Fishing Alaska: Expect the unexpected

I just returned from my annual adventure to Alaska to fish for salmon, halibut, and rainbow trout. Friends and fishing acquaintances frequently ask me to describe the Last Frontier fishing from drift boats and kayaks or heading out to the deep ocean depths for huge saltwater species. It’s not what you might expect.

I’ve fished across Alaska from the islands near Juneau to the wild rivers that dump into Bristol Bay to small lakes tucked back in the mountains. These days I spend most of my time on the Kenai River and the lakes around Cooper Landing. This is where my son has been guiding for the past 10 years, so it is very convenient.

This year my nephew, Ty, caught a 250-pound halibut on a charter out of Ninilchik. They caught plenty of 50- and 60-pound fish, so they released the 250-pounder. I didn’t attend because I don’t really like halibut fishing that much. You take a big boat out to deep water, drop a huge hunk of lead with a big hunk of fish on the hook and when you feel the thunk of a halibut eating the bait, you reel it in. By “reel it in,” I mean you’re a human winch hoisting a solid core oak door. But halibut tastes great, so the charters stay busy. 

In 2016, I’m going to fish halibut out of a Hobie kayak in 35 to 50 feet of water with a friend of my son’s. He battles the halibut to the kayak, then harpoons the fish and drags it back to shore. Sounds like fun! I’ll let you know how it works next year.

I fish salmon on the Kenai River. The run when I’m there is the sockeye (red) salmon run. This is another meat hunt. Hundreds of anglers line up on the shoreline regions of the river where salmon pause in their upstream migration. They swing a hook adorned with a small piece of yarn into the current upstream, and when it passes by they sweep the rod tip towards shore and hope a salmon has inhaled the hook. The fish aren’t biting. They’re just laying in the water and inhale the hook as the water passes through their mouth and gills. These fish are fighters, but if the run is sparse, it takes a lot of casts to hook one. When the run is good, expect to be elbow to elbow with other anglers all doing “The Sockeye Swing”!

My favorite fish to chase on the Kenai River is the rainbow trout. They grow some huge native fish on this river, and they hit hard, fight hard, and spend a lot of time in the air clearing the surface trying to shake that hook. It is exciting.

Many people think that anglers make long, beautiful fly-fishing casts with a dry fly or a nymph and strip line to give the lure some action. Just like they see in the movies… but it’s not the case. A controlled drift is the setup. The trout are feeding on salmon flesh so a “flesh fly” under a strike indicator drifted not far from the boat catches the most fish.

I love fishing Alaska. The lakes where I kayak see few anglers. While the river gets heavy pressure, the potential for huge rainbows is outstanding. Every outdoorsman should try it once in a lifetime. So get it on your bucket list. Just expect the unexpected.

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