Don Latella has been fishing the Kenai River in Alaska for the past 15 years. A longtime resident of Fayetteville, via the Army, he grew up on the New Jersey coast. “From the time I could hold a rod in my hand, I’ve been fishing,” said Don. Fayetteville gents that may be familiar to you have also joined this excursion, like Bob Adams, Herb Bryan, Tony Cimaglia, John Harbison, Steve Kouba, Billy Freccia, Skipper Smith, Bowman Smith, Ben Lennon and John Lennon.
With the many accessible lakes, rivers and coastline of the Old North State, why does he travel all the way to Alaska each year? “I was having a discussion with a friend many years ago. He asked me, ‘Would you rather go somewhere to catch a fish every other cast, or would you rather fish a place where you might not get a bite all day, but if you did, it would probably be a wall-hanger?’ I thought about it and said, ‘I think I’d like to catch a world-class fish.’” The rest is history.
Don fishes the same area at the same time each year with a group of men and a guide. “I go where the fish are,” he said of the Cook Inlet and the Kenai River, which is named for the town of Kenai and runs through south central Alaska, about 150 miles south of Anchorage.
Salmon are anadromous, which means they travel from salt water to fresh water to spawn. Uniquely, Kenai salmon stay out to sea a year longer than most salmon, which helps them achieve a classic “trophy” weight for the fishermen who flock to the 82 mile-long river. In July alone, 45,000 salmon run the river, affording many opportunities to reel in a record-breaker.
Strategically, he plans his trip each year for the third or fourth week of July. “Three salmon are in season. King season ends the first of August. It’s the peak of Sockeye season and the beginning of Silver season. You even have a shot at Pink salmon, which run each year, but you can only catch them every other year,” said Don. It’s not uncommon for someone to catch a 60 to 70 pound King salmon at any point in the season, which runs May through August.
The largest salmon caught on rod and reel was 93 pounds and gives Don a goal to which he aspires, but with a relaxed disposition. “Believe it or not, I had the most success on my inaugural trip. I caught a 68 pounder and filled my card. I’m sure it was beginner’s luck,” he laughed.
Their fishing day begins at around 4:30 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. with, as Don describes, “a lumberjack breakfast,” courtesy of Ken and Elizabeth Smith of the Kenai Drifters Landing Lodge. In addition to owning and operating the bed and breakfast, Ken is among the most experienced fishermen in Alaska and, luckily, Don’s guide.
A knowledgeable guide comes in handy, especially if a fisherman isn’t familiar with the necessary technique. “There’s a learning curve. It took me three seasons to attain a level of confidence. Some pick it up more quickly, some take longer. When a traditional fly fisherman gets a bite, he pulls quickly, because the fish will spit the imitation. Here, the trick is to let them eat the bait for just the right amount of time,” said Don.
Each day, they fish from drift boats until they reach the per-person-per-day limit of fish. If the salmon are slow, they move on to Halibut, which are caught from the same drift boats and the weight of which can range from 20 to 100 pounds per fish.
They end every day of fishing rather elegantly with hot hors d’oeuvres, courtesy of Elizabeth Smith and a little bank fishing. “We used to fish until we dropped. Now, we turn in around 10:00 p.m. and we are back at it the next morning,” said Don of the six day, seven night excursion.
One might think a long, specialized trip would require bags of tackle and pounds of checked luggage, but Don packs surprisingly light. “Because everyone fishes there, supplies are 40 percent cheaper than at home. It seems as though everyone in every family fishes, from four to 80 years old. It’s heartwarming.”
Don limits his luggage, but packs strategically for the weather. “It can be 75 degrees in the bright sun, but prepare for 40 and torrential rain. The lodge provides a list of items to bring, but invest in the best rain gear you can afford,” he said, quickly adding, “The year it rained the hardest was the best fishing year I ever had.”
