The Legend of Johnny Reb:
The infamous Johnny Reb first came to my attention on July 22nd of Year 13 (2004).
Eli and myself got up at 3am and headed down to the airport hole to go fishing. We knew the fish would be in thick in the morning because we recon’d the river the previous night before bed and the catch rate was quite high. As we made it down to our hole we found Marvin and Roger there already. Roger had a fish-on and Marvin already had a nice sockeye stringered on the bank. Good signs. Eli and I fell into the ranks next to Roger and Marvin and started fishing. Marvin’s new acquaintance “Bob” soon made it down and joined us as well.
There was an excellent bite early in the morning, although, neither Eli nor myself could land one to save our lives. Both Marvin and Bob put three on the bank before I even got my first. For whatever reason, I was really struggling. Marvin, on the other hand, being the best sockeye fisherman I have ever had the privilege of fishing with, was limited out by about 4:30am. Bob was done ten minutes after that. Gradually, I started to put some on the bank.
Around 5:30am the beach had started to fill quite a bit. I was fishing my favorite spot right behind Marvin’s rock and had three nice sockeye on my stringer. My wife, amazingly, had just made it down for an early morning session and was standing at the spot just up from me. Eli, who had one fish on the bank, was standing in the spot just down from me. And just beyond Eli, and older, white-bearded fellow, who was wearing one of those old-time civil war style caps, had recently moved into the water with two ancient silver-haired grandmas. That was Johnny-Reb.
We instantly took a disliking to Johnny-Reb because he went and stood out in the middle of the river, his feet planted right in the path of where we were hooking fish. Only an idiot would stand out in the middle of the river…and Johnny-Reb was clearly an idiot.
As an aside, let me pontificate for a few moments on how and where a true sockeyer should stand in order to catch fish. I’ll try to sum it up in a few paragraphs and then get back to the story of Johnny-Reb.
First of all, the biggest key to catching sockeye is to stand as shallow as possible. Sockeye tend to take the “path of least resistance” in their migration upriver. The path they take will be the shallowest path possible that also provides them cover from surface detection. On the Kenai, with its glacial stained water, that path is typically 10-20ft from the riverbank in water 3-6ft in depth. The path of least resistance will vary with the sunlight conditions throughout the day. In the early morning and later evening hours, decreased sunlight penetration will allow the path to be closer to the riverbank and thus in shallower water.
Another factor that figures into the path of least resistance is what I call the “boot factor”. Obviously, if someone is standing in the river the sockeye must go around that person’s feet. If you go out and stand in the migrating path of the sockeye, the fish will have to go around you, and that means 99% of the time they will choose to swim deeper. I have seen sockeye sneak behind a line of fishermen before, but it is rare. Therefore, the deeper a fisherman stands, the deeper the fish will swim. Conversely, standing shallow allows the fish to swim closer to the riverbank with-in the confines of the above-mentioned surface detection rule.
In my experience, the depth of a line of fishermen is controlled by a domino theory. As soon as one guy starts to stand out deeper in the water it forces the guy immediately upstream from him to either make an adjustment in his drift and retrieve or to take a step out deeper as well. Depending on the elbow-room and spacing of the fishermen lined up along the bank, just one guy moving out deeper into the water can eventually force everyone else to move out, too.
Granted, the path of least resistance is not a linear, straight-line path. The river bottom is not uniform. A boulder here, a boulder there. Some areas are natural “holding” areas, some spots the natural holding area is a few feet out farther. These differences can largely be mitigated by the length of line a sockeye fisherman uses in his drift, though. Rarely, does the uneven nature of the “path” call for a guy to stand an additional 10-feet beyond the rest of the fishermen. To be fair, I do concede, that there are spots along the river that can only be successfully fished by standing deeper in the water. Typically, these spots are related to the presence of a large underwater boulder. These are relatively few in number, though, and in no way can explain the numbers of fishermen who are standing too deep.
Additionally, it should be understood that it easier to land a sockeye that is hooked in shallow water and gentle current, than it is to land a sockeye that is hooked in deeper swifter water. This is clearly a “generality”, but it is also common sense. A sockeye hooked in fast current has the benefit of extra water pressure to throw a hook. A sockeye taken in shallower water doesn’t have that advantage and will have to expend precious energy to fight its way into the current. So, if my intentions are to put sockeye on the bank in order to fill my freezer, which it usually is, I’m going to use every advantage I can to land them. That means I’m going to do everything I can to target shallow swimming sockeye.
