Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fishing the Russian, Part VIII - For Further Reading

AOJ Run Charts: Alaska Outdoor Journal is the best all around fishing resource in Alaska. Of particular importance are their Russian and Kenai River salmon run charts. These present data from a sonar counter at the mouth of the Kenai River and a human counter at the weir above the fishable portion of the Russian River. The comparison of the salmon counts to past years will help you understand whether the run has started and how close it is to its peak. If you're coming in from out of state, you may not have the flexibility to wait for better number is the count is anemic, but if low numbers on the charts are reflected by little success on the river, it may be a sign that you should turn your attention to the rainbows and leave the sockeyes for another year.

AOJ also has a message board where anglers leave fishing reports. These can be very helpful in trying to sync up what the Kenai sonar count shows and what happens dozens of miles upstream at the Russian--a distance which the fish will cover in ten days or so.

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The Alaska Fish & Game web site has a tremendous amount of valuable information about the Russian River (and every other fishery in the state). You'll want to check in there to figure out your licensing options, where to buy it, fishing regulations, bag and possession limits, unusual closures and openings, and the latest scoop on the bear situation.

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Gwin's Lodge: Gwin's is a very important landmark in the Russian River universe. It is a) the closest place to buy tackle and fishing licenses, b)the closest place to buy ice when you're done, and c) home to a very nice halibut sandwich. In fact, the food is generally very good (they always seem to understand that an egg over medium is not the same as over easy or over medium well).

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The Russian River Campground, run by the US Forest Service, is a pretty dreamy place to camp, but you have to plan well in advance. Prime fishing season dates may book up six months in advance. On the other hand, you can sometimes get into some prime dates in early August with little notice (locals start to lose interest/freezer space by then).

For those not so into the whole fishing scene, there is a lovely walk up to the Russian River falls, where you can see salmon leaping up a waterfall just like they do on the danged TV! A little further takes you to the picturesque Lower Russian Lake, which is an easy 5-6 mile round trip from the parking lot. Backpackers can keep going to Upper Russian Lake and even on Seward (21 miles). The Forest Service maintains cabins along the trail: Aspen Flats, Barber, and Upper Russian Lake. You can book online by following the link above.

Parking is also available for day trips and for those who believe in sleeping when dead.

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Fish Alaska Magazine presents a good rebuttal to my "Sockeyes don't eat in fresh water" thesis. I don't buy it for various reasons, but you should get all points of view. Main problem: why does no one ever seem to report seeing a sockeye in slack water rushing to hit their fly? Why do the sockeyes 'hit' the fly only when the fly is moving in a current rapid enough for it to 'hit' the fish?

That said, I have heard somewhat credible reports of very experienced fishermen irritating sockeyes into striking in slow or slack water. I've just never witnessed it. Would love it to be true, but wishing don't make it so.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can give you a sense of how high the water levels are. Wow! That internet just gives and gives!

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Sockeye Dictionary: This is an only partially successful attempt at Alaska fishing humor. But leaving the comedy aside, it contains a lot of terminology that you will want to know during your trip.

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Guide Mark Glassmaker has a similar account of how to catch the Kenai/Russian Reds at If you don't trust me, you can take it from a real guide.
Continue Reading . . .

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fishing the Russian, Part VII - Combat Fishing

When it comes to combat fishing, my primary advice is simple: don't do it.

Of course, that's a jaded perspective from a guy who has caught a lot of salmon in his life and who has already seen his fill of carpet chewing insanity on the banks of the beautiful, bottle green Kenai River.

What is Combat Fishing?

Where the clear waters of the Russian River flow into the Kenai (and downstream for a quarter of a mile) is an extraordinarily productive fishery. Sockeyes like to swim right off the river bank, and when the run is on they will be thick there; so even if you can't see into the Kenai water, just raking the water with enough well placed casts (remember, it's all in the weight) will cause your fly to blindly find a fish mouth.

As a result of these favorable odds, the banks of the Kenai are often lined shoulder to shoulder with anglers as if in sardonic mockery of the meditative virtues of your favorite pastime. I suppose if you haven't witnessed this before, you really should--at least once. You don't often get to see someone catch his brother through the nose on the back cast. And better by far is watching what happens when, finding themselves unable to get the hook out of the nose, the two decide to walk back to the parking lot for help, one leading the other by the nose and neither thinking it might be good to cut the line first. You can't make this stuff up.

