DAY 63: Monday 14th June 2010 - COOPER LANDING
Up around 6am this morning, I was excited at the prospect of the guided fishing trip today. After struggling to get to grips with the local regulations and a being a bit frustrated at all the limitations and most rivers being closed, it was my next best chance at catching a salmon (I had to catch up with Callum too!). It was a lovely morning but quite cold with a layer of frost on the car window, but that’s an Alaskan summer for you.
I arrived at Run Wild - Alaskan River Adventures and chatted with George the manager, to find out that I have the privilege of being the only client on a drift boat (as they usually take 3 or 4) and my guide for the day is Natalia. The Sockeye (or Red) salmon run is only just starting with reports over the last few days of it being patchy, but improving - and they ultimately expect hundreds of thousands of fish to run up the Kenai and Russian Rivers.
We Left at about 7:45am, and launched just above the Russian River ferry, to see
a Moose cow and calf crossing the river. As we start our drift downstream I spot them again crossing back, and the current is pretty swift but the calf makes it OK. We drift past the lineup of walk in anglers that has formed along the shore and land on a stony beach a few bends down on the true left bank. Natalia shows me the casting technique called “The Kenai Twitch”, and no - it’s not some kind of disorder!
We are using fly rods, and the rig includes a small sinker, with tippet of about 600mm to small heavy hook with just a tuft of blue yarn. You lob the rig out about 5 to 10 metres and let it swing downstream, bouncing along the stony bottom, and before it swings right down you give the rod the “twitch” or more like a strong sideways strike - and hopefully a Sockeye is right there with its mouth open! Sounds like the Sockeye don’t feed or even snap at lures while they run, so this is about the only way to catch them (the method is also known as “flossing”).
The drag is set so tight its
hard to pull out extra line, but later on I find out why…
Natalia hooked up fairly quickly, and although I protested she made me land her fish so I could practice playing one, as these fish are dropped easily. It was about 6 pounds, bright and silver and but more slender than the bigger Chinook or Kings.
This is “Combat Fishing” true Kenai style, and we are lined up along the river edge as far as the eye can see. I count around 15 anglers along my beach, and we are spaced about 5 metres apart. Its still early days for this Salmon run, and at its peak the combat fishing really earns its reputation. The spacing is much closer, the fish are thick, and its all on - sometimes a fish every cast, but that’s when the fights break out too!
The guy next too me lands two fish fairly quickly, and I seem to get into the rhythm of the “flipping” but its very mechanical and repetitive. Hang on - that rock is pulling back! I hook up on a fish and it leaps about but it isn’t on for long before getting off -
probably didn’t strike hard enough.
The run seems to be consistent as there is a rod bent over with a fish on at most times somewhere along the lineup. I also notice a steady stream of Salmon carcasses floating by so that’s a good sign I guess. It seems to be the norm to throw all the fish remains back in the river here, as it is an important part of the whole food chain, feeding other fish, bears, eagles etc.
Bloody hell - I’ve hooked up again! Hard strike this time and immediate side pressure towards the bank, the fish jumps clear and makes its first run downstream while the other anglers reel in lines and move back to let me play the fish. Its heavy and they pull line out easily against the reel with the drag set pretty tight. The fish takes off again several times as it spooks when seeing the net or getting into shallow water. After a few minutes and a bit of arm strain it’s finally in the net with high fives all round, and its 10:30am. My first Alaskan Salmon - a Sockeye of around 8 pounds! I’m elated as this
is exactly what I came to Alaska for.
After “flipping” and "twitching" for a while I got the call from Natalia - fresh hot coffee good to go! Wow this is great service, what more could you want!
One of the tricks that Natalia showed me was to hook the rod butt behind the elbow and point the rod down towards the water, so that when you strike it gives you extra leverage and power to set the hook. It’s also much more comfortable for enduring the monotony of this casting.
I eventually hooked up again on my second, and then third fish which were both landed to complete my daily limit of three. We ate lunch in the boat and watched others hook up, land or lose fish on a regular basis. Natalia also caught her limit, so we decided to head off and spend the rest of the afternoon drift fishing for Rainbows.
We changed to 6 weight G Loomis Rods and Ross reels which had a bit more finesse than the Ugly Stik 8 weights we used for the Salmon. The technique was to dead drift a small single egg bead pattern (the trout feed
on Salmon eggs) under a small bubble float with split shot for weight. It took a while to get used to the change as I had the side strike subconsciously programmed in from the salmon fishing, and now had to use a vertical strike - so I missed a few takes initially. At times we would anchor and I cast upstream using a “water loading” of the rod, and sometimes we would just drift through some good runs while I kept as short a line as possible. In one nice pool there were lots of Salmon leaping clear of the water, and a bit further down I finally hooked up on what looked like a nice Rainbow Trout. It thrashed around and sped up and down the pool, but the surprise was that it turned out to be a Dolly Varden (Arctic Char?) of say 1.5 pounds, which we released.
Later on I hooked up again and this time it felt really heavy - a big Rainbow? No - another bloody Sockeye Salmon! I hopped out of the boat to play this sucker, but this time the fight is going to be tricky on a lighter rod with 10
pound tippet and a much softer drag. It took longer to get near the beach, and every time Natalia got near it with the net it went ballistic and pulled a lot more line out. This was taking a while and my arm aching, so I put more pressure on the line and reel to slow the fish down. Eventually a run shot around Natalia and hit the landing net and the leader went PING! A “long distance release” but it had to go back anyway.
There were no more takes from the Rainbows so we eventually pulled in at Jim’s Landing around 4pmish. Natalia had already filleted all 6 Salmon (they ranged from about 6 to 8 pounds) and she let me have her share so I was stoked that we would be well fed with fresh fish for a while. I called into the Cache & Fishing Outfitters where they process fish, and paid about US$33 to have my fillets (15 pounds) shrink wrapped and frozen. As we were tenting, we planned to keep the frozen fillets on ice in the chilly bin.
What a great day out on the world famous Kenai, and a fantastic
variety of fishing! I was really impressed by the sheer power of these salmon for their size - and they say that Sockeye are the best tasting salmon too. The scenery along the river is quite beautiful, and apparently there are lots of bears that arrive during the peak of the run.
Back at our camp I pan fried some fillets for dinner, so the family enjoyed tasting some Sockeye salmon for the first time.
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