As the Kenai River flows and the gallery of guides comes and goes, Gary McFadden remains.
The 62-year-old trout and salmon guide has been guiding on the Peninsula’s most famous river as long as some guides are old and has been a permanent fixture in the constantly changing fishing community.
If you’re a trout, chances are you’ve either seen McFadden’s iconic beard and hat full of hot glue and artifacts gazing down at you from the end of a rod or net or heard of his fishing prowess.
If you’re a fisherman, you might have had a chance encounter with McFadden along the river’s edge as he makes it a habit to counsel other fishers and guides on how to properly net and release his favorite catch.
“It’s been bred in from generations,” he said sitting at Sal’s Klondike Diner in Soldotna. “A trout is like a piece of art you want to take care of. It is like you are part of the whole thing when you fly fish. You get a hold of it and it is like a part of your arm stuck out there.”
This summer McFadden was nominated and inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame based in Hayward, Wis., as a “legendary guide.” He is one of three Alaska guides to make the list of more than 70, according to the hall of fame’s website.
“It is a humbling deal,” McFadden said.
The Cooper Landing resident has been a guide for 26 years for Alaska River Adventures and, in addition to seeking his treasured Kenai rainbow trout, he also guides for kings and silvers in the lower river and on the Kasilof River.
McFadden’s fishing and conservation-mindedness hasn’t gone unnoticed by other guides, said Mike Harpe, manager and guide for Kenai River Fly Fishing.
Harpe said McFadden is like the Kenai River itself — unforgettable.
“He’s kind of an icon. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him, but he’s kind of like the wizard, he’s like Gandalf almost,” Harpe said. “He has those qualities about him and there is something to say about that.”
McFadden came to the area from northern Idaho in 1974 and bounced around the state before sticking in Cooper Landing. No matter where he went, however, he said he always returned to the Kenai in the summer to fish, at first learning by sitting on the banks asking those hooking sockeye for advice.
Much of McFadden’s family fishes and he uses both spinning and fly fishing gear.
“The only person (in my family) that used a fly rod was my grandfather and the only reason he used it was because some of his fingers were missing,” he said. “So he had one of those reels where you’d push the button and it would reel up itself.”
McFadden’s recognizable hat has seen almost all of the fish he has caught on the Kenai River as he has worn it daily for the last 37 years, save for a few rare instances. The layers of hot glue coating serve two purposes — to hold it together and to keep in place the numerous pins and artifacts lining its brim given to him by friends and clients.
“I always tell them, ‘If this hat could talk it would get us all in trouble,’” he said with a laugh. “True story.”
Since he began guiding, McFadden has seen a lot of guides come and go, some chasing more money or fame others tired of the hard work, and seen most of the area’s “secret spots” exposed save for the ones he still keeps close to the chest.
“When I first started fishing, I’d be fishing all day and see five, maybe six boats,” he said.
One particular fishing method now wildly popular among local trout fishermen McFadden helped pioneer was using small beads to mimic salmon eggs — one of a trout’s main food sources in the fall.
“We kept beads secret for a long time,” he said. “There were a few of us that tried to, but it’s not a secret no more.”
McFadden caught his biggest trout — 39 inches — on the upper river 19 years ago in the spring on a muddler minnow, he said.
“I’ve been trying to beat that ever since,” he said.
Several years ago, McFadden had a trout on that was just as long and fatter than his previous best that he fought and lost near the shore. That fish will “haunt me the rest of my days,” he said.
“The fight was pretty much over and he was just following me in,” he said mimicking a rod in one hand, eyes widening. “He wasn’t pulling, I wasn’t pulling and I was just pulling him over to the side. All of a sudden I didn’t make a move and the hook just popped out.”
He said he’ll always be learning more about how to fish the river, but he has a mental record of the local flies, seasons and water conditions he can access like a Rolodex. It’s the challenge, after all, that keeps a fisherman happy, he said.
“I’m still working on the river,” he said. “A river like this with the flood? Next year it is going to be a whole different ball game. Different holes and you’re going to have to start finding new places to catch fish.”
Moreover, the river’s fish are “educated” in more ways than one, he said. He is often discouraged to see their mouths beat up and scales missing. He uses small, barbless hooks and preaches that message wherever he can, even in the middle of hired trip.
“I once pulled in (next to a family fishing) and set up some gear and said, ‘OK this is the type of gear you have to use, set it up this way,’ and I got back in the boat and left, and my clients are going, ‘What are you doing?’ Well, I’m trying to teach people how to take care of these fish,” he said.
These days, McFadden said he’s noticing he doesn’t get out and fish as much.
“It’s not because I don’t enjoy it ... but sometimes I just feel guilty just going out and just playing,” he said. “These fish have been fished hard and by the end of the season their mouths are sore.”
His advice to younger fishermen and guides is simple. Treat the fish well. Be kind. Have fun.
“If people don’t cherish what they’re doing, if they just want numbers or big, usually they don’t catch fish,” he said. “It’s the people out there that it don’t matter if it is this long or that long — as long as they’re catching fish their having fun. Well, those are the guys that catch more fish, I think.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.