Hardiest Anglers Brave Cold for Steelhead

November 07, 2004

NINILCHIK -- Rains flooded my favorite fall-fishing rivers earlier in the week, but a quick Internet check reveals that water levels have dropped and fishing could be good. Colder weather and snow is forecast for later in the week. This could be the last chance before the rivers freeze for the winter.

It's 20 degrees outside the house just before dawn. An hour or two of fishing may be all I can suffer this morning. Driving south through Kenai, flags blow straight out in 15 mph winds, dropping the windchill below zero. A classic morning for steelhead fishing, but an hour in these elements sounds optimistic.

Sixty minutes later, I crash through thin ice rimming the shallows of Deep Creek, a small clear-water stream near Ninilchik on the southern Kenai Peninsula.

Layers of long underwear, thick socks, a couple jackets and a musher's hat ward off the cold. Chemical hand warmers are safely in pockets. Except for waders, I could be dressed for running dogs, not fishing.

Slush ice clings to the rocky bottom in the shallow, slow-moving waters near shore. More slush floats on top. But there's a stretch of fast water and a cast can be timed to avoid floating ice.

And just like that, a fish is on -- not a steelhead, but one of dozens of Dolly Varden I will catch before the day is finished.

I quickly reel in the fish, dreading the moment I will have to reach into the icy water to unhook it. Luckily, the weather has warmed and the wind has eased since this morning. Fingers quickly rebound after releasing the fish.

One quick blow of warm breath on my hands and the line is in the water again. This day might last longer than initially thought.

DEEP CREEK

At the start of the season in May, when king salmon return and snowmelt still feeds Deep Creek, combat fishing is the norm. Just a couple of weeks ago, when temperatures were in the 40s and steelhead fishing was near its peak, six anglers pressed into this small stretch of Deep Creek.

This late-fall morning, the only competition is a weasel-like critter -- an otter or mink -- that scurries along the opposite bank.

But others looked at the weather this morning and decided it was a good day to fish, too.

Don Thompson spent the afternoon fishing for salmon on the Kenai River. Fall is his favorite time to fish the river. That's when silvers return and cold weather chases away crowds of "sunny-day fishermen," says Thompson, dressed in Carhartt overalls and jacket. He did not catch any on this day, but October was a good month overall, he says.

In recent years, the Kenai has been closed to silver fishing in October. A strong run this year prompted managers to extend the season through Halloween.

"There wasn't a great deal of participation," says Larry Marsh, a Fish and Game biologist in Soldotna. "Nevertheless, people were clearly appreciative of the chance to extend the season."

But steelheaders have earned the reputation as the hardiest of anglers.

Sure enough, when I drive 30 minutes south of Deep Creek and pull into a parking lot along the Anchor River around noon, a half-dozen cars promise there will be company.

"The setting, the fish themselves, their size" -- that's what keeps anglers fighting frozen fingers and fishing for these overgrown rainbow trout until ice physically closes the season, says Nicky Szarzi, a Fish and Game biologist in Homer.

Most rainbow trout spend their entire lives in fresh water. Steelhead, like salmon, migrate to the saltwater to fatten up on the ocean's abundant food.

Alaska's largest steelhead weighed more than 42 pounds while those in the southern Kenai Peninsula streams commonly grow to 8 pounds or more.

In 1989, conservation concerns closed the Anchor River, Deep Creek and the nearby Ninilchik River to all but catch-and-release fishing for steelhead.

There are no official counts for these fish. Managers rely on fishing reports to gauge the health of the runs. This year, steelheaders gave mixed reviews, according to Szarzi. Overall, the runs appear healthy and stable, she says.

Steelhead can be fooled with all manner of flies. Purples, oranges and pinks paint a steelheader angler's fly box. But subtle works, too. Small, dark-colored flies resembling nymphs sometimes are the right choice.

Sometimes, white yarn flies tied to resemble rotten salmon flesh work, too. Someone I know uses a large mound of fluorescent green yarn tied to a hook with good results. On this day, I use orange and red beads that mimic stray salmon eggs drifting along the bottom with the current.

WINTER RULES

Back at Deep Creek, ice collects in the guides of my fly rod every 10 minutes or so and has to be chipped away with a fingernail. After several Dollies, I move downstream in search of steelhead. But slush on the water makes fishing difficult, and I return to the only fishable section of the river.

After an hour with no steelhead, I land and gut a Dolly for dinner and head back to the car. Walking along the bank, I notice a flash in the water. Steelhead?

Perched on a boulder, I make a few casts. But the distance is too long and I can't get my line through the floating ice. A gravel bar 5 feet off the bank might provide a better angle.

The water is frozen in a solid sheet between the shore and the gravel bar. It's no more than two steps across. I test the ice with a little too much gusto and crash through to my waist, a reminder that winter rules are in effect. I cross the river by bridge, and cautiously approach the fish from the other side.

Snow starts to spit. My fluorescent orange strike indicator stands out in stark contrast to the browns of tannin-tainted water, fallen leaves and dead grass.

Behind me, a spawned-out silver salmon lies helpless in the sandy shallows. A pan of ice clings to its mold-splotched side, its eye staring quietly into the gray sky. The fish's jaw twitches as if trying to suck water into its gills.

I watch again to make sure. Yes, the fish is alive. Like fall, it probably will not survive another day.

This article courtesy of Alaska Daily News Newsletter.

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