2003 Year in Review
As I write this review of the 2003 fishing season, the banks on the Kenai River have a light dusting of snow and river levels are dropping daily. Unlike last fall when warm temperatures and excessive rains swelled the river to flood stage, the Kenai seems to be taking a more typical exit to summer. After moderate rainfall in late September and early October that brought the river up to July levels, recent snowfall and freezing overnight temperatures have it dropping fast. Far removed from the busy summer fishing season, fall fishing on the Kenai Peninsula promises no crowds, frosty mornings and fat trout. Despite the required persistence and perseverance against the elements, a 30-inch rainbow or a chrome bright sea-run steelhead is well worth this final effort before winter’s grip finally takes over.
2003 was another unforgettable fishing summer on the Kenai Peninsula and surrounding waters. As always, we began our pursuit in mid May on the Kasilof River targeting brand new returning king salmon and fishing under newly adopted regulations. Board of Fisheries (BOF) action the previous winter had changed the rules so that no retention of wild fish would be allowed. ADF&G did not know how stable the wild component of king salmon was in the Kasilof as historically the hatchery fish were not marked or counted. The department began adipose clipping (small fleshy fin behind the dorsal) hatchery kings several years ago but it will be next season before nearly all hatchery origin king salmon will be marked. They will then have an accurate assessment of the wild early run of Kasilof king salmon and regulations regarding retention will be re-examined. This season we were told to expect 75% + of the hatchery fish to be clipped yet only 25% of the kings we caught were missing their adipose fin. This indicates both a healthy population of wild fish and less than 75% of the hatchery fish returning unclipped. The result was lots of good fishing with many of the fish we caught being returned to the river. Judging from the ratio of hatchery fish to wild fish among the overall guide body, it seems the early run of wild Kasilof kings is in excellent shape. This observation will be presented to BOF in 2005 so that some harvest of this wild run can be restored. Next year we can expect all hatchery fish to be clipped and there fore the number of fish we are able to retain should increase substantially. As the early run fishing picked up steam through late May and into mid June, a few larger late run Kasilof Kings were beginning to show and by late June we were catching good numbers of both colored early-run fish and mint bright late run monsters.
On the Kenai, a strong early run provided plenty of action from late May into June with a number of big fish being reported. This would be the first season that a 44-55 inch non-retention slot was imposed and many fish within this slot were released to seed the gravel. Since many of the early run Kenai kings are less than 44 inches, this allowed plenty available for harvest while the largest and most genetically unique fish were protected. It also allowed for a fish over 55 inches (world-record class) to be retained, and a handful of these big fish were taken. This newly adopted regulation seems to be very well received as good fishing allowed many to release a trophy and still have a good chance to keep a fish to take home.
Overall both the Kenai and the Kasilof saw strong returns of early run king salmon. New regulations imposed to protect potentially vulnerable portions of these runs and to prevent in-season closures on lean years, seemed to be effective in achieving both of these goals. Pro-active regulations that protect vulnerable species from excessive or selective harvest yet still allow participation and harvest opportunity are a win-win in my book.
While king salmon are typically the headliner of the early season, mid June opens several other fisheries well deserving of their due attention. The opening week of trout season was as usual outstanding. The Kenai’s reputation as a world-class trophy rainbow fishery is anything but over-stated as for the quality and quantity of wild trout if offers, few rivers on the planet can compete. While the lack of winter snowfall looked like it would lead to low seasonal water levels, warmer than normal June temperatures melted existing snow and glaciers and the Kenai was a bit higher than normal in mid to late June. We spent a number of days in late June and early July enjoying extremely productive trout fishing, always a favorite trip for our guests.
