Sockeye Salmon Fishing in Alaska: When the Kenai Runs Red
Dateline: Kenai River Soldotna, AK trip 8/14 to 8/30 2012 by Sammy Hampton
Mornings come early when the red salmon run. The clouds hang low and glow for some time as they grow out of the darkness and can be seen clinging to the top of the mountains that run along the Kenai River as dawn comes. It is hauntingly beautiful. The air is crisp as it sweeps up and over the river and comes onto the bank from the cold water that flows there.
What makes the Sockeye Salmon school and then turn and swim upstream is no mystery. They are being called home to spawn. A silent voice speaks to each and every one of these noble fish, male and female, small and large, seemingly both young and old. A silent voice calls and leads these fish on a final journey upstream to breed and die.
The singleness of the fishes’ collective mind-set is boggling to me. They are undeterred by the strong currents, gravel bars and snags at every turn of the river and a horde of fishermen with snagging hooks and nets that are intent on an abundant harvest.
This was my first time to fish the red fish run. I am really a novice when it comes to salmon fishing. The comparable waters I had fished for years were the deep swift tail waters of the White River in Missouri and Arkansas. The White River fishery is not to be scoffed at. Two world record Brown Trout have come from these waters. Several times I have landed fish in the twenty-five to thirty-one inch class. Caught in tail waters below a dam that is flowing water every bit as deep and fast and as big as the Kenai. The major difference is, during the red salmon run, the majority of the fish are world class and the Kenai river flow is a challenge to any fisherman’s rod. Every moment on the Kenai during the Sockeye salmon run is like the occasional best day ever on other streams.
I did a lot of reading on Alaska’s Red Gold Run before I arrived in Soldotna. I got a mixed review of how to fish for the reds. I was surrounded by a fraternity of fishermen that were soundly ensconced on the theory that the Sockeye had to be snagged as they did not bite. The technique involved a slight tug on the line at the beginning of the cast, after it landed on the water and sank, and another tug at the end of the drift to catch the line passing into the gaping mouths of the fish as they move up-stream. This supposedly resulted in the fish being hooked in or near the mouth; close enough to be considered a legal hook up by most fishermen and generally in line with the Alaska fishing regulations.
Another quadry of fishermen tied flies and stated that the fish did in fact bite and could be caught in the mouth from striking the lures. All seemed to agree that the Sockeye salmon were plankton feeding fish when at sea, and had no interest in feeding on any other food source.
The number and density of these fish as they moved upstream resembled the schools of stocked trout I encountered in the Missouri Trout Parks. I immediately began noticing that the fish did in fact bite or nip flies. I observed this and caught the majority of the Sockeye, I landed, and they were hooked inside the mouth and several with the hook inside and down the throat. I did not tug on the drift. I did not hook up as many times as those who did the “tug”, and only foul hooked about a half-dozen fish out of the fifty or so fish I caught and landed.
I observed a large male Sockeye take a lure that was dangling in the water a foot in front of where I was standing. The term “combat” fishing at times applies when fishing on the Kenai during the Sockeye run. This is close to standing shoulder to shoulder with the nearby fishermen on the stream. The lady just upstream of me was casting and drifting her lure to just downstream past me and then slowly retrieving and then pausing her lure just in front of me. I was in a prime hole and hooking a fish on just about every third or fourth cast. I paused before I made my next cast and was observing her lure. She had not caught a fish in the past half hour and was obviously affected by my success just a few feet downstream of her. I was standing in a swift flow of water that was created by two big rocks in the stream. Suddenly a large male Sockeye darted out from the deep water flowing between the rocks and took her lure. I jumped as I saw the fish flash up for the take, but I clearly saw the strike occur. The lady in her doldrums suddenly tried to set the hook, but the fish felt the line and hook before she could react and with a furious splash was gone with her lure in his mouth.
After I observed this, I fished the Big Eddy hole and delayed my retrieve at the end of my cast to let the lure pause and drift near into shore. This resulted in several hook ups while the lure was completely still and drifting. All the fish were larger males and all were hooked inside the mouth. After this experience I became a firm fan of the Sockeye do bite club, with a full limit of six fine Sockeye salmon as a testament to this fact.
Later while relating this story to several fishermen, many admitted at times they too felt the fish were biting. I surmised a lot of the snagging of fish during the Sockeye run occurred in a similar manner as it did with the schools of stocked trout in the Missouri Trout Parks. The fish were so stacked up and concentrated in a school, when one fish bit and the strike was missed, a fish nearby was foul hooked by the hook set. I have observed this many times in the clear waters of the Missouri trout parks.
I examined the digestive track of most of the fish that I harvested. I never observed any actual or residual food in the digestive system of any fish. I do not know of any species of fish, fowl or animal that does not “tank up” on food before going into the breeding cycle. But during the actual breeding cycle, I have not observed that they do feed, or if they do it is very infrequent, as their mind-set is not on food but reproduction.
Many thanks go out for my success during the Sockeye run to: A.J. Reed, Lindsey Yip, Al Dipko and Glen Brewer who provided logistics and coaching and moral support, so I could have fun and get my waders wet and catch all those fish on a 5 wt. Sage rod!
Contributing pictures by Sam Hampton, Lindsey Yip and Shaun Sehl