Dena’ina tradition holds that each spring when the Golden Crowned Sparrow warbles its distinctive three-note song, the first of the five Pacific salmon runs to the Cook Inlet have arrived.
Legend has it that a man waiting on the bank of the river heard the bird sing, hurried down to the river with a dipnet, jumped into the water and caught a king salmon, according to ethnographer Peter Kalifornsky.
The king, or chinook, salmon are the largest of the salmon species and since the world record for a sport-caught king — a 97-pound, 4-ounce fish — was landed in May of 1985 by the late Les Anderson, the king fishery on the Kenai River has exploded in both popularity and controversy.
However, just as the Dena’ina were not the first in the Cook Inlet to exploit salmon — evidence suggests that fishermen as early as 1,000 B.C. used gillnets to capture sockeye on the Kenai River — Kenai-bound kings are not the only chinook run in the Inlet to serve as both a draw and a point of contention for hopeful anglers trying to land a trophy fish.
Newspaper articles, reports from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the recollections of longtime fishermen paint a picture of Cook Inlet kings that indicates the returns are cyclical in both the irresistible draw of fishing during times of abundance and the infighting among users when they don’t return to their natal streams in large enough numbers to satisfy area fishermen of all types.
As early as 1892, records of commercial harvest of king salmon stocks in the Inlet show an annual yield of about 60,000 fish according to an ADFG king salmon status report from 1972.
Set gillnets were a popular way to fill pantries and pockets pre-statehood.
Peninsula residents probably used their commercial gillnets to fill personal larders as well as commercially, said Jim Fall, Fish and Game statewide program manager in the subsistence division.
Commercial fishermen set their nets before the commercial sockeye season to take king salmon home for their families, and after the commercial season to take coho salmon, or silvers, Fall said. In the 1940s this was called “personal use,” but after 1959 the state changed the term to “subsistence,” he said.
Subsistence and commercial interests competed in the saltwater in the Inlet, while sport fishermen put increasing pressure on king salmon in the freshwater. Subsistence fishing was allowed by regulation in just one freshwater system in the Inlet in 1959, according to Fish and Game data.
A 1978 state law gave subsistence a priority over sport and commercial use of salmon stocks. However, when a 1981 law banned the primary Inlet-wide subsistence fishery, the federal government took over some subsistence management and an increasingly complicated set of fishing regulations overlapped as the state population continued to grow.
During the last century, harvests of king salmon spiked dramatically — reaching a high of 187,000 fish just prior to statehood — and were believed to reduce the number of returning fish according to Fish and Game data.
According to the 1972 report, data showed a decline in king salmon abundance that began in 1953 and was believed to be the result of excessive harvest from 1941 through 1951.
Blame for the declining king salmon run was also put on personal-use fishermen who impacted the runs in-river, according to the report.
Sport fishing effort on kings was expected to increase as the Southcentral population grew from the Matanuska Valley to the Kenai Peninsula. Managers, concerned with the declining stocks of king salmon particularly in the northern part of Cook Inlet wrote in 1972, “Presently the most vital concern of this Department is not the question of equitably allocating a depleted resource among competing interest groups, but rather of restoring the resource so that there will be a continuing harvestable surplus.”
At the north end of Cook Inlet, the Susitna River is considered the fourth-largest king run in the state, behind the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Nushagak river stocks, according to ADFG. Several tributaries flow into the Susitna and contribute to its king run.
Harvest of northern Cook Inlet kings has fluctuated significantly in the last 100 years. In 1951, 150,010 kings were harvested, the highest on record with ADFG. By the 1970s, the stock had plummeted and just 238 were taken, as both commercial and sport users faced significant restrictions.
By the late 1970s, however, the northern kings were meeting their escapement goals, and harvests in what ADFG considered the sustainable range through the 1980s. An escapement goal is the amount of fish needed to reach the spawning grounds in order to ensure healthy returns in future years.
