2006: The Year in Review
With the 2006 fishing season now water under the bridge, we cannot look forward to 2007 without first recapping the past several months of angling adventure. From local beats on the Kenai and the Kasilof to distant waters of Afognak, Kodiak and the Bering Sea, 2006 found us exploring a wide swath of Alaska’s vast wilderness…always in search of one more fish.
We began this season as we often do, in pursuit of spring steelhead inside the coastal rainforest of southeast Alaska. A late spring made conditions colder than normal but the fish persevered along with their suitors and the result was an annual awakening to Alaska’s endless angling opportunities. Our next spring journey took us to the base of the Alaska Peninsula and the remote steelhead infested waters of the Sandy River. Emptying into the Bering Sea and in the shadow of Mount Veniaminof Volcano, the Sandy embodies the label remote. Our hand-picked angling team battled 30 mph winds and several feet of snow to confidently confirm that a barely documented return of sea-run rainbow trout does exist in this extreme corner of Alaska.
With our spring steelhead trips behind us, we welcomed the awakening of our local fisheries and by mid May, the first run of king salmon were making their annual arrival to both the Kenai and the Kasilof Rivers. Colder temperatures and a late spring kept both rivers very low for much of the early season. The low water did not seem to effect fishing success as both the Kenai and the Kasilof provided consistent action by mid to late May. On the Kasilof, the combined run of hatchery and wild king salmon was off to an encouraging start with good numbers of king salmon in the river beginning in the third week of May and continuing well into the second week of June. Typically this return sees more hatchery fish than wild fish, but this season the hatchery fish were scarce. While fishing remained very good, the majority of the fish were not hatchery origin. The abundance of wild fish urged fishery managers to allow wild harvest on an additional day per week. In addition to retention of hatchery fish seven days a week, wild Kasilof kings can now be harvested three days instead of two. In addition to Tuesdays and Saturdays, Thursdays are also open to retention of both hatchery (fin-clipped) and wild Kasilof king salmon.
On the Kenai, late May and early June saw low water but very consistent fishing. During the second week of June, water levels rose considerably with runoff from both rain and melting snow. Fish counts spiked as well and the river opened to bait on June 10 while the river was still off color. As water conditions cleared in the next few days, fishing improved considerably and was excellent into late June.
Mid June marks for us a seasonal transition from early to mid season fisheries as we see our remote fly out fishing and trout fishing become part of our daily routines. Two very popular fly out fisheries that commence in mid June are sockeye salmon / bear viewing trips to Wolverine Creek and also Chuitna helicopter king salmon fishing. Wolverine Creek is perhaps our most regular fly out destination as it is relatively close (20 minutes by floatplane) and very predictable for both fishing and bear viewing. This is not a destination where you can expect ultimate solitude but despite a handful of fellow visitors, the scenery is classic Alaska: rugged, remote and wild! The sockeye return to Big River Lake and Wolverine Creek was exceptionally strong this season and despite low water early in the season, fresh schools of sockeye were available at the mouth of the creek in early June. The run continued to build and provided very productive daily fishing well into mid July. A number of regular brown bears (several sows with cubs) and also a few black bears kept the cameras busy as they too enjoyed the big run of reds.
Big River Lake sockeye weren’t the only salmon making their presence known on the West Side of Cook Inlet in mid June. The Chuitna River to the north began the season with less than favorable water conditions as rain and snow melt elevated the flow and reduced visibility. Once the water receded, the strength of the run was immediately evident. Good numbers of explosive king salmon were present throughout the system and with the help of the helicopter we enjoyed a number of very productive trips to this unique location. As always the season was too short but one we greatly look forward to each season. In addition to fly out king salmon on the Chuitna, we also visited Kodiak Island to intercept ocean bright kings in Karluk Lagoon. This spectacular trip not only offered great saltwater king salmon action, it also offered guests a bird’s eye view of feeding humpback whales and a few close encounters with resident Kodiak Brown bears. Much more than just another fishing trip, this exclusive excursion to Kodiak Island offers an Alaskan experience not soon forgotten. Another similar destination that we visit a little later in June and early July is the Nushagak. We fished the Nush in the first week of July and found excellent numbers of migrating king salmon, many very fresh and super aggressive. Number wise, these are perhaps our most successful king salmon trips of the entire season. The Nushagak sees the highest return of king salmon in all of Alaska. Combine this type of action with an unforgettable float plane ride to get there and you’ll understand why this is Alaska fishing at its finest.
