Day 23: Wetting a Line on the Kustatan
Fishing for Silver Salmon (aka Coho) in Alaska had been a planned highlight for this trip before I ever plotted the first route on my GPS more than eight months ago. I didn’t know for sure where I was going (other than Alaska) or what else I might do along the way, but I was definitely going fishing. After today, that planned highlight is a very real, very successful, very gratifying highlight, though today’s fishing adventure on the Kustatan River was not without its trials.
First, the proof of its success:
There was one more nice Silver in the boat making us only one fish short of our six-fish limit, but we only had four hands for the picture.
Before I go any further, I have to give a heartfelt THANKS to our guide for the day, Greg Brush, owner of EZ Limit Guide Service in Soldotna. Those silver beauties in our hands would be happily spawning right now without Greg’s intimate knowledge of the river, vast experience catching salmon for the past 28 years, and just plain damn hard work and tremendously positive attitude trying to make sure we went home with salmon. If you ever think about a fishing trip on the Kenai Peninsula, you couldn’t do better than to start a conversation with Greg and secure a reservation for one of his well-planned guide trips.
For the past week, rain has plagued the Kenai Peninsula. Now, the Peninsula is well known for its rain, but recent days have brought an extraordinary deluge, including to the Soldotna area and the location of our fishing adventure across Cooke Inlet. This morning when Greg picked us up at 5:30 (a thoughtful courtesy he rendered because he knew we were riding motorcycles) and delivered us to the Alaska West Airways float plane base, it was raining. It was raining when we signed in for the flight. It was raining when the 6:30 flight in a 1950s vintage de Havilland Otter upgraded to more than 900 hp took off and landed 20 minutes later. And it was raining as Greg steered our small boat with a 25 hp motor down a slough to the Kustatan River. It rained nearly all the time we fished, from 7:30 until noon when we left fishing behind and returned for our scheduled return plane ride across Cooke Inlet.
And the incessant rain caused myriad problems. Normally on these trips, Greg positions his charges on a gravel bar or sand bar and directs their angling from those dry points in the river. But the constant rains caused the river to rise several feet overnight, covering all the sand bars and requiring adjusting to either fishing from a boat or from the shore or a combination of the two. Moreover, the fast running, mocha-colored water was silty, reducing visibility for the fish to only a few inches and making food (i.e. bait) difficult to locate.
We weren’t the only group fishing the Kustatan today, and other experienced guides agreed with Greg’s assessment that fishing conditions for spawning Silvers was as bad as anything they had seen this year. All the guides tried assiduously to fine tune their attack plans to put anxious clients on elusive fish, but few were as successful as Greg.
Success didn’t come easily or quickly or last very long. We fished nearly an hour and a half with no success. Greg assessed the situation, watching the water, other anglers, and the fish that roiled the surface from time to time. His patience (and ours) paid off. The five Silvers we caught were all landed in about a one-hour period before we once again went fishless. Mark finally landed the first fish; 15 minutes later we had numbers two and three hooked at the same time; I caught my biggest fish and best fighter 10 minutes later; and Mark finished the day with our biggest catch at about 10 pounds nearly an hour after he caught his first one.
As a neophyte salmon angler, I entered today’s fishy fray with several misconceptions that colored my expectations. I thought the salmon we would catch would be in the 20-25 pound range, but discovered that they usually return to their natal streams to spawn (and die) as three-year olds in the 7-11 pound range. I also assumed we would be more isolated than we were today during the fly out, but, as noted earlier, we saw more than a half dozen other guides with troupes of 4-6 followers seeking the same elusive prize we sought.
Let me return to the rain, the bane of my fishing day. Not only did it complicate fishing and make securing a three-fish limit difficult for all and impossible for some, it demonstrated in no uncertain terms that motorcycle rain gear was not suitable for foul-weather fishing. After 2-3 hours of standing in a blowing rain watching lifeless lines, my Harley-Davidson rain jacket became saturated and lost much of its water-repellent properties. The falling water just soaked through the sodden jacket to my outer shirt, to my inner shirt and, finally, to my skin. And the temperature hovered between a chilly 55 and a cool 60 all morning.
Despite the great time I had going after the salmon, I was ready to fly back to Soldotna, return to the hotel, strip off my soggy shirts and soak in the spa. The rain pants were less of a problem because water-proof hip waders were provided, so the only protection I needed was between the top of my pants and the top of the waders, and the rain pants worked well enough to prevent the thick rubber waders from funneling cold rain down my legs and drenching my new and very warm wool socks.
In two days, we’ll try our luck again with the underwater denizens of Alaska, as we put to sea to hunt for halibut. I think the weather is supposed to be better. Despite today’s conditions, I had an amazing day. If catching halibut is as much fun, I may start planning a return Alaska engagement.