every other minute.  On the other hand, I appeared to be cursed.  I found every  snag in the river as I lost one fly and set of weights after another.  I could see the fish, but I could not get a hook-up to save my life.  The fishing mojo appeared to have left me and although I know I should just enjoy my time while fishing, it is infuriating when everyone is catching fish except you.

I endured this spectacle all afternoon, but as the crowd thinned out and the sun began to set, my mojo returned.  The shadows of the trees descended upon the section of the stream I was fishing and I wasn't able to see into the water as well, but I knew the salmon were there.  I hooked up with two nice hens (females) in quick succession.  The stress of going back to camp empty handed had left me.  I stepped back into the stream and snagged something deep in the water and broke my line.  I was running low on flies, but I had actually drug up another fly from the stream bed earlier in the afternoon when it got tangled in my line.  I was desperate for tackle, so I tied on this purple recycled fly.  I checked the hook point to ensure it was sharp and it passed my test.

I threw the fly out into the deeper water of a dark pool and suddenly the stream erupted.  I pulled my rod tip high as I attempted to set the hook and skimming just under the surface was a huge buck Sockeye Salmon.  He surged upstream aggravated by the fly in his mouth and then just as quickly turned back down stream.  In all my previous battles with Sockeye, they had been fierce fighters, but this was different.  I actually had to walk down the bank as I fought this fish.  My pole bent at such an angle, I feared it might break.  Other fisherman stopped casting and looked in my direction to see what all the commotion was.  I was thinking to myself "I should have used heavier line, this 17 pound test may give!"  'Did I tie my knots well enough?'  'Were there abrasions on the line that might be a weak spot?' All these thoughts ran through my mind in a flash, but there was no time to dwell on what I should have done to prepare for this fish.  I had to balance giving out line as the fish ran the stream with taking in line when he gave back distance.  There was one advantage I could employ when the opportunity presented itself.  I found that salmon will surge forward at times and if you were able to turn them so that their surge directed them to the bank, they would almost beach themselves.  After several minutes of fighting, the opportunity arrived and I was able to coax him on the shore.  I descended upon him like a hungry wolf trying to ensure he didn't make it back to the water.  One whack of a large but smooth river stone and the fish lay still.

It was the perfect ending to my day of fishing.  This had been a battle that I could envision Hemingway writing about much more eloquently than I  could ever attempt.  I hoisted my stringer and made my way to the cleaning tables.  The fish were really heavy and that made the walk back even sweeter.  I envisioned the fresh salmon fillets that I would enjoy with my family when I returned home. Along the way, I had to put my fish on the gravel bar as I retrieved my fillet knife and bag for the fillets.  Several other fishermen passed me and commented "nice haul of fish"!  Not bad for a cheechako (that is Native Alaskan slang for new comer or tender foot).

Waiting for the cleaning tables to become available (see tables in the stream)

That evening I saw the most magnificent sunset of the trip.  The weather was perfect with clear cool skies, the sound of rushing water, and the tug of strong fish at the end of my line.  Dinner was superb as I had freeze dried chili mac while lounging by the campfire.  If only every day could be this magnificent!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Van Named Fred (Part 2 of My Alaska Trip)

Here is the second installment of my Alaska Fishing trip.  I have included the same video with this post (at the bottom) that I had in Part 1 since it covers the entire trip.

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

Link to Part 4

Day 2 (Moving Campgrounds)
To say that I was exhausted after staying up nearly all night getting to Alaska and then fishing till sundown at 10:30 PM and eating dinner and reorganizing my gear till well past midnight would be an understatement.  Needless to say, I slept in well past 8:00 AM, had a hardy breakfast of backpacker eggs and bacon (they were dehydrated and actually very good), brewed a cup of coffee (thanks to Starbucks Via), broke camp at Cooper Creek Campground and prepared to move to the Russian River Campground.  You might ask why I didn't just start at the Russian River Campground if that is where I wanted to fish anyway.  Well because the Russian River Campground is so popular, you can only camp there for 3 nights in a row regardless if there are openings (which usually there are not).  I decided that I would reserve the Russian for Thursday through Sunday morning and I camped at Cooper Creek the first night (Wednesday) to get me close to the fishing.

Breakfast of champions!
As I began to leave the Cooper Creek Campground, I noticed that there was a small name tag on the driver window of my Van.  It said "FRED".  Then I looked at my key chain and also noticed it said "FRED".  Well, it seems that my van has a name.  From that point on in my trip, I began to speak to my van as if it was a person in my group of one.  "Come-on Fred, let's get going, the fish aren't going to just jump into my cooler".  There is fishing to be done!

