After a week in Alaska, this pile of fish is all I had to show for it when I returned to Maggie Valley this afternoon. Well, that and hundreds of memories of hours spent salmon and trout fishing in beautiful glacier-fed rivers, jigging for halibut in a salt water inlet surrounded by soaring mountains and snow covered volcanoes, confronting a grizzly, seeing moose, watching eagles, visiting local museums that aided my understanding of the people of the area and their relationship to a rugged environment and meeting some really good people from Texas, Minnesota, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and, naturally, Alaska. And then there were the moose burgers, the reindeer sausage, huge sandwiches on fresh baked bread, melt-in-your-mouth pastries from the Moose Is Loose, fresh clam chowder, some amazing barbecue, a couple of nice craft beers and an abundant supply of Jack Daniels. But, of course, I prize most the hours of thoughtful conversation with John about topics mundane and meaningful.
So, yeah, I brought back a lot more than a pile of delicious fish. The Great Alaska Fishing Adventure is in the books (or soon will be when I publish the blog).
No adventure ever goes as planned. I hadn’t planned on ruining a brand new pair of waders and buying a second pair. I hadn’t planned on soaking and destroying a new, albeit inexpensive, camera. I hadn’t planned on the Sockeye limit being reduced from three to one just before we got to Alaska because the salmon run is half what it was two years ago. I hadn’t planned on getting rained out of a flyout trip to Bachatna Creek. I hadn’t planned on a perilously windy voyage across Skilak Lake. But I also hadn’t planned on the chance meetings, serendipitous encounters and pleasant surprises that all the people we met on the trip provided. But, as I’ve said in previous travel blogs, it’s the unplanned that makes a vacation an adventure. I’d rather have the adventure anytime.
I had planned to see beautiful country. Check. I had planned to catch a lot of fish. Check. I had planned to eat and drink well. Check. Check. I had planned to enjoy my first-class flight and chalet accommodations. Check. I had planned to have a great time. BIG CHECK.
Despite the sometimes late nights that writing the blog required and the missed conversations with John while he respected my need for quiet time to focus my Jack Daniels-adled brain enough to tap the right keys on the keyboard, I enjoyed, once again, writing the blog each night and sharing pictures of our daily adventures with the less fortunate who still work or have obligations that keep them close to home. I hope to be able to continue to write on hdriderblog in the years ahead and I hope friends and family will continue to follow along.
What’s in store for next year’s blog? I’ve already started reading about, preparing for and planning another two-wheel adventure next summer when I expect to follow (as closely as possible) the route taken by Merriweather Lewis and George Clark in 1803-1806 when they and the 30 men and Sacagewea of the Corps of Discovery became the first Americans to cross the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase by traveling up the Missouri River from St. Louis and through the uncharted northwest lands from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Six weeks or so on my motorcycle again studying history, seeing beautiful country and meeting new people. Sounds like a plan to me. Hope everyone follows along again and keeps me company when I get “On the Road Again.”
Thanks again for coming along this year.
The Great Alaska Fishing Adventure has run its amazing seven-day course, and John and I are sitting in the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, waiting for our 8 p.m. departure for an overnight flight to Atlanta and then on to Savannah. We leave Alaska, of course, with mixed feelings. On one hand, each of us is anxious to get back home to our loving wife and jealous friends. On the other hand, leaving a place as beautiful and awe-inspiringas the Kenai Peninsula is difficult indeed. Alaska adventures produce tranquility and excitement in equal measure and few people are able to make just one trip to the 49th state. This was my fourth visit to Alaska and John’s first, but I predict we will return again someday.
We said goodbye to our gracious chalet hosts Jan and Don Shields after an extended snooze this morning and headed into Soldotna for a 10 a.m. appointment to pick up our fishy bounty. Each of us return home with about 20 pounds of salmon and an equal weight of halibut. I noticed this morning that the going price for salmon was about $12 a pound and $25 for halibut. Our flash frozen fillets won’t offset the trip’s cost, of course, but good eating for the next year makes the financial outlay more palatable.
We had thought about doing a little sight-seeing on the way back to Anchorage, and decided to stop in Hope, a little town I visited twice before on motorcycle adventures and the home of the best pie I tasted in Alaska. Pie was to be our lunch today, but when we arrived at the restaurant–which had changed ownership since my last visit–we discovered that the horde of salmon anglers who descended on the town this weekend to fish the creek for silvers and pinks devoured all the pie in town. I was crushed, and after a quick drive through what’s left of the historic gold-mining town, we left a pieless Hope and drove the remaining miles around Turnagain Arm to the airport. There, we unloaded our luggage and fish and returned the POS Focus to the rental company.
