KENAI, Alaska As the Kenai River flows and the gallery of guides comes and goes, Gary McFadden remains.
The 62-year-old trout and salmon guide has been guiding on the Peninsulas most famous river as long as some guides are old and has been a permanent fixture in the constantly changing fishing community.
If youre a trout, chances are youve either seen McFaddens iconic beard and hat full of hot glue and artifacts gazing down at you from the end of a rod or net or heard of his fishing prowess.
If youre a fisherman, you might have had a chance encounter with McFadden along the rivers edge as he makes it a habit to counsel other anglers and guides about how to properly net and release his favorite catch.
Its been bred in from generations, he said sitting at Sals Klondike Diner in Soldotna. A trout is like a piece of art you want to take care of. It is like you are part of the whole thing when you fly-fish. You get a hold of it, and it is like a part of your arm stuck out there.
This summer, McFadden was nominated and inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame based in Hayward, Wis., as a legendary guide.
It is a humbling deal, McFadden said.
The Cooper Landing resident has been a guide for 26 years for Alaska River Adventures and, in addition to seeking his treasured Kenai rainbow trout, he also guides for kings and silvers in the lower river and on the Kasilof River.
McFaddens fishing and conservation-mindedness hasnt gone unnoticed by other guides, said Mike Harpe, manager and guide for Kenai River Fly Fishing. Harpe said McFadden is like the Kenai River itself unforgettable.
Hes kind of an icon, Harpe said. ... Hes kind of like the wizard, hes like Gandalf almost. He has those qualities about him, and there is something to say about that.
McFadden came to the area from northern Idaho in 1974 and bounced around the state before sticking in Cooper Landing. No matter where he went, however, he said he always returned to the Kenai in the summer to fish, at first learning by sitting on the banks asking those hooking sockeye for advice.
Much of McFaddens family fishes and he uses both spinning and fly-fishing gear.
The only person (in my family) that used a fly rod was my grandfather, and the only reason he used it was because some of his fingers were missing, he said. So he had one of those reels where youd push the button and it would reel up itself.
McFaddens recognizable hat has seen almost all of the fish he has caught on the Kenai River as he has worn it daily for the last 37 years, save for a few rare instances. The layers of hot glue coating serve two purposes to hold it together and to keep in place the numerous pins and artifacts lining its brim given to him by friends and clients.
I always tell them, If this hat could talk, it would get us all in trouble, he said with a laugh. True story.
Since he began guiding, McFadden has seen a lot of guides come and go some chasing more money or fame, others tired of the hard work and seen most of the areas secret spots exposed except for the ones he still keeps close to the chest.
When I first started fishing, Id be fishing all day and see five, maybe six boats, he said.
One particular fishing method now wildly popular among local trout fishermen McFadden helped pioneer was using small beads to mimic salmon eggs one of a trouts main food sources in the fall.
We kept beads secret for a long time, he said. There were a few of us that tried to, but its not a secret no more.
McFadden caught his biggest trout 39 inches on the upper river 19 years ago in the spring on a muddler minnow, he said.
Ive been trying to beat that ever since, he said.
Several years ago, McFadden had a trout on that was just as long and fatter than his previous best that he fought and lost near the shore. That fish will haunt me the rest of my days, he said.
The fight was pretty much over, and he was just following me in, he said, mimicking a rod in one hand, eyes widening. He wasnt pulling, I wasnt pulling and I was just pulling him over to the side. All of a sudden, I didnt make a move and the hook just popped out.
He said hell always be learning more about how to fish the river, but he has a mental record of the local flies, seasons and water conditions he can access like a Rolodex. Its the challenge, after all, that keeps a fisherman happy, he said.
Im still working on the river, he said. A river like this with the flood? Next year it is going to be a whole different ball game. Different holes and youre going to have to start finding new places to catch fish.
Moreover, the rivers fish are educated in more ways than one, he said. He often is discouraged to see their mouths beat up and scales missing. He uses small, barbless hooks and preaches that message wherever he can, even in the middle of a hired trip.
I once pulled in (next to a family fishing) and set up some gear and said, OK, this is the type of gear you have to use, set it up this way, and I got back in the boat and left, and my clients are going, What are you doing? Well, Im trying to teach people how to take care of these fish, he said.
These days, McFadden said hes noticing he doesnt get out and fish as much.
Its not because I dont enjoy it ... but sometimes I just feel guilty just going out and just playing, he said. These fish have been fished hard, and by the end of the season, their mouths are sore.
His advice to younger fishermen and guides is simple. Treat the fish well. Be kind. Have fun.
If people dont cherish what theyre doing, if they just want numbers or big, usually they dont catch fish, he said. Its the people out there that it dont matter if it is this long or that long as long as theyre catching fish, theyre having fun. Well, those are the guys that catch more fish, I think.