Sockeye slump turns to red-eyed madness

Sockeye fishing fortunes can turn for the better in mere minutes on the Kenai Peninsula, but for some like myself it takes years. Like a lesson relearned each year, there is much pain and only brief joy for those obsessed with catching a limit of reds.


Standing on the bank of the Kenai River near the Russian River confluence in mid-June, I flipped time after time for a shot at a sockeye. Hundreds of casts. Too many snags. Please lord just one, I begged.

Standing in the middle of Soldotna Creek Park last Sunday morning, I had three hook-ups before my coffee had a chance to cool off. Twenty casts, ten hookups, six fish.

It’s funny how we can so easily forget the fishing frustrations of merely weeks ago when blessed with a taste of late-July sockeye. But as I took a minute between filleting my most recent catch, I remembered that months and years ago I was not so fortunate.

When I came to the Kenai for the first time in my teen years I stood on the banks of the Kenai in the shadows of the Soldotna bridge flipping and not knowing what I was doing. When I moved here a year or so ago, I didn’t think it possible to grab a limit of fresh reds in the hours before breakfast. So I struggled to catch one or two the whole season. I was constantly behind the run, didn’t have the right gear nor the right attitude.

In flashes I tasted what true sockeye fishing was, but I needed more. Over the winter I planned my revenge, adding hooks, stronger line, better rods and nicer waders to my arsenal.

When the Russian River opener arrived, I hit the banks of the Kenai and Russian twice leaving with only fresh blisters on my feet and a few hooks in the drink.

But on the third time I took along a fellow Clarion staffer and was lucky enough to grab a limit of three sockeye out of Cottonwood Hole on the Russian.

Last Sunday was the first time since then I’ve tried for sockeye and I’ve realized that the pursuit of reds is almost masochistic. Why is it that we rush to the river in June, when we all know they’ll be here soon enough, like clockwork, the third week of July?

It is the feast and famine aspect to the fishery that compels sockeye addicts — long months of suffering followed by brief moments of bulk madness. But like a derelict dog stumbling on a T-bone, I took my fill until my hands were scratched and worn like an old pair of gardening gloves.

My body was sore, but my spirit jolted awake.

Maybe us sockeye fishermen are not so different than those who climb mountains for hours to spend only a few minutes at the peak enjoying a glorious view before returning to the forest and eventually the office.

To that end, I think I have learned a few things about joyful sockeye fishing. I have now guided two fellow Clarion staffers on how to fish and can boast they both at least hooked into one or more. I found that each time I helped someone learn about how to catch these creatures my fishing karma doubled the next time around.

I’ve also learned that the red run waits for no one. When they are in, so must you be. No time for television, or cleanliness or trivial office pursuits. That can wait for winter. As fast as the sockeye hit they will be gone.

Embrace the madness.

 Brian Smith is city editor for the Peninsula Clarion and an avid sockeye fisherman. Share your fishing stories with him at


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