SOLDOTNA - The fish are king salmon, but when they grow to be 50 inches and swim up the Kenai River, they're called hogs.
The people who love them want them to procreate, and if you catch one, they'll pay you to let it spawn.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association is in its fifth year of sponsoring the "Release a Hog" program. If the catch of a 50-inch king is verified by an association member or approved guide, a fisherman is eligible for a check of up to $800 for a reproduction mount of their monsters.
"These large king salmon are treasures and we want to release them for future generations," said Ricky Gease, association director.
The aquamarine waters of the Kenai River are one of the jewels of the Kenai Peninsula, 16,000-square miles almost immediately south of Anchorage.
The river flows 75 miles from the Kenai Mountains to Cook Inlet. Unlike many sportfish destinations in Alaska, much of the river is accessible by road.
The Kenai supports four of the five kinds of Pacific salmon plus trophy rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. But it's the king salmon, also known as chinook, that drive many anglers to fishing mania.
A 50-inch salmon can easily weigh 70 pounds. The International Game Fish Association lists seven world record king salmon caught on the river on various line weights, including the largest ever, a 97-poound, 4-ounce fish taken May 17, 1985, by Les Anderson on 30-pound test. Many anglers hope to be the first to catch a king that cracks the 100-pound mark.
Jackie Bryant of Nashville, Tenn., fished with her husband on the Kenai in 2003 and landed a 50-inch king after about 15 minutes, with help from her husband and the guide.
"The only reason I caught that fish is that the fish got tired," she said. "I was pooped at the end."
She was hoping to eat salmon back in the Music City but settled for a photo and a replica hanging on her wall when the guide informed her it was 50 inches long.
"I was glad to let the big fella go and do his thing," she said.
No one knows why Kenai kings grow so large. Alaska Department of Fish and Game research biologist Tim McKinley said some hypothesize that Kenai kings needed to be bigger because they spawn in fast water. Some speculate that only large females could dig redds because of the size of the cobble in the river bed.
However, smaller kings thrive in Oregon and Washington rivers with similar water velocity and bottom structure, McKinley said.
A masters degree student about 15 years ago pointed to competition for limited spawning grounds. The thesis concluded that larger fish pushed away smaller competitors, McKinley said.
Gease said bigger fish might be the result of maturity rather than genetics. After hatching, king salmon spend two years in fresh water, then migrate to the ocean, feed on herring and put on most of their weight. Some spend just a year in saltwater. The largest, called 5-ocean fish, return to the Kenai after five years.
Nearly all kings are caught from boats in the lower river. On a July day, the more than 300 guides carrying up to four fishermen jostle for position with private boats above favorite holes where fish rest on their journey upriver to spawn and die. Guides may fish only from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The wait at landings to launch a boat early in the morning can be upward of 90 minutes, Gease said.
Sundays are reserved for boats without guides and Mondays for non-powered boats, generally drift boats and inflatables.
Fishermen can keep five kings annually on the Kenai Peninsula and two from the Kenai River. The sportfishing association started "Release a Hog" to keep the biggest fish in the river and still allow anglers to take something home.
The sportfishing association issues measuring sticks 50 inches long so fish can be photographed in the river. Sportfishing regulations prohibit lifting kings from the water if fishermen don't intend to keep them.
"For verification on our end we need a photo of it with a measuring stick over it," Gease said.
Fishermen bring the photo in and fill out an application form. If it's accepted, they look for a taxidermist. The going rate for fish mounts is $16 to $24 per lineal inch.
It can take a year or more before a taxidermist completes a reproduction mount. When anglers pay for and receive their mounts, they send another photo to the association, which cuts them a check for $800.
The first year of the program, the association paid for 40-50 mounts of fish 52 inches or longer. In 2003, the association lowered the minimum size to 48 inches and paid for a whopping 160 mounts. They boosted the minimum to 50 inches last year and paid for 50.
An unintended consequence of the program is that many smaller chinooks have been released as fishermen try for one that comes with a check, Gease said.
Most of the money for the mounts come from the Kenai River Classic, a fishing tournament that requires a $4,000 participant fee to enter. The event association cleared $800,000 this year. The money is also used for protection of fragile riverbanks, angler access projects and aquatic education.
State biologists support the catch and release.
"It certainly can't hurt," said regional management biologist Tom Vania. "You're keeping the genetics in the river. Anything that encourages keeping those genes in the pool would help out."
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