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Fishing fever: Early-season anglers converge on the lower Kenai Peninsula

As the sun sets, Brad Fusaro casts for king salmon at the mouth of Deep Creek. Memorial Day weekend is the beginning of fishing season for most Alaskans.

Daily News archive 2004

As the sun sets, Brad Fusaro casts for king salmon at the mouth of Deep Creek. Memorial Day weekend is the beginning of fishing season for most Alaskans.

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Sometime around mid-April, as winter softens into spring, salmon-hungry Southcentral anglers look first to the sea. Specifically, they head for the lower Kenai Peninsula, where early-run kings start appearing off the beaches of places like Anchor Point, Whiskey Gulch and Deep Creek.

What locals say about lower Peninsula fishing
"Memorial Day weekend, that's my kickoff. I take care of my halibut for the year, fill up my freezer. On a good Memorial Day weekend I can get what I need. King fishing's good too. I typically (troll) cut-plug herring and fish right off shore in 10 to 30 feet of water. When the kings are in close, I've seen people without boats catch them by casting right off the beach."


-- Rusty Belanger, longtime Anchorage-based angler

Clamming -- get down and dirty
In addition to the area's great fishing, the beaches around Deep Creek and Ninilchik are loaded with razor clams. All that is needed to pick up a mess of these tasty shellfish is a pair of hip boots, a shovel, a bucket for your catch and a willingness to get down and dirty in the muck where clams thrive.


Clammers walk the beaches at low tide looking for dimples in the sand that indicate the presence of clams beneath. Some quick digging is required to catch razor clams -- they can retreat into the muck with surprising speed. Consistent success takes a knack, but with a little practice, coming up with a daily bag limit of 45 of these tasty shellfish isn't difficult. Minus tides of 2 feet or lower offer the best clam digging.

Launching skiffs and small cabin cruisers into the surf, these early-bird anglers patrol the shorelines, working off the kelp beds where bait fish gather. This is a troll fishery, and cut-plug herring, spoons and large spinners all take their share of bright, springtime fish.

The salmon during these early-season days come in fits and starts. Normally fishing grows faster and more consistent by May, with action peaking around Memorial Day at the end of the month. By then, on the verge of summer, fishing in lower Peninsula waters is approaching full swing -- not only in saltwater but in the freshwater fisheries as well.

In area streams, the cry of "Fish on!" echoes first over the glacial current of the Kasilof River. Anglers here start hauling in the season's first king salmon by mid-May. Fishing from the banks with heavy spinning or fly tackle, many anglers stake out eddies and pools where they drift Corkies, Spin-n-glos or hanks of brightly colored yarn. After May 15, when the river opens to bait fishing, many enhance their offerings with cured salmon roe.

Meanwhile, others in driftboats and catarafts back-troll plugs, such as Wigglewarts or the locally popular Kwikfish in size K15. Many also use spinners and spoons such as Tee-spoons, Vibrax and Pixees to entice king salmon.

The Kasilof hosts two distinct king salmon runs, with the first peaking in mid-June. The second, or "late," run is usually smaller than the first and hits the river around July 1. Decent fishing for this run lasts two or three weeks.

THE BIG EVENT

Good as it feels to step outside after a long winter, the early marine and Kasilof king salmon fisheries are only small precursors to the Peninsula's big Memorial Day event. The holiday weekend marks the salmon fishing openers in Deep Creek and the Ninilchik and Anchor rivers. Alaskans, more than ready to greet the summer fishing season, turn out by the thousands.

Roughly a mile apart at their mouths, Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River cross the Sterling Highway about 180 miles south of Anchorage before spilling into Cook Inlet. The state recreation areas located off the highway at Deep Creek (Mile 137) and Ninilchik (Mile 135.7) provide hundreds of camping and daily parking spaces.

Down the road at Mile 157, the Anchor River State Recreation Area offers another 160 campsites.

On Memorial Day weekend, the campsites at all three locations fill up quickly, prompting many campers to show up days early to secure a site. And Friday night, the eve of the king salmon opener in the streams, hundreds of anglers gather at favorite fishing holes along the Anchor, lower Ninilchik and Deep Creek to wait for the stroke of midnight.