Alas, while one party can potentially catch hundreds of pounds of fish in the weeklong excursion, airline weight limits apply. Don transports his catch, fileted and vacuum packed by his guide, Ken and flash frozen to -20 degrees each day, in two coolers. Because they are frozen at such a low temperature, Don doesn’t bother with ice or dry ice. “I just fill the rest of the cooler with dirty clothes or newspaper,” he laughed.
Don is taking a break this July due to recent back surgery, but will be back on the Kenai in 2016. “I’m bummed beyond words, but already looking forward to next year.”
If you’re interested in learning more or maybe even joining these gentlemen on their fishing excursion in The Last Frontier, contact Ken Smith at email@example.com.
John C. Tally Big Drum Invitational
What began as Crawford MacKethan’s bachelor party in 2007 has become a highly-anticipated weekend-long event each year in the Pamlico Sound at Cedar Island, the northernmost and most sparsely populated area of Carteret County.
The weekend after Labor Day, at the peak of Red Drum spawning season, 100 men in 20 boats come together for fishing and fellowship. While there are trophies for first, second and third place, the winners don’t receive a monetary award. “It’s for bragging rights only,” said Crawford, who organizes the tournament each year with Lockett Tally, son of the late John C. Tally, an avid fisherman and the tournament’s namesake. “My dad always loved fishing Cedar Island and we grew up with a lot of men who fish in the tournament. They were his friends,” said Lockett, who particularly appreciates the tournament’s unique ability to bring together the men of his dad’s generation and his own.
Bragging rights are a sufficient draw, as the tournament reaches capacity quickly and has for the past several years. “Everyone loves to relax with their buddies at Cedar Island and they get to do it at its best. First place or last place, every boat catches fish,” said Lockett, of the tournament’s continued success in the pinnacle of a season that lasts from August through October.
The official salt-water fish of North Carolina, the Red Drum has been a protected game fish since 2007. Using an Owen Lupton drum rig, the design of which increases probability that the fish will be hooked harmlessly in the side of the mouth rather than the belly, all fish are released quickly after measurement to minimize trauma. “The fish we catch can be 40 inches long, but they are also 20-50 years old. We want to protect them as much as possible,” said Crawford.
Another paramount concern of the tournament co-chairs is safety. Participants must be experienced in navigating the Pamlico Sound, the largest lagoon on the East Coast. Fed from the west by the Pamlico and Neuse Rivers, the area is characterized by wide expanses of shallow water, shoaling and tidal shifts from tributary rivers. “It can be a treacherous body of water if you don’t know it,” said Crawford.
Comprised mainly of Fayetteville natives, with some locals from New Bern and Wilmington, the tournament begins on Friday night and runs through Saturday night. On Friday, contestants fish from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and Saturday from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. The boat that catches the most Red Drum wins and a fish must be 34 inches long to qualify.
Downtime in the morning and early afternoon or as Crawford calls it, “while we’re waiting to fish,” is spent in search of the best bait, thinking about bait, hiding bait and arguing about it. “Imagine how competitive it would be with money,” laughed Crawford of the good-natured rivalry.
The entry fee of the tournament is $100 per person, which covers locally catered food for the weekend, a custom designed tournament t-shirt, can koozie and if a fisherman is lucky enough, a trophy. There is no specified lodging, with most of the participants renting houses or staying in their own beach homes nearby. An honorary John Tally award is given each year. “It can mean something different every year,” said Lockett of classifying the award. “It’s a best-all-around award. For someone who shows the most character, has fun and contributes to the tournament.”
Costs are kept low, with prizes donated from Jim Edwards of AK McCallum Company on Ramsey Street, and all profits are contributed to the K-8 Atlantic Elementary School in Carteret County, for the funding of their annual 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C. “We like to keep all profits local and we couldn’t do it without everyone’s participation. We appreciate the uniqueness and isolation and the independent way the commercial fishermen maintain their lifestyle up there,” said Crawford, who is especially excited that the local convenience store, and typical proprietor of good bait, Sherman’s, will be putting in a gas pump. “It’s probably the biggest thing that’s happened for the tournament in the last five years,” he laughed.