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From Homer to Mat-Su, anglers' fortunes have a silver lining

Matt Tunseth
Utah's Ed Lea lands a silver salmon caught in the Kenai River at Centennial Park in Soldotna on Tuesday, Aug. 12. Lea said he caught the fish using salmon roe held on the bottom by a large lead weight. Matt Tunseth photo

SOLDOTNA -- Standing beneath a steady drizzle while waiting on the fickle appetites of finicky salmon might seem like a frustrating exercise in fortitude. But it beats the heck out of some app.

"I don't have the patience for Candy Crush," said fishermen Ed Lea while fishing for coho, or silver, salmon Tuesday in the turquoise-gray waters of the Kenai River in Soldotna.

Lea, vacationing at the city's Centennial Park campground with his family, explained that his wife and in-laws had fled to their cozy motor home to play the addictive (or annoying, depending on your view) video game in which pieces of candy are lined up in brightly colored rows. As fun as that sounds, Lea said he preferred to sit alongside the Kenai and chat with his fellow fisherman, an 80-year-old retiree from Northern California named Chuck.

Silver fishing has been slow on the Kenai, but both men managed to land a fish Tuesday fishing from shore with salmon roe anchored to the bottom with heavy weights. Lea said he uses a small cork about 12 inches above the baited hook to keep the eggs slightly off the bottom. He learned the technique by watching anglers like Chuck, who first started fishing Centennial Park in the early 1990s.

"I just try to learn something from the old guys," Lea said as he hooked a stringer through the gills of a shiny 8-pound coho.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Robert Begich said coho fishing remains spotty on the Kenai, both because of low abundance thus far as well as a continuing surge of pink salmon into the river.

"We have a few silvers, but people are having trouble getting limits of fish," Begich explained.

Fishing for pinks remains red hot on the Kenai, Begich said, with huge schools of the small, distinctive-looking salmon pouring into the river.

"They'll be talking about this year for a while," he said.

Most anglers don't target pinks because of their mushy, pink-colored flesh, but the fish are a great alternative for younger anglers or anyone looking for nonstop action. Pinks can be found in abundance in most salmon streams from the Kenai Peninsula to Mat-Su. Just about any lure works, with spoons and spinners preferred by many. Anglers targeting silvers in areas with high pink numbers often find more success using eggs.

Silver fishing on the Kenai should pick up as the pinks die off, Begich said. Recent rains and high tides on the Kenai have made for difficult fishing too, but Begich predicted things will begin to change dramatically by the end of the month.

"By September it will be a whole different river," he said.

Ed Lea said he's already content with how the Kenai is fishing. There's enough action to keep things interesting, he said, and lots of good conversation to be had by the dozen or so regulars who hit the sleepy fishing hole each day.

"The campground is nice, the camp host is great, the people are real friendly," he said as he prepared to cast a hunk of bright red salmon eggs back into the river. "It's kinda social fishing. You can't beat it."

Certainly not with Candy Crush.

Hot spot: Mat-Su silvers

Silver salmon are the prize of August, and anglers hoping for more than just good conversation can find silvers in the Mat-Su. Fishing is currently excellent in the area, according to Mike Hudson at 3 Rivers Fly and Tackle in Wasilla.

On Tuesday, Hudson was working alone and too busy with customers to chat with a nosy reporter who called midday. Hudson politely asked to schedule an interview Wednesday morning when things quieted down a bit. On Wednesday, Hudson explained that business at the tackle shop is great now that word's out about the strong returns of coho throughout the area.

"When there's fish around, there's fishermen," Hudson said.

That's good news for area businesses, many of which struggled through poor coho runs in the past decade.

"It's good for everybody," Hudson said.

On streams where bait is legal, Hudson said that's been the best bet. Elsewhere, spinning lures have worked well.

Hudson said fishing on the Little Susitna River has been hot for weeks, with good fishing reported at the Deshka and Talkeetna rivers, as well as all the streams along the Parks Highway north of Wasilla. Although silvers seem to be on everyone's mind this time of year, Hudson said rainbow trout fishing in the area is also excellent.

