If you can remember your first trip to the Russian River and recall your frustration, this story may sound familiar. If you've never been to the Russian, but have heard all the wonderful stories and want to fish there yourself, then learn from what Tim and Dave experienced. Fishing the Russian River is like no other fishing in the world, and learning to fish from a friend can make your experience doubly memorable.
It was one of the most beautiful days of the Alaska summer: A Warm, gentle breeze, whispered down the river and sunlight dappled the green and silver leaves of the birch trees around us. The clear, pure waters of the Russian River rushed toward the sea, eddying and swirling around our waders. There were thousands of fish in the river, but most of them were green-headed, red-bodied, spawned-out sockeye salmon. Among them swam the silent gray hulks of the remaining fresh, edible reds. Our prey, the ones which were still gray, used their spawned out cousins for cover as they made their way through the gauntlet of fishermen.
In this idyllic setting we cast Tim and Dave, rookies of the first water, accompanied by three college fraternity brothers, two of whom considered themselves masters of the sport. I, the third brother, am a serious student of the river, and far removed from the silly test Al and John envisioned. Masquerading both as outfitters and instructors, Al and John decided to recreate the joys and tribulations of pledge week. During those bygone days they were the freshmen and Tim and Dave the upperclassmen.
First, there were the hip boots. The masters wore their felt bottom waders to keep from slipping on the rocks, and were still careful to keep their feet on the small rocks where they could get a grip on the bottom. They outfitted the rookies with rubber-bottomed waders, previously smeared with bear fat and punched with tiny holes.
" Tim," Al said, "be sure to step on the big rocks so you don't slip."
The brothers chortled silently.
"Wahoo!" Tim screamed and danced down the river, splashing back and forth, waving his pole about as if directing the New York Philharmonic, and trying to regain his balance.
"Boy, these rocks are really slippery," Tim exclaimed.
Second there were the poles. John had spent maybe $4.95 for kids' poles sometime in this century. That's for both poles. The fishing line was cracked with age. " Tim," John said, "be careful with this pole. These really expensive setups are sometimes finicky. Don't adjust the drag. It's set just right." John looked at Al and winked.
Finally, there were the sunglasses. The only way to catch a fish in the Russian River is to see it, and the only way to see through the glare of the water is with polarized glasses. "Here you go, Dave," Al said. "I left these out in the snow all winter to make sure they really got 'polarized'."
And off they went down the middle of the river. I walked ahead along the bank to check out the good fishing holes while John and Al played the "there's-one-can't-you-see-it?" game with Tim and Dave. That's always a good one to get rookies to doubt their sanity and crush their confidence. False bear sightings are also quite effective in keeping the new fishermen's attention from wavering. When they finally caught up with me Tim had a twitch in his left cheek and a look in his eye I hadn't seen since hell week. Every time Dave took a step, he sounded like my washing machine on the wash cycle. Also, judging by the location of the wet spot on his pants, he had somehow fallen forward in the river without getting water down his hip boots.
Tim and Dave were well primed for catching fish.
"Come on out here, Tim," I said. "There's seven of them right out in front of me." Tim sloshed out and stood next to me.
"Right there. See the six red ones? Right behind them. Its gray, like a little submarine."
"I still can't see it."
"Okay, just throw your hook out six feet right in front of you, let it drift, and I'll tell you when to twitch. Six feet, Tim, not six inches. Try it again. Right in front of you. Try it again. That was pretty close, Try it again. Come on, Tim, that little girl over there is doing better than you. Try it again." I could see the fish were going to be pretty safe with Tim after them. Oh God, he did it right. "That's it, Tim, now jerk back."
The line tightened and Tim was hooked into the south end of a north bound sockeye.
"Keep your tip up!" I called as Tim practiced his ballet steps from the Nutcracker. "Now, pirouette! Good!"
With a crack like a distant rifle shot, Tim's fishing line broke, separating right where John had notched it, just below the one ounce lead weight. Propelled by the pole pulled back over his shoulder in your basic horseshoe shape, the sinker became a missile of mischief.
Whack! "Ouch," Tim yelled and grabbed his glasses. His hand came away to reveal a spider web across his right lens. John and Al howled in laughter. I rushed to his aid.
"Here, Tim," I said, "use mine." He slid them on.
"I can see through these," he commented, and looked at Al. "Hmmm." He looked at John. I could hear the wheels turning. This Tim guy was no dummy. "Okay, Pete," he said, "let's catch some fish."
God knows he tried. Time after time, cast and drift, cast and drift. "Pull now, Tim," I told him at least a thousand times, but the wily fish eluded his every attempt.
" Tim, you keep working at it," I said. "I'm going to catch one, myself."
Two casts later, I yelled, "fish on," and backed toward shore. Tim followed and only got caught in my line once. Just as I got the fish to the bank, it spit out the hook. Dave, quick both of feet and mind, dove to the gravel and grabbed the fifteen pound lunker with both hands.
"I got it," Dave called. "What do I do now?"
I looked back at Tim. So very sad. Near tears.
"Hold on to it," I said, and knelt down next to him. With a quick flick of the wrist, the hook went back into the fish's mouth. "Now let him get away," I whispered to Dave. With a series of flicks of his mighty tail, the fish shot for the deep water.
" Tim! Help! The fish is getting away!" I yelled and tossed the pole. Tim caught it and the game was afoot. He fought the wild fish with joy and abandon, finally dragging its inert and exhausted body to shore.
I can't figure out why he taped over the videos John took of the special event.
Tim and Dave did almost everything wrong. With the help of their friends, they might even have received a citation for violating the Alaska Fish and Game regulations. We refer to this as hunting rather than fishing because that is what it is. You find a fish which has no interest in the few remaining days of its life other than spawning and place a hook into its mouth. They don't go after your fly. If traveling singly or in pairs, they will often avoid it. Your task is to use every trick in your arsenal to catch the little buggers unaware and have them dancing on the waves before they realize they've been hooked.
Even with the ideas we present here, it will still take practice. If you are willing to work at it for somewhere between a day and a decade, you can find yourself catching your limit with ease.
The Russian River is noted not just for its two fabulous runs of sockeye salmon, but also for silver salmon, dolly varden and trophy rainbow trout. The area is one of the most picturesque in Alaska, and hiking the trails to the falls and upper Russian Lakes is an outing you can take when your fishing, cleaning and filleting is done.