The Kenai... With Kids
The Kenai... With Kids
- By: Greg Thomas
- Photography by: Greg Thomas
Don’t leave your pals behind.
Alaska is a grand playground,
especially when you share
your fishing with kids.
by greg thomas photographs by the author
Many of us travel far to tackle the great flyrod species—tarpon, permit, steelhead, Atlantic salmon, big brook trout and the like—but fewer take on the true test of our angling resources, that being how to travel, fish and remain sane with young kids in tow.
I faced that challenge last June when I packed up my girls and headed to Alaska for 14 days on the Kenai Peninsula, following a road system that visits the quaint towns of Nikiski, Kenai, Clam Gulch, Homer and Seward.
The Kenai is a kids’ wonderland, with wildlife viewing available around almost every turn, including glimpses of humpback and orca whales, grizzly and black bears, long-legged moose, sea lions, bald eagles and, for the observant and slightly lucky ones, wolves. But I wasn’t on the Kenai just to see wildlife—I wanted to catch king salmon on my Spey rod and to get the girls hooked into some red salmon.
The Peninsula’s most famous river is the Kenai, where mega-size kings are found, some that range to 90 pounds or more. Its sister stream, the Kasilof, offers big salmon, too, and it’s easier to access. In fact, from the Crooked Creek State Campground, which is located a few miles off the Sterling Highway (which runs from Anchorage all the way to Homer), anglers can park and walk a short half-mile trail to the river, where large gravel bars ensure a safe place for kids to play if they lose interest in fishing. Those same gravel bars offer fly fishers a great spot to cast big Intruder-type patterns to kings that commonly range between 15 and 40 pounds.
That’s exactly what I did . . . for as long as I could hold the girls’ interest. Typically, I could get in three hours of fishing before they stopped buying my line of “just a couple more casts.” Unfortunately, the kings were few and far between on the Kasilof, so after the girls forced me off the water, we jumped in our Jeep and cruised to other sites on the Peninsula, where the girls’ interests came first.
At Clam Gulch we mucked our way across the mud and looked for tiny divots in the sand, which indicated where a razor clam might be hiding below. We didn’t have to look far to find divots, and then the girls dug like mad to bring up those clams, which are considered a Pacific Northwest delicacy and garner upward of $20 a pound at the market. Suffice to say, after digging at least a hundred holes, the girls went to sleep easy that night.
Another day, after a fruitless morning on the Kasilof, we drove to Seward and spent the night at Windsong Lodge, a quaint hotel nestled in the mountains on the edge of Alaska’s seemingly endless forest. In the morning we took a short bus ride to Exit Glacier and then hiked across a debris field to the edge of the ice. The girls were perplexed when I said, “Climb on it.” “For real? On the glacier?” they answered. That night we sucked on root beer infused with chunks of glacier that we chipped off and brought to Windsong Lodge. You won’t find denser, tastier ice and later, after the girls went to sleep, I learned that it serves equally well with Maker’s Mark.
The next day we visited Seward’s Alaska Sea Life Center, where the girls checked out harbor seals, sea lions, a giant octopus, a variety of live birds that are native to Alaska, and a bunch of salmon swimming behind glass. Of course the girls said, “Look at all these salmon, Dad. How come you can’t catch any?”
One day we climbed aboard the Tanaina and set out for a cruise through Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords. An hour into the cruise we’d already seen orcas, humpback whales, a sea-lion rookery with at least 70 of those mammals sunning themselves, and a black bear that sauntered to a rock bluff and peered down at us, as if the proprietor of the ship—Kenai Fjords Tours—had paid the beast to perform the act. Later, just after we’d watched four humpback whales bubble-feeding at the surface, we stopped at Fox Island and were treated to a prime rib and king crab dinner.
After another night at Windsong Lodge, we drove a few miles to Seavey’s Iditaride Sled Dog Tours, which is owned by Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey. We climbed aboard a wheeled sled and were pulled for a few miles by Seavey’s team of huskies, along a scenic path sprinkled with fresh grizzly bear scat. By the time we hopped into the Jeep and headed for the Kasilof, the girls were Googling how to become a musher, and they were arguing about what kind of dogs would pull their sleds. I remember my eldest daughter rolling her eyes while telling the youngest, “Beverly Hills chihuahuas can’t pull sleds.”
“Can to,” came the rebuttal.
This was all entertaining, for sure. But I’m an angler. I knew fish were near, and I wanted to catch one. The next morning, back on the Kasilof, I found the river nearly devoid of people fishing. We raced to a spot downstream where a couple of days prior I’d seen a lot of fish rolling and two landed. We passed a single fly fisher who said he’d fished that run all morning and hadn’t touched a thing. I said, “Well, we’ll give it a try.” He was still in earshot when I hollered to the girls, “Yes! I got one.”
