The fishing how-to

The first fishing how-to in print was Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler,” published in 1653, and writers have been writing how-tos ever since.

Writing fishing how-tos isn’t done for love or fame, and it’s definitely not done for money. It seems that we writers sometimes feel so proud that we know something, we’re simply overwhelmed by an urge to share it will our less-fortunate readership.

Most reasons for writing how-tos seem to be related to the writer’s self interest.

Take my first how-to, published May 1, 1987, in the Clarion’s feature magazine, “The Tides.” “To Catch a King” contained detailed instructions on everything from general advice on tackle to detailed explanations and close-up photos of how to tie the egg-loop knot and the Palomar knot. My research for this two-page spread included several interviews with fishing guides and others with experience in catching kings with hook and line. Even when I wrote it, the Kenai was crowded with anglers. Did I stop to consider that if others were more successful, it would follow that still more would flock to the river? Well, no. In fact, what I really wanted was for all of them to go home and leave the river to me, but I didn’t think about that.

At most I made 25 cents an hour for writing that piece, but I had other reasons for writing it. Mostly, it gave me a good excuse for “talking fish” with people who knew more than I did, so I learned a lot about how to catch Kenai River kings. My motive was purely self interest.

I confess, it’s fun seeing my writing in print, even though that’s probably the same reason people make those stupid videos for “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Sharing fishing knowledge can have unintended consequences. In July 10, 1987, about a month after I started writing a weekly column, the Clarion published my how-to, “Who Says Kenai River Reds Don’t Bite?” My motivation for writing it was my firm belief that sockeyes wouldn’t take a fly in the turbid Kenai, and that virtually all sockeyes taken with hook and line were caught by force-feeding the fish, what we now call “lining” or “flossing.” Al Thompson, a retired game warden who lived beside the Kenai, swore that reds would take a fly, and invited me to his home to discuss it. I thought our conflicting views would make for an interesting debate in my column. Instead, they ended up being a how-to for legally catching Kenai River sockeyes.

How could I have known that a record run of sockeyes was heading up Cook Inlet, and that the S.S. Glacier Bay would strike a submerged object and spill crude oil into Cook Inlet, and that fisheries managers would then restrict commercial fishing, allowing nearly 1.6 million sockeyes to enter the Kenai River? By July 20, you couldn’t dabble a hook in the Kenai without hooking a red. Anglers caught 281,000, and most were caught on flies.

In June of 1988, I wrote another how-to about catching Kenai River reds. Sockeyes returned to the Kenai in large numbers again that year, encouraging anglers from near and far to catch them.

When commercial fishing was restricted in 1989, during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, sockeyes came into the Kenai in record numbers, attracting even larger hordes of anglers to the banks. In those three years, the shoreline of the lower 50 miles of river were pretty much denuded of vegetation, greatly increasing the rate of bank erosion and reducing the amount of riparian salmon habitat. I’ve been kicking myself ever since for writing those how-to columns, although they were only a ripple in the media maelstrom about the two oil spills and resulting angling bonanza.

I rarely write how-tos anymore, and never read one. Now that my favorite fishing holes are crowded with fishermen, I figure people know enough about how to fish. Now we need to learn how to ensure that fish will still be here when we’re gone.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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