Only in Alaska: Combat fishing and the rules of engagement

Combat fishing: if these two words bring to mind images of men dressed in camouflage, battling for giant fish, then you’re not too far off from reality. Though Alaska might seem like the sort of land where scenes from A River Runs Through It play out in real life, you’re actually more likely to see roadside rivers crammed with anglers tossing hooks and sinkers into the water in the hopes of snagging one of the many salmon working their way to a spawning site.

Up here, salmon swim up streams that pass through major cities. In downtown Anchorage, salmon-rich Ship Creek is a 100-meter sprint from the high-rise hotels and office buildings of the business center, and in the middle of the rail yard and port. Mid-summer, you can spot anglers shoulder to shoulder in the creek as you wander through the Saturday Market.

The salmon are so plentiful, in fact, that as they are finishing their life spans you can actually reach into the water and pluck one out with your hands (it’s illegal to do that, though). In the fall, after the fish are all spawned out and dead, the smell of rotting salmon permeates any land within 100 feet of a stream – just driving over a bridge in your car is enough to catch a whiff of decaying fish.

But when salmon are still full of vigor, filling clear streams with their red and silver bodies as they struggle upstream to spawn, their rich meat is sought-after by sport and subsistence fisherfolk alike.With much of Alaska remote and rugged, the intersections of salmon streams and highways, or salmon streams and cities, become hotspots of fishing mayhem, where fishermen stand shoulder to shoulder as they pull their limits in. It’s an odd sight, as you’re driving through miles of mountains, to suddenly come upon hundreds of people sardined together in a single line along the banks of a pristine river.

If you decide you want to join in the intensities, there are a few rules of engagement you should follow. I snagged these from the Peninsula Clarion:

  • Don’t take someone else’s spot
  • When you hook a salmon, yell “fish on!” If someone near you yells this, take your line out of the water.
  • If someone else has a fish and your lines become tangled, cut your line.
  • Wear protective glasses to protect your eyes from flying hooks and sinkers.

In general, be respectful and safe. And once you snag that giant salmon, don’t forget to take the usual bear precautions. Though the hundreds of people lined along the banks of the river may appear to be playing some adult version of “Red Rover,” you’re actually in the middle of some very wild country.