Waking up on day two in Alaska, I met with guide James and headed out to a local creek to fish for rainbows and dolly vardens. The weather was great – overcast with a little sun peaking through, and the mountains were visible around us as we made our way to the water.
James rigged up a couple rods, each with a different bead: One a red, shiny bead, and the other a pale, pink bead that was smaller. The beads imitated eggs that were fresh (the red bead, likely from sockeye), and eggs that had been in the creek for some time (the pale bead, likely from earlier runs of salmon).
The creek itself was small, no bigger than my local Gunpowder Falls, and a pale blue-gray in color where it deepened. The water was no more than two feet deep in most places, and at its deepest, twice that depth. It was also full of bright red sockeye salmon, jockeying for position over shallow gravel bars, biting each other and leaping from the water. Behind the sockeyes, barely visible, was an armada of dollies and rainbows, waiting for salmon eggs.
The fishing was silly good – the eggs, fished under an indicator, would be drifted down from the salmon through fishy runs, sometimes over sighted fish, and when the indicator jumped, dipped, or stopped, I would set the hook. More often than not, I came tight to a dolly, and would fight the fish until close enough for James to net and unhook the fish.
About 1 out of every 10 fish was a rainbow. These were beautiful silver fish, strong and acrobatic. Of these, I hooked two rainbows that were quite large (18″+), and after a blast of a fight, and some quick moves to avoid trees and logs, each managed to throw the hook at the net.
More than a few times, I came tight to something heavy, and a sockeye would shoot from its lie with my egg in its lip. The sockeye may have simple been “threaded” by my leader and fly, or may have been snapping at my bead, thinking it was an egg from another fish (some primitive instinct to kill its neighbor’s offspring). The sockeye, despite being the zombie fish they were, would fight like hell, leaping from the water, zig-zagging up and down the creek. When netted, they were amazing to see: Zombie fish with jagged fangs, green heads, and a slimy, deep red body. I caught a few this way, and while they were a pain in the ass for James to deal with, I enjoyed hooking and landing these beasts.
We fished for three hours, and I took a couple dollies in the 18-19″ class that were a hell of a lot of fun to fight. The dollies were gorgeous fish: Gun-metal bodies with pink spots. In the fall, they turn bright orange, similar to their cousins the arctic char.
After having my fill, we moved downstream by car, and tried a a new section of the creek. Again, I hooked and landed rainbows, dollies, and sockeye. Along the way, we found a group of large king salmon, fish that were at one point 40 pounds, holding in inches of water. White fungus was visible on some, a sign that their immune systems were breaking down, along with their bodies. In a few weeks, they would be dead, their bodies nutrients for their offspring and the other fish of the creek and the Kenai river.
With a few hours left in the day, James took me out on his drift boat, and we fished the water directly behind the lodge. I hooked and landed several massive bull sockeyes, again on beads, as well as a handful of dollies. This section of the river looks like a large lake, the water a brilliant green in the sun. Looking into the water, the sockeye and kings were visible, bright red against the gray bottom of the river.
We wrapped up around 4PM, and headed back to the lodge for a celebratory beer. Over an Alaskan micro-brew, James shared more fish stories, and showed me a video of the northern lights taken from the back of the lodge. The footage was amazing – a neon green curtain wavering above the mountains.
Alaska continues to impress.