My camera remained in its bag all day, so there are no new pictures. But I know that most people come to hdriderblog.com to see pictures, so I’ve added a few more taken over the last week that probably should have made the blog earlier but didn’t. Tomorrow I’ll make a final post to wrap up the GAFA 2018 blog. Thanks to all who took time to join John and me on this wonderful adventure and to read my ramblings when they probably should have doing something constructive at work.
What a luxury sleeping until 5 a.m. was this morning, as our meeting time with today’s guide wasn’t until 7 a.m. and we only had a 45-minute drive to the meeting site near Coopers Landing. Nearly seven hours of sleep helped rest these weary bones.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect today, having never been on an Alaska trout fishing trip, but I knew it would involve a boat, waders and trout. That was enough to get me started. After we navigated the ubiquitous road construction on the Sterling Highway and arrived at the designated meeting place, we met Jordon, our guide for the day, and young Charles from Knoxville, a recent high school graduate enjoying his graduation present, who would be our fishing partner in the four-man float boat.
Following brief introductions and a 15-second safety briefing, Jordan ordered us into our flotation devices and launched the boat. He passed out rods with single-hook, deep diving lures attached and began rowing/floating down the Upper Kenai River Canyon.
As has been the case every fishing day of this trip, John landed the first fish for our two-person party, as I predicted he would.
Jordan established a pattern immediately that would last all day and that made getting pictures for the blog difficult. Catch and release apparently means release as quickly as possible, both for the good of the fish and so the angler can continue fishing and Jordon could return to his oars and his cigarette. Consequently, the fish were usually returned to the water before I had time to reel in, grab my camera and start shooting. But I’m a quick learner and figured out that I needed to start the picture-taking process as soon as a fish was hooked. I also decuded to look for other shooting opportunities that may or may not include a fish in the picture, such as the scenic river, the ever-present mountains and whatever wildlife might offer itself along the river’s steep and thickly wooded banks.
The beautiful, glacier-fed turquoise water of the Kenai flowed more and more rapidly as we headed into the “canyon,” which, while it in no way compares to the Grand Canyon, had steep banks and large rock walls flanking the river. Jordon would row hard as we crossed and re-crossed the river to locate “trout holes” where the water eddied and slowed, allowing the trout to rest out of the main stream. Before long, I had boated my first trout and Charles soon followed. It was clear we were going to catch fish today.
I missed the big halibut yesterday, but I scored today with the largest trout, a beautiful 22″ (measured by Jordon) Rainbow. I definitely wanted a picture with this fish, but he (or she) seemed uninterested in posing with me. I would try to hold it up and it would flip its slippery self from my slimy grasp. Fortunately Jordan had seen this show before and knew that he needed to keep the net under the fish even in the boat. Twice I tried my best angler pose with my catch and twice it slipped from my fingers and back into the waiting net. “Grab it tighter,” Jordon suggested. So I did and John finally managed to take the picture I hoped for. And then the rascal flipped loose again but it didn’t matter because Jordon was ready to return it to the cold waters of the Kenai.
Down the river we went, stopping periodically at “trout holes,” gravel bars and small islands to try our luck in likely places where our guide thought our chances of finding fish would be improved.
John not only reeled in eight or ten trout of various sizes during our voyage down the canyon, he also managed to catch a pink salmon and a nice Dolly Varden. The latter fish is sometime confused with a trout but is actually a char. Charles also boated several nice rainbows after a slow start and by the end of the run down the canyon the three of us had a total of more than two-dozen rainbows to our catch and release credit.
Although we saw evidence of bears in the tracks along the beaches and on the islands, today they kept themselves out of sight. But we did spot four eagles at various times perched in the pine branches in the trees along the shore or soaring above the river looking for salmon.
Clouds hung overhead most of the day and temperatures reache a pleasant 62-66 degrees. The weather forecast had called for wind, but I hadn’t thought much about it since we would be in the “canyon.” What I didn’t know was that the final leg of the trip required a five-mile, 45-minute boat ride on Skilak Lake (a 20-mile long, four-mile wide, 500 feet deep glacier-fed jewel in the middle of the Kenai Peninsula) to our final take-out point. As we emerged from the Kenai river onto the lake, we could see the 25-mile-an-hour winds whipping up whitecaps and treacherous 2-3 foot swells on the lake we had to traverse.
