Anderson's colossal Kenai king remains the standard

Editor's note: This story originally ran in 2006.

Fame was the farthest thing from Les Anderson's mind when he trundled down to the Kenai River with brother-in-law Bud Lofstedt on a fateful May morning a quarter-century ago.

They were angling for big fish, but they didn't have big expectations.

Mid-May on the Kenai is relatively slow for king salmon, and typical fish run 20 to 30 pounds — undersized compared with the 70- and 80-pound monsters of the July late run.

Nobody expected a world-record king to come from the Kenai early run. Anderson wasn't after one, either.

He went fishing that morning, as he had on so many others, because he loved to fish.

"He worked hard all of his life, but he always made time for fun, " his family would later observe in his obituary. "For years, summer found him up at 3 a.m. and on his beloved Kenai River by 4 a.m. so he could go to work by 8 or 9 a.m. and then go fishing again after dinner."

It was this love of fishing that eventually put Anderson in the spotlight and kept him there.

For it was on the morning of May 17, 1985, that Anderson, who died in 2003 at age 84, pulled a world-record king from the Kenai. The fish weighed 97 pounds, 4 ounces and set a record that still stands.

This was a fish about which Alaskans still talk, even if it never earned Anderson much more than notoriety.

"Nobody in the tackle companies really showed any enthusiasm at all," Anderson told the Daily News years later. "If it had been the world's largest bass, it would have been worth something."

But it wasn't. It was simply one whopper of a salmon.

For pulling it ashore, Anderson collected a box of free lures from the company that produced the one he used to hook the fish, an eye-catching trophy to hang in a glass case and a small measure of fame.

Across the state and into the Pacific Northwest, he would now be "that" Les Anderson.

"Les Anderson would just as soon that he be introduced as Les Anderson, world's greatest grandfather. Or just as plain, old Mr. Anderson, " former Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman observed on the 12th anniversary of the record catch. "But no. Ever since May 17, 1985, the name Les Anderson comes with an appendage."

A dozen years after the big catch, Anderson, then 78, confessed to growing a little weary of his association with the record.

"It's almost maddening, " he said. "I can't go anyplace unless they say, 'You're the guy.' I really get tired of that. You almost hate to get known as Mr. Fish."

But Mr. Fish he was; the man who almost broke the 100-pound barrier.

For years, a debate continued about whether the fish might have topped 100 pounds if Anderson and Lofstedt had been more diligent about getting it weighed. They confessed they didn't have a clue as to what they had put in the boat after a 45-minute fight.

They guessed the weight at 70 to 80 pounds — a big fish, a fish to which bragging rights attach, but nothing more.

"I never really thought it was that big, " Anderson told a reporter a couple of years after the catch. "I didn't even know there was a world record. I never paid attention to it."

What he did with this fish was what he had done with the other big kings he caught — toss it in the back of his truck. In this case, he then hauled it around for almost seven hours, figuring he would carve it up later. Someone suggested he get it weighed before doing that.

"If I'd have known then what I know now, " Anderson said years later, "I'd have weighed it quickly."

Estimates on how much weight the fish lost to dehydration in its seven hours out of the water have varied from 2 to 6 pounds. A formula used to calculate salmon weights based on measurements of length and girth estimates the 58½-inch monster should have weighed in at just more than 102 pounds fresh from the water.

Not only was this fish long, about the size of a 10-year-old kid, but it was round as well. It's 37½-inch girth would make it bigger than the average man's waist.

The fish bested the former world record set by Howie Rider of Juneau by 4¼ pounds, and it caused a stir across Alaska. The Kenai was already a popular king fishery when Anderson landed his fish, but it would become more popular.

"The day we caught that fish, " Anderson remembered, "there was nobody in the hotels and restaurants. The next day, you couldn't get a room."

The tourist businesses linked to salmon fishing have been running strong every summer since. People trek to the river by the thousands with dreams of besting the mark set by Anderson, who never thought his record would stand so long.

In the end, it outlived him.

While Anderson has passed to the fishing grounds beyond, his record stands. Now it's about history more than fame.

Les Anderson owns a sizable chunk of it.

Craig Medred is the former Daily News outdoors editor. This story was published in 2006.

• WORLD RECORD: Anderson's fish is on display at the Soldotna Visitor Center, 44790 Sterling Highway, and there's a photo of the fish on the center's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=3747644&id=253763654518

• GEAR: Anderson used Spin-N-Glo with a few beads added, a combination called a Kenai Special. Anderson and Lofstedt preferred large Kenai Specials, which kings see better in murky water, and they searched for tough spots to fish that might hold undisturbed fish.


Anchorage Daily News

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.