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'Combat fishing' pits man against man in Alaska

It's anything but a meditative wilderness activity when crowds invade Kenai Peninsula waters by the thousands -- outnumbered only by the running salmon. Injuries are common.

August 29, 2009|Kim Murphy

KENAI, ALASKA — There are those who think of fishing as a contemplative sport. A chance to plant hip waders in a sparkling stream, stash a cold drink in the belt pocket and dream of man's mystic connections to the water and the dark shapes lurking below.

They, however, would not be many Alaskans, at least not when the sockeye start making their headlong summer rush up the Kenai River.

As if mimicking the salmon's annual journey, anglers climb into cars, pickups and campers, speed down the Seward Highway from Anchorage, lug poles and nets to the water's edge and start, by God, fishing.

During the long-lighted days of July, the scenic riverbanks become a battle zone -- man versus fish, man versus man -- a place so far past traditional sedentary angling that it's known here as "combat fishing."

At the mouth of the Kenai, hundreds of men, women and youngsters wade into the frigid waters of Cook Inlet with big dip nets, hoisting flopping salmon onto the beach and filleting them in a boisterous frenzy of laughter, seawater, scales and blood.

"There's maybe as many as 10,000 people that come down to this beach. . . . People will stay out here in 50-degree weather in the rain. But we're all having a blast," said Brenda Crim, a Baptist missionary from Texas now posted in Anchorage. She has set up a tent offering free hot dogs, lemonade and day care, staffed by 140 volunteers from all over the country.

"You step right into Alaska culture when you go out on that beach," she said.

Tourists, of course, come by the planeload for a chance to fish some of the only rivers still teeming with wild salmon. They stand shoulder to shoulder, a tangle of determined anglers and fly-fishing lines that in a typical season sends 70 to 80 people to the hospital with hooks wedged in their faces or fly weights lodged in their eye sockets.

"Urgent care or fish hook removal," reads a large red sign outside the medical clinic in Sterling, Alaska.

But it is to the mouth of the Kenai, just a few hours from Anchorage, that Alaskans themselves head every summer for a weekend of hard fishing.

In a good year, 4 million sockeye will navigate up the emerald river that cuts through grassy peaks, low forests and tangles of pink lupines before spilling into the sea.

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Only those who can prove state residency are allowed to participate in the "personal use" dip-net season that extends through the last three weeks of July. Demand for the resident permits (free to those with a $24 resident fishing license) was so high this year that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game powered through the initial 30,000 print run and had to order a second set.

While Anchorage tire salesmen may be jockeying for position up the river with auto mechanics from Dallas, here it's less about sport and more about food -- fish that costs $9 a pound or more in the supermarket can be had for the trouble of a Sunday drive.

"Let's say you've got a 10-pound salmon; that's going to give you five or six pounds of fillets. . . . I'm thinking: 'Ka-ching, ka-ching!' " said Crim, whose enthusiasm for fish often seems to overwhelm her stated task of setting an example of Christian neighborliness to the assembled hordes.

"Here in Alaska, we live on what we catch . . . what we hunt," she said. "Think of Sarah Palin. . . . . She's out there slammin' salmon with the best of 'em.

"I never shot anything before I moved up here," Crim said. "But for us, it's shopping. I look at a moose through the sights of a rifle, and I'm thinking, 'How many pounds of hamburger is that?' "

In few other places can a family of four go home with 55 fresh wild salmon at the end of a weekend.

Alaskan regulations allow any head of household who can prove he or she has resided in the state for the preceding 12 months to net 25 fish during the three-week season; additional family members get 10 each.

Not surprisingly, those who head to the wide, sandy beach here -- lined with dome tents, campfires and battered ice chests -- most often are accompanied by sons, daughters, cousins, aunts, uncles and just about anyone else who is breathing and has the same family name.

"A week and a half ago, I talked to some people; they caught 80. It's typical to hear people come down and get a hundred," said Mike Christensen, 23, of Eagle River.

"I'm here with my two boys; I got my daughter," said Scott Bridges, 52, a construction foreman on the North Slope who stood over an ironing board set up in the sand wielding a large knife against a succession of salmon, his clothes splattered red.

Bridges typically wades waist-deep in 45-degree water for two hours at a time, suspending a metal-framed net 5 feet in diameter in the often-powerful current.

"I'll tell you, we're a pretty hardy bunch up here. That's cold water," said Bridges, who shuns the wetsuits favored by many fishermen. He wades out in his Bermuda shorts and T-shirt, he said, because "if the current knocks you off-kilter, I'd rather fight the water than my clothes."

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