We live less than two miles from the Kenai River in Alaska. This river is world famous for its runs of king, red (sockeye), silver and pink salmon. Three years ago we were living in California, and I brought my husband up to the Kenai peninsula hoping that I would be able to convince him that we should move here when my mother, who lived in California, died. That summer we spent three days staying in a bed and breakfast on the Kenai river, and one overcast and chilly June afternoon my husband landed a 41 inch king salmon. I took a photo of him as he held that salmon high, his thumb hooked through its lower jaw, and knew in my heart that the fish gods had smiled upon us. Shortly afterward, he agreed that we could move to Alaska. My mother died two months later after a long and peaceful decline, and nine months later, we moved.
Our first summer as Alaskan residents was uneventful as far as fishing went. We were living 80 miles south of Kenai, and my husband spent some time fishing for silver salmon in a nearby river, but he didn't catch any. Salmon aren't hungry by the time they enter their home rivers; they're hell bent on finding the precise spot of their birth and spawning, after which they die. My husband Virgil was used to fishing for hungry trout and spent hours trying to taunt a silver salmon into biting his hook, to no avail.
We moved to Kenai after nine months in Alaska. Virgil eagerly anticipated the salmon runs of 2010, however, circumstances including his new job and a less than stellar run of red salmon prevented him from hooking a sockeye. The silver salmon run later in the summer, and after many, many hours of trying he did catch one and brought it home. Yes, we ate it, and it was delicious.
People in this part of the world start talking about salmon in June, when the "early run" of king salmon are due in the river. We heard snippets of conversation regarding a slow, small run of kings. No big deal. Then we began waiting for the reds, which return to the rivers of their birth in July. Virgil reads a private anglers report page daily in July. Everyone is interested in the red runs, and fortunately there are a number of people devoted to predicting the size, numbers, and arrival time of these fish. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game controls everything fish related; certain numbers of fish must be allowed to make the long swim upriver so that they can spawn and produce the next generation of red salmon and the commercial fishermen (and women) must be able to make a living as well, so there are strict laws governing the days, hours, and number of fish available to be caught by sport fisherpeople. In addition, Alaska residents are allowed to participate in an activity called "dipnetting" so that they may stock up on food for the winter. Dipnetting, in a nutshell, is the process of standing in the cold water at the mouth of the river dragging a huge net on the end of a long pole and hoping that salmon swim into it, or sitting in a boat further up the river holding that same big net underwater and hoping that fish swim into it.
Dipnetting "opened" six days ago because enough salmon had made it upriver to spawn. That was a Friday. By Saturday morning, the private angler report was announcing in bright yellow letters that the red salmon run was going to be big based on reports from the spotters in Cook Inlet, the tongue of ocean that feeds the Kenai River. By Saturday afternoon the first wave of fish had arrived, and it was big. Really big. The private angler report stated that "a wall of fish" was moving up the inlet.
By Sunday, Kenai (9,000 residents) had burgeoned in size. Motor homes were everywhere. The sand at the mouth of the river was covered with tents, four wheel drive vehicles, campfires, and people in rubber chest waders dragging dipnets. The font on the angler report website had increased in size, and the webmaster was using all caps. 'THIS IS A HUGE RUN OF RED SALMON".
By Monday it appeared that everyone in Alaska had called in sick and driven to Kenai. The local WalMart was selling coolers, dipnets, fishing tackle, groceries, and ice faster than the skeleton crew (most of the employees had already called in sick) could restock the shelves. The store manager was mopping floors and restocking ice.
The salmon kept coming.
Virgil and my cousin-in-law, Alan, went to the mouth of the river to dipnet on Tuesday morning (at the crack of dawn). It was so crowded that they had to wait in a long line to get into the water. Once in the water they found that the current was strong and the commercial fishing boats moving in and out of the river were creating wakes that hit them at chest height causing cold water to pour inside their rubber chest waders. They gave up on dipnetting and decided to drive upriver to fish with rods and reels.
Remember, the salmon aren't hungry. They're sights are set on spawning and they don't stop to eat. They push forward relentlessly. The only way to catch a red salmon in that frame of mind is to drop a hook at precisely the right spot so that the salmon bites at it essentially to push it out of the way. Fishing for reds with a pole is an art, and it is called "flipping". It's fast, it's furious, and it's a process that takes practice. Virgil has never fished this way before. He is a master at catching trout (they're hungry) but brand spanking new at fishing for reds. Alan caught his limit of three reds in about an hour, after which he waited for three hours while Virgil hooked and lost fish after fish and lost his footing at one point, after which he was soaked to the skin. Finally, Virgil managed to get a salmon to shore, and the guys called it a day.
My husband considers himself a good fisherman, and he was not a happy man when he returned home with that one fish. I made a big deal out of it and took photos of him holding the packaged fish before gently placing it in the freezer. Virgil had a bad day. He was cranky, dejected, and tired. Alan called him late in the afternoon and told him that a friend had offered to take them both dipnetting from a boat on Wednesday, and he perked up a little after agreeing to go.
And the fish kept coming.
The guys set off on Wednesday shortly after I left for work. Virgil had promised to text message me at about noon to let me know how things were going, but I didn't hear from him. My cousin, who was also at work, text messaged me at about 1pm and asked if I had heard from them. We waited. At 2:30pm my phone beeped. "Alan and I got 15 fish each". I shrieked. My boss told me to go home and help clean fish. I showed up at my cousin's house in very old, stained clothing, carrying my camera.
These were big fish. They were silver and shiny and regal even with their dead, glazed eyes staring into nothingness. Alan and Virgil were filleting them, one after another. Under those glistening silver fish skins was ruby red, firm flesh. They were absolutely stunning, healthy, hearty, voluptuous creatures. I was assigned the task of washing and drying the fillets, then cutting them in half for packaging. I carried a big plastic bin of fillets from the cleaning area to the kitchen and began working. As I washed each fillet, I said ,"thank you", out loud. Several times I recited a Buddhist chant as I worked. It was an honor to handle those fillets. They were perfect, nutritious jewels and I revered them. I returned to the cleaning area to fill the bin with fillets three more times, carrying my heavy treasure back to the kitchen.
We packaged those fillets with care, using a machine that heat sealed plastic bags of fish. I brought home 13 bags of fish for our freezer. Each fillet, each bag, will easily feed four people. Alan kept 17 bags at his house, as he will be smoking those fillets for us after carefully preparing them for the smoking process.
I took the smallest fillet, wrapped it with aluminum foil, and baked it at 350 degrees for 20 minutes at 7 pm this evening. Virgil and I ate it together. I wept a bit as I devoured the tender, flaky, moist, scarlet meat, appreciating the exquisite flavor of salmon fresh from the river. I smiled as I realized that tonight I will not need to take a fish oil supplement, because I have eaten salmon today and it contains those healthy oils that are so beneficial to the human body.
I am a lucky woman. I have run with the sockeye salmon.