By Harry Whited*
The Sockeye always fought hard and they never failed to make sure you were completely worn out at the end of the battle. He would take the fly and shoot out to the middle of the river, blowing up your reel and sending you into your backing, teasing you with jumps from the water where their silver bodies would reflect the rising sun. As you reeled you grew tired but you never lost your adrenaline and as the fish got closer he would wiggle and jolt and show streaks of chrome that cut through the glassy blue glacial water. It was only when he was in the net that the fight would relax and you were able to admire the hint of green on the top of his head and his silver scales that would turn purple if you caught him when the sun was at a rise over the river. Size does not matter with these fish because like art, it is not measured by grandeur but by the emotion it brings out in the person who is there to witness it.
The drive from Anchorage to Cooper Landing always took two hours. You would pass the rocky Chugach mountains and spot sheep that wandered on the steep ledges as you leaned your head against the glass of the car. You would pass green tundra that stretched endless miles and would follow the trails with your eyes as they disappeared into the mountain willows.
When you take the exit for the Sterling Highway all you have to do at that point is follow that teal blue water and the vibrant green trees along the road until you reach your destination. You never had to travel too far and the directions never had to be too complicated to be happy in this place.
Other than maybe the king salmon (or chinook depending on where you’re from) one of the most famous fish that Alaska’s river has to offer is the sockeye reds. It’s in early June when the sockeye season opens and soon the roads are filled with a cavalcade of anglers setting out to take advantage of the early stage of the spawn.
The run tends to begin in Seward with people lining the muddy shoreline attempting to “snag” these fish out of the water. A popular, yet controversial way to catch your limit of these fish.
The true angler will catch these fish in a different way. One where the fish’s body will not be torn to pieces in the fight and the focus isn’t so much on catching your limit but the experience you share with others catching your fish.
Halfway between Anchorage and Seward lies Cooper Landing. A tucked-away little fishing town, with one school, one gas station, one real breakfast diner, and thousands of aspiring anglers looking to get out on the water. The town is ruled by fishing guides and companies who charter clients in drift boats to go out and float the river. The river that spills through Cooper Landing is the infamous and treacherous Kenai River. A large river that cuts through the peninsula and snakes down the Sterling highway all the way to Soldotna.
We would fish with an assortment of guides. Our preferred guide was a man named Mike Adams who would guide me and my family on most if not all of our floats on the Kenai.
Mike is a true and honest angler who wants all of his clients to catch fish but his knowledge and respect for the river makes him admirable. It was because of these traits that we would always go with Mike even if we never caught a single fish which never happened.
The boat would be put in at a small launch called Sportsman’s Landing. About a 40-minute drive down the road from my family’s cabin.
Mornings on the river meant you stared your breath in the face when you exhaled and your ears dialed listening to the crying loons and the rushing water and were ever so often disturbed by the splashes of the jumping sockeye.
We would fish different areas with Mike, rarely ever going to the same spot but the most popular floats we ever did were the floats from Sportsman’s to Jim’s Landing. A three-mile float that would usually end in tired arms and coolers full of chrome.
The first spot was a rocky bend about 20 minutes from where we launched the boat. The sockeye were never out extremely far, they took to the rocky shoreline where they could feed and they swam in the riffled water that was not slow enough to drown them and not fast enough to tire them out.
The technique we used was called flossing. At the end of the line would be a fly with some black or green hair tied to it, that is all. About three feet above the fly would be a weight. This weight would tap across the bottom and roll with the river’s current and produce the fly in a way where the fish would not necessarily want to eat it, but he would get agitated and bite at the fly nonetheless. You would sweep the line across the river and make sure you always felt the bottom tap on the weight. When the fish bit the fly, you would not know for certain if it was a fish or not until you finished your sweep and gave the rod a slight jerk with the wrist. It was then that the hook would be set and the fish would start to fight.
Limits would differ throughout the season which typically began in early June and ran to early August. You would have your first run of Sockeye come in in early June where they were that beautiful bright chrome. The limits usually began at six fish a person but as the season improved, that would slowly grow to 9 or even 12 fish per person. We never had problems filling our limit yet we decided to let most of our fish go and keep about three salmon in total. After living in Alaska for so long and eating salmon nearly all that time, you grow a natural distaste for it. Some people think we’re crazy but my family would rather harvest three salmon to nibble on throughout the year than to harvest 40 plus salmon that we were sure to never touch.
There would be more spots we would hit if the rocky bend did not prove to be as “hot” as we hoped. If we had a good day the rest of the time would be spent trout fishing. Taking a light, 4wt rod we would cast out a salmon egg and wait for the strike indicator to go down. It was very simple and not as fast-paced and combat-prone as the sockeye fishing was.
The Kenai River would never fail to bring up the most beautiful rainbow trout. They were always pink and chunky and black spotted on the top while never losing that shiny silver body.
In the fall the rainbows would feed on the late spawning sockeye that caked the river banks with their red corpses. The decomposing fish were a benefit to trout and soon the trout would enter what the guides on the Kenai called “the glut” where the trout had excess fish to feed on so they would become fat and heavy and be spilling out of the mouth with salmon eggs.
The fireweed grew on the sides of the scorched hills where wildfires had ravished the Kenai years before. Still, it produced a pretty picture with the pink and purple fields juxtaposed with the teal blue water that was completely encapsulated by the luscious green hills.
Fish was always the reason for the adventure but it took a fool to not realize that the fish were minuscule compared to the picture you got to witness firsthand. Many people make the mistake of coming to Alaska to conquer. They want to kill as many fish and as many animals as possible to feel they have truly “done” Alaska. Sure, the animals and the fish bring many joys but what people forget is that Alaska is completely intoxicating. From when you first fly over those snowy mountain tops or lay your eyes on that beautiful blue river, you are hooked. The fish are only extra to what people really go there for.
After being away from home for so long I can barely remember what it feels like to feel a sockeye at the end of my line or how it felt to hold one in my hands for the thousandth time. But I will always remember that river.
*Harry is a native of Alaska and now works at Great Blue Heron while attending the University of Kansas.