Jordon considered tieing the boat off in a creek and hiking up a trail over a small mountain to the nearest road. I’m not sure how long the hike would have been, probably an hour or more, and we would have been hiking in waders since our shoes had been left in the van that had pulled the boat trailer. In the end he decided to take the boat out onto the lake, so we stowed our gear as efficiently and tightly as we could, rearranged ourselves in the craft to provide the balance necessary to keep the bow up as we prepared for a trip for which this crescent-shaped boat had not been made.
Our guide piloted the bouncing boat cautiously, turning into the swells and causing the boat to come crashing down into the trough. Bam. Bam. Bam. Cold lake water splashed over the gunnels and drained over the stern into the boat on some of the biggest swells. We ran a zig-zag course, first paralell to the swells, then turning to face the biggest ones head on before steering the boat back on course to the landing area several miles away. The most adventuresome part of the trip across the lake lasted only the first 20 minutes, and conditions improved gradually as the lake narrowed and the towering mountains helped block the wind. The closer we got to the end of our five-mile lake voyage, the better the conditions became.
Finally, on the smoothest water of the final leg of today’s trip, we reached the take out point, waited 15 minutes for our van and trailer, then drove back to our origin point having made a great loop along the Upper Kenai River.
Bears, wind storms, flyout rainouts–that’s what turns vacations into adventures, and the Great Alaska Fishing Adventure has been just that. We fished for sockeye, silver and pink salmon; halibeasts, and beautiful rainbow trout. We saw bears, moose, eagles and more wildlife. We stayed in a comfortable, modern chalet that offered welcome refuge and a beautiful vier after a day on Alaska’s wonderful waterways. And tomorrow it comes to an end. I’ll post a short blog entry tomorrow evening as we wait to catch our nightflight back to the lower 48. And then on Tuesday I’ll add one final wrap-up entry to the GAFA blog for 2018.
Although this year’s travel blog has not been as extensive as my motorcycle-related ramblings, I hope it’s been entertaining and educational. It’s been fun to get back at the keyboard and share adventures with friends and family.
When I planned the Great Alaska Fishing Adventure, I tried to include a variety of fishing options, e.g. Sockeye on the river, Silvers on a fly-out, fly fishing for trout and open water fishing for the fabuous fleshy flat fish lurking at the bottom of Cook Inlet. In part this plan would allow us to have a variety of fish to bring back, but more importantly it would allow us to have a variety of Alaska fishing experiences.
Today was halibut day. So, after getting to sleep at 11:30 last night, we were up at 3:30 this morning (for the math challenged that’s four hours of sleep) to get ready to drive more than 60 dark miles on a moose infested road so we could fulfill our 6:30 angling assignation. At 6:15 we pulled into the Anchor Point State Recreation Area parking lot, just behind our newfound Texas friends Brian and son Travis, and waited for Captain Wally to arrive with our aquatic transportation for the day. At 6:30, he towed his worn but worthy eight-passenger aluminum charter boat to the launch ramp and, as the morning sun began to ease carefully through wispy clounds and climb slowly over the mountainous horizon to the east, the Halibut Adventure got underway
Besides Brian and Travis, two other angling adventurers–Florida-based Jason and Georgia-based Austin–had booked the charter for the day. All six of us met Wally and mate Ethan and climbed aboard the Carrie Ann. The trailer was hooked to a retired logging skidder (a great big tractor) and backed into the sea until the boat floated free and the trailer was returned to the beach. We were off.
A 45-minute full-power blast south in the Inlet gave us breathtaking views of the volcanic mountains to the west, including the landscape-dominating Mt. Redoubt. Beautiful weather, fantastic views, and a smooth ride across the uncommonly still water of the Inlet and we were soon at our first anchorage of the day.
Captain Wally explained the limits to us–two fish per person per day, one of which had to be 26-28 inches in length (8-10 pounds) and the other could be any size, up to and above 400 pounds. That’s a big fish and no really expected or wanted to reel in a bottom dwelling behemoth, but we were all hoping to boat something in the 40-70 pound range.
Our initial stop put us above a feeding ground 180 feet below that teemed with younger halibut that would meet the 26-28″ requirement. Wally and Ethan began baiting hooks. John took the first rod available and dropped his line, weighted with a four-pound lead sinker, into the clear, dark water. Within minutes after his weight touched the bottom John had hooked into the first fish of the day and after a three or four minute John West-powered ride to the surface, the initial halibut was in the fish well.
