Fishing frenzy

Lure of the Russian too strong to fight

Posted: Sunday, July 03, 2005

 

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  Stephen Stralka of Anchorage carries his dog Tok across the Russian River while searching for a prime fishing hole. "I just don't want to get him wet and then have to ride all the way home in the car with him," Stralka said. "It's not that he's too spoiled." Photo by M. Scott Moon

Anglers crowd the bank of the Kenai River at its confluence with the Russian River last week. The location is as popular with anglers as it is the fish they are pursuing.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

It's around 11 a.m. on a sunny, hazy summer afternoon, and at Alaska's premier wilderness theme park, things are in full swing.

At the ferry launch, bored workers herd another load of anxious tourists into a big green tub attached by overhanging cables to the other side of the river. Having been working for five hours now, the ferry operators have already shuttled hundreds of people — many of them hailing from half a world away — across the fast, green water that separates civilization from whatever it is that lies just on the other side.

 

Bob Axtell strings up a red salmon shortly after hauling it from the Kenai River last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In the parking lot, hung-over Germans, talkative Swiss and proud Texans are in various stages of preparing for the day, tying up gear and wriggling into rubber boots.

Dogs jump at the end of their leashes, wide-eyed kids fidget with their orange life preservers and everything — everyone — smells a little bit like fish.

Welcome to the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers, perhaps the weirdest, wildest fishing hole in the world. It's Wednesday, but for the thousands of anglers wading into the icy waters, it's vacation time. At "the Russian," every day is a holiday.

Angling allure

 

Brian Simonson works on his tan while he works on dinner. Simonson found a quiet, solitary spot to fish the Russian just a few hundred yards away from mobs of people who chose to fish elbow-to-elbow. "We battle fished this morning until it got too crowded then we decided to try another spot," he said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Beginning in early June, sockeye salmon start swimming their way into the Kenai River from the Pacific Ocean. By the thousands, these fish — averaging around six pounds each — make their way upstream in spurts, following some unseen beacon that guides them back to the freshwater lakes and streams where they were born a few years earlier.

As one of the larger tributaries of the Kenai, the Russian River system is the final destination for many of these fish, which can number in the tens and even hundreds of thousands. If they reach their goal, the sockeye will eventually find their way to places like the Upper and Lower Russian lakes, where they'll spawn, die, and be eaten by birds, bears and the next generation of salmon.

 

Stephen Stralka of Anchorage carries his dog Tok across the Russian River while searching for a prime fishing hole. "I just don't want to get him wet and then have to ride all the way home in the car with him," Stralka said. "It's not that he's too spoiled."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The return of the salmon means big things for humans and the environment, and when the fish start hitting the rivers, things start to get interesting.

Prized for fighting ability and the succulent crimson meat that lies just beneath their silvery skin, the sockeye (or "red" to locals) salmon is pursued on the Kenai Peninsula with a bloodthirsty vengeance of epic proportions. Don't think so? Consider the maze through which these fish must navigate as they move closer to their home waters.

 

Jake Lawrence of Rochester, Minn., pulls a loaded stringer of fish to a cleaning table at the mouth of the Russian River. The table will be the closest the fish will get to the spawning beds they were attempting to reach hours earlier.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

First, the fish must get past ocean predators, which include whales, seals and factory fishing ships. When the fish make their way into Cook Inlet, they must swim past the commercial fishers, including shore-based setnetters (who set their long nets from the shore) and water-based drift fishers (who use boats and nets that drift with the current).

If the fish reach the mouth of the Kenai River, they must then begin avoiding the hooks of recreational anglers and nets (if it's between July 10 and 31) of personal-use fishers.

If they somehow make it through all this unscathed, the fish must then steel themselves for the final push into the Russian River, which dumps its cool, clear water into the silty green Kenai approximately 73.5 miles upstream from the ocean.

It's here, where the fish funnel from the mighty Kenai into the smaller Russian, that the largest single concentration of anglers in Alaska makes its own last stand, laying down a gauntlet of hooks and lines in a last-ditch frenzy of fishing nirvana.

Even though fishing is done on both the Kenai and Russian rivers (the bulk of fishers, in fact, technically fish in the Kenai), most anglers and locals alike refer to the entire confluence area as the Russian.

All aboard

Henry Ostermann came to the Russian from Spring, Texas, to work on the Russian River Ferry, which is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. A college student at Texas A & M, Osterman heard about the summer gig from a friend at school.

"A buddy of mine from A&M had been up here, and he really talked it up," Ostermann said in between running a load of about 30 anglers across the Kenai. "It sounded like a hell of a deal."

Ostermann has been working on the ferry since May, and he's enjoyed pretty much every minute of the experience.

"I love the scenery and get all the fish I can handle," he said.

Constantly on the water, the ferry operators — they work in two-person teams — are usually the first and best source for up-to-date fishing reports. On this warm Wednesday, Ostermann says fishing hasn't been great, but there are still plenty of sockeye to be had.

