From the Russian with love

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

At 10 p.m. last Friday, I sat down on the south bank of the Kenai River, just below its confluence with the Russian, and began to wait.

The section of river I'd staked out is known as "the sanctuary" because of the fact that it's closed to fishing for much of the red salmon season. It's a small fork of the Kenai, out of the main stream, and it's basically a funnel for fish moving from the larger Kenai into the Russian. Fishers in the Kenai and the Russian normally attack the reds with a vengeance, but since the fish get so concentrated in the sanctuary, they're usually given a reprieve. Hence the name.

Only when biologists predict that the salmon are returning in sufficient numbers to the Russian is the half mile strip of river open to anglers. That was the case Friday, when the Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order opening the sanctuary at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

I knew it would be crowded, so I made sure to get there early. I parked at the Russian River campground, about a mile up the Russian. The parking area I got, called Pink Salmon, is the furthest lot up the river. That meant I'd managed to slip into one of only a few remaining spots in the entire campground.

The hike down to the Kenai was encouraging. The temperature was about 60, the air smelled of ferns and I could see fish splashing and jumping in the Russian, merrily going about their death ritual.

When I got to the sanctuary, the banks were empty. I walked a little further to the west, below the ferry crossing, to where I could see an army of fish soldiers battling each other for what looked to me like a whole lot of nothing. I only saw two fish hooked in the open waters of the Kenai while I stood there and watched. After about five minutes of reconnaissance, I walked the short distance to the deserted banks of the sanctuary, sat down on my tackle box, and began dreaming of fish.

I awoke to find my own little sanctuary had been overrun. On my left was a neoprene platoon of fly fishermen. To my right, a regiment of spin casters, marching up river in matching camouflage hip boots (How did I see the boots if they were camouflage? Polarized glasses, of course). And me in the middle -- the mercenary, the rogue operative, the sniper.

I was armed with my trusty 8-foot 6-inch Lamiglass rod, backed up with an Ambassador 2500 reel loaded with 15-pound test line. I prefer to use my fly rod when fishing for reds, but in combat situations, you need to have something strong, dependable and easy to maneuver. In crowds, snagging a sockeye in the tail with a fly rod can lead to a condition, common among novice anglers, known as snell shock.

Snell shock, or angler's ankle, is a condition that occurs when a fish runs so far downstream that it causes the bewildered angler to give chase. This often occurs when a fish is snagged in the tail, or when the angler is fishing with unsuitable gear. Following such a fish downstream is ill advised for two reasons. One, you're likely to get a stray hook stuck up to its snell in your eyeball, and two, you will probably break your ankle on the rocky river bottom.

That's the reason I brought the big pole.

By 11:45 p.m., the tension in the air was as thick as the swarms of mosquitoes. People were already muscling into their chosen holes, so I waded in to wait with them. We eyed each other warily, upstream and down, cautiously holding our hooks bare inches from the surface of the water.

"What time you got?" was all anyone said, though nobody ever answered.

Then there was a splash about 20 yards upstream. Someone had hooked a fish. Someone had begun firing! The fishers along my section of shore looked around, confused and scared. Had it already begun? Was it midnight yet?

Apparently, it was midnight somewhere, because before I could attack the seething mass of salmon that I knew lurked just below the surface, everyone around me had begun to cast their flies. The guy above me hooked one, then lost it. The lady below me hooked one, and lost it, too. Still, I waited. In war, tactics can be as important as surprise.

The tension mounted. Suddenly, a horn went off up and down the rapidly darkening river. Midnight.

I uncoiled a silent, precise flip into the icy water. I felt the lead weight bouncing along the river bottom. I waited one second. Two. Three. The bouncing stopped.

"Fish on!" I shrieked, setting the hook, "Fish on!"

The fish fought, and I fought back. One of us would eventually lose that midnight battle, thought I'll not say who. The war had only just begun.

Matt Tunseth is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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