GAFA Day 6: Trout in Kenai Canyon
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.