An Outdoor View: Observations on salmon fishing

Author’s note: This column previously appeared in the Clarion June, 6, 2003. I’ve edited it for brevity. — LP

I have a theory that some people prefer to fish in seclusion because they can’t bear to watch what other anglers do.

Fishing on crowded salmon streams, you’re forced to witness the worst in human conduct. People snagging salmon and dragging the fish upstream instead of breaking it off. People stomping on fishes’ heads. People pulling salmon onto the bank to remove their precious hooks, then kicking the fish back into the water. People catching more fish than they can eat or give away, and saying they don’t know why they are fishing because they still have fish in the freezer from last year.

Some anglers can’t stand to see and hear this stuff. They either go elsewhere, or they quit fishing.

■ ■ ■

While fishing for king salmon on the Anchor River this past Monday, I got to talking to a local resident I’ve known for years.

“Yesterday, my wife and I fished all afternoon and well into the evening, and we finally went home skunked,” I said.

“I don’t know how you could’ve been skunked,” he said. “This weekend, I’ve caught 39.”

I didn’t doubt it. He has mastered catching Anchor River kings. For the four three-day weekends that the Anchor is open for king salmon fishing in May and June, he fishes night and day, grabbing an hour or two of sleep when the fishing is slow. There aren’t many anglers like him, and it’s a good thing.

The anglers of this type move with a purpose, their focus on fishing. They don’t always have the most expensive or “in” gear, but they are very good at using what they have. They notice everything about the water, the wind, the light, other anglers. If they don’t get any action after a few minutes, they move on.

Don’t expect one of these hyper-anglers to accept an offer of a seat by your campfire and a cup of coffee. Not while salmon are running. When they’re not fishing, they’re grabbing a couple hours of sleep. They seem driven, obsessed.

If you’re wondering how I know all this, it’s because I used to be one.

■ ■ ■

According to Alaska sport-fishing regulations, the annual limit of king salmon over 20 inches on the Anchor River and Deep Creek combined is two fish. After you take a king over 20 inches from one of these streams, you can’t fish for any species in either drainage on that same day.

As a result of these restrictions, some anglers are strictly catch-and-release. If they want a king to eat, they catch it somewhere else. If they take home even one fish from these “two-fish” streams, they’ve set themselves up for a moral dilemma.

Let’s say you hook a “bleeder” or a fish that goes into shock and dies. Do you take it home? Or do you convince yourself that the fish will recover? Do you just ease it into deep water, where you don’t have to wonder if it survived, where you don’t have to watch its death throes?

Some anglers will harvest the first two kings they catch. Instead of the bleeder being a dilemma, it’s dinner. Their conscience won’t let them release a dying fish, knowing it will neither spawn nor grace a dinner table.

Some anglers will catch and release salmon, but will stop before the season ends. They are limited not by regulation, but by a personal sense of what’s right — what makes them feel good about what they’ve done. Such people will agonize over whether to release a fish or to keep it. When they release a fish that looked as if it might not survive, they suffer. The memory of a particular fish will sometimes plague such anglers for life.

Some anglers would rather slit their wrists then stop fishing while the salmon are running. To them, justifying releasing a dying fish comes easily. The more they do it, the easier it gets.

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

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