Fishing the Mighty Kenai

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

When I was 62, I had the great pleasure of working once again in Alaska. I love Alaska, I’ve starved and frozen there, worked there many times. I’ve also made good money there, and it’s always been piles of fun.

I was finishing up as the Construction Manager of about a seven million dollar construction project in Fiji, which included the model villa, a portion of which is shown below. That was a good job, with good people, but poorly structured financing as many such resort projects have. They say the third owner of a resort is the first one to turn a profit … in any case, my work there was done, and the villa is stunning.

fiji model villa

A friend named Ryan that I surfed with in Fiji had worked up in Alaska as a sport fishing guide for a decade or so, ever since he was 18. He worked there summers, and spent the winters in Fiji, where we’d hang out together and surf weekends, when I wasn’t working, play guitar, and he’d surf all week and live the brutal island retirement life. He’s now running his own fishing business in both places, Legends Sport Fishing Alaska/Fiji.

Another surfer buddy of Ryan’s and mine had wangled a job working alongside Ryan for the same lodge, but it would be our friend’s first time guiding, he’d have to get all his licenses first. Both of them were going north to work at RW’s Fishing Lodge, guiding for salmon on the mighty Kenai River. Here’s a picture of RW himself in his element, along with an idea about the size of the salmon there … logs. RW’s beard is whiter now, but that just makes him a better fisherman.

rw in his primeSo I figured what the heck. I’m about to retire early once again, I’ll invest a month in Alaska and see if I can scrabble up a job guiding on the Kenai with the boys … which proves there’s always room for one more fun-filled mistake in a man’s life. It was among the hardest jobs I’ve ever done … but one of the most rewarding jobs, too.

Plus, I always love fishing for salmon, it’s such a magnificent creature. I’ve written before about how it was a very important fish in prehistoric times. Some of the Early Asian Immigrants that lived in the northwestern US, long before the arrival of the Later Melanin-Deficient Immigrants, had a lovely ritual which some of my fellow fishermen and I used to observe some years when I’d trolled for salmon off of the North Coast. It had to do with catching the first salmon of the year.

Particularly for the inland tribes living well upriver, the return of the salmon was essential to life … and of course there was no way to know how many, or even if, they would return in a given year. It was always a question, would they come back? The salmon that they depended on to get them through the winter had always returned before, but would they come this year?

So the catching of the first salmon of the year was a huge deal, in many cases it meant the tribe would survive. Some of the tribes would take a plank of wood down to the river, and they’d lay out the first salmon on it. Then the fishermen would hoist it up, and they would carry it in triumph through the town, singing songs in praise of the mighty salmon tribe, and extolling the virtues of this particular salmon. And of course, tacking on some boasts about what great fishermen they were, after all, they were fishermen …

They would cook that first salmon, and hold the annual Our Really Cool Village’s Official First Salmon Festival in honor of the fish, and everyone would join in, the tribe was happy, the salmon were coming back, and they would eat it, carefully saving all of the bones.

When the feasting ended they would reassemble all the bones on the same wooden plank in the proper lifelike order, from jaw to tail fin, and once again singing and carrying on, they would parade the bones back to the river. There, they would speak to the salmon respectfully, as befit the Ambassador from the Tribe of Salmon, and tell it how much it meant to them, and how honored they all were that it had chosen to come to their very village. They told it that theirs was the finest village of all because, as the salmon had seen with its own eyes, they had the best, most extravagant feasts in honor of the whole salmon tribe, and the nicest music and dancing, and they held the salmon in such high esteem.

And then they placed the board carrying the bones in the water, and held the board with the salmon’s head pointed downstream. They told the salmon that they were sending him back to his friends downriver, the ones coming upstream, and they asked him to spread the word about the great time that he had partying in their way awesome village, and about the lovely singing and the dancing, and the honors, and the feasting. And then they released him, to go downriver and spread the good news to the rest of the tribe.

Now, did the Early Asian Immigrants really think that the fish would come to back to life and talk to its tribe? Don’t be daft, they’d seen more death than we can imagine, and like us, nobody ever came back, even if you did reassemble their bones.

But the spirit, ah, the spirit …

They did it because that is how we should respect the spirit of those beings who give up their own lives to keep us alive. And sometimes we used to do it as well, because to me, that is the proper mindset, particularly for the salmon like the kings of the mighty Kenai river.

So what is the Mighty Kenai when it’s at home? Why, it is nothing but the birthplace, and final destination, of the largest King Salmon on the planet, is what it is. In fact, all five different kinds of salmon found in Alaska, kings, coho (silver), reds (sockeye), pinks (humpies) and dog salmon, all run up the Kenai. You can see their pictures showing the differences here (PDF). It is a river that absolutely teems with fish at times, some two million and more red salmon come up it every year. Million. Here’s the layout of the lower river, from the bridge in Soldatna down to the mouth, where most of the king salmon fishing goes on. The upper river above Soldotna is fished, but that’s more a trout fishery (and a world-class one also).

GE soldotnaI flew up to the town of Kenai, at the top left of your picture there. My friends picked me up, and we went to RW’s place. I met him, he said if I could get my licenses in order he could probably use me as an extra man when there was enough business. RW is a good man, he took a chance hiring me and my buddy as rookies, was a fair boss to work for, did well by us, and has my high regard. Didn’t pay much, he’s a businessman, has to be … but the tips were good, and he knew that, so it balanced out, I have not one complaint about working for him.

So since it looked like at least I might have a job, me and my surfer friend who also needed his various licenses struck out for Anchorage to go to the school for taking the Coast Guard Examination. It’s a three hour drive, and about an hour in, up in the mountains, the two of us saw a lynx crossing the road a ways ahead, then stopping and looking at us from the shoulder after crossing, then taking one soaring leap way over the roadside ditch to vanish in the bushes .. magical.

lynx ak

Lynx

Nearing Anchorage the road drops back to sea level and runs alongside the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, ocean on the left and often sheer mountain face on the right. By pure chance, we saw the tidal bore was actually breaking! The tide changes are huge up there, sometimes 10-14 ft (3-4m), and only at certain times of the month, the incoming tide forms a single breaking wave that persists for miles and miles. The two surfers in the truck agreed, it was clearly rideable.

And further along, on a near-vertical face, we saw three or four mountain goats perched on the rocks … how can someone not have a passion for Alaskan summers?

mountain goat turnagin

Mountain goats

Too soon, though, we were back in the city, Anchorage, for the schooling. See, if you are taking paying passengers out in your boat, even on a river, you must have a Coast Guard License proving that you have the knowledge and the experience to be in charge of four innocents. And reasonably so, it’s a dangerous business going out in the cold Kenai, it’s killed more than one person, you have lives in your hands, old folks, kids. To get the Coast Guard License, you have to pass a specialized test, and also have notarized statements about the time you’d spent at sea. I’d gotten the statements together, time at sea was no issue for me, but I knew I couldn’t pass any specialized test without specialized training. Well, except the drug test, no special training needed for that, just go in the cup, I had to do that too, plus random drug testing any time during the season.

So me and my buddy went to the special one-week school to learn what the Coasties wanted us to know … how many lifejackets, required safety gear, all that stuff, the majority of which (except the detailed and specialized Kenai regs) we already knew. I also had to renew my Red Cross CPR and First Aid licenses, they’d run out. So I got my Red Cross tickets stamped, and we went to Captain’s school, we took the test, and we both passed. He had a job for sure as soon as we could get the licenses … me, maybe.

We went down to the Coast Guard office, and we got fingerprinted on the 21st century CSI kind of machine where there’s no ink. We had to fill out our names and drivers license numbers, passport numbers if we had one, place of birth, the whole deal. Because since 9/11, every applicant for a Coast Guard License has to undergo the full, in-depth, alien anal-probe level of security clearance … don’t want guys filling their fishing skiffs with explosives and taking out the Soldatna Bridge, I guess. Gotta be a true-blue 100% American to be a fishing guide on Alaskan rivers.

And then, after we’d finished all the easy stuff, they said … Son, have you ever been convicted of any crimes?

So we had to fill out a form listing every bad thing we’d been convicted of, with an explanation if one was warranted.

Now, I figured I was in pretty good shape in that area. After all, I’d never been even indicted, much less convicted, regarding those unfortunate misunderstandings about what you could bring across the border from outside the US.

And there’d never even been any charges filed when a bunch of friends and I kidnapped the California Governor, Ronald Reagan, and kept him prisoner for a couple hours in some innocent professor’s unoccupied office at UCSC and wouldn’t let him out, because the clever Governor ended up outsmarting us all, he walked away shining his halo and buffing his nails … but I digress, I was filling out the Coast Guard form.

That meant that all that was left was to report the twenty days I’d been fed and clothed as a guest of the state in Santa Rita, the Alameda County Jail, which is a whole ‘nother story to write up sometime … but again I digress.

santa rita alameda county jailThe official charge was “Disturbing the Peace”. But because I had the chance for the explanation of my heinous crime, I wrote in the small space provided that while they called it “Disturbing the Peace”, we called it “Disturbing the War”, and that it was a peaceful sit-in with a whole bunch of folks in front of the Oakland Army Induction Center in maybe 1969 or so … and I guess that must have been good enough for them, because after the three weeks to check with Washington and Interpol and the CIA and Homeland Security and the FBI and the Military and the aliens and whoever else, they gave me the official Alaska Inland Waterways Coast Guard Captains license.

They told me not to laminate it, and that I always had to have it, along with my guide permit, and my fishing license, and a photo ID, and my CPR card, and my First Aid card, and my drug testing information card, with me on my boat at all times. They didn’t mention my Ham Radio Licence (Hotel Forty-four Whisky Echo), or my Masseur’s License, or my Marriage License, or my Morse Code Proficiency Certificate, or my Universal Life Church Ministers License, or my PADI Openwater and Rescue Diver’s Licenses, so I left them ashore. I figured that the reason the Coasties wanted me to have my photo ID and stuff on board was to make sure nobody was impersonating me to use the boat for immoral purposes, which made me feel all warm and protected, it was kind of doppelgänger insurance.

My poor surfer buddy, though, he’d actually believed that when his local Court had told him something would be expunged from his record, they meant it actually would be expunged from his record, ho ho ho … so he’d left off a DUI he’d gotten and then had jumped through all the hoops to have expunged, and so the Coasties wouldn’t give him a license. Go figure.

As a result, when my license finally came in, his was still in the wind, and so I went to work right away taking his slot until his license came in. Of course, I was still working with him, writing letters on his behalf to the Coast Guardians to see if we could find a way that he could get his license, and he finally did, so that all came good and he took his place, and by that time we had plenty of work for everyone. He turned out to be an excellent fisherman, no surprise to me or Ryan, he’d spent a lot of time fishing salmon in other rivers, from boats and from the shore.

rw's boatyardThe marina at RW’s, just off the Kenai River. Folks getting ready to go out. Ryan’s in the guide seat at the back of the second boat working on a rod, our other buddy is in the back of the near boat. The guide’s office-style chair is loose, the four guest chairs are bolted to the storages boxes.

