This rambling, dark, sawdust-floored watering hole is home to some of the most unabashed drunken depravity on the face of the earth, but I’m talking about the kind of drunken depravity that, in the right hands, can be positively soul-cleansing….”
Ask most fishermen where they’ve always dreamed of going and chances are they’ll say “Alaska”—a knowing grin spreading over the faces of those who’ve been there and a wistful, thousand-yard stare from those who haven’t. It’s little wonder, since few places hold such a romanticized place in our national consciousness. Visions of giant King salmon (Chinook to those of us in the Northwest); rivers choked bank-to-bank with bright red sockeyes; fat, contented grizzly bears plucking salmon from mid-air as they vault up majestic, pristine waterfalls; these are the things we see as we indulge our dreams of a place where dams, drift nets, and urban sprawl have yet to beat its wildness back to a vestige of its former self. Hell, I’m romanticizing the place right now, even though I’ve seen it first hand three times, once per decade beginning in the 1980s. That’s hardly enough to be able to claim any level of real familiarity with our 49th state, mind you, and even if I’d been there every summer for the past 30 years I still wouldn’t know what it’s like to survive an Alaskan winter, a make-or-break test that all Alaskans know is coming for any newly transplanted resident, one that is completely lost on the throngs of tourists and out-of-state anglers who flock to their state every short summer.
I recently completed my Alaskan odyssey for the present decade, hopefully not my last until 2010 or so, although my record so far would indicate otherwise. As in each of my previous Alaskan adventures, I was prompted as well as accompanied by my friend Ed, who has survived an Alaskan winter, three of them in fact, back when he lived in Anchorage in the mid-1980s. Ed is not one for idle talk and dreaming, and when he got tired of hearing me do both back then his response was to mail me a round-trip plane ticket. “Come on up if you’re serious,” he was saying, and he didn’t have to say it twice. It was probably a combination of relative youth (being 27 years old counts as youth for an arrested development case like me), nonstop ingestion of beer and Wild Turkey, and plain old dumb luck—I happened to show up right at the peak of the sockeye salmon run, and caught many, many “reds” despite myself—but the Alaska I experienced then remains an absolute paradise in my mind. I have to admit to experiencing a sense of dread leading up to our trip this past July, a fervent hope that seeing this place through the eyes of an older, not necessarily wiser man would leave my past glories undisturbed.
I needn’t have worried. While Anchorage has sprouted the usual lineup of fast food joints and big box stores, all nestled into a dizzying array of strip malls you could find in any American city, all I had to do was lift my gaze a bit to see where I really was: there they were, the endless, snow-streaked peaks of the Chugach Mountains, not mention the spectacular Alaska Range across Cook’s Inlet. Back on the ground, Chilkoot Charlie’s was still there, as it should be—they bill themselves as “World Famous” Chilkoot Charlies, and in this rare case, the name fits. Maybe “World Infamous” would be more like it—this rambling, dark, sawdust-floored watering hole is home to some of the most unabashed drunken depravity on the face of the earth, but I’m talking about the kind of drunken depravity that, in the right hands, can be positively soul-cleansing. The only sight that gave me any real sense of foreboding was the Sportsman’s Warehouse on Old Seward Highway. Those places are popping up everywhere, huge, cavernous warehouses stuffed full of every type of fishing or hunting or camping gear anyone could possibly want, much less need, dirt cheap. They have the same effect on independent tackle and sporting goods stores that Wal-Mart has had on our nearly extinct locally owned retail stores. Those places can slowly strangle your favorite fly fishing shops to death, and to see them in Anchorage makes me worry about how many tourist dollars will make it through to the Mom-and-Pops in the interior. Time will tell.
