HOMER — Mayor Tom Schroeder’s hands are covered in blood.
The 77-year-old sultan of salmon has just caught, killed and bled his second king salmon of this sun-saturated evening and the retired fisheries biologist is fumbling for his harvest ticket.
“Gotta fill out my report card,” Schroeder says as he rinses his hands in the chilly waters of the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon on the Homer Spit.
One of those gruff-but-amiable types, Schroeder punctuates his sentences with loud, quick laughs that echo across the waters of the lagoon. On this Sunday in late May, he manages to land his limit of two fish in about 90 minutes. None of a dozen or so anglers fishing alongside Schroeder and his rickety white plastic lawn chair catch any.
“This pole right here’s caught more king salmon than most people’s ever thought of,” he says with another chuckle.
They don’t call him “The Mayor” because he’s politically correct.
“Last year I caught 49 kings.”
You read that right. Schroeder fishes “proxy” tickets for friends who can’t harvest their own salmon, meaning he can catch multiple season limits on behalf of others. Fishing hole regulars say nobody comes close to creating as much carnage as Homer’s resident fin-haul wizard.
How do you think he does it? What makes him so good?
Practice certainly helps. Schroeder has been fishing the lagoon since it was created in the early 1980s as a hatchery-based recreational fishery for king and silver salmon. Choice of bait is key, too. Schroeder said he baits his double-hook rig with herring and a “secret” ingredient — which isn’t all that secret.
“Hell, they sell it across the street,” he says, gesturing to the Tackle Shack Co. building across the two-lane blacktop ribbon that bisects the narrow spit of land thrust into Kachemak Bay.
Schroeder said he adds a small piece of Pacific chub mackerel to his hooks, then tosses it out and waits patiently — perhaps the key element in the equation. Once the bobber starts quivering, he says anglers need to let the fish have time to take the bait.
“Give them a count between four and six,” he says. “One, two, three, four … boom!”
Schroeder laughs again and grabs his bucket and plastic chair before making the short trip up the embankment to his waiting SUV. The only problem with proxy fishing is Schroeder still has to clean the fish himself.
“I’ve still got a lot of work to do!”
Schroeder’s good luck has been unusual on the spit this spring. The king salmon have been late arriving, with low catches reported in both the fishing hole and marine fisheries through last weekend. But salmon are unpredictable and a big push of fish could hit the spit literally any day, according to Ginny Grimes, who owns the tackle shop near the lagoon with her husband, Shawn.
“It could be the next tide,” Grimes says as she unpacks boxes inside the cramped shop she and her husband bought last summer.
As she says this, a gaggle of local teens saunters past the big herring-filled bait cooler and into the store. You can tell they’re from Homer by their footwear — the only one not wearing Xtratuf boots is barefoot.
As the boys wander through the shop, Grimes points to a skinny kid in sunglasses.
“That boy right there is the slayer of the fishing hole,” she says.
The young gun at the hole is River Henry, 15, and he’s a fly fishing prodigy.
“Yeah, I catch a lot of fish.”
Henry said he probably caught 60 kings at the hole last season and kept his season limit of 15. Like a wily veteran, the young Jedi keeps his secrets close to his hoodie and said he can’t divulge exactly what kind of flies he uses.
“That’s very top secret information,” he says with a grin.
The man-made lagoon isn’t the only place to find fish around Homer. In fact, the small seaside town dubbed the “Halibut fishing capital of the world” virtually runs on the smell of kelp and carcasses. Near the small boat launch, a pair of anglers fish from an abandoned boat launch while blasting AC/DC. Down at the end of the spit, tourists cast bait near the ferry terminal while sipping beers. Out on Kachemak Bay, boat-based anglers rig downriggers for salmon and soak herring for halibut.
It’s a fishy town.
Over at the fish-cleaning table near the harbor, longtime Homer High teacher and coach Chris Perk is cleaning a nearly 10-pound king he caught earlier in the morning while fishing aboard his boat alongside his golden retriever, Daisy.
“This is the perfect size for the smoker,” says Perk as he runs his long fillet knife down the spine of the salmon.
After 25 years at Homer High, Perk is retiring this spring. He and his wife want to be closer to their grandkids, so they’re moving south for the winters — a bittersweet transition to be sure for a guy who bleeds Homer Mariner blue and gold.
“It still hasn’t hit me yet.”
Fishing has been slow this season, which Perk said is unusual. By this time in the season he’s usually able to pick up a limit every time out. Not yet in 2022.
“It’s a little bizarre,” he said. “I feel really lucky to have caught this guy.”
Perk’s smoked salmon is a neighborhood favorite and he’s more than willing to share his “secret” recipe.
“It’s so easy — it’s Yoshida’s!” he says, referring to Mr. Yoshida’s brand teriyaki sauce, a brine commonly used by Alaskans to flavor their smoked fish.
With a little prodding, Perk says he does in fact have a trick that makes his salmon extra smoky. And like the Mayor’s tip for hooking kings, it has a lot to do with time.
“I change my chips out every six minutes,” he says.
Perk’s technique is to set a timer and then “mow the lawn or watch a baseball game or something.” During that time, he returns to the smoker to repeatedly change out his wood chips, which keeps the fish from “cooking” and imparts a richer flavor while the fish smokes. Is it any good? Well, Perk said he never needs to use vacuum-seal bags for his fish.
“It doesn’t last long.”
Last weekend was very much for the locals, but that won’t be the case much longer as Homer prepares for a flood of visitors looking to fish and frolic in the iconic seaside town of boardwalks and beaches. Some have already arrived, including Benny Chitxeuane of Boise, Idaho, who came to Homer for the nuptials of Tom and Leilani Zywicki of Palmer.
Fishing from the beach near the end of the spit, Chitxeuane’s face lights up as his rod tip begins to twitch. Tom Zywicki tells him to start reeling.
“Keep reeling! Keep reeling!” he shouts at his groomsman as Chitxeuane works to bring in his catch.
Suddenly the water breaks and a tiny halibut emerges attached to the end of Chitxeuane’s line. The fish probably only weighs a pound, but to the first-time Alaska visitor it might as well be Moby Dick. Chitxeuane breaks into a face-wide grin and slaps hands with a friend. He’s almost in tears of joy.
“My first halibut!” he cries out.
After releasing the fish, Chitxeuane says his entire trip to Alaska has been life-changing.
“This is probably one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he says. “What I’ve learned and will take home I will never forget.”
Moments like that are what draws people to Homer and what keeps them coming back. Chris Perk said locals dread the busy midsummer days “when you can’t turn left,” but he recognizes the special nature of his hometown. That’s why he’s planning to bring his grandchildren back to the Spit every summer for as long as he’s able.
“It’s all about the memories,” he says.
As the sun begins to set on another blue-sky memory, a lone bagpiper walks to the shoreline and stands in front of the blue waters of Kachemak Bay. Suddenly the sound of seagulls is temporarily drowned out by the mournful wail of the pipes. “Amazing Grace” drifts on the wind, joining the scent of seaweed and salmon on their journey through the air.
Springtime has arrived on the Homer Spit. How sweet the sound.
Matt Tunseth is an Alaska freelance writer who grew up fishing on the Kenai Peninsula.