Friday, May 8, 2009

Fishing for Kings


My son Thor might be the most possessed fisherman, a disease he inherited from his grandfather, and which I only partially avoided. For the past year he planned and executed our annual trip south to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska to catch King Salmon in the waters of Cook Inlet, off Deep Creek. It is his favorite place; he spent four years of his life as a fisheries biologist here, tagging salmon, and putting recording devices in steelhead, a seagoing rainbow trout. And….fishing every free moment. It all started at the age of two, when he saw a salmon in a creek; he caught his first one that year and has been obsessed by fishing ever since.

Most of the boats plying the waters of Cook Inlet are palatial, seaworthy, expensive, and towed by huge diesel trucks. We know that others snicker behind our backs as we pull into the campground with my little Subaru towing an 18’ Lund skiff. But, as Audrey Hepburn once said to Sophia Loren about size, “She is more stacked than I am, but sex is not all about breast size.” Little do they know that on board is one of the most knowledgeable and persistent fisherman of these waters.

subaru and lund
Subaru and Lund skiff
After four years of biology work and no real money (“All the biologists I know are either never married or divorced”, he quotes), Thor went to law school and is now a practicing attorney in Portland, with a heart in Alaska. His brought his law school friend, Andy, who has worked for many years as first mate on a competition Marlin boat off Cape Hatteras. The two are an awesome team.

After a very few hours of shivering and feigning sleep, we woke to find frost covering everything. But the sun is up early this time of year, and we had the stove going by 5am: eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee. Of course Thor is a slight coffee snob, growing up in Alaska, the highest rate of coffee consumption in the world. (Also the highest rate of ice cream consumption.) So, he brought freshly ground Stumptown coffee from Portland and insisted we use his new French press. That’ll get you goin’.

A local service on the beach uses huge log skidders to pull the boats out into the water –any size boat. So, you can imagine their amusement when the giant skidder pulls the little Lund out. But this is where the snide looks end.

log skidder
Log skidder/boat launcher
Thor and Andy are all business. Although it is my boat, and I’ve been fishing since I was a baby, I turn the captain’s job over to Thor. He has it down to a science.

Thor and Andy bait the hooks
As we speed to the fishing spot with the monster 55 horsepower Yamaha outboard on the little skiff, they attach the divers to the line and bait the double salmon hooks with fresh herring. The instant we are at the right area, we cut the engine to trolling speed and the lines are in the water; there’s no messing around with these two.

Thor has invited his friend Ian, his brother Cody, Chris, and Wade to join us. Ian has a beautiful river boat, so between the two craft we feel we can do some serious fishing.

Ian's boatload
We fish for an hour on incoming tide, but no bites. We check all the other fishermen and big charter boats constantly; no one has hooked a salmon, so they likely aren’t in the area right now. Thor makes the decision to go for halibut on the slack tide, so we pull in the rods, and head for the big water to the west. Finding 100’ deep water, we drop the anchor and let out the halibut lines, weighted with one-pound lead weights and huge hooks baited with anything stinky. We have twin herring tied together. But Andy catches an ugly Irish Lord and decides to use it as bait.

Irish lord

Andy and the Irish Lord
The afternoon is hot, and we bask with sun lotion is slathered on our faces. “Fish On!” Thor yells, and hauls up a nice halibut.

Thor hauls in a halibut
I’m having a great time with my son. I’m so proud of him, so happy to be out on the ocean, fishing, in Alaska, looking across Cook Inlet at Lake Clark National Park where I was Superintendent almost 20 years ago. It is likely the most beautiful and interesting park in the world, and no one knows about it: an intersection of land masses and people. Bordered on the east by the waters of Pacific Ocean, Cook Inlet, it instantly rises into huge granite mountains like a hundred Teton ranges piled together, and the start of the great ring of fire down the Aleutians. Yupik Eskimos, Aleuts, and Athabascans all intersect in the villages. It’s just 36 miles across the Inlet.

Mt. Redoubt volcano

Here is the infamous 10,000’ high Mount Redoubt that is currently erupting and spewing ash all over creation. (More to follow on this baby!)

Mount Iliamna volcano

And Mount Iliamna another active volcano rises just to the south. Check out the dirty ash on Redoubt’s slopes compared to the pristine Iliamna. We can see Mount Augustine to the south and Mount Spurr to the north, both of which erupted in the past few years. On the west side are 125,000 caribou of the Mulchatna herd, Dall sheep, wolves, moose, and grizzly bears. And splitting the 4-million acre park is its namesake, 60-mile long Lake Clark. I’m in heaven.


I remember in high school, Thor went out with the biologists to count bears. They made him sleep in a tent while they slept in the plywood shelter. He awoke to find grizzly bears sniffing his tent, so of course, being a good Alaskan, he shooed them away. Once as a biologist he was in Aniakchak Caldera, collecting salmon samples from the lake for genetic work, and a sow grizzly with a cub charged up the side of hill towards him, hell-bent for destruction. The bear was just feet away when the ranger behind him fired a cracker round from a 12-gauge shotgun at the bear…but it was a dud. However, the noise was just enough to turn the bear’s head, and she lost her footing and tumbled back down the volcanic ash to the lakeshore and ambled off with her cub. After that he bought his own gun.