Our itinerary was pretty straightforward. Day one would be mostly travel; a three-and-a-half hour flight to Anchorage followed by a 105-mile drive in a rental car to the campground on the Russian River, one of the most famous—maybe, again, “infamous” is more like it—salmon streams in the world. Legend has it this is where the term “combat fishing” was coined, and its combination of easy accessibility and phenomenal runs of sockeye makes it an easy legend to believe. There we would camp for three nights before heading to the western side of the Kenai Peninsula to try our luck for halibut and King salmon. We would be spending four days in the town of Kenai, located right at the mouth of the Kenai River, renowned for its runs of King salmon which average 30 to 40 pounds and often run to the upper 50s. To catch halibut we would need a charter trip into Cook’s Inlet, and to get a crack at the big King salmon we would need to hire a guide. All in all Ed and I felt pretty confident we would be bringing home an enormous bounty of fresh fish, to the point where we had figured out which items among our gear we could jettison in order to make room in our coolers for the trip home. That’s messing with some powerful juju, I realize now, akin to a hunter jinxing himself before heading out to the woods by sharpening his skinning knife, but we couldn’t help ourselves.
We had been checking on the sockeye runs obsessively back home and were getting nervous about our timing. So far they weren’t running, but could turn on at any time…at least that’s what we told ourselves. One reality you face when traveling to catch migrating fish is that they’ll show up when they’re damn well ready, and all you can do is make your best, most educated guess as to run timing and hope luck is on your side. Just the fact that we had been able to reserve a campsite at all had us worried—the Russian River campground is an absolute nightmare to get into when the fish are running thick; waiting in line just for a 12-hour parking pass so you can walk in and fish can take hours. We had our camp set up that first night by 10 p.m. and headed down to the river for a quick look. Lots of dour-faced fishermen (and women, I know, I just have a hard time covering all the bases, gender-wise) were still out. That seems late, but the sun stays up all night during the Alaskan summer, with just a bit of dusk between about 2 and 4 a.m. We didn’t see any fish, other than the filleted-out carcasses which stack up in back eddies and along the banks, a favorite snack of seagulls, bald eagles, and bears. The bears were out, too. Black bears and brown bears—grizzlies—are an extremely common sight on the Russian, unfortunately for the occasional human and pretty much every single one of the bears. Close proximity to people is just never a good thing for bears, but more on that later.
This year Ed brought along his 12-year-old daughter, Lauren, which surprised me at first, since she is adamantly opposed to killing and eating animals—not in any sort of self-righteous way; she simply loves them all (with the exception of mosquitoes, we would find) and sees no reason to interrupt their time on earth by diverting them into humans’ bellies. When she matter-of-factly informed me she intends to become a National Geographic photographer, I could see it. Ed assured me he had explained our intentions of bringing home as much salmon and halibut as the two of us could manage to catch, and that she was perfectly free to practice catch-and-release. Lauren seemed excited at the prospect of that, and I found the idea of Ed’s daughter releasing a sockeye salmon in full view of an entire regiment of meat fishermen delightful, in a subversive kind of way, putting any misgivings I may have had at first to rest.
It occurs to me that, right about now, many readers may be thinking, “For Chrissake Grant, what in the hell do you think you’re doing, giving out the name of a river like that, why don’t you just go ahead and give GPS coordinates so everyone in the world will know?” Ordinarily I would agree that, yes, giving specific river names and methods would be an ethically questionable practice, but I think in the case of the Russian River, it’s not exactly a well-guarded secret. Each year tens of thousands of anglers converge on the Russian for both the early and late sockeye runs, and for the life of me I can’t see how very many more could possibly manage to squeeze in. It’s a very tightly managed fishery, for obvious reasons, and for the most part everyone tolerates the close quarters with their fellow fishermen.
The Russian River, for all its easy accessibility and hordes of bank fishermen, is a spectacularly beautiful place, smack dab in the middle of some of the most scenic country in the Chugach National Forest. It’s not a big river, nor is it deep—you can just wade across in most places and never get wet past your knees—and the water runs crystal clear, in direct contrast to the nearby Kenai River, which runs milky white with glacial silt. Catching sockeyes in the Russian is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. The only lures allowed are flies, but you can fish them with any kind of rod and reel you like. Any store on the Kenai Peninsula will sell you what are known as “coho flies,” usually three for a buck. I can just see guys who spend their money on intricately tied Atlantic salmon flies blanching at the sight of a Russian River coho fly—all it is is a heavy Mustad streamer hook with bucktail hair lashed on at the eye, sweeping back past the bend, in any color you can think of. They look more like something that would dangle from your mortarboard hat at graduation than a classic fly pattern, but to me they have a certain utilitarian charm.
