Author’s note: The following story, edited slightly for brevity, was previously published in The Anchorage Times, Oct. 13, 1991.
STERLING — Early October, 5:00 a.m.
I’m in my warm bed, listening to wind-driven rain pound the roof like it wants in. In the damp dark, I roll out and start dressing.
Call me crazy, but the silver salmon are running in the Kenai River. We Alaskans have our own version of “Make hay while the sun shines.” Our version is “Fish while the water’s liquid.” You can’t waste fall days, the last fishing days of the year.
October weather on the Kenai Peninsula is hardly ever fisherman friendly. On a typical day, it’ll rain, blow, threaten snow, then take a turn for the worse.
I pull on four layers of clothes, top it with rain gear and boots, and lurch outside. The old Jeep coughs and sputters to a start, and I herd it gently toward Bing’s Landing, headlights barely piercing the slanting rain. My boat trailer follows like a faithful old dog.
A month ago, the parking lot at Bing’s was full of vehicles and boat trailers. Now I have it almost to myself.
A month ago, the trees had leaves, birds sang, squirrels scolded. Now the trees are bare, and the only sound is the rushing river.
A month ago, the air smelled good. Now, freezing temperatures are cutting off the river’s water supply, causing its level to drop, exposing the corpses of thousands of spawned-out salmon. The stench would buckle a bear’s knees.
Maybe I really am crazy.
I launch the boat. Ten minutes later, running upstream in the gray dawn, with rain like icy birdshot stinging my face, I know I’m crazy. But I have Alaska’s most popular fishing hole all to myself.
Several miles upstream, I steer out of the main current into one of my favorite spots. Except for a few sea gulls on a gravel bar upstream, I’m alone. The only sounds are the patter of rain on the river, the lap of current against my boat, and the gull’s plaintive mewing. I ease the anchor overboard and pick up my spinning rod.
Some people like to fish for silvers with bait, but I prefer to cast spinners. Bait fishing is for when you want to relax and tell lies. Spinner fishing is for when you want to fish.
I flip my spinner toward the dark spruces. It hits the water five feet from the bank. I lift my rod tip to keep the spinner off the bottom, and start a slow, steady retrieve. The twirling blade’s vibrations come up the line, down the rod and into my cold hand. I’ve fishing with spinners for about 40 years, so I do it without much thought. My mind is free to wander.
Cast and reel. Cast and reel.
I’m hooked on these silvers, the last salmon of the year. Not just because they’re the last, which is reason enough, but because they’re exciting fish, big 10- to 20-pound beauties that glow like they’re lighted from within.
These are fish that’ll test both your tackle and your freezer shelves. These are the fish I’ll eat until the kings run next spring.
Cast and reel. Cast and reel.
An eagle glides to the top of a nearby spruce. No shortage of eagle food here.
When a fish finally takes my spinner, I’m not expecting it. My line goes slack. I crank fast. The salmon jumps, not 10 feet from the boat. My hook flies back and sticks in my raincoat. I untangle my line and cast again, a little shaky from the excitement.
Two casts later, a silver grabs my spinner and runs, jerking my arm down. Line going out. The fish jumps, then dives. I feel its frantic efforts in my hand and arm. It twists and turns, wrapping itself in the line. I pull it to the surface. It’s a bright male, a buck. It’ll go at least 15 pounds. It unwinds itself from the line, makes a long run, and jumps. Twice. Three times.
It’s tired, now, and I pull it toward me with little effort. When it sees the boat, it tries to get away, but I pull it back and into the net. Its silver scales light up the gray morning.
It’s head gleams like a night sea, an indigo mirror.
I’m suddenly warm, so I take off one jacket. The rain has stopped. While I wasn’t looking, the sun forced its way through a crack in the heavy overcast. Fresh snow coats the Kenai Mountains. As I watch, the sun teams up with a distant shower and frames the mountains with a spectacular rainbow. The eagle leaves its perch, lets go a chittering cry and flies downriver. Now it’s just me, the gulls and the silvers.
I sit down and pour a cup of coffee from my thermos. I’ve already had a good day, and it’s barely begun. But most days are like this, when you’re crazy.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.