I’m a highly skilled angler. At least that’s what the people in the office think, and I’ve done little to discourage them from thinking that. In truth I’m much better at talking the part, but my Kenai Peninsula upbringing means most people naturally assume I was born with Xtratuf feet and a full head of monofilament hair.
I was not.
I grew up fishing recreationally and am a barely competent fisherman, but when someone wants to bet on the first, largest and most fish caught I’m usually struck by a sudden moral objection to gambling. But I do know enough to watch what other people are doing, and that was my strategy Thursday morning when instead of going into the office I drove to the muddy banks of Ship Creek to try and catch a coho salmon.
When I arrived at around 9 a.m. I saw several people who already had one or two bright, shiny salmon strung in the clear water at their feet. That either meant the fishing was good or I was late. Guess which it was?
Most people fishing in the shallow water were drifting streamer flies two or three feet beneath small sinkers -- a technique known variously as flipping, the Russian River Twitch or the Kenai Jerk. I climbed to the small footbridge across the creek and peered into the water, where I could see four or five bullet-shaped gray torpedoes holding in the current. Excitedly I walked to the water’s edge and waddled my way into the handful of anglers drifting flies at the salmon.
Drifting flies directly in front of the faces of waiting salmon might seem like a sure-fire way to catch fish, but it’s not as easy as it looks. With each cast that just missed a fish’s nose, the dozen or so tourists standing on the bridge above would gasp and occasionally shout encouragement.
“They’re right there in front of you!”
I knew that. Or, I pretended I did. In truth, I was mainly casting blind on account of forgetting to bring sunglasses. Polarized glasses are crucial for sight fishing, as they cut down on glare and increase an angler’s chances of getting discovered by a Hollywood talent scout — which after an hour of frustrated flipping seemed about as likely as me catching a silver Thursday morning. The guy next to me did have glasses, and within 45 minutes he was heading to the parking lot with a limit of three cohos.
The silver run has been strong this year, according to several anglers who walked past me offering words of encouragement. So has the pink (or “humpy”) run, which I could see with my own eyes in the dozens of small, grotesquely humpbacked salmon carcasses littering the slick, gray mud of the creek.
It was a humpy that finally gave me hope, as I felt my rod tip bend and saw the water erupt in a splash. I pulled the small fish to shore, where I intended to deftly release it with a flick of my pliers. Instead, the fish flopped several times at the last second, splashing gray mud on my face and giving the folks who’d wandered from downtown a show to enjoy with their reindeer hot dogs. One of the tourists standing on the bridge seemed incredulous I was letting it go, but pinks -- especially those that have spent some time in fresh water already -- are not typically the best eating. Then again, the seagulls and pigeons didn’t seem to mind.
I flipped flies for another half-hour without any luck as the water began to rise. As it did, I noticed people having more success using salmon eggs floated beneath a bobber. I wandered downstream to where I’d seen several splashes and watched as people crowded around a large rock protruding out into the stream. Behind the rock was a pool, and each angler took turns trying to get their eggs right into the pool. When this happened, a salmon usually struck.
After watching this technique for 10 minutes or so I was convinced I needed to be fishing with salmon roe. Which I failed to bring. So I stood above the pool and flipped flies for a while as the folks below me continued to haul in silver after silver.
As I fished I slowly came to the realization I wasn’t having salmon for dinner tonight so I walked a bit up the bank and watched the scene below me. The sun was reflecting off the water as the buildings of downtown Anchorage towered above us. Groups of anglers walked up and down the creek, picking their way through the water to avoid the sticky mud. Little kids cast spinners into the river or sat on rocks eating snacks. Big trucks rumbled to and from the nearby port, and occasionally a train whistle pierced the air loud enough to make the tourists cover their ears.
Ship Creek is about as far from wilderness as you can get. But in its own way the fishery is as good as any in the world. Where else can you walk 5 minutes from downtown and have a shot at landing a salmon?
I set out Thursday to catch a salmon and return to the office triumphantly covered in slime and scales. Instead, I came back with a fish story. That’s okay, I guess. It wasn’t the worst day fishing, but it might have been the best day of work.
When I go back tomorrow I’m going earlier, asking more questions and bringing bait. And I’m also wearing sunglasses -- after all, even if I keep getting skunked, Hollywood is bound to come calling eventually. I’ve even got the movie title picked out: “The Kenai Jerk.”