"Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not the fish they are after."
– Henry David Thoreau
SOLDOTNA — While thousands of enthusiastic anglers come to Alaska hoping to land the fish of a lifetime, for one man who did — still remembered as the man in Soldotna — catching the world record king salmon was in many ways simply one of many wonderful days spent on the aquamarine waters of the Kenai River.
"Les loved to fish, but that's not the same as a love of big fish. He was just out there to have fun, and honestly, he was always — before and after — the type of guy who was just as happy to bring someone along and see them catch a fish," said Clara Anderson, widow of Les Anderson, who 31 years ago today (Tuesday, May 17, 1985) landed a 97-pound, 4-ounce king salmon to set the world record.
The fish was more than four pounds heavier than the existing record one caught by hook and line, a 93-pound king caught in June 1977 in Southeast Alaska by Howard Rider of Juneau. Les' record still stands, and it has secured him a place in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
"It was quite an exciting day for him, for us, for all the Peninsula. It was a grand day for sure, but Les just looked at it as being in the right place at the right time," Clara said.
That right time wasn't just early in the year. Most anglers then and now consider spawning kings that return in May and June to be smaller than the late-run fish of July. It was also early in the morning, around 6:30 a.m.
"We fished every day before work back then, and he took off around 3 or 4 a.m.," said Clara, who's no salmon-catching slouch herself, having landed an 85-pound fish that held the family record until Les hauled in his hawg.
The river had been running low that year. Les and fishing partner Bud Lofstedt, also of Soldotna, set out planning to move their boat downriver to stage for better fishing another day. But they couldn't resist wetting a hook.
Honeymoon Cove hookup
Soaking a Spin-N-Glo lure with eggs near Honeymoon Cove, Mile 13 of the river, Les heard the familiar whine of his reel letting out line. He didn't know it when he picked up the rod but Les was about to have the fight of his life.
"Had someone filmed it, we could have called it 'How not to catch a salmon,'" joked Clara, explaining that nearly everything that could go wrong, did.
"They fought it for nearly an hour. The fish took them up and down the river (to the Pillars, roughly a half-mile away, and then back).
"They fell down (in the boat) a few times switching places.
"The fish nearly stripped out all the line.
"Three times they got the king to the boat and couldn't get it in.
"Finally, they had to beach the boat to haul the fish out of the water," she said.
Before that day, the largest salmon Les had landed in 16 years of fishing was a 63-pounder, and while he recognized this king as bigger, he didn't immediately consider it a world record contender.
"He drove around with it for a few hours before someone said, 'You know, that could be a new record.' And sure enough it was," Clara said.
The king measured 58 1/4 inches long, 37 1/4 inches around. Many have speculated that the king might have broken the mythic 100-pound mark fresh out of the water; most anglers acknowledge that fish quickly lose weight from drying out.
He never bragged
Les was 68 years old when he caught that king, and while it brought him many years of celebrity in fishing circles, his family said the fame never went to his head.
"He was a humble, humble man. He never bragged about it," Clara said.
Sharon Leon, Les' stepdaughter, shared similar sentiments:
"He was never braggadocios or ever brought it up. He enjoyed the quiet of the river. The few times I fished with him, people would recognize him and point and whisper, but he was never in it."
Les passed away in 2003, but his fame persists. In addition to a taxidermy mount of his record-breaking fish in the Sports Hall of Fame at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, another resides in the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. There's also a chainsaw carving of him out front.
"We have visitors from all over the world stop by to see Les' fish," said Tami Murray, executive director of the center. "They take pictures with the fish and the carving of Les that sits outside our door. Last year alone, we had people from 54 countries — from Australia to Ecuador — take pictures with Les."
For decades, Anderson's salmon has brought anglers to the Kenai, perhaps Alaska's best-known river, which was already renowned as a world-class fishery for kings as well as sockeyes, silvers and rainbow trout.
Sometimes too much attention can be negative, but Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai Sportfishing Association, said he thinks the community responded well to the uptick of anglers.
