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High-water silvers

Posted: August 22, 2013 - 3:33pm

The recent threat of flooding along the lower Kenai River didn’t surprise me. I’ve seen it happen so many times, I now equate silver fishing with high water.

This is the season when the Kenai River is most likely to be high and to flood. From 1965 to 2012, two-thirds of the 53 historical crests for the Kenai River at Soldotna compiled by the National Weather Service occurred in August and September. Only 13 of these crests hit the flood-stage mark of 12 feet, but all were higher water than most anglers would prefer to fish.

If you fish for silvers during high water, you may have noticed that you didn’t find fish in the same places you found them when the water was lower and slower.

During high water periods, the current speed increases. Salmon will then be found resting and migrating closer to the bank, where there is less current.

You might think that an adult salmon wouldn’t feel comfortable in shallow water near the bank, but they apparently do. I believe this is because high water is turbid enough that the fish feel as safe as if they were in deeper water. I’ve watched sockeyes migrating upstream in silt-clouded water barely deep enough to cover their backs, within inches of shore. In the silt-laden Kasilof River, I’ve seen king salmon roll between wading anglers and the shore behind them.

Even while flooding, the Kenai can offer good silver fishing. On Sept. 21, 1974, it rose to 17.18 feet at the Cooper Landing gauge, where flood stage is 13 feet. Living in Anchorage at the time, I hadn’t heard that the Kenai was flooding. I didn’t know how seriously high it was until I had launched my boat at Skilak Lake and run downstream a few miles to camp for the weekend.

This wasn’t the river I knew. The normally placid Kenai was a raging torrent. My usual camping spot was under a foot of water. Just watching the water rush by was scary. Was it even worth fishing, or was this fishing trip a bust?

I camped on higher ground. After a restless night, I was nursing a cup of coffee when I heard a distant splash. The sound occurred often enough that I finally located its source.

Directly across the river from me was an area that, in normal water, was a low, grassy area. With the river over its banks, this grassy flat became a shallow lake. Curious, I motored over to it. I was thinking that beavers were making all that noise, slapping their tails, but I was wrong. The splashing turned out to be silvers, and whole herd of them. No matter what I threw at those fish or how I retrieved it, they wanted it. Not only was the fishing good, but only one other boat came into sight during that entire weekend.

While fishing the Kenai in the Sterling area during another high-water period in the 1970s, one of my teen-age sons was walking along the bank, casting a lure now and then, when he came to an area where the water had overflowed the bank and formed a small pond adjacent to the river. Tossing a lure into the pond, he was surprised when a silver chased and caught it. It turned out that several silvers were resting in that frog water, out of the current.

Fishing from a boat during high water can be exciting. It’s not unusual to have a whole tree come floating down the river and clutch your boat in its branches. If you’re anchored up and watching your line, you may not see the threat until you notice that your anchor is dragging.

High water is like fishing a whole new river. The fish aren’t where they usually are, but they’re in there, somewhere. It’s up to you to find them.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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