The Mighty King
by Melissa Norris
I love to eat king salmon. It’s some of the finest fare around when handled properly, spiced nicely and cooked perfectly. That’s why it was sad when, after fishing an entire Alaska salmon season in a variety of areas of the state, I came up short in the king salmon department when tallying up the take for the freezer.
So, the next summer I set up my fishing schedule to include a couple peak dates with the mighty king of Alaska for the chance to set things right with my palette. However, some of the best opportunity for harvesting a couple kings to feed your family includes steaming far into Alaska’s marine environment, trips lasting an entire day or even multiple days, which, unfortunately, does not agree with my lack of sea legs.
Don’t get me wrong, I still go, I just try to stay in protected bays and work things out with the captain ahead of time to target the calmest waters. I also douse myself with Scopace. None of this usually results in the best saltwater king fishing.
As an alternative, this season I decided to try my luck on the Kenai. Obviously it is one of the largest draws in this state and for good reason, producing the amazing fish it does year after year.
Most of you know the Kenai has been down in numbers on kings for the last handful of years, and it is a cause for great concern. It doesn’t seem to stop us from trying to fish kings there, though, because no matter the run size, on the Kenai it’s always been about putting in your time to yield a nice king.
Because I know my odds are already down I decided to go with an outfit I thought would give us a strong chance, Kenai River Sportfishing Lodge (KRSL). I have rainbow and Dolly fished with a couple of their guides in the past and knowing the quality of the previous experiences, I knew I was making the right choice for this late July king trip for my husband Wayne and I.
KRSL is a division of Alaska Wildland Adventures, which is an Alaska-based tourist group that specializes in showing the best the state offers to its guests. Comprised of Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, Kenai Backcountry Lodge, Kenai Riverside Lodge, and Kenai River Sportfishing Lodge, not only do these folks do a superb job of showing the variety of splendors of Alaska, they truly specialize in the fishing and are among some of the top guides around. Their sport-fishing program is highly organized with the ultimate goal being the success of the trip for the client, whatever that means to the guest.
Their guides have an average minimum employment history of eight years with Kenai River Sportfishing Lodge, which not only says a lot about the management and ownership of the outfit, but also tells you a lot about their happiness and the type of experience you can expect to have. Throughout their whole organization, you see a lot of longevity from their employees, and that speaks volumes.
We had arrived the evening before and after a tour of the grounds, which includes a gorgeous view of the Kenai River, their main dining lodge and the eight small guest cabins, Wayne and I relaxed on the deck to download the photos of our previous days of fishing on the Kenai Peninsula.
That evening we enjoyed a multi-course dinner, a nice display of Alaska cuisine including rockfish. The lodge staff takes extra care to contact you ahead of time, asking you to supply information about yourself, including any dietary restrictions.
We were entirely relaxed in the natural environment of the Kenai River Sportfishing Lodge, but in my mind I knew we had a job to do. We were there for this article and having set up half the summer around king fishing and getting skunked so far, this was our last chance to vacuum-seal an omega-3-fest for another year. It was my last scheduled king trip and there were rumors milling that ADF&G was going to close the Kenai to baiting kings the day after we fished. I was anxious to be successful.
We got up at an ungodly hour to graze on a hot breakfast. After the meal, the lodge guests got on the road to head to their destinations, which could have been the lower Kenai, upper Kenai or Seward. We headed to the lower Kenaiwith Jake and our boat-mates for the day and launched from the Big Eddy Jetty Ramp, a private fee-based facility. There were a bunch of boats already there, so we said hello to a few guides we know while we waited for our turn to launch.
Jake welcomed us aboard a beautifully designed, well-appointed and obviously cared-for Willie power boat. We went over some basic king fishing technique and etiquette. “No touching the bait,” Jake said, “we need to keep our bait fresh and our personal scent off it.” Those finicky kings will hold back if it smells even a little off.
We went over hook-setting technique, “Let them take it,” Jake said, and went on to explain the way the king sees the bait, takes it in their mouth and turns with it, which is when you should set the hook and not before as they are “mouthing” the eggs. If you pull back too fast before the king turns with the bait, you’ll pull it right out of its mouth.
Jake sets up the 10 1/2-foot G-Loomis GL2 rods with size 16 Kwikfish and we are officially fishing. He shows us the Shimano Tekota bait casting reels and how to operate them for the least amount of back spooling.
This guided day was scheduled for eight hours so this is the timeframe we had to make the magic happen. I was nervous as we ran around the river, back-trolling various holes that have been known to produce both earlier that run, days before and years before. None of our boat’s four anglers had a hit.
We visited notorious spots on the river: The Bluffs, Beaver Creek Hole, The Pillars, Honeymoon Cove, Big Eddy, and still we got zero hits and didn’t see too many fish being caught by the plethora of boats trying on this late second-run king fishing day. Reminder here, that this is what king fishing is like normally, but I needed to beat the odds and fix my current empty-freezer predicament.
Still throughout the day our guide never let the smile slip off his face and he repeated his mantra “We’ll get one here” as he motored us to yet another hole. It was the seventh hour of the eight-hour trip, we were in the middle of some anecdotal story, when I felt that little tug, a smile crept to my lips with the first knowing of a king interested in what I had dangling in the river below me. Jake saw it too, as his seasoned eye knows exactly what to look for.
I knew to wait, but I never mind the guide chatter that helps remind you the steps to landing your fish. I had my eye on the prize; I was not going to let this king get away. My mind went to where it goes during my Friday night women’s dodgeball league games when I set my eye on the target and rip out a throw that takes out my opponent…sort of like stealth mode.
I could hear Jake calmly telling me to stay calm while I calmly let the fish lead the dance, yet Jedi mind-tricked him into coming right to the boat. The doctor from Texas was elated to see this fish coming to the boat, jumping in close to me while I fought the fish, right between my husband video-recording the landing for our website. Whoops. Jake is inching in next to me, talking in my ear, he has the net ready.
I bring it to him. He scoops it. We grin and high-five. The fight lasts for only about 10 minutes, as I never intended to play the fish, just land him. It was about a 40-pound male, slightly blush, but Jake assured me he’d cut up fine, so we kept him.
I’m gleeful, knowing we had some king to serve over the winter to various guests coming to dine at my house; plus I’d share some with family members who would be thrilled. I gave a chunk to the doctor from Texas because he had never tried it.
Alaska’s salmon are a beautiful, bountiful resource meant to be enjoyed and shared.
Melissa Norris is Publisher of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines.