October fishing plans are made over morning coffee.
Winter can seize the month suddenly on the Kenai Peninsula. Try to plan a fishing trip a week in advance, and a foot of snow can blanket the boat launch. Even day-before plans can be changed by October weather. A cold, starry night can turn a flowing stream into icy slush by sunrise.
One October day a few years ago I personally witnessed this surprisingly swift transformation of the seasons. Standing knee-deep in a steelhead stream, heavy snowflakes started to fall and refused to melt as they landed on the water. Twenty minutes later my fly could no longer penetrate the stream's icy crust. Fishing season was over.
So it was no surprise when a recent fishing trip had to be abruptly altered.
My friend Dave Atcheson and I had made some tentative plans to take our driftboat from Skilak Lake to Bing's Landing in search of rainbow trout and silver salmon. Two days before our scheduled trip, blue skies bathed the peninsula. With one day to go, clouds arrived, but there was no rain or snow. The wind started that evening.
Even before my morning coffee, I knew the day would not go as planned. In the pre-dawn darkness, the backyard trees creaked and scratched their bare branches against the cedar-sided house. An Internet weather forecast confirmed what I heard outside. Northeast winds 15 mph increasing to 20 mph later in the day. I phoned Atcheson.
"It's blowing like a banshee here in Kenai," I told him.
"It's pretty windy here, too," said Atcheson, who lives near Sterling, close to our planned fishing destination. "I don't think I want to cross the lake in that wind."
We didn't have to actually cross Skilak Lake, only skirt along near shore until we reached the outlet into the Kenai River. On a calm day, the trip is rowed in 20 minutes. But Skilak Lake is known for its foul mood in windy weather. Atcheson and I had no desire to find out how our 16-foot, flat-bottomed boat would handle Skilak's temperament.
"We could still fish the Upper Kenai," Atcheson suggested. Two hours later we were at the launch.
The Upper Kenai River is famous for its rainbow trout. They congregate here in late summer and fall by the thousands to feast on the eggs and carcasses of spawning salmon. On a good day, anglers with a little skill and knowledge will hook 50 or more.
But those days are past for this year. The red salmon have spawned and their decaying bodies have washed downstream. A faint smell of rotting carcasses occasionally drifts in the air, but even the opportunistic gulls are hard-pressed to find a meal along the Kenai's banks now. With little food in the water, today will be scratch fishing.
Atcheson takes first turn at the oars. I fish off the bow, coordinating casts with Dave Wartinbee, a fishing friend who joined us at the last minute.
The wind is blowing steadily downriver, but it's more an irritating breeze, not the stormy gusts predicted. Forecasts of rain also appear to be wrong. Snow powders the nearby peaks, but the river and its banks remain ice-free. With temperatures in the low 40s, the weather proves surprisingly mild. The seasons are in a stalemate.
We get no strikes on the drift, so we stop at a gravel bar to fish from the bank. Atcheson did well at this spot a week ago and we're hoping for a repeat. Thirty minutes of casting a variety of beads and flesh flies into the river, however, and still we haven't caught our first fish. Back into the boat we go.
"I hope this isn't one of those humbling days," says Atcheson as he pulls on the oars and the current sweeps us downstream.
Around a bend in the river, we pull off onto another gravel bar. Several anglers work the river above us and a couple other fishermen cast into an eddy downstream. We haven't seen a single fish caught. A couple boats drift past us while we fish. One stops on the gravel bar just downstream.
"How's it going?" an angler calls from across the river.
Even this time of year, the Upper Kenai is not a destination for anglers craving solitude. But compared to the height of the rainbow frenzy in August and September, October offers a relatively quiet fishing experience.
I have a short conversation with the guy across the river. With fewer people on the Upper Kenai, anglers are more social, like country neighbors. Like us, he hasn't had any success. The exchange ends in typical fashion.
"It still beats being at work," he tells me.
I start to mention that it's Sunday and I don't typically work on the weekend, but I catch myself. No good comes from correcting a friendly gesture.
"It sure does," I call back, and smile to myself minutes later when he uses the same line on Wartinbee.
Behind me, one of the guys fishing in the eddy lands a silver salmon. In the next 20 minutes, he hooks two more, releasing one and keeping the other. We pile in the boat and head downstream, but I take note.
On the next gravel bar, Atcheson catches the first fish of the day. I drop the anchor and fumble to get the camera.
"I don't think you want a photo of this one," Atcheson says, reeling in a 12-inch rainbow.
At least we won't be skunked.
A few bends down the river, I catch a Dolly Varden, but that will be our only other fish of the day. We see a couple of other fish caught by a guide and his client. Otherwise, it seems to be a tough day for everyone.
"We threw the tackle box at them," says another angler I meet. He and his fishing partner caught one fish.
It's late afternoon by the time we stop at our final gravel bar. Up the valley, the mountain peaks are shrouded in clouds. Rain is on the way. Immediately above us, though, the clouds break and the sun comes out for the first time. The wind softens and the temperature warms noticeably.
I work my way downstream. Cast, drift, retrieve. Cast, drift, retrieve. Aided by the sun, I scan the clear waters for silvers, hoping to salvage the day. Nothing.
Then I catch some movement and color. A few feet below me is the unmistakable crimson form of a spawning red salmon. Worn out and ragged from its long journey, it struggles in the current.
A month ago, this fish would not have earned a second thought. Hundreds of thousands of reds return to the Kenai every year. Seeing them swimming in the river is common. But this is October. The reds of summer have come and gone.
I take the fish as an omen. If the coming of spring can be predicted by a sleepy groundhog, an out-of-season salmon can delay the onslaught of winter. Six more weeks of autumn may be unrealistic, but a couple more weeks seems reasonable.
Only my morning coffee knows for sure.
Tony Lewis is an avid fisherman and freelance writer who lives in Kenai.
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