Although they don’t have the same cache as trophy King Salmon, Sockeye Salmon or Reds are a very popular sport fish. One reason Reds attract anglers is their numbers. In Alaska’s Kenai River during their runs they are abundant, regularly peaking at 750,000 and sometimes reach 1,000,000! That’s right—one million Reds. Additionally, as far as taste goes, the Sockeye is said to be the best tasting of all salmon (there’s a reason it’s an extremely popular commercial fish). Finally, there is the relatively large daily bag limit, which means you have ample opportunity to flex your Sockeye fishing muscles.
The initial Red Salmon run starts in late May as they make their way to the Russian River, a tributary of the Kenai, by first swimming through the lower and middle sections of that river. Reds become plentiful right around June tenth, peaking sometime between the fifteenth and twentieth of the month. Their numbers begin to diminish by the third week, however there’s still good fishing until the end of the month. Sockeyes are most plentiful in the upper regions of the Kenai, although they are also quite profuse in the middle and lower sections.
The second run of Reds starts in mid-July, peaking in the third week and then dwindling until their migration is finished at the end of the month. Fishermen crowd the banks of the Kenai River, sometimes standing up to 20 thick, as the Sockeye makes its spirited final run to the confluence of the Russia and Kenai Rivers. The crowded conditions with so many anglers focused in specific areas of the river has earned its own descriptive term—“combat fishing.” But despite the hardscrabble name, there are plenty of fish to go around and chances are good you’ll reach your bag limit while meeting other angling enthusiasts.
Sport fishermen especially enjoy battling with Reds because pound for pound they are the feistiest and most pugnacious of all salmon. Ranging from 6 to 12 pounds, with the record Red weighing in at 16, these muscular salmon will break through the water numerous times, testing your tackle’s drag as you try to land them.
Some areas of the Kenai, mainly the upper sections, allow only fly fishing in the taking of Reds, while other areas also allow for spin casting or a basic rod and reel. Trying to catch Sockeye with the bait you’d use for Chinook or Coho Salmon will usually result in little success. The Sockeye, unlike any other species of salmon in the Kenai, is a plankton feeder.
Commonly used lures include a Coho, Russian River or Streamer fly combined with a number 3 or 4 hook on 15-20-pound test line with the right size weight to allow your attractor to reach its proper depth. You’ll want your lure to be about a foot or two above the swimming salmon. Because this species tends to hug the bank, fishing from the shore is often preferred.
When Sockeye swim, they continually open and close their mouths and often roll and splash as they work their way upstream. In trying to catch the Red, you’ll want to get your bait as close to its mouth as possible. It’s important to realize that these fish are not aggressive feeders and that means anglers must take the lead.
Often Reds will simply mouth the fly for a moment and then let go. Because of this, once you feel a minor bump or hesitation in your line, you must set the hook. If you don’t do this, you’ll have a day filled with nibbles and nothing else. It’s a tricky technique but once you get it, you’ll be hauling in the Reds.
The basic technique for catching Sockeye is to cast upstream at 3 o’clock, letting the fly work its way downstream in the current. When your bait gets to 9 o’clock reel your line in and cast again.
When the Reds run, it’s an extremely exciting time on the river, offering innumerable opportunities to fishermen looking for a good fight and a fine tasting fish. On the Kenai River there are numerous licensed guides who can help you get the most out of your fishing experience, helping you insure your stringer or fish box is as full as it can be with this abundant but tricky species of salmon.