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