There’s been a lot of anticipation for fishing on the Kenai. It’s world famous! People literally line up shoulder to shoulder, combat fishing style. This is where the big fish are. This is what we geared up for: chest waders and boots, heavy duty rods, lures and lures and lures, heavy weight line (30 lb test). We’re ready, we’re eager, and we’re hungry! Let’s catch some big fish!
We found a campsite in the Centennial Campground in Soldotna, which we chose because it sits right on the river, with multiple stairways leading down to prized bank fishing. Priorities being what they are, Mark was most eager to get right down to fishing. We walked up to what looked like the busiest section of river to check it out. This river is big! And it flows fast. The water is milky turquoise, not clear at all. Mark took one look at the fisherman standing shoulder to shoulder (Alaskans and those traveling from far and near for this experience) and, louder than I thought appropriate, announced “this is not fishing.” Mark! Those are fighting words. We watched a few minutes, Mark with horror and disgust on his face, while I waited for them to come kick our butts for that comment. We knew that salmon are born in fresh water and live it in for 3 years. They then travel into the ocean for another 3 years. In their 6th year, they make their way back into freshwater in rivers to swim upstream to spawn and then die. What we didn’t know is that once they reenter fresh water, they do not eat. Which means they do not bite out of hunger, so there is no bait or lure that will attract them. Fishing on the Kenai is done by legal snagging, a method called flossing. As long as your hook sinks to the bottom where the fish swim, they basically get annoyed and bite the hook to get it out of their way. We decided “when in Rome”, and we’d give it our best shot. I mean, this is why we came.
After another trip to the local hardware store and fishing shop, we got appropriately geared and theoretically learned the Kenai Flip. It doesn’t matter if you have a fly rod or a spin rod, the method is exactly the same. Mark used his fly rod, and I used the spin rod. You tie a 3/4 or 1 ounce weight (depending on the speed of the river flow) on your line followed by a 3-4′ leader, ending in a red J hook with a simple piece of yarn tied on. You stand in the river about mid thigh deep, facing mostly downstream. Letting out about 15 feet of line, flip the hook to between 12:00 or 1:00 in front of you. You’ll feel the weight hit the bottom and bounce along downstream with the current, pulling it along just slightly. Once your rod is about 9:00 or parallel with the bank right in front of you, you jerk it hard toward the bank. Salmon swim upstream so if you have flossed your line precisely into a fish’s mouth, the jerk will set the hook and then the fight begins. If nothing happens, you use your left hand to pull the line so the weight is above the surface of the water to flip it out again. It’s a lot of arm action and a lot of time standing in one place. (Mark made a video showing this so you can check it out on facebook.) While the method was unlike anything we’ve ever done, and once we got over the shock, it was actually really fun. It took maybe 10-20 casts to figure out how to flip it, how much line to use, how hard to jerk, and that we had way too heavy of rods to do this for very long. We found the least crowded spot we could find and got into the river where we confessed to those around us that we had no idea what we were doing. Luckily instead of them being supremely pissed off, they took mercy on us and showed us how to do it. We had heard stories of how fishing this river can be super “cutthroat” (pun intended), but we found it to be nothing but pleasant and fun mixing it up with everyone around us and they were happy to share their knowledge and success with Kenai rookies. We did both catch our limit of fish the first evening and then headed back to camp to regroup. One guy who was instructing me from the stairway on the first night referred to me for the next 2 days as “the girl from CO who I taught to fish” until he finally learned my name.