According to ADFG reports, the northern Cook Inlet kings again began to decline in the 1990s, and from 1992-1995, escapement goals were not met on the 18 streams ADFG tracked, leading to additional restrictions.
Since then, northern kings have not rebounded significantly, although the 2013 returns were better than the past several years for some rivers.
As state managers struggled in the early ‘70s to reduce harvest on king salmon returns to the Susitna drainage in the northern part of the Inlet, the Kenai and Kasilof rivers presented an opportunity to shift the fishing burden.
“When you talk about king salmon, the Crooked Creek Hatchery — that was one of the primary reasons it started,” said Pat Shields, commercial area biologist for Fish and Game. “It was to enhance king salmon and provide more opportunity for anglers (to) kind of spread the opportunities out.”
King salmon from the Crooked Creek hatchery were used to supplement the king salmon run to the Kasilof River, and an increasingly popular sport fishery on the Kenai River eventually resulted in the world record catch that many guides and managers point to as the time when the Kenai River became a legendary king salmon fishery that attracted anglers worldwide.
Evidence also suggests the Kenai River was already gaining in popularity when the world famous trophy king was caught.
“The Kenai River is already the single most popular stream in the state, primarily because of the king salmon that return every summer,” stated a Peninsula Clarion article from May 20, 1985. “The national publicity that’s likely to ensue will add to the number of salmon seekers.”
Early run decline
ADFG Area Management Biologist Robert Begich can pinpoint the exact year — 2007— when data showed the early run of Kenai River king salmon, and king stocks statewide, begin to decline.
“Kenai runs have been low since that time; it is evident in several data sets,” Begich said. “Presentations last fall about various wild and hatchery stocks showed this. So abundance declined from 2007 to 2009 and stayed at this below or well below average abundance.”
Changes in the average age of returning king salmon and the average sex composition characterize erratic runs that Fish and Game managers said have been struggling statewide.
Data suggests some Alaskan kings are returning to their natal streams at younger ages rather than spending more time in the ocean; and more males than females are returning each year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service monitors three tributaries to the Kenai River: The Funny River, Killey River and Quartz Creek.
The majority of early run Kenai River king salmon spawn in such tributaries according to a Fish and Game study from 1991.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife data, most salmon returning to weirs on all three tributaries were males in 2013.
While it is the first year Fish and Wildlife has monitored escapement on Quartz Creek, males outnumbered females in the Killey River in 2012 — the first year of monitoring that tributary — and in the Funny River since 2006.
“You need females,” Begich said. “It’s a production concern, there’s less eggs in the gravel.”
King salmon hatch in fresh water, spend one to two years in freshwater and one to five years in the ocean, and then return to freshwater to spawn. Age-3 fish are the youngest, while Age-7 fish, which typically spend one to two years in freshwater and the remainder of their life in the ocean, are the oldest.
Typically, younger kings that return after one year in saltwater are fertile males, as are many of the kings that spend two years at sea according to Fish and Game data. On average, most kings that return to Southcentral rivers spend three to four years at sea.
Over the last two decades, the age proportions of early run Kenai River king salmon have changed significantly.
Between 1986 and 1994, ADFG data shows about 61 percent of the returning kings to be 6-year-old fish — those that spent four years in the ocean after spending two in Kenai freshwater.
By 1995, only about half of the run was 6-year-old fish and by 2003, about 44 percent of the run. That downward trend is continuing.
In contrast, nearly a quarter of the run of Kenai River king salmon spent only two years in the ocean before returning to spawn. That was a large increase from a 6 percent average between 1986 and 1994.
Dwight Kramer, private angler and head of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, can be found at local fisheries meetings asking questions about the early run of kings.
Kramer, who moved to the Kenai area in 1983, does not hesitate to explain why he came to the area to fish.
“Kings,” he said. “We didn’t have kings up in Kotzebue.”
At first, king fishing on the Kenai was enjoyable, Kramer said.
“But then it just became too hectic and too driven and a lot of the public left the fishery because of the crowdedness,” he said.
He attributes the explosion in popularity on the size of the kings in those days.
