Peter Brookes: Fishing the Kenai

Brookes snatches a silver salmon on a streamer. Courtesy photo

After seeing just about every Alaska reality show out there  – there are about a million of them, I think, at last count – I decided that I needed to get in on some of that amazing action.

I thought about doing some “Deadliest Catch” king-crabbing, but didn’t really want to work 24/7 for five days straight in the middle of winter, uncontrollably bobbing around the Northern Pacific like a cork.

Think I’ll just stick to the king crab that comes on a plate.

I also considered going hard core and getting off-the-grid for a while like a lot of the Alaskans do in those reality shows, but, I thought: What, no internet, no cappuccino machine, no cable TV?

Imagine the hardship!

Instead of any of these bad ideas, I decided to dial my Alaskan adventure back a bit and, instead, do some fishing up that way in mid-August.

America’s Last Frontier, here I come.

After looking around, I decided to fish the world famous Kenai Peninsula, which is only about two hours drive southwest of Alaska’s capital, Anchorage.

Wanting to experience a wide variety of inland fishing, I booked three days of guided angling with Kenai Cache Outfitters (kenaicache.com).

It turned out to be a great choice.

For the first two days, I floated the Kenai River. I was taken by how big the river was, how much water was pushing through it and the near-Caribbean turquoise color of it, due to its glacial origins.

The water was also just a little above 50 degrees. Brrrrr.

There were runs of sockeye, silver (aka coho) and king salmon — and I was anxious to get into them, especially on the fly rod. It turns out the “kings” were spawning and were to be left alone.

That still left a strong run of sockeye and silvers that were just starting their spawning push up the Kenai to their birthplace to procreate before completing their “circle of life.”

The salmon game is interesting.

It consists of lots of repetitive short down and across swing fishing from the banks or shallows at a seeming conveyor belt of red-, pink- and silver-colored salmon moving up river — often practically within reach.

Get ready for a rodeo if you get into one.

My most memorable hook up was a short go with a king salmon. In a driving rainstorm, a 60-pound bright-pink, beast of a hooked fish violently breached the surface right in front of me, leaving me totally gobsmacked.

With its head thrashing and its “kyped” (hook-shaped) jaws agape exposing a mouth of menacing teeth, I’ll never forget the evil “stink-eye” it gave me before breaking off and disappearing into the deep.

Talk about a Moby Dick-Captain Ahab moment.

The other game on the Kenai River is going deep for rainbow trout and dolly varden on the float. “Dollies” look like big brook trout; no surprise since both are from the char genus of the salmonid (salmon) family.

These fish aren’t eating mayflies or midges or minnows — no siree — they’re carnivores, feasting on the eggs and flesh of post-spawn salmon. This high-protein diet can make for some fat, football-shaped fish.

On the third day, I waded the much-smaller, shallower Russian River for “‘bows” and dollies, working three miles of water — which was also choked in places with sockeye working up current.

Fittingly, a pinkish, plastic bead-like, egg fly is the ticket. The fish smash these with abandon in something like you’d encounter in the “Lower 48” swinging streamers for aggressive trout.

Besides taking nearly 40 fish that day, the other highlight was an encounter with some grizzly bears. Of course, my guide, Aaron Cameron, and I discussed “bear awareness and being “loaded for bear.”

Bear spray: Don’t leave home without it!

Aaron told me that on the Russian, the griz were pretty used to fishers being about and we likely wouldn’t alarm them — which can lead to acts of aggression over territory, food or their young.

Toward the end of the day, we noticed some hikers gawking at the other bank. We also stopped, only to see two 500-pound grunting grizzlies galloping up river.

They didn’t even look our way — thankfully.

Indeed, From the majestic mountains to the rushing rivers, from the spawning salmon to the bounding bruins, I came to realize that absent the film crews, I was starring in my own Alaska reality show.

That’s a heck of a lot better than watching one on TV.

Dr. Peter Brookes is a Washington, D.C. foreign policy wonk who escapes to his Fort Valley cabin and the great outdoors as often as possible. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.

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