Down to the river at 5:30 in the morning. We were one day off a full moon and the water was dropping after a recent rain. The mood was electric at the boat launch. I followed the sound of voices down to the launch where the glacial waters of the Kenai glinted blue in the glow of the moon.
Our guide was Matt Llewallen, of Kenai River Cowboys. We shook hands in the green and red glow of the bow mount light.
“There’s a fog settling in on the river, we have to hurry to get to our spot.” Matt passed out life jackets and soon we were in the main current, floating back, now powering up as the bow swung around.
Fog dropped like a blanket and soon our world was water and darkness and the roar of the motor. Out on the margins of sight other boats passed us, some going down and others going up. Matt backed off the throttle, unsure of our position in the river and another boat flashed by and then ran onto a gravel bar, the bow grinding gravel, the prop churning rocks.
“Now I know where we are,” Matt said under his breath. “That’s the gravel bar, we’re in the right place.”
One of the rules of the river is to watch for another boat’s lights. The mnemonic is Red-Right-Return. The white light is on the stern, while the “sidelights” are mounted on the bow, visible to another vessel approaching from the side or head-on. Red indicates a vessel’s port (left) side, while green indicates the starboard (right). Stay to the right of an approaching red light, return home alive.
I was just thinking what a great system it is because all Coast Guard licensed fishing guides in Alaska know this and it keeps everyone safe. That’s when a boat came out of the fog and the dark, up on step, right for us.Matt, standing at the tiller, threw his motor into full reverse and shouted into the wind, “You’re not going to hit me, buddy, are you!?” And the guide boat coming straight for us swerved hard across our bows, going the exact opposite direction we expected him to. The only reason we didn’t collide in the middle of the Kenai was because of Matt’s quick reflexes.
“Sorry,” the other guide shouted over his shoulder, over the roar of his motor, “I thought you were on anchor!”
And if we had been on anchor, it would have been okay to smash into us!?
Matt slid the boat into a backwater channel and even in the moonlight and the fog, I could tell, this was coho water, just off the main channel and so far we were not dead. With his hands still shaking, Matt handed out spinning rods to Ron Balash, my dad and I, and we waited for legal light to dawn on the gift of a precious new day.
One of my favorite ways to fish for salmon is with a float over cured salmon eggs. We used to fish that way on the Kalama when I was a kid, and I always thrilled to the sight of that cork bobber going down; sometimes the fish in deep water would pull it six feet under.
We were booked for two days in a row with Kenai River Cowboys and one day was supposed to be a fly-rod trout trip, but when we saw we had a three-fish coho limit and cork bobbers and cured eggs, we changed it to two coho days in a row.
We were not disappointed.
The fish came in waves. Coho like lazy backwaters and we were staged on anchor just upstream of a tailout. We let our baits out, keeping track of the float till it went out of sight in the fog then reeled them back in.
In the early light I could see the water shimmer with fish moving up and sometimes a bright fish would roll at the edge of the fog. And then a float would go down. We missed hook-sets and we connected and we each hooked half a dozen before we had our day’s catch. The hot coho ran at the boat and went airborne like steelhead and then thrashed on the way to the net.
In something like 20 trips to Alaska, most of them in September on the Kenai and the Kasilof I’ve come to prefer the eggs cured a certain way. Down in the lower reaches in that glacial water, I like the deep dark hue found in Pro-Cure’s Last Supper coastal/tidewater double red flo egg cure. At the house where we stay in Soldotna, I keep a bottle of Wizard double neon red egg cure, which is another good option. And I like the eggs after they have been allowed to set up for at least two days. And I don’t like fishing an offering of eggs more than three casts. You just catch more fish on good eggs. And there is no sense in trying to hoard them.
Good fishing for Kenai coho lasts from the end of August through October. In October the fishing can really be good upriver. If a person is planning a few days in the upper reaches, a good cure to bring along is the any of the Last Supper inland/upriver blends.
Another Pro-Cure hip pocket product I like to bring is Monster Bite, a bait enhancer. Whenever you’re fishing with a buddy’s egg cure, you can add Monster Bite right before casting. Or add it in and let it soak overnight before a trip.
We made our arrangements to fish the Kenai long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19 and we weren’t going to let a little thing like the coronavirus ruin the trip. We watched the Alaska entry requirements go through a few iterations and when September came, the requirement was a negative COVID test result or mandatory quarantine. I sent away for a self-test kit from Lab Corp Pixel and the result came back within 56 hours. I got the email while I was sitting in the airport on the way north.
Once in the airport in Anchorage, I was cleared for entry easily, walking past dozens of people who had not prepared in advance.
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Gary Lewis is host of Frontier Unlimited and is the author of John Nosler Going Ballistic and other titles. To contact Gary, visit www.garylewisoutdoors.com