Fly fishing for Alaskan salmon the highlight of a summer spent outdoors

Sockeye salmon are among the most sought fish in Alaska.

SOLDOTNA, Alaska – In this majestic angling landscape, timing isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.

The split shots tickled the bottom of the surging glacial-fed Kenai River, emitting just enough vibration as they bounced off weathered crags below to pique an angler’s curiosity for a fleeting moment. The paramount technique on this day of fishing on the Kenai Peninsula was to ascertain the precise amount of weight to hug the bottom without finding snags, enabling the trailing coho fly to find its way into the mouth of a glistening sockeye salmon.

It didn’t take long to figure out the discipline.

After lobbing a short cast – more a flip of the wrist – I followed the presentation downstream with the tip of the fly rod, imagining the surging wall of fish that remained cloaked below in the waist-deep icy current. Just as the line reached the apex of the drift, it came to a halt – a sure sign the hook had found some part of a salmon – and in classic hook-set fashion the left hand went down and the right hand went up.

Then it got sporty.

The 8-pound sockeye didn’t seem the least bit motivated at the outset, opting to shimmy in the current and hold its position. Once more pressure was applied at the other end, it changed its mind with a flash, zooming to the surface and jumping in a pair of acrobatic leaps unlike anything I’d seen a fish achieve. The sockeye then headed downstream with the current, effectively  tripling or quadrupling the amount of pressure a fish its size can exert, and I did my best to try to corral the brawny output.

The next few minutes were a maddening struggle and each time line was gained, the fish would take it right back – stripping into the backing more than once. Eventually the fish tired and after a couple of elusive runs when the net was produced, my father finally scooped up the salmon.

The broad grins on our faces transcended any words that could have described the preceding happenings – and that was just the first fish of a wildly productive week.

Perhaps no place on this planet is the spectacle of nature more amazing than in the Last Frontier. Salmon runs don’t occur like clockwork in the same locales each year, though they are pretty darn close, and there is something profoundly grand about millions of fish returning en masse to their home waters to spawn. The annual migration of sockeyes into the Kenai River drainage is the most anticipated sport fishery in Alaska, chiefly due to easy access to miles of productive areas where fish literally run right on the bank, and this approach caters to the principal rule of angling: Fish where the fish are.

This year’s runs also imparted another lesson: Take what Mother Nature gives you. The late sockeye run was supremely impressive while the numbers of king salmon in the Kenai and surrounding waters were as poor as they have been in recent years. Hundreds of boats earlier in the summer were catching a handful of kings altogether on all-day outings, which if that was your sole excursion to Alaska, more than likely would leave a sour taste in your mouth. The king salmon later was closed down.

In the case of anglers targeting the sockeye runs on the peninsula, the taste couldn’t have been sweeter. Not only was the sheer size of the migrations impressive – about 800,000 sockeyes swarmed into the Kenai over a four-day period, including a flood of nearly a quarter-million in one day alone – these fish packed shoulders. The smallest fish we landed was about 6 or 7 pounds, but we caught more than our fair share of double-digit salmon.

Sockeyes, commonly referred to as reds, are the hardest fighters pound for pound of the five Pacific salmon species. While king salmon attain massive size – the Alaska record was caught in the Kenai and weighed just over 97 pounds several hours after it was landed – even an average sockeye can zip into the backing on a fly reel in the blink of an eye. Kings generally make one large run and if you can weather that brute force they will hold their ground and the fight slowly subsides. With reds the bout is much different, and from the time they’re hooked until they break off or find the bottom of the net it’s an all-out battle.

Since they can utilize robust currents, the best evaluation of hooking and landing a sockeye would be to compare it to the stamina of a supercharged bonefish. Sockeyes possess amazing resilience and once they reach the Kenai they move at amazing speeds to reach their spawning grounds. A half-dozen of the fish we caught more than 15 miles from the mouth of the river still had sea lice on them, a saltwater parasite that typically falls off in less than a day in fresh water, and there are numerous tales of reds caught 40 or 50 miles upstream with lice still on them.

The sheer amount of fish moving through the Kenai means accidental hook-ups are certain and anglers are not allowed to keep snagged fish. It’s not all that easy to hook a sockeye in the mouth, especially when you consider surging currents and the amount of fish flowing through, and for every fish we caught legally there were four or five that were foul-hooked that broke off simply because they were uncontrollable.

The most common fly used on the Kenai and Russian rivers is dubbed the coho fly, which implies a lure used to target silver salmon, but it’s a simple pattern that utilizes bucktail in a variety of colors applied to a No. 6 1/0 streamer style hook or something of similar size. Many anglers on the Kenai use bait-casting or spinning tackle rather than a more sporting 8- or 9-weight fly rod, and the same technique is used to ply the bottom of the river.

The sockeye fishery is closely managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and there also is commercial harvest and dip-netting for reds, which are considered by even the most picky of gourmands to be the best salmon for the table. The daily bag limits typically are raised when fish counts reach certain levels and when we first arrived each angler was allowed three fish per day, which was increased to six by the end of the week, too late this time to really make a difference in the amount of fish that was shipped home.

However, even with a three-fish daily limit, you can still pile up the fillets!


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