But I digress…we were talking about fishing. Enough of halibut, we can catch more later, so we fire the Yamaha and plane back to the secret waters were the King salmon are lurking. Thor is very specific about our trolling speed, the play of the lures in the water, and the route of the boat. He has a house on the cliff side for reference: the half house, he calls it. A somewhat eccentric, but typically Alaskan dwelling, somewhat half finished with a huge ladder descending to the beach.

Half house

There is never a moment when the lines aren’t in the water. Others may screw around with the gear, take lunch breaks, only fish during the good hours, but time and money are no object for the dedicated, so we troll long after the others have given up and gone in for the evening. The water is as calm as we’ve ever seen it. Suddenly, my rod jerks backwards. “Fish on!”, Thor shouts. I set the hook, and Thor stops the engine. Andy reaches for the net; he’s the pro! The King is beautiful, its silver scales flash a purple iridescence as it approaches the boat.

King salmon

Instantly Andy has it in the net, and with little further ado it is tied to the boat and we’re fishing again. It’s been a long day, but we are just about the only successful fishermen on the water. Certainly we are the last ones as we approach the haul-out at 8:30pm, over 12 hours after put-in. The tractor backs our trailer into the water and hauls us up.


It is a beautiful evening in camp with the sun still shining till nearly 10pm. The eight of us cook hamburgers, drink a beer, build a fire and do things that make life comfortable.

The crew in camp
Across the inlet Redoubt is making a stink. It has been spewing steam and ash for a month. But tonight we witness a small eruption as it sends the ash cloud about 15,000’ into the air. The volcano observatory says a major eruption is imminent. Cool!

Mount Redoubt

The morning high tide is at 11:20, so we don’t need to be in the water at an ungodly hour; 8 am seems like a civilized time to depart. Back to the trolling waters, back and forth, zigging and zagging to intercept a fish. Hmmmm…no fish this morning either. No one is getting fish. We enjoy the show from a sea otter.

Sea Otter
The sun is baking us, and we appear lazy and snoozy in the afternoon heat, but the masters are fixated on fish. If our trolling pattern is the slightest bit out of kilter, Thor corrects. Andy checks the bait regularly to make sure it has the proper roll and hasn’t been nibbled by little fish; otherwise he would re-bait the hooks.

I hear a loud wheezing and catch a glimpse of a humpback whale spout. I missed the photo of the whale but get the spray. It’s a cow and calf, breathing at regular 5-breath intervals, then beaching and diving along the coast.

Whale spout (the little spray of mist)

Time to head out for more halibut. No sense wasting time here if the fish are not cooperating. We drop the lines, but nothing…where did all the fish go? But not a soul is catching anything. The huge charters are coming back empty handed. Bummer! The sea is calm, and I hear more spouting. We hear a huge ruckus of birds in the distance and figure the hooligan are running, and the whales must be into them, with the gulls feeding on the surface debris. Curiosity lures us like a Siren. Sure enough we spot three groups of Sei Whales, their sharp fin rolling in the water. And, a group of humpbacks. Lunch time for the whales, and we’re in the middle of it. Maybe there are halibut underneath all this chaos. But no. However Thor and Andy are nothing if not persistent, and soon Thor has another halibut for the cooler.

By late afternoon we are back just off shore trolling for the Kings again. All the other boats have gone back. We continue fishing, all alone on the water. At 7:30 pm we catch another King. Thor and Andy are excited and have a burst of energy. No longer is there any talk of quitting; isn’t it light all night? The launching service has to wait till 9pm for us, even though we’re the only boat still out! A few minutes later we have another one, right in the same location. Thor is ecstatic. This is what we came for.

Thor and King
Thor with a nice King Salmon

This has been a blast, however now the work begins. We motor back to the launch site, and set up the cleaning operation. Thor and Andy are the masters, settling for nothing but a perfect fillet job. I’ve brought a big chunk of plywood for a cutting board; out comes the fillet knife, and they go to work. Like surgeons, they fillet and slice up the salmon, while I stuff the chunks of red meat into plastic freezer bags. A stiff breeze is blowing, and the sun is sinking in the west.

The surgeon at work

Instantly, bald eagles arrive; they’ve been lurking on the hillside anticipating a gift from the sea. We've seen hundreds along the shore, and now a dozen or more swoop in. One comes right up close to make sure he's first in the chow line.

Thor and Eagle
Thor and the bald eagle eye each other

A guest

Eagle and treat
Thor throws a piece of salmon to the guest.
After cleaning the fish, Thor disposes of the carcass, but throws a small chunk of meat the the eagle who flaps into the air, snatches the morsel with his talons, and settles back down on his log. A circus ensues, with eagles and gulls schreeching and cawing at the top of their lungs for a piece. We can't feed them all, so we pack up the meat and head to camp. Morning dawns foggy with a high wind; there will be no skiff launching today, so we take our fish, head down to Homer on Kachemak Bay to show Andy the sights. Then, back to Anchorage.
Any fishing trip with Thor is the experience of a lifetime. I wait all year for the chance to be with him, doing what makes him the happy. It certainly fills me with joy.

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