ON THE KENAI RIVER, THREE YEARS AGO -- The river had been slow. Not many Kings being caught. I'd not yet fished.
At a gamefeast BBQ, I saw my fishing friend for the first time in months. "You have any eggs?" he asked (cured salmon eggs are a bait of preference for some people). "No," I replied, adding with uncharacteristic sass, "Take me fishing and I'll get you some…." He gazed at me, "Tuesday, 5:00 a.m.," he said. I laughed, "Okay, you're on." I didn't think he'd call to confirm. He did.
Tuesday was wet. Cold. We'd fish from 5:00 to 8:00 a.m. before work. By 7:30 a.m., not our boat or any other boat was getting a bite. Three of us in the 24 boat were telling jokes. The coffee was about gone. A steady rain poured.
My fishing line is slack. I hear, "go ahead and reel up." We all know this means we are calling it a day. I look to him, lifting my rod from the holder at my left, begin to reel, fingers a bit numb from cold and rain. About the time my quickfish lure should be starting to surface beside the boat—and I admit, I'm feeling slightly disappointed but still grateful for the time on the river—my rod jerks, hard. A chrome King Salmon explodes from beneath the surface, two feet from the boat edge. Instantaneously my line is taut, rod tip bent over. Chaos erupts as we three realize I've been reeling up the slack from a Chinook swimming toward me and the boat.
It's a good thing I'm rather nimble on my feet and have fairly fast reflexes. Before the two guys have reeled their rods in and begun what they now need to do—Jon will hold up the net indicating to other boats that we've hooked up, and Chuck will position the boat so I can fight this surprise fish—I'm being led around the boat by a fish mad as a wet hen. She hadn't expended any energy being reeled up to the boat, and lets me know it by swimming underneath the boat, back around the engine, full on. I follow her, let her lead the dance. The fight is on, and intense.
We three on the boat get it together, although I will later learn my friend has a permanent dent in his shin from slipping at a net attempt. From the sound of his grunt when he hit the inside gunwale as the King took off away from the boat, I knew he was hurting. Yet even that was background to me in the moment—my total focus was my line, rod, and the fish. I vaguely heard our cell phones begin to ring when friends from other boats nearby called to razz and add to the action, and hoot and holler. Gallantly, his next net attempt was perfect.
"Do you want to keep her?" Chuck asked. Alive, netted next to the boat, she is in the river. "What a beauty," we exclaim! Adrenalin rushing, I knew the fish counts in the newspaper had indicated a high return of King Salmon at the sonar counter the previous few days. (I didn't yet know how inaccurate the counts might be; an additional accurate data point, in my opinion, might have been to notice if guided boats were hooking fish. If they weren't, something was not spot on with the counter.)
"Yes! I promised you eggs," I quipped.
Ten minutes later we arrived back at the private dock, done fishing for the day. I knelt on the bottom of the boat, next to the salmon. She was bright chrome color, fresh into the Kenai River from Cook Inlet, with sea lice clinging to her. I traced my hands the length of her shimmering scales and body several times, touching her, quietly whispering a prayer of thanksgiving. The guys asked me what I was doing. "Giving thanks to her for coming to me and giving life," I answered. They looked at me, perhaps with slight amusement. I thought to myself, they are thinking "there she goes again talking about energy and yadda, yadda…." It didn't matter though. I knew this magnificent Chinook was giving me a lesson: arrogance will not get you anywhere, and an occasional sassy attitude might land you a seat in a boat, then give you an opportunity to reflect upon an intersection of nature, science, and spirit.
That night a fishing guide friend called, "Were you on the river this morning?" "Yes," I replied." "Did you catch a fish?" he asked. "I did! She was a beauty!" He quietly said, "I thought so. You know, you were one of the few people to catch one today." "But," I said, "I thought the fish counters indicated a lot of fish in the river. I wouldn't have kept her if …" "No," he replied. "No one was catching fish today."
When I went to sleep that night, I spent a few minutes to reflect over my day as I do each night, answering two questions. First, What am I most grateful for today …? Absolutely, my time on the river, my two friends, that salmon hen, and a delicious dinner. And the second question (which answered over time will reveal where shift and change needs to occur in our lives) What am I least grateful for today …? My inner answer was discomfort, and wondering if I might have made a mistake keeping that fish based on the numbers of King Salmon I thought were in the river. Would it have been better to give her more opportunity to reach her spawning bed? Why were the numbers wrong?
In retrospect, July 2013
That fabulous day on the river in 2010 was the first indication to me that the Kenai King fishery might be in trouble. The dilemma for me grows. I was on the river fishing for pure sport, pleasure, and wild King for my dinner table. Sportfishing guides were on the river to make their living, with clients who contribute to the local economy, and come here to be renewed by the essential nature of Alaska. The commercial fleet is also fishing for economic purposes, and for some it is a family tradition. Where is the balance and equity, when a fishery is in decline and the answers aren't clear about the reasons why. What is my response? How is a fishery managed when the most important thing for every user group is the resource: salmon. It cannot be about a fight over the last magnificent wild King. We must gain answers about the marine environment, and pressures in the river and the salt water. We must learn to work together.
Today I also remember, as I long to fish for King Salmon this year and probably won't, the photo Jon took a few minutes after I blessed and gave thanks for that mighty King Salmon hen … it landed on the cover of the 2011 Soldotna Visitor Guide, a beacon to a magnificent place in the world to visit, to live, to fish, to work, to play.