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From clams to kings

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Take the best chance to tangle with large salmon from shore

It's what for many locals heralds start of the Alaska fishing season, and it begins each year at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, on Memorial Day weekend. That's when a small legion of dedicated anglers descends upon the village of Ninilchik for the annual king salmon kickoff on Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River.

Located on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula about 40 miles south of Soldotna, Ninilchik becomes a mecca for resident and nonresident anglers alike. That's because this weekend-only fishery (running from Saturday through Monday for three to five consecutive weekends) represents what may be the best opportunity to tangle with Alaska's largest salmon from shore - a big draw, especially for do-it-yourselfers and those on a budget.

"It's incredible to simply be able to walk in here and do this," said Roger DeSmith, a visiting angler from Wisconsin, after landing his first king in Alaska.

Because of the easy access, however, it does tend to get crowded, though most anglers agree it has a feel different from the notorious combat zones where red salmon fishermen congregate later in the year. "For one thing, there are more locals," said Kristin DeSmith, Roger's daughter and an Anchorage resident who regularly makes the trip south to fish.

"I think over the years," she said, "the regulars have kind of decided upon some 'ground rules.' Everyone gets out of your way, for instance, and lets you play the fish as long as it takes, and that's different than red fishing, in which you are expected to haul in your catch as soon as possible."

Part of the reason for this may also be due to the size of the fish and their explosive nature. While much smaller than a Kenai River king, these 15- to 25-pound fish are incredibly strong, and even on the heaviest gear are free to go on tremendous runs or in some cases to simply stay put . So even with the requisite 30-pound test line, the angler often has no option but to hang on for as long as it takes and hope for the best.

While spinning gear and bait casting rods are common, many anglers prefer a 10-weight fly rod. Some use traditional streamers, such as a bunny leech or flash fly, or even dead-drift a large imitation-egg pattern. With only a short window of opportunity, however, most forsake imitations and go with the real thing - fresh salmon roe - even on fly gear. Tied onto a snelled hook with an egg loop, they simply allow the gob of eggs to drift through a likely looking hole. Many people also employ the use of a small Spin-N-Glo for added attraction.

Both rivers, along with the Anchor River a little farther south, not only support strong runs of king salmon but later in the year a large number of coho or silver salmon also return. The silvers begin showing up in July and run strong through mid-September, and they can be taken on a variety of streamers or just about any bright spinner or spoon.

During and between salmon runs there is the added bonus of Dolly Varden. Present from July through October, these large sea-run fish provide excellent sport and an opportunity to break out the light spinning gear or the 4-weight fly rod. They will readily take any variety of flesh flies or egg pattern or a small spinner.

Most fly-fishers agree the best time on these streams is autumn, during the peak of the steelhead run. Steelhead first become available in August, although this fishery continues until freeze-up. These small runs of fish are the northernmost extreme of Alaska's steelhead and are solely catch and release. Therefore, they should be handled with the utmost care and promptly set free.

There is no doubt river fishing has a strong allure, but it is only the beginning of the angling adventure available in the Ninilchik area. Fishing for halibut usually begins in April. Anglers with their own boats can head out into the icy waters of Cook Inlet via one of the commercial tractor launches on the beaches in Ninilchik or farther south near the village of Anchor Point. Halibut generally tend to move closer to shore early in the season and will congregate near underwater structures, such as shelves, drop-offs and pinnacles. It helps to have a good sonar unit or fish finder to locate these structures and the concentrations of fish that often gather around them. Once a likely spot is located, most anglers use chunks of herring or any variety of jigs to attract these enormous flatfish. Because of the strong currents in Cook Inlet and the fish's size, it is common to use extremely stout gear, usually a "tuna stick" with braided line, and a sinker that often weighs a pound or two.

Also, because the tides are so strong, many anglers fish for halibut only during slack tides. Fortunately, king salmon are also available in the salt water, and many fishermen will troll for them between tides.

For those without their own boats, there are plenty of full- and half-day charters available. When selecting a charter boat, use the same criteria you would for any guide. Check references and, if possible, speak to your skipper and make sure you are comfortable with your choice.

As with any marine fishery, if you haven't operated a boat in the ocean before, it is wise to utilize an experienced captain for the first few times. This is especially true in a place like Cook Inlet, where there is so much open water and such vastly fluctuating tides, and where the weather is fickle and often changes without warning. Visitors who want a slightly less adventurous, though much dirtier, activity may want to consider clam digging. The area beaches are rich with razor clams, and all that's needed to pursue this delicious morsel is an Alaska sportfishing license, a pair of rubber boots and a clam shovel. Simply walk the beaches at a minus tide, the lower the better, and look for dimples in the sand that indicate a clam's hidden lair. It takes a bit of practice and speed to be able to catch up to one of these surprisingly fast shellfish with your shovel. You must also be careful in the frenzy of digging not to break the shell. With a little bit of practice and effort, however, it won't take long to fill the daily limit of 45 clams - indeed a tasty and rewarding outdoor activity.

Freelance writer Dave Atcheson, author of "Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula," lives in Sterling.

Late-night fishing tips Some tips for participating in the midnight king opening:

- 1. If you are new to the fishery, get there early and don't be afraid to ask questions. Locals are usually more than happy let you in on what's happening and to give tips to newcomers.

- 2. Do unto others and be polite. For instance, if you see someone nearby with a fish on, quickly reel in and get out of the way, allowing them to play their king to shore.

- 3. Kings filter through the system all weekend. For a slightly less crowded stream bank, try fishing at off hours, early in the morning, or Sunday night or Monday morning. There may be a few less fish, but there will also be fewer fishermen.

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