Alaskan Fishing Adventures Story by Marcus Weiner, Photos by Brian Woobank
Alaskan Fishing Adventures on the Kenai Peninsula: Good People and Good Angling
“That’s as much fun as I’ve ever had with my clothes on,” exclaims Rod Reed at the end of our two-hour salmon landing frenzy on the first morning fishing the Kenai River. With six salmon (mostly sockeye) each in hand, it’s only 9:15 in the morning. What a great way to begin the 7th Annual Sportsman’s Warehouse Contest trip!
For the last seven years, two lucky anglers have gotten to join Fish Alaska for the fishing adventure of a lifetime and the opportunity to be part of a feature article. We began on the Kenai Peninsula in 2013, went to Sitka in 2014, Elfin Cove in 2015, Pybus Point in 2016, Yakutat in 2017, Togiak in 2018 and back to the Kenai Peninsula in 2019. 2019 winners were Cortney and Rod Reed from Rock Springs, WY. Cortney won the contest, and her guest was her lucky husband. Both Reeds were fun to fish with and enjoyed every moment in Alaska. My good pal Brian Woobank, ace photo guru and burgeoning videographer, rounded out the group.
Alaskan Fishing Adventures hosted the 2019 contest winners. Mark Burner runs a very good operation that features three locations: Anglers Lodge on the Kenai River in Sterling, Alaska Trophy Lodge on the Kenai River in Soldotna, and Castaway Riverside Lodge and RV Park on the Kenai River in Sterling. He employs river guides who base from Anglers Lodge and fish both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, and also has saltwater boats in both Seward and Homer. Additionally, he works with several air charters to provide guided fly-out fishing. For fish processing, he uses Custom Seafood Processors, and has established a program with them where guests can drop fish any time of day. In sum, it’s a flexible operation that caters to the wants of its guests and can provide a truly varied fishing experience that I found to be very enjoyable. Mark employs good people and has a solid network of service providers and the end result is an excellent experience for guests.
We visited Anglers Lodge and stayed at Alaska Trophy Lodge. Both lodges are well-appointed, and offer a clean and comfortable environment. The food is delicious, with breakfast to order, lunch to go, and a fine four-course dinner awaiting you at the end of each fishing day. Chef Frank, stationed at Alaska Trophy Lodge, prepared excellent appetizers, main courses and deserts. In my opinion, a lodge experience has to deliver good fishing, good food, good lodging and friendly and helpful staff. Alaskan Fishing Adventures did just that.
Day 1 brought the excitement of wetting a line and catching their first salmon for both Cortney and Rod. With chrome-bright sockeye streaming upriver, our primary target would be red salmon. In 2019, over 1.84 million late-run sockeye passed by the sonar counter before ADF&G ceased counting for the year on 8/19/19. With a strong return, the daily sockeye limit while we were on the river was six per day. The usual limit is three per day. Silvers were trickling in as well, and the limit on those remained normal at two per day. If an angler were to catch and keep two silvers in a day, then they could keep four sockeye, as the daily possession limit for the combined species was six.
Boaz Sessom, born and raised in the Mat-Su Valley, was our guide. The energetic, former runner at the University of Alaska Anchorage was fun to fish with. He’s quick to joke and clearly enjoys guiding. He was a good instructor, and soon the Reeds were regularly into salmon. Boaz shared that he targets locations where there is a steep drop-off from the river’s edge into the river, which causes the sockeye to run very close to shore, making it easier to line them. The basic technique is for anglers to run drifts with enough weight so that line and hook are drifting at about the same level as a sockeye’s mouth. Anglers cast about 10 feet of line slightly upstream, and point the tip of the rod at the terminal tackle as it swings down below. When the line hits an open mouth, the angler sets the hook, and with stout baitcasting gear and 30-pound-test, sockeye can be easily managed when properly hooked.
After photographing the Reeds in action, Brian and I started fishing and soon the stringer was full. We left the lodge at 7:00 a.m., made a very short run downriver, and by 9:15, we had limited out. The sockeye were chrome with sea lice and I was amazed at how few blushed salmon we landed. Keep in mind that the first day of fishing for us was August 20th. Mixed into the limit was three silvers, plump and ornery.
