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Sockeye Galore  at Cabela's

Sockeye Galore

Author: Scott Haugen

When it comes to high-volume salmon fishing, Alaska's sockeyes are where it's at.

A sockeye on a fly rod is lots of fun!
Meeting up with my dad in Anchorage, we had a few days to spare before heading out on a Dall sheep hunt. The sockeyes were thick in the Russian River, and we wasted no time getting there. Fly rods packed, we made the two hour drive to the fishing hole.

Preferring a bit of seclusion, we chose to hike upstream, away from the many anglers choking the mouth of the river. With meek water flow, spotting the sockeyes (commonly referred to as red salmon) was a cinch. The fast moving, transparent water allowed us to work our flies smack into the mouths of many fish. Once hooked, sockeyes spend a lot of time in the air, producing one of the most exciting fights in the salmon world.

Hauling our limit up the bank, we reflected on the successful day we'd had. Admittedly, we were forever hooked on Alaskan reds. Since my first encounter with sockeye salmon, I've made it a point to go after these fish anytime I can.

For tourists seeking red salmon, perhaps the most convenient options center around the Kenai and Russian Rivers. As these speedster fish rapidly make their way through the lower and middle Kenai, it's the upper stretches of the Kenai and the Russian River that receive most of the angler attention. It's at this confluence -- where the Russian dumps into the Kenai -- where the world-famous photos of hundreds of anglers standing shoulder to shoulder flip flies for reds as they make their way to the headwaters of the Russian. Combat fishing is what it's called, and I've had my fair share of it.

Crowds often follow the fish.
Combat fishing for reds is a cultural experience. Never have I met so many anglers on one river representing so many states and nationalities; but everyone is there for the sole purpose of catching fish, a passion we all share. With this in mind, it can result in a fun time if what you're searching for is camaraderie and great fishing.

Traveling from Anchorage, the Sterling Highway leads to a ferry launch site, just passed Gwins Lodge. Here, tourists can park and ride the ferry across the Kenai, then walk to where the Russian spills in. When the fish are moving through, you'll be among hundreds of anglers, but don't get discouraged. Casts made are very short, often right at your feet, and tangling up with other anglers can be kept surprisingly minimal if everyone pays attention.

On another occasion, Dad and I muscled our way into the battlefields, just for the wonderment of this style of fishing. In two hours we hooked 25 reds, releasing several before packing away our limit. Everyone was catching fish, making for a very positive time.

There are two runs of red salmon entering this system. The first run comes in around June 1st, peaking in mid-June. Most of the salmon from this first run head up the Russian, creating many opportunities for bank anglers. There are excellent places to park, walk and fish along the Russian, and these locations are easy to find.

A nice sockeye
The second run of reds comes in July, peaking about the 3rd week of that month in the lower and middle Kenai. I've caught fish from this second run near the Russian River well into the second week of August. Though many of the fish will be transforming into their crimson spawning colors at this time, there are still some chromers lingering.

Sockeye salmon are primarily plankton eaters, and many anglers claim these fish don't go on a bite. It's common belief that sockeyes swim upstream, mouths agape to filter out plankton, and that anglers dragging their leader through the fishes jaws, putting the fly in their mouth, triggers a reflex bite. These fish move through in such astounding numbers, anything seems possible.

Nonetheless, many anglers are convinced red salmon go on a bite, and have good success with green colored coho flies. Leach patterns in the same color also produce fish. I've caught reds on all styles and colors of flies, including green, red, gold, orange, white and blue. To control the fish, I prefer an 8 weight rod. The best setup I've used on these fish include a Cabela's FT, 9-foot rod, their SR2 reel and Prestige Plus, weight forward, F/SII and 10' sinking tip lines. This setup works well for me on silvers, steelhead and big trout as well.

I'd compare the style of fishing reds with that of shad fishing -- many of the same techniques apply. Searching for fish moving through fast, shallow water is your best bet. A seven weight fly rod is adequate, for a hooked fish can run all over the river. A stout rod allows you better control over the fish, preventing what could be time-consuming tangles with other anglers. I've heard of guys using nine weight rods and being spooled on these fish.

Flies can also be fished with a spinning outfit. This past summer I hooked numerous reds on my Cabela's IM7 Tourney Trail rod and Fish Eagle 2000 reel. This setup withstood rigorous punishment and kept bringing in the fish. When bank fishing, wading is often the rule. My best luck has come with Brush-Tuff LaCrosse chest waders featuring 1,200 grams of Thinsulate, for they allow me to wade in comfort all day long, keeping me warm in the glacier waters.

Scores of spinning anglers don't even use a leader when flipping flies for red salmon. They tie the fly directly to their mainline, clip a sinker 24-36" above it and hit the river. Because these fish hug the shore when moving upstream, long casts are seldom made by bank anglers. Rather, six to ten feet of line is stripped off the reel and flipped up stream. At the end of the brief drift, simply lift the rod tip, pull in the line with your other hand and repeat the flip; the bail is not flipped open. Fishing this way will result in several "casts" per minute, increasing your odds of hooking fish as they move through in immense schools.

The best advise if looking to catch reds is to go where the crowds are. These fish move in mass numbers and anglers are on the lookout. If you find large groups of people, chances are the fish are in. Many places exist along the Kenai River where concrete fishing platforms have been put in place specifically for sockeye fishermen. These fishing platforms can be found along the highway, off park and recreation areas and near boat launches.

Ranging anywhere from five to ten pounds, sockeyes are a thrill to catch. Their tenacity to escape and persistence to shake a hook make them a premier game fish. They are also one of the best eating anadromous fish. Should the opportunity come your way, don't hesitate wetting a line in quest of Alaska's famous sockeye salmon.


Scott Haugen's recently released book, Hunting the Alaskan High Arctic, is available directly from the author. To order your copy contact him at sthaugen@yahoo.com.




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