An Outdoor View: Respect for king salmon

On June 4, the Department of Fish and Game opened the Kenai River to fishing for king salmon, but with one catch: It’s OK to play with the fish, but don’t eat them.

It might be OK with the Department of Fish and Game, but it’s not OK with me to hook and “play” these particular fish. According to the Emergency Order that makes this abuse legal, “Kenai River king salmon are experiencing a period of low productivity and, since 2009, below average run strength.” Why, then, are people allowed to fish for them when and where they are most vulnerable, and when no one can be certain that adequate numbers will return and spawn?

Fish and Game opened the Kenai River to catch-and-release fishing, from the river’s mouth to a marker at the outlet of Skilak Lake. Nearly all of that 50 miles of river is used by king salmon to spawn.

When I first started fishing the Kenai in the early 1970s, I spent a lot of time fishing for rainbow trout and silver salmon in the first five miles of river downstream from Skilak Lake. It didn’t take long to figure out where the kings were spawning. No matter what you drifted near them, they grabbed it. While fishing for trout with Glo-bug egg-imitations, I hooked several dark-red, hook-jawed kings that were obviously spawning.

The first time this happened, I was using an ultra-light spinning outfit with 6-pound-test line. The king, at least a 30-pounder, didn’t put up much of a fight, but I’d never caught anything that big on light tackle. At the time, I felt proud of having won what seemed like a battle. Trouble is, I was so caught up in the fun, I hadn’t thought about unintended consequences. I hadn’t thought that I might be causing this fish to use the last of the energy it would need in order to spawn. I hadn’t thought.

Since then, I’ve tried to avoid spawning kings. Whenever I feel that heavy weight that signals that I’ve hooked one, I simply point my rod at it and break my line. I’m sure other fishermen have done the same thing. It’s just the right thing to do. You don’t mess with fish that are trying to reproduce. And if that fish has already exhausted most of its energy and isn’t in good condition to begin with, you’ve got to be a little “off” to pile on more stress on purpose.

Why, then, did the Department of Fish and Game declare open season on hooking king salmon just for the fun of it?

The Emergency Order was issued by the Division of Sport Fish. Something that has nagged at me for years is that fishing for salmon with rod and reel is done under sport-fishing regulations. I wonder about that word “sport.” How “sporting” is it to play with a species that might be on the brink of extinction?

Extinction might seem like a stretch, but not if you consider that it has happened to many runs of salmon in other parts of the world, and could happen here. The Kenai River was “discovered” a relatively few years ago. Give us time, and we can git ‘er done.

I’m encouraged by the fact that many people are concerned about salmon and habitat. For example, two proposals the Alaska Board of Fisheries will be considering early next year are about moving the upper limit of where fishing for king salmon can occur on the Kenai. The new boundary would be 4.5 miles downstream from Skilak Lake. This would help protect both early-run and late-run kings spawning in that area.

I’m all for any proposal that will help protect these vulnerable fish. Fishing for trout and Dolly Varden has become extremely popular in the past few years in the area just below Skilak Lake. The new regulation wouldn’t prevent anglers from unintentionally hooking spawning king salmon. That’s going to happen, whether or not any kind of fishing is allowed. But it would stop anglers from catch-and-release fishing for king salmon on purpose in this prime spawning area.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m against catch-and-release fishing for salmon. I’ve done it in the past, but no more. I have too much respect for salmon to play with them. To me, the most noble use of salmon is as food. And if there aren’t enough of them to justify harvesting some for food, they shouldn’t be abused by an activity that causes them additional stress.

Not many years ago, I lived to fish for king salmon in the Kenai, but I’ve stopped fishing for them in recent years. It’s unlikely that I’ll fish for them this year. Until the runs recover fully, they need all the peace, quiet and respect they can get.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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