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Once again, Russian River sockeye salmon are fair game

Craig Medred

All was quiet along the Kenai Peninsula's fabled Russian River on Tuesday as the rain pattered down on the spruce and cottonwood trees and sockeye salmon by the hundreds made their ways upstream through the crystal clear waters.

There was an occasional hiker on the Angler Trail, said Bruce McCurtain, whose company manages the Chugach National Forest campground on a bluff above the river. But for the most part, the occasional bears passing through had the place to themselves.

"There's been a black (bear) with a couple cubs, and a couple brown bears wandering around," he said.

All of that will change on Wednesday. Someone warn the bears a human invasion is coming.

Fishing season for the bright, battling Russian River sockeye opens just after the stroke of midnight Wednesday morning, and with salmon already thick in the stream some 100 miles south of Alaska's largest city, a bit of a crowd is expected.

It's hard to say which type of salmon Alaskans love most -- fresh salmon for eating or feisty salmon for fishing. The Russian offers both. Despite the fact the stream, plus a good chunk of the Kenai River from the Russian confluence on down to a powerline crossing, is restricted to fly-fishing only, this is one of the easiest places in the state to catch a tasty sockeye or red salmon, as Alaskans often call them.

All of which is why the Russian tends to attract a crowd. It long ago became famous for combat fishing,  which puts casting anglers shoulder to shoulder, armored with sunglasses and hats for protection from flying hooks.

How many troops turn out for the combat tends to correlate directly to the number of fish in the river. More fish means more people. This year, with the season yet to open, there appear to be good numbers of fish.

As of Monday, more than 900 sockeyes had passed the Russian River weir above the falls that mark the upper limit of the rod-and-reel fishery. That's about seven times the number of fish through the weir on the same date last year, and more than 26 times the 2012 return by the same date. By the time the early run ended in mid-July last year, nearly 36,000 sockeyes had passed the weir.

Generally, the early arrival of significant numbers of fish signals a strong return, but things are a little harder than usual to predict this year. Unexpectedly warm ocean-water temperatures appear to have brought salmon back ahead of schedule across the region.

Still, early indications from the closely-monitored Copper River to the south of the Kenai are that ocean survival for reds was good during the winters they spent away from the 49th state, feeding and getting fat.

McCurtain has had some of his employees down eyeing the gin-clear waters of the Russian.

"They're saying there's a lot of fish in the river right now," he said. "They said there are fish throughout the Russian."

This despite unusually low water conditions. Before it started raining Tuesday, the Russian was flowing at the rate it normally flows in July after nearly all of the snow has melted out of the surrounding Kenai Mountains. Those mountains didn't get much snow last winter and a lot of what fell melted in a warm May. 

"It is crazy low," McCurtain said. "It's a little worrisome (for later) in the year. You don't like to see it under 10 inches."

Meanwhile, though, the good news for anglers is that at low flows the Russian is easy to wade, and the migrating sockeye are a lot easier to spot in the shallow water. All of which would sort of make this a place any Alaska angler would want to be this week.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com