Editor’s note: Mark Wackler was misnamed in the original version of this story. The Redoubt Reporter apologizes for the error.
By Jenny Neyman
For a sportfishing guide on the fabled Kenai River, having a client wrestle a monster king salmon to the side of the boat — one of the 50-, 60-, 70-pound or bigger fish for which the river became famous — is a dream scenario.
These days, though, it’s much more frequently a dream than reality, as Kenai king salmon runs have struggled in low abundance in recent years. And for an increasing number of guides concerned about the shrinking number and sizes of kings in recent years, that dream scenario becomes a nightmare if the king is then bonked to kingdom come and hauled into the boat.
Catch and release king fishing is nothing new for kings on the Kenai. Some anglers prefer the fish’s fight to its flesh. Some guides throughout the years have counseled that choice to clients, as well. And the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has the ability to make that choice for all anglers as a conservation-minded management strategy to restrict harvest without completely shutting down fishing. But compared to what has been the norm — boat ’em and bonk ’em, and post pictures of exultant, exhausted fishermen straining to boost their massive king carcass up for the camera — catch and release is the quiet, uncelebrated outlier.
Fishing guides Mark Wackler and Greg Brush are trying to turn up that volume. They’ve both enacted catch-and-release-only policies for any Kenai River kings and are agitating for other guides to do the same.
“The last couple years I’ve taken a hard stance of educating the people prior to the charter and saying, ‘Kenai kings are struggling right now, we’re in a period of low abundance and there just aren’t as many as there used to be, and if you king fish on the Kenai with me or my guides, we do nothing but catch and release,’” said Brush, owner of EZ Limit Guide Service.
Both came to their policies over years of guiding on the Kenai, having pursued kings the same way many do.
“I went 15 years of guiding king salmon and killing 99 percent of them. There seemed to be plenty of fish, and I think I’m in the majority,” said Wackler, of Alaska Fishing with Mark Wackler, who started guiding when he was 16 and has been at it about 20 years now. “It’s been advertised as a meat fishery. You see everybody’s website, they’re holding up a 60-, 70-pounder on the front of their boat, dead as can be. That’s just what we did and we never really thought about it, unfortunately. In hindsight, I wish we did think about it and realized just how precious these really big ones were.”
The more the kings have struggled, the more he’s struggled with the thought of any of them landing on his boat. Midseason three years ago Wackler decided things had to change.
“I remember killing three 35- to 40-pound hens and looking at them in the box and just having this sick feeling and not happy with myself. I remember it like it was yesterday, I remember that moment thinking, ‘I’m not going to do this again. There’s no way,’” he said.
Brush has guided on the Kenai for 26 years, having moved to the area sight unseen just for the opportunity to do so.
“We were young and naïve and it was great fishing for the biggest kings in the world, and we took it for granted. We bonked them and pulled them out and said, ‘This is what the limit is? OK,’” he said.
He reached his limit slaying kings about five years ago, after seeing the fishery dwindle.
“There’s guides out there and sportfishermen, laypeople that will grumble for 10 hours straight about what it used to be and how bad it is and, ‘I can’t believe it,’ and yadda, yadda, yadda. And they finally catch one and what do they do? Pull it right out of the gene pool. It’s ludicrous craziness,” he said.