In rapid succession, the amateur fishing crew reeled in several small halibut at or near the size range required by Alaska statute. If they were too small, they were returned to the sea from whence they had come. If they were larger than 28″ but not large enough to satisfy anyone’s desire for a “big” fish–say 15 pounds or so, those fish also got a break and were released. In about an hour, we had six “good fish” in the well, properly marked so we knew which fish belonged to which halibut hunter. I caught one that was too small by 1/2 inchand one that was too big by about two inches, but the third fish my quickly tiring arms reeled in was a perfect 27 1/2 inches. Although no one kept track, we probably boated about 15 fish and released nine of them before we had what we needed.
Captain Wally fired up the twin 150 hp Yamaha engines and our band of merry men was underway again, on course for a deeper location–about 250 feet– where the older, larger and much scarcer halibut tend to hang out. Instead of 10-15 minute workouts between hits, now we waited 30-45-60 minutes for the lunkers to interest themselves in our baited offerings. Unfortunately the halibut weren’t the only fish feeding at the bottom and during the course of the day we reeled in a half dozen small dog sharks (I got one of those) and three or four skates which Wally and Ethan had to remove from the often tangled lines at some peril.
Travis, one of our fishing mates from yesterday on the Kustatan, seemed to hold the hot rod at this location, landing two fish before anyone else had landed his first. But they were smallish–25 pounds–and he opted to release them so he could continue his quest for a halibeast. John and I decided we would keep one of his returns as a hedge against getting skunked. So, we had one in the well. A couple 25-30 pound fish were caught and kept before Floridian Jason boated the biggest fish of the day to that point at about 40-45 pounds. It’s important to remember that these unhappily hooked halibut had to be reeled 250 feet to the surface, resisting with all their strength all the way. At times that resistance paid off and they were able to escape. That final fight between fish and fisherman comes after 20-30 minutes of “jigging” or continually lifting the four-pound weight several feet off the ocean floor and then letting it drop again. Lift, drop, repeat. This monotonous technique puts considerable strain on arms young and old.
About two hours after we started looking for “big” fish, John’s rod dipped sharply and it was “fish on.” As he began reeling his reluctant foe to the surface, it was clear this was a big fish. Although the boat had no scales, Wally and Ethan estimated John’s catch at 45-50 pounds, making it the largest halibeast of the day.
Unfortunately my only catch at the second location was a small shark, and I ended the day with three halibut, two of which I returned to the sea. But John and I, like the other four halibut hopefuls, reached our two-person limit of four fish, weighing in the neighborhood of 85 pounds.
After the final keeper was in the well, we paused briefly for pictures proudly displaying our catch. Then Captain Wally fired up the powerful Yamahas once more and headed back to the rocky beach and the waiting trailer while Ethan, being the low man on the boat’s two-man totem pole, began filleting the 12 fish in the well, making sure to bag the three teams’ fish separately so we could deliver them to a fish processor for vacuum bagging and freezing for the plane ride home. Our filleted fish at the processor tipped the scales at a respectable 39 pounds that will be added to the roughly 43 pounds of flash-frozen salmon already awaiting our Monday pickup.
Tomorrow we try our hands at catch-and-release trout fishing in the Kenai River Canyon about 30 miles from here. That will be our last fishing outing for this trip. If it’s as much fun as the other three, tomorrow will be a great day.
NOTE: Friends, family and other followers: Please feel free to add your thoughts to the blog via the COMMENTS button. John and I would love to know what you think about this adventure.
After yesterday’s fly-out rain-out, today’s afternoon flight to fish for Silver Salmon (aka Coho) on the Kustatan River was much anticipated. And, as adventures go, today didn’t disappoint. as we added several tales to our store of stories with which we’ll regale friends and family left behind.
Our float plane taxied across the small pond at the Alaska West Air home base and into the clear air several minutes early as both John and I and the five-member Henderson-family party from Texas were anxious to get lines in the water and start hooking these fantastic fighting salmon. The short flight across Cook Inlet under mostly clear blue skies gave us a great view of the soaring snow-covered volcanic mountains on the Inlet’s western flank.
When we landed on the Kustatan 20 minutes later, we met our guide for the day–Danny V, a high school science teacher in the City of Kenai and the head guide for Alaska West Air fishing charters. We loaded our gear into the AWA-owned boat and headed down river to join other anglers on the banks, in boats and in the water.
Danny V picked a spot that allowed us to fish from the banks, and within 15 minutes one of the Hendersons had landed the first salmon of the day.