Back on the Kenai River, trout fishing began June 12 with typical world class action. Large numbers of hefty trout were congregating in the refuge below Skilak Lake and all of our June trout trips found high numbers of aggressive rainbows and also dolly varden. This catch and release trip is always a great way to see some of the most pristine sections of the Kenai River and most importantly catch a lot of fish!
As July arrived, king salmon fishing on the Kenai became more focused on newly arriving late run kings in the lower river. Tidal blasts of fish were occurring in the typical lower Kenai hot spots like Mud Island and the Pastures and we did our best to intercept these fresh kings as they arrived daily from nearby Cook Inlet. The run continued to build and provide steady, exciting king salmon action for the majority of the month with perhaps the best action occurring in the final days of the season, much like last year. Overall the late run of Kenai King Salmon was on target and provided many memorable days on the water.
One aspect to this season’s late run Kenai king season worth noting was the late arrival of late run Kenai sockeye. Normally the late run of kings and sockeye peak together and commercial fishing for sockeye in Cook Inlet has a residual effect on the in-river king fishery. This year the sockeye run was so weak in late July that Fish and Game actually closed the in-river sport fishery from July 25-30. Both personal use and commercial fishing openings were also severely restricted.
The lack of commercial fishing pressure in Cook Inlet offered a glimpse at what late July Kenai king fishing could be like in a “perfect world” as kings arrived on every tide and angling success permeated the lower river. The commercial closures also allowed a strong push of early run Kenai silver salmon to reach the river and in the last week of king season we were adding a few silvers to the fish box on a daily basis. The last few days of July also saw the sockeye run finally materialize as huge waves of reds flooded the lower river. After several consecutive 50,000 fish days, the run rapidly reached escapement goals and by August 1, sport, commercial and personal use fisheries for Kenai late run sockeye were re-opened.
With a large and late push of sockeye, decent numbers of silver salmon and also excellent trout fishing, anglers fishing the Kenai River in early August had several excellent options to choose from. The sockeye just kept coming well into mid August and with them, a strong run of silvers was also present. To add to the parade, our every other year return of Pink salmon was beginning to blanket the lower Kenai and was steadily making its presence known upriver. As timing allowed, we were able to transition from sockeye to very good silver fishing for the last week to ten days of August without too much interference from the pinks. But as the early run of silvers began to wane toward the last days of August, the glut of humpbacks (pink salmon) was settling into their spawning grounds. By the first week of September, it was difficult to avoid the millions of pink salmon spawning throughout the middle river. The presence of several million pink salmon can certainly have an effect on other fisheries. Anyone that has been here pursuing silver salmon and trout while the pink run is at its peak can verify they are a force to be reckoned with. Their presence this season was especially evident in mid to late September as their spawning activity was so heavy, it blanketed the entire river bottom with eggs and made trout fishing very difficult. The few trout that made the effort to take our egg imitations were so over-fed with pink eggs that they looked ready to explode and many would literally puke up mouthfuls of single eggs as we handled them for release. One benefit to this excessive protein binge for the rainbows and dollies is that most double in weight and as the water and the spawn receded in very late September and early October, they once again went back on the “bite,” and we enjoyed the best trout fishing of the entire season. This peak fishing lasted well into October before high water and a warm rain storm melted snow in the Kenai Mountains and elevated the river back to July levels. This flushed the majority of the loose spawn and pink salmon carcasses well down river and this dispersed the trout considerably.
Fishing for late run Kenai silver salmon was excellent this season. The one exception to this was during the peak of the pink spawn when avoiding the pinks to find the late run coho was sometimes a challenge. After the pinks died off in late September, the silver run saw a nice blast of new fish that continued well into October. Big, fresh coho were passing through daily and this lasted until the silver season ended on November 1. The Kenai was not the only fall fishery that saw very strong returns in 2006. We visited a number of remote fly out destinations this August and September and silver runs statewide seemed to be in very good shape. We were blessed this fall with seasonably mild weather and did not see freezing temperatures until well into mid October.
Now as a light dusting of snow covers the landscape and November temperatures dip well below the freezing mark, one fully appreciates the past five month of great fishing here on the Kenai River and beyond. We know many of you also have a special place in your life for Alaska, and for those of you that joined us this past season and season’s prior, we thank you for letting us help you explore this great state. We already look forward to another very busy season in 2007 and sincerely hope you can join us.
Mark, Cindy, Faith and Caleigh