Story last updated at 7/30/2014 - 11:14 pm
Alaska does great things to ordinary people. It grabs ahold of warm weather non-anglers, dips them into a reality they didn't know existed and can never see on television.
Sure, there are mountains and of course the wildlife, but it's the interaction with the wildlife that can be the most eye-opening.
There's a part of the fishing process that is rarely contemplated by the visiting angler. Fish are hooked, fought, then held up for hero shots before being put into boxes for hero walks through the airport baggage claim. The part that's missing has to do with how the fish are killed, because it's not pretty. It's violent always the subject of at least a brief discussion.
I hear some variation of "I didn't think you had to do that" every summer.
They never gave it much thought. Those with some fishing experience usually recall reeling in and putting it on a stringer or in a cooler. Maybe there was a tap on the head in there somewhere, but certainly not what it takes to kill an ocean-bright salmon.
A few years ago, a friend brought in his fish and attempted to take the hook out while it was swimming on the rocky shore. The hook fell out and my buddy went back to casting, fish still unclubbed. I hurried over, gave it two whacks with my favorite fish-beating piece of alder, then slit its gills.
He remembered his trout dying shortly after laying on shore. Salmon don't do that. Salmon don't accept defeat. They've been on the menu every second of their short and intensely dangerous lives, so beating the life from them is necessary. After I dispatch the first fish, there is a short debriefing in an attempt to assuage any fears my friends might have about my mental state.
Before that moment they knew me as an English teacher, basketball coach or college roommate. None of that involves blood or blunt-force trauma. In the heat of the moment, I've been reduced to punching a coho that popped off the hook and was about to slide back into the water until I blocked it like a catcher stopping a pitch in the dirt.
There was no time to get the club. The funny thing about this is that I am delicate when it comes to a 14-inch cutthroat trout. I want to make sure the tiny barbless dry fly I used to trick it doesn't do permanent damage. I use a rubber net to prevent abrasions and handle the fish as little as possible.
There is nothing cute, tactful or polite about sending a salmon's soul to fishy heaven and its meat to the freezer. So one of the best parts of the summer is when my guests realize this and engage. It's fun to see them in that mode: the self-sufficient, I'm-on-vacation-killing-my-own-fish-state-of-mind. It's a part of life they could have guessed existed but probably never expected to live. Unless you're seeing it from a cruise ship, Alaska forces your hand. It takes blue-booted women from Boston and turns them into fish-stomping hooligans, if only for a few days.