Saving the ecosystem by swimming to demise: why you should be intrigued by the life cycle of salmon

Growing up, I’d flip through my old man’s large stack of outdoor magazines.

Inside these magazines were collections of photos and articles from people describing all things outdoors.

I remember looking at high end firearms, “How to Reload” articles, photos of beautiful whitetail deer, mule deer and mountain wapiti.

I remember seeing monster brown trout caught on the fly, or a big paddlefish caught by a young man who had a lucky day on the water.

I remember breathtaking views from all over the world, and thinking “maybe one day I’ll visit that place… heaven on earth.”

But the images that stand out most in my memory today are those of the fish that, for most people around the world, end up as a meal on our plates at a fancy restaurant.

And SALMON… they are more than that.

Kenai River Cowboys netting a King Salmon on the Kasilof River — July 2017

Where my obsession with salmon began

From the time I was little, the outdoor lifestyle boiled in my blood.

With Montana being home, almost every weekend, my family packed up the truck and headed for the mountains.

Whether we were hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, dirt biking, or boating, there was always something to learn from God’s creation.

When I graduated high school, I was ready for adventure and took off to explore parts of the country I hadn’t yet seen. I spent a few years living on the east coast, and I spent some time living on the west coast.

I saw some BEAUTIFUL places…

I experienced a life of exploration that not many people my age have had the opportunity to live.

For those things, I always felt deeply grateful and blessed.

But I continued to feel a nagging itch for more — and maybe it had a lot to do with my dad’s old magazine collection — but I new I needed to go salmon fishing in Alaska.

Kenai River Cowboys land a healthy chrome female salmon on the Kasilof River — July 2017

My Alaska dream came true

In the spring of 2016, I had saved up some money, and with the help of my amazing mom, we purchased a father-daughter fishing trip for my dad and I to celebrate his 50th birthday.

Butterflies stirred in my stomach for months as I prepared myself (and my dad) for the trip we’d always dreamed of — fishing for the powerful, beautiful, fearless kings during the epic second salmon run the last week of July.

As our plane landed in Anchorage and we picked up our “tiny home” for the week, I remember my dad distinctly mentioning how he could make the Kenai Peninsula his new home. I felt the same way.

We took our rented bright red Dodge dually pick up with pick up camper attached through the winding mountain pass on our way to Sterling, AK.

They weren’t kidding when they said “everything’s bigger in Alaska”.

As we drove past the Cook Inlet and Chugach Mountain Range, I felt I had never seen something so spectacular in my life.

It was like pairing my experiences on the east and west coast (on the ocean) with my experiences in Montana (near the mountains).

What I saw were some of the steepest and gnarliest snow-capped mountains, magically appearing out of a glacier colored ocean.

The drive to Sterling set the standard VERY HIGH for the remainder of the trip… but we were not disappointed.

Spending the next week on top of the world famous Kenai River was something like a dream. The day before heading back to Montana, I knew I needed to come back, if for no other reason, to sit in a hammock by the river and enjoy the beautiful big water and majestic mountain range in the distance.

Kenai Mountains in the background of the famous Kenai River

 Hooked on my first king salmon

But the fishing was nothing like I’d ever experienced.

At 4am on the second day of our trip, we floated down the tidal Kasilof River in a drift boat.

By 4:30am, we were anchored up, our rods were baited, and the lines were in the water.

Probably not a minute later, my sturdy rod bent over. It looked like it was about to break. The drag started ripping line, buzzing with a “zzzzzzz, zzzzzzz, zzzzzz”.

After letting the rod holder set the hook for me, I picked up my rod and started fighting the fish. As you’d probably expect, it was a different battle than the trout and walleye fight I was used to.

With the butt of the rod in my hip, lifting the rod tip up and reeling down towards the water, I fought the fish for several minutes as it continued to take line.

Finally, I wore her out, and landed my very first “chromer” hen. Just over 35 pounds, it was by far the biggest and most powerful fish I had ever laid my hands on.

A few hours later, after breaking off on a rock in the middle of the river, my old man landed his first king too.