Now, while we were waiting to get our licenses, we started going out on the river as much as we could, to learn from Ryan because he’d worked there before. It was crucial that we learn the local waters, how to fish the Kenai river, especially for me. Here’s why:

I’d run boats on rivers a lot, I could read the water surface and know the sub-surface contours and obstructions starting from when I was a gold dredge diver, I’ve handled small boats all my life.

And I was a bona-fide serial salmon killer, I’d done in maybe a hundred … I mean a hundred thousand … seriously, that many salmon in my life to that point.

And I was a good river and stream fisherman, I’d caught trout in crazy places, I was hot with a rod and reel of any kind.

But the sad fact remained that I’d never never done one single day of guiding sport fishermen, and perhaps more to the point, I had never once caught a salmon in a river, either from a boat or from the shore, and I’d never even caught a salmon on a rod and reel. Ever. I was a commercial ocean salmon fisherman, a net and trolling guy. I was used to fishing for salmon like this …

salmon gill net

… and this way …

salmon trolling

… but never by rod and reel, and never this way:

salmon fleet

But my logic ran like this. I already know how to fish. And I know salmon. I know small boats. I know fishing rods, and I know rivers …

And therefore, I must already know how to fish salmon from a small boat with a fishing rod in a river. At least that was my theory … must have worked, I ended up with my guests catching decent numbers of fish, not the best by any means, but far from the worst.

Ryan was one of the reasons we were able to pull it off. He showed the two of us the places the fish would congregate in, or pass through, showed us the good and bad spots, pointed out the gravel bars, explained the different kinds of fishing customarily done on different sections of the river, he was a gold mine of information. We spent hours on the river soaking up his knowledge and learning about the gear and the fish and the boat and the mighty Kenai. And of course, we did some fishing as well, hey, guides don’t get to fish much, can’t touch the rod on a boat if you’re guiding, so we fished and Ryan guided. It was on one of these learning trips that I hooked my first salmon on the Kenai, a big king salmon.

It was a monster, a huge, beautiful fish. We carefully brought it just alongside the boat, put the tape measure along it for length, and estimated the girth by hand and set it free again. When we looked at the length/girth/weight charts, they said it weighted just over 50 pounds (23kg). It swam on upstream, still on its end-of-life quest to maintain the species.

I have never personally fished for king salmon in the Kenai since then, not once. I’ve just guided.

I figured, how could it possibly get any better than that instant, in a boat with my good friends, laughing and learning, catching that monster fish with the sun’s rays dappling through the trees, and then watching him swim free upriver? I knew I’d just beat my head against the wall trying, and catch smaller fish, where’s the good in that? Plus that way, I figured I could tell my guests that I’d never once caught a king salmon in the Kenai weighing less than fifty pounds … and then I’d explain why, to get folks laughing, because tense, worried amateurs are not a good thing to have in a boat. So I’ve only ever fished for reds in the Kenai since that day.

rw's marina

RW’s marina, with boats lining the bank, and the Kenai River on on the left.

The Kenai is a tough river to fish. It’s glacier-fed, so it has that pearlescent gray-green color that you can only see down into a foot (30cm) or so. As a result, its hard to tell when you’re running into the shallows. You need to be able to read the underwater changes from the ripples and slicks and eddies on the surface, to know from those subtle indications that down there is a rock which would happily rip your outboard off your boat, and over there a gravel bar has been filling in for a couple of months and is now just shallow enough to nibble the edges right off of your propeller …

We fished what’s called “back-trolling”. In back-trolling, the nose of the boat points upriver, but the boat is moving backwards downriver, because the outboard power is so low. You want to keep moving against the flow just enough for your lures and baits to get good action, but no faster, so you’re drifting backwards downstream. Usually, about a high idle.

The problem with back-trolling is that the instant that you let go of the handle of the outboard, the unbalanced forces take over. The river is pushing the nose of the boat downstream, and the motor is pushing the back of the boat upstream, so the boat wants to spin. The nose of the boat immediately swings to one side or another and the boat goes way off course, in seconds your guests’ lines tangle, it’s not pretty. So the guide can’t leave the helm, he can’t walk away from the engine in general, for more than a few seconds. Basically, you’re lashed to the outboard handle the whole time. But that’s not the only problem with the job.

Now, I’ve done some really hard jobs in my time, grueling endless physical labor, among them things like moving and stowing 350-pound (160kg) bales of pulp inside a ship’s hold, working twelve- and fourteen-hour shifts to get the ship loaded before deadline. And I’d spent years working as a commercial fisherman, which can be brutally exhausting work.

But I’ve never had a job as mentally hard as guiding on the Kenai. The problem is that during each shift of fishing, morning and afternoon, there’s never a moment to rest.

Now usually, when people say they don’t have a moment to rest, it’s a figure of speech—even the hardest fishing I’d done, there were always times where I could just lean up against the stack and close my eyes for thirty seconds and catch my breath. Back when I was loading pulp in Sitka, we’d relax when we were walking the hand trucks back to the pile to pick up a new bale, plus 15 minutes break every two hours. But that was easy compared to this.

Because if you lose your focus for thirty seconds on the Kenai, you’re toast.

To start with, you often have four total novices sitting in the four guest chairs. They wouldn’t know a fish was on their line if it sent them a telegram. They may have never even been out on the water at all. I had a guy ask me which way the ocean was, upriver or downriver. So you have to watch four fishing lines constantly to see if a fish is on, so you can tell the fisherman. And you have to make sure they don’t poke each others’ eyes out or drop a rod and reel overboard, nothing is foolproof because fools are so ingenious, particularly in a totally unfamiliar environment.

Then, of course, there’s a whole bunch of boats in the river, hundreds. A good stretch of water may have a string that is maybe twenty  or thirty boats long and three or four or five boats wide going down it constantly, with boats running along the sides of the river to get back to the top after they’ve drifted and backtrolled down to the bottom of that section.

So you have to watch out for the other boats, are you getting near them, is one of them drifting towards you as the whole fleet drifts downstream … and if any of them gets a hookup you need to get your guests’ gear out of the water at once.

You also have to watch your four fishing lines for snags. If a lure gets snagged on the river bottom, the boat continues downstream right over it and then the line is trailing out behind your boat, and there’s a line of boats right upriver and moving down with you. If you don’t catch the snag immediately, and yank it off the bottom, it will tangle with the next boat’s lines … not pretty. So you watch the rod tips to see if they’re constantly twitching, if not they’re snagged and you have maybe half a minute to fix it before it gets real ugly.

Then, of course, you need to watch out for underwater obstructions, sandbars, snags, boulders, the list is long. And every year, the icing over of the river, and then its breakup, and frequent spring floods, and just the normal current, all change the river constantly. Any given gravel bar is either getting shallower or deeper at any instant, you need to keep a close watch on the mighty Kenai …

And even if you do everything right, it can still go sideways in an instant. Like one day we’re fishing our way downriver next to a gravel bar. A guy in the front hooks a fish, and won’t listen when I tell him to come to the back of the boat because the fish is headed that way. So the fish goes around the back, and his line wraps around the outboard. I throw my length over the top of the outboard and lean way down, and I’m able to grab his line and pull it out and over my head so that’s good, it didn’t get cut by the prop, hooray … but the weight of my body on the engine turns it, and it runs the boat right up on the bar  and the prop hits the gravel with that ugly sound, beating up the edges of the propeller. It’s a penetrating grinding sound, you can hear it a good ways along the river, and all the guides in earshot turn and point and laugh … I netted the fish, the client was happy, I got a fat tip, that was the good news. I  spent an extra hour after work hammering and filing out the edges of my propeller, with the boys giving me grief,  that was the bad.

As a result, if you stop the constant scanning for even fifteen seconds, you can be in a world of hurt. So your eyes are always seeking, searching, taking the trip around the rod tips, see if anyone’s hooked a fish or a snag, looking behind you, judging the distance to the boats on all four sides, watching for hookups (the signal is when you hookup, someone holds the dip net vertically, to show which boat has the hookup), getting your guys out of the water and out of the way when necessary … truly, you have to maintain total and unbending attention to your surroundings, without the slightest pause, for six hours in the morning, then collapse at lunch, and then another six hours in the afternoon.

I’d never done anything like it, before or since, that total mental focus and concentration. It is eternally demanding, no breaks, no few seconds to rest, six long hours.

Something that really got under my skin, though, was not being able to leave the helm. I didn’t like that at all. I thought (and still think) that it is a safety issue. But I was a single-handed sailor, I knew the answer to that problem. So after a week or so where I couldn’t leave the outboard for an instant, I went to the local library in Soldotna, got on the web, and ordered myself a tiller-type autopilot like they use on small sailboats. It fits on the tiller of a sailboat, the wooden handle that’s connected to the rudder. I figured I could just jury-rig it to an outboard handle instead of the usual tiller.

simrad autopilot

Simrad autopilot. Left end attaches to the boat, the shaft on the right snaps on and off a small ball-and-socket setup on the tiller for easy connection and removal, and the shaft pushes in and out to keep the boat on a magnetic compass course.

So I did that, and it worked stupendously from my perspective. For the first time, when something happened, say someone’s reel came loose, I’d just pop on the autopilot, stand up, walk forwards, fix the reel at my own speed, walk back, sit back down in my office chair, pop the autopilot off, and resume steering.

When it really shined, though, was netting the fish. The guide always nets the fish, and before the autopilot, it was always a juggle, take the engine out of gear, run to the front, fish won’t cooperate, see I’m drifting sideways, run back to the engine, move away from shore, take it out of gear, go forward, it was crazy and dangerous. But with the autopilot, I’d just set the course, and then I could go way up on the bow, hang out, net the fish, and come back, and the boat would be solid as a rock. The other guides thought I was nuts, fishermen are among the most conservative folks I know. That kind of conservatism is a wise choice out on the water, where a new untested move can kill you … but I loved my autopilot, it set me free.

There were some good stories on the river that year. One was about a guide that worked for our outfit, I’ll call him Greg. He was a loud-mouth, not always pleasant, but an excellent fisherman. He usually got good tips, too, because he had a curious talent. He could make a sound with his voice and throat that would call the bald eagles right out of the sky. No kidding. They’d fly down, swoop low above the boat, sometimes you’d see eagles circling over his boat from way up or down the river.

