I was an unsuccessful dipnetter. Oh, I would usually get some red salmon from the mouth of the Kenai each summer, but only after sacrificing my serenity as well as my dry clothes to the river.
Then I learned from observing my friend Lianna the secret to successful dip netting: Watch the fishing boats go out. Listen to the gulls. Eat an apple. Smell the sea breeze. Watch the fishing boats come in. And if you feel a bump in your net and miss the fish, think of it as nothing because getting a fish is merely a bonus when your life is already good.
Not that Lianna didn't catch fish. Indeed, she usually out-fished me while remaining both serene and dry.
Anyway, I intended to apply the secret as I waded into the mouth of the Kenai the morning of July 12. (Lianna would be joining me later that afternoon.)
I succeeded in keeping my serenity for two minutes.
That's how long it took for the man dipping next to me to get a fish.
Though I told myself my life was good, I could not help but notice that the man's pole was longer than mine. I wondered if I'd do better by wading out a bit farther, and so I did, standing on my tiptoes to keep the wakes of the outgoing fishing boats from swamping my chest waders.
I felt a bump! I missed the fish. I thought of it as nothing. But I had a second thought. I noticed that people with shallower nets were losing fewer fish, so I tied a knot in the end of mine to decrease the depth. Then I untied the knot when it looked like the deep dipnetters were starting to land more fish.
By noon I had four of the 25 salmon permitted to me by the state of Alaska. I had hoped to impress Lianna by getting my limit before she arrived. If so, I would have to fish harder. No time for apples.
Desperation mounted with each fish I missed. Then something bumped my net so hard that the pole slipped from my hand. The fish was swimming away with it. I had to lunge into deep, fast water to get my dipnet back and in doing so swamped my waders and nearly went under. The spectacle drew the attention of other dipnetters.
"Jeez, that must have been a king to do that to you!" one said.
"A big king," I added, knowing that a king salmon equals five reds more for a big one on the dipnetting prowess scale. But when I got to shore, we discovered that the fish that had nearly drowned me was an embarrassingly small red.
The dipnetters did not laugh, probably out of pity, but an arrogant gull waddled over and cackled at my little fish.
I shooed the stupid bird away and wished the stupid fish would have gotten out of my stupid net before I made it to the stupid beach.
Feeling defeated, I remained on the beach and ate the apple. I noticed that the fishing boats that had earlier gone out were now dots on the horizon. I watched them. In time I started to relax.
I listened to the gulls, smelled the good sea breeze. In a way I was glad the fish made me let go of my pole, for I began to feel serene again. And I thought that maybe it's not too late.
I waded back into the river and tried again to apply the secret to successful dipnetting, which, in short I realized, is this: Don't be stupid, be grateful.
This time I kept my serenity for one minute.
That's how long it took for a huge slug of reds to arrive at the mouth of the Kenai. Two, three, four even five fish in the net at once was not uncommon. In an hour of non-stop action, I had what I figured was my limit.
When I stopped fishing and counted 24 red salmon, my first thought was to get back in there and get my final fish. But I had a second thought.
Lianna showed up while I was filleting my catch. Though the fishing was still hot, she seemed to be in no hurry to get her dip net wet.
"Wow!" she said. "You got your limit?"
"No," I said. "I thought I'd let the river keep the last one."
Tony Bickert is editor of the Alaska Star in Eagle River. His Being Human column appears monthly in the Star.
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