Where salmon run, people wade

Posted: Tuesday, September 01, 2009

KENAI - There are those who think of fishing as a contemplative sport. A chance to plant hip waders in a sparkling stream, stash a cold drink in the belt pocket and dream of man's mystic connections to the water and the dark shapes lurking below.

M. Scott Moon / Los Angeles Times
M. Scott Moon / Los Angeles Times

They, however, would not be most Alaskans, at least not when the sockeye start making their headlong summer rush up the Kenai River.

As if mimicking the salmon's annual journey, anglers climb into cars, pickups and campers, speed down the Seward Highway from Anchorage, lug poles and nets to the water's edge and start, by god, fishing.

During the long-lighted days of July, the scenic riverbanks become a battle zone - man vs. fish, man vs. man - a place so far past traditional, sedentary angling that it's known here as "combat fishing."

At the mouth of the Kenai, hundreds of men, women, teenagers and youngsters wade into the frigid waters of Cook Inlet with big dipnets, hoisting flopping salmon onto the beach and filleting them in a boisterous frenzy of laughter, seawater, scales and blood.

"There's maybe as many as 10,000 people that come down to this beach. ... People will stay out here in 50-degree weather in the rain. But we're all having a blast," said Brenda Crim, a Baptist missionary from Texas now posted in Anchorage. She has set up a tent offering free hot dogs, lemonade and day care, staffed by 140 volunteers from all over the country.

"You step right into Alaska culture when you go out on that beach," she said.

Tourists, of course, come by the planeload for a chance to fish some of the only rivers still teeming with wild salmon. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, a tangle of determined anglers and fly fishing lines that in a typical season sends 70 to 80 people to the hospital with hooks wedged in their faces or fly weights lodged in their eye sockets.

"Urgent care or fish hook removal," reads a large red sign outside the medical clinic in Sterling.

But it is to the mouth of the Kenai, just a few hours from Anchorage, that Alaskans themselves head every summer for a weekend of hard fishing.

In a good year, 4 million sockeye will navigate up the emerald river that cuts through grassy peaks, low forests and tangles of pink lupines before spilling into the sea.

Only Alaskans who can prove state residency are allowed to participate in the "personal use" dipnet season that extends through the last three weeks of July. Demand for the resident permits (free to those with a $24 resident fishing license) was so high this year that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game powered through the initial 30,000 print run and had to order a second set.

While Anchorage tire salesmen may be jockeying for position up the river with auto mechanics from Dallas, here it's less about sport and more about food - fish that costs $9 a pound or more in the supermarket can be had for the trouble of a Sunday drive.

"Let's say you've got a 10-pound salmon, that's going to give you five or six pounds of fillets. ... I'm thinking: `Ca-ching, ca-ching!' " said Crim, whose enthusiasm for fish often seems to overwhelm her stated task of setting an example of Christian neighborliness to the assembled hordes.

"Here in Alaska, we live on what we catch ... what we hunt," she said. "Think of Sarah Palin. ... She's out there slammin' salmon with the best of them.

"I never shot anything before I moved up here," Crim said. "But for us, it's shopping. I look at a moose through the sights of a rifle, and I'm thinking, how many pounds of hamburger is that?"

In few other places can a family of four go home with 55 fresh, wild salmon at the end of a weekend.

Alaskan regulations allow any head of household who can prove he or she had resided in the state for the preceding 12 months to net 25 fish during the three-week season; additional family members get 10 each.

Not surprisingly, those who head to the wide, sandy beach here - lined with dome tents, campfires and battered ice chests - most often are accompanied by sons, daughters, cousins, aunts, uncles and just about anyone else who is breathing and has the same family name.

"A week and a half ago, I talked to some people, they caught 80. It's typical to hear people come down and get a hundred," said Mike Christensen, a 23-year-old resident of Eagle River.

"I'm here with my two boys; I got my daughter," said Scott Bridges, 52, a construction foreman on the North Slope who stood over an ironing board set up in the sand wielding a large knife against a succession of salmon, his clothes splattered red.

Bridges typically wades waist deep in 45-degree water for two hours at a time, suspending a metal-framed net five feet in diameter in the often-powerful current.

"I'll tell you, we're a pretty hardy bunch up here. That's cold water," said Bridges, who shuns the wetsuits favored by many fishermen. He wades out in his bermuda shorts and T-shirt, he said, because "if the current knocks you off kilter, I'd rather fight the water than my clothes."

Stories of fishermen being carried out with the powerful tides, which can fluctuate by 40 feet in Cook Inlet, are common. "Every year, somebody needs people to help them out of the deep water they've gotten themselves into," said Lt. Kim Wannamaker of the Kenai Police Department.

There has been only one drowning in the past few years, though. (More dangerous, it seems, is the drive down: Eight people have died on the Seward Highway since May, most of them in head-on collisions brought on by excessive speed.)

Crim pointed with exasperation at a man who had inflatable floats attached to his upper arms and was paddling around in deep water scouring for fish. "That is so dangerous!" she said.

"I was one of the idiots my first year out here," she added. "I followed the tide right on out, deeper and deeper because I was catching fish, and pretty soon I had eight fish on my arm. And every one of them 12 pounds. I suddenly thought, `How am I going to get back?' "

Crim said she got the idea of opening a day care tent when she noticed flocks of children skittering around the beach while their parents fished. On this weekend of the dipnet season, 163 children were signed up.

A little way upstream, where the Kenai and Russian rivers intersect, the salmon head off in two different directions, a scene resembling a freeway interchange at rush hour.

A small ferry carries another load of fishermen every 10 minutes or so across to a narrow wedge of beach, where they elbow their way into prized spots of water barely two feet apart.

"RULES: Land your fish as quickly as you can. Other anglers are waiting to get their lines back in the water," a large sign at the upstream intersection instructs.

"You think this is bad? This is very, very slow right now," said Jason Baker of Wasilla, who came fishing with his wife. "Normally when you're down here, you're literally fishing with the next person this close to you," he said, slapping his shoulder. "Every once in a while, you get some people that don't know how to fish," Baker said, "and they'll get all tangled up in each other and then people will start hollering."

Barry Hagedon flew up from northern California to fish with his kids, but was on his way home with little to show for it but a good fish story.

"We were over there fishing," he said, pointing down river. "A brown bear came up. We left. The bear stayed. End of story."



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