One day he had a bunch of rich Japanese fishermen for his guests. They all had the very best gear, their own personal rods and reels, the boat gear wasn’t good enough for them. And they were dressed in the very finest that Cabelas can offer, the $280 fishing jackets with all the bells and whistles, the matching $260 pants, the whole thing.

Greg figures he’ll get a great tip out of these guys, they’re rolling in bucks, so when he sees an eagle flying overhead, he goes into his act. The bald eagles love the salmon runs, they come down and feast on the dead salmon that float downriver after spawning throughout the season. Plus any salmon that might die from mishandling by a fisherman or bears or the like, they all end up as food for the eagles and the gulls and the foxes and the like, salmon feeds the multitude and even enriches the soil of the riverbanks. Here’s some eagles I saw one day arguing with gulls over a salmon …

eagles fighting gulls

One gull will tease the eagle, and the eagle will rush after it. Meanwhile, the gull’s amigos sneak up behind and steal the eagle’s food. It’s hilarious to watch what happens when Baldy stops chasing the first gull, and turns around to strut back to his interrupted meal, only to find thieves raiding the larder …

So it was no surprise that a bald eagle came by that morning, and Greg stood up in the boat and gave his magical call, and the eagle came over to investigate. It swung in circles round the boat, the fishermen were entranced, they all had their $900 video cameras out filming the whole scene, as the eagle swooped lower and lower, and then came in right low over the boat, closer than any of them had ever seen a majestic bald eagle … a majestic bald eagle that promptly took a majestic bald eagle dump right down the front of a brand new, just out of the box, $280 Cabela’s fishing jacket …

Now, you’ve seen bird poop before, the spots on the hood of your car, and such. You need to get that picture out of your mind entirely, we’re in another league here. Forget those tweety birds, clear away your preconceptions—this was something completely different.

This was maybe a half-litre (a pint) of semi-liquid, semi-digested rotten salmon, complete with chewed-up bones, plus bonus mystery objects whose provenance didn’t bear thinking about, splashed liberally over the entire front of some poor fisherman’s lovely new outfit …

Of course, with cell phones the news was all over the river by noon when we came back to the lodge for lunch. Greg came in, tail dragging … before anyone could say anything, Ryan pipes up, all innocent like, “So Greg … how were the tips this morning from those rich Japanese guys?” …

Another story from that summer was about Tall Dan.  He’d been a guide on the river for RW the year before. He came up with some other guys, friends of his, for his bachelor party. They had a boat. All was going well until they hooked into a big salmon. Tall Dan leaned way out of the back of the boat to net the fish. Just as he got the net around it, he overbalanced and went involuntarily bathing in the Kenai, down in the lower section below Mud Island. None of his friends were much into boating, so the skiff mostly just drifted on down river while they were trying to figure out what to do.

Tall Dan came up sputtering. He started to swim to the far shore, a distance of maybe 25 metres (yards). Anxiously watched by all the other fishermen in the dozens of boats within eyesight, he dog paddled slowly to shore, and waded and staggered up on the far flat, up to his calves in the mud, shook himself … and pulled his fishing net out of the water, and held it up … with the king salmon still in it. The entire fleet of watching boats all erupted in cheers.

Third story. The Make-A-Wish Foundation got in touch with my friend big John, the owner of Reel Adventures. Seems there was kid without long to live who wanted to catch a Kenai king salmon. Johnny volunteered his boat and gear and gas and time, Alaskans are generally good that way.

john whitlatch

The kid was in a wheelchair, so Johnny had to make minor modifications to the boat so he could secure him down safely. Then they had to get special permission from Fish and Game, Johnny knows all the F&G guys, because it’s illegal for anyone but the fisherman to handle his rod, and the kid might need help. Plus it’s illegal for one fisherman to fish more than one rod, so they set it up with Fish and Game, a special exemption so Johnny’s boat could fish four rods as usual, and the kid would take whatever rod hit first.

kenai mist

SOURCE

On that most special day of days in that young man’s short life, they set sail into the morning mist on the Kenai, with the kid well lashed down, bundled up and grinning, and his assistant, and Johnny and his offsider, with four rods busily fishing for one small personage of indeterminate temporal duration. Johnny’s one of the best guides in the fleet, so you know the kid got his fish. Johnny said the boy fought it with all the strength he had, he refused to give up, he fought and rested and fought it again all the way up to the boat with just a bit of assistance. And when Johnny had netted that fish and brought it on board, he said he’d never seen another human being so completely and overwhelmingly happy in his entire life, he thought the kid was gonna explode with pure joy.

One of the best times I had on the river, though, was the morning I had the good fortune to have the Old Man and the Kid on my boat, with a couple other folks filling the other two seats. The two of them had known each other during the Vietnam war.  Back then everyone had called one guy the Old Man because he was 26 at the time, clearly over the hill, and called the other the Kid because he’d just turned 18. During the war, the Old Man was a door gunner, and he had saved the Kid’s life more than once … but then first one and then the other rotated back to The World, and they lost touch with each other.

Fast forward forty years or so, the Kid is now about 60, he gets on the web, tracks down the Old Man. He invites him to Alaska, his guest, they’ll do the state right, his treat. He wanted to pay the old man back for saving his life more than once in the war.

So they land on my boat at five-thirty in the morning. I’ve been up since four AM, it’s been light since two AM or so, never got totally dark. I shower, have some breakfast, make up my thermos of coffee, and walk over to get my salmon eggs out of the refrigerator in the barn, where we store the eggs of the salmon, cured and used for bait. I cut up slices of herring that I’ll lash cut-side out to the lures just before they go in the water for extra juicy tastiness. I walk over to the boat at five AM with the bait and eggs, and check over all four of my rods, one for each guest, plus the spare, make sure each one has their lures set up and ready to go. Swap out the empty outboard fuel tank and the empty spare tank for two full ones. I’d washed and scrubbed the boat down the night before, so the boat is clean, no scales or salmon eggs. I take off the garbage bags I’d put on the seats to keep off the heavy river dew, sitting in water is no fun, and stow them under the seats for emergency raincoats for forgetful clients.

When everything is all set, that’s about when the clients start arriving, I never have any clue beforehand who I’ll get. And jeez, when the Old Man gets on board, he’s maybe 70 or so, I don’t know, but he looks like he’s about 97. He’s wheezing like a leaky bellows, and despite that he’s puffing on a cigarette when he steps on the boat. The Kid gets on board, and the other two, everyone sits down in their chair. I write their names in the log book as they sit down, by chair in the same order each time so I can remember their names, I write their license numbers. When they’re settled, I give them the standard safety spiel before leaving the dock:

• Lifejackets are to be worn at all times.

• Other safety and first aid gear is under the bow.

• Watch your rod tips when you’re handling your rod, we’re close to each other and to other boats.

• If you fall overboard, don’t worry—I’ll dip you out with my fish net like an oversized salmon. Just kidding, but I will get you out, you’ll be cold but fine, just don’t panic, the life jacket will keep you safe.

• If I fall overboard, do nothing except kill the engine by pulling this red coiled cord here on the engine—unless I’m unconscious, I’ll be right back triple-quick, that water’s cold …

• Someone has to be the captain on every boat, and on this boat it’s me. If I have time to explain why you have to do something important, I’ll gladly explain it beforehand. But if you hear me say something like “Sit down!” loud and clear, you need to do it really fast, and when I have time I’ll explain whatever the reason for the urgency was.

• Please stay seated unless you are fighting a fish.

• I have the net, and I’ll net any fish that you catch.

• Don’t worry if you’ve never done this before, that’s why I’m here, no experience necessary. I’ll explain everything you need to know as we go along.

• Don’t expect miracles, they call it “fishing” and not “catching” for a reason, most trips a boat will catch one, maybe two king salmon. What some of you have may be a wonderful, exciting, and interesting excursion on the Kenai river … and as always, my firm goal is a fish for every guest.

• My job is to run the boat, to keep you from unintended bathing, and to give you all the assistance and information you need or want about the river. Your job is to enjoy the adventure, and I trust you’ll do it well. Guides never fish, we’re here to serve your fishing.

• Tips are an optional acknowledgement of good service, and guides don’t make much of a wage.

True all, that. And with the Coast Guard mandated safety briefing out of the way, we idle slowly out of the marina and into the open river, I pick a direction where I fervently hope the fish might be at that time and tide, and put the hammer down, the cold morning wind in my face as I stand up and steer the boat at high speed along the river to the chosen fishing area.

Wherever we’ll be fishing we want to be there before 6 AM, because that’s when the bell rings and the guide boats can start fishing. The private boats can fish any time, but the guide boats only 6 AM to 6 PM. My first day guiding I blew it bad, I told my guests to put their hooks in the water about five minutes early, I was busy watching them and the other boats and the river, not the clock, new to the job, took a quick look, thought it was six … I got a phone call from Ryan down at the other end of the river about five minutes after six o’clock, wondering what the hell I was up to … modern fishing. I told him it was my bad, it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t.

So we start fishing at precisely six in the morning, not one second earlier, and as usual, I start talking story with the guests, putting them at their ease, inviting them to tell their stories, talking about the river and the fish. The Old Man and the Kid explain what their whole deal is, how the Kid has this blood debt to the Old Man for repeatedly saving his life way back in Vietnam, and he’s paying it back by showing him a great time in Alaska.

So we fish for a while, no bites. But that’s no surprise, because like I’d warned the folks, most days a guide boat fishing king salmon on the Kenai for a half day trip will catch one or maybe two fish between the four guests, occasionally three, very rarely four. You go skunk, no fish, maybe one half-day trip every three days or so … and of course you take grief from the other guides for it, hey, we’re fishermen. So most of your time is spent drifting and talking and enjoying the river.

And the fish gods are capricious, often the nice deserving person who I’m hoping will hook the fish catches nothing, and the unpleasant loudmouth gets one. So I was hoping against hope that the Old Man would catch a fish. In the meantime, I point out the momma duck and the nine or ten ducklings hanging out on the logs, and we swap stories as we drift downstream waiting for a bite, then maybe pick up and run a bit to the next hole, fish some more … nothing.

kenai ducks

Murphy, the Greek God of Going Wrong, must have been asleep that day, because to my surprise, around ten that morning, after four hours without even a nibble, the Old Man hooked into a whopper. We put up the net for a signal, and I worked the boat out of the fleet to a clear area near the river’s edge where he could fight the fish. He stood up and started in reeling, and I looked at him and thought Oh man, this joker is gonna drop dead on me for sure, right here and now, I gotta put 9-1-1 on speed dial soonest.