John and I fished from the back of the moored boat to begin with. John scored first, landing a nice silver after about 30 minutes. About 15 minutes later I had one in the net and the day looked promising. When strikes from the waters behind the boat slowed down, I walked down the bank to where the others had stationed themselves and were hooking salmon about every 10 minutes and started fishing. Soon, I hooked a nice fish and started the exciting process of reeling it in as twisted and sliced through the water trying to escape. And then it was gone. I thought it had flipped off, but when I finished reeling in I discovered my hook and leader were missing–the line had broken. So I headed back to the boat so Danny could repair my tackle and I could resume my quest. And then the first day’s adventure began.
The shore is pocked with holes of various depths and widths caused by the water’s ebb and flow. I knew there were several that had to be navigated, and in attempting to cross the biggest one, I landed on the edge and fell backwards into the hole and into the water. Although I had waders on, when you land on your back in the water, they fill quickly, as mine did. I scrambled out as quickly as I could but my clothes were soaked. And so was my new small camera purchased for this trip. At present it appears to be non-functioning, though I’ll try it again tomorrow. All the rest of the pictures I got today were taken with my cell phone that was damp, but not soaked and is in working order.
I made it to the boat, removed my waders so my clothes could begin to dry and fished for a while from there. When my shirts and pants were mostly dry–about 30 minutes–, I put the waders back on and resumed fishing from the shore, but the silvers had begun to go, as the guides say, “lockjaw,” meaning they’ve quit biting. I did hook into one nice fish and reeled it all the way to the shore but after two tries at netting it, it flipped itself off and I missed what would have been my limit at the end of the day. By then, Mike, the patriarch of the Henderson clan, had already caught his three-fish limit and each of the others in their party had one or two fish.
Danny V decided to move us to another place in the river, but the new location proved to be a bust. Thirty minutes of fishing passed and no one got a strike. So we moved again, this time up river where we had another 30 minute dry spell before heading back down river to near where we had been before and where others were catching fish earlier. After only about 10 minutes, one of the Hendersons landed another fish and John followed suit a few minutes later. Then I hooked into and landed my second salmon for the day and it looked like we might all catch our limit, even though we only had about an hour left to fish before the plane returned to ferry us back across Cook Inlet.
With only an hour remaining in the fishing day, Danny V had to start cleaning and filleting today’s catch, which by then amounted to about 17 or 18 salmon for the group. We off loaded his filleting board and the cooler full of salmon. He told us to keep fishing and he was about to start the cleaning process when . . .
Across the small slough near the river’s main channel–about 25-30 yards from where we were fishing a mature Grizzly (aka Brown) bear, emerged from the brush and walked along the bank and into the water directly across from us. Grizzlies are a serious threat and Danny V started to hustle everyone and all the gear into the boat, all the while huffing loudly at the bear to try to convince it to stay on the other side.
I took a moment, though, to get a picture with today’s catch before Danny sliced and diced it and then joined the others in the boat.
About that time, the bear swam across the river away from the slough where we fishing and moved further downstream. So we unloaded the boat again and started fishing while Danny started working.
“Bear’s coming back across,” John warned everyone as he quickly reeled in, and once again we bugged out and loaded the boat. This time, knowing the bear was on our side of the river but not where he was, Danny backed the craft into the channel and headed a good distance downriver to a mid-river sandbar so he could finish the fish cleaning he already started twice.
Several of us tried to fish for the remaining time while today’s catch was being finished off but then, once again, “BEAR.” The same bear had moved the same distance we had though we’re not sure if it was intentional or coincidental. But this time he never got as close to us as he had been earlier and Jennifer Henderson (mom) kept a wary eye on the unwelcome visitor while Danny finally finished his work, bagged the fillets and we loaded the gear and returned to the plane’s landing site on the river to meet our ride home at 6 p.m.
About 10 minutes after we arrived, the plane’s drone could be heard and a few minutes later the pilot touched down. We loaded all the gear and fish into the plane and covered the return distance across the Inlet in about 20 minutes.
Back at the AWA home base, we bid our guide and some of the Henderson clan adieu, but tomorrow we will fish again with Brian (father) and Travis (son) when we meet Captain Wally at Anchor Point and head to sea in search of tasty Halibut. Adventures tomorrow? Probably, but I wouldn’t even try to guess what kind.