Between the big kings and endless trout, we also spent many June days on the West Side of Cook Inlet catching bright sockeye salmon in Big River Lake near the outlet of Wolverine Creek. This popular fly out destination is always popular due to the excellent fishing and the spectacular bear viewing. Several sow brown bears with twin and triplet cubs regularly visited the lake to fish. This was always a welcome opportunity to take a break from fishing and a unique chance to take pictures of bears in their own backyard. Rules prohibit fishing while they are present and from the boats we are privileged to witness the most unique bear viewing opportunity in South Central Alaska, if not the entire state. Additional rules that require visitors to remain in boats while fishing near Wolverine Creek and requiring all fish to be stored in bear proof containers, have helped preserve this unique fishing and bear viewing opportunity for future guests. I have been proud to serve as lodge owner representative on the Wolverine Creek Management Committee, created by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The typical mayhem that signifies the arrival of thousand of sockeye salmon to the Russian river was a bit less chaotic this year as the Russian run was merely average compared to blockbuster returns the two previous seasons. Anglers were not the only ones not always getting their limits, as more frequent brown bear activity seemed to indicate there were less fish upriver than normal. ADF&G closed the fishing after midnight in late June to give the normally nocturnal bruins a little extra room.
As always we are continually finding new fisheries to offer our guests. This year we explored one remote king salmon fishery that really peaked our interest. The name of the river is the Chuitna and it is located northwest of Kenai on the west side of Cook Inlet. Due to the winding nature of this relatively small, tannin colored river, there is no proximate water to land a floatplane, except for a nice lake a mile from the river. From this LZ we board a small helicopter and proceed to power through the twists and turns of the wild river until we spot a particularly inviting stretch and the signal is given to set her down. Being delivered by helicopter to within feet of an untouched stretch of river, loaded with big kings, is extremely empowering. This trip provides explosive fly and light-line drift fishing for big kings. We plan to highlight this as a day and over-night venture for the 2004 season. This trip is a must for fly anglers or those that prefer small water, solitude and big fish. Again, five-star service from Alaska West Air has given our guests access to the highest quality remote fishing Alaska has to offer. The best planes, the best pilots and the best locations make for the best fishing, every time.
As June expired and we entered the late-run fisheries of July, the Kenai was flowing at moderate to high levels and the fishing was on the rise. With the introduction of bait, the lower river took on the fishy feeling that the Kenai is famous for and on cue, good numbers of bright July kings were being delivered with each tide. Great fishing continued to build through mid July when the first great waves of sockeye salmon made their annual appearance. An exceptionally strong late run of Kenai sockeye was tough to miss as bank anglers were fighting fish up and down both sides of the river. Over 300, 000 fish entered the river in less than four days, contributing to an eventual return of over one million fish. The “excessive” sockeye return did lead to increased commercial fishing in late July and this had an adverse effect on newly arriving kings in the lower river. Fortunately, the river surrounding our lodge just upriver from Soldotna was teeming with kings and we spent much of late July battling huge fish in our own backyard. The largest fish exceeded seventy pounds.
July on the Kasilof was excellent as always, with action packed drift-boat fishing for big, hard fighting kings. The Kasilof is notorious for high-water volume in July and this season was no exception. Fighting fresh kings in 15-20 MPH current from a drift boat is a great challenge. Without a motor, the fish gain a great advantage and keeping a tight line can be very tough. These fish go where they want and since they can exceed 70lbs, several never made it to the net. Fortunately, this river is loaded with second chances and most that made this relaxing float were able to retain their one fish limit. Even though the Kenai is a very productive fishery in July, the Kasilof is definitely an inviting alternative. It promises consistent action for big kings from a drift boat, which is a very exiting way to fish.
July Sockeye salmon fishing along the Kenai River adjacent to our lodge and cabins was no less than outstanding. These hard fighters showed in extremely strong numbers in the second week of July and until early August, they produced excellent bank fishing for our guests. The 2003 late run Kenai Sockeye return exceeded escapement goals and the limit was raised to six fish in late July. Our fishing platforms were alive with happy anglers, roll casting into the fast moving river, and hooking fresh red salmon on a regular basis. These beautiful, delicious salmon are addicting to catch and a true treat for the freezer.
Soon the final days of king season expired and it was time to explore some remarkable trout fishing and wide open silver fishing. The first week of August is always a very exciting time as we transition into our fall fisheries. The infamous Kenai rainbows and Dolly Varden are thick and aggressive as they gorge on the first waves of loose king spawn. Drifting single egg patterns, your hook becomes a magnet and triple digit days become ordinary. This season we saw a number of unforgettably big rainbows and as the bulk of the late run Kenai Kings spawned and eventually expired, multiple thousands of bright red sockeye were also entering the egg-laying crescendo of their fabled life cycle. With literally hundreds of thousands of salmon spawning in all sections of the river we are blessed with one of the most prolific trophy trout fisheries in all of Alaska.
