Allure of a King


This past year has been one of new adventures and experiences. My gal, my pup and I packed up our lives and ventured to the Last Frontier as it was the next stepping stone in our journey.
This past week I went fishing with colleagues from work on the Kenai River. Salmon fishing the Kenai River in Alaska is a bucket list item for some, and lucky me I was gifted the experience through simply saying yes to an adventure.

Driving into town through Soldotna, you see billboards and signage every hundred feet advertising various different fishing guides. The one sign that stuck in my mind was a giant wooden billboard with great big yellow letters that read "Don Johnson: Fishing Guide". Simple, to the point and with some Miami Vice vibes just for spice.

Unknowingly to me, Don was the guide who would be awaiting us on the river to take us on our journey. Don grew up near the Great Lakes fishing and hunting, but mostly restoring homes. He moved to Alaska in hopes of creating a career out of home restoration, but the economical climate wasn't ideal and he began guiding the local rivers and forests instead. Don had been fishing the Kenai since '79. I know all of this because Don was an open audio book that I would be listening to on loop for the next several hours.
Don was also very strict. When he speaks, you listen. I was in the boat with three co-workers: one peer, my direct supervisor and the General Manager of WA/AK for our company. Don spoke to us, however, like we were boy scouts going out onto the river for the first time. In a way this leveled out the totem pole and put us all on an even plane, which was oddly comforting.

There were two groups of us, we had placed wagers between boats. The scoring was limited to a few categories: - First Fish- Last Fish- Biggest Fish- and Smallest Fish. While the other group decided to fish the banks for Sockeye - Don was taking our group to troll for Kings. See it was July 31st, and this was the last day of King season. Some may stray from going for Kings this late into the run - especially a guide whose pay directly depends on the success of the charter. Don wasn't worried. He'd been on this river for 40 years...and he knew right where to go to find our King; the same place he'd gone back in '79.

Two hours go by and not even a nibble on one of our four lines drifting through the current. Don is going on about some story in Wisconsin where he told a cop to essentially orally satisfy him after being pulled over when suddenly the tip of my rod starts jittering. BOOM. The rod tip slams towards the water. I quickly dispose of my Black Cherry White Claw and reach for the rod handle. Before I can even unsheathe the rod from the holder, the line goes limp. Suddenly a blur of silver shimmering sunlight emerges from the river and flops in the air, hook popping out of the mouth as it splashes back into the aqua void. For 0.8 seconds, I had her.

I know it was a her because Don confirmed the sex of the fish. When I asked how he could tell, Don simply responded "By the look on her face."
Three hours and 15 IPA's later, we hadn't seen any action. We learned more about good ol' Don, stories I won't go into. Just know he is not a fan of drones. We were about to give up hope, when my boss Tim asked for one more run in the area we started. This was the area Don caught his first King, and Tim felt it was our best shot at redemption.

We trolled this area for a good 30 minutes when suddenly - Tim had a fish. It was a strawberry red, 35 LB hog that was not a fan of being hooked. Tim fought ol' Bessy for a good 10 minutes before bringing her to the surface...and when we saw her, every heart in our boat sank. She was snagged. The hook started in the mouth, but upon setting the hook it must've jarred itself loose and become lodged in the Bessy's fin.
To those that aren't the most informed on river fishing formalities, a "snagged" fish is illegal to keep. Once Don saw this, he wasn't allowing the fish in the boat. Don broke a lot of rules in his day, but this one wasn't to be broken. It was put in place to ensure the livelihood of the species, and that is something we would never toil with.

After snapping a picture with the mammoth (keeping her in the water of course) we let Bessy free, and trolled back to base - hoping for another bite that would never come.

Upon arrival to shore, we ran into our other group that had a line of 9 sockeye salmon - filleted and ready for cooking. Needless to say, the other group won every category we had placed bets on. However, had Bessy been hooked legally she would have been the biggest fish and the last fish, with it being a King as the tiebreaker. She would have won us the entire pot, but it is a game of inches - literally.

That night the losing boat prepared the fish, cooked dinner and cleaned up afterward - as was the bet. The winning team enjoyed their meal, clinking their glasses of Caymus in the name of the river and boasted of their successes throughout the evening. Our crew acknowledged their victory, but felt far from defeated. The reason being was this: while we didn't win, we went on this trip for one thing: the allure of a King.

Nobody puts "Sockeye Salmon fishing in Alaska" on their bucket list. Well, some may, but not the ambitious. Those who go for the highest honor know the stakes, and know the likelihood of success - yet do anyway in hopes of ultimate achievement. We may not have achieved the pinnacle (mind you, we were inches away) but we tried. And going for the gold but falling short is much more rewarding, to me, than shooting for silver.

That's what I took away from this trip. Always set your goals ridiculously high, no matter the difficulty of success. If it is possible, dream it. If it is doable, try it. If it isn't, make it. The point of life is not to settle for small, safe victories and find glory in them. It is to challenge yourself to the ultimate test, overcome the unimaginable and create a triumph worth glorifying. Don't every deny the Allure of a King.

- Jordin

Zach Barlow