"It's slowed down a little bit from earlier in the week, but people are still getting their fish," Ostermann said, helping an elderly couple step off the ferry.

The ferry crossing at Sportsman's Landing takes people a couple hundred yards across the Kenai from the north bank to the south, just downstream of where the Russian emerges from the Kenai mountains. Its location just 90 minutes south of Anchorage on the Sterling Highway makes it easily accessible to tourists and Alaskans alike. It's the combination of easy access and abundant fish that makes the spot so popular.

The people who fish here come from all corners of the globe.

"You get all kinds of people from all over," Ostermann said.

Spectator's sport

It's not just the fish that bring people to the fishing hole. The scenery around the two rivers is among some of the best in Alaska, with rough mountains and lush green forest surrounding the sparkling water. The area is teeming with wildlife, including moose, sheep, wolves, eagles and — as dozens of signs constantly remind visitors — plenty of bears.

Elva Kauffman and his wife, Joyce, aren't fishing. Like many of the curious who've gathered along the shoreline to watch the fishing frenzy, the Kauffmans, of Arthur, Ill., are simply taking in the scene.

"We hadn't even thought about seeing something like this," Joyce said, watching as hundreds of determined anglers repeatedly cast their lines in to the water.

Near the Kauffmans, a half-dozen Amish women stand quietly, their long white dresses hemmed just high enough to keep from getting dirty. Elva Kauffman explains that the women are on vacation, and since they can't drive, the Kauffmans' job is to chauffeur them around the state. He said it's a good job, especially since he and his wife essentially get a lot of sightseeing out of the deal.

"It's like a paid vacation," he says.

Watching anglers stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the waters of the Kenai and Russian doesn't look like a lot of fun to Joyce Kauffman.

"You'd think they'd get their lines tangled together," she said.

Elva, however, seems intrigued. Although more used to lake fishing, he says he might want to give sockeye fishing a try, just for the experience.

"I think I could enjoy it," he said.

Joyce Kauffman simply shakes her head.

'Combat fishing'

The organized chaos of the fishery is usually the first thing that first-time visitors notice. Since thousands of anglers are packed into an area that's only about two miles long, sockeye fishers must be willing to share their personal space. The term "combat fishing" is often used to describe the scene, but perhaps "cooperative fishing" would be more appropriate.

That's because with so many people fishing in such a small area, people are forced to work with their neighbors in order to ensure that things run relatively smoothly. When it works, everyone gets along pretty well and conflicts are kept to a minimum. Usually.

Just upstream from the ferry crossing, a man struggles to bring a hooked salmon to shore. His efforts are complicated by the fact that another angler downstream has be-come entangled with the first man's line.

"I think you got him and I got your line," the second man yells upstream, stating the obvious.

The fish breaks off. The first angler looks disappointed, but not too much so.

"Now we just got each other," he yells back, getting a chuckle out of some nearby fishers.

The two men walk toward each other and untangle their lines. Moments later, both their lines are back in the water.

Not all conflicts turn out so cordially. With the close proximity of anglers, tempers do flare from time to time, although most conflicts end with nothing more harmful than some off-color language and raised voices.

That's not to say the fishery isn't dangerous.

Since it's believed that sockeye won't bite lures or flies, the preferred method of fishing is to fling a streamer (or "coho") fly upstream and let it drift down with the current. By keeping a small weight attached to the line a couple feet above the fly, anglers are able to get their hook to stream out from the weight bouncing on the bottom. Since the fish swim upstream, they are invariably hooked in the mouth as the fly drifts downstream.

It's not pretty, but with thousands of fish moving through the water, it's an effective technique and is used by almost everyone fishing the area.

Because fishing for sockeye in fast-moving water requires that anglers constantly flip sharp hooks upstream in an effort to intercept fish — and because those hooks often come flying out of the fish unexpectedly — eye protection is highly recommended. Each year, more than a few tourists make their way to local emergency rooms with hooks stuck in various parts of their anatomies.

And then, of course, there's the bears.

Bear in mind

Bill Berg, from Northern California, was cleaning his limit of four sockeye Wednesday and described what early-rising anglers saw on the Russian River early that morning.

"It was quite a shock to see four bears down here this morning," Berg said .

"They were right there," he said, pointing to a spot where four or five anglers were lazily flipping flies into the Russian, hoping to see a couple sockeye moving through the clear, shallow water.

Berg said the brown bears, a mother and three cubs, hung around the water for a while as he and the other anglers watched in awe.

"They had all the fishermen up here," he said. "But someone didn't know they were there and came walking around the bend. Luckily, they scared each other off."

Bears are a constant presence on the water. Attracted by the smell of rotting fish and tasty picnic food, they make their way to the river in search of an easy meal. Usually, they stay clear of humans, preferring to do much of their feeding at night or in the morning. However, they can be unpredictable if threatened or surprised.

Such was likely the case with a bear who attacked Girdwood resident Dan Bigley at the Russian two summers ago. Fishing at around midnight, Bigley was mauled and nearly killed when a sow attacked him. The brief encounter left Bigley without his eyesight.