Trout fishing is just one element of the August equation with early arriving silver salmon available on the West Side of Cook Inlet and newly arriving silvers flooding the lower Kenai. Our first fly out silver trips to Big River Lake on the West Side of Cook Inlet were exciting as usual although we didn’t always find the fish in the same places each time. The lake was inundated with heavy rain in early August and water levels were at flood stage for much of the month. The fish massed in the flooded vegetation that surrounds Big River Lake. Water that was normally inches deep was now three to four feet deep and in places where upwelling of clear, tannin colored water gave clarity to the flooded, glacial lake water, the coho were present in unbelievable numbers. From the plane we could easily find these magical spots as the water was roiling with the massive schools. Spectacular fishing was the rule in this remote fishing paradise throughout the month of August.
The first day of silver fishing on the Kenai was August 4 and although there were silvers in the river, the bulk of the run had yet to arrive. We still had lots of great silver action in the first half of the month and combined with persistent sockeye fishing and always excellent trout fishing, tight lines were not a problem. By the second week of August, silver fishing was on the upswing although fishing was most consistent in the morning hours with high pressure and sunny skies dominating our weather pattern. Silvers are notorious for being low light biters so we tried to fill the fish box by mid morning and then move on to the constant action of trout and Dolly Varden for the remainder of the day. After mid August, more typical clouds and rain arrived and as expected, silver fishing went from good to excellent. This fortuitous weather seemed to coincide with the peak of the early run and we enjoyed consistently productive fishing for the remainder of the month.
As August faded into September, the Kenai Peninsula began to make a more visible transition into fall. Leaves changed from a lush green to a pale yellow and overnight temperatures were dropping fast. Another stretch of clear, cold weather and no rain had river levels receding at an alarming rate. The late run of Kenai silvers was off to a moderate start with fair numbers of bright, newly arriving fish available daily. Again, with mostly clear skies and falling river levels, the best fishing seemed contained to the early and mid morning hours. Once the silvers quit biting with their normal consistency, we eagerly transitioned to the always dependable trout fishing which was producing good numbers of trophy rainbows daily. Again, doing both silvers and trout in the same day left everyone in the boat smiling. It truly makes one appreciate all the fish that the Kenai holds and the seemingly endless angling opportunities it affords. The late run of silvers continued to enter the river well past the seasonal closure on Oct 1. These awesome sportfish were now left to the river and the many which were not fooled by our tempting lures, were filling their natal reaches and assuring future returns.
Aside from an occasional trout trip, our guiding season essentially ends at the end of September. Normally snow and ice have taken over and it becomes too cold to fish. Fortunately, for the past three years, fall temperatures have remained very mild and we have experienced some very special extended fishing opportunities.
Kenai Peninsula Steelhead trout appropriately make their appearance as the last in the parade, the headliner you might say. They are the sea-run ambassadors of fall. They race through tiny coastal creeks on the Southern Peninsula with ghost-like presence, rewarding only those in the right place at the right time. In the Kenai, wild resident rainbows are in peak shape. They have feasted all summer to ready for winter, and they feed in the fall with heightened urgency. As long as fall temperatures remain mild and we receive rain rather than snow, these two fisheries are tough to ignore. They are the symbolic icing on the cake and I can tell you first hand that the reward is sweet. Soon winter temperatures will separate even the heartiest angler from these awesome game fish and another season on the Kenai Peninsula will reside to memory.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to all that choose to fish with us this past season. From my family, my staff and especially myself, I thank each and every one of our guests for helping our business grow and continue to provide what we feel are the most professional and high quality fishing and lodging services on the Kenai Peninsula. With over fourteen years of hard work behind us, we are proud to look back upon all of our achievements and the growth we have experienced. We owe all of this to our new and old customers and we fondly look forward to helping you plan your next fishing vacation to the Last Frontier.
Mark, Cindy and Faith Glassmaker
Alaska Fishing with Mark Glassmaker