Our Changing King Fishery

by Greg Brush
 
As most of Alaska’s king salmon runs remain week and thereby restricted or closed to sport anglers, many professional fishing guides continue to whine about chinook fishing in the Great Land “not being what it once was.” I too have done my share of complaining. It’s only natural for a passionate angler to get nostalgic about the special wild chinook of yester-year.

But, it is refreshing to hear that some people are choosing to do something about it instead of just grumbling. Although not likely to turn the king runs on an immediate 180-degree course, that’s not the point: Change is necessary and conservation is as much about a philosophy or a statement as it is anything else.
 
My small business, for example, decided to go to total catch-and-release fishing with every guest for Kenai kings two years ago, with great success and positive feedback, I might add. Due to single-hook, no-bait fishing, we have not had one ‘bleeder’ since making the voluntary change and thus our guests and guides have successfully released every king we have been fortunate enough to hook!
 
While many days our boats could only land (and successfully release) one king, there were numerous standout days where we did much better. Occasionally our rods ‘went down’ repeatedly, and some of them were the big fish that the Kenai is famous for.
 
One day, in mid-July, a couple anglers landed a wide-body buck estimated as a solid 50-pounder and another giant, mid-60-pound king, complete with chrome flanks and sea lice. What epic battles, and fond memories, those fish produced! Watching them swim free to pass on their unique genes was a total bonus. Another day, actually the last legal day for kenai king fishing in 2013, saw a nice family from Palmer, Alaska, successfully catch-and-release four big kings over 35 pounds on my boat; now that’s a good day of chinook fishing in anyone’s books, isn’t it?
 
The anglers incentives? Looking out for the resource, thinking of future anglers, putting more kings on the spawning beds, and being able to lay their head down at night, guilt free, knowing they did not contribute to the problem of declining kings. Oh yes, as a small bonus, my small business also provided several packages of smoked salmon and an EZ Limit t-shirt to each angler who released a Kenai king last year! Nobody releases a salmon of a lifetime for a little smoked fish and a shirt, but it makes it kinda fun and is a unique way of saying, “thanks for being conservation-minded!”
 
Just last week I learned that another veteran guide here in Soldotna is also going to be promoting catch-and-release king fishing this coming season. Although he still allows catch-and-keep fishing on his other boats, one of his boats and his guides will be dedicated to total catch-and-release king fishing for 2015 for those conservation-minded anglers who support the practice. This small business owner has opted to create a season-long catch-and-release tourney amongst all his clients, where the angler that releases the biggest king of the season on his boat will receive a free replica mount of their fish. Wow! Now that's cool.
 
I’m curious; as more and more anglers and guides get creative with the marketing of our special strain of Kenai kings, what does it take for you to participate in total catch-and-release fishing?