The combat-fishing lowdown

by • July 19, 2018 • HighlightsComments (0)1625


What first-timers should know about this favorite Alaskan blood sport

I’ve been fishing sockeye since the tender age of 9. It’s such a natural activity to me — like napping or eating snacks. So, every year I’m shocked to meet fellow Alaskans who have no idea what I’m talking about when I say “combat fishing.” Like any Alas- kan worth their salts, it’s how I spend most weekends in July and, in my humble opinion, it’s how you should spend yours. But, for those new to the sport, here’s a round-up of must-know tips and tricks.


The author holds her catch while fishing the Kenai River. COURTESY SARAH ZERKEL 

When people refer to combat fishing, they’re generally talking about fishing for sockeye salmon – or “reds” as they’re more commonly known. Rushing up Alaska rivers in “runs,” they’re presence ebbs
and flows. If you hit a run at the right time, you’re almost guaranteed

a catch. Sockeye come in two runs, the second of which is generally stronger. While they don’t follow specific dates, expect the first run around mid June, with the second picking up in early July. Insider tip: If you see anglers packing the bank, the reds are probably in thick.


In Southcentral Alaska you’ll want to hit the Russian and Kenai rivers. Access the Russian River just south of Cooper Landing at Mile 55 of the Sterling Highway. There, you can hike along and fish at designated spots, or hop the ferry across the river for more op- tions. And of course there’s the Kenai River, accessed in dozens of places throughout Kenai and Soldotna. Most people will suggest you fish here in July during the second run, and I would agree.


If you’re lucky enough to have a friend who knows their way around a river, they can probably talk you through what you’ll need. If not, local sports shops like Sportsman’s Warehouse have experts ready to get geared for success. You’ll need hip waders, a net, proper tackle, and of course a rod – hey, we never said it was a cheap hobby.

When it comes to tackle, know where you’re going as regulations dictate the size of hook that’s legal. For instance, if you’ll be fishing the Russian River be sure you have the appropriate fly – that is a single hook no bigger than 3/8 inch. Ask the pros at any local shop and they’ll make sure you’re set up. And no matter what, make sure you have a proper fishing license and keep it on you at all times. Fish and Game can, and does, check for licenses often.


The technique for bringing in a sockeye is different than most types of fishing. Due to the large flux of fish at various times, your hook actually acts more as a snagging mechanism than a lure. Snag- ging a red in the mouth is a matter of letting your weight bounce along the riverbed and jerking your line up at just the right moment. To get your rhythm right, let out some line and let the river take it downstream, following the line with your rod. Once your rod is at about a 45-degree angle from the bank, jerk up like you have a fish on, pull the line in and flip it back upstream. Follow this rhythm – flip, flow, yank, repeat – until you get a fish on.


It’s always tempting to go out as far as possible from the bank, but keep in mind, sockeye mostly stick closert to shore. Also, staying closer in, lessens your chance of falling in.

Another point of vulnerability is your head and face. With people standing shoulder-to-shoulder, hooks getting snagged in rocks and popping out of the water at alarming speeds, sockeye aren’t the only ones taking hooks to the face. Protect yourself from becoming some- one’s trophy catch by always wearing eye protection and a hat.


Sportsmanship is important on the river, and there are two key pieces of etiquette. First, don’t take someone’s spot. The banks are crowded and finding a good place to cast is challenging. If someone walks away to adjust their gear or tend to their catch, don’t take it as an invitation to keep their spot warm. If a fisher is truly finished for the day, it’s OK to step in – but if there’s ever doubt, ask first.

Second, don’t keep a snagged fish. Not only will fellow sportsmen frown on keeping a fish reeled in by the tail, Fish and Game will express their disapproval with a hefty fine. Play fair: If you snag a fish anywhere but square in the mouth, toss it back and wait for a fair catch.

When most people think about fishing they imagine solitude, the almost imperceptible buzz of a line cast out, and the artful give and take of bringing in the evening’s dinner. Of course it wouldn’t be that simple here. Alaskans do things a little bit more extreme – we just can’t help it.

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