How to live through Alaska’s seasonal salmon battle—and enjoy it.

[by Will Swagel]

In the wee hours of a May morning, Robert Hayes, a battle-hardened veteran, begins scouting the banks of Ship Creek. He spies a number of familiar faces waiting for the 6 a.m. opener and gathers some intelligence from his fellow anglers, many old warhorses like himself who venture here every year, addicted to the action combat fishing supplies.

Located in the heart of Alaska’s largest city, Ship Creek offers urban warfare at its best, with all variety and ages of combatants lined up hoping to do battle with the mighty chinook, Alaska’s largest salmon.

Hook in the face? Yep, that’s combat fishing.

Hayes maneuvers among the throngs of fishermen, armed with fly and spinning gear and a heavy arsenal of colorful weighted flies as well as lures such as the Pixie and Vibrax.

The most important thing, he advises, is to be polite, especially when stepping between anglers. While he attests to having seen blood spilled, he says most combat fishing veterans are goodnatured and willing to help rookie fishermen, provided they are respectful and follow the unwritten rules of engagement that tend to develop on each stream.

“The best bet for those new to combat fishing,” he said, “or even to a particular river, is to stand back at first and just watch. Get a feel for things before jumping in.”

He also advises leaving the light gear at home. Nothing will raise the ire of veterans along the shore more than someone taking forever to land a fish. Even on Ship Creek, where it is possible to hook 30- or 40-pound king salmon, anglers must do their best to subdue the fish as quickly as possible, and that means a stout rod and 30-pound test line at minimum.

Another piece of advice Hayes offers, one that might be a little more difficult to follow, is to quell what he calls fish fever. Something overtakes people when a big push of fish comes through and it can override common sense. That’s when altercations might take place. It’s also when you are most likely to see people falling, hooking each other and breaking equipment. Often this is the best time to take that step back, he said, observe the scene and embrace its carnival atmosphere.

“It can be a great experience,” he said, “seeing other people hook fish and helping them. If you’re not crazy about just catching fish yourself, it makes the whole experience more fun and in the long run you usually end up doing better.

Techniques Most Often Deployed in Combat

Because they return in the millions and run close to shore, sockeye salmon are the primary target of combat fishers. A debate has long run as to whether these fish even bite. This is probably because sockeye are primarily plankton feeders when young and much less likely to feed on the large baitfish many lures represent. While they will more readily take small flies such as the Comet or Polar Shrimp, they are certainly the least likely of any salmon to strike. Therefore, since most fishers employ a method referred to as “flipping” or, because of its origins, “the Kenai flip.” This technique often involves a “coho fly,” a confusing term since this fly, made with a few strands of bucktail on a long-shank hook, has absolutely nothing to do with coho salmon. Many anglers prefer to purchase their own hooks, often stronger and of better quality, to which they simply tie a piece of yarn.

These rigs need not be fished with a fly rod. Even in “fly fishing only” waters, such as the Russian River, spinning gear may be used as long as terminal tackle consists of a single unweighted fly. Then, at a minimum of 18 inches above the hook (most choosing several feet) a sinker heavy enough to keep in contact with the bottom is attached. This rig is flipped upstream and out, and allowed to drift, preferably perpendicular to the shore. Once it reaches a position a few feet downstream, it is pitched ahead again, often in unison with nearby combat fishers.

Anyone familiar with this technique knows there is a knack to it: the idea being to have the extended line sweep into the salmon’s open jaw, the angler feeling the slight hesitation and setting the hook. Often referred to as “flossing,” this method of lining, or snagging, is perfectly legal as long as the hook-set is in the mouth. It’s also, when mastered, the most effective method of laying siege to sockeye salmon in or out of the combat zone.

Combat fishing for sockeye salmon at the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers on the Kenai Peninsula during summer in Alaska.

Prepping for War

Hayes’ advice is something I take to heart as I join a convoy headed to the Kenai Peninsula for opening day in Alaska’s most notorious combat zone along the Russian River. While I prefer the solitude of fishing a stream on my own, I also know the fruits of a successful operation conducted on the front lines. On the way, I try to steel myself for the heat of battle. I will be ready mentally with a positive attitude and physically with a good pair of polarized glasses. Not only will they allow me to better detect my targets in the stream, but they also provide protection for my eyes, the last place you want to take a shot once the lead starts flying.

