The author holds a king salmon caught on Aug. 16, 2020 in Kachemak Bay near Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Lizzie Byrne)

The author holds a king salmon caught on Aug. 16, 2020 in Kachemak Bay near Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Lizzie Byrne)

Out of the office: Checking items off the list

Hail to the king

In my ongoing quest to become a true Alaskan, I’ve managed to cross off at least two more items on my list: A king salmon and a halibut straight from Kachemak Bay.

Now, since I’ve been at the Clarion, one of the topics I’ve reported on frequently is the lack of king salmon in the Kenai River. The plight of that fishery and its low returns every year are so ingrained in my head that I never considered it a possibility that I would ever catch one myself.

So when the charter captain asked if we all had our king salmon stamp while checking our licenses, all of a sudden I realized that we weren’t in Kenai anymore, Toto.

Luckily the state of Alaska is happy to take your money in-person, through the mail, over the phone and just about every other way imaginable, so I managed to secure my king stamp on my phone while we were on the water.

This was also my first time on a fishing charter, and I’d like to give a shoutout to to Captain Nick and Joe the deckhand from Homer Ocean Charters for providing an excellent experience. On the boat that day was my girlfriend, Lizzie, and her roommate from Anchorage, Lizzie’s parents from Massachussetts, a nice couple from Minnesota and myself.

I’m used to fishing with friends and family, so I was surprised when I was handed a pole that was baited and ready to go. It made me start to question if we, as the tourists, could actually say we “caught” anything, when all we did was reel it in. I decided to ignore that thought and proudly claim any of the fish I caught that day as my own.

Despite us all coming from different backgrounds, we made fast friends with the crew and the other passengers — after establishing that the out-of-staters had been properly tested for COVID and quarantined, of course.

It was a combination halibut-king fishing trip around Kachemak Bay, and everyone quickly hit their limit on halibut. I was the first one to catch anything — which turned out to be a rockfish – but the last one to reach the halibut limit. The frustration of reeling one in while everyone else watched, only for Joe to convince me to toss it and go for something bigger, was palpable, as was the pain in my arms the next morning.

I also expected the weather to be cold and windy, so I dressed warm. The sun was out for most of the day though, and by the time I reeled in my last halibut I was sweating hard, and that heavy jacket was almost the death of me. If you ask Lizzie, she’ll tell you I looked like I was dead. But I bounced back, and after shedding several layers of clothing I felt like a new man.

Once we caught our fill of halibut we started fishing for kings, and I’ll admit, I was excited. I’ve caught and cooked other salmon before, mostly reds and silvers of course, but never a king. Would today be the day?

The guys running the charter knew what they were doing, almost like it’s their job to catch fish, and it wasn’t long after they had set up the rods behind the boat that the lines were going crazy.

“Three! Three!” Nick would yell from his captain’s chair, pointing out which pole was getting a bite. Before one of us had a chance to grab pole No. 3, Nos. 1, 2 and 4 would also start shaking with the tension of a big salmon hooked at the end of the line.

The first king I managed to reel in was easily the biggest fish I had ever caught. And I knew that well before I pulled it in. My arms were already sore from the halibut, so it took several minutes for me to find the strength to haul him to the boat. At a certain point while reeling I started to think of Ishmael and his white whale, Sisyphus and his boulder, and the Old Man and the Sea all at once.

Eventually, despite my mind wandering toward thoughts of futility, I saw the glimmer of scales briefly come out of the water. Had I really only reeled him in that far? Oh well, I could see him, and he wasn’t getting away.

Nick was ready with the net, and as soon as the king got close enough he deftly snatched it out of the water and onto the boat, and then not-so-deftly clubbed it so that it wouldn’t flop its way back to the water.

Now that I could get a good look at it, I was impressed with how big it actually was. I mean, it wasn’t the biggest king that anyone’s ever caught. I’ve seen bigger on one of the business cards sitting on my desk and mounted on the wall at Louie’s.

But it was the biggest king that I had ever caught, and I was proud of it. As soon as I had cell service I was sending the photo evidence to all my fish-crazy family members, most of whom live in Florida and have never caught salmon.

All told, I came away with two kings, two halibut and a rockfish. Everyone else caught about the same, and there were a few silvers thrown in there for good measure.

I’ll be heading down to Homer this weekend to pick up all of our processed fish, and I’ll have to see if my good friend Victoria can include a good king salmon recipe in her next edition of “Kalifornsky Kitchen” next week. If any readers have any good suggestions, I’m all ears.

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