If you should find yourself in Alaska chances are that you've come to enjoy the scenery or perhaps do some camping and sightseeing. It is also a likely bet that you've come to do some fishing as well.

The Kenai Peninsula is definitely a good place for that. The Kenai and Russian Rivers confluence, in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula (some 80 miles south of Anchorage), is one of the most popular places in the world to catch King and Red Salmon and though the availability of those species is very high during the peaks of their respective runs, so is the competition.

Known as "Combat Fishing", to the uninitiated this can be quite a spectacle. Usually fishermen are arrayed less than 3 feet apart from each other, are standing out in the river in two to three feet of water, and are fishing that little stretch of glacial green directly in front of them. At times in my travels across the peninsula I have seen them lined up like this, along the emerald shore of the Kenai River where it meanders next to the highway, for over a mile. There is very little casting, the line set at a certain length and the angler simply pulling his line out at the base of his rod to keep it taught as he constantly dips his lure upstream a few feet then taking up the slack as the current drifts it past him. If he (or she) is lucky enough to elicit an aggressive strike from the salmon, there is no question as to the nature of his screaming reel. "Fish On!" is the howl this elicits, and hopefully all the surrounding fishermen are neighborly enough to bring in their lines and stay out the fighting angler's way as he commits to his own personal combat with what can turn out to be a 70 pound King Salmon. Not clearing an area and retaining fish that are other than mouth hooked is strictly frowned upon and likely to get you chastised by the locals and those in the know, even possibly turned into Fish and Game in the case of keeping snagged fish. This is serious business to most of those involved, and I highly suggest you play by the rules.

Alaska State Atlas & Gazetteer Although I have participated in this fishery it is not really my cup of tea. I prefer a smaller rod than this would normally require, enjoying my aquatic hunts with ultra light gear, and most especially avoiding the crowds. An excellent way to do that is to come to this area in the late summer and early fall; I suggest from late August to early October. I had the opportunity to take the trip of a lifetime just this last fall (2002) with my girlfriend's brother, Jay, who was visiting from the Mille Lacs region of Minnesota, and a good friend of his from St. Louis, Missouri: C.J.

They were in Alaska to visit us but were also very determined to fill their coolers. They had a pretty good run with the salt water charter guys that we had hooked them up with, but now it was time to get some fresh water fishing done. They had been asking me about someone to guide them (gratis) into one of the three million Alaskan lakes, or at the very least, to get some good info on bait, locations, and techniques. I, an ex mid-westerner who had been in Alaska ten years and had caught a grand total of one rainbow during my entire tenure, had nothing informative to offer. I was trying to convince them that the best way to do things would be to hire a pro to guide them down the Kenai, assuring them that they would not only catch fish, they would catch a lot of fish. When they started wavering, I sealed the deal by offering to go myself, as this was something on my short list of must-dos in Alaska and I had the time and money now.

It worked, and we soon found ourselves in one of the local watering holes of Seward asking who would be the right people to guide us down the Kenai. I sought out Bob Schaeffer, a Seward fly fisherman, guide, and columnist. Although we were not looking to avail ourselves of his excellent and very personalized services, he happily offered up that we should seek out the guides of Kenai Cache Tackle and Guiding.

Bob's trips are a little more one-on-one and are fly rod oriented, and although this did not appeal to the flatlanders in us I cannot say enough how well recommended are his services and what a fine guy he is. I do warn you, however, not to take up a pool cue in opposition to him. Be it Nine Ball, Eight Ball or Three Ball, he will walk out of the bar counting your money.

Kenai Cache
Tackle & Guiding
PO Box 533
Mile 52 Sterling Hwy
Cooper's Landing
Alaska 99572

Gwin's Lodge Inc.
14865 Sterling Hwy
Cooper's Landing
Alaska 99572
Fax: 907'595-1681

A quick call to Kenai Cache and a short but pleasant conversation with Genese Peterson (she and her husband, Darwin, own the shop) and the day after next we were on our way. Our plan was to take the full eight hour tour down the Upper Kenai River, about a ten mile stretch of water that runs from Kenai Lake to Skilak Lake through Cooper's Landing and, in parts, alongside the Sterling Highway. We were a tad anxious to be on our way and thus we found ourselves in Cooper Landing a full hour and a half early so we decided to take in breakfast at Gwin's Lodge on the west side of town. Gwin's Lodge is the full Alaskan dining experience - a log cabin built in the 1940s provides the ultimate roadhouse café setting: the food is awesome and the service is excellent. In the early hours of the day you will find yourself dining with everyone from locals to guides and tourists, and if you keep an open ear you may even pick up a tip or two to help you along in your day of angling.

