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.
Their decisions to go to catch and release evolved over the years — Brush increasingly encouraging clients to do so, and Wackler even offering a gratis sockeye trip in return for letting a king go. Both also started out with a “to each their own” mentality, but that’s evolved, as well. They can’t enforce catch and release like Fish and Game could do — and, they wish, would — but they can speak out about it, trying to get private anglers, guides and guided clients to voluntarily get on board with the idea of not hauling kings aboard.
“Greg can only control what happens in his boat on the river, and Mark can only control what happens in his boat on the river,” Brush said. “And if each and every one of us took some kind of culpability and did something about it, as small as it might be, maybe even inconsequential, at least it’s a step in the right direction. And it makes a statement — these fish are unique and they’re valuable. And until we do that, where are we?”
Their mission has encountered turbulence, but it hasn’t been from clients. That’s the initial fear, of a catch-and-release-only policy affecting bookings, especially for an outfit like Brush’s where his sole income comes from guiding. (Wackler teaches during the winter.) The key, they say, is education. Brush’s spiel goes something like this: King runs are in a sustained period of low abundance, less than one percent of the runs anymore are the giant, five-ocean kings that get to be 50 pounds or bigger, they only get one chance to spawn and pass on their genetics, and Fish and Game’s data on mortality from catch and release on Kenai kings shows a survivability rate in the over 90 percentile.
“People appreciate you being honest, you taking the time to explain to them and telling them why it’s important, and then making the decision fact-based instead of making it your opinion. People are very reasonable about it and understanding,” Brush said.
It also helps to offer alternatives. To stay afloat as a guide business these days takes diversification, offering trips for different fish in different areas — trout in the upper river, halibut in salt water, different species of salmon in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. It’s easier to talk clients into releasing kings if they have a chance to fill a cooler with sockeye or silver salmon, both of which are in high abundance.
Wackler doesn’t think he’s lost a single client to his policy. Brush might have lost two or three, he said, but not even really to his policy.
“I lose charters when I’m honest with people and tell them that the fishery isn’t what it used to be. When you’re honest with people and tell them we’re going to try hard to get one bite and might not get any, that really sets them back. The state of the fishery and condition of the king salmon returns is 1,000 times more of an effect on whether I can book a trip or not than catch and release is,” Brush said.
Artie Mabbett Jr., of Massachusetts, has fished with Brush for years, coming to the Kenai every other year or so since about 1995. He’s also sportfished all over the world, and said that catch and release is the accepted norm in many places, especially for “special” fish, like marlin, shark, tarpon and bonefish.
“I have noticed a change over my lifetime in how fisheries have evolved from generations of the past that were about how much they can fill the cooler. I now see more and more people interested in the conservation aspect and making sure it’s viable for the future,” he said.
Mabbett’s not against keeping fish — he usually returns home from the Kenai with a cooler full of sockeye salmon — but only those for which there’s no conservation concern, he said.
“At a certain point I think some of these fisheries convert from people who want just meat to take home to people in it for the trophy aspect. They realize if you decimate the gene pool in a trophy fishery you’re not going to see those returns,” he said. “When you kill those fish the mortality rate is 100 percent, right? So it has no chance to spawn whatsoever.”
Jeff Culbertson, of Southern California, has fished the Kenai for the last 22 years, with another catch-and-release king trip booked with Wackler for the end of July.
“It’s all about the experience, especially for the kids, of catching a big fish — the power of the fight and getting it to the side of the boat for a picture is very rewarding,” he said. “I have no issue with it, I think it’s great. I respect his decision to try to keep the fishery going for many years to come, so my kids and their kids will be able to fish this great fishery.”
The pushback has come from other guides, they said — negative comments on their Facebook posts celebrating a released king, once-friendly fellow guides now not even acknowledging them on the river, and the like, or worse.