Because it’s opening day for both trout and sockeye, I’ve slightly downsized my weaponry, arming myself with a 5-weight fly rod for trout and an 8-weight for salmon. Upstream, where there’s more elbow room, trout fishermen wearing fly vests and burdened with a variety of specialty gear begin scouting their more elusive prey, which hide beneath logs and overhanging foliage. Downstream, battalions of foot soldiers armed with bait and spin casting rods or with nontraditional fly gear, their lines replaced with monofilament, amass along the bank waiting for the midnight call to battle and a potential salmon blitzkrieg.

As zero hour approaches, more begin to mobilize, taking up arms and looking to strategically station themselves along the lower reaches of the stream. I find myself among them, 5-weight tucked away, lured here by the spoils of war—in this case, fresh sockeye fillets flamed to perfection on the grill.

Combat fishing on the Russian River, in Southcentral Alaska.

We wait patiently for the campaign to begin, wondering who will take the first shot. Finally someone lobs a heavily weighted fly into the current, initiating a series of catcalls followed by a volley of lines and a variety of colorful flies suddenly taking flight. Soon an explosion rings out, one above stream and two below. Fish on! The familiar battle cry unleashes a torrent of splashing as hooked sockeye catapult themselves out of the water.

Laughter breaks out along the lines as a large, jovial and slightly inebriated man, waist deep, careens downstream. Pulled by current and fish, the joy is evident on his face as he comes to rest on a nearby gravel bar and subdues a bright sockeye, the first confirmed casualty of the night.

It’s not long before I find myself on the attack, thrust into the fray, experiencing the rod-bending, wrist-wrenching excitement of engaging in battle with what may, be pound-for-pound, Alaska’s strongest salmon. It all happens quickly. Despite the worrisome strain on my rod, I attempt to end the struggle as swiftly as possible. Accompanied by the encouragement and coaching of my fellow combatants, I promptly record my first kill before jumping back in line.

It takes some effort, but by dark my three-fish limit is accounted for. It’s time to rendezvous by a campfire and trade a few war stories with a group of old friends before heading to the car to catch a few hours of sleep before rejoining the action. In the morning, I’ll change tactics and go on the offensive, trying to scout out some of the larger trout usually obscured in the silty pockets of the Kenai, but now revealed in the clear mountain-fed waters of the Russian.

I have survived my first night of combat and its rough conditions, enduring the lack of sleep and the crowded stream.These are only minor annoyances endured for the chance to tangle with an Alaska salmon, fill my cooler with a stash of succulent fillets, meet with some old buddies and make some new friends. It’s what keeps us coming back, the old veterans and rookies alike, year after year, to engage in battle in famed combat zones.

Combat fishing on the lower Kenai.

Tips on How to Survive and Enjoy Combat Fishing

  • >Keep a positive attitude and be tolerant. What is considered rude on most streams, such as walking through someone’s hole or casting within close proximity, is acceptable when combat fishing.
  • >Every stream has its own set of customs. Take a moment to check out what other anglers are doing, how they are going about their business.
  • >Be polite. If someone has a fish on, bring your line in, make room and never take someone else’s spot unless you are sure they have left.
  • >Leave the light gear home. It’s meant to be fun, but for most combatants it is meat fishing, pure and simple. A stout rod is required: Twenty-pound test line at minimum for red salmon; 30-pound for kings. Occupying valuable time playing a fish is sure to raise derision in all those forced to wait for you.
  • >Wear protective clothing. A hat is a good idea and glasses are a must to protect yourself from flying sinkers and sharp hooks.
  • >Rest assured that if there’s an easily accessible salmon stream, there is likely to be a crowd of combat fishers gathered there. And the disappointment of visiting anglers expecting a wilderness experience is often evident when confronted by these crowds. Yet combat fishing is fun and there are large numbers of Alaskans who prefer it. They enjoy the carnival atmosphere, camaraderie and the large number of fish that usually accompany it. That’s why every year a broad cast of characters converges on places such as Ship Creek and the Russian River. Here, attitude is everything. Come with an open mind, plan for a party and if somewhat shy, bring along a few friends. Then join in. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most anglers are willing to share. Even the old combat veterans are simply enjoying the party and want everyone else to enjoy it as well.

Dave Atcheson has lived on the Kenai Peninsula since the 1980s and is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.”

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