My father and I leaned into the current, waiting for the salmon. We were up to our hips in the Kasilof River, a milky-blue ribbon of glacial melt that snakes through southern Alaska. It was nearly midnight, and the stars winked faintly through a pewter sky. Beneath the brim of his fishing hat, my father, a month shy of 73, smiled into the sweeping twilight.
We had traveled more than 3,000 miles to catch an Alaskan king salmon. Formally called the Chinook, it is a bucket-list fish, the largest of all salmon and notoriously elusive. Landing one is an angler’s version of sinking a hole in one. Our whole family—my husband, parents, uncle, and three boy-cousins—had traveled from Alabama and Florida to pursue this singular goal.
It was the last big family fishing trip before life would change forever. My husband and I had just seen our baby’s heartbeat, a flickering light on an ultrasound screen, a glimmer of our future. I wasn’t showing yet, so it still felt theoretical that this tiny tadpole swimming inside me would grow into a man. I imagined my father teaching this future person how to fish.
On this Friday night, the river bend was buzzing with locals and a smattering of tourists. Two Texas boys in their 20s wobbled over the rocky shore in skinny jeans and cowboy boots. “We been fishing for three days,” one said, “and not a single bite!”
Within minutes, a brawny local hooked a fish and handed him the rod. “Boy, you said you wanted to catch a king,” he said. “Here you go.”
The skinny Texan tottered down the bank, fighting to keep his rod tip up as it bent with the weight of a keeper. The locals hollered from the sidelines: “Keep some pressure on him!” “Don’t let up!”
The Texan wrangled the monster onto shore, where he bent, panting, over the thrashing fish, not knowing what to do. Someone sauntered over with a river rock and bashed it in the head. The fish went still. I felt a twinge of envy. Then I felt my rod tip nod. As we entered the ancient paso doble of angler and fish, I recalled the words of my favorite guide, who taught me how to land a whopper on a pencil-thin rod. Let him run when he needs to run, then gently bring him back. Not too much pressure, or you’ll snap the line. Be patient and tough. You’ll tire him out.
Slowly, deliberately, I let him run and brought him back, the whine of the spinning reel sinking lower each time. When I saw the arc of his back break the water, my king took away what little breath I had left. He was big. He was strong. And then he was gone.
Dad smirked and deadpanned his favorite line: “There’s a reason they call it fishing, not catching.”