“There’s a lot of pain and anger and disappointment and hurt and hatred in this community amongst a lot of user groups. Also, among sportfishing guides, I think there’s a fear factor,” Brush said. “They feel threatened and backed into a corner, so making a tough decision like this and taking a stance, it is scary for a lot of guys, and a lot of times they put their dukes up and they get very defensive about it. We know going into this we will get slammed and bashed and we’ll get emails and phone calls, and that’s OK.”
They’ve both approached other guides to try and get them to make the change, to varying responses, but often more debate than success. One argument is that catch and release kills some kings, too, so why not just harvest them? That one makes Wackler’s blood boil. Fish and Game’s study on catch and release survivability done on the Kenai River kings showed mortality in the single digits, and that was using bait and multiple hooks.
“So it’s safe to assume the way we do it now, with single hooks, no scent, no bait (though Fish and Game just opened the Kenai to bait this July, a first in several years), can’t remove them from the water — has to be below what it was with bait and multiple hooks,“ Wackler said. “It’s super low, and so when you see people spout off numbers like 50 percent (mortality), or 100 percent is the most ridiculous I’ve seen, it’s really frustrating because not only are they wrong in their argument, but they’re giving this information to people, and then they’re using it. So it’s just out there, and it’s frustrating.
“(And) if somebody said, ‘Letting them go kills 5 percent of them, that’s too many.’ I can’t argue with that logic. But bonking them all, I don’t see any logic at all in that,” he said.
Another of Wackler’s pet peeves is pointing the finger everywhere else, commercial fishermen being a common direction.
“They’re saying, ‘Well the set-netters are killing them. They killed 700 in their last period. I’m not going to let this fish go. They killed 700, I can keep one.’ Or, ‘Oh, it’s probably the trawlers, it’s not us,’ or whatever it might be. And they might be right, but two wrongs don’t make a right,” Wackler said. “It’s almost like they want to make sure every other person on earth is not killing a king salmon, and then they’ll catch and release a king salmon, and that’s not going to work out for anybody.”
Let’s just close the river, then, goes another argument, until the fish come back.
Well, say the runs do return, Brush said — as he thinks they probably eventually well, at least in numbers, though maybe not size of fish.
“If we close the fishery for three to five years and allow no fishing at all the salmon will rebound, but what then?” he said. “Then do we prosecute it exactly as we did before, which is what got us in this mess? Do we just keep repeating history?”
This year’s late run is coming back stronger than in years past and looks like it will make escapement, prompting Fish and Game to allow bait throughout the river starting July 25, and the retention of kings from just below Slikok Creek to the mouth of the river.
But there will be no kings retained on any trips of Brush or Wackler.
“Even if we get the 25,000 to 27,000 fish they’re predicting right now, that’s still one of the lowest years we’ve ever seen on the Kenai River, along with the last few. We used to get runs of 50,000, 60,000 kings, and now that they’ve lowered escapement and we’re just making the lower end of it, I just don’t see it as the time to be bonking big kings. It’s just not a responsible thing to be doing, in my opinion,” Wackler said.
They don’t go so far as to vow that no Kenai kings will ever land on their boats. Perhaps if the runs show several years of abundant returns, but that wasn’t the case last year, or this year, and won’t be next year.
“Is there a harvestable surplus? No, not right now. If there is later on, OK, then we can have that discussion,” Brush said.
Wackler intends to spend the postseason developing an incentive program to encourage catch and release Kenai king fishing, heavy on explanation of the reasons they think it’s important, and maybe getting businesses involved so anyone releasing a king can get a free meal, for example, or a coupon to a store, or a free framed photo of their (still in the water) catch.
“My No. 1 goal is to be an advocate and educate people on catch and release and what it could do for the king salmon run long term,” he said.
Brush said he intends to keep beating the drum on this issue even after the season ends and attention turns to other matters. The once-mighty Kenai River kings were worthy enough to make the river famous, and they’re worth continued consideration now, he said.
“What if everybody put the fish first? What if you didn’t worry about what someone thought or said, and you just put the fish first?” Brush said. “And every decision and choice you made, the fish came first with sustainability and the future of the resource. It would probably all work itself out, wouldn’t it?”