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!


  1. Nice story! I would love to hit Alaska for a trip like that!

  2. Thanks Bill! I would highly recommend you add it to your list of future destinations. I can't wait to go back!

  3. This experience is already on my dreamlist! Reading about your firsthand experience just moved my dream WAY up the list. This sounded incredible.
    I'm glad you found those drowned flies and one ended up being the one that hooked you the big one. Very cool ~

  4. Sweet story man! I'm planning a trip myself, and if you don't mind me asking I was wondering how much your trip cost altogether, roughly. And I was wondering how much of the Kenai is accessible from the shore. It seems a lot of people get guides and take a boat, but I wouldn't be getting a guide i think it would be much like your trip actually.

  5. Well, I didn't keep an exact tally, but I think it was about $2,000 all in. I spent about $700 on airfare, $800 on my van rental, and the balance on gear. It's a lot of money, but I am so glad that I went. The river is very accessible from the right places. This will be "combat fishing" meaning you are elbow to elbow, but that is because the fish are there. You can always do a little of both if you want to hedge your bets.