Where Reality Collides With Fantasy
Find yourself in the parking lot of a bar and restaurant surrounded by three hundred and sixty degrees of the prettiest country in the world.
If Hollywood were to stage a highway ending extravaganza, this is how they'd do it. It doesn't get to the beach and stop. There's a real drama to it. You'll crest over the hill just before Homer and look over a misty bay right out of Greek mythology. You can see the end of the road from there. It rides the back of a natural gravel bar some five miles into the bay and just stops. You get out of your car and find yourself in the parking lot of a bar and restaurant surrounded by three hundred and sixty degrees of the prettiest country in the world.
From: As Far As You Can Go Without A Passport: The View From The End Of The Road
By Tom Bodett (Humorist, radio personality and Homer resident)
The long standing affair I have with Alaska started when I was very young and confined to bed with a serious case of whooping cough (considered a deadly disease at that time). Reading was my only outlet especially books by Jack London who introduced me to the far North. Like many of my dreams Alaska was not to be fulfilled, that is until I retired from the airline industry (1995) and made my first trip North to Alaska to try my hand fishing for wild Alaska salmon. This first trip was to the predominate Yup'ik (native Alaskan) village of Aniak, about 300 air miles west from Anchorage. After that trip it became evident that I'd never be able to survive very long in such a remote area although I still carry a special fondness for this place, especially the residents who tolerate foolish tourists (including me) with boundless grace and humor.
My criteria for a living place involved many of the creature comforts we experience in the lower 48 (I've had all the camping in crappy weather I can stand while in the Army). In later travels around Alaska I was introduced to Homer in particular the Homer Spit, a 4.5 mile sand bar that extends into Kachemak Bay on one side and the Cook Inlet on the other side. Homer and the Homer Spit is located at the very end of the Kenai Peninsula on the Sterling Highway, the only highway down the Kenai Peninsula (getting lost isn't a problem with only one road to navigate, even for me with a penchant for losing my way).
My first trip to Homer (2001) was what brings a lot of people to the Spit, a lack of fish anywhere else. Our hostess (Linda) decided that we might have better luck and generally have a nice outing with lunch at a local restaurant and some different sort of fishing. The drive down the Sterling Highway from Soldotna was a pleasant trip (about 54 miles) with plenty of new and exciting things to gawk at, one of which was a cow moose and calf grazing on the road side. The Kenai Peninsula has a very large moose population, a particularly cranky breed of moose, especially a cow with calf, who often ignore traffic and seemingly cross roads at inopportune times despite the danger from cars. I once heard a Wildlife State Trooper say he would much rather meet a bear (somewhat predictable) than a moose (totally unpredictable). He warned that in no uncertain terms should you see a calf moose along the side of the road do not even consider stopping to get out of the car to take a picture or worse yet approach the calf. Cows usually stay in hiding keeping a close eye on their offspring and would like nothing better than stomp the daylights out of some foolish tourist. Another less than brilliant move is walking your dog where moose are prevalent, moose see all dogs as wolves, their mortal enemy. There have been incidents of moose attacking walkers with dogs with sometimes dire results.
The first thing to greet me upon entering the Spit was a Tsunami sign warning travelers on the Spit that if the horn blows the best course of action was to head for high ground (now besides a crazed moose I have to be worried about being washed away). Alaskans are understandably wary of tsunamis since the majority of deaths in the 1964 earthquake were tsunami related. The drive to the end of the spit was filled with visions of what I would describe right out of a movie set, "Mad Max" comes to mind. Stuff, all kinds of old stuff, in particular what looked like very old mining machinery (Homer was at one time a coal mining town). Moored on the beach was an old LCT (Landing Craft Tank which looked as if it was a refugee from the D-Day Invasion) being onloaded with giant Spruce logs to be ferried to waiting freighters destined for Japan. The whole place had a sort of messy charm without any rhyme or reason, just a very comfortable place for someone like me with an untidy mindset. Another assault on the senses was the overwhelming smell of food cooking from the campground at the Fishing Hole. Hunger overtook us so we drove down the road stopping at a local watering hole aptly called the Salty Dawg Saloon, something that appeared to be built from bits and pieces from different old lumber (exactly the truth). Being jammed with thirsty locals we opted for something a bit more sedate and drove on to Lands End Resort at the very end of the Spit. During a lunch of halibut (Homer is the halibut capital of Alaska) and some of the very best craft beer I've ever tasted (Homer Brew) our hostess outlined the rules of Spit fishing for salmon.
