An Outdoor View: On salmon

Author’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion in 1993. I still believe this stuff. — LP

By the time you’re through reading this, you may be wondering about my sanity, but so be it.

Have you ever noticed how no two salmon look exactly alike? I don’t mean that some wear tooth marks of seals while others show scars from close calls with gill nets. I mean that every salmon has different facial characteristics from every other salmon. Different expressions, even.

Look closely, and you’ll see what I mean. Some have squinty eyes. Some have fat noses. Some have smiling mouths. Some look angry. Some look sad. Once you start noticing the differences, you’ll agree that no two are the same.

You’ll start noticing something else, too. No two animals of any species are the same, whether they be ants or elephants.

I began noticing this about five years ago. I’ve also been noticing that every individual animal has its own “personality.” Observe any animal closely, and you’ll notice that it behaves in slightly different ways from its fellow animals.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not attributing human characteristics to animals. I’m just saying that animals may be far more different from one another than we imagined. Different enough that one can recognize another by looks alone.

Am I crazy, or am I onto something others know but were afraid of saying for fear of being considered one fish short of a limit?

Another thing. We tend to look at animal behavior through human eyes. Though no one can be certain that fish are even capable of anger, we pretend they are. For example, when some fish are hooked — king salmon and halibut, to name two — they often respond with hard jerks of their heads. The angler on the other end of the line will like as not say, “Boy, that made him mad!” Why we do this, I have no idea. I don’t think I want to know.

We also say inane things, such as, “That fish purposely ran around a snag with my line, then jumped, to break it.”

Fish may be good at what they do, but they’re not that clever.

As long as I’m digging a hole, here’s another one. Ever notice how some people can tell exactly when fish are going to bite, even when said fish are invisible and haven’t so much as sniffed the bait?

I know this can happen, because I’ve done it myself. Back when I was obsessed with fishing for Kenai kings, in the late 1970s, I would anchor up and fish on the bottom with a Spin-N-Glo and roe. Sometimes, I’d sit there for three or four hours without so much as a nibble, just watching my rod tip and keeping a loose grip on the butt of my rod. Then, for no reason I was ever able to understand or put into words, I would just know that a king was about to grab my bait. If this had happened only once, I’d chalk it up to coincidence, but it happened many times.

A few people, only two or three, have understood what I was talking about when I explained this phenomenon to them. Our mutual experiences had one commonalty. We had all spent many hours contemplating our immediate environment with one goal in mind: to catch a king salmon. To us, not getting a bite wasn’t boring. We were paying our dues, simply waiting until the time came for the fish to bite. We knew they would bite. The question was when, not if. And just before they bit, we knew they were about to do it.

Our ancestors, who lived closer to the land than we do, knew this feeling almost constantly, I think. In order to get close enough to kill an animal with spear or arrow, they had to be able to melt into the earth, and to actually think like their prey.

My experiences with this feeling, this knowing, whatever it is, were limited to those relatively few times when I was alone with my thoughts, when no one was around to distract me, back when a dozen boats on the lower Kenai River was a crowd. To experience this again, I’d have to go elsewhere than the Kenai, I think.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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