We knew when we went to bed last night that rain was forecast today, but we still anticipated flying to Bachatna Creek on the west side of Cook Inlet to seek our three-fish limit of Silver (Coho) salmon. Up early again (but not as early as yesterday) and fortified by Moose Is Loose apple fritters and pecan rolls and steaming cups of java, we made the 45 minute drive to Alaska West Air in Nikiski, north of the City of Kenai, and arrived comfortably before our scheduled 7:30 arrival time. When we walked in, the office/waiting area was filled with dozens of hopeful but anxious anglers still waiting for their 7 a.m. departure flights. Shortly before 8 a.m. that group received the bad news that their trips had all been cancelled. Dejected, they trudged back to their cars, leaving about a dozen of us still on the bubble for our 8 a.m. departures. But at 8:40, AWA staff announced that heavy fog, especially in our landing area, meant our trip was scratched also. It’s likely that none of the dozen or so scheduled fly-outs today left the ground, and a lucky group of spawn-ready Coho salmon avoided a swim through a gauntlet of hooks in various rivers.
(As I sit here writing, I just got a call from the indefatigable Sherri Brush at EZ Limit Guide Service with the great news that she booked us on another fly-out tomorrow afternoon at 1 p.m. So, instead of sight-seeing, we’ll be back on the water looking for cooperative Cohos. Yeah!)
We decided to use the remainder of the day to do a little sight-seeing (not much given the rain and fog) and go to Homer to look around and search out a museum I had read about. The drive south to Homer took us past Anchor Point, which is where we’ll launch the halibut phase of this GAFA on Saturday, so we took a short detour to the meet-up point to make sure we wouldn’t have any difficulty finding it in the dark two mornings from now.
We got to Homer about 11 and drove out on the Homer Spit, which I learned today was created as a terminal moraine by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago that deposited its load of dirt and gravel at the end of Kachemak Bay. Although the spit sunk about 6 feet March 27, 1964, as a result of the record-setting 9.2 earthquake, Homerians decided to add thousands of tons of rocks to the spit, bringing it up to today’s level and allowing shops, docks and fueling facilities to be rebuilt. Given the cold wind and rain today, a hot bowl of clam chowder was in order, and we found a small place on the Spit that served up a good bowl of it.
Following lunch and a couple of short visits in some Spit shops (that sounds disgusting), we headed back to the mainland to find the Pratt Museum I had read about. With only one U-turn, we found the Museum and I was surprised to see, instead of a typical local history museum, a large, relatively new building. Inside, it offered professionally designed and built museum exhibits that covered natural and human history, marine life, and an art gallery. John and I spent more than an hour going through the museum and both of us came away edified and intellectually satisfied, having learned several important things about settlers, coal miners, fox farmers, crabbers and fishermen; about the Kenaitze indigenous people; about the Exxon Valdez oil spill; and about the endless trials and tribulations of surviving a harsh and unforgiving environment. Once again, our time and our $10 entry fee at a local museum were well spent.
Now we’re enjoying our evening libations, relaxing or writing a blog, and looking forward to another GAFA day on the water tomorrow.
With any luck, the next blog entry will include pictures of a successful fishing outing on the Kustatan River where Mark Stevens and I had a soggy but wonderful fishing adventure two years ago.
We came to Alaska to fish. And today we fished. No, let me try that again.
TODAY WE FISHED. Much better.
Our GAFA itinerary called for a 5 a.m. departure from the Stewart’s Landing boat ramp in Soldotna, so we set our alarms for 3:30 to ensure a timely arrival. Both of us were as wide awake at 3 a.m. as kids on Christmas morning, and we had plenty of time for coffee and Moose Is Loose delectable pastries to get the day started right. We left our Stillwaters chalet in the POS Focus a little before 4:30 and arrived at the boat ramp at 4:40 a.m. The gate to the privately owned ramp was locked and no one else was there. So we waited. About 10 minutes later the owner of the property emerged from her little house next to the gate, unlocked the chain that impeded our progress to the boat ramp and parking area, and collected our $10 parking fee. Several sets of headlights pierced the softly glowing dawn behind us as we headed down the drive to the ramp. Fishing tourists like ourselves piled out of cars and three pickups towing boats added to the growing crowd. We donned our chest waders (yes, my newly purchased non-felt soled Caddis waders), gathered our supplies for the day, and stood ready to fish.
The first pickup in line and the first boat in the water belonged to EZ Limit Guide Service and both were piloted by our guide for the day, Kenny. During the non-fishing season, Kenny is a high school science teacher, and though he has fished in Alaska for many years, this is his first summer as a guide. We introduced ourselves to today’s fishing partners, Minnesotans Julie and Ryan, listened half-heartedly to the obligatory safety instructions from Kenny (life jackets, fire extinguisher, man overboard, etc.) and backed slowly into the smoothly flowing Kenai River, Alaska’s superhighway for millions of salmon swimming inland to spawn and die.