I arrived at the Russian River Campground, but I couldn't check into my camping spot until after 2:00 PM so I just got a parking permit and went fishing in the mean time.  Once I made it down to the fishing area at the confluence, I saw several familiar faces from fishing the day before.  They gave me a hard time for rolling in late (around 9:00 AM) asking if I got enough beauty sleep.  I told them that you don't get this handsome by just rolling out of bed in the early dawn.  I could tell it had been a good morning for everyone as many stringers were full of fish and although the bite was slowing, it was still going well.

Finding a spot to fish along a line of fisherman (and fisherwomen) is a delicate thing here.  Large numbers of people fishing together is called "Combat Fishing" in Alaska and it means that you have to claim a spot and defend it as the fishing pressure is high along the choice areas.  I hung back and waited for an opportunity.  There was a family fishing along a good stretch of the river when the mother decided that she had enough and she would take a seat near some others in her party.  I saw my opportunity and seized it.  One thing that I had noticed the day before was that the people who were most successful fishing all seemed to be wearing polarized sunglasses.  I had not been wearing mine yesterday since I was wearing my glasses.  Today I would not make that mistake.  I stepped up to the fishing spot and stripped out some line from my fly rod.  I gazed into the water and saw several red spawned out salmon moving past me.  There were surely some good "chromer" salmon (this is what Alaskan's call fresh salmon that are still in good shape to eat as they are fresh from the ocean) with them and every once in a while you could see the flash of a tale from one of them.  Today I had everything in order.  There was adequate weight on my line, my fly was trimmed down like others had shown me, and I was confident I knew what I was doing.  After only a couple of casts, BAM!  Fish On!  I hooped as the fish took off and it was immediately obvious that this was a nice "chromer".  After a good fight, he was on the beach and I quickly dispatched him with a rock.  The lady who had been in this spot earlier had returned as I was tending to my fish and she slipped into my spot.  This is actually a combat fishing no no since I was still fishing and only pulled back to take care of my fish.   Instead of approaching this in a confrontational manner, I just asked her if she would like me to take the next slot down instead of the place where I had been fishing before.  She knew that I was politely claiming my spot and said "oh, were you fishing here?   I will move down.".  Southern country charm works every time.   As I made my way back to the line to fish she said with a smile "you know I been fishing in that spot for two hours without a bite and you just walked up and caught a fish, that is really aggravating!".  I had just been lucky and happened to be in the right place at the right time, but it still made me feel like I was getting the hang of this.  Then I was in the middle of a back cast when I saw a salmon swim right up to me.  I was so confused I attempted to change my cast mid swing and ended up hooking my self in the lip (OUCH!).  Luckily the hook didn't penetrate to the barb so removal was easy, but my ego was badly bruised (note to self: be humble).

The fishing slowed down considerably after that as it seemed like the fish just weren't migrating upstream like they had been early in the morning.  After cleaning my fish I went back to FRED (the van) and vacuum sealed this fish and the one from the night before.  Prior to arriving in Alaska I had researched places in the area that process fish and those that provide freezer services.  The charges range from $0.70 per pound to several dollars per pound depending upon what you want them to do (for example they can: clean the fish for you, fillet them, vacuum seal them, freeze them, smoke them, and/or ship them via Fedex).  The books that I read said that, if possible, I should bring a vacuum sealer to cut down on the services I would need to purchase from the fish processors.  Luckily the previous Christmas my Dad had given me a portable Food-saver vacuum sealer that can work on 110 volt or 12 volt, so I was prepared.   With this tool I was able to clean the fish and cut them into fillets and then vacuum seal them myself.  I only needed to freeze the fish and there just happened to be a business a mile or two down the road that just happened to offer this service called the Kenai Cache.  After a quick trip to the Kenai Cache to deposit my fish and pick-up a few more salmon flies, I was back to the campground and ready to check-in to my campground spot.  I wanted to get back to the fishing as soon as possible, so sandwiches were on the menu for lunch.  Food always tastes so good when you are camping.  I don't know if it is because you are outside, or because you are so hungry, but whatever the reason that was the best salami sandwich I have ever had!

