Outdoors & Recreation

Slaying Kenai Silvers

Photo by Chuck Heath, Jr.With nothing but the sound of slow moving river water lapping at the sides of our securely anchored boat, I found myself beginning to nod off. In a heartbeat, that all changed. “Watch your rod tip!” our guide Jimmie exclaimed.

Instinctively, I reached to pull the rod from its holder. With the tip furiously darting back and forth, I grabbed the rod and gave a mighty jerk. “No!” said Jimmie.

Too late. Whatever was on the end of that line was gone now. In my haste to set the hook, I had ripped it right out of the fish’s mouth.

That’s not the way silver salmon fishing works on the mighty Kenai River. In the next few hours, I would learn the art of patience, and experience the rewards that that patience brings to those who wait.


Like many Alaskans, the impending end of summer can be a bit depressing for me. In mid-August, that familiar feeling started to set in. I’d had a full summer … gold mining, fishing, white water rafting, hiking, mountain biking, etc., but as fall began to set in, I found myself trying to squeeze in a few last adventures.

My family grew up fishing the waters of Lynn Canal in Southeast Alaska, the Copper River in Southcentral, and the Talkeetna Mountain drainages of the Matanuska Valley. We occasionally visited the Kenai Peninsula to fish the Russian, Anchor, Moose, and Kenai Rivers, but I was just a kid and my memories of those times are a little hazy. I do remember catching lots of fish, but Dad was usually the one setting the hooks for us and coaching us on how to land them.

I also recall the time as a high school freshman fishing the Russian River with a group of other students. We were combat fishing at the time, i.e. standing shoulder to shoulder with a hundred other fishermen trying our best to keep our lines from tangling with others … not the kind of fishing I was used to or enjoyed. Two of the kids in our group were fishing beside me. When one of them walked back to his tackle box to switch out lures, the other one drew her rod back to cast. Unbeknownst to the “caster,” her hook, a large treble at the end of a Pixie, had embedded itself in the cheek of the other kid. The kid with the pole thought her hook was snagged on one of the tree limbs behind us and started jerking on the line in an attempt to free it. The boy with the hook in his face was in so much pain that he couldn’t even scream! When the happy hooker realized what was happening, she dropped her pole and ran to the friend’s aid. Cutting the line, but leaving the hook where it was, the boy was quickly transported to the local clinic where it was removed.

That’s a fairly common experience in the combat fishing zones of the Peninsula waterways. The Kenai medical clinic actually keeps a life-size felt cutout of a salmon on its wall, on which hangs every hook they’ve removed from unlucky fishermen that season.

But that’s not what this story is about. My wife and I were able to experience a much more exciting (and less painful) type of Kenai fishing trip this last September.

While brainstorming new Alaska adventures, I remembered that an old family friend of ours, Jimmie Drath, operates a sport fishing outfit on the Kenai River. I made contact with Jimmie and asked him if it was worth heading down to the Peninsula this late in the season. I figured that the main salmon runs were probably over by now but Jimmie surprised me by saying that the second run of silvers were in thick, and that they were catching lots of “fatties.” (Anything over twelve pounds is considered “fat.”) He told us to head on down and he’d set us up with a room and a day of fishing. We didn’t hesitate. If “fat” silvers were still running, we were going after them!

On a rainy, mid-September Monday, we loaded our gear and headed down the scenic Seward Highway towards Kenai. Fall colors exploded along the mountainsides. To our left, a few Dall sheep dotted the cliffs above the highway, and on the right, a pod of beluga whales lazily made their way up Turnagain Arm. Abby and I were both struck by the lack of traffic. The summer tourist season was at an end, which made it much easier for us locals to get around. I’ll bet if those tourists could see the beauty of Alaska during the fall, there’d be a lot more of them up here.

After three hours of driving, we pulled up to Jimmie’s business, Jimmie Jack Fishing. Located on the shores of Cook Inlet, his lodge offers gorgeous ocean and mountain views, as well as great food and comfortable beds.

Abby standing by the cabin. Photo by Chuck Heath Jr.

Abby standing by the cabin. Photo by Chuck Heath Jr.

Situated a quarter of a mile from the main lodge, our cabin was a refurbished log structure aptly named, “The Miner’s Cabin.” Although it appeared rustic (but charming) on the outside, the inside was clean, inviting, and provided all the conveniences of home.

After unpacking our gear we headed up the road a few miles to grab a bite to eat. We took a chance and pulled into a new establishment called The Flats Bistro. Overlooking the Kenai Flats, this artsy restaurant was a very pleasant surprise. Great Alaskan food, friendly staff, and an awesome view made for a perfect dining experience.

We returned to our cozy cabin, and after a couple of games of Yahtzee, retired for the night with the sound of light raindrops pitter-pattering on the tin roof.

The next morning, we hustled to pack our gear, grabbed a quick bite, and drove to the Kenai River Launch where we met Jimmie and began our fishing trip.

Let me say this about a quality guiding service: it’s pure luxury! I’ve been fishing my entire life but I’ve never been out with a guide before. I was in for a real treat.

Everything about Jimmie’s outfit is first-class. His boats, manufactured by Willie Boats in Oregon, are considered by many to be the finest on the river. Very stable and smooth, our party of five cruised down the river in comfort. There’s a 50 horsepower motor limit on the Kenai River, and the surprisingly quiet four stroke Yamaha outboard on our boat provided all the power we needed.

The trick to successfully catching fish on the Kenai is in knowing where the fish hang out. That’s why booking a trip with an experienced guide is so critical. The river water is murky … it’s impossible to see the deeper holes and channels where the fish congregate. Years of experience and hundreds of trips on the river (some of Jimmie’s guides will do an excess of eighty trips a season) have given the guides an intimate knowledge of the water. An average fisherman would have a very tough time competing with these guys.

