For almost two weeks a steady stream of sockeye have been visible in the clear, low water of the Russian River — the dark grey shadows moving by the hundreds in a long line headed southeast toward the Russian River falls and spawning grounds at the end of the Upper Russian Lake. Anglers finally got to wade in after them Wednesday when the Russuan River, Upper Kenai River and most of the Kenai Lake Drainage opened to fishing — prompting several hundred people to head down from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley or up from the Kenai Peninsula for a chance at the largest portion of the early run of Kenai River sockeye.
The Russian River ferry, dormant until early Wednesday morning, made several trips across the river from the parking lot along the Sterling Highway to a cut bank on the south side of the river. Steady wind kept the water choppy and moving quickly as the ferry pulled from one shore to the other in between drift boats full of sight-seers moving downstream.
Ferry employees said they’d sold 65 tickets by 9 a.m. and a steady stream of chest-wader-clad anglers kept the parking lot full and the ferry operator busy.
“It turned out to be a pretty good today,” said Jacob Laumbattus, ferry manager with Alaska Recreational Management.
While other season openers that have fallen on weekends have prompted several hundred more anglers to descend on the area, Laumbattus said it was a robust first day and word would spread fast that the run was in, early and ripe for fishing.
“It’s going to get a lot busier this weekend,” he said.
At least 50 people scattered along the rocky shoreline of the cut bank flaying the water — many limiting out on sockeye salmon in short order, though rainbow trout and Dolly Varden are also fair game.
“I’ve seen some monster rainbows landed here,” Laumbattus said.
The bag limit for Kenai and Russian River red salmon is three fish, with six fish in possession. For rainbow trout and Dolly Varden the bag limit is one per day with one in possession and it must be less than 16 inches long.
The Russian River area is “fly fishing only,” though a fly rod is not required. Many of the anglers along the shores used spinning rods with fly hooks.
A weight can be added to the line but Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulation requires that it be at least 18 inches from the fly — many on the river Wednesday used 3/8-ounce sinkers.
By Tuesday, more than 1,400 sockeye salmon had been counted at the Fish and Game weir on the Russian, about four times more than there were by the same time last year and 16 times more than the 2012 run of Russian river sockeye salmon.
The strong numbers don’t necessarily mean that the run is larger than average.
“We know it’s early,” said area management biologist Robert Begich. “But we don’t know if it’s a big run.”
Since 2012, when area managers began forecasting the early run of the Russian River, the forecasts have tracked well with the final escapement and this year’s forecast is for a run of about 44,000 early run sockeye salmon — or about 20,000 fish fewer than average.
Each year, about 47 percent of the total run is harvested by salmon anglers.
Joe Like and Charles Suan stood separated from other anglers on the highway-side of the Russian River where it flows into the Kenai River near Cooper Landing.
Like fixed Suan’s line before picking his rod up out of the dewy grass along the shoreline and moving into the water. He stopped and pointed toward a shadow in the tree line. “Watch out for the bear,” he said. “Her den is right there.”
A brown bear had been seen in the area, which is not unusual for the Russian River, and signs are scattered throughout the shoreline near the ferry and into the Russian River Campground where anglers are warned to keep the bears in mind and give the animals right-of-way on the well-trod dirt-packed and grate trails running along the river.
After ten minutes of fishing, Like — who just traveled to the area from Hawaii — had caught a bright, heavy sockeye salmon as had several others on the opposite side of the river.
The quick leap of a fish onto his line boded well, Like said. He and Suan had just a few more days to fish before they head back to work at Prudhoe Bay.
The two said they had fished the Russian River before and liked it because it wasn’t as crowded as some of the streams near Anchorage and in the Mat-Su Valley.
In the Russian River Campground, the chatter of anglers was audible long before the hundreds of people crowded into the water were visible.
Ken Garris and his son Hunter Garris, 18, had a lot of luck in a hole near the Grayling day-use parking area.
The two traveled from Anchorage for their first opportunity to hook Russian River red salmon and Hunter Garris said he’d limited out in about 30 minutes, though he took the opportunity to continue to land fish alongside his dad — pulling them up onto the rocks along the shore and clipping the hook out of them, before nudging them back into the water with his foot.
“Watch me land one,” he said as Ken Garris shook his head and grinned.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.