The reds are in; Russian River fills with fish and anglers

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Opening day on Alaska's most popular salmon stream dawned with room enough for a fly angler to stretch out a long backcast, but nobody expected the tranquility to last.

The end of solitude along this central Kenai Peninsula stream was writ in four short words: The reds are in!

Red, or sockeye, salmon draw anglers to the clear water here the way the warm Arizona desert attracts retiring snowbirds.

By 10 a.m. on June 15, Russian River Campground was full and the parking lots were quickly filling.

Down in the valley where the water runs cold and clear, the annual show was under way.

In the Powerline Hole just upstream from the high-voltage transmission line that connects nearby Cooper Landing to the rest of the Peninsula, a dozen anglers had a school of red salmon cornered.

Someone had a fish on almost every moment. Silver-sided salmon flashed in the sky and splashed back to the water as they tried to break free of the hooks.

When one angler's salmon started a downriver run, one of the man's fishing buddies gave chase with a net.

As the salmon broke the fishing line with an audible snap, the exuberant netter lost his footing on the 4-foot-high bank and tumbled into the river. He went under, came up and scrambled out of the water almost in one motion.

A minute later, he was back fishing.

With 5- to 10-pound salmon visible in the crystal-clear water, there were more important concerns than wet clothes.

Spectator Barry Jenks sat on the trunk of a cottonwood along the river and laughed.

''I just watch,'' Jenks said. ''I have a gillnet.''

As he sat comfortably in the warm sun, an older angler in a wool shirt hooked himself a salmon. Cigar clenched between his teeth, he played the fish carefully downstream and away from the crowd.

The man had a pair of forceps, for removing fish hooks, in a custom-made holster sewn into the suspenders holding up his Gore-Tex waders.

The salmon, however, didn't care. It made one last run, and the hook pulled free.

As predictable as water flowing to a drain, anglers had converged on the obviously productive fishing spot as soon as it was vacated.

Gray-bearded fly fisherman Carl Locke of Seward had feared something like this.

''I had mixed emotions about whether to come,'' he said.

He was afraid to see which face the river would be wearing this day: Salmon meat fishery for any Southcentral Alaskan with a license and fishing gear, or world-class trout stream.

He was hoping for the latter, if only for a few hours.

''For something on the road system,'' Locke said, ''this is probably the most incredible stream in Alaska.''

Wadable its entire length, with water so clear it sometimes seems almost invisible, full of rainbow trout of 14 to 20 inches, this is a river that could make the average Lower 48 fly angler drool.

Locke worked diligently with the flyrod in every riffle and slick he thought might hold a rainbow. He found them.

Scrappy, colorful fish almost lined up to get at the pheasant tail nymph he floated along beneath a strike indicator.

''I've probably got a half-dozen that size today,'' he said as he gently released a rainbow of about 18 inches.

It was the third such fish he'd taken out of the same run. All took the nymph softly and then fought vigorously. All were healthy and bright with color. All were eased into and out of the net, which makes it possible for the catch-and-release rainbow fishery here to run all season.

''My last day of work was yesterday,'' Locke said. ''I'll fish all summer, do a little guiding.

''It doesn't get any better than this.''

It was hard not to be a little jealous.

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