KENAI — For 24 years, Greg Brush has been cementing the foundation of his life — faith, family and fish.
When he was a 27-year-old, he abandoned his union job, moving away from Northern California’s salmon and steelhead fishing in search of the famous, giant king salmon. He built his life around that decision — he met his wife, had kids, bought a house and built his business as a full time Kenai River guide.
The foundation was solid, he thought, until he looked closer this summer and noticed the cracks forming. The king salmon on the river in decline, Brush looked for a reason.
The 50-year-old Soldotna man could feel the chips falling away, solidifying a feeling that had been brewing for years. Brush had been entrenched in Kenai River issues and had participated in numerous boards and meetings. At up to 50 hours a week, it became an unpaid, full-time job and nothing changed.
If anything, it grew worse.
The weakest king run in recent memory shut down the sport and commercial fisheries and forced a community on the brink to look around for help. Brush looked inward. He realized that in all his years, the answer presented to solve king shortages was pointing the finger. It’s always someone else’s fault, he said.
“A bunch of words keep coming to mind,” said Brush, owner of EZ Limit Guide Service. “Hypocritical. The short-sighted mentality. This ‘me first,’ take, take, take. It’s my right. It’s my prerogative as an Alaskan.
“You know what? What if we put the resource first? What if? What if Greg stopped thinking about Greg and Greg didn’t think about EZ Limit. What if I didn’t put EZ Limit first? What if I put the Kenai king first? That’s what I’m doing and you’d be shocked at how many people can understand that once it is explained.”
Each giant king pulled over the side of his boat, gills ripped, head bonked, felt like a new blow from the sledgehammer, a direct hit to the foundation.
“Every time I do it I’m (celebrating with the client) and the little guy over here,” he said pointing to his other shoulder, “is going, ‘What the heck are you doing?’”
In the middle of last summer, Brush made his stand. No more. He wouldn’t kill any more Kenai kings if he could help it. EZ Limit Guide Service was catch-and-release from there on out.
Sitting in his Mackey Lake-area home on Wednesday, Brush explained the reasoning behind and steps he’s taking to accomplish his risky business move. He said he has spent the winter giving the same talk to prospective and returning customers so that he, his clients and guides are all on the same page at the time of booking. The rule: only those kings fatally hooked during the fight that would otherwise die will be harvested, when legal, he said. If the client agrees, they book. If not they go their separate ways.
The decision is personal, Brush said, stressing that while he has been a long-time advocate of catch-and-release, he is not pushing the ethic on other guides or the local industry. Rather he considers it a statement, that through client education about the resource he can perhaps change the mindset of king anglers to benefit the future of the fish.
“You’d be shocked at how many people — once you take the time to explain it to them — they go, ‘That makes sense,’” he said.
Others don’t get it. Several clients have called and canceled trips and Brush said his initial response was one of uncertainty.
“It is like you get punched in the gut — I just lost a $6,000 booking because of this decision,” he said. “Then you snap back to reality and remember the anguish of the previous king season. ... I feel strongly enough about this that I know it is the right thing for me to do and I have to stay the course.”
Brush contends the idea won’t fail. Clients can fill their freezers with other fish like halibut and sockeye. He also hopes to attract a certain clientele of like-minded fishermen.
“I’ve already seen tremendous support for this,” he said. “My king bookings, I honestly can say that in the first year of doing this aren’t (significantly) weaker.”
The strong educational portion of his plan centers on talking with clients prior to the charter as well as while they are in his boat and addressing what he considers misinformation about catch-and-release mortality. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, between seven and eight percent of kings die after being released.
Brush said he can reduce that percentage using single hook, no bait and proper catch-and-release methods, even down to one, or two percent.
“The anti-catch-and-release crowd immediately says, ‘OK, so it is two percent. So you land 100 kings, you put all of those back and two die. How is that right? How do you live with yourself?’” he said. “My answer is always, ‘It is not perfect and we do the best we can. I can live with two out of 100 dying because if I don’t do catch-and-release, guess what, 100 out of 100 die.’”
Perhaps the biggest battle Brush faces is that of tradition and ego among other guides, some who profess to preach catch-and-release but would rather not change.
“There’s a lot of pride,” he said. “You want to do good for your clients and you want them to catch fish and you want the other guides to know you are a good fisherman, so your ego comes into play.
“You hit the beach and the boat off to your left off-loads two kings, and the boat on the right off-loads three, and you off-load zero. At the end of the day it becomes a contest and it shouldn’t. You have to get past that ego and say, ‘You know what, I’m a good fisherman and I know my customers had a great time today.’”
He’d prefer to start treating the king fishery the way many fly fishermen treat trout and steelhead fishing, he said.
“My gosh, you watch a fly fisherman, he catches a native rainbow or a steelhead and he treats it like it is his firstborn son,” he said. “The mentality is, ‘I have got something really special here.’”
Brush said he hasn’t heard negative comments from his fellow guides, only the common saying, “Hey when they stop killing ‘em, I’ll stop killing ‘em,” referring to the area’s long-standing feud between commercial and sport fishermen.
But that’s more reason to make a stand, he said. In the face of politics and issues of conservation turning to issues of allocation, Brush said he can no longer point the finger with one hand and swing the fish bat with the other.
“I’m talking about the big picture, not talking about, ‘Well they killed X amount and we only killed Y amount,’” he said. “Let’s not even go there. Control what you can control and do your part and then somewhere you might have some merit in saying, ‘Look at what we’ve done. What are you guys going to do?’”
Brush said he isn’t sure if his idea is the answer. But, he said it feels right. And, it can’t hurt, he said.
“Is this going to make a difference in the fishery? In the run?” he said. “No. Of course it isn’t. Is it a statement? Yeah, it is.”