After that things got wild. The fish tore off line in heavy current and raced downstream. I told the girls, “If this fish drops into those rapids I won’t be able to land it before I run out of backing. Unless . . . I chase it.”
To chase meant leaving the girls unattended on the bank of a big, fast-flowing river. I asked my eldest, “Can you two keep one foot on this grass patch the whole time? Because I might need to cross this tributary stream, crawl along those cliffs, and land this king around the corner.” I added, “This river could kill you.”
“We got it, Dad,” was all that needed to be said.
Ten minutes later I was beaching that salmon around the corner, out of the girls’ sight. Because the fish was a hatchery hen, and because she was bright and beautiful and weighed about 25 pounds, and because she would remind me and the girls of a great time in Alaska when we barbecued her later that summer, I decided to keep her. As I headed back upstream and rounded the corner I heard the girls saying, “Did he catch it?” And then, “I think so.” Followed by, “He did, Dad did catch it!” I thoroughly enjoyed my own cheering section, took a few photos and recounted the fight. Then, just a couple minutes after I’d rejoined the girls, with the fish still twitching, my youngest turned to the oldest and, out of the blue, said, “Can you believe that Jodi—she’s a girl in my class—doesn’t look both ways when she crosses the street? Really,” she added with disbelief, “I mean, she doesn’t look both ways!” Short attention spans in effect.
That’s why a half-hour later my eldest said, “Dad, I want to cast that Spey rod,” all 12 feet 6 inches of it. She did and to my surprise she was soon hooked up with what I thought to be a red salmon, a fish that ranges between four and 10 pounds. When she cranked the fish in we discovered it to be a steelhead, her first, at age 7 no less, and on a swung fly. I didn’t even know the Kasilof had a steelhead run.
That was the last fish of the trip because the rivers rose quickly from massive rains, and I wasn’t willing to jeopardize my girls on the banks of the Russian and Kenai rivers where, according to locals, the reds were “in thick.” The truth is, I didn’t get to fish as much as I would have liked, but I’m carrying memories that won’t fade. I’ll be back on the Kenai with the girls for three weeks this year, and I may be investing in an opportunity to fish Alaska more often in the future—my eldest daughter says she’s going to college in Alaska, and the four-year-old says she’ll be the first Iditarod champion to be completely powered by chihuahuas.
Greg Thomas is editor of Fly Rod & Reel.
Where to Go
What to do . . . other than fish
Seward Windsong Lodge
The Windsong offers 180 rooms, and it’s situated within easy striking range of Exit Glacier, Seavey’s Iditaride Sled Dog Tours and the Alaska Sea Life Center. It also offers a great restaurant. Make reservations early www.sewardwindsong.com
Alaska Sea Life Center
You could easily spend a full day here checking out numerous exhibits, including an outdoor seabird center, a sea mammal rehabilitation facility, aquariums full of salmon, rockfish and octopus, and even a pool with seals and sea lions. Visit www.alaskasealife.org
Seavey’s Iditaride Sled Dog Tours
Be prepared to say “no” when you visit this husky kennel run by two-time Iditarod champion Mitch Sevey. That’s because they’ll be handing puppies to your kids, who by now have decided that their goal in life is to be the next Iditarod champion. During summer you can sign up for a tour that includes being pulled by a dog team on a wheeled sled. A great morning adventure. Visit www.ididaride.com
Kenai Fjords Tours
If you’re weak on the water bring your Dramamine, because doing so means you and your family will get to check out all sorts of cool wildlife, including orca and humpback whales, possibly a gray whale, scads of sea lions and seals, and maybe black bears and mountain goats, among other creatures. The tours range from four hours all on inside waters to eight- or nine-hour cruises that take passengers into outside waters and Kenai Fjords National Park, where glaciers drop to the water’s edge, and mountains jut straight out of the water for thousands of feet. We took the eight-hour cruise and the girls were entertained throughout.
NOTE: Kenai Fjords Tours offers a dinner cruise that begins at 5:00 p.m. and returns passengers to the dock in Seward at 8:30 p.m. You’ll likely see whales on the cruise, and when you get to Fox Island you can enjoy an all-you-can-eat wild salmon and prime rib dinner at Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge. Want to step it up? You can add king crab to the plate for a reasonable fee. Visit Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge at www.kenaifjordslodge.com
More Information and Ideas
Visit CIRI Alaska Tourism
Hiking Exit Glacier, outside Seward.