King salmon enhancement project keeps rivers stocked

The Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association’s Pillar Creek hatchery. (Andrew Walter photo)

This year’s first official entry in the Kodiak King Salmon Derby from the American River weighed in Tuesday at 18 pounds, as anglers take advantage of a king salmon enhancement project on the Kodiak road system.

“The program has been about 11 years in development,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game area sport fish biologist Donn Tracy said.

ADF&G contracted with the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association (KRAA) to stimulate the local economy by filling a gap in the sport fish season before the silvers arrive in late summer. Tracy said the success of king runs in American River in Middle Bay and the Olds River in Kalsin Bay show the program is robust, having survived challenges including floods, predation and vandalism.

People seem to have gotten the news.

“I think the interest is growing every day,” said Tracy, who saw about 30 anglers during a recent visit to the Olds River. The program aims for a 100 percent harvest of the kings bred at the KRAA’s Pillar Creek hatchery. Without a way to count the returning fish, Tracy could only estimate how many have were available in the American and Olds rivers.

“Last year there was probably maybe four to five hundred fish in each drainage and this year there are probably more,” he said. “As long as we can maintain a good release of smolt we should continue to see a good return of fish in both those rivers.”

The original stock for the project came from the Karluk River. The first fish were brought to the Pillar Creek hatchery in 2001.

King salmon have a long life cycle compared to other species, spending three or four years in the ocean before returning to their home rivers to spawn and die, Tracy said. Since smolt from Pillar Creek were first introduced to the American and Olds rivers in 2007, the first adults returned in 2010.

While Monashka Creek near the hatchery is also open for king salmon sport fishing, ADF&G has lowered the daily bag limit there to one legal-sized fish. Tracy said they want to encourage anglers to try the American and Olds rivers, where the limit is two per day, taking some pressure off the developing brood stock of female king salmon in Monashka.

However, an unusually dry June may have delayed the main part of the king salmon run.

“All the rivers and creeks are at critically low levels right now,” Tracy said. He said few fish have moved in to the rivers so far, but if another inch of rain falls, “overnight those rivers would fill up with king salmon.”

Despite the rising interest, Tracy sees mostly Kodiak residents taking advantage of the enhanced salmon runs, and said it’s hard to imagine Kodiak rivers developing the shoulder-to-shoulder “combat fishing” seen on the Kenai Peninsula.

ADF&G pays KRAA about $80,000 per year for work hatching kings, cohos and rainbow trout, with money collected from the sale of sport fish licenses.

“We’ve always had a great working relationship with the hatchery staff and other members of the association,” Tracy said.

Last week came news that the Pillar Creek hatchery will get $767,000 from the state of Alaska for maintenance and upgrades. The Legislature and Gov. Sean Parnell also gave the nod to KRAA to the tune of $1.3 million for the Kitoi Bay hatchery on Afognak Island and $720,000 for a lake nutrient enrichment project.

“The rearing out here at the hatchery is going really well,” said Al Seale, acting manager at Pillar Creek.

The state funds will go toward a new warehouse and office building at the Pillar Creek hatchery. The current metal building will also get some needed interior work and a new roof.

“In Kodiak it’s starting to show some age,” Seale said.

Last year the hatchery released extra coho to make up for a shortfall of kings, but Seale agreed this year looks robust. He said KRAA released about 10,500 king salmon smolt into each of the American and Olds rivers from the 2009 brood, so future runs will include several overlapping years of adults, “and those fish will get progressively bigger.”

The enhancement project leaves Seale little time to fill his own freezer.

“I have not been fishing this year,” he said. “I only make fish.”

Adding to improvements at the hatchery is the annual Kodiak King Salmon Derby, a volunteer-run event now in its fifth year.

“We fund it in little pieces,” tournament administrator Judy Kidder said.

Derby contributions have paid for infrastructure including a lighting system and frozen water alarms. This year’s contest profit will help build new circular tanks to supplement the straight runways.

The derby began May 14 and ends July 31. Anglers can buy in at any time.

“You just have to be in possession of your ticket before you go fishing,” Kidder said.

This year the derby ticket brings with it a waiver of the daily fee for fishing on lands owned by the Leisnoi Native corporation, Kidder said.

“That saves you $5 a day for the duration of the derby,” she said.

Tickets are available at Mack’s Sporting Goods, Cy’s Sporting Goods, Island Air, Petro Marine, North Pacific Fuel, Kodiak Sportsman’s Lodge in Old Harbor, and Kodiak Paradise Lodge in Port Lions. About 200 tickets have been sold so far this season.

Kidder said kings at the American and Olds rivers are averaging 29 to 30 inches this year.

“A pretty decent meal,” she said.

The current derby leader is a 60.3-pounder caught in Kalsin Bay by Jan Pennington.

“She weighed it in during Crab Festival and that’s still holding,” Kidder said.

The largest qualifying fish will earn a $10,000 prize, with $5,000 and $2,500 for second and third place, money donated by a range of area businesses and organizations.

There are also 44 “mystery fish” prizes, won if a fish comes in at particular pre-selected random weights.

“So you don’t the biggest fish to win a prize,” Kidder said. “There’s a lot of money out there.”

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