Fly Me to the Fish

The next day we get a different view of silver salmon fishing–and of Alaska. At noon we board a float plane for a half-hour flight across Cook Inlet to Big River Lake on the Katmai Peninsula. On the way the pilot gives us a close-up look at Double Glacier, which feeds the lake with icy, milky run-off. Guide Greg Vane pulls his boat loaded with anglers right up to the plane, we all swap places, and away we go. On the way Vane hails a fellow guide and asks where he’s going. “I think I’ll go this way,” Vane says, pointing. “I haven’t been up there in a while, and I want to see what’s going on.”

What’s going on at the mouth of the no-name creek where crystal-clear mountain water meets the soupy glacial melt water is a congregation of silvers, sockeyes and Dolly Vardens. The sockeye run is waning, but the trampled grass all around and a brief glimpse of a black bear show that the fishing has been good lately. The sockeyes ignore our offerings of small spinner baits and globs of salmon eggs on a single hook under a bobber, but the silvers and Dolly Vardens eat everything we throw. I have a bit of trouble giving them enough time to take the bait, and it’s not long before everyone ducks when I set the hook, because they know the bobber and hook are probably flying at the boat. Once I learn to wait a full second after the bobber disappears, my hookup rate increases and everyone can concentrate on fishing instead of dodging.

Vane advises moving the bait every few seconds, which causes the egg ball to float up near the surface, and the fish usually nail it on the fall. I get robbed plenty of times, but there is no problem with the four of us taking our three-fish limits and catching and releasing many more.

Why the salmon bite is something of a mystery. They are here to spawn and die, and they really are not feeding as such. “They may bite because they are predators,” Vane guesses. “Maybe they are eating another fish’s eggs–a competitor. Maybe it’s just a reaction bite–they see something move and the predator instinct kicks in.” Whatever makes them bite, once they do, you’d better hang on. A 10- to 12-pound salmon can make a drag scream. Some are jumpers and some are not, but all fight all the way into the net and don’t quit then. And there’s none of this business of catching a bunch of small fish and one or two big fish a day, like bass fishing back in Texas. These fish are all the same age and about the same size, and every one of them has a bad attitude.

It’s almost enough to make a Texan think there’s something to this everything’s-bigger-in-Alaska business.

Hello, Dolly!

I admit I’m what the Alaska old-timers called a cheechako–a tenderfoot, a newbie–but this much I’m sure of: the Dolly Varden is the most under-appreciated fish in Alaska.

And they live in one of the prettiest places in the world.

It’s hard to describe the feelings one has after a day on the upper Kenai River. Catching 25 or 30 Dolly Varden and rainbow trout up to 7 pounds, seeing bald eagles and brown bears patrolling the riverbanks looking for an easy meal (and finding it), casting your fly while standing in frigid water with sockeye salmon at your feet ignoring you while giant king salmon with bright red bodies and white tails flash by, running rapids in a bucking Willie Boat, immersed in what is arguably the most beautiful river scenery you’ve ever seen–it’s almost too much for the senses.

Almost. I want more and I want it soon.

Guide Erick Fish gives us a short course in fly-fishing Kenai style while we’re anchored at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers. The lure is a single salmon-egg-colored plastic bead about two inches above a single hook at the end of a three-stage leader composed of lengths of 20-, 16-, and 12-pound test. All dangle beneath a bright pink strike indicator the size of a ping-pong ball. About two feet above the hook are one or two small split shot weights, depending on the swiftness of the current being fished. Casting is a simple lift-and-lay motion. “Lift the rod tip to bring the weights out of the water, then make a large overhead arc with the rod, ending with the tip pointed at the target.” Fish instructs.