Once, while I was waiting to cross in the Kenai River ferry, I saw a cooler float by, and after the cooler, a bag of fish, and after the fish a man, and after the man, an empty raft.

There are countless tales of lost fish woes. In the combat area, people try to bank their fish quickly, which means the fish are still full of piss and vinegar when they get on the rocks. Also, there isn't much room on most of that river bank, so the fish only has to give a couple of good kicks to get back in the water. I've spoken to many people who have been punched in the face by fish as I have. You drop to your knees to get control of the beached salmon, and suddenly he flips up into the air and smacks you in the jaw with his bony head. It's enough to put you off balance for a second, and by the time you look back down, that bony head is in the water heading downstream. To make matters worse, in all the time you've been boxing with the fish, someone has slipped into your fishing spot.

Which brings us to the question of etiquette. It's a prickly topic in the combat area, because on the one hand, no one wants to be crowded, but on the other hand, if you don't crowd somebody, there will be no fishing for you. I suppose I consider absurdity to be the break point: I've had people move into spots so small beside me that I literally could not set a hook without wacking them. It's nice to have a rod length between you and the next angler.

There are a few cardinal rules that will help you get along with your neighbors on the Kenai:
  1. Get you cast in sync with the people next to you. You'll reduce the amount of time you spend catching each others' lines and smacking into their rods. An untangled angler is a happy angler.
  2. Give the others a break when they have a fish on. Keep your line out of the water, and stay out of the way of their fish. You'll definitely appreciate the same treatment when you're trying to get that feisty salmon on the beach.
  3. Stay happy. I don't care how many times your idiot upstream neighbor catches your wader or how many fish you've lost: keep your composure. Nobody likes a cranky pants. Remember: this is fishing, not a root canal. (Although if you're not careful it could be a nose piercing.)
One last related point: you're probably already in the habit of wearing polarized glasses anyway, but if your not, be sure to put SOMETHING on your eyes. Getting hooked in the nose makes for a funny story later on. Getting hooked in the eye does not.
Continue Reading . . .

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fishing the Russian, Part VI - Bears

Alas, it ain't just you and the trout out there chasing after the salmon. You also have to compete with the bears. The Russian River has grown tremendously in popularity over the past few decades and that goes for the bears, too. It used to be unusual to actually see a bear yourself, but in the past several years, it's unusual to spend several hours on the river and not see a bear. Last summer, my wife and I saw six bears in the space of five hours.

Now, when I was younger, this kind of thing used to be a thrill. Somehow it seems ever less fun. I mean, sure, it's cool to see two young grizzlies wrestling with each other a hundred yards upstream. But it gets less cool as they start coming toward you. And it gets even less cool as you struggle to make way for the bear by wading to the other side and, just as you get about half way, you see the bear has changed his mind and has already crossed because wading this river is like walking in tall grass to him; and now you're turning back around, delicately, so as not to get washed away, and the bear is awfully close now and you really, really hope he doesn't change his mind again.

There are two conflicting pieces of conventional wisdom in those parts of Alaska where bears and people come together in relative density: 1) Steer clear of the bears and they will mostly leave you alone; 2) If the situation keeps going on this way, somebody's going to get killed. Both assertions are true. There are thousand, and probably hundreds of thousands of human encounters with bears on the Russian River each year, and most are quite uneventful. Yet people have been killed and maimed there.

Most of the rules for minimizing your risk are pretty obvious: 1) Bears have the right of way; 2) Never get between a mother and cub; 3) Stay off the trails at night.

Some of these are easier said than done: a couple of years ago, I was fishing my way downstream on my way back to the car. A female grizzly was wading up the middle of the river. I began to fall back to the south bank of the river when I noticed that a cub was approaching on the trail there. I had to walk downstream about ten yards to cross to the far bank, bringing me even closer to the rapidly approaching mother. As I reached the north bank (along with some other refugees), we were greeted by a second cub, who hissed at us before entering the water to join mom. (A third cub came straggling up the river behind her.) Fortunately, mama bear was a pretty cool customer and wasn't alarmed in the slightest. Her peaceful disposition didn't serve her in the end, however, as she was shot and killed a few weeks later by what is referred to locally as an "effing idiot." (He was at a distance, and in no danger whatsoever.)

