A bad day of fishing salmon on the Kenai River generally offers up more opportunities than a very good day elsewhere.
My wife, Rita, and I have for more than 10 years returned every summer for the second run of sockeye salmon fishing on the Kenai River in Soldotna, Alaska, which is on the Kenai Peninsula. As you plan your big summer fishing trips, you might consider such a place. There are multiple reasons.
First is fishing success: While this year was off slightly owing to various factors, the sockeye delivered. Second is the quality of the fish as table fare: Sockeye are the best if you like salmon. They have been referred to as the filet mignon of salmon. Some folks prefer the taste of king salmon, but most folks rate the sockeye as the most delicious. Finally, the second run of sockeye — usually in July — are generally quite large when compared with the first Kenai run and sockeye caught in other locations, both inside and outside of Alaskan waters.
This is a wading fishing experience at river’s edge — much like fishing steelhead and other salmon species in the Midwest, as well as some West Coast fishing — while fishing for kings on the Kenai is more effective when trolling from a boat. Most anglers opt for a heavier-weight fly rod, at least an eight weight, but in my opinion it’s better to use a nine or 10 weight. Some use fly line with a long leader and weight to get the presentation down to where the fish are cruising upstream. An alternative method is to use heavy monofilament or braided running line, with weight and a long leader of slightly lighter mono line. For example: 25-30 pound test running line and 20-25 pound leader material.
Another gear option is a drifting or trolling rod and casting-trolling reel. Spinning gear is also used but less frequently. Whatever rod-reel combo is employed, the goal is to make frequent drifts, or short presentations to the fish as they proceed on their upstream migration. Drifting a fly or piece of yarn at the right depth and location is deemed to be much more important than the color of the fly or yarn. In fact, it is somewhat debatable whether the fish actually bite or not. Some effective anglers swear by the notion that what we are actually doing is lining the fish and snagging them in the mouth. It has some credibility, and certainly many fish are caught that are snagged outside of their mouths. They must be released immediately. However, I have fished for sockeye in southeastern Alaska, in a more clear stream, where fish could be sight-fished below a waterfall. Fish actually mouthed and bit our offerings. I believe sockeye do take the offerings deliberately — at least some of the time.
Limits are generous
Harvesting the fish is remarkably different from what I was used to before going to Alaska. First of all, the limits are very generous, initially three fish may be kept per day. Then, once the fish are in a preserved condition (canned or vacuum-sealed and frozen), you are allowed to catch and retain another day’s limit. Often the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issues emergency orders that suddenly change the regulation. They might expand or reduce possession limits. In my experience over the years, the most frequent orders are to increase the daily bag limits. For example, to go from three to four fish retained, and often from three to six fish per day. The agency monitors and estimates the number of spawning fish that make it to the escapement area on a daily basis. That is, how many fish enter a sanctuary area where they can spawn without further fishing pressure — except for Mr. Grizzly and family.
Another major difference between Alaska and Minnesota: You can legally fillet your fish streamside in Alaska and dispose of the carcass in the fast-moving current. I think the reasoning is that all Pacific salmon (except steelhead) always die after spawning in the river. Their dead bodies become food for young fish and other aquatic life. So why not allow fish parts in the water? I see their point. So folks who fish in Alaska do harvest lots of fish, subject to the agency’s monitoring and control.
And the catching? It’s incredible. Hooked fish often leap many times out of the water and more commonly take out 50-75 yards of line while making their initial run. This can be dicey when you realize that the runs are popular and many local residents join others from all over the world in pursuit of these magnificent fighting fish. So you holler “fish on!” to alert those fishing nearby. Then hope for the best. Sometimes fair-hooked fish can be gradually coaxed to return to the spot where they were hooked. However, often the larger males cannot be landed without following them downstream and corralling them in the calmer waters below. They range in size from around 5 pounds to 10 pounds or more. A king is hooked on rare occasions.
Generally, the fish are much larger and seldom landed. Then too, during alternate years, there is a run of pink salmon. These fish can weigh from 5 to 10 pounds. The larger male sockeye often show up a little later in the run. When they do, it can be a real workout to play and land these fish.
Should you go? It’s always crowded and expensive. It’s somewhat like a carnival atmosphere, and people are generally friendly and helpful. This last trip we brought back 170 pounds of boneless fillets, which we use throughout the year. Because these are wild fish, I think they are healthier than farm-raised salmon. So the catch truly is a bonus; the scenery is great and so are the people. You could go, don’t you think?