Living A Trout Dream On The Kenai

The following appears in the February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY RANDY KING

There. There. There!” Gary Cartwright yelled at me. I glanced up for my now-absent float and set the hook on instinct. As soon as I felt resistance on the other end of the line, I knew it was fight time. My rod danced in my hand, the line flying from the reel as I tried to use my palm to slow it down.

“Use the drag, or you’ll burn your hand!” Gary added. He then started the engine and gently pulled us off our drift and into shore. “You are going to want to be on land for this guy,” he said.

As I fought the fish, I could not keep a sh*t-eating grin off my face. I was on a world-famous river, catching a world-famous species – all while I should have been at work.  

You see, I am lucky enough to have a job that gets me to Alaska just about every year. I go up and see my broker, call on a few customers and maybe man a booth at a trade show. Most times, however, I arrive in Anchorage in April, when the days are certainly getting longer and the snow is usually melting.

Alas, most of Alaska is still a winter wonderland at that point. Ever the opportunistic outdoorsman, I search far and wide for a fishing location. One time, I got a rumor from a sporting goods store that trout were biting on the Kenai. So I decided to try my hand at “melt” fishing on the river. Casting between ice and through slush was fun and all, but my chances were slim and I did not catch anything but cold toes.  

But this past year I happened to arrive in late September. My meetings were stacked day after day, so it came as a surprise when I had a customer cancel with very little notice. This opened up a whole day to do whatever I wanted. With a less-than-sheepish grin my broker looked at me and said, “Wanna fish the Kenai?”

By 6 a.m. the next day we were on our way to Gary’s boat slip. 

Dream. Come. True.

THE KENAI RIVER IS famous for several reasons. For starters, it is a great salmon stream, thanks to huge kings, some silvers and quite a few pinks. But lots of rivers in Alaska have those. I wanted the famous rainbow trout that lurk in its turquoise waters.

The Kenai runs through the Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska. It is about a two-hour drive from Anchorage to Kenai Lake, where the river begins. From there it flows down to Skilak Lake, and then out to Cook Inlet. In total, the river is about 82 miles long.   

The drive to the Kenai from Anchorage is about all a fisherman could want, too. Pure Alaska wilderness porn from the highway – it is like Ansel Adams pictures everywhere you look. The Kenai Mountains soar into the sky with abandon. I searched the hills for a bear, a moose or anything really. The moose rut was just starting when I arrived, so every medium-sized river had a camper at it, with an air boat in the process of being loaded or unloaded. My neck swelled with the smell of fall in the air.

Kenai ’bows are known to be huge and put up a hell of a  fight. They are on many a trout angler’s bucket list, but  fishing for them is honestly something I never thought I would do. Gary is a purist when it comes to these fish. All are caught on a fly rod, and all are released.  

Catch-and-release fishing goes against my general anti-torture rule for fish, most times: If I catch ’em, I eat ’em. But this was not my boat, my rod or my trip. I was the guest of an expert. His rules were the rules.

Gary was using a buddy’s cabin to park his boat, just outside of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge right along the river. Winter was fast approaching as September came to an end. Like many Alaskan “cabins,” the owner was preparing for winter when we arrived. The windows were shuttered and we spoke about flushing the water lines (all a little jarring to me because it was 75 degrees at home in Idaho).

The river water was a unique color of turquoise that I don’t see often in the Lower 48. But the strangest part to me was that the river was full of dead salmon. Every square yard of bank had at least one carcass, with more on the way. Dead fish would float by, their sides a pale pink and covered in sores. The freakish ones were the salmon that were still alive but looked like Walking Dead zombie extras. They would break the surface, float for a while then dive back below. Even the eagles ignored them.

We transferred gear and met up with Zach, a fellow broker, and one of Gary’s employees. We climbed into the flat-bottomed jet boat and began to haul ass up the river toward the happy fishing grounds.

THE WATER HAD A scattering of other boats on it. Each big hole would have one or two guides doing the same thing we were. “You can tell the guide boats by the big green sticker on the side,” Gary said.

Nearly all the boats had stickers. “Why are only guides out here?” I asked.

“It’s a Tuesday, Randy. Most people have to work for a living.”

I scanned the water again, spying the bundled-up passengers who’d paid thousands of dollars for a guided fishing trip after flying to Alaska, paying for a rental car and a hotel, and were looking to catch the same fish I was reeling in. And here I was supposed to be at work! I was not sure how the day could get any better.

Gary handed his spare Sage (!) 8-weight rod to me. On the rod was a float (a bobber, really) about 10 feet up on the line and a single “shall not be named” painted ceramic bead on the end, just above the barbless hook.

“This is going to be a pain to cast, for a while,” Gary said. He was not wrong. I struggled mightily to cast with such a long leader, so much so that in good spots Gary would take my rod and cast for me to make sure I got the drift he was after. I was a fish out of water here.   

The cast might have been a struggle, but the concept of drift fishing was something I was very familiar with. Basically, you bounce an egg (bead) on the bottom in an attempt to get a fish to feed on it. The trout in this river make their living feeding off the salmon runs, and eggs are a huge source of nutrition for them. Essentially, without the salmon eggs in their diet, the trout would never get as big as they do. Even 30-plus-inchers here are not solely piscivorous and still feed on eggs instead of just fellow fishes. But cold water makes them grow slowly. When trout are anything more than “shakers,” they are few and far between. That’s why Gary puts them all back; he wants to fish for these lunkers far into the future.  

So when my float went under the water for the first time, I all but lost my lunch. I had seen the pictures. Monsters lived here and I was about to experience that for myself.

A QUICK HOOK SET meant the fight was on. My rod bent under the strain of a decent-sized Dolly Varden, about 16 inches. It was a great fish, but not the target. We kept fishing, Gary could tell the type of fish I had on by the bend in my rod. “You’ll know when it’s a big one,” he would say.

Several more fish came, all built up, before I hooked my monster. “There. There. There!” Gary yelled at me as my float was gone in a flash. 

It quickly became clear that this was what we were after.

When we arrived at the bank, I was instructed to hop out and fight the fish on the downriver side. Gary was right about the level of distinction between the fish. The caliber of the one I had on now was more than those I’d previously caught and released.

I was playing a new game too, a patience game.  The fish tugged and ran, staying below the surface until he was mere feet from the boat. I would reel him in so close I could see color, only to have him shoot off again. As time wore on, the fish’s tactics changed. I would get him close and then he would roll in the water; I kept anticipating my hook shooting back at my face at any moment. Zach had the net ready.

Eventually the fish subsided and swam in close enough to be netted. He was roughly 26 inches long, not the biggest trout but certainly respectable. I dipped my hands into the cold water and grabbed the beast. Holding him softly, like a delicate bunch of flowers, I realized I had just caught a lunker trout on the Kenai. 

It was a Tuesday, I should have been at work, I could not wipe the ear-to-ear grin off my face.

A few hours later, as we packed in the rods, the smiles were on all our faces. Gary fired up the engine and began the ride back to the slip. The cold September air bit through my jacket and turned my cheeks red.

“It doesn’t get much better, does it?” Gary said as the sun set on the boreal forest behind him, a bald eagle cruising the shoreline. I just smiled.

“No, sir; no, it does not.” ASJ

Editor’s note: Idaho resident author and chef Randy King also writes regularly for ASJ’s big brother magazine, Northwest Sportsman. For more on Randy, check out chefrandyking.com.

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