Let me wind up this pontification with a little bit of fishing etiquette that also is relevant to the discussion. When you come down fishing and you are a “late arriver” – meaning that there is a whole line of other fishermen there already – the burden is on you to respect the line in which everyone else is already standing. Even if you think that you know better than everyone else, do you really have the right to walk into the water and cut-off the drift of a group of people that have been there fishing since before you even bothered to wake up? No. Even if those people haven’t caught anything yet? No. How about if they already have a lot of fish on the bank? No. How about if it’s just a rookie lady? No. Just a bumbling kid? No. A couple old grandma’s? No. Clearly, I’m trying to make the point that a newly arrived fisherman joining an established fishing line has the responsibility to stand in a way that doesn’t adversely affect fishing for those who were there prior. To me, that is just common sense, natural decency, the American way. Yet, I have seen this problem arise every single time I’ve ever gone sockeye fishing. That’s why I always try to be the first one on the river each morning – and I try to be finished before the “late arrivers” show up.
So, now it should be clear why I labeled Johnny-Reb as an idiot. This guy wondered down into the river, walked out about ten feet beyond where we were standing, and stood right in the middle of our hooking path. Eli and I had been there for a couple of hours before he and his group showed up, we were hooking fishing with great regularity, and hand multiple fish on the bank. So this guy thinks he knows better?
Maybe the thought comes to you – hey, maybe you’re being too hard on this guy, maybe he just doesn’t know any better. You’re being judgmental. He’s not an idiot, maybe someone just needs to explain to him how this fishing thing works. Aha – gotcha! We did that, read on.
So, anyways, Eli and I are catching fish and Johnny-Reb comes down and plops himself out in the middle of the river, standing in our catching hole. The real problem isn’t for me, it’s for Eli who is standing next to him. All of a sudden, after two hours of care-free casting and drifting, Eli is reduced to a weak drift because this guy is in his way. Eli is tempted to move out deeper into the water, but I’m pretty aggressive and I don’t allow him to block me. Instead I suggest to Eli that he begin employing combat tactics against this guy. To Eli’s credit, he is so mild-mannered that aggressive combat tactics are not something he can bring himself to do. Therefore, my continuous suggestion of – “hook him in the boots” goes unheeded, save for a few unintentional snaggings by Eli.
Next thing I know, I’ve got another fish-on and it takes a little bit of line. Being the good fighter he is, my sockeye peels about 10 feet of drag and ends up right at Johnny-Reb’s feet. The Reb makes absolutely no effort to get out of the way of my fish, leaving me a very tough angle. As a result I lose the fish. So that’s how it’s going to be, huh? Not only are you a later arriver standing in the middle of our hole, but you’re not even going to yield ground for a neighbor’s fish-on? Nice, really nice. I feel the thermometer boil up a few degrees on the inside, but I haven’t reached my final conclusion on this guy yet.
Being in the zone, and in the midst of a good pulse of fish, I hook up again right away. This time I have no intention of trying to land the sockeye, instead this fish will be a test of Johnny-Reb’s character. I step downstream a few feet towards Eli and let the sockeye wrap down into the Reb’s legs. The Reb stops fishing for the moment (a good sign), but once again makes no effort to move out of the way. Acting as though I’m having trouble with my fish, I allow it to remain pinned on the Reb’s right leg, and let it splash him until the fish finally breaks free. Johnny-Reb has flunked the character test for the second straight time, has revealed his true character, and is officially – an Idiot!
Despite the fact that Eli has his drift cut down, he starts to get hot and begins to hook fish. As with me, all of the fish he hooks he has to battle not only the current, but Johnny-Reb’s legs. He loses a few, he lands a few. At this point, I’ve got five fish on the bank, Eli has three fish, and the Reb hasn’t even hooked up yet.
In fact, every time one of us hooks up, the Reb has to basically turn half-way around to look behind him to see who has the fish on. That in of itself, should be an indicator to the Reb that he’s in the wrong spot. Here’s another simple rule to file away; if you have to keep looking behind you to see who has a fish-on, good chance you’re standing too deep. It’s a simple rule, but effective.
