When the weather turns cold, hardy anglers search for steelhead

Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2008

ANCHORAGE - When snow coats riverbanks, ice forms on the fishing rod eyelets and water turns slushy in the shallows, casual anglers are long gone.

Alaska's long dark winter season is beginning, and people who fought for elbow room on riverbanks a few short months ago have settled into comfortable couches.

So perhaps it's fitting that Alaska's hardiest anglers are rewarded with what many consider Alaska's finest sport fish.

Steelhead, the overgrown rainbow trout that run to the sea to fatten up, commonly grow to 8 pounds.

They can go much much larger. David White holds the world and Alaska record of 42 pounds, 3 ounces, caught on Bell Island in Southeast in 1970. Just to earn a trophy certificate from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, an angler must land a 15-pounder.

But while impressive, steelhead size is trumped by their beauty and athleticism.

"They're so acrobatic," said Brian Emard, 55, owner of Anchor River Lodge, who caught one more than three-feet long earlier this year. "It came out of the water four or five times. People around me starting cheering when it was doing one of its triple-axel somersaults. After one leap, it bounced off the opposite bank.

"It's the ultimate sport fish."

And a mysterious one, too.

Despite catch-and-release protections in effect since 1989 on the Anchor River, Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River, state biologists have no official counts to gauge the strength of the run, relying instead on word-of-mouth reports.

"We really have no idea," said Nicky Szarzi, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist based in Homer.

"Since they're so heavily restricted, we assume the risk from angling is minimized," she said. "But sure, it would be nice to have more information on how many there are, where they're spawning and where they're holding."

By this time of year, only hard-core anglers are still chasing them.

"The setting, the fish themselves, their size" - that's what keeps anglers fighting frozen fingers until ice physically closes the season, Szarzi said.

But while steelhead run upstream into November, some begin returning to their natal Southcentral streams in August, when the silver salmon run is in full swing - and that may be when the real threat occurs.

Many inexperienced anglers can't distinguish steelhead from silvers (The main distinction - steelhead have eight to twelve rays in their anal fin).

"You can't believe some of the things I've witnessed on the river," Emard said. "Species identification is a constant problem. I've seen more than one fisherman leaving the river with a steelhead totally clueless as to what he was doing, and I've seen numerous beautiful steelheads floating down the river belly up after being mishandled by a careless or reckless fisherman.

"Just this year someone right across the stream from me beached a fish and promptly beat it with a rock, only to have his buddy run up and tell him it was a steelhead. After that they slid the dead fish into the water while those of us witnessing this reckless act shook our heads in disgust.

"What a shame."

Some anglers use an illegal technique devised mainly to catch red and silver salmon reluctant to strike. Called lining, it's considered snagging a fish in the mouth.

"It's getting worse and worse," said Stan Harrington, owner of the Anchor Angler tackle shop who said he's fished the Anchor River for more than 50 years.

"I blame the red salmon on it. That's where they got the concept. They figure that's the only way they can catch salmon, so it's got to work on steelhead too.

"But that's not happening this time of year. Now you get the more diehard steelhead fishermen who respect the fish."

Kenai Peninsula streams - including Stariski and Crooked creeks - represent some of the northernmost limits of the steelhead range.

On the Anchor River, a weir located two miles upstream of saltwater counts king and silver salmon. But because of budget concerns, Fish and Game removes it at the end of the silver season, this year on Sept. 11.

The last year a weir operated on Deep Creek to count silvers was 2002.

The 30-mile long Anchor is a clear-water stream narrow enough that most fly fishermen can cast across. Decades ago, biologists estimate that 4,000 steelhead returned to the Anchor each year; now the estimate is much fewer. By comparison, the Situk River near Yakutat sees annual runs of 5,000 to 9,000 steelhead.

Unlike salmon, steelhead don't perish after spawning. Afterward, the spent fish heads back to sea to rebuild its strength.

Young steelhead bulk up in freshwater before heading out to sea, where they spend two to four years before returning to spawn.

Back in the late 1980s, several steelhead anglers got together to propose a management plan that called for monitoring and protecting the fish, but Fish and Game never adopted it.

Szarzi says Fish and Game is considering applying for a grant to fund a project that would, among other things, count Anchor steelhead.

"There's an incredible amount of pressure on those steelhead," said Lynn Whitmore, an Anchor Point resident who said he's fished the river for 30 years. "They're like rainbows. Steelhead will bite multiple times, sometimes on the same day, and that makes them more vulnerable."

Emard, for one, is glad that fly fishermen are so protective.

"They care more about health and sustainability of the fishery," said Emard, a Korean Air Lines captain and former Elmendorf pilot who has fished in Alaska 25 years and bought the lodge three years ago. "I'm sure their freezers are already full of salmon."

For those anglers, the quality of the experience and beauty of the surroundings is what matters.

Seven years ago, the Nature Conservancy of Alaska bought 37 acres along the Anchor River, part of a broader project between the conservancy and the Homer-based Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to protect the Anchor from an increase in recreational cabins, gravel pits and RV parks. Additional purchases followed.

"It's served the purpose very well," said Whitmore, the longtime resident. "I'm amazed how many people ask me how well it went."

Randy Hagenstein, Alaska director of The Nature Conservancy, said the effort has focused on land toward the river mouth.

"We've done a bunch of land acquisition down there," he said, describing the Anchor as one his group's highest priorities in the Cook Inlet Basin. "It's unique in that it's a clear-water system."

Marie McCarty of the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, agrees.

"It's hugely successful - and hugely important," she said.

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