Six days remain in the 2013 Kenai King Salmon sport fishery. Today, July 25, 2013, the Kenai River shifted to catch and release for King Salmon, by Emergency Order from Alaska Department of Fish and Game. I’ve chosen to fish for Sockeye Salmon this season, which is another story to be told. Tonight I recall a memory from 2011. It started with eggs, as will many Alaska stories.
Fishing was slow, and friends needed eggs for bait. Which is a good thing if you are a gal with an open fish dance card, and time on your hands. You might get asked to fish, because the guys want your eggs, from a hen catch.
July 14, 2011, my fishing friend texted, “Want to fish with Jeff tomorrow?” Surprised, I replied, “Sure!” His reply, “…I need eggs, do your best.” Now there’s this assumption: the guide, captain, or boat owner gets the eggs from any catch on his or her boat. In Alaska, unlike other locales, the angler keeps the catch, but it is customary to give the guide the eggs, and if you are particularly kind, an offer of the salmon belly.
I’d fished with Jeff the previous weekend, and he was in town again. I was feeling lucky and happy. In July there is no better seat than in a boat on an Alaska river, with an experienced angler. We drifted Eagle Rock on the Kenai for several hours. It was me, Jeff, and another friend of his, also in town. They told stories of years past, I listened and laughed, drinking coffee spiked with Bailey’s liquor. A warm, clear morning, dozens of boats drifted the river, tight. Spruce trees shadowed the aqua blue-green waters.
“BINGO” I cried, feeling the take-down bite through my rod, as it peeled over into the river. On my feet, rod tip up, line taut, a Kenai King screamed line and power. (This is an intoxicating, exhilarating, embodied experience. I’d never understood sport fishing until I met the Kenai River and salmon in 2002.) Hooked, drifting downriver, boats clearing a path, the sacred dance revealed a pattern: reel, wait, deep breath, catch breath (think to self: I can’t physically do this, #$%^, yes you can) adrenalin screaming, focus, fatigue, effort, flow.
Jeff stands at the tiller. Suddenly, I “AHHHH!” My left hand is holding the rod, the reel in my right hand no longer moves and is held in my fingers, suspended in air. The reel and rod have separated, are no longer connected, and I have an awesome fish on. Line twangs out as the line swirls and fins beneath the surface. “Jeff….!” He’s there, wrapping his arms around me from behind, reattaching his reel to the rod, as I hold steady and high, attempting to keep any slack from the line. My rod is fixed, the salmon swims to the stern of the boat, crossing beneath the motor. I follow, dipping my pole. Phew, “still on,” I holler, even though both guys are whisper distance from me.
Five minutes later, she is netted, a beauty. “Yes, I’ll keep her,” high-fiving with Jeff and his friend. We laugh with delight, success, appreciation. I’m done for the day (the retention limit is one King Salmon per day, and a total of two for the season on the Kenai) yet the guys fish another hour or two, our conversation replaying the catch and the craziness of the rod and reel detaching, among other stories they recall.
At the dock, I again give thanks for her life, her fight. We look at her, and the circular marks on her body. “A seal encounter,” says Jeff. I wonder about her journey from this river, the world-famous Kenai River, into the salt water for years, and navigation back, to be hooked, by me, her eggs to be cured as bait.
Jeff filets the salmon for me. I say, “You keep her eggs, would you like the belly?” We look at each other with mutual appreciation, “You take some, I will too,” he replies. “Thank you,” I reply. “Thank you…”
Tonight, two years later, the River I love is catch and release Kings, not catch and keep, for good reason. I am grateful for memories, angst-ful for the decline in the salmon return with no authoritative reason why, and dreaming of a time when salmon return, abundantly. My prayer and hope is that each person could know an experience such as mine. She, a mighty King Salmon, fed me, family members and friends, many fine meals.
I wrote a post on July 5, 2013, with a 2010 fish tale, sharing my inner conflict with the low return of King Salmon, and my decision not to fish for Kings this season. I’ve clarified a few things since my July 5, 2013, blog post:
- I have the same right and privilege to fish for King Salmon as everyone who purchases a 2013 fishing license and King Salmon stamp.
- I, darn-it, as much as I desire to be on the river, cannot bring myself to be a pure-pleasure participant depleting this resource.
- My journey is this: wake up, pay attention, care, educate, advocate.
- I am grateful for memories, and, too, sorrow fills my gills.
PS: I did have a momentarily lapse in my personal vow last week, and texted a friend who is a fishing guide, deciding if I fished at all, I would at least contribute to the friends who guide for their livelihood. “Hey you, I want to King fish, need to book one seat (consider me a client) if you have a single seat before the 31st. I can do any day except…” Several hours after his reply, “I’ll check my schedule,” I knew I personally couldn’t fish, even catch and release, no matter my desire. So I texted again, “Thx–no need to now. I told myself I wouldn’t fish for Kings with the low return. Hit a low yesterday with my angst and frustration of not being on the river and was going to give in to my longing to fish. Feel better today.”
Tonight I’m still not sure I feel better about my personal decision. The wrestling and tension continues in me as an ethical angler, and around the fishery resource as a dynamic, integrated whole with both in-river and marine environments. I do know a deeper awareness and understanding pulses and spawns in me. Where it leads is unknown. I’m listening, on the line.