Once I made it back to the river it was really late in the afternoon.  I didn't have much luck for most of the evening, but I enjoyed visiting with the other fisherman and fisherwomen about where they were from, how long they had been here fishing, and stories about the area.  As I walked the bank looking for a better spot to fish, the back of my legs just above my ankles were killing me.  My wading boots were digging into my legs for some reason.  I tried to grunt through the pain that afternoon, but I vowed I would fix this somehow when I got back to camp.  I looked a little gimpy as I tried to find a way to walk that didn't inflict pain on my legs.  I finally settled into a spot that looked promising and began doing the Kenai flip by drifting my fly in hopes of intercepting a nice salmon.  My first fish felt different as he took the fly and as I got him in he seemed a little small for a Salmon.  Then I realized it was a really big Dolly Varden.  Theres fish are simillar to Trout and Artic Char.  He was a magnificent fish, but I had to release him because we are only allowed to keep one Dolly Varden per day and that fish mush be under 16 inches.  It was a bonus to have caught him.  As the evening drew on, the fishing picked up.  I landed three very nice and very large sockeye all within an hour.  I ended up leaving the river with time to cook dinner before it was dark (so I could actually get to bed at a decent time).  It was a good feeling having a heavy stringer full of fish as I made my way past other fisherman still casting for their catch.  I headed toward the cleaning tables to transform these fish into beautiful fillets.

The cleaning tables I mentioned are stainless steel tables that have been placed out in the Kenai river to entice fisherman that clean their fish at the river to do so in the deeper water.  This is so the fisherman will throw the remains in the deep areas of the stream instead of the bank as this would attract bears.  I saw another bear that evening.  Just before I arrived at the cleaning tables, he (the bear) had bounded onto the stream bank and grabbed a fish (I don't know if he caught it or if he took another fisherman's fish).  He had retreated into the brush about 30 yards to eat his catch.  I joined a few other fisherman watching him enjoy his meal.  It was a large Black Bears and he really seemed to be savoring his salmon meal.

See the red sign at the bottom describes how you should use the cleaning tables

Once I was back to camp and FRED, I celebrated with fresh salmon over the campfire and ranch style beans.  Then I began to operate on my wading boots.  I took out my multi tool and used the knife blade to remove the back portion of the "high top" area so that it wouldn't rub my leg.  I was concerned that once I did this, the shoes would quickly fall apart, but they held together throughout the trip and were much more pleasant to walk in.

I gathered my gear for the next day, set my alarm for an early start the next morning and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow!

(To Be Continued In The Next Post)

Just in case you didn't see Part 1 of this series, here is the summary video contained in my first post.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Visiting A Dream (Part 1 of My Alaska Trip)

I have wrestled with the best way to blog about this Alaska trip and I have decided that instead of making this story into a fast food meal you would choke down all in one blog entry, I will instead serve you a multiple course meal to relay my journey via several blog posts.  This first post will cover the initial day of my journey and I will follow up shortly with other posts about the remaining days.  I have pictures that will be specific to the time being discussed, but I have also included a video that summarizes the entire trip.  I have had several people comment that this is the trip of a lifetime and while that is true, I hope that this is not my only trip to Alaska as I have barely begun to explore this great state.

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

Link to Part 4

Day Zero (Flying Out At 7:00 PM)
The time had finally arrived!  After months of planning and researching, I was actually going to get on a plane and go to Alaska!  As I boarded and settled into my seat, a concern manifested in my mind.  What if all my expectations and assumptions about Alaska were about to be shattered?  I have dreamt about this place since I was a boy as I read Jack London novels and other stories from the North.  Could this place live up to the fantasy that I have created in my mind?  Well this trip would definitely test any preconceived notions I had.  I was in store for five days of camping along Alaska's highway system as I fish for sockeye salmon.  I had arrived just in time for my flight from the DFW airport and just barely made it to the gate in time after spending more time than I had planned with TSA as I checked my revolver (turns out there is only one place in the terminal to check fire arms and it was several gates away so I had to hoof it over there).  The first leg of the journey took me to Portland where I had a nice dinner while waiting for the second flight.  By this time it is nearly midnight and there are very unique characters in the airport so people watching is very interesting.  We finally board our plane, but there are multiple warning lights that came on during the pre-flight check and after about an hour they decided that another plane would be called into service instead.  This delayed the overall process by over two hours.  So instead of arriving in Anchorage at 1:30 AM, I now touch down closer to 4:00 AM.  I wander out to the baggage claim to collect my duffel bag and cooler and look for a taxi.

