An Outdoor View: High water

Back when I did more crazy things than I now do, I used to fish the Kenai far more than I now do. I didn’t give a hoot what the river was doing. I fished when it was muddy enough to plow. I fished during floods. I fished when it was crazy to be on the river. In the process, I discovered that salmon can be caught in most any water condition.

One day in June in the early 1970s at Falling-In Hole, I learned a few things about high-water fishing for kings from a buddy, Bob Benedict. The river was high and murky, and a high tide had backed it up until it was more like a lake than a river. We didn’t know where the fish might be. We ended up anchoring a few feet from what normally would be the top of the bank, which was under water. There wasn’t another boat in sight.

Bob suggested that we simply fish with salmon roe, without a lure. A few minutes later, much to my surprise, a king picked up his bait, turned and headed for Cook Inlet. We chased it downriver a ways, netted it, and returned to our spot. Within minutes, a king grabbed my bait.

While we were fishing, a boat came up the river and anchored, maybe 100 feet from us. The three men in the boat were boisterously drunk, but not so far gone that they couldn’t fish. We watched, fascinated, as they hooked one king salmon after another. A rod would go down, they’d whoop and holler, and the fish would streak away downstream. They couldn’t get their act together soon enough to give chase, so the fish would eventually break loose. I don’t think they ever boated one, but they had fun trying.

Since then, I’ve found that bait makes a huge difference when fishing for kings in murky water. In clear water, when kings have good visibility, they can be caught on most any lure. But when they’re relying almost entirely on their sense of smell, bait is the key to getting them to bite. On that day at Falling-In Hole, we were fishing with nothing but a hook and salmon roe, and so were the drunks.

Another thing about high water, the fish won’t usually be where they are when the water is lower. Salmon tend to take the easiest path. When the water is high, it’s moving faster, so the easiest path is sometimes closer to the bank than it is when the water is lower.

Turbidity provides cover for fish, making them content to be in shallow water. In clear water, salmon tend to prefer the cover of deeper water, when it’s available, but at the glacial-silt-laden Kasilof River, I’ve seen V-wakes of king salmon in water barely over their backs. I once saw a woman sitting on lawn chair on a Kasilof River gravel bar, fishing in the shallow area behind anglers who had waded out to knee-keep water. She caught one of the few kings taken from that hole that morning.

While fishing for sockeye salmon during periods of high, turbid water in the Kenai, I’ve noticed that they migrate upstream nearer the bank than when the water level is lower and slower.

When you’re fishing high water, it may take you awhile to find the fish, and you may need more weight to get a hook to the bottom, but high water doesn’t mean that you have to go home skunked.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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