The lure of the continent's largest predators, however, is part of what brings people to the area. Most say they want to see some bears — but only from a safe distance.

Joette Kimbal said she has yet to see a bear, even though this is her second summer visiting the Russian from Houston, Tex.

"We'd love to see a bear. Only from really, really far away," Kimbal says, laughing.

Local appeal

Not everyone enjoying the fishery is a wide-eyed tourist. Ron Gravenhorst has lived in nearby Cooper Landing for more than two decades — and fished the area for even longer. A volunteer with the Forest Service's Streamwatch program, Gravenhorst walks slowly along the shoreline, picking up random pieces of trash — things like monofilament fishing line, broken rod tips and aluminum cans.

"Usually it's bottles and cans," he says, dropping a sandwich wrapper into a plastic garbage bag. "We average probably five or six pounds a day."

Gravenhorst said he fell in love with the fishery the first time he came to the area, and credits the sockeye run with his moving to Cooper Landing.

"The reason I came was the Russian," he said.

Gravenhorst explains that as a Streamwatch volunteer — there are half a dozen who work the river each summer — he spends about 15 days a summer picking up garbage and helping educate novice fishers. He even carries a few extra flies and a flyer with a recipe for grilled salmon with him to hand out along the water.

"If I can help an unguided tourist, I'm happy to do it," he said. "Most people just want a fish. If you can help them, they're going to be happy."

Gravenhorst said that when he's not helping keep the area clean and friendly, he's on the water, pulling in fish for his barbecue grill at home.

For him, the throngs of people who make their way to the fishery have not taken away from the experience of being able to harvest hard-fighting fish in a pristine wilderness environment. In fact, he said he plans to finish his days in much the same way the salmon do — by returning to the ecosystem that sustains them all.

"This is where my ashes are going to be scattered," he said, a glint of sunlight reflecting off the water and twinkling in his eye. "I love this place."

Unlike any other

Gravenhorst walked off, picking up trash with a smile, chatting to a couple of curious anglers who just arrived on the water. Watching the scene around him, it's easy to understand why he feels so strongly about the place.

All around him, seagulls swoop down into the water, plucking the eyeballs from freshly cleaned salmon carcasses. Across the river, a shirtless man carrying a revolver on his hip fishes quietly by himself.

Downstream, a man hauls his golden retriever across the shallow Russian on his back. A woman reads a book. A man sleeps. Children wade into the cold water, giggling at the slippery rocks beneath their toes. A few feet out into the water, a fat rainbow trout lazily gobbles up a piece of salmon flesh. Fish are gutted. The lime green ferry zips across the turquoise Kenai River.

Somewhere in the woods, perhaps only a couple hundred yards away, a mother bear and her three cubs sleep the day away, waiting for the people to thin out before heading down to the water for an easy meal.

All the while, the sockeye continue swimming upstream. As long as they continue to fight relentlessly against the current, as long as they continue to return to the area, so will the people, birds and bears that pursue them — and the Russian will continue to be what it is, a fishing hole and social experience unlike any other in the world.

Photo Gallery

by M. Scott Moon

A family's harvest of red salmon stays chilled on a stringer in the Kenai

River's cold water.

Green water of the Kenai River, colored that way from glacier silt, mixes

with the clear water of the Russian River at their confluence as anglers

vie for salmon. The two rivers meander through the surrounding Kenai Mountains

near the Sterling Highway.

Tyler Russell of Anchorage is one of many who are truly prepared to "combat

fish." The gun was for the wildlife however. "I've seen plenty

of bears down here," he said. "I don't plan on doing anything

with them but better safe than sorry."

A lone angler pauses to watch the action from a secluded spot on the far

side of the Kenai River. Despite the crowds of people, there are plenty

of solitary spots near the river's confluence with the Russian River.

Chris Bastian of Valley City, North Dakota, videotapes the action from

the Kenai River's shore as an angler searches for a spot to fish from

the top of the bank. "I limited out about 45 minutes into the fishing

and I've been the runner ever since," Bastian said while waiting

for his friends to finish fishing. "I get to kick back and shoot

some pictures. Everyone has their own rhythm and technique and I've been

putting that on film."

Katie Stone of Fairbanks reads "Men Are From Mars Women are From

Venus" while waiting for her husband to catch another fish. "I

went out there and tried to fish but it frustrates me — so many

snags," she said.

The Russian River Ferry, powered solely by the force of the Kenai River,

carries a load of anglers and their fish back to the highway side of the

stream.

An angler stands ankle-deep in shredded fish carcasses next to a cleaning

table as he peels fillets from a just-caught red salmon. Obese protected

trout feed on the remains of the less-fortunate salmon.

A butterfly lands on a discarded fish head on the bank of the Russian

River. Many different organisms feed on the remains of the salmon that

return every year to Kenai Peninsula streams.

Jeff Snow catches a nap on the bank of the Russian during a lull in the

action.



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