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SOLDOTNA - Five of us sat in the boat at 3 a.m. with hands stuffed into pockets for warmth on a clear night showing a million stars.
Until first light. Until guide Reuben Hanke gave the command to fish.
Three a.m.? Have to be on the water for the best parking space on the Kenai River, Hanke assured us. We waited on the tide. We waited on the coho salmon. And we wondered why the late August temperature carried the hint of winter.
My memories of this river run stronger than the current, which often tops out at 6 mph, but this day flowed at 10 mph Glacially fed, an emerald green by daylight, the Kenai River brings salmon and fishermen together for five months each year.
Indications are that both fish and anglers come from all over the world. The world-record Chinook salmon - 97 1/4 pounds - was caught here in 1985. The mount is on public display a few miles away.
Chinook, also known as kings, run in late spring and early summer, returning from the ocean to spawn. Coho, known locally as silvers, return in two runs in late summer.
I once caught a 45-pound, 48-inch king here. Or was it 48 pounds and 45 inches? No matter. It seemed like Moby Dick.
"The Kenai River," said Hanke, 41, who has been a guide since 1986. "It's not just a great river. It's the greatest river in the world."
I have fished the Kenai for the last 10 years with Hanke, operator of Harry Gaines Kenai River Fishing, 150 miles south of Anchorage.
And before that, with Harry Gaines, whose ashes were sprinkled in these waters because he spent the best years of his life on them. In the best tribute I can think of, Hanke grew the business and kept the name. A wooden statue of Gaines overlooks the river.
I co-wrote Gaines' autobiography. When he was dying of cancer, at 60, in 1991, a radio station interviewer asked him to name the worst fisherman he ever took out. Without hesitating, he named me. He owed me. I nearly ruined his reputation by failing to catch a Chinook in several tries - and writing about it. When I caught a coho Harry got down on his knees in the boat and bowed to me.
My dad, who died last December at age 79, fished once as an adult. On the Kenai River. He landed 9-, 11- and 13-pound coho, laughing the whole time. Joe Freedman dined out on the story for the rest of his life. Harry Gaines squinted at me and said, "It's not in the genes."
To reach Fallin' In Hole this morning, Hanke cranked up the motor and steered the 20-foot boat six miles from his fish camp.
"Harry used to go out at some ungodly hours," Hanke said. "The only thing you have to worry about going out this late at night is hitting a moose or a caribou."
They're doing laps, right?
A small light glowed faintly on a pole at the rear of the boat, the only way for us to be seen in the dark. Darned if another boat didn't mosey up around 4 a.m. with designs on our spot. Other boats, engines sounding like motorcycles, began appearing through a thin layer of fog at water level.
Hanke's father, Dale, and Hanke's son, Ace, 23, and my partner Donna, filled out the open-air, flat-bottom boat. At 4:45 a.m. Hanke began baiting with cured red salmon eggs. The rods carried 20-pound main line and 30-pound leaders.
At 6:15 I hooked a salmon and in a battle that lasted only minutes, reeled it in. Fifteen minutes later, Donna caught one and brought it in with no trouble. Years ago she caught and released a king salmon, but this was the first keeper fish of her life.
"I had a mild sense of wonder that it happened," she said. "I also thought, 'I want to get another one.""
She also experienced pioneer woman flashbacks: Autumn approaching, have to lay in food for winter.
The Kenai's daily coho limit is two. The early run coho - which this was - figure to be 7 pounds and up. The late run coho, in September, grow bigger.
"They come back 12, 14, 16 pounds," said Tim McKinley, Alaska Fish and Game fisheries research biologist for the Kenai Peninsula. "A trophy fish is 20 pounds. Anything you get above 10 to 12 pounds is a real nice fish."
I caught a rainbow trout and we swiftly released it. Then I caught a 10-pounder. Dale brought in his share. Each time, Hanke leaned over the side with a wide-mouth net, and scooped up the fish. Then he konked it with a small club before tossing it into the fish box at the rear of the boat.
Donna had another bite and she hauled the salmon in after it circled the boat.
"You did great," Hanke told her. "We get our limit every day."
The only one not doing great was Ace. He had nibbles. He had bites. All escaped. His dad, who was not fishing, was on his case. His grandfather was on his case. Ace shrugged off the oral abuse. He hooked another fish and fought if for several minutes.
"You're exhausting it," Hanke said.
"I get my money's worth," Ace replied.
"I'm riding on my first no-limit of the year," Hanke said.
Ace placed his gear in a rod-holder and leaned back, arms folded, legs stretched out. When the rod bent double he barely moved.
"Might as well wait till he swallows (the hook)," he said.
Only the fish split.
"Oh, my gosh, they're schooling you," Hanke said. "My reputation's at stake."
A half-hour passed. An hour. Unruffled by family harassment, Ace fished on. Then, bam, bam, within 10 minutes he hooked and landed two coho of notable size. We were all off the river by 9 a.m. with our eight-fish limit.
I looked at Hanke.
"Three a.m.? I still think you're crazy."
He smiled. The photogenic fish weighing between 7 and 10 pounds hanging in a row on hooks were Hanke's trump card. They all gleamed silvery in the morning light.