Combat Fishing: What Is It?

Rest assured that combat fishing, Alaska style, does not refer to any kind of fighting over fish. The only weapons needed to participate include a good fishing rod, a stout landing net and leak-proof, rubberized, high-rise wading boots.

When an angler enters into a session of combat fishing, he or she does not fish alone. Indeed, so thick do anglers populate the stream bank at times that those with long arm spans could hold hands. But none do so; the fast pace of combat fishing keeps everyone's hands pretty well occupied.

The reason behind this close, side-by-side type of fishing has to do with the yearly runs of sockeye salmon. When the sockeye (aka red salmon) return to the streams of their birth, they do so in huge numbers -- several hundred in a school may swim past an electronic fish-counting device in a few frantic moments at peak run times. When these fish head for the streams of their forebears in such large numbers, so do anglers -- also in large numbers.

Combat Fishing: Where Is It?

Combat fishing in Alaska, as stated, coincides with the mid-summer runs of sockeye salmon, most especially in the world-famous Kenai River on Alaska's recreation magnet, the Kenai Peninsula. The most sought after streamside stands, however, can be found somewhere along a mile or so of the lower Russian River where this stream empties into the Kenai. This particular stretch of the Russian River lies across the Kenai River from the Sterling Highway that runs the length of the peninsula, so anglers generally must ferry across the larger river to enter into the fishing fray.

Combat FishingCredit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Combat fishing earned its name from the visual impact of observing a mile-long line of men and women (and kids, too!) standing almost shoulder to shoulder as they whip lures into and out of the turbulent Russian River waters. On a day when the word gets out ("The Reds are in! The Reds are in!"), the road out of Anchorage can become nearly clogged with anglers driving the 100+ miles to the sockeye fishing grounds. In fact, people from around the world converge on this popular spot in the Last Frontier state. Nearby campgrounds overflow and traffic slows. It pays to leave road rage at home and save your energy for the fishing.

Combat Fishing: Quick How-To

In fishing for sockeye, one needs to remember that in fresh water streams on their migration to spawning grounds these fish, unlike other species of salmon, almost never strike at a lure or bait. Thus, the angler must use a peculiar strategy to hook and land a fish.

Sockeye SalmonCredit: Marvina Munch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

First off, the hook, usually covered with feathers or a strand of yarn, may need constant sharpening or replacing from banging on rocks in the stream. About two inches back from the hook, most anglers affix a non-moving glass bead; then another two feet or so up the line or leader, a sinker of various weights (depending on the current of the river and the depth of the hole). The weight aids in casting the lure and in taking it below the surface.

The cast and retrieve of the lure follows a special, almost robotic pattern. The angler needs only cast the lure from five to 15 feet out from the shoreline. Sockeyes commonly move through the water just shy of the main force of the stream. The angler lets the lure drift deep and swing downriver to the extent of the line, whereupon he or she pulls back on the rod to whip the lure through the water.

Old SayingCredit: Lane Olinghouse

Some refer to this as flossing the teeth (of the fish). As the lure passes through the gasping mouth of a sockeye, the angler sets the hook with a sharp upward jerk of the rod. If the lure misses the target altogether, the angler quickly returns it to the water with a short, flipping cast of the line. Please note: In Alaska, a sockeye hooked anywhere but in the mouth must be returned immediately to the water.

When the angler hooks a fish, the short cast of line makes it possible to work the sockeye quickly to shore with a minimum of fanfare so as not to disturb neighboring fishing folk.