But what to do, then, to avoid problems. Well, if you're concerned, don't fish at night. That will greatly reduce your risk. "Fish at night?" you may ask. "How is that even possible?" Well, remember, this is Alaska, and in June you will have no trouble seeing all through the night. But the bears like the night, and while still somewhat light, if you get into the woods at 3am, it's awfully dusky--easy enough for you to walk up suddenly on an unsuspecting bear or her cub. That's a quick ticket to the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. Also, if you spend eight hours on the river, and head back to your car at 2am, you might not be in the most rational state of mind. I remember once walking up the trail in such circumstance and seeing a giant grizzly across the river. He was looking intently into the water for fish. Having spent hours hunting for the few salmon that had entered the river at that point, I had this brilliant thought: Whatever happens, there's no way I'm giving that guy my fish. (Cough.)

Alaska Fish & Game and other organization that oversee the situation on the Russian River have a set of recommendations to help bear control generally. They ask that food not be left on the banks of the river, but kept on your person at all times. Also, cut the gills of your fish to bleed them in the river immediately upon catching them: this will keep blood off the trails (and it also helps preserve the quality of your filets). Finally, cut fish carcasses into small chunks and throw them into rapid waters to minimize what amount to grizzly bait stations near the cleaning tables.

And remember, if you have to abandon the fish on your stringer because the grizz is following you in a hungry way, toss the fish into the current, so the bears don't get the idea that fishermen are easy pickins.

I suppose we must confront one last question: "To pack or not to pack?" Personally, I like the idea of it, but practically speaking, I just don't want to be worried about managing a firearm when I'm fishing. I don't want to carry it, I don't want to drop it in the river, I don't really want the responsibility of feeling like I might have to make a decision every time a bear approaches someone. It's possible I'll regret this some day, but dying on a fishing trip can't be the worst way to go.
Continue Reading . . .

Fishing the Russian, Part V - Rainbow Trout

Some pretty nice rainbows lurk in there, too.
Rainbows are much more difficult to see in the river than salmon, moving like pale shadows over the rocks, but do not be deceived: they are in there in force, following the salmon around in hopes of eating their eggs. If you want to test this hypothesis, take a little chunk of roe from the salmon you caught and toss it into the water. The bright red will vanish almost instantly, like a light going out. Throw a whole egg sack and it's almost scary to watch the frenzy.

Not surprisingly, anglers use egg clusters to go after these fish. They are very sensitive to color (the real thing is reddish orange), so bring a variety and compare notes with others.

I've personally had success with woolly buggers and the like. I once had the pleasure of spotting a 24-25in Rainbow in a deep pool as I walked along the river in search of salmon. I quickly tied on a woolly, lowered it gently to the surface of the water and let is sink down and away toward the fish. It was magical to be so close and in such clear water as the trout recognized the fly, approached slowly, and closed his broad mouth it.

The Russian River is a catch-and-release area for Rainbows, so of course it's best to fish barbless.
Continue Reading . . .

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fishing the Russian, Part IV - The Gear

Countless Sockeye Salmon are caught on every kind of rig imaginable. The Russian River is a fly fishing only area, but the regulation only refers to the kind of hooks used. You can visit the Alaska Fish and Game web site to see the exact specs, but you will be able to purchase dozens of these flies at any grocery store in Alaska, so it's not something to spend a lot of time on.

Weight must be 18 inches above the hook.

As I have suggested, you don't need the latest, greatest Orvis rig in order to do well. People catch lots of fish with $35 spinning gear. If you're combat fishing at the confluence of the Kenai, it might be smart to get a very heavy spinning rod and very heavy line because there is no room for play and little patience among the regulars. This is harvesting, not fishing.

If you're interested in actual fishing, you'll want to stay upstream in the Russian proper, where its clear waters and relative lack of crowding will enable you to target a fish, play it and bring it to bank in a reasonable and sporting manner. And did I mention fun? For this kind of sport, it is nice to have a 7 to 9 weight fly rod of decent quality. First run Russian River fish (June) can be pretty challenging for lighter gear, but late run sockeyes (July-August) are perfect for 6-7 weight. Note that the reverse is the case for the late run Kenai spawners which are monsters.