After our fine repast we found ourselves back at Kenai Cache just as they were opening up the doors. Shannon, the pleasant woman at the counter, provided us with the thigh high waders that we would need if we were to spend any time fishing from the shore; as Jay and C.J. tried theirs on I struggled into my own chest waders and shoes. Kenai Cache was providing us with a guide, drift boat (a 19-foot oared dory), eight rigged spin cast rods, two fly rods, waders and as many little beads as we could use, all for the low, low price of US$165 each.

We were to take an eight hour float down the river and get pulled out at Jim's Landing, entering into a portion of the river that only allows 20 guides access. Not long after we were all paid up and clothed, ready to head downstream (raingear is a must for any time of year in Alaska), our guide, Mark McCoy showed up. A burly young lad with an ever present smile, Mark knew his stuff and had enthusiasm to spare. He informed us that the fishing the day before had been miserable, they had fished all day with almost no hook ups and we were not very reassured. Darwin then drove us a couple of miles back east and we put our drift boat into the water where Kenai Lake empties into the Upper Kenai River. We were ready to go.

The author and his prize fish of the day. Note bead in corner of trout's mouth.

Because we were fishing towards the end of the season the tourists were down. Most of the salmon were spawned out but we were interested in the fish that were there to eat all the little salmon eggs floating around, primarily dolly varden and rainbow trout.

The rig that is used to catch these fellas is a medium lightweight pole with a large sinker at the end of the line. From the sinker depends a three foot leader of fishing line which has a single hook at its end. Above the hook is placed a small bead that resembles a salmon egg. This little bead was kept in place with the end of a toothpick that Mark would shim into the top of the bead and then break off, keeping it in place about three inches above the barbless hook. The variation of pinks and oranges of these little thingies is without end: Mark had a minimum of a 1,000 of these beads, literally tackle boxes filled with nothing but little plastic salmon egg wannabes. Many of these he had hand painted upon with little lighter dots with nail polish so as to resemble the fertilized eggs of salmon. We loaded up the boat and got ourselves arrayed in the front of the vessel per Mark's instructions and began to fish.

This style of fishing had us drifting backwards down the rive, fishing from the bow of the boat, doing what they call back dragging. When the boat was in position, pointing upstream, stabilized and drifting lightly backwards through the current, Mark would tell us to cast. We would flip our lines out about twenty yards from the boat at 10, 12 and 2 o'clock and let them sink to the bottom of the river. We'd close our bails and just float lazily backwards downstream intent on the tips of our rods. As the weight bounces over the rocks the rod tip bounces up and down like little fish are hitting it but it's just the weight tumbling up and down over the rocks.

Amazingly we very seldom snagged up. This method allows you to present your beads in the most natural fashion and man, does it work.

Jay shows off the largest rainbow of the day, caught in the first 15 minutes.

On our first drift Jay and I both hooked up dollies. I like to think of dolly varden as the "fifties fish", their light blue sides spotted with little stylish pink spots that never fail to make me think of how nice that pink would look on an old whale-tail Cadillac. They are as beautiful as the rainbow trout in their special way. Mark oared us back up to the bridge and we all three hooked up and landed fish, with Jay catching the largest trout of the day before we'd been fishing ten minutes. Another trip up to the bridge brought yet another triple hook up. It was a pretty amazing start. We'd been fishing less than half an hour and had already landed more than ten fish. I had just caught ten times as many trout in less than hour than I had caught in almost ten years of sporadic fishing in Alaska. The entire day was to be like that, with us losing count of how many fish we landed before noon, but I hazard a guess that during the day we caught more than fifty fish.

Our guide Mark was a very knowledgeable and helpful guy aside from being an extremely pleasant fishing companion. His balancing act was impressive, keeping the boat aligned properly as it was drifting backwards through some fairly active water in places, keeping an eye on our rod tips and letting us know when to set the hook if we had not already done so. He was constantly giving us little tips and helping us with our technique and was always there to help if we needed him. He would work with each of us individually, just giving us little tips on how to handle the rod, where to cast, how to reel up our excess line, and boom: fish on. If things got a little slow Mark would change out our poles to try and find out just exactly which indistinguishable shade of pink or orange was catching the fish. During the entire day if we snagged or fouled a pole or if one was not catching fish you could turn around and have a fresh rod in your hand instantly. It was like being a surgeon and saying "Scalpel," it would just magically appear in your hand.

