Silver Fever

Gold once lured thousands to Alaska. These days it’s salmon–kings, sockeyes and silvers. Halibut are always there, but with salmon when you go determines what you’ll fish for. North Pacific salmon spawn and spend the early part of their lives in streams, then go to sea to grow up before returning to the place where they were spawned to repeat the cycle. The timing varies little from year to year, so the date of your trip pretty much determines what kind of salmon will be running.

Our trip coincides with a silver (coho) salmon run, but there’s a complication. A couple of days before we are to fish the lower Kenai River near Soldotna, an ice dam breaks above Skilak Lake on the upper river, releasing a flood that prompts an advisory to stay off the river. But Fortney goes to check the water level at 6:00 a.m., and comes back to report the river is dropping. “There’s not much debris floating down, so we’ll go at 7, an hour late,” he says. He warns that the fishing might not be as good as usual, because silvers like slow water and shallow depths, and the high water means many of his favorite spots have neither.

Away we go, and as soon as we get on the river, it’s obvious we are not the only ones ignoring the warning. Boats line the banks for miles, all loaded with anglers seeking their daily limit of two silvers.

Nick picks a spot along the bank and anchors up, then prepares the baits. He fishes some of us with skein eggs on a single hook and some with a Kwikfish 15 chrome/pink or chrome/chartreuse diving lure with a strip of sardine tied onto the underside. The chrome/chartreuse lure proves to be the clear favorite. Out of our three-person limit of six fish, only one is caught on eggs.

These are bright, fresh-from-the-sea fish, with sea lice still attached. The sea lice drop off after about 48 hours in fresh water, so they are a good gauge of how long ago the fish left the ocean.

We get two bites as soon as we put baits into the water. My fish gets off, but Bob Stocker lands a nice coho of 11 or 12 pounds. As soon as there is a fish on, Nick releases the anchor and lets the boat float downstream with the fish, since the current is so fast it’s almost impossible to reel the fish against it. As soon as the fish is netted, Nick uses a club to administer what he calls “the wooden shampoo” and pops the fish into the box, returns the boat to the buoy attached to the anchor, reties, and we resume fishing.

It seems as though we will limit out in short order, which is a good thing, since the air temperature is 39 degrees and the water temperature 46, so we appreciate every stitch of clothing we have on. But it turns out to be a long day. Boats around us are catching fish, but we seem jinxed. Talk turns to bad-luck myths connected to ships: bananas on board, women on board. We don’t consider throwing Zoe Ann overboard until she hooks two big silvers within five minutes of each other. At that point both she and Bob have limited out, and I have yet to catch a fish. We finally solve that about 3:00 p.m., and we all go home with limits. It’s been great–and it’s the worst day we’ll have.

Alaska is BIG–so big it’s hard to tell the whole story of a fishing trip in just one story. Next issue we’ll take you along on two more Alaska fishing adventures: a fly-out trip to a remote, glacier-fed lake frequented by bears and moose and the absolutely best fishing experience you’ll ever have–a float trip down the Upper Kenai river fly-fishing for Dolly Varden and rainbow trout.

Alaska Hooksetters Lodge

During our two-week trip in August 2009 we stayed at Alaska Hooksetters Lodge for five nights, fished for four days, and explored on our own the rest of the time. We hiked to glaciers near Seward and Homer, took a day-long wildlife-watching cruise out of Seward, kayaked on Kachemak Bay out of Homer, went to the Kenai Peninsula State Fair at Ninilchik, dug for razor clams on the shore of Cook Inlet and ate fresh seafood at nearly every meal. And we only scratched the surface.

Alaska Hooksetters Lodge is ideally located for exploring the western side of the Kenai Peninsula. Located between Soldotna and Kenai in a huge bend of the Kenai River, it is only a two- hour drive from both Anchorage and Homer and about an hour from Cooper Landing and the upper Kenai River. There’s a 4,200-square foot lodge for lounging, individual cabins for sleeping and a campfire area for evening socializing. Meals are served in a yurt-like building that‘s pretty cool.

