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Kodiak Roadies

Rig your rod, rent a car and roll up and down Alaska's Kodiak Island in search of salmon.

May 23, 2003
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Kodiak Roadies_03

Kodiak Roadies_03

At the mouth of Alaska\s Buskin River

Standing in frigid water up to my waist, I survey the scene for signs of fish while blind-casting a purple egg sucking leech. Gray skies spitting an intermittent drizzle mute the September colors that surround Kalsin Pond. Keeping my head down, I concentrate on the auditory experience of Alaska.

Waves from the bay murmur on the rocky beach a quarter-mileaway. The occasional splatter of a jumping coho punctuates the rhythmic hiss of fly line, but other sounds remind me that I’m not exactly lost in the wilderness. Three anglers kick about in belly boats 100 yards out, conversing rather loudly, and a pickup rumbles along the gravel road behind me. Suddenly, a different noise catches my attention.

Splash … splash … splash … SPLASH! With an apparent Doppler effect, the echoing sound grows louder, increasing in pitch and urgency as it approaches before vanishing in a muffled swoosh. I hear it again. And again. Turning to see what the heck is going on, I watch silver salmon shoot one at a time through the 4-foot-diameter culvert that links the pond to Olds River. Wading over to peek into the pipe, I see fish ranging from 7 to 10 pounds leap into the far end of the tube, power up the inches-deep, low-tide trickle and slip over the rim into the pond. Backs exposed, bellies dragging, these determined salmon are swimming beneath Chiniak Road – right under my car, which I’d parked on the berm. The fish have reached this point by following their instincts on a long, arduous journey back from the sea. My own goal was infinitely easier to achieve: To find these salmon, all I had to do was follow the road.

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Drive-By Casting
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game divides Kodiak Island into two distinct management areas, identified as “the road system” and”the remote zone.” Hugging the rugged coastline and spreading northand south from the town of Kodiak (population 30,000), the roadsystem contains about 70 miles of paved and gravel roads. FromMonashka Creek to Pasagshak Bay, these highways and byways cross adozen rivers and streams while bordering numerous bays, coves andbeaches – offering incredibly easy access to a variety of salmonwaters within a 45-minute drive from town. There’s no need forfour-wheel drive, and because so few roads exist, it’s impossibleto get lost.

I’m visiting the island during the second week of September,prime time for silver salmon. The first morning, I try fishing atthe mouth of the Buskin River, close the Kodiak airport. HankPennington, outdoors columnist for the Kodiak Daily Mirrornewspaper, can’t join me but had proffered some advice when wespoke the previous evening. Incoming tides usually prove mostproductive, especially when rising water coincides with the risingsun. Pennington suggested wading the flats just off the rivermouth, getting far enough out – 50 or 60 yards – to turn and lookback toward the beach. The trees and rocks form a dark background,making it easier to spot cruising fish.

Armed with chartreuse-and-white Clousers and Surf Candies, Icross the 2-foot-deep river and make my way onto a gravel bar. Ikeep my arm loose by blind-casting while I look for wakes and fishflashing in the waves. My efforts are rewarded with two lessonsfrom the school of hard knocks. Thankfully, nobody is watching whenI carefully cast to intercept a wide, fast-moving wake that turnsout to be a seal zipping about in search of a high-protein meal.That’s good for a chuckle, but I find it harder to laugh off mysecond rookie mistake.

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As the tide rises, I slowly retrace my steps along the gravelbar, fishing my way back to shore. I finally walk up the riverbankand get a harsh reminder that tidal fluctuations in this part ofthe world typically measure 8 feet or more. The river has becomemuch too high to cross near the mouth. A convoluted, brush-bustingstruggle leads me about three-quarters of a mile upriver, whereshallow depths and rocky bottom allow safe crossing. My long,sweaty hike in neoprene waders drives the lesson home: Always mindthe tide!

Beach Patrol
After my trapped-by-the-tide trauma, I realize I need professionalhelp. Thanks to the invaluable advice of Jeff Ruppart, I am spareduntold frustration and suffering. Ruppart, who came to Kodiak in1990 when serving in the Coast Guard, now makes his living as a flytier. He creates 35,000 or more flies per year and sells them toselect distributors, lodges and private clients. Ruppart alsoguides along the road system during salmon season. His SUVresembles a tackle shop on wheels – it’s packed full of rods,waders, coolers and other gear, and may have as many as fourpersonal pontoon boats strapped to the roof rack.

