Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Invasion of the Salmon Snatchers

Salmon draw as many people as they can flies.

Gathering up salmon as a way of life has changed greatly just in the thirty-some years we’ve lived here. Sure, there have always been those places that are magnets for more fishermen than fish, such as the confluence of the Kenai and Russian Rivers, but up until more recently residents of the Kenai could count on having plenty of relatively open areas to gather fish with a rod and reel. Given the daily limit of three reds (salmon, not Russians) and the abundance of fish moving upstream at the peak of the run it didn’t take long to fill the freezer.

Not anymore. 

At some point in the late 1990’s, and due primarily to tourism promotion, a flood of tourists descended on the Kenai in pursuit of the reds. Quiet fishing holes became crowded. Well-known fishing holes developed an impenetrable wall of human beings between the bank and the water. The closure of much public access bank areas to prevent bank erosion has served to exacerbate the situation.

One might think owning property on the river, and therefore a private fishing hole, would provide fishing nirvana. However, even those who own riverfront property have problems with the invasion of the salmon snatchers. As evidence, I offer an occurrence from yesterday. 

My friend, Dan, bought his retirement home on the Kenai River this May. His goal was to provide not simply a great place to retire, but a legacy for his kids and grandkids: a place to quietly fish and enjoy the river.

Dan offered to let me fish from his fishing dock. Even though he was out of town on business, I headed out to his property. I contacted Dan’s son, Jason, to let him know I was going to be at his dad’s house. Jason advised me two other friends, the Coles, might be there. 

When I walked to the dock I found not two, not four, but six people fishing, all of them men. I was somewhat taken aback. Particularly since the dock is only big enough to be comfortably fished by four people.

Let's ALL get in our boats and go fishing!

I put on my happy face. “Good morning.”

One guy nearly jumped off the dock and all heads snapped in my direction. Immediately the man closest to me asked, “Are you Dan?” 

“No. I’m Alan, Dan’s friend. And you are?”

Quick introductions were given although not a even a nod was given in my direction by those being introduced, except the jumpy fellow who added, “We’re from Kasilof.” 

Judging by their designer fishing duds, I had serious doubts. “You’re from where?” I asked the guy in front of me.

“San Diego, but we’re staying in Kasilof.” 

“We’re from Kasilof,” insisted the jumpy guy.

I guess he figured saying “Kasilof” was the Kenai River version of Ali Baba’s “open sesame.” He was wrong. “So, to be clear, you don’t have permission to fish from my friend’s property.” 

“Oh, we’ve fished here for years and years,” the smooth talker from San Diego assured me, “we knew the guy who used to own this house.”

I noticed he didn’t provide a name. “I’m just a little surprised, I was expecting the Coles to be here,” I replied. 

“You just missed them. They came down, but left, saying they’d come back some other time.”

No wonder. The Coles are local, and don’t like crowds anymore than I do. 

“Tell you what,” I said as pleasantly as I could, “I’m going to give Dan a call and see what he has to say.”

Dan was rightfully much less cordial about the situation than myself. “I don’t care who they claim to have known, if they ever did. Tell them to get the hell off my property in five minutes or I’ll call the Troopers for trespass.” 

I should have quoted Dan directly. Instead, I tried being polite. “Sorry, guys, Dan says he doesn’t want you fishing on his property.”

At that point , the smooth talker went into high gear. Suddenly, somebody who had “years and years” of salmon fishing experience on the Kenai River was full of questions. “What do you think of how we have our gear rigged… where else would you recommend fishing… when does the salmon run peak… the property next door is vacant do you think we could fish there?” All the while his buddies were flogging the water furiously, instead of packing to leave. 

The Q & A was interrupted by my phone. It was Jason. Dan had called him up immediately after talking to me, and the five minutes were more than up. Jason asked me how things were going and volunteered to come right out. Jason is a strapping young fellow. I had a feeling that if he got there before the smooth talker and his buddies beat feet, the blood on the dock might not be entirely of a piscatorial source.

I spoke into the phone loud enough for all to hear, “No, no, everything’s cool, Jason. No need for that… or the cops. They are leaving as we speak. Talk to you later.” 

Finally convinced fishing would be better elsewhere, the trespassers packed rapidly and left. But as he headed to the car the smooth talker couldn’t resist one more question. “What if we stopped by and talked to Dan when he gets home? Suppose he’d …”

“Not a good idea. Not a good idea at all.” 

So where I’m going with this is an analogy. Imagine you bought a house with a great back yard. The yard has a beautiful lawn with a horseshoe pit, volleyball net, gorgeous barbecue and maybe a nice swimming pool. One summer day you come home and strangers are throwing a party in your back yard. Their explanation is simple: “The previous owner always had parties like this, and we always came.”

What would you think? What would you do? If you visit the Kenai Peninsula, I hope you’ll keep that in mind.

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