Emergency: too many fish. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said it was raising the limit to three a day. That was the text I got from Paul Cahill on Wednesday. Friday morning we hit the Kenai.
We rented Paul's house, the Kenai River Red Lodge, outside Soldotna, fished a couple of creeks and brought a couple of silvers, a steelhead and assorted Dolly Varden to hand. But Friday morning was the main event.
This is a city home to 4,100 year-round residents with a Walmart, a Sportsman's Warehouse and a Fred Meyer because the population could easily hit 50,000 in June, July and August.
By the time the kids go back to school, a big part of the populace is ready for fall. In September, camouflage is as fashionable as chest waders. We saw moose, the smart ones, in the city limits and brown bear tracks along the creek. Ptarmigan, the waitress at Froso's said, were predictable at the end of the pavement. If we had brought a shotgun...
We had not; instead we brought Hevi-Beads, Spey rods, spinning setups and bear spray.
Fueled by Sisters Coffee, we stepped aboard two boats, shook hands with our guides, Cory and Taylor, from Chet's Guide Service (Chet was bear hunting), and pushed out into the milky current and the rain that blew in off the ocean.
Moments later, I made a mental note to never forget my rain pants again. I looked at my daughter, Jennifer — same deal. Our jeans were soaked through in minutes. My dad, Don Lewis, was stoic beneath a summer ball cap soon to be soaked with Kenai sunshine. Summer comes to a screeching halt in September in Soldotna.
We didn't come all this way to not fish. Rain pounded down; the wind blew the boat upstream and back and forth on anchor.
Behind us, we pulled Kwikfish, wrapped with sardine fillets. Time seemed to stand still as the rhythm of the waves pounded the bow and water found its way inside our sleeves and soaked through to our socks. And unseen the salmon blasted up along the bank. The first one was a small silver, small by Kenai standards anyway, 6 pounds. It threw the hook before we could get the net under it.
Jennifer's rod was the hot one and when the next salmon tried to crush the Kwikfish, it bent to the water. We cast off the anchor line and drifted back as Jennifer tried to gain line. It wasn't easy.
Soaked through to the skin, so cold our teeth chattered. Sam Pyke looked at me and we laughed. We have filmed these fights with fish in some of the world's great waters, but this might have been his biggest challenge, keeping water out of the camera. His fingers were so cold he could hardly focus the lens. My thoughts were so cold, they froze like ice cubes on my lips.
Jennifer's fish was one of the hottest silvers I have ever seen. It battled above the surface as much as it did below, and at one point, airborne, slammed into our boat. When we weighed it six hours later, it was a touch over 13 pounds, one of several 'teeners out of 17 we landed between our two boats. Half were filleted before we could get them to a scale, but the biggest in our boat pushed the needle to 14 1/2 pounds.
I voiced what had been on everyone's mind. We were 10 minutes away from a change of clothes, from a hardware store that sold rain pants, from a hot cup of coffee.
An hour later, we were back, and the fish, fresh from the salt, with sea lice clinging to their tails, smashed our baits and the rain and wind beat down.
To some of us, the Kenai yielded that three-fish gift, that emergency limit, but she pushed us to our limits.
Emergency orders. Get a rod, get your gear, get to the river. It's September, it's Soldotna; it is summer at a screeching halt way up north.