The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES
As I slid into my waders and strapped on a pair of studded boots, the nearly vacant campground parking lot was a good indicator that we would find few fellow anglers riverside.
My friends and I have had banner days at the location we were preparing to fish, and this day looked as if we might have most of the water all to ourselves. Anxious at the prospect, we quickly assembled fly rods, shouldered daypacks and began our hike.
After a short jaunt from the parking area, my angling cohorts Chris Cox and Paul Ferreira and I descended a steep stairway switchback to the river’s edge, standing briefly to survey the rushing water.
It was obvious fish were present. More than three dozen fire engine-red salmon were finning just under the surface, holding at midriver. The once-silver-sided sockeye were in full spawning regalia and stacked like bricks. However, they were not exactly what we were looking for.
Our interest was focused on the subtle motion of a dorsal fin or tail sweep by a hungry trout or Dolly Varden utilizing cover and concealment of the riverbed, while hovering close behind the colorful sockeye and waiting to pounce on wayward salmon eggs in the current.
I was peering through my polarized lenses and not seeing any movement, so I asked, “You guys see anything besides those
“No, but they’re there,” Chris replied with confidence.
Actually, seeing a trout is not required to catch one, though it does lend a degree of confidence. The correct placement of a cast and drift of an offering is more important than actually seeing a fish. After all, it’s pretty much a dead giveaway where the locals hang out: the trout lay right behind the ripe salmon, taking advantage of any stray eggs.
The three of us entered the hip-deep water in stages, leaving plenty of room between each other to work particular sections of water with our fly rods without crossing over each other. Chris went in first, then Paul and finally me. Not unexpectedly, the action began immediately with my first drift behind the salmon. And it did not take much work before all of our fly rods began bending over almost simultaneously.
Yelling out “Fish on!” to let my friends know I’d hooked up with a leaping rainbow trout was rather pointless – the high-flying fish was evidence enough. Nonetheless, each of us echoed the same words in verbal confirmation that our fishing adventure had begun.
ALONG WITH THE GLORIOUS salmon fishing Alaska provides every summer, I often take advantage of casting a line for resident trout species. Rainbow trout and Dolly Varden are abundant and can be found in nearly every flowing waterway where salmon are present. Although there are many streams and creeks to choose from in the Southcentral region of the state, the Sterling Highway just past Cooper Landing leads to one of my favorite places to go fishing for trout. The Russian River has great access, provides a scenic setting and is normally full of active fish.
The stream is most notable for its iconic red salmon fishery; the clear-flowing water annually attracts thousands of anglers eager to harvest sockeye. A smaller run of silvers also makes a return to the river following the reds. Trout seem to garner second-class rating from most visitors when compared to salmon, but I suggest you not overlook the opportunity.
The Russian’s usual moderate flow rate and narrowness make it a great river for wading anglers, even for the novice fisherman. The water twists through a thickly forested landscape of spruce trees, cascading over a bed of rocky boulders for about 13 miles. The rippled shallows, deep pockets and undercut banks provide ideal conditions for resident fish to thrive.
You can be successful catching trout from the beginning of spring and throughout the open-water period since the fish make the river a year-round home. Dry fly and nymphing is popular in the spring before the salmon arrive. Subsurface streamers, flesh patterns and imitation bead attractants become the choices of most seasoned anglers later in the season when salmon are present.
The presence of all the salmon (in various stages of decay or spawning) also make it prime time with regular bruin encounters. Bears are routinely present along the length of the Russian River and its confluence with the emerald Kenai River for good reason: They’re fishing also. Anxiety over bumping into a bear won’t stop us from our pursuit, but it certainly encourages us to stay alert in the wild.
Black and brown bears can appear docile, but they are unpredictable and very large wild creatures. Keeping your distance and making noise is prudent. We always do our best to give them plenty of room and the right of way, since neither my friends nor I ever want to become the next bear mauling headline in Alaska.
If you make a trip for trout just after the sockeye fishing closure, which we did for this particular outing, you will find that most fishermen have left in a mass exodus from the Russian River campground. It’s a perfect time to go, with big stretches of the river often unoccupied but plenty of willing trout waiting for your cast.
I QUICKLY REELED THAT FIRST fish towards my open hand. As it lay in the cold water of the Russian, I took a moment to admire the pattern of small dark spots decorating its olive-green skin. The fish’s blushed-pink gill plate extended the length of its body in vibrant display, the unmistakable mark of a rainbow. I removed the hook from the corner of its mouth, opened my palm and the trout energetically swam back behind the suspended spawning salmon.
Paul and Chris managed to land and release their catches also. Paul’s fish was an equally dynamic rainbow like mine. Chris managed to tail a very respectable silver-sided, pink polka-dotted Dolly Varden, a 20-incher. Our trout trifecta was just the beginning of another memorable adventure, catching fish with friends and enjoying good times wading a classic trout fishery in Alaska.
As I often tell others inquiring about rainbow trout and Dolly Varden fishing, traveling great lengths is not required in order to take in the fantastic freshwater fishery in Alaska. Self-guided outings can be had along the road system at plenty of locations, and are easy day trips.
Arguably, no better example can be found than that of the flowing waters of the Russian River. Catching a spirited rainbow trout or a colorful Dolly Varden should be part of any visiting or local angler’s agenda. The two species represent all that is beautiful and wild about the 49th state. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Dennis Musgraves’ adventures in the Last Frontier, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com.