Alaska Hooksetters is owned by three partners, two from Texas and one from Alaska. Co-owner Phil Snider says the operation puts the best interests of its guests first. “We are primarily in the lodging business, but we will assist guests in planning their fishing trip if they wish,” he says. “We can give technical advice, book guides and transportation, or you can plan your own trip and do it all yourself.” Snider and his partners bought the lodge in large part to feed their own Alaskan fishing addiction, so they know the best guides, float plane services and outfitters.

Since timing is so critical when fishing Alaska, if that’s the primary purpose of your trip, I advise letting Snider help you plan. “We’ve done a lot of research on tides and on when the different kinds of salmon arrive, and we can say here is the best week to come, these are the best days to fish, and these are the best times of the day to be on the river,” he explains. “If you will let me know ahead of time when you want to come, I will suggest what you should do during a specific week.”

Another reason for utilizing Snider’s services is that he is clued into more than just the migrations and the tides. Alaska fishing regulations are way more complicated than anything Texans can even dream of. “For example, guides are not allowed on the lower Kenai on Mondays, and the other days of the week they can be on the river only from 6:00 a. m. to 6:00 p.m.,“ Snider reveals. “Sometimes the state lets commercial net fishermen fish on Mondays and/or Thursdays, and those are good days to fish the upper Kenai. Big runs also come into the lower Kenai on big incoming tides, so the best times to fish the lower river are days when there is no netting going on and there is a big incoming tide between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., giving you most of the day to fish. We will communicate this information openly to potential clients, because we want them to experience the best possible fishing.” What Snider does not point out, or need to, is that a guide looking to book clients every single day of the season does not have an incentive to be so revealing.

For more information on Alaska Hooksetters Lodge, visit www.alaskahooksetters.com or call (907) 283-4671.

Stuff to Know

In no particular order:

  • Take clothes that will let you dress in layers. Summer temperatures can range from the 30s to the 60s. Raingear is essential.
  • Allow time to explore on your own. Renting a car will cost about $750 a week, but it’s worth it. The drive from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula (or anywhere else you can drive, for that matter) is spectacular, and there are plenty of opportunities for flight-seeing, rafting, kayaking, hiking and do-it-yourself fishing. Remember in summer it gets light about 6:00 a.m. and doesn’t get dark until 10:30 or so; you’ll have plenty of time for poking around.
  • You can take your own fishing gear and waders, but you won’t need them on guided trips.
  • Tipping guides, pilots and camp staff is expected. Some locations post suggested amounts, but remember the season is short, living in Alaska is expensive, and you want them to welcome you back. Take plenty of $20 bills.
  • The Internet makes it easy to find and book accommodations and guides, but packages that include lodging, food, guides and all services such as air or water shuttles avoid lots of hassles. Part of the problem is there are so many choices; it seems that everyone in Alaska has a bed-and-breakfast, a guide service, or both.
  • Costs for food and lodging are comparable to what you pay in a large metropolitan area in what Alaskans refer to as “outside,” the rest of the United States. Expect to pay $7 to $15 for breakfast, $15–$25 for lunch, and $20–$40 (or more) for dinner. You can find some lodging deals online, but even then a basic motel room for two will start at about $100 per night; average is around $150. Gas averaged $3.50 per gallon during our visit but can easily go a dollar or two higher. Credit cards are accepted almost universally.
  • You can bring your fish home with you as excess baggage; stores sell insulated fish boxes that hold about 60 pounds. We had the processor freeze and ship our fish to arrive a few days after we got home; cost for custom processing, packaging and shipping totaled about $5.50 per pound.
  • Several major air carriers serve Anchorage and Fairbanks with connections to smaller airlines serving the rest of the state. There is almost no place you can’t get to by air, and many you can reach only that way. If you are planning a trip to Alaska, I suggest you get a Visa credit card through Alaska Airlines now; they offer a companion fare that lets you buy one coach ticket at regular price and get a second for $99. Using the companion fare next time will let us cut our $1,200 roundtrip cost by nearly half.

To return to part one of this story, click here. To continue on to part three, click here.

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