"We've got a great trout fishery right here in our backyard," he said.

Fish and Game sportfish biologist Samantha Oslund said the strong coho returns are what prompted the department to grant additional fishing time and increased bag limits in the weekend-only fisheries at Wasilla Creek and Cottonwood Creek. Anglers can now keep three silvers on those streams, and they'll be open Mondays as well. Oslund noted that those streams are only open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Wednesday, Fish and Game issued an emergency order opening Fish Creek to fishing every day.

"There's silvers all over the place," she said, noting that Fish Creek has been particularly productive, with 2,769 silvers already past the fish-counting weir.

Other good places to try include Willow Creek and Montana Creek.

Fishing is also reportedly fair to good at Jim Creek and the Eklutna Tailrace, both of which can be accessed via the Old Glenn Highway and are a bit closer to Anchorage.

Oslund said she expects coho, pink and chum fishing areawide to be excellent this weekend.

"If you're gonna hit 'em, this is the time to do it," she said.

Anchorage

Coho fishing has slowed at Ship Creek, though not for a lack of fish. ADFG Sportfish Division information officer Ryan Ragan said this year's run remains strong, but that fishing pressure seems to be keeping silvers spooked.

"There are still a lot of fish moving in, but they're pretty tight lipped," Ragan said Wednesday.

He suggested anglers fish lower on the river during incoming tides to target fish still unacquainted with the urban fishery's gauntlet of lures, bait and boots.

"They haven't seen a lot of stuff yet so they're going to be potentially more inclined to bite," Ragan said.

Determined anglers can now catch up to five salmon (no kings) per day at Ship Creek, thanks to an emergency order that went into effect Aug. 9.

Salmon fishing in Bird Creek is good, although anglers are still getting more pinks and chums than silvers. However, Ragan said coho fishing has started to pick up. There are lots of silvers in Campbell Creek, but fishing there is reportedly spotty. Ragan said recent rains may have silvers on the move again as the weekend approaches.

"I'm anxious to see what happens there," he said.

The department is also warning people to watch for bears, especially around Bird Creek, where numerous sightings have been reported near the popular Seward Highway fishery.

Beluga whales have also been active lately in the waters along Turnagain Arm. Watch for the white whales from roadside pullouts along the highway on the incoming tide.

Homer

Fishing is reportedly still strong for king salmon and halibut offshore, and the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby remains underway. The current derby leader as of Wednesday was Oregon's Ned Friedman, who caught a 278-pounder on July 14. Tickets are $10 a day, and the derby runs through Sept. 15.

On Friday, Fish and Game will open the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon to snagging for the remainder of the season due to a large return of hatchery-raised coho salmon. The bag and possession limit is 6 silvers per day.

Seward/Resurrection Bay

On Tuesday, John Kennedy of Palestine, Indiana, grabbed the top spot in the Seward Silver Salmon Derby when he caught a 17.67-pound fish, knocking Anchorage's Carl Berstrom out of the top spot. If Kennedy can hang on through Aug. 17, he'll take home the $10,000 prize for first place.

Erin Lemas with the Seward Chamber of Commerce said fishing has been good in Resurrection Bay, although rough weather last week kept boats from venturing too far out. A few fish are being picked up off the shore, with one angler entering a 14-pound silver he caught from shore -- although Lemas said the man wasn't terribly specific about where he hooked the fish.

"He just said, 'On the dirt,' " Lemas said. "They all lie."

Prince William Sound

According to Fish and Game, red salmon fishing has tapered off in Prince William Sound, but coho are starting to show up in fishable numbers. The department recommends fishing near Ibeck and Eyak out of Cordova for silvers. Rough seas recently have hampered fishing for halibut, ling cod and rockfish in deeper waters.

Personal use permits due

Anyone who obtained a personal use salmon permit this year for the Kenai River, Kasilof River or Fish Creek dipnet fisheries must return their permit to Fish and Game no later than Aug. 15 or risk a fine and revocation of future fishing privileges. Permits must be returned whether you fished or not.

Matt Tunseth is an Anchorage freelance writer and avid angler.