My sister moved to Alaska for the summer, something she had dreamed about since her days of mail-order wolf adoption as a little girl. I’ve been dreaming about Alaska too, and with a sibling relocating to the wildest state in the union, I had to go visit, fly rod in tow.
I booked three days of fishing out of Kenai River Drifters Lodge, planning to fish hard ahead of a family visit to Denali National Park. Flying into Ted Stevens airport, I was blown away by the views: Countless glaciers, snow covered peaks, and not a building in site.
I landed, grabbed a car, and drove the two hours out to Kenai River Drifters lodge in Cooper Landing. After getting checked in, I ate my soggy sub from Anchorage (having marinated in the car for the last few hours), and passed out.
The next morning, I joined a couple from another lodge and guide Ryan for a day floating the Kenai through the Kenai Wildlife Refuge. The morning was a comedy of errors (locked myself out of my room at 5AM, so met my guide barefoot and freezing to explain the situation), so I was thrilled to finally get on the river.
The float was awesome. The water was clear, with a slight blue-gray hue, and full of spawning sockeye and king salmon, bright red in the water. Following behind the salmon were legions of rainbow trout and dolly varden trout (a species of char more closely related to brook trout than a true trout). The trout were there for one thing: Eating salmon eggs. And for this reason, the fishing lived and died based on what pods of salmon were spawning.
I did spend a good part of the morning throwing a streamer (a “dali lama”), and managed to get eats from two nice fish, one clearly a large, fresh-from-the-ocean sockeye that went airborn. Both broke my 8lb test line on the first surge. After watching the couple I was fishing with (both accomplished fly fishers and very sweet people) catching dolly after dolly on beads (read: plastic eggs painted to exacting patterns with fingernail polish), I switched to a bobber and a bead. And I started catching fish, along with my fishing buddies for the day.
The bead game is odd, and borderline unethical in my mind, but it is the Alaska way: You locate the bead on your tippet an inch or less from the hook, and when the fish bites the bead, you set the hook. The hook would land neatly in the side of the fish’s jaw, and you would fight the fish. While this is, in effect, snagging fish, there truly is no other way to catch these fish on fly for most of the summer. They won’t eat bugs, and have minimal interest in minnow patterns…all they want is eggs. And despite this being snagging in my mind, I did not foul hook or visibly damage any of the fish I hooked and landed. It was a clean and effective method of hooking, landing, and releasing healthy fish.
I did hook a large rainbow at one point, and after a two minute fight, with the guide working his way to shore to anchor the boat and net the fish, the rainbow did what rainbows do…threw the hook. The rainbows in the Kenai regularly pass 20″ in length, and this fish was in that size class.
For someone new to Alaska, I found myself focusing on the bear warning signs, the scattered salmon corpses on the shorelines, and the massive bear prints in the mud. I did not see a bear that day on the river, but the evidence was everywhere.
After arriving back at the boat ramp, I exchanged email addresses with the couple, thanked and tipped Ryan the guide, and headed back to the lodge.
I caught up with my sister that night, and enjoyed craft pizza and small-batch beer in Soldotna.
I have to say…Alaska’s alright.