Steelhead on Alaska’s Anchor River

The strippers were pissed off. Apparently we hadn’t given them enough money. And now their pimp had a microphone in hand and was calling us out as cheapskates.

What were we supposed to have done, we wondered? We placed ones and a couple fives on an elevated dance floor like we’ve done everywhere else we’ve seen women take their clothes off while dancing to music we’ve never heard before. The problem here, I quickly deduced, was that we were the only people in the place and now we were taking the hit for poor marketing and disgruntled strippers who were displaying their wares in the middle of nowhere, for practically nothing.

Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, one of the most gorgeous places on earth.

My two sidekicks were particularly offended by the DJ’s public outburst and they shouted rebuttals. As they gesticulated I noted five dudes sitting around the seedy bar paying close attention. This was Friday night in Soldotna and they were drooling as if top sport was about to be had. By the time I got my two cronies out the door and the pickup leaping over the pothole riddled muddy parking lot, the entire bar was spilling out the door. I may have seen hay rakes, torches and clubs.

Nothing good has every come from me being at a strip bar and I woke the next morning wondering why we’d gone to Good Time Charlie’s in the first place. I was in Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula, to catch steelhead. It was very late September, the leaves were changing, and steelhead were pushing into the Anchor River on each tide. There was no time to waste so I woke my buds, much to their dismay, and said, “Load up fellow losers.”

The Anchor River is regarded as south-central Alaska’s top steelhead stream. It rests on the southern end of the Peninsula, about 130 miles southwest of Anchorage and just 16 miles from Homer. In full length the river runs 34 miles and drains into Cook Inlet. Beginning in late August or early-September, chrome-bright steelhead push into the system and they continue doing so into November. Most locals say the end of September and the entirety of October provide the best steelhead options. That late-September timeframe coincides with the tail end of the silver salmon run so anglers double up on occasion, catching fresh steelhead on the tide changes and silvers sitting in the frog water. Most of the angling pressure occurs in a super-limited, two-mile stretch of water between the Sterling Highway Bridge near Anchor Point and the mouth of the river. The Anchor River Road provides quick access to the water and there are five state campgrounds, offering 116 sites. Of particular note is the Halibut Campground, which offers views across Cook Inlet to the Aleutian Mountain Range.

Clam Gulch and the bounty.

If you choose to fish the Anchor and you’re used to fishing the broad-water fisheries of the Pacific Northwest, such as the Skeena, Skagit and Snake River systems, you’re in for a surprise; the Anchor is not wide, nor deep, and anglers can easily cast across it with a single-handed stick. To fish a switch rod here or to bring a true spey rod would be at once overkill and limiting. A six, seven or eight-weight single hand stick, nine feet long, is all you need.

What I like best about the Anchor River is its location. It’s in Alaska, which speaks for itself. It’s on the Kenai Peninsula and is easily accessible, which is a nice change from many Alaska fisheries that require cost-prohibitive bush-plane flights, which are influenced severely by the weather. With the Anchor you can rent a vehicle at the Anchorage airport and be fishing a couple hours later after driving through some killer country consisting of massive mountains and major tracts of fall foliage. At night you can hit a slew of restaurants for dinner or cook your own at a campground. You can pitch a tent or you can grab a motel room at Anchor Point (the Anchor River Inn) or you can drive south to Homer and take your pick from numerous hotels and bed and breakfasts. I hear you now Seattleite steelhead junkies: “But baby, I’ve got 30,00 air miles to burn and renting a car won’t cost much. Besides didn’t my card take a hit at Nordstrom’s last week?” Can you say eating a Five Spot breakfast at 6 a.m. and possibly casting on the Anchor before nightfall.

Early in the Anchor River steelhead season anglers focus on the incoming tides and try to intercept chromers as they push upstream. Later in the season, with solid numbers of steelhead already in the stream, anglers find fish throughout the system, which spreads the pressure out a bit. Any steelhead that survives its perils at sea and actually returns to the Anchor is protected by catch-and-release regulations… as all wild steelhead, no matter where they are found, should be!.

When I visited the Anchor with my aforementioned friends, the fish were just starting to show and nobody was reporting good numbers. But we were there, it was fall and beautiful with bluebird skies and crisp, blow-on-your-hands after-each-cast mornings. We, too, fished the tides then spent the between hours doing our parts to increase the stock values of Miller High Life and Jameson. I wouldn’t call that trip the most directed fishing effort I’ve ever made. Still, on bright afternoon Dan hooked up with an absolutely chrome-bright seven or eight-pounder and I hooked a beautiful buck from a deep dip on the edge of a midstream boulder. Both fish fought as well as any steelhead I’ve ever seen, with cartwheels and bonefish-type runs part of the equation.

I guess when it comes down to it I like fishing the Anchor because of it’s location. You can find equally bright fish in British Columbia, Oregon and Washington, but the little eateries and funky watering holes on the Kenai Peninsula, plus the stunning scenery, is what it’s all about.

So, the watering holes. Think about this; a few hours after we’d left Good Time Charlie’s, we were nestled up to another bar, sucking down PBR’s and High Lifes, when who should walk in. Dan turned to me and said, “I think that’s the DJ.” I’m pretty level headed even with a few in me. But the more I looked this guy, who refused to make eye contact with me, the more worked up I got. As the strippers filed in and surrounded him my rage grew. I turned to a couple natives, who I’d struck a conversation with and grew to like, and said, “I think I’m going to kill that guy.” The big native dude, who must have stood 6 feet 5 inches and weighed 300 pounds, said, “Which guy?” When I pointed to the guy he said, “That guy. I haven’t seen that guy since he took some of my money and said he’d be back a little while later with what I needed. I think I’m going to kill that guy.” I said, “You can kill him after I kill him, OK,” and then added, “you got my back, right?”

Moments later I had my nose about one inch from the DJ’s grill and I said, “You were so tough a little while ago, what do you got now that you don’t have your degenerate friends around! You going to say something to me or are you actually the (er, uh, the…wimp) here!” There were some other words that I can’t repeat here but, without his friends around, the DJ claimed mistaken identity. By now the barmaid and her patrons noticed the fray and pretty soon the strippers were yelling, the natives were stomping, the bouncers were grabbing and the whole thing seemed like a threat to another day of steelheading on the Anchor. A few hours later, at 6 a.m. when the bar closed, I caught a taxi to our cabin and rounded up my gear. The incoming tide would peak in a couple hours and another fresh wave of Anchor River fish might be there to greet us. Sleep? There was sleep to be had between the tides.

If you Go: Alaska State Parks: 907-262-5581

Anchor River Inn: 800-435-8531 (some menu items include king crab, halibut, shrimp, grilled crab and shrimp sandwich, biscuits and gravy, chicken fried steak)

Clamming: The Kenai is one of the best places in the world to find razor clams and the limit is generous. Grab a shovel and a bucket and dig like crazy at Deep Creek, Clam Gulch and Ninilchik.

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