IN THE LAND OF THE KINGS
WITH NATALIE BENNION
Alaska: Alakshak, Alyeska, great land, peninsula, that which the sea breaks against, land of the salmon. Living in Alaska for four months has brought me great appreciation for its natural habitats. Particularly the mystical and wondrous Chinook. The famous, anonymous quote, “Not all who wander are lost” couldn’t hold more truth for any creature than the wild, native, King Salmon. I wanted an up close and personal experience with the King of all fish who leaves his freshwater home as a youngling. The fish who ventures into the ocean, a large and unknown world where he will most definitely face trials, tribulation and countless hardship. Then years later, by maturity and nature, remembers who he is, where he came from and what his purpose is. The Chinook mysteriously finds his way home to fresh water. By intuition alone he returns to the same place he was born, where he then spawns to preserve his species. His purpose isn’t fulfilled yet, the King then dies to feed and preserve the majority of the Alaskan habitat: the rivers, other fish species, bears, many more animals, eagles and countless birds, even people. I was determined to greet such royalty and I wanted my first encounter to be with my fly rod.
Over the course of two mornings on the river, I fought three Chinook, however, was only able to land two of them. We hear the term “fight” often in the fly fishing community. I didn’t comprehend or appreciate the true definition of this phrase until battling a King Salmon on an 8wt fly rod. It was easy to miss setting the hook. When a King hit my fly, it would bunker down and stall, often making me feel like I snagged on the bottom of the river. It wasn’t until I gave that quick tug to set the hook, that the “snag” on the bottom turned into an immediate freight train hauling the end of my line. I was baptized by fire from my immediate mistake of not setting my reel drag tight enough. The motor on that salmon accelerated so fast and so rapacious my hands were left bleeding, bruised, and resulted in one broken finger; true story. It was the first time in my fly-fishing experience that a fish took me all the way to my backing. It was intense, as I literally fell to my knees twice during a battle. At one point I felt my arms giving out, and I wasn’t sure I was going to land a king at all. I felt panicked that I may not be strong enough to bring one in. Dang, I shouldn’t have skipped arm day at the gym! After wrestling, what felt like a sea monster, for 5-7 minutes (it felt more like 30 minutes) I finally felt the freight train on the end of my line give up. I wanted to cry like a baby after landing each one. The combination of such an adrenaline high and then feeling physically exhausted brought me to tears when I saw such beauty in my net. The one I lost, after fighting it the longest and hardest, after seeing the fire engine red, still haunts me to this day. I couldn’t tell you the exact amount of time it took me to reel it in close enough to see it, but it felt like an eternity. I was completely exhausted by the time I got it close enough to net. As the net approached that red fire engine, it spooked and sped away for one last haul to the depths of the river. I was so tired, I wasn’t willing to fight it again and didn’t give it any slack. Because of this fatal error, the King snapped my actual green fishing line! Oh the horror, the excitement, the relief! Who knew fly fishing would bring out such emotions in me. I am forever grateful for the amazing locals and Alaskan hospitality. It was so fun to watch others land Kings, and everyone respect the angler with one on the line. Someone would yell “fish on!” And everyone else would back out of the water and let the angler battle it out. There is something about fly fishing that brings people together and creates an unexplainable bond. Infact, I became friends with a gentleman who happened to be fishing next to me. He got a kick out of watching me fight Kings for my first time, let alone on an 8wt rod. He even let me try out his fancy 12wt Sage spey rod. We have remained in contact to this day! It’s funny how something like this could bring two complete strangers together.
After holding, touching and seeing this amazing species of fish, after being up close and personal with them, I appreciate them. I admire them. They are beautiful. There is something to be learned from the King Salmon. They fight through difficult stages of life, and they don’t ever give up, because their intuition tells them they have a purpose.