We headed upstream to a spot Kenny had picked out, but by the time we arrived boats that launched with their fishing crews from other ramps at 4:30 already lined the bank. No problem Kenny said. Other places on the river were just good also, so we reversed course and pointed the bow downstream for about 10 minutes until we came to a less crowded shore line.
Kenny prepared our fly rods, gave us quick but professional three-minute instructions on how to catch sockeye salmon using EZ Limits’ outstanding tackle, and we climbed out of the anchored boat into the water that had started its journey to the sea in distant glaciers.
I know that many blog followers come to hdriderblog not for the literary gems that glimmer on its pages but for the pictures. OK. So here’s what you really came for, at the end of which I’ll continue my narrative until my glass no longer contains Jack Daniels.
I took many more photos during today’s fishing frolic, but you get the picture.
While fishing at our first location, Kenny got a call from another guide who let him know that a spot had opened up at his first choice, so we climbed back into the boat and motored upstream again. That spot at a bend in the river was where we all caught our single-fish limit of Sockeye, aka Red Salmon. A few weeks ago the limit had been three Sockeye per person per day, but the run this year is not as plentiful as in the past, so Game and Fish reduced the limit to one fish per person per day.
John and I were both surprised at the odd method used to catch Sockeye on the Kenai. Apparently this species of salmon is so intently focused on spawning and dying that they don’t bother to eat as they swim upstream. Consequently, using any kind of bait would be pointless. Over the years, though, Alaska anglers figured out that Reds swim upstream with the mouths open so water can run over their gills and keep them oxygenated. So, we learned, the best way to catch them is to drag an unbaited hook across their open mouth and snag them in the jaw. It’s known as the “Kenai Flip.” But if you snag one anywhere but the mouth, that’s known as “foul hook” and you have to release any fish caught that way. All of us “foul hooked” a salmon today and all of us dutifully released said fish to continue its final journey.
So, you may be asking, if we could only keep one sockeye each, why are there so many fish laying on the beach in the picture above? Because the Pink Salmon (aka Humpies) are in great abundance, which allows everyone with an Alaska Fishing License to catch a total of six salmon per day. Hence, we could each catch one Sockeye and five Pinks. Or, as John discovered, you can also catch up to two Silver (aka Coho) Salmon each day as part of your six-fish limit. John was the only one in our group who hit the trifecta today: Sockeye, Silver and Pink, and the strike and ensuing battle for the Silver was the highlight of his day. “Phenomenal” I believe he said.
All of us caught our limits by 10:30 and Kenny parked the craft in the middle of the river so he could fillet all the fish in the boat’s fish well for us to take home. While he worked diligently with his filleting knife, the rest of us continued to fish and in the hour and a half it took him to fillet the fish, we caught (and released) about 18 more Pinks using spinner baits.
Each of our two-person groups kept the fish we caught today and delivered them to a fish processor to be packaged and flash frozen and to be picked up on the final day of our Alaska Adventures. John and I ended up with nearly 40 pounds of filleted fish which we divvied up between us.
Today’s weather was perfect. Today’s guide service was outstanding. Today’s fishing partners were friendly, helpful and a pleasure to fish with. And today’s fishing was . . .well it was about as much fun as anyone had a right to expect and a great start to the GAFA.
Tomorrow, weather permitting (it’s supposed to rain all day), we’ll fly in a small plane across Cook Inlet and land in Bachatna Creek in search of a three-fish (?) limit of Silver (Coho) Salmon. At least we get to sleep in since we don’t have to be at the Alaska West airport until 7:30 a.m. But we’ll probably wake up at 3 a.m. again, anxious to see what the GAFA has in store for us.
After yesterday’s 21 hour day that ended at 11:30 p.m Alaska time and 3:30 a.m. East Coast time, I expected to sleep in this morning. But at 4 a.m., after a good 4 1/2 hours sleep, my North Carolina body said “Hey! Wake the hell up. It’s 8 a.m.” I laid in bed for another hour, unable to go back to sleep, and finally got up a little after 5 a.m. Time changes are much easier to deal with on a motorcycle when they only come one time zone every 3-4 days.
John was also up early and we had a leisurely pre-breakfast snack of delicious pastry before heading into town for a big breakfast sandwich at Odies. Following our second breakfast, we went to a sporting goods store to pick up a couple items for tomorrow’s fishing trip and to the grocery store for lunch supplies and snacks to take with us on the water.
