SOLDOTNA, Alaska — A salmon by any other name wouldn’t taste as sweet.
Few say blueback.
Many say red.
Most say sockeye.
However this marvel is described, the fish that run the gauntlet of gnashing teeth, claws and jaws from the time they’re fry into the prime of their lives are nothing short of a natural phenomenon.
The five Pacific salmon species all fill a vital niche in their respective ecosystems, be it a meandering trickle of a fresh water stream that few humans may see or a surging flow like the Kenai River that draws thousands of anglers during the spectacular summer, when robust daylight allows nearly endless hours of excitement.
The fish also are prized in their own scaly ways.
Kings are the crown jewel for local economies, though this year has seen miserable returns and a closing of fishing opportunities in notable locales. Biologists and fisheries managers remain unsure of the dramatic downturn’s cause but the thrill of the pursuit of these fish that truly can grow to monstrous proportions always will pique the interest of anglers from down south seeking the fish of a lifetime.
Chums and pinks are excellent fly rod fodder, especially if you can find them fresh from the saltwater as swelling tides swirl them toward rivers and streams. The metamorphosis of the pink as it enters its new habitat particularly is amazing, and its Jekyll and Hyde transformation takes it from sleek to gnarly, complete with a hooked jaw of jagged teeth and a humped back that looks downright gruesome.
Silvers arrive later than the other species, providing superb angling action and the chance at larger fish for anglers hoping that summer temperatures sneak past August. The coho, as it also is known, easily can exceed 15 pounds with bigger specimens creeping into the 20-pound range, which can be as fun to latch onto while trolling as they can after inhaling a fly pattern.
However, when it comes to deciding what protein many natives and residents of the Last Frontier stock the freezer with in advance of shorter days and fleeting mercury levels, there’s really no choice: the sockeye is king.
Not only is its bright meat with a tinge of orange robust in flavor and full of healthy oil, the fish are among the hardest pound-for-pound fighters that many anglers may ever encounter. The Alaska state record is 16 pounds, but if the fish got larger, into above-average silver salmon territory, they’d be nearly impossible to slow down. As it is a 10- to 12-pound sockeye can post a daunting battle for anglers toting an 8- or 9-weight fly rod, more so than even bonefish or redfish in much different circumstances.
The sockeye truly is the everyman’s salmon, and the annual migration of sockeyes into the winding Kenai River from roughly mid-June and into late July is the most anticipated sport fishery in Alaska, chiefly due to easy access to miles of productive areas where fish run right on the bank.
Salmon runs don’t always occur like clockwork each year, but they mirror the historical tracks, and there is something profoundly grand about millions of fish returning en masse to their home waters to spawn.
The late sockeye run has been nothing short of spectacular and each of the past three summers I’ve seen and experienced no shortage of catching on the famed river. Last year’s Kenai sockeye run is estimated at more than 4.6 million fish, according to fisheries officials. Even with anglers bagging more than 3 million fish, the escapement goal again was exceeded with ease, setting the stage for more summers filled with great returns, something that can’t be overlooked for any salmon species.
As with most fishing in Alaska, the pursuit caters to the principal rule of angling: Fish where the fish are.
The peak times on the Kenai truly are a one-of-a-kind sight as waves of fish move upstream in their dash to spawn. Many ultimately will reach Skilak Lake, where they can turn the water almost black when looking down at a swath of dark backs, and the Russian River, where bears typically aren’t hard to spot as they attempt to gorge in a gluttonous feast.
Sockeyes have been dubbed the “shy” salmon by many, but they in fact are voracious eaters for much of their lives, filling energy reserves with krill and other critters in saltwater. They do stop feeding once they enter fresh water to spawn, and the tactic for those toting tackle is the “Kenai flip,” which involves dragging a weighted presentation including split shots or other lead and a hook with a modest amount of adornment along the bottom. The practice is to draw the line across the upcoming fish, hopefully hooking one in the mouth, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s like hitting a bullet with a bullet and it should be noted in no uncertain terms that any sockeye snagged may not be retained as part of the daily bag.
However, I’ve also seen reds follow to the surface and hit a hook wrapped in bucktail and flash material, which certainly can resemble krill, a small shrimplike creature. The first time I saw it I brushed it off as a fluke, but more than a few occurrences is no mere coincidence. It’s in line with the other amazing sights that accompany this majestic locale.
The weighted tactic may not appeal to the purist who must target a specimen, cast to it, present the bait in a fetching fashion and lure it to strike, but I promise that when you’re hooked into one of these impressive fish on any type of tackle, that attitude quickly wanes. In many instances, after the fish make it farther into fresh water they’ll congregate behind obstructions and in deep holes, mimicking the behavior of what trout enthusiasts imagine as the perfect scenario.
In a deeper sense, the odyssey of the salmon is a tragic tale: none of the fish survive. They’re born, they swim, they eat and ultimately return, reproduce and die. However, the chronicle also has a silver lining: after the remaining fish in the river have completed their life cycle, they provide a start to others by fertilizing rivers and streams and creating a nutrient-rich environment for salmon eggs that are about to hatch.
It’s Mother Nature’s way of ensuring that earlier generations of fish that began the process before any of us were around help further the succession of the species that will be around long after we’re gone. By all accounts, at least for Kenai sockeyes, the future remains fertile and bright for years to come.
History is on your side and there’s no time like the present to plan for a summer excursion, especially if you’re talking about a trip north of any expectations you may have.