There are various religions about the actual line configuration, weights, etc. Many of these work quite well. I personally have found my way to something that seems fun and effective and easily maintained. That said, the following description may induce vomitting in fly fishing purists. You have been warned.

I like to fish the first run with a 9 weight Orvis rod. I tie a swivel (!) to the end of the fly rod and a four foot leader onto the end of the swivel. This enables me to attach my slinky weights onto the lower loop of the swivel, such that the propellering of the weight will not twist up the fly line. It also allows me to use leader clips to easily snap on and off weights as I move into different waters. (It is the weight, after all, that is the key.) Finally, it fixes the weight in a legal position relative to the fly (rubber core shot on monofilament will tend to slide down to the fly.

I also find it worthwhile to buy Gamakatsu hooks and tie some bit of random yarn on them. It's cheap and easy and the hooks maintain their edge better than the prefabbed flies I've used.
Continue Reading . . .

Fishing the Russian, Part III - Set the Hook

It's not at all uncommon to see fishermen pick up their rod to retrieve their line at the end of a cast only to find that a fish is suddenly, and explosively, on their line. These episodes usually don't last long, as the fish heads for Kenai via the moon and the angler ducks as his fly comes shooting back at him and then stands shaking his head in frustration.

Many anglers are tempted by the repeated experience to believe that the rod lift is what "caught" the fish. In other words, they believe they successfully "snagged the fish in the mouth." Now, I have seen some awfully impressive fishermen on the Russian, but I don't believe any of them could repeatedly dart the fish in the mouth were it not for the line guiding the hook inside. So, it is pointless, and often counter-productive to think you can jerk the line and mystically catch the fish. The reason the fish becomes apparent at the end of the cast is that the line entered the fish's mouth earlier, probably close into shore, and sufficient slack remained in the line such that the hook was not drawn all the way to the fish's mouth. The fish is sitting there flossing itself. Then the fisherman starts to retrieve. The hook limply pokes the fish, who gets pissed, but the fisherman is unaware, thinking the cast is over, and has no chance to properly set the hook.

The fact is, either the line is already in place, or it isn't. If it is, you're golden: you feel carefully for the bump throughout the cast and even when you retrieve, and you set as hard as you can if you feel it. But if the line in not in place and you jerk too early, you may just poke the fish lightly, causing it to start without a solid hook in the mouth. More often and much worse, you will cause the hook to rise through the water and set deeply in a fish's back or tail, which may seem exciting if you've never caught a fish before, but will quickly become frustrating for you (not to mention the fish) as you burn up time, tackle, arm strength and the patience of your neighbor as you try to drag a tail-hook buck upstream. Not a pretty sight. Instead of all that, just let the hook find the fish on its own, then set.

Snagging fish is illegal
When you do bring that snagged fish to bank, do not be tempted. Let it go. The penalties can be severe and the damage to your sportsmanship is even worse.
Continue Reading . . .

Fishing the Russian, Part II - Getting the Drift

Let's Review the Cast
The fish you catch will not be the one in front of you. It is sitting 30 to 45 degrees downstream. The line action works like this:
  1. You cast upstream at about 45 degrees.
  2. By the time your line gets directly in front of you, the weight should start bumping. However, at this point, the leader is still in a jumble.
  3. As the line continues downstream, the weight becomes a pendulum that heads in towards shore, thus drawing slack and confusion out of the leader. Also, the leader is drawn down near to the level of the weight.
  4. The end result is a leader that has been drawn perpendicular to the river, not far off the bottom, giving it maximum exposure to any fish that may be lurking as it rakes downstream and gradually in towards the bank.
Seeing is believing
The corollary of the above is that you don't necessarily have to see these fish to catch them, especially if the run is thick. But it sure does help. You will improve dramatically if you can see the line behavior described above and the fish's behavior as it approaches. Pay special notice, however, to the degree to which you can ruin things by trying to manage the process too much. You can ruin a perfectly good cast by trying to force the line into a position when the current would have done perfectly by itself. Also notice how much more difficult it is to catch a fish directly in front of you than one that is a bit downstream, and how the temptation to go for the one that is right in front of you can waste hours of what could have been productive fishing. It is not impossible to manage your line such that it descends and properly unfurls before it has passed the fish directly in front of you, but you would be well advised to catch a few downstream before you try the high wire act.
Next time, we'll talk about trying to keep the fish on the hook.
Continue Reading . . .

