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By Leslie Holland-Bartels, PHWFF Alaska


This year, Project Healing Waters selected the Kenai River and Drifters Lodge in Cooper Landing, Alaska as a national destination trip for 7 participants.  Their target would be early September Silver Salmon and Kenai Rainbows. Trip participants came from as far away as New York and nearly 20 hours of travel to reach their destination.  OK, with that brief introduction let’s jump to the trip end for a moment! It is Day 3, our last on the river. Our two boats had been fishing various stretches of the middle Kenai over the last 2 days and on this final day we split up.  One boat set out right from the lodge to wade fish on the newly open upper Kenai River, until now under emergency closure due to wildfires (more about that later!). Here’s part of that story.

 Mark Berberette, Colorado Springs Program, shares his thoughts on this final fishing day:

“…I believe I was the first out of bed. I glanced outside into the dark, cold, rainy glare and knew it was going time! As an Army combat veteran and fly fisherman, you tend to prepare for the worst conditions so the gear that I toted along with me came in very good use that day on the Kenai….

As we were leaving Josh, our guide, asked, ‘Ya gonna grab your fly rod Mark?’  I’m glad I did! We shoved off the shore of the Drifter’s Lodge and began our decent on this majestic area of the Kenai in which no boat motoring is allowed…we had good conversation of military experiences as well as TALL FISH TALES. As we approached our 1st gravel bar…our guide asked….’what kind of flies you got Mark?’  I replied ‘left them in the cabin’…Luckily Josh had the ticket! I don’t know if it was dumb luck or if a higher power shined the light on me but coming all this way, having a last shot at fooling a Silver Salmon with my fly rod, the first I built in Project Healing Waters, could have been short lived if Josh hadn’t produced that particular fly that morning. 

As we exited the drift boat onto the gravel bar I studied our surroundings. You could still feel the chill from the moisture in the air and a light coat of rain, grey skies. PERFECT FOR SILVER SALMON ACTIVITY as they do not like the sun light. I stared paying attention to the water a little closer, looking for fish pods, risers, anything that would give me a target…  Josh tied a hot pink fly pattern onto my 20LB saltwater leader, a fly that would be at the bottom of any Colorado trout anglers’ box…He gave me a short demo with the stripping technique to use and on his second demo cast with my fly rod he landed a nice Silver! That was it!!!!! I was determined at this point. So, the fish were hanging onto the edge of the other side of the seam approximately 50 feet away on the opposite side of our gravel bar.. There was a large over hanging tree…so every now and again I would overshoot the target and shake some leaves onto the water surface. I believe this triggered more action out of this pod of Silvers. I understood that once the Silvers entered the fresh water, from the salt, that they stop feeding.  So any strike that an angler will encounter is purely a reaction strike as to say, “hey my area…back off”. So, once I got into a groove…cast, let the fly sink a little, quick strips back, repeat…I started feeling more of a connection with what I was doing. Finally,…a strike! Strip set, let him have it good……FISH ON! I fought the beast for some time, playing him out enough to wrangle him to the correct angle for the net that Veteran Participate Tom had in tow. My heart was beating a million miles an hour! I couldn’t believe it! With the Silver in the net (very nice bull) and a feeling like none other I felt complete! I not only had these great experiences with my fellow comrades, but I could now give the gift of a fish to my son…a promise I had made to him on his birthday call the day before!  As I peered into the net I was giving God thanks for answering my prayers, to land that one fish with my fly rod, and it was answered!”

A great recollection of a day on the famed Kenai River.  All told, 3 days of fishing resulted in everyone catching Silver Salmon and learning as well to fly fish for Rainbows and Dolly Varden on 11 ft rods with beads.  Beads? When millions of salmon swim up the Kenai each year to spawn their eggs become the primary food source for Rainbows and Dollys. Sort of like the San Juan Worm of the north!  So, the right sized bead, the right color, the right drift will get the fly fisher into that 22+++inch Rainbow and a battle to remember. We had a few of those on both boats with fish taking line, flying high, and the fisherman maneuvering around the boat, all of us ducking, to bring that special fish to the net for a quick moment of appreciate of color and fight and a fast release!  

 Alaska’s Kenai River had a tough time this 2019 summer as did the communities, lodges and guides that shared this amazing river with us. Severe drought hit south-central Alaska. Wildfires burned >164,000 acres (bigger than Chicago) and often closed the single access highway.  The Upper Kenai River was under emergency closure as fires were fought. It was a tough summer….but thankfully rain damped fire and smoke before we arrived. Despite the hardships of the fire we were welcomed with open arms by the staff and guides of Kenai Drifters Lodge and our host Bob Rima, a 2017 PHWFF Patriot Award recipient. The result was that many expectations for this trip were met—wildlife and landscapes seen–moose, beluga whales, seals, glaciers and yes fire..check!  Fish sought after and caught-Silver Salmon, Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden….check! Most importantly shared stories and new friends…check!  

Participant Tom Reust, Indianapolis Program, said it well: 

It was an amazing experience…Drifters Lodge’s owner checked on us every day and the guides worked very hard to make it a trip of a lifetime. I met a great group of 6 other veterans and it once again was a life changing moment. I hope all the donors understand how important these events are and continue to make it possible for other Veterans to have experiences like this.”  

For me, as the volunteer trip leader, I loved sharing my Alaska home with these folks. Thank you Matt, Sean, Tom, Mark B., John, Mark A., and Alex for your stories, kidding, and occasional tangled lines! 

The story of 3 days on Alaska’s Kenai River.