The actual fishing starts two hours before high tide and finishes when the tide wanes. The salmon are constantly on the move unlike in fresh water where they rest in slack water (silver salmon etc, Kings rest behind obstructions). It well may be said that this two-hour window is not always constant everywhere in Alaska where salmon are entering a river so its always wise to have a tide chart handy (charts are also available on line). Our hostess outlined three options as where to stand and fish, the Eastern shore of the spit and cast out into the bay, the exit of the inlet and the shore of the impoundment. Then came a stern warning; if you fish the impoundment do not wade out into the water, the floor of the impoundment drops off suddenly and with waders you'll sink like a stone. Me being me listened half heartedly, with salmon trapped in a hole just how hard can it be to catch a few. We arrived at the Fishing Hole shortly before the salmon were to enter the inlet, our hostess taking a spot facing the Bay, me taking my position facing the impoundment and my fishing partner trying to wedge himself with all the locals crowded around the inlet (being dressed in all of his fly fishing finery he stuck out like a sore thumb against the T-shirt and jeans crowd, he's a doctor which should answer a lot of questions). One oddity I noticed was a preponderance of fly rods being carried by what appeared to be the local residents. I sauntered to where these folks were gearing up to see if I could sneak a peek at just what flies where in vogue. Yikes !!! not flies but cut chunks of herring, on a fly rod no less, must be an Alaska thing.
Right on cue the tide and salmon rushed into the impoundment and with it a sort of hysteria gripped every one who started chunking all sorts of lures into the water
Right on cue the tide and salmon rushed into the impoundment and with it a sort of hysteria gripped every one who started chunking all sorts of lures into the water. Those folks crowded around the inlet started pulling out salmon with what I describe as a crude but effective technique (running up the dunes dragging a fresh Silver salmon behind). While standing there with a puzzled look a wave engulfed the inlet, something akin to a bow wave off a boomer (Nuclear submarine). The people standing in the water beat a hasty retreat some even running to get away from whatever. Taking the cautious approach I joined the retreat up a large dune. Stopping on the top, beating my chest to get my heart restarted I stood next to man who by his dress I made out to be a local resident of this crazy place. We had the following conversation:
"Gasp gasp, WTF was all that about?"
"Don't know, but some can reach 1000 pounds.
"Could very well be if you give them a reason to take a hunk of meat out off you besides the infections you'll get from the rotting fish in their mouth. That plus the fact you're missing a chunk of hide will put you in the hospital for a huge load of antibiotics (#3 thing for me to remember, stay away from Sea lions with big teeth) By the way you catch any fish?"
"Nope, been chunking here for an hour but no luck"
"What are you using?"
"Flies (opening my box to show him the collection of my killer flies)"
"Nice but useless here. You must have been fishing in the rivers. Here is a whole different set of rules. The fish out there in the bay have one thing on their mind, SEX. Once in the fishing hole they figure out they're trapped along with some seals or that damn sea lion so the salmon are in a full panic mode.
The Sea lion will most likely leave when the tide goes out and what salmon who weren't caught or left the way they came in will settle down some."
"What's with those two harbor seals sitting out there like they own the place."
"They don't bother anybody, just waiting until they can pick up a cripple or two."
"But some folks are catching fish, how come?"
"Cut herring, the best spot is right at the inlet exit before the fish figure out what's up, that and fish into the bay while they are waiting to enter the inlet. No matter what their mindset salmon won't or can't turn down a chance to bite a morsel of herring".
After two hours everything came to a screeching halt, those who had fish packed up their prizes and headed for home or went to the cleaning station to filet their catch. Those who didn't catch anything continued to thrash about trying to catch anything that swam in the lagoon. It was easy to tell who knew what they were doing and those who didn't have a clue how to deal with this place (that group headed by me). Next a new group descended on the scene with lawn chairs, beer coolers, whole families settled down to enjoy the day and warm sun (warm being a relative term in Alaska).
Brightly colored bobbers appeared in the impoundment, lots of bobbers, soon the lawn chair crowd started pulling fresh Silver salmon from the water.
"WTF are those people using?"
"How do they keep the eggs on the hook?"
"We cure the skein with borax, they get tough enough to hold together on a hook but still dissolve enough to give off a scent in the water. I can see the wheels turning in your head, don't tell me you're thinking about egg flies or herring flies."
"Nope, actually I was thinking it must be close to O Beer Thirty" (watching the lawn chair crowd sucking on bottles of Homer Brew activated my thirst reflex).
I thanked my new friend for all his efforts to educate me on the ways of the Homer Spit, rounded up my partners and we drove off the Spit with plans to return again.
9/11/2001: Very early the next morning my wife called, asking I turn on the TV to CNN. What came on were the images of the attack to my city of birth, in a few moments my world had changed and not for the better either. Thoughts of fishing were swept away as we faced the daunting way to return to the Lower 48 states since anything that flew was grounded till further notice (we couldn't find anyone who knew what further notice meant). The people of Alaska depend heavily on the airplane for their survival but the worst scenario was that many fishermen and hunters (tourists) were trapped in remote locations with some typical crappy weather adding to the mix. Luckily Alaska had the "No Fly" ban lifted in a few days and life returned to some semblance of normality in this outpost.
Final Thoughts: I talked to other fishermen who fished the Spit and all of them seemed to have the very same frustrating experience that I had. In the second part of this article I will outline how and what flies we used to catch salmon in the Spit without resorting to live bait.