Sunday, February 26, 2017

Our Mysteriously Shrinking Kenai King Salmon

I attended a book signing at a Ninilchik book club meeting in early January of this year and met a bubbly lady by the name of Shirley, who, it turned out, is the stepdaughter of Les Anderson. You may remember that Anderson, fishing with friend Bud Lofstedt, caught the largest king salmon ever taken on rod and reel in North America.

The great fish was caught in the Kenai River on May 17, 1985. The behemoth weighed a whopping 97 pounds 4 ounces after laying in the bottom of Les' boat and then later his pickup truck for several hours. Reports indicate that the fish was beached around 7 a.m. but not weighed until 2 p.m. Many believe the fish would have topped 100 pounds had it been weighed immediately. We'll never know.

As Shirley and I bantered back and forth, she shared with me that she still has cans of Les' big king tucked away on the shelves of her pantry.

"Really!" I reacted with amazement.

She had my attention. Coincidentally, I had just finished reading several scientific papers written by fisheries scientists who used protein electrophoresis and mitochondrial DNA to separate the first run of Kenai River kings from second-run fish — or perhaps more accurately, tributary spawners from mainstem spawners.

My mind immediately began to race, thinking back on the last 32 years of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries management on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. I wondered what that DNA in those cans might reveal if we could analyze it. With today's technology and the king salmon DNA baseline data now available for many streams in the Kenai watershed, we could tell a lot about that fish if we just had a small tissue sample.

Turns out, once the flesh has been cooked, it renders it useless for DNA analysis. In addition, Les had the fish mounted, and all the tissue, head, entrails, and fins were disposed of long ago.

Still, it piqued my interest and got me thinking about the years since Les caught his great fish and how we moved from the king salmon abundance and size on the Kenai in 1985 to the low abundance and smaller kings seen in the 21st century.

That Les caught such a huge fish in mid-May was unusual and surprising by most people's standards. Les and Lofstedt were simply moving a boat from point A to Point B on the river. It was so early in the season that almost no one was fishing the river yet. Typically, the Kenai Peninsula is still pretty darn cold in May. Both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers are usually low and turbid at that time and have a reputation for eating up the props and lower units of outboard motors of even experienced fishermen who know the river.

Back then, fishing on the river usually didn't get going until Memorial Day weekend and fishing usually wasn't good until the first week in June.

Les and Lofstedt decided they might as well drift a Spin-N-Glo with eggs on their way down the river to their destination. Somewhere between two well-known spots, Pillars and Honeymoon Cove, Les hooked the big male. The duo fought the fish for more than an hour up and down the river and seemingly everything went wrong that could. They tangled their lines. Les fell in the bottom of the boat. The net was too small.

But humble Les Anderson hung on to that king. Finally, with Lofstedt's help, they beached the boat on an exposed gravel bar and dragged the huge fish to shore. Neither angler had any idea what they had just done. They continued to fish that morning and not until hours later — with the urging of friends — did they decide to weigh the king. The rest is history.

The big king is intriguing and the circumstances surrounding its capture begs many questions. As far as we know, a fish of comparable size had not been caught by anyone anywhere in North America for at least 36 years. According to biologists, Anderson's king was a "six-ocean" fish — a fish that spent one year in freshwater and six years at sea before returning to spawn. Six-ocean fish are rare and make up a very small percentage of the run. Most of the really large kings that return to the Kenai River are four- and five-ocean kings.

And what was that fish doing in the river so early? In mid-May, Kenai River guides were still tying leaders, working on their outboards and readying for the upcoming season. Fisheries data at the time told us that early-run kings were significantly smaller fish, on average, than late-run kings. Conventional wisdom at the time said that almost all big kings exceeding 60 pounds enter the river later in July and spawn in the main stem.

Was this fish a fluke or was his presence predictable? Was he a part of a heretofore unknown subpopulation that spawned in the Kenai's turquoise waters undetected by fisheries biologists? Had we been missing something all along about different stocks of Kenai River kings and their diverse run timing and spawning locations?

Radio telemetry studies have shown that some king salmon, after being released in the Kenai River with radio tags, continued their upstream migrations as far as 20 miles before abruptly turning back downstream and re-entering Cook Inlet — only to reascend the river days or weeks later.

Was this fish in the river to stay? Was it an early-run fish defying conventional wisdom regarding size? Was this a mainstem spawner or a tributary spawner headed for the Funny River or perhaps Benjamin Creek at the headwaters of the Killey River?

One thing is certain, even the monk Gregor Mendel (often called the father of genetics after his early work on pea plant cross-breeding) would agree that the genes this fish carried were unique and rare by today's standards.

When 60- to 80-pounders were common

History has documented king salmon well in excess of 100 pounds that were harvested commercially in the Columbia River in the early 1900s before the Grand Coulee Dam was built. The Columbia River kings were called "June hogs," a summer-running fish that spawned in its headwaters. Between overfishing that selected for larger fish and the installation of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia that prevented fish passage, the "June hogs" were extirpated by 1939 and their genetic templates lost forever. Today hatcheries do their best to replace and maintain those very fish by stocking millions of young salmon at a lofty price to taxpayers, but the native-fish genetic diversity, that was selected for over hundreds of years, was lost. Today's summer-run king salmon on the Columbia average 20 pounds.

Other North America rivers, besides the Columbia and the Kenai, that have produced some very large king salmon in the past, include the Umpqua, the Skeena, the Sacramento River, and of course our own Kasilof River. No other river, however, has consistently produced the number of extremely big fish that the Kenai once did.

Les Anderson's king is the largest king salmon known to exist since 1949, when a 126-pound chinook was captured in a commercial fish trap in saltwater near Petersburg in Southeast. That fish's stream of origin is unknown.

In the 1980s and '90s, Kenai River kings in the 60- to 80-pound range were almost a daily occurrence in July and, looking beyond Les' catch, 1985, in particular, was a memorable year for big fish. That year at least one other king broke 90 pounds and a handful of fish more than 80 pounds were taken. One of my clients, Jack Arthur from Chattanooga, Tennessee, landed an 85-pound king in July while fishing in the Deep Creek marine fishery near Ninilchik. That fish was undoubtedly a Kenai- or Kasilof-bound fish as well. What made 1985 such a good year for kings?

Was it a mild winter when that brood year was in the gravel? Was it good freshwater rearing and survival in the Kenai freshwater environment during the chinook's first year of life? Was it better-than-normal ocean survival and productivity that allowed them to grow so well as they reared in the Gulf of Alaska? Was there something about the handling of the commercial fishery that year that allowed so many kings into the river? Or were they just so numerous they overwhelmed all the net fisheries in the Inlet?

We don't know for sure. Maybe it was the perfect storm of all of these things. But one thing is certain: We have not seen the kings so big and in such numbers in the last decade.

by Mike Chihuly, Alaska Dispatch |  Read more:
Image: Ronnie Chappell / ADN
[ed. I went to trooper academy with Mike. Good guy, and passionate about the resource.]