Following an uneventful shopping outing we headed to the meet-up point for tomorrow’s first fishing foray just to make sure we knew how to get there. The Kenia River had plenty of boats zooming both directions looking for the perfect fishing location, and fisher persons lined the shore on this the last day to catch the much sought after King (Chinook) Salmon. The boats usually carried four anglers and a guide, which is how we expect to fish tomorrow. We didn’t see anyone catch anything, but we only stayed for a few minutes.
One of the Soldotna locations I missed in my first two trips here was the local history museum, and, after reading several good reviews regarding the information provided by local volunteers, I wanted to make sure I visited the museum this trip. So John and I headed for the Soldotna Historical Society and Museum.
The first building we entered (there were six on the property) was the natural history building. Taxidermy specimens, native Alaskan artifacts, and historical artifacts lined the walls, hung from the ceilings and crowded the floors. All very interesting, but to my chagrin no local docent appeared to help explain and expand on Soldotna’s history. We enjoyed ourselves but were on our own to understand what we were seeing.
We wandered on to the next building and discovered that’s where we should have started because that’s where the museum volunteers were located. (There were no signs so we went to the first building we came to.) At the second building we met Carol, whose family had been in Soldotna since the early 1950s when they homesteaded 160 acres and laid claim to their small part of the Kenai Peninsula. Carol, an articulate political science major turned florist (now retired), imparted a wealth of information that educated us on the area history. She regaled us for more than 30 minutes, and John said as we left the museum grounds that her stories and explanations were the equivalent of a college history class. Carol, as it turns out, was the historical treasure I had come to the museum to find. Some parts of the Kenai Peninsula, she told us, have been inhabited for thousands of years. But Soldotna’s history really dates only from the post-WWII period when returning veterans were given a chance to easily claim 160 acres of Alaska land under relaxed homesteading rules. Carol clearly understood Soldotna’s place in the history of Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula and John and I both enjoyed our visit with her. Frankly, we were glad when several other visitors declined her offer to join our private history symposium.
There was one other stop in Soldotna I suggested we make today and that was the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. About a mile from the Museum we had just left, the modern Visitor Center promised to be another rich vein of local and natural history for us to mine. But just minutes after arriving, as I was reading exhibit text on various efforts to preserve and protect Alaska’s flora and fauna, I was surprised to learn that felt-soled waders are illegal when fishing in Alaska waters because gubmint experts determined the felted soles trap seeds and spawn of invasive species which can then be transferred to other waters. Surprised, that is, because before leaving North Carolina I proudly purchased a new set of waders WITH FELT SOLES which I had planned to launch on their inaugural wade tomorrow! After a brief conversation about the anti-felt law with one of the Center’s employees, John and I headed back to our lodging to determine a plan of action to remedy my potentially felonious fishing trip. My first thought (Plan A) was to just buy another pair of chest waders; that would easily allay my legal jeopardy. But no, that would be too easy.
At the chalet, I decided I would remove the felonious felt from the boot bottoms (Plan B). Easy-Peasy. Of course, if I had wanted the soles to remain attached as I waded through Alaska’s beautiful rivers, the glued-on felt would have no doubt washed away at the first drop of moisture and the first scrape along the rocky river bottom. But, these soles, naturally, had been attached months ago in secret Chinese workshop with military-grade, super-permanent, sub-atomic particle strength adhesive. They were not coming off. So… I decided to cut them off (Plan B, sub-part 1). No easy task, but after selecting the sharpest serrated knife in our kitchen’s Walmart-grade cutlery collection and sawing until I sweated profusely, I managed to remove the two felt-covered heel pieces and a felt sole and began sawing through the final felt. As I neared the finish of my soleful project, woe! I discovered I not only had sliced through the felt but had penetrated the crucial rubber skin of the boot itself and opened a critical, if not fatal, wound. Perhaps, I ruminated, I could dress the wound with a high-tech rubbery chemical compound purchased at a local hardware/sporting goods store and thus plug the offending gash. (Plan B sub-part 2). So we jumped into the POS Focus and off we went to the hardware/sporting emporium.
Of course the store didn’t have the exact compound I was looking for and, after I selected a tube of what would have been an inferior alternative and headed for the check out, John suggested looking at waders in the sporting goods half of the store. (Yes, careful reader, back to Plan A). The peak fishing season has passed and prices had been reduced by $50 on waders, so, for less than the price I paid for the new but now mortally wounded waders, I purchased a better pair which I will baptize tomorrow in the cold waters of the Kenai River as we seek our first salmon limit.
Today’s lesson: Always remember that Adventures are called Adventures for a reason. Nothing is ever easy.