By ANDREW CREMATA
I saw the big king chasing my bait as I reeled it in toward the boat. The cut plug of herring was rotating perfectly, but it was only a few yards beneath the surface – not enough time for the silver torpedo of a salmon to catch it.
I released the clutch on the reel and let line freefall from the spool. The bait quickly turned back toward the bottom….
The king followed on cue. I counted off three long seconds, enough for the herring to sink 20 feet, reengaged the clutch and reeled like a madman. I could see both bait and salmon under the boat, quivering in refracted sunlight bounced between random waves.
When the bait seemed to disappear, I knew the king had finally caught up and devoured it. With the salmon less than ten feet from the boat, I set the hook and called out for the first mate to grab the net. With any luck, this fish would be in the boat before it even knew it was hooked.
The king broke water in a melee of blazing silver. The mate drove the net beneath the splash and for a shining second it looked like perfection. Then the king made a wild jumping turn, barely clearing the metal frame of the net, and swam full speed in the opposite direction. Twenty yards out, it turned toward the bottom and stripped out almost 100 a yards of line in just a few seconds.
Earlier that morning I was sitting on the stern of the boat as we motored past the invisible barrier that divides Sitka Sound and the open ocean. As we cut through the waves at 25 knots, the minutes began to coalesce.
I watched a row of barrier islands shrink away, until they seemed perched upon the flattest part of the horizon. In the distance, their black rock foundations topped with emerald green trees were nothing more than muted-gray two dimensional shapes. They seemed to slowly sink beneath the uneven waves, until only the tops of the highest treetops were visible. Then they too disappeared like the tip of a setting crescent moon.
I was suddenly aware of the earth’s curvature. This massive body of water called the Pacific Ocean was no mere basin, but some wild and immense form held to the earth’s mantle by primeval forces that defy explanation. It makes up a full third of the planet’s surface, more than all of the world’s landmass combined. A bulk of water, salt, and living things churning beneath heaving swells.
And here we were bobbing on the surface, in a tiny boat, trying to navigate ourselves to a position above schooling Chinook on the Alaska salmon superhighway. They gather off Sitka’s coast for a reason, and like every other fish in every body of water, it’s all because of food.
The dormant volcano named Mt. Edgecumbe is a prominent land feature in the region, standing like a sentinel on the rugged coast of Baranof Island. This peculiar landmass protrudes noticeably into the Pacific’s body, creating massive eddies and rip tides as the ocean ebbs and flows along its edge.
These are nutrient rich waters where microscopic living organisms gather and dance to the songs of currents, composed by the spectacular symmetry of the moon’s orbit around the earth. The baitfish soon follow to feed, gathering in tight balls that form a swirling singularity.
The mass offers protection, but it also sends out a signal of shimmering light and rhythmic waves that attracts salmon travelling north to their spawning grounds. Schools of kings attack these pods, thrashing and biting at the mass of fish until the wounded fall away, sinking toward the bottom….
When my big king finally slowed its run toward the bottom, the muscles in my arms and shoulders were silently screaming out in pain. This was the third king I’d fought in three consecutive casts. One was in the fish hold, and the other was still in the ocean. Either way, I had spent the better part of the day fighting ornery salmon, but this is what you expect when you fish some of the most productive waters in the world.
The captain was yelling at me, “Reel faster! Reel faster!” but I was pretty sure I was reeling as fast as I could. When the king ran under the boat, I had to run around the bow, dodging various pieces of gear and ducking beneath other anglers’ poles, five of which were fighting salmon of their own.
Pure madness… Pandemonium… A conflagration of bent fishing poles and whining drags amidst the ever present chorus of, “Reel faster! Reel faster!”
I made two revolutions around the entirety of the boat before ending up exactly where I started. Somehow, I had managed to keep the determined king away from anchor rope, engine props, and other fishermen’s line. I was making up ground quickly, and I caught sight of the fish’s silver flanks. Two other large salmon were following just behind, no doubt curious about the day’s menu special.
The most stressful part of fighting any large fish are the seconds just before it’s netted. This is when the vast majority of fish manage to throw the hook or break the leader, and also the moment when one may hear some of mankind’s foulest language.
Fortunately, I was with seasoned professionals, and only seconds after breaking the surface the salmon was safely in the bottom of the net.
My ability to reel faster having been fully tested, and with a limit of king salmon safely on the boat, I decided to give my muscles a rest. Before I could sit, the captain handed me a heavy duty bottom-fishing rig with a live horse herring wriggling on a large hook.
“Here,” he said. “Drop this to the bottom and be ready. You should have a halibut take the bait the second it hits the bottom. And when you feel the bite, START REELING!”
Ocean fishing is a pursuit for masochists, the mentally deranged, and people with questionable judgment in recreational pursuits. All of which should comprise the checklist of attributes for any serious angler.