A fisherman takes his dream trip to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.
I’ve cast for cutthroats on Wyoming’s Snake River. I’ve gone after golden trout high in the Eastern Sierra. But according to the tales I’d heard, nothing compares to the fishing in Alaska. Stories about salmon so large you don’t need a ruler to measure them, you need a yardstick. So, when I got the chance to spend four days at a fishing lodge on the Kenai River, I couldn’t wait to learn if the rumors were true.
The Kenai waters are Alaska’s most popular sportfishing destination, and its salmon are the rock stars of trophy fish.
“There are four types of salmon in the Kenai,” said our shuttle driver, John Ferluga, as he took my wife, Janice, and me from Anchorage to the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge, about 135 miles south. “They all have two names: an English name and an Indian name.” He listed them as red salmon (sockeye), pink salmon (humpy), silver salmon (coho), and king salmon (Chinook). They swim upstream at different times of the year, and our mid-August visit put us in sockeye season.
After driving about two hours down the Kenai Peninsula, we rolled into the lodge, which has a sweeping view of the river. Big spruces lined the far shore, with a bald eagle perched atop the tallest tree. As we climbed out of the van, I saw it–my first king salmon. Leaping out of the broad river was a fish so big I thought it had escaped from the dolphin show at SeaWorld. No wonder trophy fishermen prize them: Kings can get up to almost 5 feet long. They typically weigh 25 to 60 pounds, but a record 97-pounder was caught 18 miles downstream from here in 1985. Too bad for us, the king season closed early because of poor numbers.
Lodge owner Kathy Haley greeted us and filled us in on the place’s history. The site had been a stopover for floatplanes until the highway came through in 1957, affording new business opportunities. Her parents homesteaded the land and opened a campground. Later, they started renting out boats and rods. Haley met her would-be business partners, Laurence John and his son, Kent, when she rented them a boat in 1981. The three have been expanding the place ever since.
Part of that expansion today involves lots of non-fishing activities, such as rafting, kayaking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. We signed up for two fields that we can’t experience in our native Southern California: flying to Bear Camp to watch foraging coastal brown bears, and cruising Kenai Fjords National Park to observe whales and glaciers.
But first came the fishing. We were given hip waders and sent down to the river. Our guide, Daren Niemi, loaded us into a boat and took us upstream in search of salmon. After we got out on a rocky beach, Daren taught us the Sockeye Swing, a technique of casting out line, letting it drift for a count of three or four, then swinging the line straight ashore. Cast, drift, swing. Cast, drift, swing.
“So, what are these salmon feeding on?” I asked.
“They’re not,” Daren said. “Once salmon return from the ocean, they stop eating and focus on mating.”
The salmon swim upstream with their mouths open. The trick is to swing a bare hook through the water in hopes of it landing in a fish’s mouth. Do it three or four hundred times and you might catch one. Might is the operative word. If your hook snags another part of the fish, it’s considered “foul hooked” and must be placed back in the river.
In short order, I became a master of the foul hook. Janice did better, catching three sockeyes the legal way. When we got back to the lodge, Daren filleted the fish and sent them to a local processor to be vacuum packed and frozen, ready to be shipped home.
At dinner, Janice and I ran into Mike and Sue Tellman from Indiana, who were on their fifth visit. This time, they brought their 11-year-old grandson along to introduce him to fishing.
“The guides here are patient with beginners,” Sue said, as we sat down to our barbecue meal. The payoff for that patience: a 27-inch trout for the grandson and a tale that left me green with envy.
For our first non-fishing activity the next day, I was forced to confront two of my biggest fears: small planes and large bears.
Ten of us were shuttled to a local airport for the flight to Bear Camp. My fear of heights isn’t a problem on a big airliner, but I had to steady my nerves as I boarded a five-passenger plane for the 45-minute trip across Cook Inlet. I reminded myself that this was safe and tried to enjoy the scenery passing underneath us. After a bumpy landing on a rocky beach, my knuckles soon returned to their normal pink color.
We were met by Caprice Stoner, who guided us through the woods to a 15-foot-high viewing platform, where we could watch the bears and use a spotting scope. Caprice said the camp staff members are careful about approaching the bears, trying never to surprise them. She had several protective measures at her disposal, including pepper spray and a shotgun loaded with blanks.
We climbed the platform and spotted bears right away. They were magnificent, though safely distant, much to my relief.
Caprice said that an adult bear must eat close to 60 pounds a day to store up fat for winter. The bears bring their cubs to feed on salmon in the stream that flows through the property. But on this day, we didn’t see them feeding on fish; instead, we watched as five bears dined on long grass in the streamside meadow.
Soon enough, our time was up and we returned to the beach for our flight back. Having to leave made me long to return for one of Bear Camp’s overnight trips, where guests stay in tent cabins protected by an electrified fence.
Our other field trip began with a two-hour drive up the peninsula to Seward, where an all-day boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park awaited. We boarded the Glacier Express and glided through fog along bird rookeries and sea lion colonies, pausing to take pictures and view passing sea otters.
About 50 yards off our port side, several humpback whales poked their heads above water. We grabbed binoculars and counted at least five whales. Our guide said they were feeding cooperatively in a technique called bubble fishing. Several whales surround a school of fish with a curtain of bubbles, allowing other whales to come up from below and feed.
We headed back to Seward where, on the docks, I watched the boats bringing in the day’s halibut catch, with some weighing more than 50 pounds.
The sight of those large halibut got me a little down. By our third day, I’d yet to land a fair-caught fish. So I was anxious as we awoke at 4 a.m. for an early day of salmon fishing. Our guide, Aarron Schmidt, headed us downstream and we did the sockeye swing for three hours with little effect. Aarron suggested we try trout fishing instead, noting that the Kenai is also home to trophy-sized rainbows.
We headed upstream with different gear. At one point, Janice’s line snagged on the bottom. Aarron told me to continue while he worked on freeing her line. Within seconds I had a big one on. It cast a large silhouette in the water as I fought it under the boat. Aarron grabbed the net as I hauled in my biggest fish ever: a 30-inch rainbow. I was in heaven.
I was still feeling victorious the next morning as we sat down for our final breakfast. We dined with five businessmen from Sweden who had promised each other in high school that when they turned 40, they would fish the Kenai. They’re now in their 50s, but they had finally made it. They said the best thing they were taking home was the same thing that I had found: The stories about the fishing are true.
Paul Zieke is copy editor of Texas Journey magazine. He lives in Southern California.
Jan/Feb 2014 Issue
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