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!


  1. Congratulations! The big one didn't get away! You should submit your writings to a fish & wildlife magazine, every post has been thoroughly entertaining. You definitely have a knack for this.

  2. Thanks Julie, that really means a lot to me. I never really considered it before, but I think I may look into that (just for fun). Thanks so very much for the encouragement! Now if I could only take pictures like those on your blog. Those are awesome!

  3. Wonderful blog, great writing T. Chris! Thanks for taking me along on your Alaskan trip!