How To Fish the Russian River

With proper technique, you can even catch these fish with a baby on your back.
I can't tell you how many times I've encountered tourists in some dismal act of futility along the banks or in the water of the Russian River. They fling their unweighted fly at the water and hope for a fish to bite.

We call it "flogging the river."

I usually try to be helpful and get the neophyte oriented so that there is at least the possibility that they will catch something. Of course, this depends on how long I've been in the water. If I already have a couple of sockeye, I feel a lot more generous with my time than I do when I'm just starting out.

So, with this page, I can tell you, the virtual tourist, the trip planner, all the things I would say on the river, before you ever get off the plane in Anchorage.

Lesson One: Sockeye Salmon (aka, Red Salmon) do not eat when they enter fresh water.

Repeat that to yourself about a hundred times. You'll know the denial has finally ended when you stop asking the following question:
  • "What color of fly should I use?"
I can answer quite definitively: the color that the fish is least likely to notice. It is popular to fish the Russian with fluorescent colored streamers, and it is also common to see the fish running away from these highly visible flies or giving them a wide berth before the line drift gets anywhere near them. My answer is to tie my own grey, black or bottle green flies with a minimal material. Note: AK Fish and Game regulations make it illegal to use a bare hook in the Russian River; otherwise, I'm sure this would be a popular technique among the veterans. On the other hand, it is nice to have some color on the hook in order to track it while it is drifting downstream. This brings us to our next question.
  • "If the fish aren't eating, how can I be expected to catch them?"
It's not entirely unlike feeding an infant. Ever see a baby shaking her head and flailing at the spoon? It isn't easy to get that spoon into the kid's mouth in the beginning, but with practice, you manage to figure it out. The sockeye is no different. All you have to figure out is a technique for getting past the fish's skittishness and then inserting the fly into the swimmer's mouth. The key to getting in the fish's mouth is not the fly color (neutral, as we say above) but the weight. The weight? What does that have to do with it? Most of the sockeyes tend to swim in a range close to the bottom of the river bed, but not on it. So finding the right weight will be crucial. You'll want just enough weight to lightly bounce off the rocky stream bed; you cast upstream at 45 degrees and by the time the line is directly in front of you, you should feel a light bump of the weight hitting bottom. As the line continues downstream, you'll continue to feel the light bouncing. If you get stuck on the bottom, or if you're bouncing heavily, you have too much weight; if you never feel bottom, not enough. Of course, the right weight in one part of the river will not be the right weight in another part of the river, where the water may be swifter or deeper.
  • "What kind of weight should I use?"
I'm glad you asked. Split shot get wedged between rocks too easily. This is a drag. Also, they are not easy to change out once they are mutilated by bouncing off the bottom for a while. I like to use the slinky style of weights with small shots encased in a heavy fabric tube. You can buy these at Cabelas in a variety of weights from 1/4 oz to 1 1/4 oz. I like to put a swivel at the end of my fly line and tie a couple feet of leader onto it. Then I can clip different weights on and off very easily. Note that AK Fish & Game regulations require 18" between weight and hook.
  • "So, now I'm at the right level in the water, how do I get this thing in the fish's mouth?"
Fortunately, much of this work is done for you by the physics of the water and the leader. That is to say: if you have gotten to the right level in the water and if there is a fish situated 20 to 45 degrees downstream of you, and if you have cast the right distance to be able to meet these fish in the mouth with your leader, there is a very good chance that your leader will slip into the fish's slightly open mouth as he lets the water wash over his gills; once the line in in his mouth, the current continue to pull it downstream, which pulls the fly right up to the side of the salmon's face and into its mouth where, generally speaking, it gets stuck. Most people notice this when they begin to retrieve their line, and are often so stunned that they fail to set the hook or prepare what is often an explosive reaction by the fish to being poked in the gums. A spray of water, a line whizzing through the air, and a fish racing upstream: it's exciting, but not exactly what you'd come for.

Next time, we'll talk about your cast.
Continue Reading . . .

Friday, January 16, 2009