He was puffing and wheezing, trying to fight the fish with his reel instead of his shoulders, and paying for all those years of unfiltered Camels. I tossed the boat into autopilot so I could go stand next to him and coach him, OK, my friend, keep the rod tip up, take a deep breath, we’re in no hurry, could be a long fight, you just go easy, old-timer. I’ll tell you what to do as you need to do it. For now, pump up with the rod, and then reel back down, keep the tip up, ok, keep a tight line, he’ll get off if you go slack, now another pump with the rod, now reel again … and he stuck to his guns, breath whistling like a faulty bicycle pump, face bright red, I was just praying that he wouldn’t have a blowout in his cranial plumbing, I wasn’t ready for that at all, First Aid and CPR training or not.

But as I talked to him, he slowed down, and his face looked better. He’d pump and reel for a bit, and then rest, and then pump and reel. So things were going swimmingly. But then I looked upriver, and I saw another boat coming downstream beside the boats that were still fishing, heading right at our boat, and I yelled “Fish on! Fish on!” at the top of my lungs and held up the dip net and shook it from side to side. But he just kept coming, and he held up his net too, and like me he yelled “Fish on!”. He didn’t have an autopilot, so he had to mostly just drift downstream, while I was holding my position.

I looked to see if I could slide downriver to get out of his way, but I was blocked by boats below. So he moved his boat over near the fleet, and I edged closer to shore, he was starting to pass by me, we were maybe 50 yards (metres) apart, he could squeeze by … and just then Murphy woke up and went back to work, and the two fish took off straight across the river for each other and started twisting around and around, and instantly we were in the middle of what the Kenai guys call “a royal goat-rope”.

The other skipper and I each told our guy to reel in slowly. We got reeled in to the crossover in the lines before the other boat, so he just stood off, both holding position against the current. I could leave the helm, he couldn’t, so I took the rod out of the Old Man’s hands, leaned way out over the river, and started carefully passing the rod around the lines to unwrap the fish.

It’s dangerous handling the line itself with a big fish on it, so I was careful. One time that year I was handling the line and a big salmon took off. The line wrapped around my finger and sawed halfway to the bone before I could get it off. I did what fishermen do, got the regulation bottle of superglue out of my first aid kit, glued my flesh together along the edges of the line cut, left one end open so it could drain, and kept fishing … but I digress, I just kept passing the rod around and around the other line, those fish must have done a maypole dance at the river bottom.

Finally, I got the lines untangled from each other, and the other boat went off to fight their fish.

I handed the rod to the Old Man, and told him that fish might be gone, he had to reel in the slack fast as he could. But what I hadn’t noticed in the excitement was that the tip of his rod had snapped off and slid down the line a bit, and when he started reeling in like a madman, the tip was reeled with the line back up to the rod, and it jammed into the next ferrule (the metal rings the line runs through) of his rod, the broken tip was wedged down into the ferrule with the line all caught and snagged around it. No way to reel in the fish.

I looked at that damn tip jammed up to its hips in the ferrule, and I must confess, I said very bad words. I was not a happy guide at all. After all we’d done to save the Old Man’s fish, and now this? I sat back down with the rod across my lap, took out my Leatherman, and I cautiously wrenched the tip out of where it was jammed in the ferrule. Then I snipped the metal tip carefully off of the line so the line didn’t get cut, it seemed to take forever, the line was all twisted around and jammed in the tip, and again I was handling the damn line with my bare hands … but it had taken so long that by that time it didn’t matter one bit, the line was dead slack, the fish was long gone. I took all the time I needed, I didn’t want to cut the line accidentally, and I got it all working again.

I sadly handed the Old Man back his pole, and told him to reel in the miles of slack line that were decorating the river bottom at that point, said we’d try to get him another fish, told him I had a spare pole for him on board, and started cleaning up the mess and stowing the dip net. He started reeling in slowly, blowing and puffing, and then he said “Hey, it feels like there’s something on the line”. I turned, and sure enough, that fish had just been lying doggo on the bottom, he was still on the line! Blind luck, usually they spit out the lure as soon as it goes slack.

So I looked around, we still had room to fight the fish where we were. I adjusted the autopilot heading a bit to keep us out of the shallows, and stood up to help the Old Man.

spawning king

The salmon was still fresh, he’d been resting up after maypole dancing with that other fish, and he fought hard. But the Old Man stayed with the fish to the end, with his blood pressure steadily climbing towards four digits, likely a new personal best. I talked him through it all, told him to slow down, told him to bring the fish up just below the surface of the river, but don’t lift his head out of the water or he’ll go crazy, and then to gently swing the rod tip right over my head to bring me the fish, and when he did I reached in with the long-handled dip net and brought the salmon on board. He was a big male, starting to go red, with a bit of a hooked jaw. The Old Man collapsed in a heap in his chair, with a satisfied grin that stretched clear across his face, and lit up a cigarette in celebration.

I did then what I always did after catching a king salmon on the Kenai. I said to the salmon in a loud, clear voice, “My name is Willis Eschenbach, and I thank you for coming to end your life with me and my guests on our boat. We are honored by your sacrifice.”

It’s important to state your name clearly at a time like that, because Death is watching, so it’s no time for mistakes about who he’s there for. Particularly in this case, since it might be the fish like everyone expected … but on the other hand, it might be the Old Man, given the pallor of his skin and the beating of his heart, I could see the veins jumping in his neck as he puffed on his smoke … and as always, it might even be me, and I’m about the old man’s age, height, and build—it’s Death’s choice and who knows what’s in that bugger’s bag of tricks or how good his vision is? I always state my name out loud, so he doesn’t make a careless mistake …

Plus, I wouldn’t want to die at the hands of an unknown opponent, I’d want to know the name of the warrior who finally took my life. And I would hope that he would acknowledge the weight and the finality of the moment.

And last, and most important, life eats life to live, try as I may I cannot escape that. All I can do is to treat the other lives that I kill and eat with the honor and the respect that they deserve.

And as always, the strength and the nobility of the king of the salmon, and the clarity of the moment, and the shrouded form of impending Death silhouetted against the expanse of blue sky and witnessed by the ageless river swirling by … those forces conspired such that almost everyone always agreed and nodded their heads when I spoke my hail and farewell to the salmon. They knew it was not a light moment, that a fine creature would die for our sake and we needed to acknowledge and respect that … plus by then they’d usually spent a bit of time with me, heard a few stories, they weren’t surprised that I was odd, anyhow they didn’t know what to expect from a Kenai guide, and besides, most folks understand and respect that kind of reverent oddity. I can report that not one single person ever jeered or made fun of or spoke against what I’d just said, although some asked about it afterwards.

Then I took the king salmon’s life with my own indelibly blood-stained hands, the hands of a musician and a builder and an artist that also forever bear that moonlight pale yet strangely fade-proof crimson badge of the man who lives in the midst of life. I am not a man who eats the meat and blames the butcher, and so I killed the salmon cleanly with the club, and I cut the gills to drain it, the bright red essence of his life spilling out over my knife and my hands and splashing out on the deck as the guests watched.

The Old Man held the salmon up while the Kid took pictures, and their faces showed nothing but pure satisfaction. The Old Man smiled at the Kid, and the Kid smiled at the Old Man, and I knew that whatever might transpire during the rest of their trip, I’d been given the rare opportunity to witness the payment in full of an ancient debt of honor.

Curious creatures we humans are, with blood spilled today somehow paying in full the butcher’s bill for blood saved yesterday, the sacrificial blood of old. They each carried the darkness of death in Vietnam somewhere inside them, you could tell, but today was a day of brightness, and of trading death for life, and of sunlight flashing off the water, a balm for the healing of old battle scars … I took the fish from the Old Man, and I silently carried the lifeless body forwards, and placed it gently into the fish box.

A given fisherman can only catch one king salmon per day on the Kenai, so I washed my hands of gurry and blood, ultimately fruitlessly as always, the pale mark endures, and took the Old Man’s rod, cleared and untangled the line, and stowed it in the rod holder. That’s your visible badge of success on the Kenai—your fish is in the boat, and your rod is in the holder advertising your accomplishment, saying to the fleet, ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of king salmon: look on my works, ye mighty fishermen, and despair!’ I’d swap out the rod later, it was done for the day. The Old Man was done for too, near collapse, but luckily he was also done for the day, nothing more to do but rest on his laurels, and he popped open a beer, lit another smoke, and took full advantage of the lovely morning.

I took the hose and washed the life’s blood off of the deck. I logged the death of the fish by species, one king salmon, guides have to record every fish taken, and yes, they do board your boat to check.

I took off the autopilot that had allowed me to wash and log, checked around to see if the boat was clear of dangers, no other boats flying up from behind. I twisted the handle of the outboard to run back up to the top of the hole, still an hour’s fishing to go before lunch … but no one else on the boat caught another fish.

Then the run back to the lodge at noon, standing up in the stern and blazing along the river, outboard wide open, running the shallow threaded off-river back channel short-cuts, dodging the rocks and bars, in my face the chill sea-wind that ever and always blows up the river bearing the iodine smell of my old ocean home, no worker in the world has a better office than a Kenai fishing guide … then slow down for the turn into RW’s marina, staying clear of the hidden gravel bar at the mouth, and we idle in to the marina to tie up, to keep the wake from rocking the other boats.

Unload the fish, say goodbye to the Kid and the Old Man, the Kid gave me a hundred dollar bill, and we grinned at each other like teenaged conspirators at our spectacular, unexpected success with the Old Man. The Kid was released from a lifelong burden of honor, all debts were paid, and he looked like it too, refreshed and ready for more life-threatening adventures with the Old Man.

But way too soon it’s off to a hurried lunch, then another shift, four new guests to meet.  I reveled in the endless variety of people I took out, Los Angeles businessmen, machinists from Chicago, cowboys from Colorado. The Mexican farmers and families and businessmen all were assigned to my boat because I can relate a good story in Spanish as well. No telling what I’d get, yesterday four Idaho potato farmers celebrating a good year for spuds, this afternoon or another just like it we have two retired judges and two retired prosecutors on holiday from New York, and I also face the unending hours of unflagging attention until six in the evening … and the ever-present question of where the fish might be …

fishing holes of the lower kenaiMy own map of the fishing holes. I made and printed them with the computer and printer I brought with me. They had length/girth/charts on the back, I and gave them to customers as souvenirs. Cost maybe a buck a page, I’d guess they increased tips by five bucks per person on average. Hey, I’m in it to retire early … plus everyone walked away with something even if it wasn’t a fish, even the ones that didn’t tip me at all, that’s just good business. I also kept one on the boat, laminated against water, to answer questions. Initially, of course, I made it up for myself so I could learn the names of the holes … remember, I was a rookie. Click to enlarge.

So they tell me they’re ex-judges and ex-prosecutors. The two judges sit in the two seats farthest from me towards the bow, the prosecutors in the two seats nearest me … and I’m sitting in my office chair, facing them and driving the boat. Two judges and two prosecutors, it feels like my bad courtroom dreams from back in the day when such things … but again I digress, it’s a full-time job keeping this boat-borne tale on a steady course.

