Being an avid Minnesota angler since age five (now 82) and occasionally making forays via canoe into Ontario wilderness waters, I had long been of the opinion I have enjoyed the very best of freshwater fishing available in North America. When my son, Dave, invited me to join him and his family on a trip to Alaska where we’d spend time some fishing for salmon and halibut, I had no idea this trip would end up being my best freshwater fishing experience ever.
While hunting Dall sheep, (rams) in the Brooks Range of Alaska fifty-some years ago, thereafter yearning to return to Alaska some day, I fought violently battling, 6–8 pound sockeyes in a shallow pool where they were spawning until my arms finally became so sore that I couldn’t bear to hook another fish. I thus knew our anticipated salmon fishing would be exciting.
Shore enough (Minnesota talk), catching silver (Coho) salmon was much like catching those sockeyes. The first evening we were in Alaska, Dave, Tyler (my grandson) and I caught thirty-six 6–8 pound silver salmon from deep in 185 feet of salt water to the surface near the mouth of Resurrection Bay aboard a small guided boat out of Seward. Arms finally aching, I actually had to take a break before we were done, but sitting there watching the circus-like action, some hooked fish repeatedly leaping high above the water, was totally entertaining.
Halibut fishing turned out to be a different kind of action, akin to hauling a big tractor tire up to the boat in 200 feet of water. By the third time I had finally worked the first of the two 70-pounders I caught to within twenty feet of the surface (the second one released), I was pleading, “Please don’t dive to the bottom again.” Keeping my rod well bent while repeatedly raising that fish another six feet or so and then reeling in line as quickly as possible while lowering my rod to begin anther raise beat by far any exercise I’d ever used to strengthen my biceps, only in this case there was no way to take a break until the fish was gaffed. Seventy pound halibuts (or bigger) are powerful fish. They’re so powerful, in fact, that if allowed to flop about in the boat after being gaffed and hauled in they can seriously injure a fishermen and damage the boat. Imagine what a fully mature 400-pound-plus halibut could do. For this reason, big halibut are shot in the head before they are boated. Shoreline Alaskans know big halibuts are biting when they hear a lot of gunshots out on the water.
The fish that made my trip so special was a 50-pound (minus a few ounces) King salmon. The world angling record, caught in the world famous Kenai River, weighed 97 pounds 4 ounces. After my struggle to land my 50-pounderin the same water, it’s hard to imagine how such a fish could even have been landed.
My king made repeated, unstoppable, 100-plus-yard runs across and up and down more than two miles of the river while I held on hardly breathing. “Is that my fish?” I asked a couple of times upon seeing it break water a long way off near the opposite side of the river. Sometimes we had to chase it with our boat to keep my reel from running out of line or keep my line from crossing lines with other anglers. This was the most thrilling and lengthy battle with a fish than I had ever experienced. When Keith, our guide, finally scooped it up with his big dip net, he too sat down heavily with obvious relief.
That morning, my son Dave caught a 60 pounder, his wife, Lindsay and daughter, Alyssa, each caught Kings nearly as large and his son Tyler caught one weighing about 40 pounds – that’s five fish weighing about 260 pounds taken by five anglers from one boat operated by one guide during one morning of fishing. This was highly unusual. No one else we saw on the river that morning did nearly as well. The average catch for kings on the Kenai is one fish for four guided anglers during a half day of fishing (the best anywhere). Needless to say, our guide and host, Keith Holtan, the long time owner of Beaver Creek Cabins and Guide Service, is one of the best fishing guides today on that famous river.
Honestly, at least once in a lifetime every serious angler in America should try to book a trip to Alaska to fish King salmon on the Kenai River. The words “best freshwater fishing experience ever” cannot begin to describe the thrill of catching one of those swift and powerful, trophy fish weighing fifty pounds or more.