Red and white is the classic coho fly color, but what really seems to matter most is whether the fisherman can see it once it’s in the water. Sockeyes, unlike their king, coho, pink, or dog salmon brethren, don’t gorge themselves on herring and other baitfish in the ocean. They’re mostly plankton feeders, so getting an actual strike from them in fresh water is problematic to say the least. The only way you’re going to catch them is to see them first, which is not a problem in the Russian’s clear, shallow water. You’ll spot them as a ghostly pod of apparitions moving upstream, usually just a few feet off the bank in front of you. All you do is cast out a short line, swing your fly in front of the fish, and strike when the fly disappears. There you go, you are now “flipping for reds” as the locals say. This is where a nymph fisherman’s instinctual sensing of a strike comes in handy, since I don’t recall ever feeling a tug or tap or hesitation when a fish was there. They may actually mouth the fly a bit, or maybe you’re just swinging it in front of their noses so they inhale it as they breathe, but the idea is to hook them fairly in the mouth. Once that happens, a six-to-eight pound sockeye will give you quite a ride around the river.
Of course, that’s not going to happen as often as you’d like if the fish aren’t in, and from what I could see—or couldn’t see, more like it—the river was devoid of fish. It wasn’t devoid of fishermen, that’s for sure, although I had to wonder what the ratio of locals-vs.-tourists might be. Like it or not, those of us who flew in had to face the fact that “it is what it is,” and set about fishing and trying not to forget that we were situated in some of the most beautiful country in the world. Those who call Alaska home can always stay on top of fishing reports and drop everything when they hear the magic words, “The reds are in!”, so my guess is that most of the glum faces I saw were my fellow travelers.
As always seems best with fishing partners, Ed and Lauren and I would stick together for a little while and then I would agree to meet them further downstream, freeing ourselves to explore pockets and runs and any likely spots we might find. On our second day I found them together at a spot where the river’s outside current had cut a deep slot next to the bank. Still no fish caught for any of us, but Lauren had spotted a few salmon holding there, along with what looked like a big rainbow trout, and was happily bouncing her fly along in front of them. We had company, too, just across from us: an older gentleman, his wife, and their granddaughter, all casting to the same fish. Ordinarily that would elicit howls of outrage, at least here on our home waters, but any code of personal space you may have has to be temporarily suspended on the Russian. Eventually they moved back to the opposite bank and kept fishing. Before long I noticed the grandfather fighting a fish; it was smaller than a salmon, and when it jumped I realized he had hooked into a real pig of a rainbow, probably the same one we had seen earlier. We were all watching as he pulled the trout up on the bank, reached for a rock, and bonked it on its head. I was surprised to see that, but when I looked over at Lauren, she literally wilted at seeing that trout killed and put on a stringer. All Ed and I could do was look at each other and shake our heads. I was feeling bad myself—I’m not sure why it bothers me, the idea of killing a trout as opposed to killing a salmon or steelhead, and it’s perfectly legal to keep one rainbow in the Russian under 16 inches, but that really put a damper on our morning. (It didn’t make me feel any better when I saw the same trout five hours later, all by itself on the stringer, with both its eyes and a good part its flesh pecked away by seagulls.) That was it for fishing as far as Lauren was concerned, and we still had two more days on the Russian to go.
After two days of not so much as seeing a salmon, I decided it was time to switch tactics. I had read that rainbow and dolly varden trout are known to move into the Russian to fatten up on errant eggs and drifting chunks of salmon flesh—in fact there is an actual “Flesh Fly” pattern meant to mimic the putrid salmon flesh that washes downstream after they spawn and die. I nipped my coho fly off and tied on a flesh fly in preparation to fish for trout when I glanced down at my feet and saw a salmon…then another salmon….then realized there was a pod of at least 30 bright sockeyes moving up right in front of me. There was no time to switch back to the coho fly so, cursing myself, I sloshed upstream hoping to move in front of the fish so I could get a decent drift. I stopped at the same slot I mentioned before and made a cast to the middle of the pod; my fly ticked off the rocks twice and disappeared. Lifting the rod, I felt a tug back and the water exploded as a nice sockeye went tearing downstream, ocean-bound. This was no spawned out has-been, and after two more splashy leaps and a good session of tug-of-war, I guided the fish to the bank. That’s when it spit the barbless hook I used to tie my flesh fly, and, in water barely deep enough to get it wet, the fish turned and sped back to rejoin its upstream journey.