So we chat a while, talk about their prior occupations. Then I figured, what better time than now, it’s a lovely day and I’m talking to representatives of the judiciary, plus I had them out-numbered, there were only four of them, so I just kinda blurted out something that had been bugging me for a while:

“The problem with the American justice system is that the prosecution can bribe the witnesses, but the defense can’t.”

Well that put the cat among the pigeons. They were all saying, what do you mean? We don’t bribe anyone. All puffed up and clearing their throats. After that, the two judges mostly sat and smiled and watched the show, but to the two prosecutors I was suddenly what they call a “hostile witness”, and they started in to question me …

I said, “You can bribe witnesses, you can force and coerce testimony out of people, and it’s legal for you to do it. And not only that. You can bribe them with the promise of something more valuable than cash or gold or diamonds—their freedom.

Well, I have to report that my true and valid accusation, that the prosecution can threaten to lock someone up on a totally unrelated charge unless they testify against you, and the defense has no such right to force someone to testify in your behalf, to give the real story … that certainly provoked what in diplomatic terms is called a “full and frank discussion.” I stuck to my guns, though, as did the prosecutors, it was a wonderful display of the cut and thrust of debate. One of the judges lit up a cigar as we drifted along, it was clearly a grand day for an out-of-doors trial and an out-of-court settlement. The discussion continued, points made and disputed, it was fun to watch powerful minds at work.

Finally, the prosecutors had to agree. The scales of justice are not balanced. The prosecution does have immense power to coerce witnesses that the defense doesn’t have. That part is just a fact, and they were honest men, they couldn’t deny it. But, they argued, it’s OK because that power was used judiciously, not to obtain false testimony but to get to the truth, and that the system and the people could be trusted to make sure that imbalance of power was not abused.

I looked at the prosecutor who’d made the argument, and I said “My friend … America was founded by people who absolutely and completely didn’t trust people in power not to abuse that power. Why on earth should I start trusting you now?”

There was a long silence as the prosecutors frantically sought a counter argument … then the one judge pulled the cigar out of his mouth, spat over the side of the boat, and said kind of laconically  ” … Ummm …  ‘fraid he’s got ya there, Ellery” … 

YOWZA! An official Ju-dicial Opinion in favor of the rookie guide, I felt like Rocky, I clasped my hands over my head, and all five of us busted up laughing hysterically … and the afternoon and the good conversation flowed on by, points given and taken. And somewhere in there, one of them caught a fish, and I spoke my words of respect to the fish, and I killed it. I thought New York hard guys might laugh at what I said, but they were razor-sharp, they understood immediately what I was doing. The judges most of all—I learned that day from watching them that in some sense, I was the judge pronouncing the final death sentence, and they understood that ponderous weight far too well …

Afterwards they all opened the beer they’d been saving drank to the first fish, offered me one. I couldn’t, I was on duty, so I toasted the fish with my water bottle.

Finally the day’s over, pull the lines out of the water, sorry, guys, guided boats can’t fish past six, fire up the boat, and run back in at day’s end. Arrive at 6:15, 6:30 if you’re fishing way downriver, unload the fish, collect the tips. Each man gave me at least $20, I shook their hands, thanked each one for a lovely time. They said they hadn’t expected a Kenai guide to be like me. I said I sure hadn’t either, I was as surprised as they were to find myself guiding on the mighty Kenai, and we parted laughing, enjoy the rest of your vacation, so long …

Then take the deck hose, wash and scrub up the boat, get the gear back in order. Wash the fish box clean of any blood and scales. Mend any breakages, tie new leaders. Wash the lures that were used, sharpen or replace any bad hooks. Put the garbage bags back on the seats, pick up any scraps, pump the wash water overboard, grab my thermos, the boat can sleep the night. Oh, wait … I have to trade out the Old Man’s busted rod, I walk it over to RW’s shop and find a replacement, take it back to the boat, and the boat is ready for tomorrow.

From there it’s over to the fish cleaning station, to get the eggs from the hens, meaning any female salmon that my own guests have caught, can’t take another guide’s salmon eggs. Then back to the barn, gotta check my salmon eggs in the fridge, cut the new eggs into skeins and put them in to brine and cure. Take off the rubber gloves used for brining, walk back to the trailer to make some dinner. Workday, about 4:45 AM to 7:30 PM or later … eat, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat … there were only a few guys my age guiding on the river, but I haven’t forgotten how to work long and hard, fourteen hour days were no novelty to me, so I fished and drank and laughed and played music around the campfire in the strange slanting half-light of the midnight Alaskan semi-dusk, two guitars among the trees, Ryan brought his guitar, Johnny had one, and I kept up my end of the game with the best of them. It was an outrageous fishing season, my sincere thanks to Ryan and my surfer buddy, Johnny, RW, Pat, and all my friends along the Kenai, who welcomed me even though it was my rookie season, taught me the tricks of the wily salmon and the sneaky ways of the prop-biting Kenai, and who first laughed at each of my errors, cracked up actually, and then showed me the correct method, in the way the best fishermen always have in my experience.

how to not wrap bait

Not my lashup, found in the river, but I made mistakes just as silly …

At the end, I’d made nearly twelve grand, cleared maybe nine, ten, so I figured it must be time to retire early once again.

I fully planned to go back the next season. In the spring, with the Alaskan snow still on the ground, I flew back up to the Kenai to go through the newly-required one-week Kenai River Professional Guides Association guide academy. There the guides new and old were either taught or reminded of a host of fascinating things about the history, and the laws, and the ecology, and the regulations, and the life-cycles of the Kenai. We came away with a deep knowledge of the mighty river and all its inhabitants. It was a superb opportunity for me, can’t tell you how much I learned, stuff I’d never suspected, like there’s a whole ecosystem that lives inside the gravel bars that line the sides of the river, baby fish, insects, all kinds of stuff living yards from the river, in the water that flows between the small rocks, way down under the surface of the gravel I walked on … who knew?

But then a couple of months before the season, I was getting ready to go north, and a job opened up back in the Solomon Islands as the Chief Financial Officer for a fuel importing and distribution company with sales of $40 million a year … you can likely guess what happens after that kind of offer in my life, plus I’d never been a hated oil company executive before, and I do love new challenges. It wasn’t Big Oil like you read about, or even small oil, more like baby oil … but the world needs fuel, so off I went adventuring again.

I’ve been back on the Kenai twice since then, both times as a guest, not a guide, so I sat in one of the four guest seats while one of the guides I knew ran the boat.  … and the bad news is, I likely won’t be there on the Kenai this summer to sit in that left front guest seat and hear the eagles scream and smell the wild onrush of life, perhaps I’ve seen the Kenai for the last time except in memory, one never knows in this life … but somebody has to take my fighting chair, the fourth guest seat on the boat is gonna be empty, looks like it’s about your size …

Because I know that next year, when once again the red salmon swim upriver again in their millions, as I see them yet in my dreams …

kenai reds

…and the bears and eagles and people and foxes and gulls all gather ’round from their winter grounds to join in the ongoing riverside feast, it will still have that distinct Alaska summer smell, that urgent, pungent, fecund odor peculiar to the North, the boisterous winds redolent of the haunting, driving, rich breath of every single living organism fighting and eating and killing and breeding and running as fast as it can before the refrigerator door slams shut and the all-too-brief summer light transmutes into wintry Arctic cold.

I love that scent, it is the raw perfume of the seething Northern summer itself.

bear fishing

And the king salmon, that most aptly-named of fish, will be running in its untold numbers up the Kenai again in June and July, and behind their watery highway rises the Kenai Peninsula, rugged and feral, a mysterious forest kingdom where clans of giant bears walk upright and rule in place of the tribes of man … ah, the very thought of it makes my heart escape the ribbed bars of its cage and once again, just as I myself have voyaged to Alaska so many times in the past, it wings its way North to refresh and renew its hidden chambers with the intoxicating pure oxygen of untouched wildness …

w.

CODA:

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Live while you can, dear friends, for the night is assuredly coming.

…  another chapter for Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …

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47 thoughts on “Fishing the Mighty Kenai

  1. Nice article Willis, exquisitely crafted and winningly related.

    But……

    Here’s who you were marching against in ’69 (taken from Media Watch Dog blog, via the Australian (pay per view, alas)). Just thought you’d like to know.

    Human Rights abuses in Vietnam

    The Melbourne based Vietnamese Australian author Quynh Dao (with Que Me) wrote in The Australian on 12 February 2013 about communist repression in Vietnam:

    Two prominent Vietnamese democracy and human rights advocates, Thich Quang Do and Nguyen Van Ly, have been nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. This is encouraging news for a long-suffering people whose oppression is little reported.

    Quang Do, 84, is the Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and an eminent scholar, lecturer and writer in oriental philosophy and Buddhist studies. He has spent nearly three decades in detention for his peaceful advocacy for more freedom for his people…

    The 66-year-old Catholic priest Father Ly, who suffers paralysis of one side of his body as a result of a stroke while he was in prison and was recently diagnosed with a brain tumour, is also considered dangerous by Vietnamese authorities. He has spent the past 37 years either in prison or under house arrest. He founded Block 8406, an organisation that brings together peaceful advocates for freedom and human rights both within and outside Vietnam.

    Quynh Dao’s article is a timely reminder that there was no “liberation” following North Vietnam’s conquest of South Vietnam in April 1975.

  2. Ah memories!

    As I read this I am resting up after a hard day skiing at Alyeska Resort Alaska, just a few miles and a couple of seasons away!

  3. IainC says:
    February 22, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    Nice article Willis, exquisitely crafted and winningly related.

    But……

    Here’s who you were marching against in ’69 (taken from Media Watch Dog blog, via the Australian (pay per view, alas)). Just thought you’d like to know. ….

    Since I already knew that, I’m not clear what your point is. Next time, ask if a man knows something before trying to school him in what he may already be aware of.

    Vietnam was the wrong war, wrong place, wrong time. As my story above illustrates, even the winners, those without a scratch, did not walk away unwounded.

    So please, I’m not interested in those simple explanations, good/bad, right/wrong, communist/capitalist, free/not free. I know very well what happened then, and after Saigon fell, and what is happening now in Vietnam.

    And as with many things, sadly there are no easy answers. Like most places, it’s better than it was, and we hope, worse than it will be …

    We now return you to the world of salmon fishing …

    All the best,

    w.

  4. No mysticism in Australia, Willis, just data. Here’s son Paul aged 2 and a bit in the Top End of the Northern Territory, 30 minutes rod fishing, 10 lb line. Fish is Barramundi, Lates calcarifer, these ones from a shallow fresh water billabong about 20 km from the sea. One jumped from water to the lure hung on the rod over his shoulder, an own goal I guess.
    When a grown up Barra wags its tail we get an El Nino.
    Your salmon merely alter local albedo a bit.

