Keep what you catch and live off wild salmon, while you can.
by Dave Zoby
FOG BILLOWS OFF COOK INLET AS I HEAD NORTH ON THE STERLING HIGHWAY. I pass the village of Ninilchik, where the Russian Orthodox church perched on a hill looks like a lighthouse built during an extreme budget crisis. I’m going fly fishing for sockeye salmon on the Russian River. A diesel truck towing a seiner gnaws up the highway. He pulls out in front of me on purpose, it seems. He’s a commercial fisherman from one of the Russian communities; Old Believers they call them. The heavy bow, the inscrutable pilothouse, the corked nets coiled on a giant drum—this vessel is ready for the opener. When he suddenly brakes to turn, I mash my brakes to keep from colliding with his steel hull. The bearded man driving the truck glares at me. I remind myself that fishing, for some people, is life or death. I get it.
I’d spent the early summer working on a condo I bought in Homer. I bought it online, trying to get closer to great Alaska fishing. If you have the hunch I’m a financial idiot, you’re onto something. The condo is only a few yards from the Homer Brewery, where I’d spent too much time reading while various handymen charged exhorbitant rates to spackle, wire, or plumb my condo into livable condition and where beautiful and unattainable girls from the Russian Village would sweep in, down a porter each, and snap selfies beside the stuffed brown bear. That’s about how summer’s been going.
At Ninilchik I stop for coffee at the Buzz Café. I give my dogs a treat but keep them in the camper shell because of the highway and the moose. Sure enough, a cow moose and her calf emerge behind the café in chest-high pushki and devil’s club.
Back on the road, my mind drifts to 1988, where I’m seated in a class called Organizational Communications. Dr. Abernathy, fit and white bearded, sits on the lip of a desk talking about his days in the Peace Corps in French Guiana. His legs swing. The word is that he’s been passed over for tenure once again. He hardly even broaches the subject of communications, organizational or otherwise. Out of thin air he tells all of us to read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” It’s nowhere on the syllabus. He talks about a fer-de-lance he once saw in a tree over a chicken coop. He looks up at the institutional lighting in the classroom, and we all look up, too, almost expecting to see it there.
“Living in a true democracy allows one to change,” he says. Seeming to lose his thoughts, he says class is ending prematurely today, and if any of us want to go downtown to his usual coffee spot, we are welcome to tag along—his treat. There are only seven of us; the others dropped the class weeks back. His perpetually early-ending classes allow me to walk freely about Blacksburg, to stop in at the moldering independent bookstore, to mosey along the empty parade grounds with no particular destination in mind. Some of us meet him at the café only to sit in the weak sunshine of winter in the Allegheny Mountains. When he pays the bill, he mutters softly: “I am a cage, in search of a bird.” I’m almost sure that’s what he says.
IF ABERNATHY WAS RIGHT ABOUT CHANGE—and I’ve been banking on his wisdom since my college days—why then have I lived my life with rigid predictability? For example, it’s the middle of June and I’m driving up the Kenai Peninsula. I’m headed to the Pink Salmon parking lot, preferably the same slot I’ve parked in over the last few years. Ritualistically, I’ll use the same fetid public outhouse, wash my hands in the same trickle of questionable water. I’ll pull on my damp waders, march to a predetermined pinch-point where the red salmon gather in good numbers every June. I already know what my first cast will look like, how I’ll mend my line. Here we are in the freest society in the world, and I live like an iron cutout.
Abernathy, I think as I string up my 9-weight and attach the cruel pencil weight, would be sorely disappointed in how I turned out.
I dawdle along the padded boardwalk along the river. I read the signage about bears and fishing regulations. There are people already waist deep in the obvious pools. I see sleek silver bodies of sockeyes beached and strung up between anglers. Threadbare salmon carcasses tumble downstream. Seagulls and ravens in equal number pick at the pillaged bodies of formerly beautiful fish. Men crouch over them. It’s loud: the bird cries, the rushing water, and human conversations. Gangs of anglers hog the best pools. I keep walking, thinking about democracy and what keeps going wrong in my life.
To my utter surprise, no one is fishing at the rock where I always begin. There are wisps of heavy monofilament in the limbs above, a few boot prints, some blood on the rocks. I can see the slate blue blur in the fast water: salmon. They are packed in so tight I cannot see individuals, just a vague blue movement that a newbie might mistake for rocks. On my first cast a perfect fish somersaults out of the water. He is hooked fairly. (Snagging is not permitted on the Russian. These fish don’t take flies in the traditional sense. The method used to catch them is to “floss” them by sinking large flies to the bottom of the stream and trying to steer the fly to their open mouths. The monofilament gets caught in their teeth. When they bolt, they hook themselves. It sounds impossibly ridiculous. But the veterans from Soldotna and Anchorage can catch these fish one after another, legally, as long as your definition is somewhat negotiable.)