"The resulting collective community efforts to protect, restore and enhance both fish habitat and angler access have proven successful," he said. Among them:
• Bank closures to protect spawning and riparian habitat;
• Establishing 50-foot riparian protection zones;
• Culverts that follow conservation-based standards;
• Construction of light-penetrating walkways that allow vegetation to grow beneath;
• Fish platforms and access stairs; and
• Using cutting-edge ARIS sonar technology to count the king salmon that make it upstream.
In terms of salmon science, Jason Pawluk, assistant area manager with the Soldotna office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said technology and methodology have come a long way in the 31 years since Anderson caught his salmon. Some of it has provided insights into the big fish.
"In recent years we've had some great research done on Kenai chinook that we can draw some probable assumptions about Les' big king," Pawluk said. "Using recent radio telemetry and genetic data, we know that the majority of chinook entering the river in May eventually enter and spawn in the Killey River, a tributary of the Lower Kenai River. The remainder spawn in Funny River, with no main-stem spawners ever being tagged in May. So, based on this, it's very likely that the chinook that Les caught was bound to spawn in the Killey River."
Fewer big kings these days
Since 2003, Fish and Game has, by regulation, required all kings more than 55 inches to be sealed within three days of harvest. Only 32 kings in 12 years were big enough to seal — just one in the last eight seasons. That brick red, 55¼-inch male weighing 71.1 pounds was caught across from RW's Fish and Big Eddy Resort on July 16, 2009.
The largest fish brought in to Fish and Game since 2003 was a blushed male, measuring 57 inches and weighing 86.6 pounds, caught at Airplane Hole (river Mile 14.5) on July 26, 2006.
Pawluk said other whoppers have been caught — including some 80- and 90-plus-pounders — between 1987 and 2003, when the sealing regulations began. Some have also been caught since 2003, but the fish were released rather than harvested, so there is no record of them at Fish and Game.
In Les' day, returning fish were slightly older. King salmon can spend anywhere from one to six years in the ocean feeding before returning to their natal streams to spawn, and his was believed to have been 4 or 5 years old.
The declining age of returning salmon in recent years may help explain why fewer big fish are found.
"One thing I want to be clear about when it comes to fish size," Pawluk said, "what we are seeing around the state and in the Kenai River isn't that size at age is decreasing, it's that age of maturity has decreased. A higher proportion of chinook are coming back after spending only one to three years (in the) ocean, compared to three to five years."
Why isn't completely clear, but it is believed to be related to less-favorable marine conditions.
Still, genetics plays a role in the big-fish equation, affecting not only the age of maturity but the average size of various rivers' stocks. And the Kenai still offers the best odds for hooking a colossal king, he said.
"The Kenai River is known for having some of the largest chinook salmon in the world," Pawluk said.
A 1992 study suggested that Kenai River chinook (both sexes) were the largest kings after four years in the ocean — bigger than 43 other chinook stocks sampled in Alaska, British Columbia and the Lower 48 states.
Could another fish be out there big enough to break Les' record? Everyone interviewed for this story agreed it's possible. Les' world record is for a king caught using a rod and reel, but the largest Alaska king caught by any means was a whopping 126-pounder captured in a commercial fish trap near Petersburg in 1949.
But anglers hoping for the king of kings will face challenges Anderson never encountered, according to Pawluk.
"In general, fishing regulations for chinook salmon on the Kenai River in 1987 were more liberal than they are now. Bait and multiple hooks were allowed from beginning to end of both early and late-run fisheries, where now it's single-hook no bait in the early run and single-hook bait allowed in the late run. There was no 'slot limit' in the early run … where now we have no retention of chinook between 42-55 inches.
"In 1987, there were 222 registered guides with no hours restriction on when they could fish and (only) one day of no fishing, whereas as recently as 2014 there were 336 registered fishing guides who were restricted to fishing from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week," Pawluk said.
Perhaps those looking to break Les' record should adopt his mind-set. Clara said that whenever her husband was asked if he thought anyone would ever trump his fish, he'd share his simple credo:
"Records were made to be broken."
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx. To learn more about them, visit their Rogues Gallery Kennel page on Facebook.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing