As an interagency coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, a good portion of Bobbie Jo Skibo's job in the summer involves education and management of fishing on the Russian River.
Two runs of sockeye salmon, one in June and another in July, bring fishermen from all corners of Alaska and beyond to partake in a cultural experience Alaskans refer to as "combat fishing."
“Some of the things people can experience in high-density fishing is that they can get hooked," Skibo said -- though she wasn't referring to the addictive nature of getting a fish at the end of the line. "So if you’re not really watching you can get hooked in the face, the ears, it’s unfortunate but it does happen quite often here. Sometimes the combat portion is everybody’s trying to catch that fish and they’re not looking out for each other.”
"Combat fishing is just a fight for a good fishing spot," said Russian River Ferry operator Brookes Reames of Jackson, Miss. "On the river as with any other type of fishing it really has a lot to do with the spot that you're at. And out here when it's very populated with people, you'll catch a salmon and somebody will step right where you were, where you caught that salmon, and take your spot. It's that easy to lose your spot. It really is a fight for the fish."
Clarence Delaughter, originally from Miami, Fla., has been fishing on the Kenai since he retired from the military and relocated to Alaska in 1977. He said combat fishing means “you get you a spot and you fight to keep it. That’s just what it means because there be so many people sometimes.”
To get to some of the good fishing holes on the Russian River, anglers have to hike through the woods along scenic banks of ferns and trees. People are slightly more spread out and serene there than their neighbors fishing downstream on the Kenai, where fishing is shoulder to shoulder and tempers can flare if anyone gets in the way of landing a salmon.
Anglers say another key difference between the two fishing spots is that on the Russian River, the water is so clear you can see a fish catch a line. The bright blue, glacial-fed water on the Kenai is opaque, making it near-impossible to see the fish. So anglers have to do what Skibo refers to as the "Kenai roll," and keep casting their line in hopes of feeling that little tug of a fish.
But the Kenai has it's advantages: It's accessible, the shoreline vegetation is sparser -- making it easier to spot bears -- and there's no hike to get to the river. The same ferry that takes anglers from the Sportman's Landing campground and parking lot at Mile 55 on the Sterling Highway across the Kenai River to where they can hike to the Russian River, also provides easy access the Kenai's far shore.