Fish from the past

Posted: Friday, July 24, 2009

When we Alaskans go fishing, we pretty much assume we'll catch fish. Though it may not be a bag limit, and it may be a couple of small halibut instead of a large king salmon, we usually bring home something. But even fishing in Alaska can be poor at times. What keeps us going then?

Over the past two months, I've had much time to ponder that question.

On Cook Inlet, 20 miles out of Homer, we were trolling in vain for kings.

"You should've been here last week," said the skipper I'll call "Captain Steve." "Everyone had their limits of kings and halibut, and we were back in the harbor by noon."

We trolled for hours, but to no avail, during which time he regaled us with stories of kings that were caught last week, last month and in decades past. When the tales began to thin, he related past successes of other charter-boat captains.

With this ability, Captain Steve can go on forever, which is a good thing. On some trips, all hope would die if not for "memory fish."

I was with a couple of friends -- let's call them "Bill" and "John" -- a few miles below Skilak Lake on the Kenai, fishing for sockeyes. It was still early in the run, and the fishing was slow. Even when I hooked a fish, it would get away. After an hour of frustration, I was on the verge of admitting defeat, contemplating what I would do with the time I wouldn't have to spend filleting and processing a limit of sockeyes. A nice lunch and a long nap would be good. But then Bill told John about last year's fishing.

"Last year, Les had his day, over there," he said, pointing across the river. "He was catching one on every cast."

The memory of that fantastic day kept me going for another hour, long enough to finally hook and land a sockeye.

I was at the Beaver Creek Hole with the "Old Man," futilely back-bouncing for kings. We had fished for three hours without a bite. During that time, he recalled in detail every salmon he had ever caught at that hole. There had been many, at least by his account. Without those memory fish, there would've been no fish at all.

Finally, the Old Man fell silent, a rare state for him. I figured he had exhausted his repertoire. But I was wrong.

"The last time we fished for kings here, we didn't catch any, but I caught a nice six-pound trout," he said.

"That fish has gained quite a bit of weight in the two weeks since it was caught," I said.

He cackled and said, "They'll do that."

I'm just thankful that I've got friends like Bill, Captain Steve and the Old Man, and that I've lived long enough to have many of my own memory fish. Now, if I could just remember them.

Les Palmer lives and writes in Sterling.

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