story by Troy Letherman
“Someone should probably swing a fly by that rock,” said good friend and fellow writer Greg Thomas, pointing towards a giant, stream-diverting boulder that shouldered a short but relatively deep pool. A few seconds later, we were heading downstream, Greg’s rod bowed to the steelhead found holding right where he’d guessed it would be.
It was only the second fish in a day rapidly nearing conclusion, a bright, blue sky and ivory cloud kind of day, the afternoon light further emboldening the amber and gold milieu of a southcentral Alaska fall. Numbers didn’t matter, though, and they shouldn’t. Rather success had been bestowed upon our adventure the moment wader and water first met, wrapped tight in the loops of a first cast, a parting gift from the summer now past. Just to be fishing was enough—to be fishing for steelhead, freshwater’s most hallowed son, was almost too much. Friends—the conversation, the laughs, cold beers and fine cigars, a variety of depraved and sometimes heinous deeds accomplished deep in the dark of night—completed the package.
Well, nearly completed, for none of it would have been possible without the place, already home to a plethora of well-remembered outings but still a destination many see as little more than the swathe of coastline separating the kings of Kenai from Homer’s halibut. Spend a single season fishing in the area, however, and that notion will ring about as true as igloo subdivisions and a dogsled around every bend and numerous other myths of life in theGreatLand. If, as the 18th century English poet William Cowper wrote, “Variety’s the very spice of life, / That gives it all its flavour,” then to anglers, this seemingly nondescript section of the Southcentral coast should be about as tasty as it can get.
Earlier last year, I found myself within a few miles of that steelhead hole, rocking on the gentle swells of Cook Inlet, dropping bait or jig two hundred feet into the emerald depths, searching for barn-door flatfish in the shadows of Alaska’s Ring of Fire. By midsummer it was flowing water and a family affair this time, as wife, children, and I stalked the small streams of the lowerKenai Peninsulafor streamlined, silver-sided Dolly Varden fresh from the sea. August oversaw a return to the salt, as we trolled just off the bluff-lined beaches for coho on the incoming tides. After multiple steelhead forays in the last few months of the year and then a winter spent tying flies, I was back again, like Raskolnikov revisiting the scene of the crime, though this time I came armed with a 10-weight rod and the heavy sinking lines and we tossed large herring and smelt imitations to Chinook salmon cruising for a final saltwater meal. Each of these excursions began within a twenty-mile stretch of the Sterling Highway.
At approximately mile 117.5 of that highway, 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 thevillageofNinilchik, cameras can capture images of the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is still used today by area members of the Russian Orthodox faith. The Ninilchik River winds through town.
A few miles 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: Silver King, Coho, Steelhead, Slide Hole, and Halibut, 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 Highwaybetween Anchor Point and Homer.
Part of the Anchor’s allure lies in its intimate nature, as the river is as user-friendly as any other stream in the state. Though it’s primarily a pocket fishery, anglers can still expect to find a decent variety of angling conditions on the river, with perhaps a boulder garden, a deep outside pool, and a series of long, medium-depth riffles all occurring within a hundred yards of each other. This is classic do-it-yourself water, easily reached and easily fished, with very little guided effort taking place. However, it’s basically a small, coastal stream, and as such, the Anchor is susceptible to blowing out of shape during periods of steady rain, slight and tea-colored one day, a raging torrent of chocolate the next. In the early fall, low conditions can also adversely affect fishing opportunities,with both the water and the fish spread thin.
As far as consistency goes, the Dollies probably provide the steadiest action on the Anchor. These are sea-run fish, departing in the spring to take up offshore feeding routes throughout the summer. They begin to return in the late summer, coming in on the tides—and sometimes going back out—before moving upstream to their spawning beds. The river’s upper stretches also hold a decent population of resident rainbow trout, but it’s the sea-run versions of the rainbows that are responsible for the bulk of the autumn angling, with the action usually picking up sometime around mid- to late September and improving through the month of October. Early on, it can be best to fish steelhead on the tides, setting up station on the best beats of holding water along the lower river. Later on, when the fish are more democratically deployed throughout the system, anglers can hike much of the river corridor and fish miles of quality water in a day. Currently, catch-and-release-only regulations apply to both steelhead and resident rainbow trout on the AnchorRiver.
Like nearly all ofAlaska’s road-accessible streams, the Anchor receives most of its visitors when the salmon arrive, especially the Chinook. Pink (late July through early August) and coho (mid- to late August) salmon also return to the river for spawning purposes, and the fishing for either species can border on the fantastic. It’s the kings that rule, however.
A nearby pair of lower peninsula streams, Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River, host returns of the largest of the Pacific salmon as well, and the banks of each is alive during the run. On Memorial Day weekend for sure, space for either camping or casting can be hard to come by, but quite often, the fun and the fish are worth it. The Anchor River and Deep Creek Chinook hail from native stocks, while the king salmon returning to the Ninilchik River are a mixture of wild and hatchery fish (the stocking program has been in effect on the Ninilchik since 1988). The majority of the salmon angling on these streams takes place in lower stretches, below the three Sterling Highway bridges, and each is primarily restricted to weekend-only openings. The most productive Chinook fishing usually takes place during the first half of June.