  5. Reminds me of some of the best and worst times of my life – all in Alaska. A bad place to drink but a great place to get drunk. If you are early or late to anything you’re screwed because plan B does not work in Alaska. You are food or a hunter. You never appear as anything but protein to the local fauna. Following the Crowley tug/barge fleet north is a good paycheck – spending it in Soldatna is not a good investment. Naknek, Tin City, Yakutat, Cold Bay, Dutch Harbor, Kenai, Thompson Pass, Unalaska, the diamond that is Valdez, Prudhoe Bay, Barrow, Kodiak… All great watering holes and money to be made by the adventurous and hardy. None of them worth a letter home but all worth every saved memory. Harsh, unforgiving, mosquitoes, large carnivores, angry ungulates. What’s not to like?

  6. Wonderful story!

    It’s been 14 years since my last fishing trip on the Kenai. My grandfather had a lifelong dream of just such a trip and at 78 years of age all of his buddies were no longer up to the adventure. I grabbed that golden ring of opportunity and booked tickets for him, myself and my father for 7 days of fishing. Went in late August after the King season ended to avoid the “combat fishing”. Three days of Silvers interspersed with halibut at Deep Creek near Ninilchik.. Silvers and pinks on the Kenai at Soldatna out of the very marina you describe. Dolly Vardens on the upper Kenai at Cooper landing and finally an evening glacier cruise out of Seward. Absolutely wonderful time.

    In Soldatna we set grandpa out on the front of the boat. The guide asked if we wanted to rig for silvers or pinks. Grandpa wasn’t paying attention when we pointed at him and told the guide “We’re here to catch fish”. The guide knew exactly what we meant and rigged grandpa up for pinks and dad and myself for silvers. Grandpa caught 3 fish for each one we caught and refused the $20 I offered to him to switch seats to get his lucky spot. We had a great time and the guide got a great tip.

    It feels like it’s time for another trip… Thanks for the inspiration!

  7. Mark Hirst says:
    February 23, 2013 at 12:05 am


    In Soldatna we set grandpa out on the front of the boat. The guide asked if we wanted to rig for silvers or pinks. Grandpa wasn’t paying attention when we pointed at him and told the guide “We’re here to catch fish”. The guide knew exactly what we meant and rigged grandpa up for pinks and dad and myself for silvers. Grandpa caught 3 fish for each one we caught and refused the $20 I offered to him to switch seats to get his lucky spot. We had a great time and the guide got a great tip.

    Nice tale well told, Mark. If you’ll permit me a bit of backstory so non-fisherfolk will understand the joke?

    Pinks, also called humpies, are kind of the wimps of the salmon tribe. There’s usually lots of them, you catch one after another, and they just turn their broad humpbacked bodies sideways to the line so you have to horse them in like a log.

    Silvers (coho), on the other hand, are muscular, even acrobatic fish, a lovely color, and strong fighters. Any serious fisherman wants to catch silvers and has little interest in humpies. My partner and I and my gorgeous ex-fiancee fished salmon commercially from his boat named the “Coho”, it’s a proud name. Don’t know of any boats called “Pink” or “Humpie”.

    So while grandpa was happy horsing in humpie after humpie, Mark and his dad were having a great time fighting the occasional silver, the old man didn’t know the difference, guide got a good tip, and everyone was happy … my kind of fishing story.

    w.

  8. Willis, your stories are getting even better! And as a Viet Nam [old-timey, correct spelling] combat vet and Universal Life Church ordained minister, I relished the references.

    Haven’t been to Alaska, but one of these seasons Mrs. Smokey and I will make the trip. We will for sure ask you for references. I think I can still handle a 50-pounder. Maybe, anyway, with a good guide! And if not, well, there are worse ways to croak. ☺

  9. D.B. Stealey says:
    February 23, 2013 at 1:24 am

    Willis, your stories are getting even better! And as a Viet Nam [old-timey, correct spelling] combat vet and Universal Life Church ordained minister, I relished the references.

    Haven’t been to Alaska, but one of these seasons Mrs. Smokey and I will make the trip. We will for sure ask you for references. I think I can still handle a 50-pounder. Maybe, anyway, with a good guide! And if not, well, there are worse ways to croak. ☺

    Smokey, I appreciate your kind words. My references are any of the three guys I linked to above, Ryan, Johnny, and RW, give them my best regards.

    My best to you as always, thanks for everything,

    w.

  10. Geoff Sherrington says:
    February 22, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    No mysticism in Australia, Willis, just data. Here’s son Paul aged 2 and a bit in the Top End of the Northern Territory, 30 minutes rod fishing, 10 lb line. Fish is Barramundi, Lates calcarifer, these ones from a shallow fresh water billabong about 20 km from the sea. One jumped from water to the lure hung on the rod over his shoulder, an own goal I guess.
    When a grown up Barra wags its tail we get an El Nino.
    Your salmon merely alter local albedo a bit.

    http://www.geoffstuff.com/psbarra.JPG

    Never fished the legendary barra, maybe next time I’m in Oz.

    All the best,

    w.

  11. Top shelf, Willis! Everything is bigger in Alaska. Us braggart fishing folks in the lower 48 need a reminder occasionally.

    Woah, nevermind, in the Ozarks we have huge landlocked striped bass and catfish. Sand bass runs that are astonishing! Huge trout and smallmouth bruiser bass with steroid muscles!

    The fishing is real good here. Sometimes they’re hitting so fast that you have to hide behind a tree to bait the hook. Sometimes they jump up and hit it flying in air to the target! :-)

    Occasionally it takes two men to throw the fish that are too small to bother with back into the water… heh

  12. Had a young bald eagle sit on the top of my mast quite a bit last spring…he never dumped on my deck unlike the seagulls,I thanked him for that!
    I’d come out on deck and he would look down at me with that stare then deign to flap away.

  13. Yay! Fish tales! I was out fishing all day yesterday and I come back to more fishing talk. Thanks, Willis.

    P.S. Lots of fish yesterday, most released to get bigger. Only the best kept and cooked fresh last night. Yum!

  14. Thanks for an excellent write up Willis… a refreshing break from the ill found world we find ourselves in today.

    As a resident of Sterling, AK (also a former Marine Vietnam combat vet) I have spent hundreds of hours fishing my beloved Kenai, not to exclude the Kasilof, Deep Creek, Ninilchik, or Russian, since I retired 10 years ago. My favorite time is the second run Kenai Silvers (first couple of weeks in Sept) when the tourists are gone and the river is mine along with a few other diehards. Because of the salmon runs most overlook some of the best rainbow fishing anywhere.

    Last year was a rough one for Kings on the Kenai. F&G closed it down because we had the worst escapement ever. Fortunately, I caught (and released) an early run King. Most don’t realize that the Kenai Kings are a pure strain having never been supplemented by hatchery fish. Because of the state of the fishery, I now only catch and release Kenai Kings, relying on the Kasilof Kings to fill the freezer.

    Another worry for the Kenai was created last Sept when we had a series of back to back raging storms that completely flooded out the river. I have never seen the river so high & swift, even during breakup. They even closed the river to boating for several days and I have never heard of an Alaskan river being closed to boating. But, the worry is that the smolt and newly laid eggs were washed out. Won’t know for several years.

    Alaska is an unforgiving place for the unprepared, between ice cold swift rivers, unpredictable weather, true isolated wilderness with dense vegetation, and critters that fight back. But, it is also breathtakingly beautiful. Besides breathtaking scenery, there are only a few places in the world where you can: See hundreds of Bald Eagles along Deep Creek in the spring; Stand down a Brown and Black bear within a single hour (another story); Get nearly run down by a moose and her calf while standing next to your garage; Go morel picking with a lady who had been mauled by a Brown bear at that very spot last year; See thousands of Sandhill Cranes on Kenai Flats waiting for ice to clear; Greet the Bar-Tailed Godwit (longest nonstop bird migration ever measured) on their return from New Zealand; or Watch Mount Redoubt blow her top every so often.

    In case you haven’t guessed, despite the hardships and there are many, I love the place and it keeps an old mans senses alive.

    Art

  15. Always enjoy your stories. I think, however, that you might want to check the tide tables – the “tide changes” can easily be double what you quote. I remember digging a lot of razor clams in the 60s and 70s, and I remember keeping a very close eye on the tide coming in.

    Also, the picture of mountain goats are really of Dahl sheep. Goats are a very interesting animal. One time my wife and I were backpacking and photographing in Kluane (Yukon Territory) and we came across the manager of the wildlife range. We got to visiting about goats, and he said that he had seen two instances where a big billy and a grizzly had met on a mountain trail. In one case, they had killed each other. In the other case, the grizzly was dead, and the billy walked away. If it had been anyone other than the guy we talked to, I would probably not have believed the story.

  16. I had to make a trip to the Columbia River Bar driving. I went to pick up fresh Crab for a Charity
    function in NE Oregon 350 miles via freeway.I do miss my friends and In-Laws that were they who “go down to the Sea in Ships” .We were in Chinook,Wa at the Processor, and I just started talking to a guy who had “Crabber” stamped on his forehead. We talked about the market prices,
    how the season was going and how the weather had been,. He was amazed that I had a vague
    idea about what he was doing. Standing there in Cowboy hat and boots with “Eastern Oregon Livestock Show” bumpersticker on the Boss’ rig. I told him i lived in Coos Bay and Port Orford
    for some 25 years.
    As we went back to the High Lonesome of NE Oregon, we crossed Astoria-Meagler bridge, and
    were give a sight of a pod of Orcas playing. I do miss that.
    Thanks, Willis..

  17. A lot of this story resonates, Willis, with those of us who never have been within a thousand miles of the Kenai or led outsized lives, who’ve run fishing tournaments for kid rather than guided adults, who’ve been pooped on by angry herring gulls instead of eagles, who’ve read the riffles and cut banks of small eastern trout streams, run small boats in a current, and sat on juries under wise judges, who see the reverence for the sacrifice of life echoing the deepest Christian theology, who learned of Ozymandias’ folly in a long ago high school English class, and who have listened to dark words of a misbegotten conflict from which we escaped by drawing a longer straw. You tell a tale well.

    So just one minor question: dries, wets, or streamers for the trout?

  18. I also have to say Willis you have inspired me to get off my butt and do some exploring with my boat while I still can.Since I am only 56 I don’t have much of an excuse,eh?cheers.

