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Small and sturdy — a boy, his net and a love affair

Posted: August 2, 2012 - 8:44am  |  Updated: August 2, 2012 - 11:17am

I’m loaded up with gear — chest waders, two rods, a backpack and a chestpack full of hooks, leader line, weights, swivels, yarn — when an old voice cackled from the bank.

“Hey, you’re gonna need a bigger net,” the man yelled.

I smiled thinking of the small trout net hanging from my backpack and how it must appear to the host of other sockeye seekers. A child’s toy at an adult’s game where big nets, sturdy rods, heavy line and loaded guns in the middle of town are commonplace.

“Gives ‘em a fighting chance,” I yelled back with a grin.

Surprisingly, it’s not the first time I’ve been heckled about the size of my net. For that reason I’ve developed a bit of pride in the little guy. I now wear it — smelly, slimy and ratty as it is — as a badge of pride.

I never really thought about it until someone commented on the Russian River earlier this year as I lugged a fat sockeye to the shore. It filled my net to its brim imitating some sort of clown car situation.

The net I started out with is small, even for Alaska trout standards. But I felt confident considering I’ve successfully netted hundreds of silvers and even a few kings working on a charter boat.

Trickier? Yes. Impossible? No.

But when shoulder-to-shoulder with sockeye fishermen in the middle of Soldotna for the bulk run I would constantly be asked if I wanted someone to help me net my fish. They almost always motioned to a giant net resting on the shore only two shades smaller than a dipnet.

Thanks, but what gives? I’ve got it, I’d think taking swipes with my trout net. Sometimes I’d get the fish on the first shot, others would take three or four attempts before it would slide in with a plop.  When you’re fishing with 40-pound line, a thick plastic rod and hooks made out of steel, there’s little risk of losing a well-hooked sockeye at the net.

So I started looking around. Every angler had one of those giant, six-foot-long handles with a net that could hold a grizzly cub, and they still needed someone to net their fish for them. I considered the possibility for a moment, but perished the thought. Who could possibly wield such a beastly item and reel in a fish at the same time?

It doesn’t make any sense to me. 

It certainly doesn’t seem sporting, either.

At what point does a net become too big? I’d say when it fits around your waist.

Last week, however, I decided that I’d upgrade from my little trout net — some of the mesh netting broke and the handle had cracked. This time I went for something a bit larger with a rubber net, but still a one-hander.

I got set up with a magnet and cord contraption to keep it attached to my backpack and headed off in search of rainbows feasting on flesh and eggs. After a few hours without a strike I hooked into a big fish. I fought it for at least 15 minutes and had to displace several sockeye fishermen by shouting it was one of the biggest rainbows in the river. 

Blood pumping, hands quaking, net at the ready.

It makes a run and I see it’s a fat sockeye who either nabbed at my fly pattern or got his lips in the path of my hook. Either way it was a heck of a fight on a five weight rod and seven pound tippet.

As I went to net it, however, a fisherman from Anchorage tried to intervene with his giant hoop. I glared at him and scornfully said I needed the practice as I’d never net such a large fish on my fly rod yet. He looked at me puzzled.

Fighting the fish a bit longer, I extended like a house cat stretching in the sun and snapped him up in one swipe. I was more proud of the netting job than I was catching the fish — it felt like a thing of beauty. They should name a yoga pose after it; perhaps “salmon salutation.”

In all seriousness, I know only a few other fishermen who feel the same way about small nets. But I needed no peer approval hauling that plump sockeye to the shore, tail flopping out of its rim, net heaving under its weight.

This love affair is built solid.

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