Well, these things happen, so I went back to where I hooked the first fish in hopes of finding some stragglers. I saw two fish holding in the slot, and went back to swinging my fly in front of their noses. After a while I saw the fly stop and set the hook. I had a fish on but this time it barely put up a fight. When I got it on the bank I saw why: it was dark and spawned out, and, to my horror, both of its eyes had been pecked out by the seagulls. I must have snagged it in the mouth, and probably should have just whacked it over the head to put it out of its misery, but instead I nudged it back into the current to face its grim prospects. The other fish was still there, and I accidentally snagged it in its tail. That one was nice and bright and took off like a torpedo; all I could do was grab my line and let it break off. In the case of the first fish, I was glad to know I still had the touch, if only there was a run on. But that would prove to be it for me as far as any action on the Russian was concerned.
I have to admit to letting frustration and downright despondency take hold of me once or twice as we flogged the water to a froth for four days, but for the most part we managed to enjoy the fact that we were fishing in a beautiful place. The crowds weren’t bad by Russian River standards—that can happen when there are barely any fish around—and if nothing else it’s a wonderful place for people watching. We saw some bears too, first a pair of black bears ambling along the opposite bank, and then a single black bear I saw getting a drink across from me during one of my rare solitary moments. “Boy, those black bears really are small,” I remember thinking, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized it must have been a cub, probably under Mama Bear’s watchful eye. And here I didn’t even think to be scared shitless.
Bears are just a fact of life on the Russian. There are bear viewing platforms upstream at the falls, where I suspect many of the photos we’ve all seen of bears swatting salmon out of the water come from, and the pickings are easy when the runs are on. Thousands of fishermen catching limits of three fish per day make for a lot of salmon carcasses, which are tossed back into the river from fish cleaning stations after they fillet them out. Black and brown bears move in at night (and increasingly during the day) to feast on delicious salmon heads, and have also figured out how to raid anglers’ lunches and any whole fish that are left up on the bank. Sloppy campers present bears with an irresistible smorgasbord of goodies too, and the campground is managed with keeping food away from bears as an absolute priority. News of any bear sighting travels like wildfire up and down the banks. It pays to be on your guard.
While bears have bluff-charged plenty of Russian River fishermen over the years and even attacked them on rare occasions, the bears are ultimately the losers in any interactions with humans. One bit of scuttlebutt I heard on the river was that there was a young grizzly, a cub really, named “Limpy” who was often seen in the area. Supposedly his mother had been killed by some idiot with an assault rifle the previous summer, and had been wounded in the leg, hence the limp. I also heard he had a twin sister who would catch salmon and then let the wounded cub eat them. I was skeptical about that, but according to the Anchorage Daily News, it really happened. They caught the guy and charged him with pumping multiple rounds into a 350-lb grizzly sow on July 31, 2005, as well as wounding one of her three cubs. (He got 10 days in jail and a $2,800 fine, and might end up with a pretty severe limp himself if he ever shows his face on the Russian again.) One cub disappeared and most residents around the area aren’t optimistic about the chances faced by the other two, including Limpy.
I saw plenty of guys packing guns on the water, each one no doubt thinking he would need it in case a grizzly decided to use him as a chew toy, but I have to wonder how much good a sidearm of any caliber would do in that case. One story I heard recently sums up how to protect yourself from bear attacks pretty well, I think. They say if you plan to fish in bear country like the Russian, you should do two things: carry bear mace, which comes in a spray can and is supposed to be able to stop a charging grizzly in its tracks, and also wear those bands of little jingle bells you see at Christmastime, so you make noise as you walk and don’t surprise the bears. You should also be aware of how to tell which kinds of bears are around, the smaller, less dangerous black bears, or the larger, potentially very dangerous grizzlies. What you do is look for scat, or bear poop. A black bear’s scat is smaller, smells like fermented fruit, and will have lots of chunks of half-digested berries in it. A grizzly bear’s scat is much larger, will smell like bear mace, and has lots of little jingle bells in it.
(Russian River Photos Courtesy of Adam Bultman • Fishead & Flies Photo’s Marc Covert)