We got up at our usual 3:30am so Sarah could get to work, and I had breakfast and got dressed. At 4:30am, John showed up with the rods and net and off we went!
Some background on salmon and fishing in the Russian River… Salmon are anadromous, which means that they live in the saltwater ocean but swim upstream through rivers and streams to freshwater lakes to spawn and then die. The surviving eggs that hatch may spend 2-4 years in the freshwater system, then go back to the ocean to live and grow for another 2-4 years until it is time for them to spawn, and the cycle repeats.
The fish that we are working with in this run are the sockeye salmon. They are a small salmon growing to about 4-10 pounds, but when it comes to salmon, these are the reddest and best tasting! The sockeye’s travel thousands of miles making their way from the Pacific Ocean up the Kenai River. They then break off at the Russian River to swim upstream to the Russian Lake for spawning. There are only about 3-4 weeks out of the year that they travel to spawn, usually in June – which is why it was so hard for us to get a reservation at the camp site.
You will often hear people refer to fishing the Russian River as “combat fishing”. The first reason is because there are so many people there to fish for a short amount of time, everyone is fighting for their favorite spot, or any spot, to fish. People will get almost shoulder to shoulder just so they can get in to catch the salmon. This year there was such a huge run that they raised the limit from 3 a day, to 6, and finally 9 fish a day. Lots of salmon means lots of fishermen. The second reason for term “combat fishing” is bears. You not only need to defend yourself form other fishermen, but also the wildlife. While we only saw one bear on this leg, in years past there are stories of bears lining the bank eating the carcasses and fresh fish. This is still a forest, and there is still wildlife. In this area, humans are the interlopers and must be aware of the natural world we are visiting.
Since I basically have never fished before, I got the full lesson – casting, netting, stringing, filleting, packaging, cooking and eating! (the last part is my favorite)
Fishing for sockeye is similar to fly fishing. In fact, it is best to use a fly fishing rod and reel. The difference is you use a weight to get the unbaited single hook to the bottom of the river to snag the fish as they swim by. In fact, you are not allowed to bait the hook at all. Also, if you snag a fish in the tail or the side, you must keep it alive and release it back to the river. Only salmon that are hooked in the mouth are legal to keep.
John walked me about 20 minutes along paths and crossing rivers (literally, no bridges) to his fishing spot just beyond the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers. You can actually see the divide in the water after they join where the two rivers flow beside each other.
Once we were “settled” waist deep in the river, he gave me a quick run down, demonstrated the casting, handed me a rod and said “go catch a fish”.
I call this my “getting comfortable” day, since all I managed to hook and reel in were rocks, but they were some good rocks! John landed 3 fish and I helped to net them, where he reels the fish in close and I use a large net to grab it so it doesn’t get away. He then killed the fish and strung it on a line. After a couple hours of me catching rocks and him catching fish, we packed up and moved to the cleaning station – which consists of 4 tables at the confluence of the two rivers. He then showed me how to clean, fillet and skin the fish. To be honest, I have a squeamish stomach and thought this was the one part I would not be able to handle. It turns out I am very adaptable.
Sarah and Connie met us at the bank of the river to walk us back to camp and catch up on the morning events – or lack of. On the trail, we stopped to watch some fishermen and Sarah saw a bear on the opposite bank. She thought “Wow! A bear!” Then she thought, “There are people fishing right there.. “BEAR!”” The fishermen slowly moved away to let the bear in. When the bear left, back to fishing!
We returned back to our respective RVs and he asked if I wanted to go again tomorrow. I said yes! I was hooked!
Another evening of fresh salmon for dinner, great conversation then bed.