We wait all year for this. The craziness of summer is past and yet fall brings its own frenzy. There is no better time to stalk the banks of the Kenai Peninsula’s intimate creeks for trout or steelhead, no better time to catch a boatload of bright silvers. Fish on your own or go with a guide (if he’s not out hunting), hike in and watch the brown bears fill up on salmon. If you can’t catch a fish, pick berries, but watch your back trail.
By Gary Lewis
It’s like no other time and place. It’s September, it’s Soldotna.
This is a city home to 4,100 year-round residents with a Walmart (in nearby Kenai), a Sportsman’s Warehouse and a Fred Meyer because the population here could easily top 50,000 in June, July and August. At any restaurant, any coffee house, the customer in front of you might be trying to communicate with the cashier in Russian, German or Japanese. The longest wait might be at the license counter. But then again, most license agents have sold so many licenses and tags, they know what the fisherman knows before he or she does.
Some of those fishermen are headed to the Kenai. Some will go to the Kasilof. Others to the Russian River. Some will find their way south to Clam Gulch or Ninilchik. They will fish on their own for sockeyes from walkways built to protect the stream banks; they might book a trip with a guide for kings on the big river. Summer, when the sun barely sets, is madness in Soldotna.
By the time the kids go back to school, most of the tourists have gone home, and a big part of the populace is ready for fall. In September, camouflage is as fashionable as chest waders.
Anglers and hunters track muddy bootprints into The Moose is Loose bakery for a doughnut.
We saw moose, the smart ones, in the city limits, and brown bear tracks along the creek. Ptarmigan, the pretty waitress at Froso’s said, were predictable at the end of the pavement. If we had brought ours shotguns…
We had not, instead we brought Hevi-Beads, spey rods, spinning setups and bear spray.
Fueled up on our morning coffee, we stepped aboard two boats, shook hands with our guides – Cory Toombs from Chet’s Guide Service and Taylor Thorp from Kenai River Charters – and pushed out into the milky current and the rain that blew in off the ocean.
It began to rain and soon we were soaked through to the skin. Summer had come to a screeching halt, in September in Soldotna.
We didn’t come all this way to not fish. Rain pounded down, the wind blew the boat upstream and back and forth on anchor. Behind us, we pulled Kwikfish, wrapped with sardine fillets. Time seemed to stand still as the rhythm of the waves pounded the bow and water found its way inside our sleeves and soaked through to our socks. And unseen, the salmon blasted up along the bank. The first one was a small silver, small by Kenai standards anyway, six pounds. It threw the hook before we could get the net under it.
Soaked, so cold our teeth chattered. Sam Pyke looked at me and we laughed. We have filmed these fights with fish in some of the world’s great waters, but this might have been his biggest challenge keeping water out of the camera. His fingers were so cold he could hardly focus the lens. My thoughts were so cold, they froze like ice cubes on my lips.
This, I think is what is so great about September on the Kenai in Soldotna. Here we were on one of the world’s famous rivers and, although it felt like wilderness, although there were moose on the banks and bears in the timber, we were only a few minutes from civilization.
I voiced what had been on everyone’s mind. We were ten minutes away from a change of clothes, from a hardware store that sold rain pants, from a hot cup of coffee.
We stopped in at Trustworthy Hardware and got new rain pants. Back at the house, we brewed up a fresh pot of Sisters coffee. It was raining so hard Fred Meyer had water on sale.
An hour later, we were back and the fish, fresh from the salt, with sea lice clinging to their tails, smashed our baits while the rain and wind beat down.
Jennifer’s next fish battled above the surface as much as it did below and at one point, airborne, slammed into the side of our boat. When we weighed it six hours later, it was a touch over 13 pounds, one of several ‘teeners out of 17 we landed between our two boats. Half were filleted before we could get them to a scale, but the biggest in our boat pushed the needle to 14-1/2 pounds.
To some of us, the Kenai yielded that three-fish coho gift, that emergency limit, but she pushed all of us to our limits.
The Kenai is capable of growing the biggest king salmon on earth. Numbers 1 and 2 are on display at the Visitors Center in Soldotna. Across the street, at Ken’s Tackle, there is more taxidermy on display, outsized fish and the gear it takes to catch them. The kings are gone by September, but the Kenai coho are every bit as worthy. Catch a 20-pound coho and that fish is as impressive as a 50-pound king. Or fish for rainbows gorged on salmon spawn – big trout that can hit 20 pounds.
At a loss about where to fish? Here, the town buzzes with the latest bite, whether it is on the Russian, way up the Kenai or down the peninsula. Locals might not mention their own favorite spots, but they will give up their buddy’s.
The next day, 12 of us fished the Kasilof, a 15-minute drive from Soldotna. In the dark, we piled into three drift boats and pointed the bows downstream. In our boat we had Winfield Durham, Sam Pyke and Nate Hunemiller, owner of Nate’s Baits with guide Dave Wilson at the oars.
It was not even daylight yet, when Wilson whispered, “Hey, uh, I have a bear tag and there’s been a bear coming out on this point all summer, would you guys mind if I, uh…”
Yes, he had a rifle and, it turned out, he had a moose tag too. It was possible our fishing trip would turn into a meat packing trip. I was okay with trading some salmon filets for moose steaks.
After Winfield had landed a steelhead and a coho, I spotted a bull moose in a bog and we slipped in for a look. Wilson beached the boat and soon, we had closed the gap to about 80 yards. The bull was neither big enough nor small enough to be legal, so we backed out and left him to his breakfast.
Coho begin to show up in Kenai Peninsula streams in mid- to late August. By the first week of September, silvers are spread throughout many creek and river systems. Silvers continue to filter in on every tide and the rivers will get a second big push of fish somewhere between the second and the third week of the month.
The Kenai and the Russian River produce the most fish, but there are good numbers in the Anchor River, in Deep Creek, in the Ninilchik and the Kasilof.
Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden and Steelhead
If you want big rainbow trout, fish where the salmon are spawning. The Kenai system and the rivers of the Peninsula are home to all five species of Pacific salmon. When the sockeye began to stage on the gravel beds, rainbows lift their collective eyebrows and step up to the buffet table.
The richness of this watershed contributes to the health of the rainbow trout population. The Kenai is divided into two parts by Skilak Lake: the upper and lower. Both sections of river contain large rainbows and Dolly Vardens to 15 pounds. A drift boat is the best way to access the upper river. No motors are allowed on this stretch.
Good fishing for rainbows can be found in the lower river, in the first few miles below the outlet of Skilak Lake. Other good bets in the area are Moose River, Killey River, Beaver Creek and Funny River. For stillwater trout, try Kelly, Peterson, Watson or one of several other lakes in the area.
Because of the water conditions and the timing of the runs, September probably offers a better variety than any other time of the year. Besides salmon, trout and char, other options include deep sea fishing and razor clamming.
For the fisherman who has learned synchronized sockeye casting in June or has jostled in jet boats in July, September is sanity.
Gary’s latest book, A Bear Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, is available as an e-book on Kindle and Nook or in print at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.