The trick is having the correct amount of line out so the weights clear the water when you lift the rod, but that is soon worked out by trial and error. For me the hardest part is rod-tip management. You keep the rod tip up and pointed at the strike indicator as it drifts downstream. Lifting the rod tip keeps the floating line off the water so that the strike indicator and lure move downstream at the same speed as the current. “If it’s not moving at the same speed as the current, they will recognize that and not hit it, “ Fish says. “You can get away with a loop of line about the size of a basketball on the water, but that’s it.” He proves a good teacher, and even though this type of fishing is new to us, especially from a boat being buffeted by current, we end the day with no tangled lines and no one wearing a fishhook earring.

Once you have a fish on, you lower the rod tip and point it at the fish to avoid pulling the hook out of the fish’s mouth. My first fish is a brute of a Dolly Varden. I had no idea these fish were so plentiful, so strong, and so beautiful. I was looking forward to catching rainbow trout, but the Dollies are a very welcome surprise. Weighing up to 7 pounds, thick-shouldered and pugnacious, they take the lure and dive for the bottom. Some are jumpers and some are bottom- or bank-seekers, but they all have an extreme aversion to the net, and Erick often has to get into the water and have us lead the fish to him. That’s when he has to give us another lesson in rod-tip management. When leading fish into the net, point the rod straight up or even behind you to guide the fish in.

Late in the 9-mile drift I’m drunk on Dolly Vardens when Erick anchors the boat in “the canyon,” a stretch of the upper Kenai where rock walls drop straight into the river. We’re in an eddy just downstream of a run. As I get ready to cast, Erick stops me. “Hang on. I want to try something.” He ties a flesh fly onto my line. It’s a white fly with a faint pink streak that resembles a piece of flesh from one of the dead, spawned-out salmon in the river. Everything here keys on the salmon, either the eggs or the flesh of dead fish. “Cast to the seam just below that tree limb hanging over the water,“ he instructs. I have a little trouble hitting the spot, but on the third try the word “Perfect” is still hanging in the air when a 7-pound rainbow smashes the fly.

It takes at least five minutes for the fish to surrender. I never get into the backing, but I can see the knot before I start gaining line. The rainbow runs right, runs left, dives, jumps and puts on a show that has my heart pounding and me shouting. We release the fish and Erick shows me the hook. It was beginning to straighten.

Later, just above Skilak Lake, I catch a big Dolly Varden with an attitude just as bad. The fish actually comes up out of the water before taking the strike indicator down. I don’t know whether it has the hook in its mouth at that point or is diving on the bead, but I see a splash and the back half of the fish, then the strike indicator simply vanishes and the line goes taut. Earlier Erick had taught us the secret of the bead two inches above the hook. “Lift the rod and set the hook. The fish will have the bead in its mouth, and when you set the hook, you jerk the bead out of its mouth and the hook goes into the mouth, usually hooking it in the corner, the ideal place.” On a day when we catch 60 or 70 fish between the three of us, we don’t have a single fish that is not hooked in the mouth. They all go straight back into the river as healthy as when they came out.

One of the best parts of fishing the upper Kenai is the scenery. Zoe Ann has traveled the world, and she says the Kenai is the most beautiful river she’s ever seen. Bob Stocker agrees. He’s here for the rainbows, and he says it is the best day of fishing of his whole life. “This is more than I ever expected,” he says. “It’s a dream come true.” He lands numerous rainbows and Dolly Vardens in the 6- to 7-pound range, and by the end of the day, he’s glowing as bright as the 13-pound sockeye Zoe Ann lands. We see them all day, but it’s the only one to bite–the cherry on top of an absolute ice cream sundae of a day.

I’ve been to South Africa twice and have hunted and fished all over Texas, but four days of fishing out of Alaska Hooksetters Lodge ranks as my peak outdoor experience. I didn’t realize how much fun we’d been having until the day after our trip on the upper Kenai, when Zoe Ann and I went into Soldotna to do laundry. We’d seen and experienced so much in the past four days we needed time to come down from being high on Alaska. Watching our clothes orbit in the dryer somehow was the perfect way to decompress and allow our senses to begin to recover from extreme sensory overload.

Not that they ever will, nor do I want them to. A wise person once said, “You go to Alaska, but you never leave.”

To return to part two of this story, click here.

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