A Kenai River king salmon tale

[by Kurt Jacobson]

WHEN I MOVED TO THE KENAI PENINSULA IN 1984, I heard it took an average of 40 hours to catch a Kenai king salmon.  That is assuming you do most things correctly while fishing for the monster-sized prize of the Kenai. I was young and thought for sure my trout fishing skills, learned over the course of 15-plus years in Colorado, would be sufficient to catch a Kenai king. I spent hours casting from the banks of the upper Kenai River near my rental trailer in Sterling, but I came up empty after weeks of trying. The main problem? I paid little attention to the good advice I’d received. 

The summer of 1985 arrived and, with no job still by late June, I went to the river often with my faithful dog named Bear. I’d throw lures into the river for two to three hours every session and then throw sticks into the river for Bear to fetch before returning home. I never so much as hooked a fish.

“The fish gave a couple of mighty head shakes and then turned downriver; I couldn’t slow or stop it.”

One night, however, my luck changed.  The evening started like most visits to Morgan’s Landing. Under cloudy skies, Bear and I hiked down to the river where we fished one of my favorite spots. I started the drudgery of cast after cast into the swift green waters when out of the blue, a salmon hit! I knew right away this sudden stoppage of my lure was not a snag and set the hook of my flimsy Pixie spoon.  The fish gave a couple of mighty head shakes and then turned downriver; I couldn’t slow or stop it.

Being in my prime, I was able to hold the rod high and run down the wild, rocky river bank, skipping over big wet rocks and ducking trees with Bear excitedly in pursuit. I did my best to run and reel, but after about a hundred feet of running downstream, the big fish seemed to stop. I caught my breath and felt the weight of the fish, but something was different.  The king had snagged on the bottom of the river about 40 feet out towards the middle, and I was helpless. I knew my line was not strong enough to withstand much rubbing on whatever it was snagged on. All I could do was move the fish a few inches. If I pulled too hard or too often, the line would surely break.

After what seemed an eternity, a boater pulled up to inquire about my bent rod and the tortured look on my face. Seeing my distress, he offered to take my rod and catch my fish for me, but I said I had to go with it. He reluctantly agreed and pulled his boat close to shore, against the swift current in the dangerous shallows. I tossed my rod through the air for him to catch and climbed in quickly. I told him if we went upstream from where the fish was snagged, it might break loose of the snag, and that’s exactly what happened. We chased the fish downriver about a half a mile, losing my frantic dog along the shore.  The fish fought hard, but we prevailed and got it into the boat. I was practically hyperventilating at that point. Catching a fine 35-pounder had been an intense endeavor. Now my complete attention turned to Bear.

I asked to be let off where I was picked up, but the boat owner said it was too dangerous. I couldn’t see Bear anywhere as we sped upstream almost a mile from where we boated the fish. I thanked the man profusely, dropped my fish and pole at the landing, and took off running like a madman, hip boots and all, downstream along the darkened trail yelling, “Bear!” hoping my dog would hear me. It didn’t occur to me until I had run about half a mile that people could hear me yelling and might think I was being attacked. Bears had been seen in the area that summer, but what could I do? I had to find my dog, and because he had never worn a collar or identification I wasn’t going to leave him there looking abandoned. Finally, a few minutes past where I’d last seen him, we reunited and I got a face full of happy dog kisses as I hugged my buddy. 

There was no time to waste with darkness approaching. I had left my fish and pole at the landing so we headed back at a fast walk. The fishermen I had asked to keep an eye on my fish were still at the boat landing.

Over the years, I  finally learned to listen to the local experts and became a very successful Kenai king fisherman. Although I’ve caught bigger kings, I’ll always remember that long night and my first bank-caught king on the Kenai River with Bear.

Kurt Jacobson cooked his way throughout Alaska in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. He writes of these and other adventures at Tasteoftravel2.com and as a freelance travel and food writer.

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