California Man

I guess it all started the afternoon that I finally convinced Stewart to take me up to Jim’s Rock-N-Roll Fishing Camp. Having heard Stewart brag over and over about what a great place Jim’s was – I finally had to see for myself. After all, it’s not everyday a neighbor brings you good tidings of the possibility of fishing from private property. Accordingly, Dad, Dr. Luke, and myself piled into Dad’s rig and made the journey up Funny River Road and to the precipitous decline that was the driveway to paradise. It had been years since I was fortunate enough to fish the Kenai from the un-crowded waters of a private bank, and I was definitely looking forward to meeting Jim and making a good impression upon him. However, as we approached the descent into Jim’s it became quite obvious we would not be alone – in fact, we had stumbled into the midst of a giant party of Filipino’s who were having a cookout and enjoying the waters at Jim’s. Though there was quite a crowd around, our group was welcomed with open arms and we were invited to go fishing right away. I jumped at the chance and went back up to the truck to don my fishing garb. About this time, Dad noticed that he had forgot his waders or his fishing pole or something – some vital piece of fishing gear anyways – and he had to get in the truck and drive back to get his gear. While I got ready to fish, Dr. Luke mingled with the crowd and took some pictures of the campsite.

Jim’s place is located directly across the river from Bing’s Landing, and it was kinda neat wading out into the water and staring across the river at a place I had fished many times before. The sockeye were running pretty good at the time, and the crowd at Bing’s was pretty thick. Poor suckers, I thought to myself, as I waded out into the water – a private citizen – ready to make my first cast in non-combat waters. I stripped off some line and flipped my rig upstream a few degrees like I normally do and started my drift. The feeling I got back from the river bottom told me I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Instead of feeling the nice steady tap-tap-tap of the river bottom, my joy turned to horror as I realized Jim’s drift was nothing but a boulder-strewn snag-hole. In the ten minutes I fished, I lost three or four flies to nasty boulders, and lost my only hookup of the session as my fish broke water and headed straight for the Naptown Rapids. The other issue that I had to deal with was the fact that the rocky river bottom at Jim’s was a slippery as ice. Even as Dad was off driving to get his fishing gear, I knew he would never be able to fish here…one bad step and he’d be a goner. With great reluctance I headed back in to shore and broke the news to Dr. Luke that I thought Jim’s was going to be a “bust”.

A few minutes later, Dad pulled back in to the campsite and before he could get his stuff out, I let him know that we needed to try somewhere else. I peeled off my fishing gear and we started back down Funny River Road. After a few minutes of silent thought, I suggested to the party that we stop and fish at the Funny River. The Funny was an old fishing haunt of mine from a few years back and I knew that Dad had never been there and that he might enjoy a change of scenery. Now, The Funny is a great little place to fish – unfortunately “little” is the key word here. While other public fishing areas can crowd fisherman after fisherman into them, the Funny River doesn’t support many people. In fact, in my opinion, it only holds about half a dozen decent spots and of those there are only two or three places to stand that I would be happy with. With that said, I was a bit anxious about getting a decent spot for Dad and Dr. Luke to fish in. The telltale sign for The Funny is the parking lot – and as we turned into the driveway and came into view of the parking lot I could see there were a fair amount of vehicles already there. We had plenty of room to park, but still, there were probably more than three people standing down in the river already. Again, I started getting anxious.

To properly set the mood I was in, I must frame this story with the sad fact that Fish and Game had been totally screwing-the-pooch over the last few days. With a preseason sockeye forecast of “poor” for the Cook Inlet, coupled with the fact that the sockeye had been a few days late per some poor biologist’s fish return calendar, Fish and Game had taken the unprecedented step of lowering the sockeye bag limit to one fish per day. And to top that off – the limit was going to zero fish per day the day after tomorrow – and all of this just as the bulk of the sockeye run had begun to hit the river. Now, most of us at the time believed this was bad policy by Fish and Game. Everyone had gotten so used to the fish being in the river on July 15th, that everyone figured some sort of tragedy had occurred when the fish were a few days later than normal. (Apparently, no one informed the fish about this fact, however) So, as a result, F&G closed the river when the fish finally did come in and didn’t let anybody catch any, and then they acted all astonished when the fish kept coming and coming all the way through August – when there was nobody left in town to catch any. And so as we all know, once again, for the umpteenth year in a row, the Kenai River got “too many” fish in it again.

