Like your first kiss, you never forget your first king salmon.
I was born in 1937, and raised in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, within walking distance of the Skagit River.
In the 1930s, the Skagit became world famous for its large king salmon. Even as recent as the 1950s, after dams had blocked fish passage, and after many of the spawning streams in the Skagit’s drainage had been impacted by years of clear-cutting and road-building, a few kings were being caught, or so I’m told.
I fished the Skagit as a kid, but never saw anyone catch a king. The thing was, kings were mostly just a memory by that time, something old men talked about when recalling the good-old days.
As a kid, I had the fishing bug bad, but the only king salmon I ever saw were in my dreams. When my high-school buddies were chasing girls, I was chasing cutthroat, Dolly Varden and humpies. The only thing that kept me from becoming even more smitten by fishing was that I was too broke to buy tackle, a boat and a pickup truck.
After leaving home at age 17 to join the Air Force, I did a little fishing, but nothing serious. I fished for grayling where the Chena River runs past Ladd Air Force Base, outside Fairbanks. I fished off piers in California, and caught fish no bigger than my bait. In a crowd of anglers, I fished for king salmon on Eastern Washington’s Yakima River, and didn’t so much as glimpse a king.
The year I spent in Alaska while in the Air Force left me wanting to see more of the state. In 1964, while working for Burroughs Corporation in Yakima, I had a chance to transfer to Fairbanks, and then, in 1967, to Juneau. It was in Juneau that the fishing bug bit me again. That was where I caught my first king.
I was 30, divorced, living in an apartment, when Pete Hansen invited me to go king salmon fishing. I don’t remember much about the fishing, other than that it was in the evening, and we were trolled herring. I was using the only gear I owned at the time, a light spinning outfit that I had bought for steelhead fishing, and had never used. I don’t think we even left Auke Bay, where Pete kept his boat. Anyhow, we trolled for a couple of hours without a bite, and then it happened.
Until that moment, the largest fish I’d ever had on my line was a humpback salmon of maybe five pounds, tired from having swum 20 miles up the Skagit. This fish felt nothing like that. It yanked hard, pulling my rod tip into the water. It didn’t run far — good thing, given my inadequate tackle — but spent its energy with hard jerks and lots of twisting and thrashing around. After several minutes, I was finally able to pull it up to where we could see its broad flank gleaming in the clear water. As excited as I’ve ever been in my life, I eased the big fish into Pete’s net, and he lifted it into the boat.
I’d never seen anything as beautiful as that king salmon. A 30-pounder, it was the only fish we caught that night. I tried to give part of it to Pete, but he turned it down. It was dark when we returned to the dock, so I took the fish home in one piece.
At my apartment, after clearing the kitchen counter of motorcycle parts, I started to gut it, and discovered its flesh was white. I’d never heard of such a thing. I called Pete.
“Pete, this king has white meat!” I said.
“Yah, some are like that,” he said. “There’s white kings and red kings. You caught a white king.”
“Oh. There’s nothing wrong with it? It’s good to eat?”
“Oh, sure. You can’t tell the difference.”
He was right about me not being able to tell the difference. I’d never eaten red king, let alone white. I gave away most of it, but what I kept was the best fish I’d ever eaten.
I have no idea of where I was for my first kiss, but the memory of where and when I caught my first king salmon is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.