“If you didn’t come home with a 50- or 60-pound fish it was a disappointment,” he said. “Now it makes headline news; the fishery has really changed a lot.”
Fish and Game trophy harvest data for Kenai River kings shows a decline in the number of larger fish being caught during the late run.
While the world-record winning king was caught during the early run, by 2003, trophy kings were caught almost exclusively in July during the late run.
Anglers are required to report harvested king salmon 55 inches or larger to the Fish and Game office where the fish can be recorded and sealed. Data from those records shows a dwindling number of trophy kings being reported — seven in 2003, four in 2004 to three in 2007, one in 2009 and none in the last four years.
Like unguided freshwater anglers and commercial fishermen in the saltwater, guides on the river have found their seasons reduced as more people put pressure on an increasingly dwindling fishery.
The Kenai and Kasilof rivers are unique to the Cook Inlet in that they are the only rivers with two distinct runs of king salmon, Begich said.
Opportunities for anglers to target and keep Kenai River king salmon have decreased in recent years and local guides said they are having trouble making a living off of the fishery.
Greg Brush, owner and operator of the EZ Limit Guide Service, which has been operating since 1988, said he came to the Kenai River to guide.
The draw, he said, was the purity of the habitat on the Kenai River and the seemingly limitless resource.
“Two runs of kings, two runs of sockeye, two runs of silvers; a fishing season that runs from May all the way into October,” he said. “That’s what it was and that’s what attracted me to it and I think that’s what attracts a lot of people. It’s an unbelievable resource, an incredible resource.”
But, as the decades have passed, he said he has found it increasingly difficult to make a living in the Kenai River salmon fishery.
“I used to start guiding in April and had a very strong May and June,” he said. “There is no April, there is no May now and our June is very weak.”
Several of the fishing stocks Brush traditionally guided for are suffering, he said.
“April steelhead, they’re gone. Virtually gone. There’s not a viable steelhead fishery on the Kasilof anymore,” he said. “Then we had excellent early run king fishing on the Kasilof in May. The world record king was caught on May 17. You could go fish the Kenai and now it’ll take three or four days before you get a bite. I won’t even take May charters.”
While Kramer characterized the early run of Kenai king salmon as being in jeopardy, Brush said he thought unpredictable was a better descriptor and he blames the erratic fishing time on Fish and Game management — a popular theory repeated often by guides, anglers and others connected to the fishing industry.
“The amount of fish is less than ever and our regulations — how they manage the fishery — there’s another angle,” Brush said. “It’s a big part of this whole discussion. Our management of our fisheries is so complex and there isn’t an easy answer that will please everyone. Basically the June king fishery is unpredictable and that’s a function of how Fish and Game is managing.”
Kramer blames faulty sonar for over-counting fish on the Kenai River and causing Fish and Game to liberalize the fishery and allow too much harvest; Brush contends that the problem is simpler.
“All of these (excuses) are viable concerns. (Northern) pike is a viable concern. Turbidity. Ocean conditions, Fish and Game loves putting the scapegoat on ocean conditions,” he said. “I just think those are all cop-outs, they’re genuine concerns but they’re distractions.”
Brush said he thinks private anglers, commercial fishermen, guided sportfishermen and every other user on the river need to recognize that king salmon have been overharvested.
“We’re just killing too many fish,” he said. “Our king numbers, we haven’t put enough on the spawning beds and we are all — the users are all — taking too many fish. We’re too busy pointing the finger at each other rather than identifying the problem.”
Brush, who sold guided king fishing trips on the Kenai River as catch-and-release only last year, said there was no quick solution to the king problems.
“I’m not this purist, total 100 percent catch and release, bunny-hugging greenie, that’s not me,” he said. “My family eats salmon, we kill salmon, we fill our freezer with salmon. We don’t do it on kings. Until that mindset changes among the people, it won’t change among the managers.”
Next week: A look at how kings and other salmon species are faring around the state.
• Rashah McChesney is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai. Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce in Anchorage.