By 12:01 a.m. Saturday, the streams are full of casting fishermen and leaping salmon. Many anglers catch their king within the first minutes of the opening. Then it's back to the campfire to relax and prepare for the coming day.

Since all three streams are wadable and fairly narrow, kings can be caught with both spinning and fly tackle. Average kings weigh around 25 pounds, though fish to 60 pounds and better are occasionally landed.

Those who use spinning gear generally prefer heavy rods with reels capable of holding 150 to 200 yards of 30-pound-test line. Drift rigs baited with cured salmon roe work well, while Spin-n-glos, Tee Spoons, Pixees and various plugs, such as Kwikfish, are good baitless choices. Effective colors include red, orange, pink and chartreuse.

Fly-fishers use 10- to 12-weight rods with reels large enough to hold 200 yards of 30-pound-test backing. Streamers tied on large hooks (3/0 isn't too big) can be effective. Try Egg-sucking Leeches, Fat Freddies, Flash Flies and Everglos.

HALIBUT

Even as crowds descend upon the salmon streams for the popular Memorial Day weekend and subsequent weekend openings, another fleet of anglers heads for the deeper waters of Cook Inlet to hunt for halibut.

These bottom-dwelling flatfish, relished for their tasty white fillets, are local angling favorites. Although fish weighing more than 300 pounds are occasionally caught in area waters, most taken in near-shore areas average 20 to 30 pounds. Stout deep-sea rods, heavy level-wind reels and braided 60- to 100-pound-test lines are used to handle these tackle busters.

Most anglers use something along the order of No. 16 circle hooks baited with herring, octopus or salmon heads. Plenty of weight is needed to keep baits on the bottom where halibut lay -- 12 to 32 ounces of lead, and sometimes more, is required, depending upon the currents and tides of the day.

BACK TO THE STREAMS

As the frantic pace of springtime fishing eases into summer's longer, lazier days, anglers move on to other fish species. Once king salmon seasons close sometime in June, Dolly Varden and resident rainbow trout offer pleasant diversions for many stream anglers. Fly-fishers and others using light spinning gear can enjoy a little solitude by walking upstream and exploring the pools and riffles.

In July, pink salmon enter area streams, followed in August by the more popular silver salmon. Pinks average 4 to 6 pounds apiece, silvers 8 to 12 pounds. Both species are easily handled with medium-weight fly or spinning rods. Various streamer flies will work, with purple or black Egg-sucking Leeches, Battle Creek Specials, Bunny Bugs, Babines and Flash Flies being popular. Hardware anglers have good luck using spinners or spoons, such as Vibrax or Pixees, in various colors.

Steelhead -- sea-run rainbow trout ranging in size from 6 to 14 pounds -- enter Deep Creek and the Ninilchik and Anchor rivers in late August. Dolly Varden, present throughout the season, are also more frequently caught in late summer and fall. Steelhead, along with silver salmon, will take a variety of spoons, spinners, drift rigs and flies. Vibrax spinners, Pixee spoons and Spin-n-glos are popular among spin casters, while Glo-bugs, Bunny Leeches and Battle Creek Specials are good choices for fly-fishers.

Steelhead fishing in all area streams is allowed on a catch-and-release basis only. For other fishing restrictions, including bait closures and bag limits, be sure to check state sportfishing regulations before you wet a line.

For more information on camping, lodging and fishing-guide services in the Ninilchik and Deep Creek areas, contact the Ninilchik Chamber of Commerce at P.O. Box 39164, Ninilchik 99639, call 1-907-567-3518 or browse the chamber's Web site at www.ninilchikchamber.com.

For information on Deep Creek State Recreation Area, call 1-907-262-5581 or visit the Web site at www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/units/deepck.htm

To find out more about local fishing, call the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer at 1-907-235-8191 or visit the department's Web site at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/Region2/html/r2home.stm.

Ken Marsh is a Daily News copy editor who lives in Anchorage.

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