Attempting to sleep on the plane unsuccessfully
Waiting in Portland for my next flight

My Cooler, Duffle, and Back-pack (dang it was heavy)

The first taxi driver first in line gets out of his car and begins to help me with my bags, when I ask him "can you take me to Wasilla?"   He stops loading my bag and begins to walk toward the next driver, this doesn't look good.  The next driver agrees to go to the distant town (about 50 minutes North of Anchorage) so I pile into the car.  I hand him the address so he can punch it into his GPS, but he just looks at me like I am purple and says "I don't need that, you just tell me where to go".  Great no GPS!  So we head out of town and luckily my iPhone works in this area so I can get the directions and act as the taxi driver's personal direction service.  We head North up Highway 1and we are approaching a fork in the highway where if you go West it takes you to Wasilla and if you go East, you go to Palmer. I told the driver to get on Highway 3 and he proceeds to argue with me that Highway 1 goes to Wasilla.  It is at this point that I ask him how long he has been in Alaska followed with "Dude, you need an iPhone".  He didn't think that was funny.  After convincing him to take the appropriate road we travel into Wasilla and begin to navigate north through a mostly residential area winding back and forth guided only by google maps via my iPhone.  The driver begins to complain that he will never find his way back and that we are lost.  I assure him that if he just drives another 500 yards and then turns right, we will arrive at a house with a big white cargo van parked in the front yard.  We round the corner and there is the Van.   He grumbles a little and then I break out my iPad to show him a map of the area so he can find his way home.

I have never been so glad to see a van

By this time it is about 5:30 AM and there is some twilight, but no one is stirring at the van rental place.  I had called them a few weeks before and told them that I would be coming in the middle of the night.  This is a small "Mom & Pop" RV/Camper Van/Camper Truck rental place as  well as a bed and breakfast.  They said no problem, they would pull the van into the front yard with the camping equipment all set up (including the air mattress and sleeping bag) and that I could crash in the van until 8:00 AM when I would then sign the paperwork for the rental.  I collapsed in the sleeping bag, set my alarm for 7:50 AM and fell asleep in seconds.

Day 1 (The Journey to the Kenai Peninsula)
The alarm from my phone jolted me from a deep, but brief slumber.  I collected as much composure as I could after traveling all night and made my way up the driveway to the house.  As I walked up to the door I saw Sabine (the owner and operator of the rental business) and she was enjoying a cup of coffee as she looked over some documents.  As soon as she saw me she welcomed me in, offered me some coffee, and began to ask about my flights and my taxi ride to Wasilla.  Apparently I wasn't the only crazy person to have arrived in the middle of the night as Sabine told me they have done this for other people renting RVs and Campers.  Next her husband Joe came in and introduced himself.  We all discussed the my plans to fish in the Russian River and they proceeded to provide me with advice as to where I should concentrate my efforts and even threw in some additional gear (a fishing net to land fish) to aid in my journey.  After completing the paperwork for the rental agreement, I was on my way!

First order of business was to procure the necessary supplies such as fishing tackle, food, and water.  At about 9:00 AM, I stopped into the Sportsman's Warehouse and after visiting with the helpful staff, I left with an adequate amount of salmon flies, spinners, and weights to get me started.  I next went to Fred Meyer for groceries.  This is the Alaska version of Walmart although they have Walmart also.  I had brought backpacker dehydrated food, but I still needed a few more things like a case of bottled water, charcoal, seasoning for grilling salmon, and a couple cans of beans, lunch meat, bread as well as ice.

Now I was finally on my way.  I drove South from Wasilla into Anchorage and then South on Highway 1 out of Anchorage headed for the Kenai Peninsula!  Immediately  after you leave anchorage, the road boarders a body of water called Turnagain Arm that is part of the Cook Inlet in the Pacific Ocean.  Turnagain Arm was named by Captain Cook as he was searching for a "NorthWest Passage", but upon exploring this area they found that it only lead to a river and he had to "turn again" around.  This area is extremely beautiful with large tide swings called "bore tides" that have huge amounts of water flowing in and out each day.  At one point I was looking out into the bay and I actually think I saw a whale surface!  I don't have proof, but they are known to be in the area and I am sticking with my story.

You can see the tide currents ripping past this rock outcropping

After negotiating the road around Turnagain Arm, I now continued South through the mountains of the Chugach Forest.  I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road as I traveled through these beautiful mountains.  Soon I was driving along an amazing turquoise body of water called Kenai Lake which also means I am nearing my destination!  Next I enter the tiny town of Cooper Landing and then find myself at the Cooper Creek Campground (my destination for my first night of camping).

With my camp now secure, I can focus on fishing.  I try fishing directly across from the campground, but the river is deep, swift, and not friendly to wade fishing.  I decide to drive down the road to the Russian River Campground where I can park and walk down to the confluence (area where two rivers meet) where I have read the best Sockeye Salmon fishing in the world is.