Anyways, after dealing with all the rumors of a closing fishery, and the bummer of the Jim’s situation, I was in a bit of mood as we pulled into the parking lot at The Funny. For whatever reason, as soon as we pulled to a stop I informed Dad and Luke that I was heading down the trail to perform a recon of the situation. They stayed behind, paid the parking fee, and got dressed to fish as I briskly strode down the path towards the fishing hole.

As I turned the corner on the path and came into full view of the fishing hole I instantly saw that we had a problem – a full river. At the best spot on the corner is “California” with his two kids occupying spots immediately down from him. Past the kids and into the submerged boulder section is a small line of three more guys. Upstream from California there is a husband and wife team crammed against the bank, with their backs rubbing the overhanging branches of the trees and brush that make up the flora of that stretch of bank. Things definitely look full. To top it off, there is at least another half dozen folks milling around looking for a turn to get into the river and catch their one chrome bright sockeye for the day.

Fishing wise – things look pretty good. I see a few fish roll as they swim by the fishing hole. And of the eight fisherman out in the water there are a couple “fish-ons” within moments of my arrival. Immediately, though, it becomes apparent that California is going to be a problem. He’s standing at the good spot and acting like a total bigshot. He’s strutting about and telling everyone around him how to fish…and blah blah blah. I know this guy is going to be a problem. I’ve seen plenty like him before. And I can just foresee this guy standing in the good hole all-night long doing a catch-n-release party – just to show everyone what a great fisherman he is. And so, as the late afternoon has already turned into evening, I begin to wonder just how I’m gonna get Dad and Luke out there to fish in a full river, especially with big-shot California standing out there hogging the decent place to fish.

A few seconds later, California hooks into a nice bright sockeye and slowly backs it into the safety of the small cove behind him. He’s got a good mouth-hook on it and it looks like a keeper. I tell myself that what happens next will be the key moment of the evening. Will he a) land his fish and call it a night, b) will he release it and keep on fishing, or c) will he land it and then go back out to his spot and play catch-n-release?

Ultimately, California lands his fish in a small strip of mud along the bank of the river, and traps it in a small rock-pool enclave that someone has built with a dozen small rocks. Kneeling over his fish, I can see him messing with it for awhile, before getting up and heading back out to the river. Though he messed with it for a good thirty seconds, I can tell he didn’t outright kill the fish, because it’s still flopping around as he gets up. Next, California turns and starts to head back out to his fishing hole. It looks like the answer to the key question of the evening is going to be: c) retain the fish and then go back out into his hole and play catch-n-release for the rest of the evening. Given the severity of the situation, the fact that Dad and Luke need a place to stand in a few moments when they arrive, coupled with the fact that there’s more folks standing around that would like a chance to catch a fish, California’s decision to return to his hole and keep fishing starts to get to me.

Then out of the corner of my eye, I see his fish on the bank start to flop again. I have a quick “Jimmy Neutron” moment and I come up with the only card in my hand that I have to play at the moment – basically a Four of Clubs – and I yell out to the guy, “Hey, Mister…are you gonna kill that fish?” Even as the question was coming out of my mouth, with that sarcastic tone that I’m so famous for, I knew it was a “weak play” at best – but sometimes depending on the situation, you’ve just got play the cards you’ve been dealt and see what happens. Anyways, California turns and regards me for the first time and answers nonchalantly, “I cut its gills to bleed it. It helps protect the meat.” Then he turns back towards the river and prepares to cast again. At this point he’s got me. His answer, lame as it was, easily trumped my measly Four of Clubs – and at that, I was out of cards to play (However, if truth be known, I had an ace up my sleeve at the time and didn’t even know it – until two days later! The regulations had actually been changed to not allowing catch and release fishing for sockeye after a person had caught his limit of one). The game was over – this guy was going to stand in the good hole all night long and there was nothing I could do about it.

But just then, when all was lost, Cal’s mouth betrayed him and he made a major mistake – and the tide turned against him. Cal turned and said to his oldest son in a voice loud enough for me to hear, “Okay, now I’m going to hook some more fish and get your guys’ limits.”

Sensing the opening to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – I pounced, “Hey, Mister – you know the limit is one fish per day, right?” (A Four of Spades, I think I have one pair now…)

California turned and faced me again, and from his body language I could tell he was going to get short with me – “The limit is six per day”.

“Six?” I say to him, “Don’t think so. The limit is one sockeye per day, Sir.” I added the emphasized sarcastic ‘Sir’ in an attempt to ruffle his feathers a little.

Cal retorted with an arrogant I’m-too-smart-for-your-games tone, “The limit is six pinks per day. I’m fishing for pinks.”

