Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fishing the Russian, Part VII - Combat Fishing

When it comes to combat fishing, my primary advice is simple: don't do it.

Of course, that's a jaded perspective from a guy who has caught a lot of salmon in his life and who has already seen his fill of carpet chewing insanity on the banks of the beautiful, bottle green Kenai River.

What is Combat Fishing?

Where the clear waters of the Russian River flow into the Kenai (and downstream for a quarter of a mile) is an extraordinarily productive fishery. Sockeyes like to swim right off the river bank, and when the run is on they will be thick there; so even if you can't see into the Kenai water, just raking the water with enough well placed casts (remember, it's all in the weight) will cause your fly to blindly find a fish mouth.

As a result of these favorable odds, the banks of the Kenai are often lined shoulder to shoulder with anglers as if in sardonic mockery of the meditative virtues of your favorite pastime. I suppose if you haven't witnessed this before, you really should--at least once. You don't often get to see someone catch his brother through the nose on the back cast. And better by far is watching what happens when, finding themselves unable to get the hook out of the nose, the two decide to walk back to the parking lot for help, one leading the other by the nose and neither thinking it might be good to cut the line first. You can't make this stuff up.

Once, while I was waiting to cross in the Kenai River ferry, I saw a cooler float by, and after the cooler, a bag of fish, and after the fish a man, and after the man, an empty raft.

There are countless tales of lost fish woes. In the combat area, people try to bank their fish quickly, which means the fish are still full of piss and vinegar when they get on the rocks. Also, there isn't much room on most of that river bank, so the fish only has to give a couple of good kicks to get back in the water. I've spoken to many people who have been punched in the face by fish as I have. You drop to your knees to get control of the beached salmon, and suddenly he flips up into the air and smacks you in the jaw with his bony head. It's enough to put you off balance for a second, and by the time you look back down, that bony head is in the water heading downstream. To make matters worse, in all the time you've been boxing with the fish, someone has slipped into your fishing spot.

Which brings us to the question of etiquette. It's a prickly topic in the combat area, because on the one hand, no one wants to be crowded, but on the other hand, if you don't crowd somebody, there will be no fishing for you. I suppose I consider absurdity to be the break point: I've had people move into spots so small beside me that I literally could not set a hook without wacking them. It's nice to have a rod length between you and the next angler.

There are a few cardinal rules that will help you get along with your neighbors on the Kenai:
  1. Get you cast in sync with the people next to you. You'll reduce the amount of time you spend catching each others' lines and smacking into their rods. An untangled angler is a happy angler.
  2. Give the others a break when they have a fish on. Keep your line out of the water, and stay out of the way of their fish. You'll definitely appreciate the same treatment when you're trying to get that feisty salmon on the beach.
  3. Stay happy. I don't care how many times your idiot upstream neighbor catches your wader or how many fish you've lost: keep your composure. Nobody likes a cranky pants. Remember: this is fishing, not a root canal. (Although if you're not careful it could be a nose piercing.)
One last related point: you're probably already in the habit of wearing polarized glasses anyway, but if your not, be sure to put SOMETHING on your eyes. Getting hooked in the nose makes for a funny story later on. Getting hooked in the eye does not.

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