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Labor Day in Alaska - 1998

By Craig Gittings

What do you usually do when you have a great experience fishing? I usually talk a lot about it.

Last fall, a friend of mine and myself fished the upper Kenai River around Coopers Landing, specifically the Russian River. The upper Kenai River is located about 100 miles from the Anchorage. and considered road fishing as opposed to a fly out. In previous years I had only heard stories about off season fishing on the Russian, it was time to check it out.

On the river, spent or dead sockeyes abounded everywhere, dolly varden and rainbows were keying in, just downstream, on spawning beds for loose eggs and salmon flesh. We quickly found out that it wasn't hard to match the hatch. We also had a time with fresh sockeyes and silvers.

While on the river we ran into folks from Anchorage that were more than willing to supplement our knowledge by telling us about an opening of the Anchor River for a 'silver salmon only' run. Tired of releasing spent sockeyes, we were soon on our way toward Homer to try our luck on the Anchor River.

On the Anchor River, we shared the area with only a couple of folks from Utah that had never fished anything larger than a 4 wt rod. After 5 PM, the locals would more than double that number. Of course the silvers were pushing through and a time was had hooking up with what can only be termed as rainbows on steroids.

Lodging and transportation concerns were never a problem for 2 fish bums. We were always able to find lodging for two. That was last year.

After mentioning last year's trip, this year's trip included a group of 11. Eight had never been to Alaska, so most didn't have a clue what to expect. Some had never flyfished before, either.

Part of the group leaving San Francisco Airport- Bob Langland, Craig Gittings, Dave Pehrson, Andrew Gittings with Gatti tube, and Steve Foti.

A little more thought into the planning was necessary for a group this size. Reserving cabins, motel rooms, guides, transportation and airfare for the group was about all that was needed. The same amount of planning would have gone into a smaller group. A 4:30 PM direct flight out of San Francisco to Anchorage put us on the road to the Kenai Peninsula after dark. Cabins at Gwin's Lodge were waiting for us, unlocked.

Gitt in front of Gwin's Lodge.

The following day, we hit the Russian River running. Bob Fairchild, from the FAOL chat room, met us at the Alpine Motel to discuss possibilities of fishing for grayling later in the week and to join us on the Russian River.

The group talking to Bob Fairchild of Anchorage about grayling trip. Bob is the guy in the pink hat.

To the amazement of my compadres, the sockeyes were through out the river system. To hear one describe reds in clear water could never be imagined, one would have to see it to believe it.

Sockeyes on Russian River

The trout were very cooperative with our presentation of egg patterns, fished nymph style with a couple of 3/0 shot and an indicator- making roll casts necessary. (Oh yes and downstream presentations.)

Author Gitt with Dolly Varden on Russian River.

We just drifted them through the sockeyes. It couldn't have been easier. This went on until after 7 PM. Rough life, huh?

Steve, Andrew, Craig taking a break on Russian River

The next day, we had reserved a drift trip down the lower section of the upper Kenai River thru the Refuge area. Eleven o'clock start time, off the river by 8 PM. Our guide explained that we might not do too well. The fish just weren't there. This was a complete contradiction to his comments last year, which went something like, "You should have been here yesterday."

"This is gonna be hard. Dave is near the mouth of the Russian, background is Kenai. Labor day Weekend, by 5 PM everyone had left for the day."

Our results for the day, 100 plus fish counts per boat, one guy had close to 50 just by himself. It rained in the afternoon, but no one seemed to care, they were fishing. The guides pointed out that their boats were leaking and the fact that we were climbing in and out of the boats, attributed to the accumulation of water and we might have to do some bailing.

Kenai River

Still it was a great day. We would reserve a second float day next time. More than half the group wanted to book another float later in the week. Almost like multi-days at Disneyland.

Kenai River

That night, Bob called to let us know that the grayling trip was off because of rain. They recorded 4" at Turnigan Pass that day. Hiking 2.5 miles with 1200' elevation gain into Fuller Lake was going to be miserable.

To get out of the rain. we did a run to Seward and the Exit Glacier (a walk up glacier) for the group to show them some different scenery.

Kenai Lake- looking West on rained out day. We stopped here for photo opportunity on our way back from Exit Glacier and the Seward area.

The wind blowing in from Resurrection Bay kept all boats off the water that day. We noticed no silvers jumping in the salt, along the shore, so we headed off for Anchor River in hopes that silvers would be there.

Exit Glacier Terminus, Dave Pehrson in yellow jacket.

At the Anchor River, our hopes were dashed. The silver run, which had been the 10 times stronger than last year had already peaked a week and half earlier. The steelhead were a welcome sight though. Paul, a Southern California long-range salt guy from Orange County did hook into a nice steelie measuring 32". When our group converged on the river it looked quite crowded until we spread out.
Russian river with seagulls on sidelines.

One area named Slide Hole had a gravel bar on one side and trees on the other. The treed area produced quite few fish. When it came to my turn to fish from that point, I demonstrated a forward cast into the woods, thereby missing the trees and hitting the wate r with my back cast. To the amusement of my friends, not only did I not snag a single pesky tree, I did not get a single strike, either.

Anchor River - Gitt demonstrating how to avoid trees

The guys not accustomed to fly fishing stayed one day longer to do some halibut fishing out of Homer. The rest of us headed back to the Russian River.

Fish on! gitt on the Russian River.

Dollies and rainbows were definitely better there. The week day crowds at both the Russian and the Anchor were practically nonexistent.

Dave Pehrson on the Kenai river.

If we would have been on the Russian River confluence during the sockeye run, there would be 4-6000 folks fishing within a mile or so, true combat fishing.

Russian River

By the time sockeye season closes on Aug 20, the crowds have dropped off dramatically, probably due to limited freezer space.

Sockeyes sitting on reds - Russian River

The day use parking was less than half full/empty. Three weeks earlier, there would be a waiting line to park at the entrance.

More sockeyes on the Russian

On the return to Anchorage we could see Denali from the Eastern point of the Turnigan Arm, some 260 miles away. Beluga whales were an added treat with the incoming tide along the Turnigan Arm. All in all, not a bad week of fishing. I was able to get some dry fly guys to learn some bad habits and catch fish at the same time.

Not including airfare or meals, the trip ran $413 per person for the week, Sat. thru Sun. (Cabins/motels/vans/gas) Add $200 for the drift and $30 for nonresident license. This trip was really done on the cheap. The only cheaper way might have been to utilize the state campgrounds at $15 a night. But then you'd have to contend with camping/cooking gear, food prep, rain and possibly bears. A bed proved to be a real luxury.

Gwin's Lodge drops their rates on their cabins a couple of days after Labor Day and day-use parking at the Russian River Campground is not enforced or collected. So, going after Labor Day would be another option to lower your costs.~ Craig Gittings (aka gittone)

For the 1999 Kenai fly fishing trip in Alaska, click here!

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