On sockeye fishing

Having fished with hook and line for Kenai River sockeyes since the early 1970s, I’ve observed a few things about these salmon known as “reds.”


Do they bite?

Yes, they’ll sometimes bite, but you probably won’t wait around for them to do it. Sockeyes are more reluctant to bite than other salmon species. I’ve had them bite on shrimp, salmon roe, a yarn fly, a Vibrax spinner and a large Spin-N-Glo, but I’ve never had them consistently bite on anything. In 40 years of fishing for reds, so few have bitten that I can remember every one. Only two were caught while I was actually fishing for reds. The others — less than 10 — were caught while I was fishing for other species.

The popular technique

Over the years, anglers on the Kenai and Russian rivers have developed an effective and legal method for catching reds. Called “lining,”  it’s done by casting a line upstream from the fish and letting the current drift the line into the fish’s mouth. When the line is pulled in, the hook — hopefully — stops in the fish’s mouth. This technique works well enough that anglers using it harvested more than 250,000 reds from the Kenai and another 93,000 from the Russian in 2009, the most recent year for which estimates are available.

Water clarity

A few years back, a local Fish and Game biologist regularly noted about red fishing in his fishing reports that angling success depended on good water clarity, meaning that clearer water equated to better fishing.  With fish that bite, that’s usually true, but when you’re lining reds, the murkier the water, the better. In clear water, the fish will see you and move toward deeper water, making it harder to hook them.

Terminal gear

The tackle most often used for lining sockeyes is 20- 30-pound-test monofilament line and a coho fly. A sinker of up to 2 ounces is used to quickly sink the fly to the bottom, where the fish are. The color or pattern of the fly doesn’t matter, though some anglers believe otherwise. When you’re lining fish, what matters most is the hook, which should be both strong and sharp.

Hip or chest waders?

If you’re fishing for reds from a boat, dock or fishing platform, a pair of tennies will do nicely. If you’re fishing from the bank, a cheap pair of hip boots will suffice most of the time, since reds usually migrate in relatively shallow water, within a few feet of the bank.

With few exceptions, chest waders are seldom necessary for red fishing on the Kenai. One of my pet peeves is when someone in chest waders wades out as far as possible, which causes the fish to move away and makes fishing more difficult.

Protect your eyes

Tens of thousands of people fish for reds in crowded conditions on the Kenai and Russian rivers every year. Among these are dozens who themselves become hooked. Some end up with only a scar, but a few lose an eye to a hook or sinker. Always wear a hat and glasses, even when you’re not fishing. A friend of mine was hooked in the ear while filleting fish on the bank.

We’re very fortunate to have such a wonderful, accessible fishery here on the Kenai Peninsula. Have fun, be safe and don’t catch more than you can use.

Contact Les Palmer at lpalmer@alaska.net.


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