Prior to this past season, it had been several summers since I guided for kings on the Kenai. With low returns and restrictions, we largely refocused our efforts on the more abundant and predictable sockeye salmon. 2016 seemed to be a pivotal moment for the Kenai with improved king salmon returns not only here, but also across the state. Finding myself fishing the middle river just outside my home was like a blast from the past. It was actually very nostalgic to finally wet a line in the many fabled holes I had frequented so many times in my 27-year guiding career. While I was lucky enough to have several world-class king salmon swim into my net this past season, one fish in particular was special.
It was the second trip chasing kings with a jolly crew from New Zealand that told me they sometimes fish entire seasons back home for a single salmon. During their first trip, they all landed and released trophy Kenai Kings and a couple of the guys landed multiple fish. Needless to say, spirits were high for day two and while we were not quite as fortunate as we were in the first trip, we had managed a pretty decent morning with 4-5 very nice ocean bright kings released by mid-day. Indeed it had been a couple of literally epic days of king fishing with a great group of people that truly appreciated the quantity and the quality of the kings we were able to catch and release. Yet despite the nearly perfect two days of fishing, there was just one hiccup. The elder statesmen of the party, the esteemed Clarence Whiting, had yet to land a true trophy. He had lost a few good ones and landed some smaller fish, but he had yet to do battle with the Kenai’s most reputable inhabitant: a giant king salmon.
As we began fishing the last few holes of the day, I decided to pull into a small piece of holding water just below a large rock formation. The turbid water pushed my boat around in the heavy current as I held my boat in place and motioned the Kiwis’ let their lines out. As they clicked the reels into gear and I slowly began backing down the hole, I heard the inside, side rod holder make that telltale creak and I looked over just as the 10.5 foot rod buried to its backbone in the rod holder. Line was pouring off the reel despite a tight drag and it was all Clerry could do to get the rod out of the holder. Upon finally freeing up the rod from the holder the fish made a sharp cut for the middle of the river and took several other lines with him. After a frenzy of untangling, cutting and praying, we managed to clear the other lines and follow the fish. From the moment it bit I knew this was no ordinary king and now as it held to the bottom and put the heavy salmon rod to its deepest arc, I know it was big. The stalemate ensued for several minutes as the weight of the fish and its sheer force would not allow the strength of our tackle to do anything but hold on and keep the 80 lb. braid tight. Remarkable after what looked like would be hours, the giant decided to swim for the surface and for a split second swam parallel with the surface just long enough to make an extended reach and present the net ahead of the fish. To my amazement, it barely swam in and then accelerated to the bottom of the bag as I extended at full stretch. I can remember thinking I cannot wait to get a full look at how big this fish really is. As I cradled the net against the gunnel, we gently nudged the boat against the nearby shoreline as Clarence and I immediately exited the boat and prepared for the release.
We managed a handle full of decent photos and allowed a brief second to marvel at the sheer girth of this magnificent chinook. I can keenly remember my inability to even come close to getting a hand around its tale and then being helpless when trying to roll its belly for a picture. There was no budging it and it felt like trying to pose with the rear quarter of a bull moose. As we held it by the tail, it quickly regained great strength and splashed us all as it charged back out into the glacial current. We did not take the time to measure it and obviously we let it go so we will never know exactly what it weighed. I think I have a very good idea and the award-winning taxidermist that is doing a reproduction mount has similar speculations but it really is not very important. The fact that we were able to catch such a unique trophy and release it unharmed was something all present will remember forever. It was a great exclamation point, not just for Clarence but also for the whole group. I look forward to their return and hopefully someday I can take them up on the gracious offer to visit them in New Zealand!