KENAI — When Cody Wise caught a 30-inch king salmon just after midnight Saturday morning on the Ninilchik River, he tossed it back, perhaps thinking he could get something better.
By the time 5 a.m. rolled around on Saturday, the Homer man felt differently.
“That would have been pretty good eating,” he said. “I could be cooking right now.”
Wise joined at least 20 other people within a mile of the Sterling Highway bridge who roamed the shoreline trying to find one of the season’s elusive first king salmon.
The Ninilchik and Anchor Rivers as well as Deep Creek opened at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and despite the relatively low abundance of king salmon in the past few years, people still followed tradition and came out in droves to try their luck.
“Why?” Wise said. “Because you can, it’s glorious. It’s the first opportunity you have to catch a fish. I love the river, I love being here.”
Not far downstream from Wise, who grumbled good-naturedly and paused for a beer when he caught several pint-sized fish in a row, members of another Homer-clan, the Demmer family tried their luck as well.
Greg Demmer and his two sons, Tristan and Colter, stood a few feet away from each other. While Greg stood quietly in the water moving in a well-practiced dance between casting, watching his line bob for a long moment, then reeling it back in, his sons were far more interested in showing off Tristan’s catch and teasing each other about previous fishing transgressions.
Colter said his family had been coming to fish the Ninilchik since he was old enough to walk.
“I haven’t caught anything yet — that’s why I’m still fishing,” he said.
Wes Kuhns, another Homer resident who joined the Demmer group’s river revelry, pointed to Colter’s pink bait-stained hands saying “you’re cheating, that’s your problem.”
The pair laughed and Kuhns explained that he didn’t feel strongly about bait in one way or another.
“I grew up using bait and casting rods; now I’m fly fishing with no bait,” he said. “It’s not like it’s more of a challenge, it’s just something different.”
He laughed saying he didn’t understand why people got so up in arms about the bait or no-bait ways of fishing.
“Some people are die-hard bait or turn their nose up at fly, but it’s all the same to me,” he said. “It’s all fishing.”
Downstream from the group out of Homer, Debbie Neil, of Anchorage, stood on the shoreline, her pink hat standing out in the light from the rising sun.
Anderson said her family had also made the trek from Anchorage for several years.
“It’s kind of a tradition,” she said. “There’s not as many fish as there used to be on Memorial weekend though, so we’re thinking about changing the tradition to the next weekend.”
Everyone who spoke about fishing the Ninilchik mentioned the lower abundance of kings. Some attributed it to commercial fishing, other to natural cycles or increasing numbers of fishermen on the rivers, but several said they longed for the day when they could stand by the bridge, cast and catch a king right after midnight when the season opens.
Wise finished his beer and went back to casting as he talked about why the Ninilchik was a good river to fish because of its clarity, occasionally pausing to unhook a tiny fish from his line and toss it back into the water.
“I just have this feeling I’m going to catch a fish here,” he said, staring intently into the water. The moment passed and he smiled. “But, just ‘cause you have a feeling doesn’t mean it’s going to be a big one.”