Painful pursuit: Getting hooked on the Kenai River

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2010

The first thing I noticed in the emergency department of Central Peninsula Hospital, in Soldotna, were the cardboard cutout figures, one of a male angler, the other of a female. Each was festooned with hooks, lures, and flies, the tackle piercing the corresponding places in the cutouts where actual anglers had been impaled that year. It was sobering to note that the majority of the penetrations were in those areas least protected by clothing: the face and hands.

I recall these details not because they were the most memorable parts of my last visit to Alaska but the most interesting. (The most memorable would have to be the rain, 12 soaking-wet August days out of 16; the fly-fishing for trout and salmon, excellent despite the weather; and the sticker-shock pizza -- $29, one topping -- on the Sterling Highway). I took those cutout figures personally and paid particular attention to the left elbow of the male, where a vacancy existed. But not for long.

An hour earlier, trying to entice silver salmon on the Kenai River, I'd made a very bad cast. Attempting to shift targets -- a fish had splashed to my right -- I dropped my backcast, rotated my upper body to starboard on the forward cast, and altered the angle of the rod tip at the last second, so that the drooping, trailing line bisected my body, and the fly at the end of the leader -- a purple egg-sucking leech -- slammed into my casting arm, penetrating two shirts and burying itself in my left elbow.

That was how I found myself in the emergency room in Soldotna, where, according to the nurse who took my wife's call, there's always someone on duty who can remove a hook from human flesh.

That was also how I learned that after doctors complete their necessary ministrations -- the tetanus shot, the local anesthetic, the extraction of hook, the writing of script for antibiotic -- they give the caught-and-now-released anglers -- almost as a consolation prize for their humiliation -- the quality pliers used to separate metal from skin.

As the doctor worked, I was lucky, if you can call it that, to hear his best lure-torn-flesh stories. Like the one about the nude salmon fisherman out of Homer who was hooked in the family jewels by a similarly exposed companion. Or the gore that ensued when a halibut fisherman -- also out of Homer but sensibly clothed -- speared his hand with a gaff-size hook. No wonder, in the emergency-room photos my wife took (how sick was that?), I look a bit green around the gills.

Next day, my natural color restored, I was back on the river, wiser, more cautious, grateful for the medical care I'd received, and no less in love with the Alaska that I dream about the whole year round.

Dave Cohen, who pursues striped bass and bluefish in Gloucester, Mass., hopes to return to the Kenai in 2011.

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