2004 Year in Review
Falling leaves and rain give the Kenai a seasonal autumn glow as it runs high and turbid into mid October. With a full belly of salmon eggs captured in her gravel, the majesticAlaska River rolls on, defiant to the pending winter. Attempting to look back and recount the many fishing adventures we’ve experienced over the past five months is both amazing and very challenging. Being on the water each and every day offers very little time to savor a literal lifetime of fishing experiences. Albeit impossible to remember every individual trip, I do want to personally thank all that fished with us this past season. On behalf of my wife Cindy, my family and our staff, we greatly appreciate your patronage and fondly look forward to your next visit to Alaska.
What follows is a brief recap of the 2004 season:
May begins our fishing season with early run king salmon on both the Kenai and the Kasilof Rivers. Both of these fisheries opened with excellent catch rates and fair numbers of bright kings entering each river daily. As both rivers are typically very low at the beginning of the season, it doesn’t take a ton of fish to find their path and make contact. But water levels on the Kenai rose sharply very early this season, as a result of an unseasonably warm spring. By early June the river was approaching July levels and fishing was merely steady. Moderate fish counts and high water were rewarding the most persistent anglers while the more consistent fishing for king salmon was occurring in the marine fishery off Deep Creek and Anchor Point and also on the Kasilof River.
Throughout late May and early June the Kasilof remained an exciting and very productive option for early season king salmon. Anglers are reminded that only hatchery origin kings marked by a clipped adipose fin are allowed to be retained through the end of June on the Kasilof River and the ratio of wild and hatchery fish this season improved dramatically. Anglers were able to both catch and release a good number of big wild Kasilof kings and also have the opportunity to harvest good sized, bright hatchery fish as well. Despite a fair degree of angling pressure, this fishery remained excellent and we spent the majority of our early king salmon season afloat the chalky green flows of the Kasilof. By the mid to late June, water levels on the Kasilof were seeing the same dramatic rise that had occurred on the Kenai. It was time to swap rivers and trade in the oars for a four stroke Yamaha outboard. By the second and third week of June, the highest daily number of early run kings was entering Kenai daily. The steady flow of fish was pulling a number of rods down daily and well into late June we continued to find plenty of action. We released a great number of magnificent Kenai Kings that were between 44 and 55 inches. This required slot limit has been warmly received by all that recognize the genetic integrity of these unusually large Kenai King salmon. This being the second year of this regulation, I can personally attest that anglers in my boat appreciate the opportunity to release such a rare trophy while still being afforded the opportunity five minutes later to catch another salmon they are able to harvest. We look forward to seeing even greater numbers of mammoth sized king salmon as future returns begin to reflect the benefit of this pro-active regulation.
The Kenai Peninsula is not the only part of Alaska we travel in pursuit of legendary King Salmon. The west side of Cook Inlet and more distant destinations like the fabled Nushagak River, become extremely viable options for those willing to spend a little extra for a highly remote fishing experience. Fishing these locations is shore based and getting into multiple kings from the bank all while surrounded by remote Alaska wilderness is a highly enjoyable addition to your trip. This summer we made a handful of very rewarding helicopter excursions into the Chuitna River. We access this small coastal river via Alaska West Air and a short floatplane ride to their well established “heli-lake.” We then board a small helicopter which delivers us to a gravel bar along this clear flowing river, snaking its way through thick boreal forest. Large wash-outs of gravel make perfect landing zones. We rarely fished more than one hole as a constant stream of big bright king salmon pushed upriver right in front of our rod tips. Covering the gambit of techniques, we captured these awesome fish with flies, spinners, assorted drift bobbers, and even jigs with floats. The days when water levels were higher and the river just off color were best, as the fish were less spooky and remained aggressive well into mid day. These favorable conditions prevailed in mid June, but as the season approached the July 1 closure, the west side of Cook Inlet saw very little rain and despite high numbers of fish, catch rates were subdued by the low clear water.
The first week of July is always a time of transition here on the Kenai Peninsula. As we enter our late run fisheries, the Kenai opens to the use of bait and fishing improves accordingly. This year was no exception as the opening week of bait was quite eventful. Even as early July provided very dependable fishing conditions, the bulk of the run was yet to arrive. The most significant numbers of both late run king salmon and sockeye salmon hit the river in mid July. From July 13 until July 24, king salmon sonar counts on the Kenai nearly doubled, averaging just fewer than 2000 fish per day during this 11 day stretch. For the late-run sockeye, peak numbers were far more dramatic, falling into a more condensed time table. On July 14 and 15, sockeye counts skyrocketed. In the first thirteen days of July, only 26,140 late run sockeye had passed the counters, an average of just over 2000 fish per day. In the following two days, more than 250,000 chrome bright sockeye flooded the river, with daily counts of 114,000 and 138,000 fish respectively. Needless to say, fishing improved substantially for bank anglers seeking red salmon and limits of this awesome table fare were very common. Both the sockeye and king salmon returns remained at high levels through the end of July, although excessive commercial fishing did result in the typical peaks and valleys in the sport fishery. Overall July escapement on the Kenai exceeded fifty thousand king salmon and one million sockeye salmon, good numbers across the board.
