Soldotna, Alaska –
A small town that used to be much smaller. Gone are most of the original restaurants and character. Now a weekly farmers market and breweries dot the main street through town. (I am of two minds here) The population swells about ten times during the salmon run and returns to a quiet town you could ride a bike down the middle of the road the rest of the year.
We had fished hard from the moment we arrived. The numbers were good and our eagerness to play fish got the better of us. After a few days of casting at the river ad infinitum (fishing) Dad, Mr. T, and I were all sore. Age has no relevance when it comes to endurance fishing. Everyone pays for good, but long, days with line burns in the crooks of hands and fingers, knife and line cuts on fingers, sore backs, shoulders, and cold feet. We had halfheartedly discussed not going down to the river to fish since we had some fish already in the freezer and the crowd was going to be starting to get harder to work around. All of us slept in till 8am (a feat for me) and leisurely drank coffee, read news or our books, while Mom made a fantastic coffee cake with berries baked in. Eagles soared over the house and across the beach vista looking for by-catch tossed onto the beach by the fishermen tending set nets. The perfect relaxing morning! More coffee please!
We called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to get the fish count. Forty-nine thousand had entered the river the day before . . . season high thus far. Not smart enough to know when enough-is-enough or able to accept that a day of non-fishing could be perceived as defeat or weakness… “Well, I guess we could swat the water for little bit…” we convinced ourselves out the door. *poof* Dad, being slightly the wiser for his years, did beg off but Mr. T and I were out the door like dogs with the gate left open…
As we walked down the beach looking for a place to step into the river to fish we recognize so many of the same faces/personalities we had seen the past years. An old guy from Idaho: with a mustache who drinks beer at 8am and is an annoying know it all. Bruce: a great guy who kind of keeps to himself, smokes cigars, retired coach, community leader, and is a classy old school fisherman. Snag Queen: Florida middle 50’s woman who throws her shoulder out with her patented illegal fishing technique that jerks fish into the bank from all parts (tail, belly, butt, dorsal). Most anyone will help net a fish if you need it. There are many unique characters standing in the river come second sockeye run.
The good news is there seem to be more people walking back down the beach than walking up … and they mostly have fish. We hang our gear on the steep bank from a branch then
step slowly into the river to begin swinging for fish. We start into the repetition of casting upstream, bounce downstream, retrieve, repeat, repeat, and repeat ten thousand times. Only about 30 minutes in my retrieval stops, the light pressure but no head shakes. I give a quick hook set and BOOM… fish on!
A ten pound salmon moving in the river current dangling from a 6/7 weight fly rod is an exhilarating fight. You have to be careful not to let the fish get into the current or they will just turn sideways into the fast moving water and take all your line. Light tackle and larger fish is a true challenge and much more fun! Assuming you actually like to play the fish you will see head shakes, tail walks, acrobatics, and finally the fish will hang in front of you like you are walking a dog. Some “fishermen” yank them in using very high test line without playing the fish which to me really defeats the purpose and effort of getting to Alaska to fish. If you are not going to be sporting about it (play the fish!) then save your thousands of dollars and just buy it from Safeway! HA! *end rant* We enjoy the sport and play. A tired fish is easier to net. It is not just about stocking the freezer! This time the fish did not win.
The fish were not a constant stream during this time but did trickle through in small batches. Over time those that could not catch their fish started giving up. The temperature was warm, slight up river breeze, but under the trees while standing in 50 degree water we felt perfect.
Another hour or so go by and I see Dad coming up the beach with his rod. HA! He just couldn’t stand to stay home and had to come swat the water with us. I step up stream and Mr. T steps down stream to make room for the elder. The old man is into fish in no time.
Mr. T holds the net down into the water as this time grandpa guides his fish towards the bank. The fish gives a last kick right into the net. As the net is lifted out of the water the fish found the emergency energy reserve, thrashing and twisting in the net, but much too late. The beautiful swimmer’s fate is sealed (vacuum sealed now).
The chrome slab lay tied to the bank with red rivulets of blood staining the water as the river ran though ripped gills .
After a while we realize that we are the only ones on the beach. Everyone had left?! Right in the middle of the salmon run? Best numbers of the year thus far… we had started to catch fish at regular intervals yet everyone was missing it! A quarter mile either direction… not a soul. We appreciated and frequently commented about how much fun we were having catching, playing, and taking up as much room as we please to land fish over the next two hours. Had something happened that we did not hear about? A bombing? Bear? Free doughnuts? Rapture?
Finally, we were as numb in the legs from standing in glacial waters as we are in the heads. Tired, sore, hungry, and with our limits of sockeye which still needed to be cleaned and packed… we reluctantly gave up the beach.
This was a fantastic day which will be recounted for years. The section of river is known for being busy this time of year. For a little while it felt like I was a kid again fishing alone on the beach with my grandparents and parents, on a river that not so many people fished in the early 80’s. I am glad that my son got to fish with Grandpa like that. He really did appreciate the moment since he knows how swarmed the area can be these days.
We also really appreciated the lightly seasoned grilled salmon dinner that night!
Grilled Salmon – B’s Way:
One Half – Sockeye Salmon (one filet) whole
The Seasonings (you can use whatever you like/have really)
- Couple pinches of salt
- Couple grinds from the pepper mill
- Diced or dried basil
- Hint of garlic powder
- Couple of pinches of red pepper flake (or if you can find the black bean chili paste in the Asian market that is my favorite)
- Drizzle with olive oil
Get the grill blazing hot to heat it up (I think it helps with sticking) and drop the whole thing into the middle of the grill skin side down. Back the grill off to low/medium heat (or leave the top open a few minutes…or close off all air intakes/exhausts). Cook till you see the fat starting to bubble out of the belly section (thin part) of the filet. Move to indirect heat for another couple minutes. I never time it as heat is different with every grill or oven (can be done in the oven with a 13×9 and raised grill or cooling rack too). Should take between 12 and 15 minutes depending… Don’t walk away. Always err on the side of under-cooked. You cannot UN-cook fish and overcooked fish should just go right to the dog. Shame on you…. happy dog …but shame on you.
In a bowl mix the following:
Finely dice 1/4 large onion
Coarse chop 10 -12 capers
Greek yogurt or mayo – let’s say 1 cup
Squeeze in half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix it together and see if the consistency is right. If not a small splash of water is fine to thin it out a bit. Play with this a bit. There are no rules. I have used garlic chili paste or sriracha in it for a little bite or dill relish for more traditional.
Pro Tip – If you have any sauce or fish left over after dinner mix them together for salmon salad sandwiches the next day. Add more seasoning, yogurt, or mayo if needed.