Off to “Normal” Alaska Fishing

I guess we look for small moments of “normal” these days.

In one or another recent year, various combinations of Honorary Homey Dr. Jon Boyum and Homeys Bill Boyum (Jon’s dad), Jim Taylor, and I have found our way to Alaska’s Kenai River salmon. Dr. Jon has a good number of years fishing the river, and figured several years ago that his dad and I probably needed to check it off our bucket lists – even if we didn’t have bucket lists. This 2020 trip would involve Dr. Jon, his son Nate, Grandpa Bill, and me, and was likely to include a day after halibut.

We go because we 1) enjoy each other’s company, 2) enjoy thrashing water in a near-impossible quest to hook up with a sockeye salmon, and 3) love eating the ones we manage. It has become a relatively easy – and normal – mid-summer adventure.

We began planning this year’s outing somewhere around the beginning of whatever this thing is that has kept us all pinned down for some months. At one time or another, we were daring to mention the possibility of staying in the Lower 48. As departure day grew nearer, however, we managed licenses and our during-a-set-time-before-departure Covid-19 tests for Alaska. Very early Monday, the 27th, Bill and I donned our masks, worked our way through a confusing (three trains) trip to our gate, and boarded the Alaska Airlines Boeing 727 that would carry us north.

Turned out that Dr. Jon and Nate somehow missed their flight from Spokane, and would not make Anchorage until late that night, so Bill and I took the rental car and headed for Soldotna, and sockeye. At the Red Fish Lodge, our cabin was not quite ready, but we did make it to one of our favorite fishing reaches of the Kenai sometime after supper. 38,000 fish entered the Kenai that day, and while I was unable to keep one hooked, Bill had two of them by about 10.

Jon and Nate arrived at the cabin sometime around 2:00 a.m. After greetings and breakfast, we went back to our previous night’s spot and proceeded to catch eight of our twelve-fish limit. Nate limited out, Jon and I caught two and Bill brought in one. We broke for lunch, gear repair, rest, and supper, then went back out to finish our limits by 8:10 p.m. 12 salmon to be fileted, of the 48,000 coming up the river that day.

Somewhere in there, Bill, Jon and Nate took the late Monday night rental car over to Kenai, while I took care of a little long-distance car-repair business for a daughter.

An aside: as you probably know, the Kenai River is the most heavily-fished river in Alaska, for several species of salmon. Over the years, an average of 275,000 angler-days of participation have been recorded. (An angler-day is one person fishing for any part of one day.) Our first few years on the river, we came to expect “combat fishing,” with men and women shoulder to shoulder (actually about 12 to 15 feet apart) trying to hook salmon. We have enjoyed this very special form of “social distancing,” but have found a few less crowded spots. This year, even on the normally packed reaches of the river, there were far fewer fishers. Blame Covid-19.

Early on day three, we returned to our now-favorite holes and had seven fish before Noon. Nate did it again, I had two and Bill and Jon each had a fish. After another afternoon of lunch, BS, rest and supper, we headed back to the river. Bill and I went back to our morning wades, while Jon and Nate hiked in to another favorite beach. 40,000 sockeye swam up the Kenai that day, and by sometime around 8:30 we had our 12 fish daily limit for the filet, vacuum pack and freeze crew.

Once back at our cabin, we found out for sure that “brother” Steve (long-time friend of Jon and owner of the Red Fish Lodge) would have his boat ready to go do his halibut fishing on Thursday, and let us ride along. At 8:30 Thursday morning we were ready to roll.

By about 10:00 a.m. we were at the long gravel beach at Ninilchik, some 30 miles north of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. There is no “traditional” boat launch at Ninilchik; trailers are hooked to a giant fat-tired log skidder which pushes them down the gravel, launching them in seconds into the Pacific Ocean salt water of the Cook Inlet.

And off we went on a new adventure. The water was as calm as have ever seen on salt water. In a surprisingly short time, we made the twelve miles to Steve’s favored halibut beds. Over the next few hours, we drifted over three or four of Brother Steve’s honey holes, anywhere from 100 to 150 feet below us. We watched sea otters, saw a whale or two, and brought up halibut. We boated halibut from 12 to about 45 pounds. When our ten fish were aboard, we headed back to the waiting log skidders and a fairly short trip back to our cabin.

By Friday morning early, rods and gear were stowed and we were packed for our trip back to Paradise. We thanked Steve one more time for his hospitality, loaded up our insulated boxes of frozen salmon and halibut from the walk-in freezer at the Lodge and headed for Anchorage. We masked up, checked ourselves and our luggage/boxes in, had lunch and cool malt beverages, and were in our seats before take-off.

We brought back plenty of salmon and halibut filets, plans for next year, enduring friendships, warm memories, and plenty of laughter.

Even with the masks and the social distancing at stores and on our Alaska flight, it was about as “normal” as one might find in this time.

It was probably normal enough!

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized