“This doesn’t look much like the steelhead water we see in all the books,” my friend said after we’d walked about half a mile of the Anchor River in the early morning light. He was talking about the great, brawling rivers of the Pacific Northwest, of course, pretty much the ideal when discussing North America’s sea-run rainbow trout. But since we weren’t here for a conversation, I tied on a fly and cast anyway, looking to work a short, deep run that flanked the opposite side of the stream. My drift didn’t get far, though. Fish on, making this by definition as great steelhead water.
In this part of Alaska, heading south by road will eventually take you to only one place, though the Anchor River is just the start of the fabulous angling accessible from the Sterling Highway as it wends down the lower Kenai Peninsula. At approximately mile 117.5, just beyond the chalky waters of the Kasilof River, passersby will cross paths with those headed for Clam Gulch and buckets of razors dug on the minus tides. The highway continues to skirt the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet, and in the summer, the roadside meadows are resplendent with patches of blooming fireweed and wild geraniums, lupine and Jacob’s ladder, prickly roses occasionally peeking from the edges of the coastal forest to add a final flourish to the vibrant display. Across the water, mounts Iliamna, Redoubt and Spurr define the western horizon. In the village of Ninilchik, the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is still in use today by area members of the Russian Orthodox faith. The Ninilchik River winds through town. Deep Creek is barely a mile away.
A bit farther south anglers will run into the Anchor River, as well as the small community of Anchor Point, both taking their names from the 1778 voyage of Captain James Cook, who supposedly lost an anchor near the river’s mouth. Back then, the Kenaitze tribe of Athabascan Indians lived along the lower reaches of the stream, near its terminus in Cook Inlet, but today the 213-acre Anchor River State Recreation Area, as far west as a person can travel on the U.S. highway system, spans the gap between the town and the sea. There are five campgrounds bordering the lower river, each equipped with about a dozen tent sites and plenty of both day-use and overnight parking. Upriver, stream access is easily gained via the multitude of pull-offs on the Sterling Highway between Anchor Point and Homer.
The highway, however, keeps going, eventually rounding one final corner and dropping into the city of Homer—literally the end of the road, and fishing-wise, pretty close to the same thing.
Nestled among rolling hills overlooking Kachemak Bay, the seaside community of Homer offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains, glaciers and bay, as well as serving as the gateway to a world of outdoor adventure. Often described as the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World, I’ve also heard Homer called the “Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea,” or as in Tom Bodett’s tales, The End of the Road. Either way, it might be the last place a road-bound angler can end up, but it should be the first place we think of when planning our next trip. Which is exactly why Fish Alaska publisher Melissa Norris headed south for her last excursion, joining friends Dave Jenner, Cheryl Kindwall, Martha Peterson and Chelsea Bowman for the type of all-around experience typical of Homer.
Melissa had arrived from Anchorage via an ERA Aviation flight earlier that day, while the others, having completed their business for the area's Fred Meyer stores, drove down from Soldotna, meeting at a condo reserved at Land's End. The girls shared one three-bedroom unit, plus an attached suite, while Dave had a luxurious two-bedroom condo to himself. The views from all three, as it turns out, were spectacular, featuring a full vista of Kachemak Bay and the mountains to the south.
Located on the Homer Spit, a long, narrow finger of land jutting four and a half miles into Kachemak Bay, Land’s End Resort offers something for every traveler, with six different room- and suite choices available in the main hotel, plus a number of luxurious and spacious private lodges available for rent. This is the only hotel located on the Spit, and it’s within walking distance of the Homer small-boat harbor, home to over 700 year-round charter and commercial boat operators—a number that grows to over 1,500 in the summer months. But before it’s time to hit the harbor and the fish beyond, there’s a meal to get to, another highlight of the Homer experience.
On this occasion, Melissa and her group headed for The Homestead Restaurant, where they were greeted by co-owner Sharlene Cline. While Melissa slipped away to photograph this month’s recipe department, Halibut with Sweet Pea & Lemon Risotto, provided by Chef Chris Lukic (see page 78), the others began a sumptuous meal with Kachemak Bay oysters. After dinner, over wine back at the Land’s End, talk turned to the morning departure aboard the Tuff Stuff, one of the charter boats owned and operated by Bob’s Trophy Charters in Homer.
