Kenai Peninsula Week
Day 24: Back to Anchorage
While our time at Alaska West had ended, we still had to get back to Anchorage to meet up with fishing buddy James Kelley to start our Kenai Peninsula leg. To do that required the reverse of how we got to Alaska West….. Step 1: boat ride from the tent camp to the native village of Quinhagak. When we got there, the tide was at a crazy high at 14.2 feet up, meaning our guides navigated the jet boats through a scattering of native’s boats, and up a road that was well underwater. It was funny seeing the guides looking at one another, wondering what was the best way to go. But…. we made it out of the boats and after a short walk, we boarded our “school bus” for a short ride to the Quinhagak airport terminal.
What you have to understand about the Quinhagak terminal, is that it’s a small house, with no “security”. We didn’t see any TSA agents, only a native selling trinkets and wolf hides in the “gift shop” area of the small terminal/house. It was raining, of course, as we walked out to our small, 8 passenger single prop plane and took off down the runway with a large “bump” in it. Luckily, the plane had lifted before we hit the bump (we hit it on landing a week earlier).
After a short flight from Quinhagak to Bethel, we located our luggage and fish boxes (yes, we brought out 100 lbs of salmon). We proceeded to “formally” check in at the Bethel terminal, have our bags weighed, lamented how our bags were left behind last time on this leg and waited. Finally, we boarded a Dash 8 and took the 1.5 hour flight to Anchorage…. where we found James waiting for us at baggage claim. We grabbed our rental car and headed to the Kenai Peninsula and the little community of Cooper Landing, right on the Kenai & Russian Rivers.
Barb and I celebrated our 46th wedding anniversary with James by having dinner at the Kingfisher, a local restaurant and bar located right on the water. After a good meal and lots of story telling, we headed to our cabins for the night.
Day 25: Quartz Creek Stomping
We met Matt Marchaund at Alaska Troutfitters and headed out to Quartz Creek for the day. Barb and I had fished with Matt on the Russian earlier on our trip and he’d talked about how Quarts Creek was ‘coming into shape’ and might be a great option. After parking at the Crescent Creek campground, we fished our way upstream through several holes, hooking into a fish here and there. It was still early for the Quartz, but, we were encouraged seeing a huge King salmon. At some point eggs would be laid, and some would drift downstream to waiting trout and dolly varden, but not just yet. Still, we found several willing fish to hit our egg beads.
We had lunch, sitting on the bank of the river before heading downstream to fish a few holes. We crossed over Crescent Creek, which was flowing strong, before hitting a couple of really nice spots and hooking into more fish. We’d had a great day fishing with Matt and headed back to our cabins and dinner at Sacketts… pizza!
Day 26: #100… CHECK!
This was the day…. our chance to fish the Kenai River, which would be the 100th river on the TU list we’d been fishing. We met our guide for the day, Simmons Adickes of Mystic Waters Fly Fishing, in front of our cabin and headed off to the Sportsman’s Landing launch. After putting on our life vests, getting our safety instructions, launching and getting our fishing instruction, we started. Within 15 minutes we’d landed (Barb, of course) our first of many Kenai River fish, a feisty rainbow.
We fished through the “Refuge” section with really good success, picking off rainbows and dolly varden with regularity. We’d also seen eagles (bald and juvenile) around every bend in the river. Simmons told us how one bald eagle, Frank, had bombed his boat when we was landing a fish for a client. Frank literally flew down and plucked the fish right from the net, and proceeded to fly away with it. We were laughing so hard as the story continued…. turns out, the fish was still hooked by the angler, so as Frank flew away, the fly line was screaming off the reel of the angler, but, it was 40’ in the air as Frank was taking the fish to his nest. Just like bears always win when it decides it wants your fish, so do bald eagles. Frank got the fish (with a hook still in its mouth) and the angler got his line back, hookless.
We went through the “canyon” section with less fishing success, but it was absolutely gorgeous. The rapids were large (Class III) so we sat a lot as we rode them out, but fished some gravel bars along the way. At the end of the “canyon” section, we emerged into Skilak Lake where Simmons turned on the motor and we started our 6 mile trek across the lake. About 2/3 of the way across, we encountered some big waves caused by a westerly wind which made us a bit nervous, but Simmons navigated us safely across. We even saw a small black bear perched on a ledge along the lake.
When we landed at the boat ramp, and exhaled having successfully crossed the lake, we smiled as we remembered that today, we’d crossed off river 100. While our quest to fish (and land a fish) in each of the TU Top 100 trout stream, we still had more days to fish.
Day 27: DIY
This was our DIY day, with the three of us heading off to fish both Quartz Creek and the Russian River on our own. We started on Quartz Creek by hiking up a trail from the Crescent Creek campground for about 1/2 mile. After bushwhacking our way to the river, we found good spots to drop in and proceeded to fish our way downstream, hole by hole, back to the parking lot.