Although silver salmon can appear in late August, Ruppartencourages his clients to schedule trips from mid-September toearly October for peak action. (Anglers visiting the island in lateJuly or early August can target the often-underrated pink salmonrun while these fish are still in salt water.) Ruppart recommends8-weight gear for Kodiak salmon and uses only floating lines. “I’venever needed to use a sink-tip here since I usually fish in depthsof 2 or 3 feet,” he says. “Even in the rivers, the deepest holesare only about 8 feet. With floating line and an 8-foot leader, aweighted fly gets to the bottom.”

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Beginning at the river mouth, Ruppart checks out the area, thenstarts moving up and down the beach in search of active birds,nervous water and other indications of fish. “It’s always a goodsign when you see silvers jumping,” he says with a smile. And thebetter your casting ability, the better your chances of scoringsalmon in the surf. “You don’t have to be a full-fledged expert,but you’ll have trouble catching silvers off the beach if you’renot proficient at throwing 60 feet of line with just a couple offalse casts. These fish are constantly on the move, and they movevery quickly.” Excessive blind-casting can cost an angler shots atrestless fish. “When you see a school approaching, try to figureout where the lead fish is and cast ahead of it. Silvers move muchfaster along the beach than other species of salmon, so when yousee that pressure wake, cast quickly and put the fly at least 5feet in front of the fish,” Ruppart instructs.

Ruppart’s favorite patterns for salmon in the salt includeClousers, Surf Candies and other baitfish imitations – sometimesBunny Flies and Zonkers – with chartreuse the color of choice. Makethe cast, strip in just enough line to remove any slack whilelowering the rod tip and let the fly sink. “Most of the silvers Icatch hit the fly on the initial drop. Wait at least five seconds,depending on water depth,” Ruppart says. “Often, you begin to makethat first strip, and boom – fish on!” The silver salmon’s penchantfor hitting on the drop makes ultrasharp hooks a necessity. Ruppartprefers black Daiichi 2141 hooks mainly for their out-of-the-boxsharpness but also for their corrosion resistance. He crushes thebarb to facilitate hook removal. “When I get into fish, I canrelease them faster.

Using barbless hooks and weighted flies, I just give the fish abit of slack and the hook comes out. But as long as I keep the linetight during the fight, fish stay on because that Limerick bendreally grabs them,” he says. This Kodiak road warrior usuallycarries flies in sizes 2, 4 and 6. “Size 4 is plenty big forcatch-and-release,” he says. “Small hooks reduce chances ofdeep-hooking fish. Using weighted eyes makes the hook ride pointup, which is safer for salmon because you’ll hook them in the roofof the mouth rather than the tongue or gills. A very sharp hooktends to stick the fish as soon as it grabs the fly. Feeling thehook, a salmon shakes its head, and the angler detects it. I callthat a ‘panic strike.’ It seems like a fish knocks the crap out ofa fly, but it really doesn’t. I believe it picks up the fly softly,gets stuck and reacts in a panic.” If no hits occur during thedrop-and-wait, begin stripping the fly and keep it moving at asteady pace. “If silvers don’t hit on the initial drop, theyprobably want a moving fly. Vary your retrieve a bit. I strip a fewtimes and pause, drawing some strikes when the fly is moving,others on the drop,” Ruppart tells me.

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Tidewater Tricks
Anglers encounter two different scenarios when fishing the tidalareas of Kodiak’s rivers. Silvers that enter a river on an incomingtide typically rush upriver and downriver for a short time. Thesefresh arrivals hit flies aggressively and seem to prefer the sametypes of patterns and colors that work along the beaches.

Once salmon settle down and begin adapting to the new, brackishwater, their taste in flies changes. “I automatically switch toleeches and Woolly Buggers when targeting salmon in the rivers,”says Ruppart. “For some reason, fish in the rivers prefer pink ordark colors such as purple, black and green.” Silvers usually holdin a river’s deepest, slowest water. Finding these holes presentsno problem – just look for the crowd.

