An Outdoor View: Fishing and luck

(Author’s note: Because 2015 marks the 30th year that a Kenai River king salmon has held the IGFA, all-tackle world record, let’s consider what it takes — or more aptly what it doesn’t take — to catch big fish. The following column first appeared in the Clarion in 1994. LP)

What perverse law causes so many big fish to be caught by anglers who are lucky, rather than skillful?

Consider the king salmon. Its size, strength and weight make it more than a little difficult to land with rod and reel. In swift current, such as that of the Kenai River, the task gets tough enough that both angler and boat operator have to know what they’re doing.

Or do they?

In the July 30 edition of the Anchorage Daily News, sports writer Doyle Woody wrote about how Anchorage resident Jill Williams, who had never before caught a king salmon, hauled in a 90-pound Kenai king with an old Fenwick spinning rod she had recently found while fishing near Talkeetna. It gets worse. She hadn’t been paying attention to her rod. It was in a rod holder, and she was reading a book, “The Throat,” by Peter Straub, if it makes any difference. When her husband tried to net the fish, only half of it fit in the net. He threw down the net, grabbed the fish by the gills, and pulled it into the boat on top of him.

Ridiculous. That fish should still be alive, down there laughing at unprepared fishermen who dare try to catch him.

That reminds me of the story behind the king salmon that currently holds the IGFA all-tackle world record, the 97-pound, 4-ounce king caught by Les Anderson on May 17, 1985.

First, Anderson shouldn’t even have been fishing. It was too early in the year. Anyone knows kings don’t come into the Kenai in any kind of fishable numbers until Memorial Day weekend. Besides, it was too cold to be on the water. Chunks of winter ice still lined the banks. And the water was too shallow. Only one other boat besides his was on the river that day. Smart anglers were staying away, waiting until enough water covered the gravel bars to reduce the risk of losing the lower units of their outboard motors.

Anderson was poorly equipped, by modern standards, for taking on a world-record king salmon. Like Jill Williams, he was using an old spinning outfit. No true king salmon afficianado would be caught dead without a Lamiglas “Kenai Special” rod and a Garcia Ambassadeur reel, or their equivalent. He was even using the wrong hook, a treble hook, of all things. Dumb. Anyone knows that tandem bait hooks in size 6/0 and 7/0, tied on with egg-loop knots, are the only way to catch kings.

Anderson’s fishing partner, Bud Lofstedt, once told me just how lucky they were to get that king.

“We should have lost that fish,” he said. “Les was running the motor when the fish hit, and when I took the motor, he fell over the boat seat.

“Then the fish jumped clear out of the water, over my line, and our lines were crossed for a while. It was in and out of the net three times. I don’t know why the hook didn’t catch in the net.”

Luckily for them, the fish was patient. It even allowed them to tow it to a nearby gravel bar, where they got out of the boat and hauled it in like a tired humpy.

“Les sort of pulled and I sort of pushed with the net, and we got him,” Lofstedt recalled.

Ridiculous. Pure luck.

Bob Penney, who has years of experience in fishing for Kenai kings, who in anyone’s book could be called an expert fisherman, said it best, when he heard about Anderson’s record fish.

“He’s a lucky, lucky guy,” Penney said.

At least Anderson had some salmon fishing experience. It’s rank novices like Jill Williams who drive people like Penney crazy. Cheechakos who don’t know a Trilene knot from an improved clinch, but who luck into huge fish, and who somehow, though unskilled at playing a big fish, operating a boat, or any of the other hard-won skills acquired through years of experience, manage to end up with their pictures in the paper, holding a giant fish.

The idea that a newcomer has a shot at the biggest fish in the sea draws people to sport fishing like gambling draws them to Las Vegas.

Now, would someone please pass the good luck?

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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