On day 2, we were treated to a fly out to the Kustatan River with High Adventure Air Charter. We flew out with Greg Bell, an owner of the company. High Adventure more than delivered: super-nice planes, professional pilots, good service, skilled guides and a precise fishing program combined to exceed expectations. We fished with Jake Gilliland and he was my kind of fisherman. Meticulous, skilled, fun to fish with and good with new anglers. All of his gear was rigged and ready, and bait was prepared and abundant.
After a smooth flight from the High Adventure Air Charter base on Longmere Lake in Soldotna, we hiked about 1/2 mile to a promising run. We plunked eggs for silvers and limited in 90 minutes. Then we threw hardware for two hours and hooked just one fish. The Kustatan is highly glacially influenced, offering little visibility. Silvers in this river depend on their noses, making eggs the bait of choice. After we wrapped up angling, Jake cooked us a scrumptious sautéed coho lunch, combining butter, brown sugar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. The result was a delicious sauce that had sweet citrus overtones. I’ve since made it and drizzled it over sautéed halibut.
On day 3, we headed down to Homer to fish aboard one of Alaskan Fishing Adventures’ saltwater boats. Captain Joe and first mate Riley made a quick 24-mile run to the halibut grounds in lower Cook Inlet. Our original plan was to head south into the Gulf of Alaska where we could target big halibut, rockfish and lingcod, but a small craft advisory and 8- to 10-foot seas kept us in Cook Inlet.
Action was steady and we fished herring on the bottom with stout Penn halibut gear and heavy weights. We fished in about 120 feet of water for about three hours surrounding the tide change. In addition to limiting on halibut, we caught a 15-pound king salmon on the same setup.
We moved about 14 miles to troll for salmon and lit them up. In about two hours, 18 coho and 7 more kings hit the deck. Using downriggers, Hot Spot 11-inch flashers and Silver Horde Coho Killer spoons, we trolled at 2- to 3 knots at 35- and 45 feet deep in 120 feet of water. In general, the kings were deeper than the coho. The Silver Horde Coho Killer is a great bait to imitate needlefish and the coho we caught were plugged full of them. The spoon is very light, so use a short leader—say about 24 inches—so that the flasher can impart movement to the spoon.
On day 4 with Alaskan Fishing Adventures we were back on the Kenai River with Jeff Simms. He has been guiding in Alaska for five years, hails from New Mexico and is a very cool dude. He’s capable, fun and enjoys his profession. His brother Nate also guides there and has been guiding for 14 years. We caught sockeye, coho, coho jacks, dollies and a king. We were still landing nice sockeye with sea lice on 8/23, which was an added bonus that I did not expect. Using Ugly Stik fly rods, we had two dozen fish on the stringer by 11:30. Fun was had by all.
Mark Burner works with a good network of people and his gear, lodges, boats and food were all very good. Alex runs Alaska Trophy Lodge and it’s a friendly place that is comfortable and very nicely decorated, and sports both a pool table and card table. It’s the type of place you could enjoy with your fishing buddies and also bring your family. Being right on the Kenai River is an added benefit.
My takeaway from this trip with Alaskan Fishing Adventures is that the Kenai Peninsula remains a vibrant, healthy and accessible location for a varied Alaskan fishing adventure. Kudos to Mark Burner for an aptly named enterprise. From multi-species opportunities on the famed Kenai River, to a mixture of saltwater choices from ports like Seward and Homer, to fly-out options on the west side of Cook Inlet, anglers can spend a week and experience a wide range of adventures. It’s these special opportunities combined with good people and a well-executed program that make Alaskan Fishing Adventures a top choice for visiting sportsmen.
Fish Alaska owes a special thanks to Sportsman’s Warehouse (website) and Alaskan Fishing Adventures (website). In partnering with Sportsman’s Warehouse, we’ve been able to focus a spotlight on many locations around Alaska and provide a truly special fishing trip for two lucky winners. In working with Alaskan Fishing Adventures, Mark Burner arranged an itinerary that showcased much of what is special about the Kenai Peninsula and its people. It’s easy to get myopic and think that fish are everywhere in Alaska and that anyone can catch them. This experience further demonstrates that good people make all the difference, and the good people who work at Alaskan Fishing Adventures made this trip truly memorable.
Marcus Weiner is Publisher of both Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. His best days are spent with rod and rifle, preferably with one or more of his sons at his side.
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Fish Alaska.