On Tuesday, July 1, I fished for Kenai River king salmon for the first time in three years. My expectations were low, and they were fully realized. The poor king salmon runs of recent years apparently haven’t improved. I was skunked.
As I’ve reached the so-called Golden Years, one of the many things that has happened is that I can recall times that were truly, unarguably better. Like some other things about being old, this one is half-blessing and half-curse.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Big Eddy was one of my favorite places to fish for kings, but it’s been years since I pulled one out of there. As we back-bounced our way through the hole Tuesday, I felt myself wishing the fishing was just half as good as it used to be.
In 1978, while I was building my house in Sterling, I fished at Big Eddy almost every day of the king salmon season. Most days, I caught a king. I gave salmon to everyone I knew. It wasn’t because I was such a good fisherman, but more because there were so many kings, and so little competition for them.
In those days, you could anchor in part of Big Eddy without getting yelled at or attacked, so when few boats were on the river, I anchored. Outboards were noisier then, so the quiet was nice. Millionaires’ summer homes didn’t dominate the east-bank skyline, as they do now. Sitting in the sun on a warm June day, watching the water, the birds and the tip of my fishing rod was paradise.
Sometimes I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, so I fished alone. When you fish alone, you have more time to observe and to think. With no distractions, your mind can accomplish amazing feats. In my Clarion column of May 20, 1988, I wrote about one day at Big Eddy: “I’m fishing in my favorite spot, and the fish are here, too. I’ve spent so much time here that I know when kings are in this hole. I can’t explain how I know. I just know. And catching one is just a matter of waiting.”
That day, I almost caught the biggest king I’ve ever had on a line. For a few seconds, it was actually in my landing net. That fish was too heavy for me to lift into the boat, and too wild for me to hold in a net, and it got away. I remember feeling glad it escaped.
The previous day, I had hooked seven kings, and had been unable to get even one to the boat. I’d caught a lot of kings before, but those fish were so large and so fresh from the saltwater, they tore up my fishing gear and sent me home with my tail between my legs. They forced me to change several things about the way I’d been gearing up for kings.
I remember fishing the Kenai with a young Clarion reporter, Tim Hubert. We’d caught our limits of sockeyes and were running up-river, past Big Eddy, when I noticed that no one was fishing there. Tim had never back-bounced for kings, so I suggested we try it while we had Big Eddy to ourselves. On our first pass through the hole, I ran the boat and coached him on how to back-bounce. We were halfway through when he hooked a king. With Tim running the boat and me fishing, I hooked a king on the next pass through the hole. Both fish were in the 50-pound class, dime-bright and full of fight. We’d been at Big Eddy for maybe 15 minutes, tops.
While anchored at Big Eddy in 1977, two of us hooked and boated two big kings inside of 20 minutes, a 68-pounder and a 72-pounder.
I hope these recollections don’t come across as bragging. It was the fishing in those days that was great, not me.
I can tell stories for hours about this one fishing hole, so it’s no wonder I get nostalgic about it. But it’s not what it used to be, and it hasn’t been for years. On Wednesday, while we fished there for two hours, at least 40 people were fishing either at or within sight of Big Eddy, and I saw only one king hooked.
I’m not the only one yearning for yesteryears.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.