The easy access that Kodiak’s road system fishery affordsattracts many anglers of all types. Expect to share the water withspin fishermen and bait dunkers, and to be outfished by thosedrifting gobs of bright orange eggs. Don’t plan on anybodyconceding right-of-way so you can make a long cast and slowpresentation. Fish on weekdays and you’ll find fewer anglers on thewater.

Ruppart puts some distance between himself and shore-boundcompetition by employing personal pontoon boats in brackish lakesand ponds. “Float tubes would work,” he explains, “but they leaveyou suspended in cold water from the waist down. The pontoons haveabove-water seats, so you’re only immersed below the knees.”

Thirty minutes after picking me up on a Friday morning indowntown Kodiak, Ruppart parks beside Kalsin pond and we pull thepontoons off the roof of his Suburban. As we kick away from shore,he gives me a pink leech to try. “Make your cast, and let the flysink on a tight line,” he reminds me. “It’s OK to blind-cast in thepond, but stay alert and cast quickly to any fish you seeporpoising or swirling at the surface. Although silvers move aboutin the brackish water, they go at a slower pace than in the salt.When a fish reveals its position, cast close to it and let the flydrop. If there’s no take, begin a strip-strip-strip-pauseretrieve.” Ruppart proceeds to catch a jack and an 8-pound silverwhile I struggle to learn the secrets of controlling a miniaturepontoon boat in the Alaskan breeze.

When I finally feel the sharp tug of my first fly-caught silversalmon (was that an aggressive take or a panic strike?), it turnsout to be a jack. “I see a lot of jumping silvers here, but theydon’t seem to be in a feeding mood,” Ruppart says after an hour offruitless casting and several fly changes. “Let’s go see what’shappening at Pasagshak.” A 500-yard stretch of water that resemblesa canal more than a river connects Lake Rose Tead to the ocean atPasagshak Bay. Ruppart surveys the scene, and we decide to fish thelake because a dozen anglers are bunched up at the river mouth.Backs to the breeze, we kick our flippered feet just enough to holdposition about 30 yards from shore and cast toward porpoisingsalmon. These fish are definitely more cooperative.

Ruppart releases several silvers to 15 pounds and, to oursurprise, hooks an 8-pound red salmon. Working a black-and-greenElectric Leech with the strip-strip-strip-pause over a weed bed in8 feet of water, I feel my fly slow down and stop. No panic thistime, just a strong, determined run followed by splashy leaps. I’dseen Ruppart head for shore to gain the upper hand by fighting hisfish from solid ground, so I do the same. Beaching a 10-poundsilver proves to be easier than trying to control it from thepontoon with no net.

On our way back to town, we pass a car with Oregon plates and Iremember that vehicles from the mainland can reach the island viaferryboat from Seward and Homer, Alaska. Drive to Kodiak! Wouldn’tthat be the ultimate road trip? Just don’t slam your rod tip in thecar door when you get here.

How to Get There
Kodiak Island lies 250 miles southwest of Anchorage. Era Aviation(800-866-8394; www.eraaviation.com) offers theone-hour flight several times daily. The town’s small size makes iteasy to find your way around. Check out www.kodiak.org for suggestions onlodging, car rental and restaurants.

Sources of on-site information include: Kodiak Island Convention& Visitors Bureau, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game SportFish Division; www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/statewide/html/sf_home.htm

Cy’s Sporting Goods; www.kodiak-outfitters.com

Mack’s Sport Shop; www.mackssportshop.com.

Jeff Ruppart operates flyfish kodiak! guide service; www.flyfishkodiak.com. He cancustom tie flies for anglers who contact him prior to visitingKodiak.

Anchorage represents an almost obligatory stop on the way toKodiak. Enjoy the frontier-themed gift shops and fine restaurants,then spend the night at the Historic Anchorage Hotel www.historicanchoragehotel.comor Millenium Hotel www.milleniumhotels.com.

Need a car in Anchorage? Call Affordable New Car Rental at800-248-3765.

These Web sites offer additional information on visiting KodiakIsland and Alaska:

www.kodiak.org

www.travelalaska.com

www.anchorage.net

www.alaskavisitorguide.com

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