It was so fun (and a little bit funny) to watch his adrenaline and excitement work as he brought in a huge 40+ pound hook-jawed buck.

In that moment, I couldn’t have been more excited for him. Even though him and I always had a history of competing for the biggest fish, I was glad he beat me this time.

It brings me to tears now thinking about how happy he was that day. The fact that I got the opportunity to share that moment with him changed my life. It will be something I always remember. We will never relive that moment again.

The next couple days, we repeated the same schedule. We both caught another king and we both had the time of our lives. We developed a deep appreciation for these amazing animals, and this ultimately led me to returning the next year for a full summer.

Father-Daughter Salmon Fishing Trip — First Day — July 2016

Alaska dramatically changed my perspective of salmon

In 2017, I landed a job working at a fishing lodge on the Kenai River.

My job allowed me to fish every day of the summer… whether I was helping clients land salmon or reeling in salmon of my own, my love for the fish grew each day.

I was lucky enough to see for myself the visuals I once saw posted in my dad’s old stack of magazines: eagles soaring through the air, screeching with sockeye salmon clasped in their talons; bears fishing 60 yards away from me in the Russian River Falls; fatty rainbow and dolly varden trout spewing with salmon eggs when you picked them up to take a shameless “grip-and-grin”; spawned out “Christmas trees” swimming and jumping upstream to their fateful deaths; and the previous years carcasses from salmon that died and washed up on the shoreline.

It was in these moments that I realized how much these incredible fish impact not only the economy of Alaska, but more importantly, the ENVIRONMENT.

Left: King Salmon; Right: Sockeye Salmon; Bottom: Pink Salmon

Salmon drive the Alaska wilderness and wildlife and welfare

For those of you unfamiliar with the salmon cycle, I’ll summarize it short and sweet for you:

  • A female’s nest of eggs is fertilized, usually on gravel beds in freshwaters streams and rivers.
  • In the spring, the eggs hatch, and tiny salmon begin to mature and feed. Depending on the species of salmon (pink, chum, sockeye, coho, or chinook), a fry can spend up to 2 years in fresh water before migrating to the ocean.
  • Salmon may spend 1 to 7 years in the ocean feeding before embarking on their own migration into freshwater.
  • Once they hit freshwater, the salmon stop feeding and begin to spawn. They begin to change from silver in color to red and green. They swim back up to their natal streams where females build their nests.
  • Females lay their eggs and milt immediately afterwards. Males fertilize the eggs. And eventually both males and females die.
  • And the cycle starts over again….

What was so amazing to me was the way the salmon spawn affects every aspect of life in Alaska.

The salmon serve as a food source for other fish in the ocean… for example halibut.

They serve as a food source for bears, eagles, owls, hawks and other predators.

When they spawn and die, they serve to fertilize the river habitat and land with nutrients that grow healthy vegetation.

The healthy vegetation provides an amazing source of food for animals like moose and caribou.

Salmon also provide locals with a inexpensive, healthy, and delicious meal to feed their families.

The salmon provide opportunities for fisherman (sport and commercial) to make money, provide people all over the world with delicious meat, and pursue a passion of chasing one of the worlds most significant creatures in maintaining Alaska’s wildlife, wilderness, and welfare.

If these beautiful big Alaska mountains and waters don’t catch your eye, you should probably get your eyes checked!

Want to go fishing in Alaska?

It was easy for me to fall in love with Alaska for many reason. However, my experience of this beautiful and desolate state would not have been the same without the fishing.

I will not be returning as a guide in future year (at least not at this point in time), however, I would love to connect you with some of the most skilled and experienced fishing guides on the Kasilof and Kenai Rivers.

If you are planning a trip to fish Alaska, look no further.

Kenai River Cowboy’s Matthew Lewallen is your guy for World Class Kenai and Kasilof Fishing Charters.

Be sure to mention that Maranda Ratcliff sent you their way.

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Some of my favorite photos from fishing with the Kenai River Cowboys — Summer 2017

Call to action

Click here if you would like to see my EPIC 2017 Highlight Reel….

If you liked this article, please consider subscribing to my personal blog for updates on new posts!

Until Next Time,

Maranda Ratcliff

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