“You’re going to catch fish with no bait on your hook. They’re just going to swim up river and you’ll catch them right when they open their mouth.” I’m paraphrasing what our guide, Jeremy “JAHA” Anderson told us as we set up in the early morning along the Kenai River. This instruction was given to us after cruising upriver in the dark in an aluminum-hulled boat setup for drift fishing and hunting salmon along the turquoise blue waters in Alaska. The idea seemed crazy but flossing for salmon is very common when the runs are thick. The technique really does allow you to catch fish, monster fish, with a combination of luck, technique, and timing. As we would find out, this method would prove exhaustive but rewarding and by the end of the day, we would have fresh sockeye salmon from river to grill in a matter of hours.
Our group arrived at the Silver Tip Lodge and Cabins on a Sunday afternoon. We met Jeremy, one of the owners with his wife Andrea, as we settled into our lodges. The group I traveled with Justen, Liam, Chad, John, and Harry, occupied 3 cabins as we originally had a much larger group with some backing out last minute. This let us have a near private facility to ourselves. We unpacked and were told to be ready to wake up at 3am for a 315am departure to the boat ramp down the road. We were told we would fish until noon and as the night went on, we were reminded by Jeremy to get enough sleep. Jeremy is a seasoned fishing guide with a lot of experience, we were novices with no “flossing technique experience” and we took his advice and turned in early.
The next morning, we packed our bags with some basic provisions like PB&J sandwiches, water, and the basic gear we would carry on a hike. We arrived at the ramp, paid $5 to park for the day, and met up with Jeremy as he was dropping our boat into the water. He checked our printed out fishing licenses and loaded half of us into his boat and the other half of the group into the boat of his business partner, Nick. We knew it would be a good day when the friendly banter started early. I can’t recall the friendly insults but if you use your imagination and think of how manhood can be insulted measured by the ability to catch fish, you may be able to come up with some good ones. Seriously, fishing with Jeremy and Nick would prove to be like fishing with brothers I never had. We shoved off and cruised upriver to a spot known as the “Blood Bank”. We were hoping for a blood bath and we would have one. Nick’s boat with Chad, Liam, and Justen continued past us as we were staged strategically along the river bank.
Jeremy set us up with nice G-Loomis 9 weight rods and reels. He showed us the set up and I was surprised to see the single hook with a plastic bead at the end. The bead keeps the rig legal. We were instructed to keep the rod tips down all the time and to slap the water when we cast just past the eddyline. The flopping noise and splash would not scare off the fish and there were plenty porpoising downriver from us and on their way in our direction. We were told the most important part of the retrieval was that final pull through at the end. It was during this stage when the leader would travel perpendicular through the current and catch on the open mouth of the sockeye. With the hook at the end of the leader, the timing had to be right to catch one but with enough casts, anything is possible. Shortly after setting us up, John caught the first fish of the morning but it was foul hooked. He then caught the first keeper and Harry and I were inspired to keep slapping the water and pulling that line through. I don’t recall how many fish John and Harry had caught before I hooked my first but I can vividly recall the slight pause before the fish realized it was hooked and then the explosion of energy that tested the reel’s drag after. That whizzing noise is one that confirms you have a fish on the end of your line and you didn’t just accidentally hook the bottom of the river.
Catching sockeye is a lesson in keeping the rod tip down and resisting the temptation to “high stick”. The salmon is going to run, it’s going to jump, it may even beach itself onshore right before Jeremy can reach you with the net. This whole time, you have to and I mean HAVE TO keep your rod tip down and walk up the bank toward the woodline. At times, two salmon would be hooked simultaneously and the river was alive with activity. This method of fishing was wildly exciting as the guide would call out when he could see fish coming up the flow from one end and we would try to floss them at the right time. Don’t be fooled though. We did the math and we figured we cast over 1000 times during day with 3-5 casts per minute over 9 hours. You will be sore but it will be worth it.
During some point in the morning, we had to make the decision to stay the course on the river bank or proceed to the lake. We called the other group and had them meet us as we were having more luck. We collectively decided to stay where we were and not chance the drift. We would later find out the decision was a good one as other boats reported getting blown around. When we met up with the other boat, Chad, Justen, and Liam joined us on the river bank and fit in where there were was room. This is when the action really picked up. It makes sense, with more lines in the water, we had more chances to catch. At one point, I noticed a trout swimming up river and right between my legs. I reached down and grabbed it out of the water. Jeremy was there to witness this and verify I’m not embellishing this part of the story. A couple silver salmon and “humpies” were also caught. As noon approached, we were joined on the river bank by other fisherman who took note of our catch. Before the day was over, we had 15 or 16 fish on our stringer and we pushed off to the delight of other anglers who quickly snatched up our spots and would guard them closely.
On the way back to the dock, I took over the throttle of the boat as Jeremy cleaned the fish. He was able to cleanly and efficiently process our fish into fillets and bellies. The latter being an excellent cut of meat to make salmon dip from. We didn’t do any of the processing at the cabin to prevent any additional attractions for bears (a real consideration) to get attracted by. We did use my Fiddleback Forge F2 and a Beck Knives Ulu to cut up the fish and portion them into the vacuum bags. Correction, Justen and Harry processed the first day’s catch and expected the other guys to rotate in the next day. That didn’t happen (sorry guys!) and by the time they had to process the silver salmon from the float-plane trip, they did so in ⅓ the time. We saved a few of the salmon filets for the grill and with minimal seasoning (just some Johnny’s Salt) and a charcoal grill, we ate fresh fish until we were sore. All of this was accomplished by 2pm in the day and we had the rest of the day to explore the area or slip into a protein-induced food coma. The fish we caught would be brought home at the end of the trip in foam or insulated cardboard boxes. FYI, if you plan on doing this trip, carry your fish with you on the plane. It will last 30 hours once frozen. It took me 18 hours 30 minutes and a few seconds (yes, I actually tracked this) to go from freezer to freezer Anchorage, AK to Farmington, CT. If you only pack one bag, a second bag will not cost you much and it is far cheaper to transport it this way than to mail it via Fedex or UPS.
All of the guys on this trip agreed immediately afterward to come back the next year. I’ve fished in many places around the world and this is one of the top bucket-list destinations you can ask for. Alaska is a wild place and every year fishermen venture here to test their skills and their luck. We stacked the odds in our favor, went with a pro, and the proof is in the salmon fillets now sitting in our freezers at home. If you really want to catch fish, if you really want to stay somewhere convenient, and if you really want to take my word on this, you won’t be sorry going with Jeremy and Nick at Alaska Driftaway. Please check them out! www.guidekenairiver.com
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