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Road Trippin’ 2020: Fishing and catching on the Kenai

Published: Jul. 14, 2020 at 8:54 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Road Trippin’ 2020: Fishing and catching on the Kenai Hank Davis and I got a chance to go Road Trippin’ to Cooper Landing in June. The adventure was Alaska Clearwater Sportfishing’s fly fishing school. Now, the school typically runs for several days but we got a crash course in fly tying, casting and then actually catching fish.

I’m an absolute beginner at fly fishing and practically a beginner at any kind of fishing. Hank fishes a lot with rainbow trout being one of his favorites to catch. More on that later.

We started off the day with our guide and instructor Zack Walters with Alaska Clearwater Sportfishing, Inc. and yes, he had to start with the basics.

“The fly is the lure or imitation bait made of a hook dressed with hair, fur, feathers or synthetic materials held in place with thread,” he explained. “What makes a fly, a fly is there’s no bait. That’s important.”

We sat together and Zack taught me how to make a simple sockeye fly. Though, I quickly learned, when trying to catch a sockeye, the bait isn’t that important.

“Sockeye salmon are filter feeders so in the ocean they eat plankton by opening and closing their mouth and when they return to spawn in the spring time they run tight to banks and the most effective technique is to cast your line straight out into the stream and let it swing through there and let it get caught in their mouth and then you set the hook,” said Zack. “The most important part is to find a spot where they’re running upstream that way you can hook them in the mouth and not worry about the mortality of the salmon. “If you don’t get it in the mouth, you still have to release the fish and we don’t want to put holes in them and make it so they can’t spawn,” he said.

After fly tying, we moved on to casting. Zack took us to an open grassy area and removed the hook from my line so I could learn. I’ll admit—I spent the day, worrying I might catch someone with that hook. Casting was awkward at first but Zack gave me time to learn before he corrected me.

“Too much instruction right off the bat is bad,” Zack said to Hank. “She needs to form a little bit of muscle memory and have that foundation to move forward, adding line and complicating things.” We spent about an hour on casting even though Zack said the kind of casting I was learning wasn’t used often on the Kenai. “This is a typical dry fly, single fly cast more of what you see people doing,” said Zack.

“The most effective casts we end up using on the Kenai end up being roll casts, which you’re using the water to load the fly line and the rod because usually you don’t have a place to cast behind you or there’s a branch over your head so the typical false cast above the water, isn’t always the most practical when you get to the stream. But nevertheless, it teaches you a lot. It teaches you the grip. It teaches you the tempo of the fly cast. Teaches you how to load the road and unroll the line.” Once on the river, I remembered how beautiful the Kenai Peninsula is. The sun was trying to break through the clouds as we started downriver.

Zack took us to a place that’s known for sockeye. “What makes this a great spot is it’s at the top of the canyon so it wears the salmon out and they like to take rest over in this eddy over here,” he said. “Once they take their rest, they push up alongside this island, pretty tight in.

It’s a shallow gravel bar and you can see them swim right by your toes.” I never actually saw a fish in the water but Zack and Hank seemed to find plenty. I quickly learned how to roll cast and Zack was right—the lessons on the grass helped me get the rhythm and understand what I was trying to do. I made my first cast and… “Now do that like ten-thousand more times,” said Zack.

We didn’t get far before we had a visitor…a moose walking through the river quite close to where we were fishing. The animal looked a little battered and ended up swimming across the river. The current was too strong for her and pulled her back to our side. “I’m a big fan of leaving wildlife alone,” said Zack as we decide to move downriver.

Now, I’ve lived in Alaska for 47 years but my family wasn’t really the type to fish or hunt so I have very little experience. Having said that, I’ve been on the Kenai a number of times and I’m always amazed by the beauty. Honestly, even if we didn’t catch a fish, I was perfectly content to float down the river.

The scars of last year’s forest fires dot the landscape but the views were still awe-inspiring. A little farther downriver, Zack guided the boat to the side and we prepared for to try for rainbow. I was willing to give Hank a turn, but Hank—being the good guy that he is—really wanted to give me a chance to catch a fish. At the same time, Zack gently reminded me that if I catch a fish in this area, it will likely be a big one. I found fishing for rainbows a little more fun. You have to pay a bit more attention and keep active, continually mending your line.

A good guide knows when the cast is good. After several dozen casts, I made one and Zack said softly, “that’s it. That’s the one.” And he was right. I hooked a rainbow trout! Reeling in the fish was fun but I never would have made it without Zack and Hank calling out guidance on when to reel and when to let the fish run. It was a pretty pink trout. Zack scooped it up in his rubber net—designed for catch and release—and we set the fish free. Now, I turned over the rod to Hank. Our luck ran out and by the time we hit Skilak Lake, Hank hadn’t gotten a bite.

Overall, a fabulous day—from the drive down to the class to the actual fishing on the river. I learned a lot, had a lot of fun and I could see myself doing this again! That’s the joy of Road Trippin’ in Alaska!

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