There are 5 kinds of salmon in Alaska and they all have at least 2 names. Our timing could not have been more perfect. The reds were running strong. Reds, also known as sockeye, are the most popular for eating. They are also known for fighting the hardest. They average 6-9 pounds and they really do put up a great fight. Unfortunately we don’t have any video or pictures of this because once you get a fish on, it becomes a two man sport. The one with the pole reels the fish until the fish figures out that it is hooked. It then takes off down the river zinging out your drag, which you have to let it do. Once it stops, you reel it in. Until it decides it doesn’t want you to, and then it runs again. And then you reel it back in. Once you get a fish on, first you announce “fish on” or “got one”, then the person standing to your left has to reel in so they don’t tangle up with you. Usually it only affects one person but sometimes two people down the line have to stop to give you space. Once your partner gets their rod reeled in, their job is to get the big net and stand on your left side waiting for your fish to get tired enough for you to bring it in. I would say half the fish I saw caught were lost before getting into the net so it’s a difficult and stressful job with a lot of pressure. The goal is to get the net behind the fish (so it can’t see it), and then the reeler lines the fish up just in front of the net and lets off just a little tension to get the fish right into the net. Now you have a big fish flopping around in the net. One in your team takes a club (or in our case a mini aluminum baseball bat) and strikes the fish on top of the head to kill it quickly, which sometimes takes several blows. Meanwhile, the fish is flopping around in the net trying to get back in the water, your hook is still somewhere in the fish or the net or both, and you’re trying to swing a club at a moving object while holding 10 pounds out of the water higher than your waist, trying to efficiently kill it without clubbing yourself or your partner. Once disposed, you tear away the gills to bleed the fish and then add the fish to your stringer, securing it in the water to be cleaned at the end of the day.
Fred had taught me how to fillet a salmon in Talkeetna, where I learned that cleaning a fish is as much a skill as fishing. Luckily I got plenty of practice this week. The limit per day is 3 salmon per person. We had brought our vacuum sealer and a freezer in the trailer so we could process our own fish to bring home. (It costs $300 to ship 50 pounds of fish next day from AK, not counting processing, just shipping.) We caught our limit the first evening and it came time to fillet the fish. The campground had a really nice fish cleaning station with 8 tables plus running fresh water. Mark went to pick up our stringer and it was too heavy to carry very far! How were we gonna get the fish down to the other side of the campground to the cleaning station? We ended up putting the stringer in the net and each carrying a side of the net. They wanted you to throw the fish parts back into the river to be eaten by birds or other fish. Some of the ladders down to the river also had a cleaning table next to them and you could rinse everything in the river. The trick is that fish are slippery, especially on a metal table. I got our fish done, only needing to go back a few times to clean up meat I had missed. In watching the other fisherman, we noticed they were using a “carpet” similar to astroturf, about the size of a doormat. They put the fish on there and it didn’t slide around at all. Back to the hardware store we went. Let’s be honest, Mark was there at least once, if not twice a day, every day we were there. There was also a Sportsman’s Warehouse in town, which was sold out of pretty much every thing we needed but he made several trips there too. Fishing and shopping, Mark’s heaven. The fish we were catching were mostly 7-8 pounds, definitely on the larger size of average with both of us catching a few really big ones in the 9 pound range. Cutting off the head, backbone, and guts gave us a rough 50% of meat weight, so each fish would net about 3-5 pounds of edible meat, or 4 meals for 2. Ish.
We went out the second morning armed with a little knowledge and lighter poles. In about 6 hours, we had caught 5 fish before we called it a day. The metal bat Mark had bought on Amazon before we got here made quite a sound when killing fish. If he hit the fish just right, guys around us would laugh and yell “home run!” I cleaned all the fish again. We now had 11 fish cleaned and the fridge was getting full. Time to get out the vacuum sealer. This also turned in to a 2 man sport. I worked with the raw fish, guessing the serving size for 2 of us (hoping for somewhere around 3/4 lb) and doing any last minute trimming while Mark cut and made the bags, held them open, then sealed the fish in. After fishing all morning, I needed a break from the river and Molly needed a walk so we headed to the Kenai Wildlife Refuge and took a short hike on the Centennial Trail. There was a possibility of a moose sighting, but we didn’t see one until we were leaving on the road.