Now, for a guy who moments ago had the upper hand, even I begin to pity him – “I’m fishing for pinks” – that was one weak answer. It was such a bad play that I could tell that even a few folks in the gallery, who mere seconds earlier were totally disinterested in my verbal assault, were now starting to rally to my side.

His answer emboldened me. “You’re not fishing for pinks,” I say in an accusatory tone, “It’s quite obvious to everyone here that you’re fishing for sockeye.” That was a good move, I think to myself, of including the crowd in my statement. Not finished yet, I continued on, “Plus, we all just heard you say out-loud to your son that you were going to catch their fish for them.”

I’m definitely on a roll now, hitting him with my best multi-punch combo full of B.S. and courage. So, I throw another jab, “You know you can’t catch fish for your kids. That’s illegal.” Wow! I startled myself there for a moment…the word “illegal” had made its first appearance for the evening.

Over the next few moments, I can sense the tension I have created all along the fishing hole. It’s so thick you could cut it with the proverbial fillet-knife. A couple of the other fishermen, as well as, most of the crowd beside me had been drawn into the conversation. This was becoming an epic…

And though I’m at risk of coming off like the biggest asshole ever – (I mean who ever heard of some guy walking up to the railing at a fishing hole and start verbally attacking some random fisherman?) – I’m fully committed to discouraging California from going back out into the hole and going fishing. It is a big risk, I realize, and if I don’t pull this one off smoothly, there’s no way I’m going to be able to go back and gear-up and go out fishing with all of these other folks. No way.

Luckily, though, Cal’s response came to my rescue and he continued to dig his own grave, “In California, where I’m from…we have a thing called ‘Boat Limits’ and you can keep on fishing until the limit for the boat has been caught.”

This remark was Cal’s complete undoing. His first mistake was the arrogant tone in which he emphasized the – “In California” remark. I can tell you that there was not a single soul on the river that was on his side of the argument after these words came out of his mouth. And I could see the cringe of pain in the faces of the handful of local Alaskans that were at the river. But then to follow that up with the whole ‘boat limits’ excuse…c’mon Cal you gotta do better than that.

At that point, a couple of locals fishing right next to Cal started to get upset with him, as well. They lit into him for being an ignorant tourist, and trying to apply California law on the Kenai. They made it very clear to him that he was in the wrong, and that the law in Alaska definitely didn’t include boat limits – especially not in the freshwater of the Kenai. Cal’s puffed up frame began to visibly shrink. However, he wasn’t out of the water yet, and he was still making the occasional cast.

I quickly put that to rest, though, when I pulled my up-to-then-unseen cell-phone out of my pocket and announced to Cal that I thought I’d call up Fish and Game and see what they thought of his version of the fishing regulations. Calmly and deliberately I began punching the scroll button with my thumb – working my way through the stored numbers on my phone. I only made it into the D’s somewhere before Cal broke-down and gave up. With a flurry of curse-words aimed in my direction he stomped his way back to the bank and chucked his rod down into the weeds. Looking over at his son, he said something like, “C’mon we’re going, this god-damned-sonofabitch-a-hole ain’t gonna let me fish no more.” It wasn’t that big of a problem for his son, though – who was actually in the midst of landing his own catch anyways.

Around that time, Dad and Dr. Luke appeared behind me in full river dress. I’m sure they were a bit shocked at the verbiage and commotion that was in process along the river bank – although – probably not too surprised to find out that I was smack in the middle of it. Regardless, things were beginning to work out according to plan. Within moments of their appearance, Cal and his sons were gone and vanished from sight, the local Alaskan couple had just landed their fish and were departing, and a couple of other guys who were out fishing just past Cal had snagged off their lines and were returning to the bank to re-outfit their gear. Within the blink of an eye the entire area was devoid of fishermen. I quickly motioned to Dad and Luke to step out and start fishing, and with that, I had fulfilled my purpose – Dad was going to get his chance to catch a fish at the Funny River.

Now, for those of you who have read this recount of that night’s actions and believe that I was a total a-hole for the part I played in it – I can’t totally disagree. However, in my defense there were numerous people who came up to me shortly after Cal left in a huff and thanked me for – and I quote – “running that jerk out of here.” The rest of the evening at the Funny River that night was as fine an evening as I’ve experienced on the Kenai. We made a lot of friends, everyone fishing there had a great time, and everyone was helping everyone else figure out how to catch and land their fish. After the Cal incident it was really one of those magic Kenai evenings.