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Counting kings on the Killey River

Posted: October 11, 2012 - 4:31pm  |  Updated: October 11, 2012 - 5:46pm
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Photo by Lucas Young A chinook salmon is released after sampling it for age, sex, and length.
Photo by Lucas Young A chinook salmon is released after sampling it for age, sex, and length.

Whoomp whoomp whoomp. The chopper’s blades beat overhead as its skids touched down on the tarmac. This was it: Go time. Months of preparation, and all the hours we’d been up before dawn packing last-minute items, had all come down to this one moment. Thousands of pounds of gear lay all around in semi-organized piles of disarray, ready to be hoisted to a sweet little piece of mountain wilderness somewhere between Skilak and Tustumena Lakes on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Four foolhardy men stood loitering nearby, grinning with eager anticipation, as we waited to be whisked away into the Kenai Wilderness. This was, after all, what we had come for. Load ‘er up!

The Killey River weir was a project hatched between the Kenai Fish and Wildlife Field Office and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It’s no secret that diminishing returns of chinook salmon have raised a few eyebrows. The sonar estimates in the lower Kenai River provide a ballpark figure of what’s coming back into the river, but with mixed-stock fisheries it’s hard to discern what is going on. Salmon exhibit a high fidelity to their natal streams but, unfortunately, most fisheries don’t target those mature fish in proportion to specific populations. Our goal was to better understand the numbers of kings returning annually, specifically in spawning tributaries within the Kenai system.

Our work was cut out for us. Working consecutive 12-hour days for a week, we built our platforms for two sleeping tents and gear storage. We installed the fish trap and a video monitoring system which included a thermal-electric generator and battery banks, hooked up a half-dozen propane tanks and solar panels, and erected a cell-phone booster-antenna, microwave video-relay antenna, and radio-tracking telemetry station.

Our days were lighthearted and casual, the work relaxed but motivated as the fish started to show up in small numbers. We’d been enjoying an especially pleasant spell of weather with clear skies and 70-plus degree days. We’d even built ourselves a nice little log bench to watch the water pass under the warmth of the summer sun. Life was good on the weir.

But as everyone knows, Alaska’s weather can be fickle, and eventually sunny skies gave way to rain. It wasn’t a lot of rain, only about a half-inch over two days, which is hardly what some parts of the state call rain, but coupled with the earlier spell of glacier-searing weather we’d been enjoying oh so much, it was enough to get the river moving and shaking.

As the ground became super saturated and the winter snowpack melted away, the river responded. The afterglow of the summer sun faded as the water crept up our fish trap to a staggering five feet!

We woke up one morning to see almost half the weir underwater. This is the worst nightmare for someone trying to operate a fish weir. We tried in earnest to keep up with debris, but just as soon as we’d clear one section we’d turn around and it was loaded up again.

By the next morning the weir was mostly underwater. We’d go out for two-hour shifts, come back in to dry off and warm up, and then head back out again. It was discouraging because we knew the only section we could reach was the shallowest and least consequential. On numerous occasions we watched in horror as Death Star-like trees sauntered by, threatening to undo our hard work in seconds.

By the time the rain quit and we were able to venture past the trap, it became apparent that a third of our weir panels were buried under pebble-sized rocks. The high water had literally paved a highway over the middle of our weir, directing the fish away from the passage chute to continue their migration upriver uncensored. No wonder we’d only seen the occasional chinook on the video monitor for the past few days.

The only option left was to rake and pick out the rocks by hand. We tried using the jet unit on our boat to blast rocks off the weir, but this only succeeded in lodging them deeper between the weir pickets. Eventually we got all 50 or so panels floating again, but there were still a few spots where water would pour over the top for the rest of the season. Ironically, being buried under rocks actually saved most of the weir from the non-stop parade of logs that floated by during high water.

Fast forward three weeks: The high water was behind us, and we’d settled back into a new routine. On average, 50-60 chinook were passing through our video system each day. We kept busy sampling some of them for age, sex, and length data. It was exciting, like Christmas, every time we checked the trap, always anticipating the “giant.” We sampled everything in the trap — from 13 to 50 inches. By this time, nearly all were in spawning colors.

We began running regular sorties upriver to Benjamin Creek to track fish that had been radio-tagged on the Kenai River by Fish and Game. Benjamin Creek is thought to be one of the final destinations for many of the early-run Kings.

Benjamin Creek was a veritable bear highway, paved with tracks and scat, the air thick with their musky smell and that of rancid fish, some of which were our radio-tagged fish. Despite the tight quarters and thick brush, our friend Remington gave us confidence to push on during each trip to search for tagged fish. We managed to recover a few tags on the banks or in the woods, oddly enough with naught but a drop of blood or morsel of flesh nearby — just a clean tag lying alone almost as if the bears had picked it out of their teeth as an afterthought.

Such is the life of a seasonal employee. The enthusiasm may wax and wane with the changing of the seasons, but in the end it’s the change that I thrive on. Having poured out my heart and soul for part of the year through long, tireless days, I have assured myself that the next chapter starts on the other end of the world, where the summer’s sun is just beginning to shine, and I can play for months straight without working a single day.

Lucas Young is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seasonal fishery technician at the Kenai Fish and Wildlife Field Office in Soldotna (http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/fieldoffice/kenai/index.htm). You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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