What salmon do to people in Alaska:
A neighbor came by today wanting to borrow fishing gear. He doesn’t fish.
Or at least not with rod and reel.
He’d heard the daily bag limit for sockeye on the Kenai Peninsula’s Russian River had been boosted from three, the norm, to six, highly unusual, to nine, whole unprecedented.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “Yes, but you have to hook and land them first.”
Let alone add, “and they must be hooked legally.”
The hooking part is easy when the salmon are thick. The legal part is harder. Anglers can only keep fish hooked in the mouth. They all too often end up hooked elsewhere:
Gill plate, dorsal fin, tail, pectoral fin, etc.
If you know what you’re doing, you can usually point the rod at a fish hooked in the dorsal fin or tail, give the line a stout yank and pull the hook free. A sockeye’s fins split quite easily.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can take forever to land a foul-hooked fish, especially one snagged in the dorsal fin. That’s like being hooked into a torpedo. Every try to tire out a torpedo?
You can tire out a fish hooked in the lip. It burns up energy in the fight. Landing it still isn’t easy.
I figured the neighbor – let’s just call him Bob – would pretty quickly come to recognize that getting the river to give up nine, wild salmon isn’t quite as easy as going to the supermarket to grab nine, nice-fresh farmed salmon off ice.
“I need some lures,” he said.
“Lures? Do you know the Russian is fly-fishing only?”
“Fly-fishing? All those people I see lined up along the riverbank when I drive by (on the Sterling Highway) are flyfishing?”
“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You can only fish with a fly, but you can attach it any sort of fishing gear you want.”
Big, old streamers
I went to find some and brought back a whole bag of what are in Alaska called – surprise, surprise – “Russian River flies.”
“Oh, those,” Bob said. “I thought you were talking about one of those little things that float on the water.”
He held his thumb and forefinger up about 3/8 of an inch apart.
I handed him a Ziploc bag full of old flies six times that size. Some of them had a little rust on them, not that it mattered.
“Do you have a file?” I asked.
“A big, old heavy one at home,” he said. “What for?”
“You’ll need to sharpen the hooks. Sharp hooks catch a whole lot more fish.”
I dug my fishing vest out from under a couple coats on the coat rack in the mudroom, pulled out the file, and showed him how to sharpen a hook.
“A couple swipes on either side of the top of the barb. Test it on your thumbnail. If it sticks, you’re good to go. If it slides off, give it a couple more swipes with the file.”
“OK,” he said. “Do I just go down there to where the ferry goes across?”
“You can,” I said, “but I’d probably go in from the Russian River campground.”
“The Russian River campground?”
“Yes, the campground right there along the highway before the Kenai River bridge?”
“Oh, I’ve been there.”
“Turn into the campground, pay the parking fee….”
“You have to pay to park?”
“Yes. Pay the parking fee, drive into one of the parking lots, walk down to the river – you’ve got Polaroid glasses, right?”
“I think so.”
“Then walk down to the river, put on your Polaroids, and start walking along the banks looking for fish. You’ll see them if they’re in. If you don’t see any fish, there’s no sense fishing. Just keep walking down toward the confluence with the Kenai River.
“Sometimes there can be so many people wading around in the lower Russian, the fish get spooked and won’t enter the clearwater. They drop back into the murky glacial flow of the Kenai. If that’s the case, you’ll have to get in line with everyone else.”
This is what Alaskans call “combat fishing.” I didn’t tell him that. Probably should have. As in other combat zones, injuries are common. In this case, they come from hooks and sinkers on the ends of tight lines that break and snap bag at anglers.
Protective glasses, a hat and a heavy jacket are advised. A helmet might not be a bad idea.
“Nine,” Bob said. “The limit is nine. How am I going to carry nine fish?”
“Better take a backpack.”
“And a plastic bag to put it in,” he said. “Nine fish.”
“Have fun,” I said.
He got in his truck. The spinning rod he’d borrowed from another neighbor was already in there. By the time you read this, he’ll be on the river or on the way home with a load of frustrations about the ones that got away or refused to be caught.
Or, if he’s lucky, NINE FISH!