  19. The river flow direction reminds me of once when I was driving back to Palmer from Fairbanks. Car was overheating halfway back so I pulled over at one of the Denali lookouts to let it sit. While I was waiting a tour bus pulled in and unloaded. The little mob of people stood there and stared out at the mountains while the bus driver explained that Denali is the tallest mountain in North America. After looking for a bit, one of the tourists turned back to the driver and said, “well, which one is it?”

  20. A great story, great evocative prose. I can see the scenes you paint in 3D, maybe 4D. I was never a sports fisherman but I did catch them for the pot. In the late 50s, mapping the geology of a patch of northern Manitoba centred on Gods Lake, a large deep lake loaded with lake trout and the God’s River with the largest speckled trout probably in the world (5 lbs is common and larger) and set after set of magnificent rapids with a lot of water. The work involved visiting every significant outcrop along the shoreline and islands of the lake and running compass traverses from the shore to the edges of the map sheet.

    http://www.godslakelodge.com/

    http://godsriverlodge.com/

    http://maps.google.ca/maps?oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&q=gods+lake+manitoba&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x5288f77bb96efd4b:0x15d905705f3cc90d,Gods+Lake,+MB&gl=ca&sa=X&ei=POooUdvyI8fY2QXL3YGADQ&ved=0CI4BELYD

    When I was there, there was Cree settlement at God’s Narrows and one very primitive sports fishing camp made of logs on Jowsey Isand that was empty in this particular summer, the rest was largely untramped wildnerness- especially the compass lines which didn’t prefer any trails – it seems like a pretty busy place today from the links. Working on a geological field party, at least in those days, was a 7day-a-week affair, with a sort of “day off” once in a while to repair things, catch up on map plotting, washing clothes and the like.

    Knowing about the speckleds, we made a pact (5 of us – two geologists and three assistants who took turns staying in camp to bake bread and pies and cook up a big supper for the returning two-man “crews”) to work like blazes for the first half of the summer to get 2/3 of the area mapped and to take 5 days off to shoot the big rapids and catch trout. When we got to the river, we found that a fly-in outfit was there along a part of the river with some fisherman from Chicago. They were catching some beautiful trout and asked about their gear, etc – we were pretty wooly and patched by this time and I think they were surprised at our clearly educated language and manners having just appeared out of a fearsome stretch of Deliverance-type rapids. We then set about to catch trout – we could see them in pools below fast water, but do you think we could coax them to bite? We even tried snagging them in the clear water without success. There were a large number of whitefish as well.

    http://www.fivemilelake.com/whitefish.htm

    These may be what you ate if you’ve had fish and chips in central Canada. Well, having been blanked despite the abundance of trout, we sheepishly asked to borrow a landing net from one of the fisherman and unceremoniously scooped out whitefish, two and three at at time and cooked ourselves a wonderful meal. Willis, I’m sure you know what we flatland people were doing wrong in fishing for trout next to folks that were catching their limits.

  21. Funny coincidence Willis…
    There was a documentary I caught on the idiot box today about a restaurant on a 5-star cruise ship in the Med … and on the menu for the first dinner of the cruise out of Monaco was Arctic King Salmon from Alaska.
    I thought more highly of the salmon than its surroundings.
    Thank you.

  22. Gary says:
    February 23, 2013 at 8:11 am

    A lot of this story resonates, Willis, with those of us who never have been within a thousand miles of the Kenai or led outsized lives, who’ve run fishing tournaments for kid rather than guided adults, who’ve been pooped on by angry herring gulls instead of eagles, who’ve read the riffles and cut banks of small eastern trout streams, run small boats in a current, and sat on juries under wise judges, who see the reverence for the sacrifice of life echoing the deepest Christian theology, who learned of Ozymandias’ folly in a long ago high school English class, and who have listened to dark words of a misbegotten conflict from which we escaped by drawing a longer straw. You tell a tale well.

    So just one minor question: dries, wets, or streamers for the trout?

    They use a funny rig in the Kenai for trout, not much more than a little bead. But I know very, very little about fishing trout in the Kenai, just what I’ve heard. Oh, my guests have caught some trout, even some nice ones, but as by-catch while fishing for salmon. But I’ve not fished or guided trout on the Kenai. In any case that’s all fly country, no bait allowed, and mostly I’m a bait fisherman for trout, using worms, grasshoppers, salmon eggs.

    Ryan’s the real expert on trout. He fishes the kings and silvers, then in September and October he shifts to guiding trout on the upper Kenai …

    w.

  23. Thanks again Willis, another great tale. I was hooked by your words:’life eats life to live’. I’ve always held that concept as the foundation upon which consciousness is formed, should it do so. It is the essence of life, and all perceptions thereafter. How we feel about what we do to survive, love it or hate it, respect it or despise it, that is the cornea of the mind.

    Loved the shot of the lynx. I have only seen one ‘free-ranging’. I’d say in the wild, but it was on my patio looking into the living room through the glass door, circa 1994. I thought it was a bobcat at first, but realized it was some 30″ tall. It looked on for what seemed like a good minute, and walked away. The eco-concerned decided they needed to re-introduce lynx to this area 5-10 years after that. They need to get out more.

  24. Willis said: “…I’m a bait fisherman for trout, using worms, grasshoppers, salmon eggs.” You must try fly-fishing some time. Much more sporting and respectful of the habits nature has built into the fish, it takes skill and self-control to see things from their point of view.

  25. Gary says:
    February 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Willis said: “…I’m a bait fisherman for trout, using worms, grasshoppers, salmon eggs.” You must try fly-fishing some time. Much more sporting and respectful of the habits nature has built into the fish, it takes skill and self-control to see things from their point of view.

    Thanks for the push, Gary. I used to fly fish a reasonable amount, I had my Boy Scout fly-tying merit badge and all, but only on our lake, for bass and bluegill. I could roll out a loop and settle a fly neatly on the surface along with the best of them … of course, the particular “them” that I was with the best of, they were the other kids, my three brothers and three cousins on the ranch, so the bar wasn’t set too high. But I could keep a good amount of line in the air and then cast it a fair distance with reasonable success … and I tied some bad looking flies, go run down the rooster, hypnotize him for fun, and after that steal some bright feathers. I’m not sure what those bass and bluegill thought they were eating at the end of my line but I know they tasted good …

    The creek that ran through our cattle ranch was small and had lots of bankside growth. Nowhere to swing a fly pole. I use to creep up under the bushes on hands and knees so the trout wouldn’t see me, get upstream of the hole, toss in a clump of bankside dirt, drop my worm neatly in the middle, and let it float into the hole together. The combo seemed to convince the trout that the worm was for real … not sporting, I know, but we fished for food, whether in the lake or the creek, the fun was a bonus.

    My rig, curiously, was a short pole because of the brush with one of those fly reels with the lever on the side which reels in the line when you press it. I could work line in or out really fast with that setup.

    I hope to try some fly-fishing for trout or salmon some day, that sounds totally fun … and as you might guess, I’m always up for a new adventure, something I’ve never done.

    w.

  26. André van Delft (@AndreVanDelft) says:
    February 23, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Nice video: Stand up paddlesurfing the Turnagain Arm bore tide

    Nice find, I’ve never surfed anywhere with that kind of backdrop. Gotta love Alaska.

    w.

  27. Here’s a tip. If the Coast Guard pulls up to your boat and tells you to stand by for a courtesy boarding, DON’T say, “I decline” because it is not really a courtesy.
    Who knew?
    Another point. When they ask for your government issued photo ID, DON’T offer your concealed weapons carry permit.
    That’s how you get escorted back to port with a thousand dollar ticket for expired flares. If they can find anything else, it will cost more.
    Geeze, everyone is so dang serious these days.
    If you can get to Vancouver Island for fishing, try Quallicum Rivers Resort. You can drive to it. Had the great honor of watching my 12 year old grandson catch Halibut, lings, yellow eye, Coho and Chinoook. His first salt water fish. Great spot. And no, I am not a paid shill.

  28. The Great Land is like no other. It should be on every adventurers bucket list.
    Between living there and returning in both summer and winter I have 36 year love affair with the last frontier. My mother and sister and her family still live in Palmer and I see them often. I just returned from Talkeetna in January and I’m headed to Juneau in May. I can’t wait! North to the future!

  29. Willis, if you don’t make this book a reality I’m going to come find you and whip ass. I have remarked in past comments on this series that this autobiography could easily win a Pulitizer and other book awards. I am entirely serious and I know something about books. Probably have read something approaching 18,000 {yes, not a typo} in the sixty years since I learned to read with comprehension. There are countless lliterary comparisions to this series. Maybe I should do a little research and post a list. Kon-Tiki comes to mind. So does Cervantes masterpiece about windmills. Bet he had better sense than to try to generate electricity with them. My brother, who has traveled the world working as a ceramic engineer, writes a blog about his experiences for his friends and family. His tale of getting drunk in some godforsaken Siberian town is a classic. Their hosts promoted the debachery {sp?]. Comparing him to you is high praise for him. We WUWT regulars are so fortunate you are writing this. Bless you Anthony for giving Willis the space. Those whot say this does not belong on a science blog can go straight to Hell.

  30. I’ve been catching up on your “Retire Early” series, Willis, and the scope of your experiences simply astounds me. Your writing style captures those experiences movingly, without overly sentimentalizing them. I urge you to complete this memoir before some other adventure “sidetractors” you!

  31. You’re bringing back lots of memories, Willis. I lived in Sterling for a bit 45 years ago. When I was working as a hunting guide back then, the most interesting clients I had were a couple from the southwest. He was 82 and dying from emphysema. She was a young 78, as I remember. He was the last of the old time cowboys, and he had some stories to tell. One day the only thing I did was to carry wood to keep the stove in his tent going. He told me not to worry – that he would rather die out there than anywhere else. Unfortunately, I didn’t get him his moose – it’s difficult when you have to carry the hunter and his oxygen bottle everywhere you go. I did get her a moose, however, and she held the flashlight long into the night while I cut it up.

    Your story made me think about next summer. My wife has agreed to go tent camping one more time. We’ll get droppen in by helicopter on a BC river where we’ll swing flies for steelhead. I’ve told her, before I get to where my mother was before she died, to give me a nudge out of the boat sometime I have a big fish on. Maybe this will be the summer . . .

  32. Great story. No fishing story but a friend of ours worked for salmon fisheries enforcement on the Nass River just below Alaska. One time their boat was caught in a gale north of the Queen Charlotte Islands and they were forced to ride it out; 24 hours on a roller coaster. Another time, for some reason, Fisheries wanted one of the boats back in Victoria. By the time the boat finally docked in Victoria his sea legs were so set he couldn’t walk up the dock and had to set down a spell to retrieve his legs.