For the past 19 years, Dave and Diane Morris have owned Bob’s Trophy Charters, and they’ve been Fish Alaska clients for nearly as long as the magazine has existed, so there was never any doubt as to who Melissa would task with the fishing end of their trip. The charter fleet at Bob’s consists of Nauti-Lady, a 50-foot Delta, Katilak, a 34-foot custom-designed catamaran, Huntress, a 30-foot Chris Craft Trophy Sport Fish, and Tuff Stuff, the 35-foot Bertram boarded by Melissa’s group just before 6 a.m. While Dave and Diane both have their captain’s licenses, they leave most of the charter trips to their fellow captains so they are available to run Bob’s Trophy Charters office.
That morning, however, the group was able to tear Dave from his office post and he and Captain Trent Peck set the plan for the day—to head about 45 minutes south of Homer past Seldovia to the salmon-fishing grounds. The initial mission was to try to find some kings for the barbecue, but while they did not find any takers that day, the Tuff Stuff had boated 11 the day before.
This is where fishing from Homer finds much of its allure, in the variety on offer. With the kings off the bite, Captain Dave instructed his clients to pull their gear and the group headed farther south to the halibut grounds.
In Homer, halibut is king, and one of the largest charter fleets in Alaska operates out of the port bound for more remote areas of the bay and lower Cook Inlet. Kachemak Bay is ideal for small craft, as well as larger sport-fishing vessels, and it’s typically only a short run from the boat-launch facilities at Homer Harbor to the south side, where the majority of the good angling takes place.
The limit here is two halibut per angler, per day, and once on the grounds it didn’t take long for Melissa’s group to limit-out. Targeting ‘chickens’ in the 30- to 40-pound range (by request, as these were fish bound for the freezer), they quickly filled the hold with keepers, including one 80- to 90-pounder caught by Dave Jenner. Also on offer were a number of rockfish, which provided some variety to the day, not to mention some fine eating later in the year.
Anglers enjoying the marine environment out of Homer can do well for salmon and sea-run Dolly Varden fishing in or near the stream mouths just about anywhere in the bay. These clear-green waters are home to both natural and enhanced runs of salmon, as well as a rich assemblage of shellfish and bottomfish. Halibut, rockfish and lingcod anglers can target the shoals and reefs found in deeper water. Similarly, the majority of Chinook anglers target mature, stream-bound kings in the outer bay from about mid-May through early June, while trollers in search of the smaller, ‘feeder’ kings can have productive days year-round (every March, there is a winter king salmon derby held in Homer that attracts anglers from around the state).
And after many long hours spent hauling in huge flatfish, there’s little better than returning to shore for a great meal, good wine and some seriously comfortable accommodations.
Earlier this year, I found myself within a few miles of Homer and that steelhead hole that didn’t look like a traditional steelhead hole, rocking on the gentle swells of Cook Inlet, dropping a jig two hundred feet into the emerald depths, searching for barn-door flatfish in the shadows of Alaska’s Ring of Fire. That was just a month after we launched at Deep Creek and tossed large herring and smelt imitations to ocean-cruising Chinook. Over Memorial Day, I joined the crowds moving to freshwater and tried my luck for an early-returning Anchor River king. By midsummer I was back, stalking the small streams of the lower Kenai Peninsula for streamlined, silver-sided Dolly Varden fresh from the sea. August saw a return to the salt, as we trolled just off the bluff-lined beaches of lower Cook Inlet for coho on the incoming tides. After multiple silver and steelhead forays in the last few months, I was able to reflect some on the advantages of heading to the end of the road before beginning a southcentral Alaska fishing expedition.
First, whether it’s purely fishing, or some mix including kayaking, bear or marine-wildlife viewing, shopping, dining and sightseeing, Homer has it all. People have inhabited Kachemak Bay for thousands of years, drawn to its abundant, diverse natural setting and relatively mild climate, and today, with tourism leading the local charge, the area’s many superlatives have never been more apparent. Variety is the spice of life, they say, and I’d guess that can be even more true when it comes to planning the perfect all-around Alaska adventure. That’s why I like to start at land’s end.
Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine.