Fanaticism is alive and well on the Anchor River.
Forget that the silvers are long gone, the leaves have left the trees, and ice in the rod guides is more of a nuisance than a novelty -- these anglers want to be there.
And on this south peninsula stream -- especially in October -- the vagaries of day-to-day life are pushed aside, and a singular focus emerges for an assortment of anglers stalking a most extraordinary, beautiful and mysterious fish -- the steelhead.
As the Anch-or's silver sal-mon run fades and the weather takes a decisive turn toward fall, most anglers who fish the lower section of the river pack it in for another season. But many remain to fish until the ice drives them away. These are the die-hard steelhead anglers, who with numb fingers and cinched-down rain gear gleefully fish the Anchor's deep pools and runs in search of the sea-run trout.
The run has grown in strength and in popularity in recent years. The hard-core steelhead fanatics have always been there, but they have been joined more and more by anglers who have discovered the catch-and-release fishery as a relaxing way to quietly ease off the throttle of another hectic season.
"They're such a special fish, and there is kind of a die-hard clientele that wants to catch and release these steelhead," said Bob Begich, an assistant area sport fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer. "It's fall, they've got their fish in the freezer for the winter and just want to relax and catch some steelhead. It's a great way to wrap up a season."
Begich said Fish and Game does not monitor the run on an annual basis, but relies on angler reports. This year's forecast looks like a good return, Begich said, with many fish in the 5- to 8-pound range and many of the larger fish approaching 12 pounds.
"That's around 32 inches," Begich said. "And they put up a fight."
Begich said the average fall run totals between 1,300 and 1,500 fish, which usually enter the river in late August.
The steelhead is an anadromous rainbow trout, which spawns in fresh water and grows in the saltwater. Chrome-bright during its time at sea, the fish is striking and exhibits true rainbow trout colors when it enters fresh water: patterns of black dots scattered along the back, distinctive red stripes marking the flank and a smear of red on the cheek.
Most that return to the Anchor are usually 4 to 6 years old, Begich said.
"The steelhead is different from the Pacific salmon in that it has multiple reproductive events," Begich said. "They overwinter in the Anchor and spawn in the spring. Some will survive, go back to the salt and return again. The males seem to come back every year, while the females can skip a year. That's usually related to reproductive matters."
The Anchor isn't the only peninsula stream that sees a steelhead run. Begich said the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek get decent returns, as does the Kasilof River. He added the farthest north steelhead population on the North American continent is found in Hungry Hollow, a tributary of the Gulkana River north of Glennallen.
Although Southeast Alaska rivers like the Situk and the Karluk River on Kodiak Island may offer more steelhead of a larger size, Begich said the Anchor holds its own.
"For a road fishery the Anchor is outstanding," Begich said. "These are good-sized fish that are healthy and powerful."
Begich said catch-and-release regulations were instituted on the river in 1989 and have helped stabilize the population. Also, only single hook lures or flies are allowed.
"I think the general public was more than in favor (of catch-and-release)," Begich said. "It has made it a decent fishery."
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