Salmon Refugees: The Susitna Valley’s Weekend Warriors
By Matt Hage
Pulling into the dusty campground along Montana Creek, we idle through a shantytown of super-sized motor homes and blue tarps. The acrid smell of a campfire runs thick through the cottonwood forest. Folks lounging deep in rickety lawn chairs give us a lazy wave as we cruise by in search of a site next to the raging clear water.
A hundred other fishermen are gearing up for another weekend on the water. Waders and hip boots crowd the sides of travel trailers that dominate the grounds. Fathers and sons, as well as whole families, walk the gravel road carrying stout rods and heavy tackle. Most also have a king salmon or two in tow as they return from the front lines. Several are the size of a man’s leg. The sheer heft of these fish leaves us with open mouths, and brings my wife Megan to quip, “I just want to catch a little one.”
This is what we’ve come for. She has set her mind to landing a Chinook this summer, and as every weekend fisherman knows, the mouth of Montana Creek is almost a sure thing.
Nearly 100-miles north of Anchorage lie some of the state’s best bets for roadside salmon. A dozen highly productive creeks flow down from the rugged Talkeetna Mountains and cross under the George Parks Highway before dumping into the mighty Susitna River. Of these, the banks of Montana Creek (mile 96.6), Sheep Creek (mile 88.5), and Willow Creek (mile 71.5) offer up easy access to excellent runs of kings, chums, coho, and pinks. And starting in mid-June, these waters reach critical mass every Friday night and remain hopping for as long as the king salmon catch stays open.
Saturday morning we get an early start out to the fishing grounds. So does everyone else. The entire campground is alive with the caffeine buzz held over from the previous night. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game limits each person to a Chinook per day with the count reset at midnight. All-nighters are not uncommon with many anglers straggling into camp only long enough to refill their thermos.
Eagle River fisherman Aaron Schowalter ambles through the willows, his catch slung over his shoulder on a stick. The four-foot-long fish hangs limp to the back of his knees and blood stains his shirt. The bleary eyed Schowalter could care less, as it’s barely eight o’clock in the morning. He’s been casting steady since eight last night. Here with the family of his bride to be, Schowalter’s on a mission. “I’m going to go show them what an Alaska fish looks like,” he says, working his way back to camp.
A beaten path leads about a mile down along Montana Creek to where it dumps into the silt-laden Susitna River. Waist deep in the confluence, anglers completely block the creek’s mouth in a wall of neoprene. Hundreds line the well-worn banks downriver, filling the morning air with the ‘whirl-plop’ of their continuous casting. I swallow hard when I think of the fish that must run this gauntlet of barbed steel. This is their Omaha Beach, this morning the beginning of their D-Day on the Susitna. We make our way along the line, looking for three feet of unclaimed ground. A Mat-Su mother cooks breakfast over a small camp stove while her children catch some sleep in the willows. Other kids dig sticks into a smoldering ring of ash, long since bored with the cast-and-reel marathon still running on the banks. Morning slowly passes and the June sun soars high in the summer sky, bringing another day of hope to these salmon refugees on the trail of kings. Those on the water’s edge pray for a catch, while those behind them pray for the same thing—so they can all finally go home.
Meg and I slide in between two parties on the Susitna cut bank. We gear-up with the classic king salmon rig: a No.0 Spin-N-Glo with a sinking weight two feet up the line. Out in the current a Chinook leaps several times bringing a round of catcalls from the entire bank. With its last jump, the fish skids along the surface before sinking in a hefty splash. Cheers erupt and Meg starts casting. She is not the only one looking to land a first king salmon today. A determined David LaFehr, 8, is focused on his task, at least for the next couple hours. “If we’re not catching fish in the first couple hours, we’re out of here,” says Ed LaFehr of his children’s capacity for fishing. This is David’s second season with his own rod and he hopes to add a king to the couple of coho he brought in last year. Further down the line ten-year-old Alex Cavitt wrestles with a shiny Chinook in the muddy water. He grabs the 40-inch salmon firmly at the tail and gills before hefting it up to his dad, Steve Cavitt, who waits on dry land. With the younger Cavitt’s first king lying securely on the dirt, the pair celebrates. Today is Alex’s birthday and he got his wish.
All afternoon the fishing action pulses along the river. We move on up the bank, elbowing our way into a more productive stretch of water. As the day begins to wane, tensions rise with those who are still on the hunt. On my left a man utters an uninterrupted string of bitter profanity as he reels in each cast. A crew of German travelers arrives, intent on getting their share of the action. They squeeze in where they can, as cordial and polite as can be expected. One of Germans steps in between Meg and I; we give him the universal nod of approval. His outfit looks expensive, but he fishes a simple green Pixie. After three casts he has hooked solidly into the mouth of a king salmon as big as his leg. Megan and I gather with his fellow travelers, looking in awe at the enormous Chinook that now lies bleeding on the bank. The cussing man looks over my shoulder and whispers loudly. “Some nerve he has coming up here like that and stealing your spot,” he says, his voice thick with venom. “Really, that should be your fish. He took your fish,” continues the disgruntled man.
Dissent spreads along the ranks and tempers start to flare with the rising of the midnight sun. Undoing your 100th tangle or snag of the day will snap even the most serene of fisherman. After a long battle through willows and submerged timber, an Anchorage woman lands a Herculean-sized king. A round of cheer rings out as she finally guides the 50-pound fish into the net. As we gather around the panting salmon, the biggest she has ever caught, a voice of protest rises from down the bank. Another fisherman claims that the salmon was foul hooked. Everyone is confused because we just tore the lure from the salmon’s mouth and assure the angry bystander that it’s a fair catch. The accusation stands and the man, who is set up nearly 100 feet away, makes threats of reporting the incident. A yelling match quickly ensues as the king lies in the dirt, precious seconds passing as it slowly begins to die. Finally the woman grabs the monster fish and wades into the river, pointing its head into the current in an attempt at reviving the animal. She lets go and the salmon slowly falls lifeless into the silty abyss. The accuser quips one last comment, almost bringing the entire bank to blows.
Nearby a woman hauls in a moderately sized Chinook. As soon as her catch hits the dirt, she has her knife in the fish’s belly and promptly disembowels the creature before it stops breathing. She sits back on a log with a cigarette, her task complete before anyone can bring objections.
Megan and I are back on the river after a dinner break at camp. It’s 10 o’clock and things have calmed down on the water as well as on the banks. We find a wide swath of bank, prime real estate during the day, to cast. Tired of the social scene, we just want to fish in peace. No commentary. No tangles. No confrontations. Just the sound of silt washing by on the Susitna.
Within minutes Meg’s rod jerks hard and her reel begins to whine. The action catches us by surprise. People start to gather around as Meg plays her fish:
“Keep your line tight.”
“If it wants more line, let it have it.”
“Don’t rush it; you’ve got all day.”
Someone calls for a net and it is passed down the line. Landing this fish has become a team effort, a circle of support that appears around those who fight a Chinook. She gets the king in the net after a couple false passes. Her 20-pound Chinook shines bright silver at our feet. I quickly dispense with its life, just in case there are any more dissenters among us. Folks come over to see Megan’s first king and give a pat on the back:
“It’s not the size of the fish but the fight.”
“Small ones are better on the grill.”
“They’re easier to carry back to the car.”
Photographer and writer Matt Hage lives in Anchorage, where king salmon fishing is a contact sport.