  33. Willis, I was in Achorange about 25 years ago for a week. I saw many of the sights you describe, such as the bore tide, Dall sheep on a rocky outcropping between Anchorage and Girdwood, sockeye salmon spawning in a small creek in the same area as the sheep, beluga whales chasing the salmon up Turn-Again-Arm, the Birdhouse Bar near Girdwood and walked on a glacier at the park at the end of The Arm. Your article brought back all those memories like they happened yesterday. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  34. No offence intended Willis, and I apologise if you took it. I didn’t realise my comment would end up at the top of the tree and set a jarring tone to what was a fine piece. It just burns me up when idealistic intentions are exalted and the (sometimes) brutal direct consequences are dislocated and parked somewhere else. You’re right, it was a bad war badly fought with bad consequences, but better the allies had won, in my opinion. But that’s an argument for another blog. Once again, apologies for the discordance. Keep up the great work!

  35. IainC says:
    February 24, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    No offence intended Willis, and I apologise if you took it. I didn’t realise my comment would end up at the top of the tree and set a jarring tone to what was a fine piece.

    Ian, my respect for you just doubled.

    It just burns me up when idealistic intentions are exalted and the (sometimes) brutal direct consequences are dislocated and parked somewhere else. You’re right, it was a bad war badly fought with bad consequences, but better the allies had won, in my opinion. But that’s an argument for another blog. Once again, apologies for the discordance. Keep up the great work!

    Indeed, I can only agree. I’ve seen too many people with good intentions foolishly or mistakenly back tyrants, myself included. The problem is that wars are infinitely complex. Regarding Vietnam, for example, Nixon hated the war, and fought hard from the first to end it, and it still took years.

    Finally you say, “better the allies had won”.

    I generally stay as far as I can from that “alternate history” point of view, from considering things like “What if the Nazis had won WWII”? They didn’t, and there is absolutely and positively no way to say what would have happened had they done so. So for me those speculations are a total waste of time, although YMMV.

    Thanks again, and like you, I think this belongs on another blob, so we now return you to the Mighty KenaI.

    w.

  36. I passed the link to this story on to some folks (related to me) who are interested in fish, and fishing. They talk about starting a website, so I suggested that they might like to include a section of stories about fish and fishing like yours, with permission of course. And then it occurred to me that, delightful as it is that Anthony has given you the (virtual) space to entertain and educate us with your tales, you could be publishing them in print magazines that might actually pay you something. And, if you eventually wanted to collect them in a book, a real publisher might wonder if they were practically in the public domain already, and thereby without the potential of earning a profit.

    Maybe such concerns are of no moment to you, but I thought it worth mentioning. I greatly appreciated your vivid account of the fishing-guide’s life on the Kenai. It’s not something I’ll ever undertake, I reckon, but it was fun to have the vicarious experience. As Korzybski said, humans, unlike other animals, are time-binders in addition to space-binders, by virtue of language, and especially because of the written word. We build on the experience of others.

    /Mr Lynn

  37. Great stories, Willis! I fish Bristol Bay, for reds and silvers, and my gill netter is the same style as the one in the pic you posted, only older… built in 1962, she and her four sisters were the first glass boats in the Bay. Living in Palmer, AK since ’88, and home schooling 5 children, I can relate to every one of your episodes… my eldest son caught his first salmon (a dog) on a fly he tied himself when he was (almost) 4 years old… A rainbow streamer I tied in front of his single egg hook because we were out of split-shot sinkers. The 11 pound buck hit the fly in 10 inches of water as he pulled the rig out of the creek for another cast, soaking us in the process. I’ve caught dozens of Kenai reds over the years, even dip netted twice (70 fish on two tides), but only one guided salmon trip ever… on the Kenai. Epic. My parents and their best friends came up the last week of July in ’94. I crewed on a high liner out of Egegik (my last year as a crewman) and couldn’t make it home until July 29th. We had 1000 fish days 4 of the last five (6000 lbs. @$1.20 per pound @ 15 % crew share= thousand dollar days pickin’ fish.) When I finally made it home, we went to Homer on vacation with the folks and friends in a rented RV, only two kids at the time. My dad and his buddy, both die hard sporties ( sport fisherman) were leary of sea sickness,, and did not venture a Halibut charter out of Homer… but they did sponsor Michelle (my bride) and I, with them sending home the spoils, 160 pounds of fillets off the 4 fish we caught, including a 145 pounder caught by the Michelle. On August 31st, an emergency announcement came over the AM radio from ADF&G, “Chinook salmon escapement on the Kenai river is over 40,000 fish for the late King Salmon run… Therefore, sport fishing for Kenai River King Salmon will be extended from mid night, August 1st, 1994, until midnight, August 7th, 1994, a seven day extension.” Wow! I told my pops and his buddy, Dave, “This is awesome! A best ever chance to catch a world record King! And the guides aren’t booked! They thought the season was over! The locals will be the only ones fishing!” They thought it over for a couple hours and told me they weren’t up for it! I talked to Michelle for 1 minute, and we told them “If you REALLY don’t want to go, OK. We are hiring a guide for a half day and we are each going to catch the biggest Kings you have ever seen!” And… they would not be swayed, but neither were we! It took all of 15 minutes on the Salty Dog Saloon bar phone to get booked for the next day, afternoon, with an Oregon based guide with a great catch record. We boarded at 1pm, and the guide told us, “Tide change here at the Blood Bar (just North of Beaver Creek on your chart) won’t be until 3:15, but I’d like to stay close.” So, we back-bounced eggs on the west cut bank, with the boat 7 feet from the bank. 10 minutes in, Michelle hooked and landed a 18 pound silver. You and I know, that is a King sized silver anywhere but the Kenai! 20 minutes later she caught a 16 pound silver. I have caught over 300 silvers on rod and reel, and her “little one” beats my personal best to this day! Soon, he moved the boat to the break off the bar as the current started slowing with the flood tide coming, and we switched to K 6 Kwickfish with herring bellies wrapped on the underside of the plugs (better job than your Pic) and I reminded the guide that we were out for all time best Kings. I needed a fish over 46 pounds, Michelle 40 pounds. He had awesome electronics… we watched fish come in between the plugs on the LED screen. Then we saw a 90 pounder roll above my lure. I have personally had a 94 pound King in my hands in Naknek (1985) and seen a 106 pounder weighed on Kenai Packer’s dock in 1987, and have caught over 300 kings (commercially) so I know how big they are… The King in your first pic is 91 pounds +_2 pounds, depending on how big your buddy is…Anyhow, the fish rolled again right over my plug and I got hit hard! I worked the fish to the boat efficiently in about 7 minutes, and as the guide netted her I said “Nope, not big enough.” He slowly dried out the dip net and…clubbed her! I was pissed! I said ” I told you not big enough! I wanted a personal best and you ended my one chance before the tide has changed!” He was such a nice guy. I had hurt his feelings. He said ” I’m sorry, I really am. I just have never been in this situation. I’m trying all day, every day to kill a keeper for every client. I’ve had 4 pukers in my boat, twice a day, since Memorial Day. You two are different. You live and die for fish, like I do, and now I know you said don’t kill it, but this is a 50 pound fish, and I live to boat these fish.” 52 pound chromer hen! With 6 pounds of immature eggs! To this day my biggest King.. And the story is not over… but I’m going to bed.

  38. OK, only the fishermen on this thread by now, so I don’t think I need to worry about telling one more story.

    It was 1971, and my girlfriend (now wife of 40+ years) and I were fishing the Klutina River. We ran down the fast river in my little 11′ boat and were fishing Kings just below where a creek entered. I hooked a big King and landed it without too much trouble. I used a Penn 49 deep sea reel and a deep sea rod, and my line was 100 yards of 80# test – I was set up to fill the smokehouse. We weren’t quite able to weigh that first King with my 50# scale. Three casts later, a really big one took it. He took off upriver in fast current, taking out about half my line. And, he just sat there. Finally, he turned downstream, and with the 3.5:1 ratio of the reel, I was able to almost keep up with him. When the line went by us, it was really singing, and water was shooting high in the air off the line. I cranked down the drag and finally got him stopped with 20 yards of line remaining on the reel – and there we were, with him just laying in the water close to shore 80 yards downriver. By this time, the fish had destroyed the reel, and the rod was cracking at the handle. I told my girlfriend that she would have to hold the rod while I went downriver to try to gaff the fish. When I got down to the fish, he was laying just out of reach of my gaff, and when he saw me reaching out with it, he took off one more time. I knew what had happened, and when I got back to my girlfriend, she was shaking. I had told her that the reel drag was shot, so if the fish goes, try to stop him with your thumbs on the reel. She held up both thumbs for me to see – both had blood blisters. She said that she was worried when the line came to the end that the rod and reel would go with the fish. I told her it wouldn’t make any difference, since both were shot anyway.

    Anyway, fishermen need a story about “the one that got away” – and this is mine. When I looked at that fish, my thought was that it was 6 feet long. I know that’s impossible, but that is what it looked like.

    This summer I have talked that same girl into going tent camping one more time on the Dean River in BC. She is going to fish with dry flies for what are probably the strongest steelhead in the world this August. I need to get more flies tied.

    As I said, some of us are lucky in love.

  39. I hope to try some fly-fishing for trout or salmon some day, that sounds totally fun … and as you might guess, I’m always up for a new adventure, something I’ve never done.

    Then let me direct you to the best fly fishing for the largest trout on the planet–Jurassic Lake:

    (and dozens more videos to keep you salivating)

    If you had time and money for the ultimate fishing trip, this would be it. Just promise to come back, Willis.

  40. RockyRoad says:
    February 26, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    Then let me direct you to the best fly fishing for the largest trout on the planet–Jurassic Lake:

    Tempting me with that dang fish porn again … vade retro me, satana!

    w.

  41. Great story Willis and I completely agree about the Kenai area.

    My wife and I spent 4 days at the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge which I would recommend to anyone who likes Kayaking, Canoeing, and moss covered Rain Forest full of Black Bears.

    http://www.kenaifjordsglacierlodge.com

    Fishing wasn’t on the agenda though — a possible opportunity for you. The lodge has a glacier in its backyard and at the head of Aialik Bay. Both are accessible by Kayak from the lodge.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the rain. We were there in early June and it rained for 3 of the 4 days but didn’t spoil any of the fun.

    Sea otters and seals are mating during June. Hearing them and seeing them slapping the surface of the water looking for a mate was amazing while bobbing quietly in a Kayak.

  42. John from CA says:
    February 27, 2013 at 7:57 am

    … I’m surprised you didn’t mention the rain. We were there in early June and it rained for 3 of the 4 days but didn’t spoil any of the fun.

    You must be referring to the famous Alaska liquid sunshine … spotty clouds and intermittent light rain are a semi-constant feature of Kenai summers, you’re right, they just became part of the background …

    w.

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