We met a couple bachelors in camp who had brought along a smoker. They were going to be gone the next day and offered us its’ use, but they weren’t going to be there to help. In exchange, I felt it was only fair to make them dinner. They came over for spaghetti (no fish involved) and gave me instructions on how to brine and smoke the fish. We covered the fish in a generous sprinkling of brown sugar and salt overnight (at least 6 hours was their recommendation). The next morning, I was up early to get it started. As instructed, I threw 2 pieces of charcoal and a handful of wood chips into the smoker every 30 minutes. Mark found us spots in the river. I set my phone’s timer and literally had to drag myself out of the river every 25 minutes to make my way to the smoker, throw the stuff in, check the heat and doneness of the fish, and back into the river to catch more fish. It took about 6 hours. My phone said I hit 10,000 steps just in walking back and forth from the smoker to the river. I got two big fish cut into sections and smoked. We also vacuum sealed that and though it didn’t need frozen, we threw it in the freezer for safe keeping. The smoked fish was delicious! I made a salmon dip with some and cream cheese. After 2 nights of fresh salmon for dinner, Mark declared no more salmon for a few days (which is why we had spaghetti). The meat is shockingly red. As nutritious as it is delicious. Thoroughly exhausted by alternating fishing and smoking in the morning, taking a short break for lunch and spending most of the evening in the river, I was more than ready to call it a day when we had 5 fish.
We headed to Kenai to watch the locals who fish another way. Residents of Alaska are allowed to dip net. From the beach, they walk into the ocean til they are chest deep, carrying a giant net with a long handle. They hold the net so it’s rim is resting on the bottom and sticking out of the ocean on the top. As soon as they feel a fish swim into the net, they rotate the handle so the fish is trapped and they walk backward toward the beach. They or someone on the beach clubs the fish, removes it from the net, and in they go again. The head of household is allowed 25 fish and each family member is granted 10 fish each. This is true subsistence fishing and these people rely on this fish as food. Some families store it for winter. One native gal we talked to used an ulu to gut her fish. She told us that her family lives by the season. When it is fishing season, they eat all the fish now and then live by whatever is in the next season (hunting or trapping for example.) She also told us they eat every part of the fish except the guts. They boil the head into soup, and they enjoy eating the head, like popcorn she said. They eat the eggs. Others use the eggs for bait for catching silver salmon in the next season a few weeks later. It was fascinating to watch and learn how others live. Hard to argue with the health benefits of living off the land, eating organic and clean.
It had been raining on and off during the day and was scheduled to rain again on Saturday. We’re covered to our chests by waterproof waders anyway so we headed out early. I have already missed several farmers markets along the way and I was bound and determined to get to this one. I caught my limit in 45 minutes while Mark struck out! At noon, I insisted we give up. We got to the Farmer’s Market and enjoyed walking around getting some vegetables and seeing crafts. We tried kohlrabi for the first time after seeing it at several booths. It’s similar to jicama and apparently grows well in Alaska. The rain continued, our arms and backs were sore and tired, and we decided not to get back in the river for Mark to catch his day’s fish.
The fish counts are posted at the end of each day on the State of Alaska website. They are counted by sonar at mile 19 of the Kenai River. The biggest day this week saw over 98,000 fish pass by! In fact, the run was so good, there were emergency orders increasing the limit from 3 to 6 per person. Sunday we were back in the river thinking of nothing but the number 12. We fished all morning. I caught 4 and Mark caught none. He was not very happy. After our lunch break, back into the river we went. Finally his luck changed after not catching a fish for a few days and he started reeling them in. I got to my limit when he had 2 left so I started cleaning fish. He got #11 just about the time I was done cleaning fish. We were both tired and achy and decided to be done. In the last 5 days, we brought in 30 fish that are cleaned and stored in our freezer to enjoy for the next year, probably 75-90 pounds of beautiful, delicious meat. With full hearts, bellies, and memories, it’s time to move on and explore somewhere new again.