My first fish is a hard-fighting buck that runs downstream and beaches itself. I dive upon it with my pocketknife, hoping not to damage my waders. What I want to do is get my fingers in its gills. It’s not easy. We wrestle. It’s personal. Its tail thrums against my chest. It slips away, almost reaching the river. Finally, I force it to high ground and subdue it. I bleed it with a slash to the gills. The color of the fish, the blue-silver that dreams them to me all winter, fades immediately. Its gaze goes blank as I put it on the stringer. Fishing the Russian is a brutal endgame for those of us who want to eat wild salmon we catch ourselves. The catch-and-release culture will not take hold here. On the Russian you keep what you catch. Otherwise, you can leave it to the gill netters, I suppose. But have you ever met those guys?
No one comes along the trail, and I quickly wrestle and kill four salmon. I’ve invented a method wherein you pin the fish with your chest, and turtlewalk up the bank on your elbows. Bleed them. Do it quickly, I advise others. Keep your fly rod out of the scrum or it will be broken. If you’re not out of breath, a bit conflicted, and covered in viscera, you have yet mastered the Zoby Method.
This year, the early-run fish are small, about six to eight pounds each. The run is strong and the limit has been raised to six. I can take two more. I wonder if I have the strength to haul six dressed sockeyes up the terraced stairway to the parking lot. The next few fish I hook are hooked illegally. I try to shake them off, but they are wild and unruly. They dance across the river, crash into rocks, rattle their gill plates midair. Even though I plan to release them, I still have to subdue them on the shoreline to remove my fly. I wrestle them in the riparian vegetation. Many of these salmon have various flies already impaled in their sides. I remove these. I get them back in the water in the best shape possible. They pulse upstream, seemingly unfazed. Another group arrives at the pinch.
By midmorning the magic is gone. I can no longer floss them in the style so popular in Soldotna. I only foul-hook them. I have an audience—three thin boys from Nikolaevsk. They smoke cigarettes and speak in their native tongue. They call them Old Believers, but look how quickly they have accepted breathable waders and caffeine drinks. I wonder if they are criticizing me. Still, I have four salmon. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, as I’ve lost my knife during one of the fights. My cell phone is dazed and the screen is cracked. Slimed beyond hope, my jacket needs to be professionally sanitized. I’m covered in silver scales, salmon blood, and roe. My hands bleed. I wonder how my tribe of catch-and-release friends from Wyoming would view my state of dishevelment. The sun is up and the pods of fish are skittish. They sequester themselves in groups of four or five and hug the opposite bank in the shade. But the young men spot them and begin to move in.
I dress my fish but leave them whole. I wrap them in a plastic bag. I put the roe in a baggie for later. I begin my slog back to the truck. People are stirred up along the trail. A black bear has been on the river. He’s snatched someone’s sockeye from a stringer. The seagulls are so plugged with fresh salmon they can only sit on gravel bars and look at each other. Jolly trout fishermen bounce up the trail with their fragile fly rods and wide eyes. The trout are taking drys. The fly fishermen can’t figure out why anyone would bother with salmon. One guy begins a dissertation on size 10 green drakes. But I know this guy—he notices the bulging backpack on my shoulders and my desire to keep moving. He’s thinking of pencil weights and bucktails. At the truck, I ice the fish and let my dogs terrorize the public parking area.
I drive back to Homer, where I find my friend David Ferreira in his yard working on his boat. The engine block split, and he’s taking the whole shebang out with a remarkable pulley system he invented. I tell him I’ve been on the Russian, but with my clothes covered in slime and four sockeyes on ice, it’s obvious.
“I’m half Russian,” he says. I know this is a prelude to a joke he tells at least once a week. “—the bottom half.” I don’t really get it, but it’s growing on me. A professional meatcutter, David sets up a plastic table and gathers his knives. He flies through the four fish. We decide we’ll smoke them. Actually, David will smoke them in his ingenious smoker that once lived a happy life as a fridge. He rolls the smoker out of the shed and begins a brine. I depart with my dogs. They need a big beach walk.
It’s raining now and the scent of salmon is not just on my jacket; it’s on the wind. The drift fleet is heading out into Cook Inlet for the opener. I hear the low thrum of engines. I see seiners escorted by birds.
Read the full version of The Russian by Dave Zoby in the May/June 2019 issue of Gray’s Sporting Journal.
Dave Zoby is a freelance writer who splits his time between Wyoming and Alaska. He keeps a lively fishing blog at davezoby.com, and his book Fish Like You Mean It is available in bookstores in Homer, Alaska, and Casper, Wyoming, as well as from online booksellers.