Cancer Diagnosis Doesn’t Deter Angler From Thinking About An Alaska Return

The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

Brian Kelly’s memories of chrome-bright Alaska salmon and the state’s towering mountains like Denali (left) have been on his mind during treatment for prostate cancer. “This situation offered me a chance to pause and reflect on all of the mar- velous experiences Alaska has given me over the years,” he writes. (BRIAN KELLY)


It had been two weeks since undergoing a radical prostatectomy to remove a cancerous tumor that had decided to take up residence in my body. The process leading up to the operation included a series of tests, results, discussions and decisions that presented a rollercoaster of emotions for my wife and I. No one ever wants to hear a doctor utter the words, “You have cancer.”

That news came after I had just completed my 14th trip to Alaska and finally scratched salt-bright kings off my list (Alaska Sporting Journal, August 2023). My mind definitely started to wander as I tried to make sense of all the information that was being thrown at me during the many doctor visits and from the medical opinions I received.

My wife and I have been together for 10 years, married for six, have three kids between us, and I had just turned 51 in the fall. I wasn’t ready to wave the white flag; not by any stretch. Fortunately, we caught this early. My family doc had been checking my PSA levels in my annual blood work for years, and in January 2023, that number had spiked. I was not experiencing any symptoms, which is why prostate cancer is often referred to as a silent killer.

After jumping in an MRI tube the day after getting back from Juneau, a tumor was revealed in my prostate gland and a follow-up biopsy showed that this little annoyance was indeed cancerous.

My head began to spin after meeting with local specialists and getting all their opinions on how to treat this disease. All options were on the table – from radiation to surgery to just monitoring the tumor since we’d caught it in the early stages.

I have never been one to dwell on the past, as I am usually onto plans for the next trip. But this situation offered me a chance to pause and reflect on all of the marvelous experiences Alaska has given me over the years.

Hiking to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park is a must- do excursion for traveling anglers, says the author. (BRIAN KELLY)

THE FIRST ALASKA IMAGE that pops into my head are the mountains. They are like none other – iconic Denali and Redoubt, the scenic Chugach Range – and they all have a special place in my heart.
I tell folks here in Pennsylvania that we don’t have mountains in the northeast; rather, large rolling hills with trees all the way to the top. Alaska has real mountains – the tall, rocky, craggy kind with snowy tops and glaciers that seem to go on forever.
Denali can be a challenge to lay eyes on in person; well, that is if you spend clear-skied mornings on the river chasing silvers instead of sightseeing!

I spent quite a few years fishing in the Mat-Su Valley without a glimpse of the state’s most famous mountain, as it has an annoying habit of getting socked in with afternoon clouds.

It wasn’t until a fly-out trip to the more remote west side of the Mat-Su that I was able to see Denali in all its glory. The camp was located south of the park, along the headwaters of the Kichatna River.

The weather the first couple days of our trip was filled with the usual gloomy conditions that often roll into Southcentral Alaska in late summer and keep the mountains out of view. But a high-pressure system arrived one morning, and on the boat ride back to camp, there it was: Denali. Our guide was gracious enough to stop the boat midriver so we could all get pictures. That image is so firmly ingrained in my brain that I am surprised it didn’t show up on my CT scan!

“It was awe-inspiring then and I still enjoy the view now,” says Kelly of Mendenhall Glacier just outside of Juneau. He likes to light up a cigar after the day’s salmon fishing is done and take in the scene. (BRIAN KELLY)
Catching limits of salmon with friends and bringing the meat back to the Lower 48 has been an experience to cherish again and again. (BRIAN KELLY)

ALONG WITH THE BEAUTIFUL mountains are the majestic glaciers that come pouring out of them. There was one flight up to Anchorage that will always stand out. As we flew over Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on a clear day, it was astonishing to see how far the glaciers stretched out around Mount Fairweather and Mount Logan. I truly never realized how immense these glaciers were until getting a bird’s-eye view.

But the real treat is being able to hike up to the point where the glacier ends at the land or sea. The famous Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau is a popular tourist destination and was the first glacier I ever witnessed in person back on my very first trip to Alaska, in 2007. It was awe-inspiring then and I still enjoy

the view now, as I often like to drive the road out on Douglas Island and enjoy a cigar after a day on the water.