Day 1 Afternoon (Hey Look Out For That Bear!)
Upon entering the campground, I can tell that this area is very popular and very well run.  There is a "guard shack" type building at the entrance where some young fellas provide the parking and camping permits to those people utilizing the area.  For $11 I had the right to park in the area for 12 hours and fish.  I made my way to the "Grayling" parking lot as this is the area closest to the confluence.  I gathered my gear and started toward the stairs leading down from the parking lot to the river.  As you may have read in my prior post, I brought a 44 Magnum revolver with me for bear protection and the van rental came with a can of bear spray so I think I am prepared.  I am no more than 10 steps down the stairs when a fisherman coming up the stairs yells, "Hey there is a bear on your right"!  I think "sure there is" and I look to my right to see a black bear no more than 8 or 10 feet from me.  I slowly back up the stairs trying not to make any sudden moves.  The other fisherman move up the stairs and the bear snarls a bit.  The fisherman begin to yell and holler so the bear leaves the area.  Whew!  What a way to start my trip!

The bear was under that pine tree in the top of the picture

I finally make it down to the mouth of the Russian River and begin to fish.  The river is breathtakingly beautiful.  It is crystal clear except for the really deep water that is a beautiful turquoise color like the glacier ice it originates from.  I take up a spot upstream of the last fisherman in a line and begin to cast.  I don't see anyone catching anything and I don't see any salmon swimming by me.  This is starting to look discouraging.  I decided to cross the river and investigate an area called the "Sanctuary" a little further down river.

As I cross the river, I trip and fall in the ice cold water.  All I can think is "GET UP, GET UP"!  I get to my feet and am immediately glad I chose chest waders instead of hip boots.  My chest waders had limited the water to only my arms.  If I had worn hip boots, I would have been completely soaked.  I only had to take off my sweatshirt and wring the water out of the sleeves.  Just call me grace!

Once I make it down river to the sanctuary area, I can see that this is where the action is at.  You can actually see the spawned out "red" sockeye salmon swimming up the river and I see fisherman hooking into salmon from time to time.  I make my way down to the bank and find an opening in the line of fisherman.  I being to cast, but nothing is happening for me.  The two older gentlemen upstream of me appear to be hooking into fish every five minutes and I seem to be doing everything wrong.  I finally ask one of them "what am I doing wrong"?  He just looks at me like I am crazy and continues to fish.  I ask again thinking maybe he didn't hear me.  Again he looks at me like I am purple and then says "Sweden"!  Oh, so he doesn't speak English.  Great, I picked a European to ask for fishing advice.  Well I finally found someone that did speak English to give me some pointers.  They said I should put more weight on my line to get down through the current to the fish, cast ahead of the red spawned out salmon, because the good "chromer" salmon would be near them, and trim some of the deer hair from my salmon fly to help it sink faster.

After utilizing these tips, I had a couple near successful hook-ups with fish hooked but lost them in the fight until I finally hit pay dirt!  You throw your lure upstream at about the 2:00 position and let it drift to the 10:00 o'clock  position.  Along the way, the fly and weights should be tapping the bottom of the stream so you feel this tap, tap, tap as it floats along.  Then a different kind of tap is felt and I set the hook.  Fish On!  I have my fist sockeye on the line!  I am amazed at the power of these fish.  I utilize the techniques I saw the other fisherman used by backing up as I fought the fish to get him to the bank.  I finally get him landed and I pounce on him to secure it to the stringer.  I am elated to find that the fish is legally hooked in the mouth as he should be.  Many salmon are foul hooked and must be released if caught this way.  In Alaska you have to kill your salmon when you catch it, so I grabbed a rock and whacked it in the head.  Many Alaskans carry small clubs for this, but the visitors such as myself have to make due with river rocks.  I sit and admire the fish for a moment.  It is a medium sized hen or female and is a beautiful chrome silver color.  This is great.  I continue to fish for a little while longer and actually pick-up two Dolly Varden.  These are a kind of Artic Char and look similar to trout.  I kept the larger of the two for dinner later that night.
My First Alaska Sockeye Salmon

The smaller of the two Dolly Varden I caught

Exhausted, I made my way back to my campground to cook my Dolly Varden and to get some rest.  I was tired, but elated at a successful first day.  I couldn't wait to do it all again tomorrow!

(To Be Continued In My Next Blog Post)

Dolly Varden Cooked Over A Campfire