Barb was on fire, picking up beautiful dolly varden in most every hole, but James had the “hook up” of the day. He hollered at me to come help and when I got there and looked into the water, I saw a huge sockeye salmon fighting James line. Now understand, James had hooked into numerous sockeyes when we fished with Matt a couple of days earlier, and Matt had showed him how to point the rod at them and get the hook out. You really don’t want to fight a sockeye with a 6wt rod you’re using to catch rainbows and dolly varden. However, there was more than met my eye.
When I looked closer, I saw that in reality, James had hooked a nice dolly, and in the process of fighting it, the line had crossed through the mouth of the sockeye, and he was fighting BOTH of the fish. We had a small trout net with us that was of no use in landing the sockeye/dolly combo, so we tried to work it out of the sockeye’s mouth. After a few minutes, the sockeye turned, the line came out and we landed the dolly successfully…. whew!
We grabbed lunch at our cabins as we were heading over to fish the Russian River. We parked at the Grayling lot and headed down to the river. When we reached the banks, looking both up and downstream, there were salmon anglers everywhere. We decided we still had to fish, so, with our trout rods and dry flies at the ready, we began fishing. At that same moment, a black bear decided to grace our fishing spot for a few moments, pausing to notice us, but walking away quickly.
We worked our way upstream, dropping into holes that looked ‘fishy’ whenever we could, but the salmon anglers were still everywhere. I was able to snag a nice dolly tight line nymphing, but the real highlight of the afternoon was still to come.
As we were walking downstream, back to the Grayling parking lot, we encountered anglers talking about a bear. When we got to one of the angler access points, we saw a couple standing there with bear spray out and even a knife at the ready. We walked out onto the small deck they were standing on and proceeded to watch a grizzly, slowly making his way upstream, pausing periodically to take a few bites out of salmon that had been caught and filleted by anglers upstream. The anglers had tossed the remains of their catches in the river and the grizzly was feasting on their discarded salmon. He put on a good show for us for about 15 minutes before heading back into the woods.
Day 28: Mystic Waters
When we began planning our Alaska leg of our River Ramble, we worked with the folks at Yellow Dog Fly Fishing. They’d recommended we contact Stacy at Mystic Waters Fly Fishing for our Kenai river adventures. We met Stacy at 7am and prepared to embark for our second Kenai river trip. First, we had to decide what section to fish…. remember, our Skilak Lake crossing the last time with Simmons had made us think about not fishing the “canyon” section which required the 6 mile lake crossing at the end. After checking the weather conditions for the day and talking with Stacy, the fact he’d been guiding on the Kenai for 20 years, we headed back to fish the “Refuge” and “canyon” sections again…. really great decision.
We hooked into a lot of nice fish early on the trip, but it really got “hot” when we pulled into several back eddies. The rainbows were hiding in the slack current of the eddies still awaiting the big drop of eggs from the king salmon and later the sockeyes. We took turns fishing these spots, and each landed fish when we dropped in. Fun!
At the end of the day, when we got to Skilak Lake, it was so calm and clear. The reflections off the water of the clouds and the rock cliffs surrounding the lake were incredible. We’d had another banner day on the Kenai fishing with Stacy and decided right then, we’d have to come back.
Day 29: Upper Kenai
Our last “fishing” day in Alaska started with packing up and getting ready for the drive back to Anchorage. However, we wanted to fish more, so we set off with Mike of Alaska Troutfitters on a 1/2 day float along the Upper stretch of the Kenai, a stretch we’d not fished. While the calm, slow water at the launch site at Cooper Landing was comforting, the wave fishing we’d be doing later was a challenge that we met head on. Mike said “the Kings make their redds here, so the big trout line up behind them”… and we were fishing for big trout. Go big or go home was our motto.
After fishing for a bit, we pulled into a couple of backwater areas and fished first for trout and next for silvers. James had success at both, hooking into a nice trout as well as a big sockeye. Mike was a great guide and coach for us along the way, but of course, Barb was schooling us both…. most fish, biggest fish, you name it.
When we reached the boat ramp at the end of our float, it was a bit of a bittersweet feeling. This was our last fishing day in Alaska, and the last fishing day of our TU Top 100 River Ramble. It’s been an amazing adventure and the memories will last forever. The stories we have will continue to be told forever as well. So while we were excited for achieving our goal of fishing (and catching a fish in) the TU Top 100 trout streams… we were also somewhat sad it was “over”.
Day 30: Saying “Goodbye”
We said goodbye to James as he headed back to Nashville and then spent one more night in Anchorage. Waking up early, packing everything up, grabbing our 100 lbs of salmon from the hotel freezer and heading to ANC, our last day in Alaska was another day of travel…. But wait, we’d already talked about coming back to Alaska in 2020 to fish during prime time on the Kenai and Russian Rivers… and…. we’ve talked about going back to Maine, and our newly minted state of WeNoCarNoGaEaTen (aka. Western North Carolina, Northern Georgia, Eastern Tennessee), California, Pennsylvania and our home waters around Montana, Idaho and Wyoming…. it seems line our Rambles will be continuing. Alaska simply confirmed our passions to continue our fishing adventures.