Occasionally we would lie up on a little island and fish from the shore, casting upstream and allowing our lines to bounce downstream in much the same manner as in the boat. It was truly amazing that Mark could
C.J. shows one of his trout.

C.J. holds up his spawned out pink salmon, also known as a humpy, for obvious reasons.

come up behind you and give a little bit of advice and with some seemingly minor adjustment a fish would present itself to our angling ecstasy. When the fish strike your hook the bounce is just subtly different, the tip of the rod going down a little harder and staying there for just a bit. If you were slow picking up on it Mark would be there, happily hollering at you to set the hook. I found myself totally oblivious to the beauty of our surroundings as I concentrated on my rod tip, waiting for that next hit. It was just like being on a television fishing show: fish on, fish on, and fish on. If five minutes went by without someone hooking up we'd all think about complaining a bit, then laugh about it. Five minutes without a fish and you're anxious? Ridiculous and hilarious. We got spoiled fast.

Every once and a while we would hook up into one of the ubiquitous red salmon floating in the river. They were everywhere, red shadows holding position in the river above their little patch of inseminated gravel. Catching them was no fun at all, much like snagging a big, heavy stick; no fight, just haul them in and shake them. We soon learned what they felt like and how to shake them without landing or losing gear. Who needs salmon? We got trout to conquer. At one point in our trip we set up on a little island that Mark called "The Slaughterhouse". We did not catch many fish but it was a darned interesting place to walk around for a little bit as there was dead, spawned out salmon everywhere. There were a couple of dead kings on the beach that must have run 80 pounds easy. It was not hard to imagine why so many people are drawn to fishing for this species, their sheer size and obvious strength, even in death, was obvious.

Get Your Outdoor Gear HereWhile here we tried our hand at fishing with a fly rod with much the same method and gear. Here you just flip the egg upstream and try to keep the loops of your line above the egg so that the drift looks natural, no weights on the lines at all. We all pretty much sucked at it but it was fun to try and it was something different for a few minutes while your companions snacked on their sack lunches. Mark was very helpful in giving us all a fly fishing lesson and I got the feeling that this was the type of fishing that is held to the heart. He would have joyously spent the entire day trying to teach us greenhorn flatlanders how to properly handle a fly rod. I got the distinct impression that this must be the way to go, if that's what he felt was the best way then it might do a body good to consider the source. This guy knew his fishing.

I would have to say that in my 40 years I have spent maybe 30 of them with some type of fishing going on in my life and this was, hands down, the most exciting day of angling I've ever had. I caught more fish and wrestled more jangling poles than any other time I can remember.

Although the trout were "catch and release" we could have kept some dollies if we'd liked, but it rapidly became clear that keeping fish would just take time away from our catching them and we decided to release everything hooked that day. I was able to take some beautiful pics of Jay, C.J. and myself all holding up some gorgeous trout. I also got some pics of the off catches: C.J. landed a much spawned out, dinosaur mode pink salmon (and this pic will explain the term "humpy") and Jay is the first person I've ever seen actually land a rock. Seen quite a few people hook up with rocks but can't recall ever seeing anyone get one into the boat. I love ya, Moose!

Two happy flatlanders at
the end of the day

By the time we got out of the boat at the end of the day we were all very happy campers indeed. We had just fished one of the worlds premiere trout and salmon rivers and had a day of fishing that we would not soon forget. There's an old saying, "That's why they call it fishing, not catching" that gets invoked whenever someone gets skunked on the water. This is the only day on the water I've ever had that could be referred to as "catching" not fishing.

As we drove back to the shop I informed my fellow fishermen that a tip is traditional at this point and we all ponied up an additional 20 dollars each for our hero Mark who took it gratefully. A child on the way and a tad thirsty, I'm sure he found good use of it and I only wished it could have been more. If you are on your way to Alaska or live there now I cannot recommend highly enough the staff at Kenai Cache Tackle and Guiding. If you can't afford the full day then try the half day trip which runs $100 (their rates may have come up some in the interim); it is well worth it. This trip was a wonderful opportunity for me to check something off the list of my "must do's", which, of course, gave me room to add another. I wonder if the steelhead are running in Yakutat?

Feature and photos by Michael H. Dessner, Florida Keys Correspondent. Read the Jetsetters Magazine review on Tasmanian Devil Lures, and Cruising Alaska Midnight Sun Fjords.

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