The other glacier that is a must- see for traveling anglers in Alaska has got to be the Exit Glacier outside of Seward. This behemoth is located in the Kenai Fjords National Park and gives visitors the opportunity to take a short hike up to the edge of the glacier, which is what I opted for a few years ago, or take the longer hike up onto the Harding Icefield, which is on my future to-do list.

Cancer-free, Kelly looks forward to joining his wife in Ketchikan this summer. “It seems like yesterday when I was 38 years old and on my way to Anchorage for the first time,” he writes. “I finally feel that clock ticking in my head: How many trips do I have left?” Here’s hoping for a lot more. (BRIAN KELLY)

I HAVE, OF COURSE, a plethora of fond memories of all the fish over the years and they became another place that my mind has wandered to throughout this cancer journey. I can proudly say that I have landed all five Pacific salmon members of the genus Oncorhynchus, and not just landed them all, but in both their chrome and sea-lice-laden versions.

Each member of this remarkable family of fishes holds a special place in my fishy little heart – even pinks! This oft-maligned member of the salmon crew does get a bad rap for being an easy target, as they will hit just about anything in sight.

But there was one special pink that I latched into back in 2016. My fishing partner and I were fishing the lower Kenai that year in search of fresh silvers, and as my spinner swung in the current, it was smashed by what I initially thought was a nice coho for the grill. It turned out to be an oversized hen humpy that my partner and I both figured to be around 10 pounds, a trophy for pinks!

2016 was the year of the warm water “blob” in the Gulf of Alaska, when several line-class world records were caught that summer, due in large part to the elevated water temperatures that apparently put the fish into a feeding frenzy.

Chums are another among the species that don’t get as much respect as the kings, silvers or reds, but they can bend a rod just as well as their highly regarded kin.

On one of our trips to the Mat-Su Valley, the chum run was strong and we kept landing chrome chums with sea lice while twitching jigs. And believe it or not, when they are dime-bright, chums do make great table fare!

But of the bunch, silvers are my favorite. Their inquisitive nature makes them a true pleasure to fish for, as they will hit just about any type of presentation – just not all at once. They do require a bit of patience to determine what specific presentation fires them up on that certain day, time and tide.

In 2019, our crew was in Juneau for a week chasing salt silvers in the Gastineau Channel. The run timing was perfect, as the numbers of fish were building every day. The weather wasn’t ideal – bright sun and warm temps – but we all knew the bite would explode with a weather change; and it did.

A large low-pressure system rolled in from the Gulf of Alaska, bringing much- needed rain, wind and cooler temps. The first morning of this change was a bite that I will cherish for the rest of my life. It was a fish per cast for the entire incoming tide; if you lost one during the fight, you just kept working the jig and another bite would soon follow. I have never been so exhausted from fighting big, mean silvers. That’s why I keep going back to Alaska!

AFTER DR. RUBEN OLIVARES from the Cleveland Clinic laid out all my treatment options, it became apparent that surgery would be the best route to treat the prostate cancer. This has proven to be the correct action to take, as I can proudly report that I am cancer-free!

A post-surgical report showed that the cancer was indeed confined to just the tumor; the prostate gland, surrounding tissue and lymph nodes all came back clear, as did my full CT scan. No more tumors to deal with, just annual blood work to further check PSA levels, as there is a small chance cancer cells could reappear in the area where the prostate gland was removed. If that’s the case down the road, low-level radiation will handle the issue.

But for now, it is time to heal up and get ready for the next trip. My wife and I are planning to visit Ketchikan this summer, a place that has been on my to- do list for some time. I would like to meet and interview artist Ray Troll; I have several prints of his, as well as many, many T-shirts collected over the years of traveling to Alaska.

It seems like yesterday when I was 38 years old and on my way to Anchorage for the first time. I finally feel that clock ticking in my head: How many trips do I have left?

Well, after defeating cancer, it is time to find out. See you in the water again, Alaska! ASJ