So, we keep hooking, and the Reb keeps looking and not hooking. Eventually, Eli has enough pity on the guy that he reels in his line and goes over to talk to the guy. I know Eli as one of the most gentle people on planet Earth, so I know his comments were done in a gentlemanly manner. Eli puts his hand on the Reb’s shoulder, and invites him to move back into line about four big steps shallower than he is now – all the while explaining how the fish are still running shallow at this point in the morning. Despite Eli’s appeal, the Reb refuses to budge even an inch. Oh well, we tried.
Upstream from me, Glory finally starts to hook some fish and she puts a couple on the bank. Then it’s my turn again, and I land one and limit out. Since I know that fishing is pretty good, I make my way back to the rig in order to get the digital camera and the video-camera. My roundtrip back to the river takes me about 15-20minutes, as I take advantage of my success by grabbing a quick snack, as well.
By the time I get back to the river the Reb surprisingly has a fish on the bank. Eli still has three fish and Glory has a couple. I watch everyone fish for awhile and take some pictures and do a little bit of filming.
The next hookup is achieved by Eli. He hooks a big monster and again he has to fight his way through Johnny Reb who refuses to move out of the way. As a result, Eli has to spend too much time fighting the fish and he eventually loses it. Much to the credit of Eli’s character, he doesn’t mind, and he quietly goes back to fishing. Soon after, Johnny Reb hooks up again. As the Reb fights his fish, he slowly backs up into Eli’s space – chasing him out of the way, so that he can land his fish. So, here’s the Reb – once again proving his poor sockeye citizenship – he won’t get out of the way for our fish, yet when he hooks a fish – he backs his way into everyone else’s space. Nice really nice.
I tire of watching the Reb fish, so I go and grab my limit of sockeye and head for the nearest cleaning table. At this point in the morning, between the three of us, there are about 11 fish on the bank to clean. So, I figure I better get started.
Over the next 45 minutes or so, I clean, I watch, I clean, I watch. I see Eli get his sixth fish of the morning and retire to the bank for a rest. I see Glory catch another couple of fish. And I see the Reb finally put his sixth fish on the bank. The funny thing about Johnny Reb, though, is that he doesn’t stop fishing after he lands his sixth fish of the morning. This is interesting, I think. I know the Reb is not an Alaskan native – so there’s no chance that he’s fishing proxy. A few minutes later, he lands his seventh fish of the morning – and puts it on the stringer. Does this clown know what he’s doing? I shake my head in disbelief and go back to cleaning our fish. Man, I wish Fish and Game were on the beach this morning.
About ten minutes later, Johnny Reb lands and bonks another fish, his eighth of the morning. Well, that’s it, I’ve officially had enough of this guy. Being an idiot is one thing – that’s our God given right as an American – but catching eight fish in one shift, when the limit is six – now that’s just not right. So as the Reb unties his stringer to put his eighth fish on it, I put down my filet knife and make my way over to where he’s standing-
“So, do you think you’ve caught enough this morning?” I ask him in my best sarcastic tone.
“Well, I got my fish and now I’m catching for her” the Reb replies, as he motions to one of the gray-haired grandmas who is out fishing next to his spot.
“No, what you are doing is illegal. I’ve personally watched you catch and land eight fish this morning. The limit is six. You’re not allowed to catch fish for anyone else, unless you are fishing proxy – which you are not. And if you were fishing proxy, you can’t catch for someone else who is fishing with you.”
“Well, uhmm….ah….I was just finishing up here. I’ve got mine now.”
“No, you’ve got more than yours. I suggest you and your group get your stuff and get out of here before Fish and Game comes by. And I hope they do come by – cuz if I see them, I will certainly be waving them down.”
That was about the extent of our conversation. The Reb, though silent after our discourse, heeded some of my advice and got his group out of the water and headed off to a cleaning table to take care of his fish. Man, I was pissed at that guy. He basically admitted he was over-limit, and he was an idiot of a fisherman to boot. Of all of the times that a guy could have wished for Fish and Game to be around – this was it. I pretty sure they would have given the Reb two tickets – one for being overlimit – and another for being a dumbass. Now there’s something I would have liked to get on tape.