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About a mile down river from our launch site, we anchored the boat and proceeded to be spoiled again. As with everything else in his operation, Jimmie’s fishing equipment is the best in the business. Jimmie personally baited our hooks with his own cured salmon eggs (secret formula; even his guides don’t know how he makes it!). We were using a double hook set-up, with a Spin-and-Glo. A plastic diver was attached a foot and a half up the line to keep our hooks submerged. Once we were baited up, we dropped our lines in the water and let them run out approximately 50 feet. The rods were then placed in rod holders. This is not done for the fisherman’s comfort; it’s done to prevent the inexperienced Kenai salmon fisherman from instinctively jerking the hook out of the fish’s mouth when he first feels the fish hit it.

Kenai silver salmon bite differently than most fish. They’re kind of like a cat on a mouse. They seem to play with it at first … nudging it forward, lightly gumming it, leaving it for a few seconds and then returning to it. As I mentioned, an inexperienced fisherman would probably try to set the hook after the first bump. That’s a mistake with these fish. You have to be very patient and wait for them to actually swallow the bait. You will know when this happens because that’s when it gets really exciting! The Kenai silvers are great fighters. Once the bait is taken, your rod tip is going to severely bend, your reel drag is going to scream, and the fish is going to acrobatically fly into the air in an attempt to throw it.

While we waited for our first strike, Jimmie shared some fishing stories with us and told us a little about his life, too. He’s a very interesting guy. A former world class pole vaulter … he cleared 18’5” and competed in the 1996 Olympic Trials, he obtained his masters degree in counseling and used that knowledge to do missionary work in South America; something he still occasionally does. Jimmie began fishing the Kenai at the age of thirteen, and started his guiding business in 1995. His father, Jim, is a master Kenai fisherman too, and Jimmie hired him as a guide thirteen years ago.

After a fifteen minute wait, Abby got the first big bite. We all watched the tip of her pole bounce up and down while we waited for the fish to swallow the hook. It would take eight separate bites before she hooked her first fish.

The September limit for silvers on the Kenai goes up to three, as opposed to two during the August run. The advantage of fishing for silvers in September, besides the extra fish, is that the second run fish are usually larger, and there are much fewer people on the water.

I was fortunate, I guess, to hook and land the first three fish of our trip, all beauties between nine and twelve pounds. I say, “I guess” because once you’ve caught your limit, you’re required to put your pole away. Oh well, I shouldn’t complain about that! It was still fun watching my boat mates, Abby, Stan, and Meg catch theirs.

For some reason, it took Abby longer to land her first fish. When it finally took the bait, she quickly grabbed the rod from its holder. The fish exploded from the water near the boats stern, and Abby screamed, “What do I do?!”

“Keep that tip tight and reel!” I exclaimed. There’s a fine line between keeping the hook secured in the fish’s mouth and ruining your reel. You want to keep tension on the line, but if you try to horse the reel, you’ll wear it out pretty quickly. The trick is to keep it tight, and when the fish swims towards you giving you a little slack, reel as fast as you can. Abby did everything right and proudly landed the first silver of her life.

The salmon on this river, like most rivers I’ve fished, seem to come up in bunches. You may have an hour of no activity, and then, bam! You can have multiple fish on at the same time. It happened on our trip a couple of times.

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After six hours on the water, everyone had limited out except Abby … she still hadn’t caught her last fish. We stayed anchored in the same hole for another hour, but no luck. It was nearing the end of our eight hour trip so Jimmie pulled anchor and said he wanted to try one last spot before we called it a day.

We boated upstream a mile and headed for the opposite shore. This is where an experienced guide is so helpful. We anchored up very close to shore in an area that looked no different than any other part of the river. Jimmie explained that there was a deep channel here, and he’d had success fishing it in the past.

He baited Abby’s hook and she let her line out. Within a minute, her rod tip furiously bent downwards. We all yelled, “Fish on!” and she started reeling. This fish didn’t surface so none of us got a look at it, but by the bend in Abby’s rod and the grimace on her face, we figured it might be a big one. Jimmie grabbed the net and leaned over the starboard side to wait for the fish. After a long fight, we got our first look at it. “Fatty!” someone yelled. “Holy moly!” I exclaimed.

Even an experienced fishermen like Jimmie was impressed with the size of this fish. “Right on, Abby!” he said as he heaved it into the boat. “That’s the biggest silver we’ve caught on my boat all season.” After a lot of whooping and hollering, Jimmie weighed it. Over seventeen pounds! Now that’s a fatty!

What a perfect way to end a great day on the river! We pulled anchor for the last time and returned to the landing. Once we arrived, we were spoiled again. Jimmie and his father took all of our fish to their cleaning table and filleted them for us. This is definitely a luxury; no one’s ever done that for me before.

I doubt Abby will ever forget her first silver salmon fishing trip … I know I won’t. The pictures we took, her gigantic fillet on the grill and the smile on her face, all made this a lasting memory.

 

So remember this: just because the summer comes to an end, it doesn’t mean the salmon runs have ended too. Silvers can still be caught into October. Get out there and go for it … but stay away from my fishing hole!

Other services Jimmie’s outfit provides: rainbow trout fishing on the upper Kenai, king salmon on the Kasilof and Kenai, Cook Inlet halibut fishing, and a combination salmon-lingcod-rockfish charter out of Seward. They offer multi-day packages where you can experience all of this. Visit www.jimmiejackfishing.com to see all they offer, and be sure to read the testimonials of those who have fished with him.

 

Story & Photos by Chuck Heath, Jr.

Categories: Outdoors & Recreation

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