I learned so much on this trip. Here's what I learned about salmon:
- Salmon spend most of their lives in the ocean. They only come up the rivers to spawn -- returning to the place where they were hatched to lay their eggs.
- The spawn lasts just a couple of weeks, during which time anglers can be lined up almost elbow-to-elbow in what they call "combat fishing."
- Salmon are guided on their journey, which may span years and thousands of miles, partly by their heightened sense of smell. According to one science writer, if the oceans and streams were martinis, they could detect one drop of vermouth in 500,000 barrels of gin.
- The earlier you catch a salmon in its spawn, the better it will taste. As it spends more time in the river, its flesh begins to break down. If you catch a salmon that's red on the outside, instead of silver, it's not going to be any good. So the closer you fish to the mouth of the river, the better the quality of your catch. (The inside, of course, is always red.)
- There are two basic ways to catch a red (or sockeye) salmon. They may strike at your lure or fly. If they don't, you have one last chance to snag them in the mouth before taking your line out of the water. You do that by casting a little upstream, letting the fly float down past you, following it with your rod tip, then just as the line gets perpendicular to the river bank, giving it a sharp yank. Ideally, the hook will come sideways and catch a salmon in the mouth. Anywhere else -- the head, the back, the fin, the side -- and you have to throw him back.
- Unlike other types of fishing, you don't have to worry about making noise. The salmon are focused on the spawn and are rushing past you anyway.
- You don't have to go in deep or cast far out to fish for salmon. We stood in knee-deep water on a sandbar, casting just 10-12 feet in front of us. The salmon were running right up alongside of us like on a highway. When you hook one, you back them into the shallows and net them.
- When they get to the end of the spawn and successfully lay their eggs, salmon die of exhaustion, flopping up on sandbars and riverbanks to be eaten by bears and eagles and other predators.
- Salmon fishing is serious business in Alaska. People fish not just for sport but for subsistence. Over and above the fish they catch on a line, every head of household in Alaska is entitled to take 35 salmon via "dip netting," where they scoop them from the water with large nets. It's not just the native people who do this -- tons of everyday Alaskans stock their freezers full of fish for the winter.