Catching sockeye salmon -- "reds" -- on hook and line is seldom easy. Even when the water is thick with them, these strong fish will test your tackle, strength and patience.
Harvesting reds is made even more difficult by Alaska's sport-fishing regulations. Although reds rarely bite, the rules require fish to be hooked in the mouth. Fish hooked elsewhere must be released.
Getting a hook in a red's mouth takes some doing. The trick is to get a hook down to fish-mouth level. If the fish has its mouth open, so much the better.
Most migrating sockeyes swim just above the bottom and within a few feet of the bank. They are easiest to catch in fast current -- the faster, the better. In "flipping," the most popular fishing method, a weighted fly is cast a short distance and allowed to drift downstream with the current. When the fly hooks a fish, the battle is on.
Sockeyes usually weigh 6 or 7 pounds, but some weigh more than 10. In the swift current of the Kenai, strong tackle is necessary. Typical rods used are medium to heavy action and 8- 1/2 to 9- 1/2 feet long. Typical reels are spooled with 20- to 30-pound-test monofilament nylon line and have a drag system that will stop a large fish in swift current. To get the fly to the bottom fast, most anglers use sinkers of 1/2 to 1 ounce. The most commonly used fly is the Coho, but any fly will do. Most anglers prefer certain colors, but the fish don't seem to care.
Good sockeye fishing is mostly a matter of numbers. When less than 10,000 per day are entering the river, you might catch one every hour or so, if you have the knack. On a day when 50,000 come in, you might catch one on every cast.
How do you know when the reds are in?
You have to be there, or have a friend with a cell phone who is. When the fish are due, around the middle of July, I walk down to the Kenai several times a day and watch the water. If I see reds splashing or people catching fish, I go home and put on my boots.
Reds are a moving target, migrating up the Kenai at an average speed of about 3 miles per hour. The Department of Fish and Game maintains a sockeye counting sonar at River Mile 19, about 2 miles downstream from the Soldotna bridge. Using sonar data, Fish and Game staff estimate sockeye passage each day, midnight to midnight. The estimates usually are available by 10:30 a.m.
A migrating sockeye covers the 15 miles of river between Soldotna and Sterling in about 5 hours. Three hours later, that fish should be passing Torpedo Hole, only 5 miles downstream from Skilak Lake. Armed with the daily passage-rate estimate, one might conclude that one could determine exactly where and when the fishing would be good. One would be wrong.
Reds swim upstream in fits and starts. Some stop to rest, or whatever they're doing in those places where they mill around and splash their tails. The number of fish moving past a given point at a given time varies widely. During one half-hour period, less than a dozen might go by. In the next half hour, 100 or more might swim past. This is why it's important to put in some time at one place. Remember: Every red that isn't caught downstream from you will sooner or later swim past you.
Even though sockeyes can be difficult to catch, they make for exciting fishing and wonderful eating. If everyone is careful when releasing fish, polite when fishing near other anglers and gentle to vegetation along the river bank, fishing for them will remain one of reasons so many of us love the Kenai River.
Sockeye passage-rate estimates:
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Les Palmer lives in Sterling.
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