Fishing for salmon can mean different things to different people: sport, sustenance, communing with nature, making a living, or, in places like the Kenai River, all of the above. We recently attended a sportfishing event held on the Kenai called the Kenai Classic, and discovered a place where salmon fishing isn’t just an activity—it’s a way of life. But before we dig deeper into politics, environmental concerns, and resources allocation, let’s take a quick look at the fishing. Just the fishing.
Fishing with Politics
Held in conjunction with the Classic is the Sportfishing Roundtable, a gathering of national and local political leaders, representatives of sportfishing associations, environmental groups, and industry leaders like event sponsor Yamaha Marine. The Roundtable participants (headlined by Lisa Murkowski, R-AK) discussed sportfishing issues, the needs they foresaw in the future, and potential solutions. But the biggest impact came when we walked out of the building and followed Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) Executive Director Ricky Grease for a stroll along the riverbank. Because when you take a stroll along the Kenai, you’re not walking on the river’s banks.
In accessible areas, most of the Kenai is lined with elevated “fishwalks” made of metal grating. These allow sunlight and rainwater to pass through to the ground below, and are built over both private and public property. Paid for through a “Cost Share” program including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and environmental groups like the KRSA, these fishwalks eliminate one of the biggest habitat-killers that used to affect the river: people trampling the native vegetation. In fact, according to the KRSA in the early 90s about 20 percent of the river’s habitat had been degraded due to angler use and river access. But since that time, over 95 percent of the degraded lands have been restored.
Why all this fuss over a few bent grass-blades and muddy footprints? One obvious reason is water quality, which generally goes down as natural vegetation is disturbed. But a bigger part of the answer lies with the salmon themselves. After being born in the Kenai, the salmon fry—whether they’re kings, silver, sockeye or pinks—have to make their way downriver, eventually reaching the ocean, where they’ll feed and grow for years before returning to the river on their own spawning run. The natural riverbank environment includes growth overhanging the banks, limbs and trees, and other vegetation the fry hide in. When man destroys this vegetation, either by trampling or removing it, the baby salmon have fewer hiding places and more of them fall victim to predation.
Fishing, Day and Night
After the fishwalk tour, we settled in for a quiet evening at the Kenai River Raven Wing bed and breakfast. Naturally, that meant we went fishing. The Raven Wing’s dock, like just about any along the Kenai, had fish all around it. Rainbow trout, char, and salmon grabbed our baits as we enjoyed sips of red wine amid the ceaseless hiss and gurgle of the river’s six-knot current.
It was exhaustion—not a lack of daylight—that sent us walking back up to the lodge at 10:00 PM. Yes, we knew that soon the sun would set and the northern lights would rise. But as tempting as it was to think of spending the entire night on the dock, the prospect of a 4:30 a.m. departure for fishing in the Classic was too much to overcome.
And 4:30 in the morning arrived far too quickly.
Fortunately, the Kenai Classic is not like other fishing tournaments, where the best eye-opener you can hope for is tepid coffee and cold doughnuts. When we arrived at the launch at the Harry Gaines Fish Camp, a huge heated tent awaited—and it was awash in the smells of freshly scrambled eggs, fried bacon, and hash-browns. Walking through the buffet line we were offered fruit, yogurt, toast, and a multitude of other breakfast choices. Never had I felt so well fed, so down-right pampered, in the pre-dawn hours.
A crew of organizers trooped through the crowd, handing out boat assignments and introducing each of us to our crew for the day. Every boat held a guide and four anglers, who were not just randomly thrown together but had been matched up according to interests, politics, and professions. In short order I met a co-founder of the Classic, a state senator, and an official from Alaska’s Department of Fisheries, who I’d join on boat number 24.
We each stepped over the bow of the 20-foot long tiller-steered aluminum fishing boat—volunteers rushed in with a set of portable stairs to make boarding easy—and claimed one of the four angler’s chairs. Volunteers then handed our provisions aboard: coolers packed to the brim with drinks, box lunches, munchies, and a gallon-sized zipper-lock baggie stuffed with an assortment of miniatures. Yes, those kinds of miniatures.
We ran up-river a few hundred yards, dropped the anchor, and our guide handed out rods that were ready to fish, pre-rigged with banana plugs. Deploying them consisted of letting out 20 yards or so of line, engaging the reel, and sitting the rod into the holder next to your seat. If, that is, you had time to sit the rod down. Within about 30 seconds we had our first fish on the line, so we reeled up the other lures and cast off the anchor line and buoy to chase down the fish. The moving waters of the Kenai make it difficult to fight a fish to the boat while at anchor, since the strong current makes gaining line on a large fish nearly impossible. So once a fish is on the line the drill is to reel up all the others, uncleat the anchor line, toss the buoy over the side, and chase down the fish.
After netting the silver salmon, it was dispatched with the knock of a billy club and tagged to identify the angler who caught it. We returned to our hotspot and put the lines back out. By then there was enough ambient light to look over the side of the boat and see the gravelly bottom of the river, two or three feet below. And to see the fish. Lots of fish. At any given moment a half dozen or so silvers were visible, meandering up-current on their mission to reach the spawning grounds. The awesome sight, unfortunately, didn’t last for long—because another rod went down. Then another. Barely 30 minutes later, we were done. All four of us had our limit of two silver salmon per person, and the sun hadn’t yet cleared the horizon.
Day one of the Classic was over, at least for the four of us. We motored to the launch to discover that we were the first boat back, and when our fish were weighed, I held third place with an eight-pound silver. That’s an average fish at best, and my position on the leader-board didn’t last for long. In fact, it didn’t last beyond the second boat’s return just 10 minutes later. Still, for a brief time I had held third place in the 2015 Kenai Classic. Bragging rights for life.
With our mission completed so early, a nap seemed in order. It was followed by a lazy lunch, more dock fishing back at the Raven Wing, and naturally, more wine. A banquet and benefit auction would cap off the evening. Then it was back up at 4:30 AM once again, for a repeat of the experience. I wasn’t able to win back my position on the leader-board, but between the fast fishing action, the promise of another nice long nap, and still more fishing back at the lodge, it was hard to be anything but content. I have to admit that the miniatures may have aided in that regard, too.
Fishing to Win
Tournaments generally include some level of competition, which the Classic was utterly bereft of. Every angler is one of four on a boat with a guide, and all of the guides use more or less identical tackle and techniques. Which angler catches the biggest fish is essentially random. More accurately, the Classic should be called a fishing “event” as opposed a “tournament”. And that’s a good thing. Because catching the largest fish most certainly isn’t what the Classic is all about.
The Classic is, in fact, about making money—to the tune of $14 million over the past 20 years—for habitat restoration. Remember those fishwalks, and the bent grassblades they prevent? They aren’t free.
Environmental groups and anglers across the nation would be smart to emulate the Classic and the Roundtable. Politicians who receive an invitation attend for the networking and the good time, and the event gives those who are invested in the waterway an opportunity to introduce these leaders to the water’s natural beauty and fruitfulness. Lobbyists and business leaders pony up to participate for the same exact reasons, plus perhaps a bit of access to those politicians. The KRSA and its volunteers pitch in because they see the resulting benefits on their own river. And sponsors like Yamaha jump onboard because it’s good for their image and, in the long run, it’s good for their business, too. It’s a win-win-win-win, all the way around.
Plus, you get to go fishing.