The Kenai’s reds, which return to the river by the millions each July and August, and are the blue collar favorite, being abundant, incredibly strong fighters, easy to catch and fabulous to eat. Reds earn their nickname because of their scarlet flesh and the tomato red color they take on later in their spawning run. Like all Alaska salmon, reds transform radically as they move into freshwater, quit eating and die after spawning.
Alaskans are devout fish snobs, because we love to eat them even more than catch them. We judge our fish, especially salmon, not just by weight or length, but by body condition and eating quality. A “blush” salmon has started to transform, adding color to its sea-run silver. A “bright” salmon is either still living in salt water or only hours into fresh water, and is prime eating. And a bright salmon still carrying sea lice on its sides is as fresh as it gets. Alaskans are the sommeliers of fish.
Pink and chum salmon, nicknamed “humpies” and “dogs” because they transform so quickly in fresh water, are considered unfit for humans to eat. Discounting—of course—the hundreds of millions of pinks sold outside Alaska as canned salmon.
Alaskans from the youngest village child to the toughest oil worker on the North Slope become attuned to the rhythms of the natural world here—waning and waxing light, ebbing and flooding tides, migrations of caribou and waterfowl and above all else, salmon.
Thousands of Alaska Native families continue to work their fish camps each summer, camps that have been a family tradition far longer than Alaska existed as a state, a territory or even a Russian possession. The whole family works together to net fish, fillet with ulus, and prepare the haul for the smokehouse.
Most Alaskans can tell you to the week, the day, the tide, almost the minute that “their salmon” return. Matters not whether it is the millions of sockeye to Bristol Bay or the millions more pinks in Southeast Alaska or the biggest late run kings to the Kenai or the life-giving and richest kings of the Yukon. And when those fish don’t return, we are like the children abandoned at the school yard, with no explanation for where our parents have gone.
Floating farther down the Kenai, we traded 8-weight salmon rods for lighter 5-weight trout rods, to drift plastic beads imitating salmon eggs through deep runs full of hungry trout, feeding on the fresh-laid eggs.
Both rainbows and Dolly Varden gorged on the salmon bounty that must carry them through a winter with little food. Before the eggs, they ate the tiny salmon fry still in the river from last year’s spawn, and soon they’d be shifting from the eggs, to the flesh of dead salmon, as their carcasses broke apart and enriched the water—and the trout.
Everything here depends on salmon.
While they are growing large and bright at sea, salmon feed seals and sea lions, orcas and beluga whales, and every predator fish, including halibut. Those that survive later fertilize the giant spruce and hemlocks along our streams and rivers with nutrients from their decaying bodies. The ravens, gulls and eagles gorge on dying and dead salmon. Every fish in our rivers, especially trout and char, eat salmon in every stage of their life, from egg to tiny fry to sea-going smolt to rotting carcass. It is because of the steady diet of rich salmon that the coastal brown bears grow to twice the size of their Interior grizzly brethren.
Perhaps we also love these glorious fish for the equally glorious places where we chase them, and the wide variety of ways to catch them.
We cast to great waves of red salmon filling emerald shoals of the Kenai and glacier gray waters of Bristol Bay.
We troll along the thousands of miles of Alaska coastline, hooking thick silvers, broad as a thigh, while 50-foot humpback whales breach completely out of the water and almost into our boats.
We stand on a pitching deck, against 5-foot waves and the ever constant risk of losing our breakfast, while jigging for deep Resurrection Bay kings fatter than a young hog.
We wade far up a glacial stream and cast to black-tailed silvers sulking beneath vast brown clouds of misshapen humpbacked pink salmon, still ravenously inhaling any bait that comes in range.
We join the human carnival dip netting on the beaches at the mouth of the Kenai, standing waist deep in the cold and surging tide, holding a 5-foot dip net to intercept your own family’s share of the waves of red salmon heading up the Kenai to spawn.
My companions were sunburned, and tired, but beaming. As we filleted the salmon at the end of the day, we took in the mountains and water and fish. It was another day in paradise, and tomorrow, we’d get to do it again.