Our late run king salmon effort focused almost exclusively on the lower Kenai River this year, as consistent tidal pushes of big-bright kings kept us on our toes daily. Fishing infamous tidewater holes like “Mud Island” and the “Horse Pasture” we, along with many others, saw just how aggressive newly arriving kings can get. With a sizable fleet of boats congregating in select places at select times of the tide, the bulk of the unbound fish are met with a high concentration of scent in the water. This seems to trigger an aggressive feeding frenzy resulting in many boats with fish on at once. These “bites” can last hours and sometimes minutes but they remained consistent for the majority of the month, capping an overall very positive king season.
In August, there is hardly time to mourn the end of king season. As soon as July ends, its time to trade in the bigger gear for the fly rods and the light spinning outfits and start chasing silvers and trout. With the Kenai closed to silver fishing the first three days of August, we will normally spend this time fishing some of the more remote silver fisheries on the West side of Cook Inlet. Rivers like the Kustatan, the Chuitna, the Theodore and Big River Lake all see good numbers of silver salmon in late July and early August and this season was very strong for all of these systems. Every trip we took to these magnificent destinations was very successful. Good numbers of bright Coho were available in most of these locations well into late August. Some noteworthy highlights to these remote west side silver fisheries were the amazing waves of silvers that could be found roaming the tide water holes on the Chuitna. Always a small, clear stream, this non-glacial, coastal river was bone dry due to the lack of rain. The fish were subsequently holed up in the lower tidal sections of the river and seeing hundreds of fresh salmon in every piece of suitable holding water was very fun to fish. Another remarkable salmon scene was the hoards of silvers that returned this year to tributaries of Big River. Massed by the thousands in clear water bays leading to small rocky creeks, these hyper-aggressive Coho provide perhaps the most consistent silver fishing we have ever seen. The sheer number of fish holding in these still water estuaries makes every technique a winner. We spent a number of days taking fish on every cast using top water flies. This is truly silver salmon paradise.
As we moved deeper into August and the spectacular fall season, the Kenai silver run began to materialize in grand fashion. Beginning mid month, very strong numbers of coho were arriving on every tide and silver fishing was very good. We enjoyed steady angling success well into the month of September. The return resulted in the highest recorded escapement since ADF&G began enumerating this run, and the season, which normally closes at the end of September, was extended through October. Even though the silver run was certainly above normal, the pink return was merely moderate. The biggest waves of pink salmon arrived in the first two weeks of August and from then on their numbers receded steadily. By early September, they were only a slight nuisance as we pursued the newly arriving silvers.
With the exceptional silver fishing, we also saw great trout fishing well into late fall. This trophy, catch and release fishery continues to astound visitors with exciting action and a remarkable consistency for very large rainbows. The Kenai is blessed with such a remarkable transfer of energy from the ocean in the form of hundreds of thousands of salmon. The trout that live in the Kenai are super well fed as evidenced by their portly proportions. A steady diet of salmon eggs and decaying flesh allows these year round residents to flourish and become some of the largest wild rainbows on the planet. Every season, I am amazed at all the magnificent rainbows we have brought to hand. To catch these mammoth trout in a smaller, more confined river would be nearly impossible and only the Kenai’s wide stature and plenty of line allows the drifting angler to absorb their insatiable runs until finally tiring them along side the boat. One can only dream about just how big some of these huge trout may be. Is the Kenai capable of producing a thirty pound rainbow?
Beyond September, guiding activities on the Kenai River largely cease. Most of those out fishing are die-hard locals enjoying the excellent fishing in their own backyards, before winter temperatures and several feet of snow make fishing open water a mere memory. Fortunately Alaska has a way of gradually transitioning a season-weary guide into the depths of winter. The freezing temperatures are fleeting at first and October normally brings rain from the south and one last dependable month of hard core angling. With fraternal allegiance, those addicted to the earth moving take and immediate retreat of a sea run rainbow trout will break ice from their eyelets to battle one more of these awesome creatures before winter closes in. Eventually even the heartiest anglers must fold their hand to Alaska’s dominant winters. Much like the infinite eggs nestled in the gravel and awaiting spring, we too continue the cycle, and with renewed optimism, preparation for yet another season begins anew.
Mark, Cindy and Faith Glassmaker
Alaska Fishing with Mark Glassmaker