Kings of winter

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2010

Consider the 17th Annual Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament, set for March 20. What is it about this event that makes it worth braving the wintry weather and spending a lot of time and money for a slim chance of catching a fish?

What motivates people to enter this tournament is more about Alaska and Alaskans than it is about fish or fishing.

Average numbers for the past three years tell part of the story. On average, 817 anglers fished from 235 boats and caught 72 kings, the largest of which weighed 32 pounds. That's only about one fish for every 11 anglers, and most of the fish caught weighed far less than 32 pounds.

Bear with me while I explain why anyone would go to considerable expense and effort to enter into what would appear to be an uncomfortable and possibly boring exercise in futility.

By the time March rolls around, Alaskans who don't like to sit on a bucket and stare at a dark hole in a frozen lake have suffered about six months of fishing abstinence. In March, as temperatures and daylight increase, anticipation fuels an intense urge to get outdoors and go fishing. Most of us will stem these rash impulses. We'll start our season in May, when it's warmer. But some of us will do whatever it takes to start fishing sooner.

This tournament vividly illustrates that fishing is about more than fish. If you added up all the time and energy spent in just the planning phase, Allied preparations for D-Day would pale by comparison.

There's the tricky problem of booking a charter boat. Some anglers fish with the same captains every year, so they book a boat well in advance. Lodging in Homer must be arranged. One doesn't by choice arise in the wee hours and drive to Homer in the dark on a highway that might be icy, and could be graced by moose, potholes and frost heaves. Bait must be located and purchased. Tackle must be ordered, inventoried, prepared and fussed over again and again.

Sometimes the planning is more fun than the event itself.

Entrants who don't already have a boat in the water -- that's most of them -- face formidable obstacles. Snow and ice must be cleared. Engines have to be checked out and started, batteries charged, gas tanks filled. Electronic gear and downriggers must be mounted and tested. Myriad details, the kind only a boat owner can know, demand attention.

Interestingly, all this hassle and expense doesn't deter the 200-some entrants who own boats. For some perverse reason, we Alaskans thrive upon setting ourselves against daunting obstacles.

At the event, having a chance of winning can be exciting. Last year's winner, Robert Say, of Anchorage, took home more than $16,000 for catching a 28.5-pound king. Lucky anglers have won more than $100,000 in prize money, plus piles of merchandise and lots of trips, in recent years.

Competition between skippers and between anglers adds spice to the stew. Even when the bite is dead-slow, spirits remain high. The camaraderie alone can be worth the price of admission. Strangers on charter boats, all with the same goal, become friends.

Some do it for thrills. Most entrants in this tournament fish from large boats with heated cabins, but some are in small, open skiffs. For these brave -- or crazy -- few, the event is a high-risk adventure. I did this with two friends one year in freezing weather. Even before we left the small-boat harbor, I was feeling the adrenaline.

There's the exoticness of it all. The town at the end of the road little resembles Kenai, Soldotna or Anchorage. The setting, with its bay edged by snow-covered mountains, could hardly be more beautiful, or the townspeople more friendly.

Finally, people are attracted to this tournament because it's something of a celebration. Not only is it the first fishing trip of the year for most of them. It's also a time to celebrate some of the best things about living in Alaska.

Les Palmer is a writer who lives in Sterling.

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