An Outdoor View: The reds are in

Posted: Friday, July 23, 2010

One of the joys of being a "senior" is being able to remember so many good times, but there's a flip side. If I didn't remember fishing the Kenai in the early 1970s, when in a day I'd see maybe a dozen other anglers, I wouldn't know the difference between then and now, when I can stand in one spot and see hundreds.

The changes along the Kenai, mainly the result of the popularity of catching sockeye salmon on hook and line, have been extraordinary. Miles of wooden and aluminum walkway -- sockeye fishing platforms -- now line the river. Forget the kings that put Soldotna on the map. The hordes come here for the sockeyes, the fish we affectionately call "reds."

When large numbers of reds began entering the river last weekend, people were fishing day and night. Sunday night at 11 p.m., when I finally quit because I could no longer see well enough to thread a line through a hook, I could still see and hear people up and down the river from me, fishing. My guess is that they just keep on fishing until they fall over, exhausted. And when they awaken, they stand up and start casting again.

Being crazy about sockeye fishing myself, I have some insight as to what drives all this feverish activity. For one thing, sockeyes are disputably the best eating of the salmon family. For another, their strength and acrobatic abilities make them a real challenge to catch.

But there are other, less obvious reasons that people go wild when they hear that the sockeyes are in.

Part of what drives me to the river is the fleeting nature of the fishery. The timing of spawning runs, coupled with the intensity of commercial gill-net fishing in Cook Inlet, make the sockeyes' entry into the Kenai impossible to predict. "Maybe sometime in July," is about as good as it gets. When this iffy fishery actually happens, you feel lucky, indeed.

But that's only part of it. Even if tens of thousands of sockeyes make it into the Kenai, they migrate quickly upstream to their spawning grounds. Standing on the side of the river, you get only one shot at them when they're bright and fresh from the ocean. As nebulous as an Alaska summer, they're here today, gone tomorrow.

When the reds are in, they dominate my thoughts and actions. Before they arrive, I do all my household chores, so I can focus on the red fishing. Skipping meals and skimping on sleep becomes the norm. When the fish are here, little else matters.

The reds are in. Need I explain the reason for the brevity of this column?

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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