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Silver season

The inlets near Seward, Alaska, which admirably depicts the beautiful surroundings while fishing for silver salmon. Janessa Anderson photo

Angling in southern Alaska during late summer coho abundance

By Eric Lucas

I have a flying fish at the end of my line. It’s leaping wildly from the water in the Alaska wilderness like a piscatorial Jesse Owens, cartwheeling through the August morning, hurdling rapids and cataracts, plunging into whirlpools and racing upriver as if nuclear-powered.

It’s all I can do to steer it away from drift-log cottonwood snags where the fish could snap my line like a loose thread in an old sock. In fact, to do so I’ve had to leap out of the boat and dash along a gravel bar, rod in hand, line sizzling into the water, as if I were wrestling a runaway horse.

It’s a silver salmon, of course.

Few other fish behave this way when hooked. In my experience, actually, no other fish act like silvers, with the possible exception of high-elevation trout in fast-running alpine streams. This wild behavior is both challenging and endearing to anglers who pursue the wily coho and speak a code language whose key phrase is “silver season.” That refers not to heavy metals that go with turquoise, though now that you mention it, silver season is that late summer interregnum before fall, when the midsummer heat is a scratchy recent memory, the daylight takes on the slight slant that gives it a prismatic platinum cast, and the West Coast’s inlets and rivers are turning bell clear beneath sapphire skies.

Bring up salmon and for most people, exercising only culinary perspectives, silvers are not at the top of the list. Not even near. First would come king, aka chinook; then sockeye, aka red; then perhaps pink, aka humpy. When I declare that silvers might be my second favorite to eat, baffled disdain is the usual response. Don’t I know any better?

A large coho salmon caught and displayed on a log in the Susitna River near Talkeetna, Alaska. Eric Lucas photo

But for anglers this is the wild cherry pie of salmon, the dashing prince in an MGB. You clean the fish and set it on the grill right away and get ambrosia, and who ever gets to do that? Only those who know the code and get on the water for silver season. The commercial fishery is small compared to sockeyes, pinks and kings. Silver season is short in seafood stores, if it shows up at all. The deep persimmon color so distinctive and admired in other salmon is usually more muted in silvers. The flavor isn’t as rich as sockeyes and kings. It’s leaner, finer, succulent as opposed to fatty.

What’s not to like? First the facts, ma’am.

Like all of the West’s anadromous fish, Onchorhynchus kisutch is born in clear, gravel-bottom streams where their parents whirl and waltz in the fall, laying eggs and sperm to hatch fry that become fingerlings the following spring and head out to sea in summer. Two years or more they spend in the North Pacific, growing long and strong — typically 30 inches and 12 pounds. The record in Alaska is almost 27 pounds, caught just outside Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska. In late summer of their third or fourth year they return to freshwater to spawn.

Though cohos range from Southern California to northern Japan, the salmon heartland for all species is Alaska, home of the world’s best-managed wild fisheries. Salmon are in decline everywhere except in Alaska; last year Bristol Bay saw all-time record numbers of salmon returning to spawn: 80 million. That’s mostly sockeye, but silvers are among those millions.

The salmon bounty was the lifelong love of famed angling writer Roderick Haig-Brown, of Campbell River in British Columbia. His rapturous evocation of the annual abundance rings clear even a half-century after he wrote this:

Tens of thousands of anglers go out each year to catch them in the salt water, and every angler who fishes a migratory stream sees them and finds his sport, directly or indirectly, through them, for the power of the runs persists through the year and affects all other fish.

Eric Lucas holds a silver salmon he caught while fishing in the Copper River delta in southeast Alaska. Photo courtesy Eric Lucas

But the salmon runs are more than this. They are a last true sample of the immense natural abundances of the North American continent. They have been damaged and reduced in many places, it is true, and in some places, especially the Columbia River, the damage is great and permanent. But they remain a massive abundance, complex and wonderful, throughout most of their range, and throughout much of it their potential of natural abundance is as great as ever.

Among the five Pacific salmon species, chinook are the sumo wrestlers, sockeyes the ballerinas. Let’s call silvers the strong safeties, piscine athletes who combine strength, endurance and grace all into one saltwater bazooka. The freshwater corollary is rainbow trout, which are widely estimated as the ancestors of salmon.

Among fish I’d like to catch, silvers are almost tops.

So that’s what I’ve done, in the inlets and bays and nearshore waters of south-central Alaska, running out of Seward on charter boats into tumultuous waters where you send your line deep and wait to feel with your hands the imperious tug of a coho bite. Set the hook and your prey will surge to the surface, heading for Hawaii to escape your intentions, framed against a morning mist that filters sunlight as if it were chamomile tea.

I’ve done the same on the Susitna River, launching out of Talkeetna, and however marvelous Pacific fishing may be, late summer on Alaska rivers is an Edenic experience. Having both beauty and brawn, the rivers are surging waterbeds that sing and dance like dragons. Majestic cottonwoods line the shore, hinting at fall with a first touch of gold.

That was the case on one of my best fishing days ever, a late August morning (that’s the start of fall in the north) on which I brought to the boat a fine, strong, brightly hued 10-pounder that fought like Ali and looked like a Matisse. Enamored of my catch both mercenarily and metaphysically, I laid her on a shoreline log for a portrait. My companions, Anchorage residents who have gone out for silver season every year since the American Revolution, nodded their grasp of my reverence.

“So, do you want to take that home?”

Is that a real question? x

Eric Lucas lives on a small farm on San Juan Island, where he grows organic hay, beans, squash and apples.